Top Five Christmas movies countdown

Most readers don’t know this, but my first real newspaper “gig” — nearly 25 years ago — was writing movie reviews. That’s how I got started in the business and I’ve never looked back, despite numerous editors who have suggested I probably should.

So this column — my top five Christmas movies countdown — is a return to familiar territory. Let’s begin.

Listed here are what I feel to be the five most important holiday films of all time. There are, of course, some glaring omissions and opinions vary. These are the five I can’t live without.

What’s in your top five? Send an email to the address at the end of this article and add your voice to the conversation.
Here are mine:

No. 5: A Charlie Brown Christmas

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” should not have been the hit it is. The made-for-TV special, which originally aired in 1965, was produced on a shoestring budget under a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola.

Lack of decent funding resulted in the film’s sometimes choppy animation. Likewise, stilted voice-overs — some from child actors too young to read their lines — produced dialogue as choppy as the video. Then there are the editing snafus, such as the one in which Schroeder stops playing piano while the characters go right on dancing.

None of that mattered to viewers or critics, however. In fact, those “quirks” are precisely what make “A Charlie Brown Christmas” so popular, year after year.
For those who grew up with the film, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until you’ve heard Linus explain the holiday to Charlie Brown by reading from the Gospel of Luke.

Best line from the movie? “…And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

 

No. 4: Home Alone

“Home Alone,” which hit theaters in 1990 and has since made yearly TV appearances, is the most recent film on my “must see” list.

The film features a young Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister, an 8-year-old boy mistakenly left at home when his upper-class family flies to Paris for the holidays.

An ensemble cast, with standout performances by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as two inept burglars, help this flick transcend its slapstick origins. A heartwarming sub-plot involving “Old man” Marley, Kevin’s scary next-door neighbor, further elevates the film beyond the one-liner, “jokey” status that bogs down so many holiday comedies.

Best line? “Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”

 

No. 3: A Christmas Story

While “Home Alone” is among the top-grossing comedies of all time, “A Christmas Story” bombed at the box office and only gained popularity after it began airing on television. Since its release in 1983, it has become a holiday staple.

The story is a brilliant compendium of loosely-joined vignettes centered on the life of 9-year-old Ralph Parker, played by Peter Billingsley, and his quest to snag a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

The charm of this film is found in the way it manages to capture that elusive “something” that reminds viewers of what it’s really like to be a kid at Christmas. From bullies and clueless teachers to coming to terms with the possibility Santa may not be everything he’s cracked up to be, “A Christmas Story” delivers a holiday present no home should be without.

Best line? Nope, it’s not, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” The best line is, “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

 

No. 2: Miracle on 34th Street

There have been many remakes of this 1947 classic, but this one, starring Edmund Gwenn as an elderly man who believes (or indeed, probably is) St. Nick, is the only one you need to see.

After being hired on as an emergency replacement for an inebriated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa, Gwenn proceeds to slowly convince those around him that it is indeed his name on the title of the fabled reindeer-powered sleigh.

A young Natalie Wood, as the girl who has trouble relating to such childish notions as Santa Claus, demonstrates a talent far beyond other child actors of the time. Likewise, Maureen O’Hara brings the character of the overworked, divorced mother to the screen for what may have been the first time ever.

As for Gwenn, it’s no surprise his role as Santa netted him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The writing, story and screenplay also garnered an Oscar nod.

Best line? “Maybe I didn’t do such a wonderful thing after all.”

 

No. 1: It’s a Wonderful Life

Produced and directed in 1946 by Frank Capra, who more than any other director of his time truly understood the American zeitgeist, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” tells the everyman tale of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small town businessman who yearns for wider horizons.

After his uncle misplaces a large sum of money from the bank George manages, George considers suicide, only to be halted at the penultimate moment by a floundering Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who turns out to be his guardian angel.

Clarence shows George a world in which he has never been born, and in the end, George realizes his life truly is, well, wonderful.

Rarely has a film managed to so deftly walk that narrowest of tightropes between preachiness and the truly inspirational.

Though “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t turn big numbers at the box office, it has, over the years, won the hearts of generations of viewers and is recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American movies of all time.

Best line? George’s angry tirade to his money-grubbing nemesis, Mr. Potter, played to crotchety perfection by Lionel Barrymore: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”

OK, that’s my top five and I can’t believe I left out “White Christmas” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” either. “The Polar Express” and “Scrooged” are another pair of gems that didn’t make my personal cut. Likewise, I had to deep six “Elf” and “Nightmare Before Christmas,” both of which I like.

I’m sure there are others I’ve neglected. I’m hoping readers will point them out, since this year I’ve already seen those listed above, and there are plenty of cold evenings between now and Christmas.

To those who hate every film on my list, well, what can I say? Keep the change, ya filthy animal!

Share your top five with me at mtaylor325@gmail.com.

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