Christmas Deserves Better

Ten Films for the Holidays
Bill Murray in ‘Scrooged’

Consider the following list a protest against (and relief from) the cinematic refuse that fills multiplexes and cable channels throughout the Christmas season. I mean both nauseating commercial comedies, like A Bad Mom’s Christmas, as well as squeaky-clean Hallmark-esque titles like A Christmas Prince and The Mistletoe Inn. Christmas, G. K. Chesterton reminds us, is “the holiday that is also a holy day.” It deserves better.

A Christmas Carol (1951). Why, when people mention “the Christmas Carol movie,” do they usually have in mind the classic film starring Alastair Sim, written by Noel Langley (who also wrote The Wizard of Oz) and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst? It can’t be the film’s technical qualities: it’s laughably dated, with drab black-and-white photography and scant production values. (At one point, when Scrooge looks into a mirror, you can see a cameraman lurking behind him, equipment and all.) But in spite of its flaws, this version remains the best adaptation of Dickens’s novel. Why?

First of all, there’s Langley’s script, a model adaptation. He pared away whatever wasn’t cinematically feasible, and filled in occasional lacunae in the plot. One example: Dickens never explained why, as a child, Scrooge received such cold treatment from his father, who instead favored Scrooge’s older sister, Fan. Langley not only supplies an explanation—young Scrooge’s birth ended his mother’s life—but extends the device when the birth of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, ends Fan’s life, thus embittering Ebenezer against his nephew.

There’s also Alastair Sim’s memorable performance. Most movie Scrooges are bewhiskered bundles of surliness, but Sim’s wittiness alerts us early on to the possible humanity beneath the gruffness. His hilariously fastidious reaction to the Bacchic figure of the Ghost of Christmas Present shows how the miser can be funny even in his meanness. After Scrooge’s conversion, his moving apology to Fred’s bride, a masterpiece of humility without self-abasement, always bring tears to my eyes.

Scrooged (1988). For me, this Bill Murray modernization is the only other version of A Christmas Carol worth watching today, since writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and director Richard Donner treat the story with a delightful blend of respect and irreverence. Scrooge is reimagined as a high-power TV executive in charge of a tacky live broadcast of A Christmas Carol, with Buddy Hackett(!) as the miser. As Murray snarls and snarks his way through pre-production, he’s visited by the requisite trio of spirits. It’s all very meta: what’s being turned into kitsch in the TV studio is enacted for real inside and outside network headquarters. And the moviemakers obey the adage, “If you’re going to sin, sin big.” Thus the Ghost of Christmas Past is a cigar-chomping cabdriver; Present is a fairy princess with dominatrix tendencies; and Future is a Darth Vader lookalike. How can you not love a movie containing a scene like this: leaving his office for lunch, Murray notices some scraggly jazzmen playing on the sidewalk, and wonders why the police haven’t chased away these “no-talent bums.” Upon closer inspection, the no-talent bums include Miles Davis and Paul Schaeffer.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). What else is there to say about this box-office flop that’s become a holiday staple? Critics have pointed out that it reverses A Christmas Carol: instead of a wicked man forced to see his past so that he may change for the better, here George Bailey is a good man who must see the future to prevent him from changing. Still, the film is shot through with Dickensian moments of pain and fear, which rein in the sentimentality. There’s the boy George, pleading with the drunken druggist not to box his already half-deafened ear, the child Mary wincing every time the boy is struck. The tacit disappointment on the elder Mr. Bailey’s face as George admits he doesn’t want to continue in the family business. After George takes out his anger at his impending (and unfair) disgrace on his family, the model husband and father crumples when his wife asks, “Why must you torture the children?” Heartwarming, yes; but It’s a Wonderful Life is also rather harrowing.

As the world outside lurches towards dictatorship and slaughter, the little shop acts like a lifeboat, turning employees into family.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940). The film was directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, whose famous “touch” was never more supple or humane. Here James Stewart (every bit as compelling as his George Bailey performance, albeit less intense) is the head salesperson of a perfumery in pre–World War II Budapest. It’s a comedy built around a simple device: Stewart and his most irritating staffer (an electric Margaret Sullavan) trade barbs at work, but carry on an epistolary romance after hours. Neither knows the real identity of the pen pal. But all the humor comes from the interactions inside the store. Friendship, gossip, petty ambitions, compassion, insecurity, jokes, professional pride, fear of unemployment in an era of financial depression: all is compressed into one large room. As the world outside lurches towards dictatorship and slaughter, the little shop acts like a lifeboat, turning employees into family.

About a Boy (2002). Admittedly, the film is a bit of an outlier for this list: only about a fifth of it takes place during Christmas—two Christmases, to be exact, which bookend the story. But Christmas celebrates the birth of new hope, and so this rom-com is fitting for the season. Hugh Grant (in probably his best performance) plays the ultimate smooth-talking cad. Pretending to have a child in order to win the sympathy of attractive single moms, he refuses to commit to any one of them. This deception, however, makes him vulnerable to blackmail when a geeky, fatherless boy forces Grant to teach him how to be “cool.” It’s a farce, but as in The Shop Around the Corner, the film’s real comedy emerges out of the foibles of its characters. And unlike other British comedies set in the late years of the Thatcher era, a time of affluence and media savvy (think of Notting Hill, or Four Weddings and a Funeral), About a Boy never descends into social smugness. Adapted by two American brothers (Chris and Paul Weitz) from a novel by British writer Nick Hornby, it’s refreshingly sincere and openhearted.

Fanny and Alexander (1983) A Christmas movie from legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman? Well, why not? The film must be seen in its original five-hour version (made for Swedish television), as the theatrical abridgement cuts two-fifths of the narrative. The wonderful Criterion Collection box set makes such a viewing possible.

The film opens with an hour-long Christmas celebration, where young Fanny and Alexander, the children of a large, theatrical family, enjoy an idyllic, unconditionally loving upbringing. But then Christmas ends, and their world shatters: their father dies of a heart attack and their mother marries a bigoted minister. But all is not lost. Thanks to the efforts of other family members, and the help of a heroic Jewish merchant-magician, evil is defeated.

Eschewing single themes and simple plotlines, Fanny and Alexander is the cinematic equivalent of a great three-decker nineteenth-century novel, worthy of Dickens or Balzac. Minute by minute, it becomes richer, more mystical, sometimes more baffling, yet always exhilarating.

The Nativity Story (2006). In lieu of a fresh analysis, here’s what I wrote for Commonweal when I reviewed this film in 2006: “Director Catherine Hardwicke clearly wanted to make the distant past vivid and real, and in the first two-thirds of this movie she succeeded. This Nazareth had a lived-in look with utterly believable townspeople going about their utterly believable business…. Keisha Castle-Hughes is an understandably bemused yet stubborn Mary confronted with a destiny beyond anyone’s capability but determined to accept it because God had chosen her and no one else.… [Oscar Isaac’s Joseph] has enough ego to want the purest, most pious girl in the village, enough pride to fall into a stifled fury at her pregnancy, and enough decency to swallow all pride when Gabriel sets him straight.”

Comfort and Joy (1984). Created by the remarkable Scottish director, Bill Forsyth, this is both the saddest and the funniest Christmas movie ever made. It also revives the spirit of the classic British Ealing comedies (The Lavender Hill Mob, etc.). Like them, it’s less concerned with getting boisterous laughs than with eliciting wry smiles.

The plot is humorous, but it has a hidden seriousness. DJ Alan “Dicky” Bird loses the love of his life early in the Christmas season when free spirit Maddie walks out on him because she needs “more space.” Instead of sinking into depression or seeking a new girlfriend, Alan wants to do something benevolent for society at large. When he discovers that two local ice-cream wagons (Mr. McCool and Mr. Bunny) are at war with each other, our hero decides to broker a Christmas peace. The comedy is rooted in Alan’s growing bafflement at how hard it is to shake people out of the resentments that have become second nature, a way of life. (In many scenes a radio plays quietly in the background, transmitting news of bombings in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.)

As “Dicky” Bird, Bill Paterson, his doughy face registering both frustration and quixotic gallantry, turns this common man into a true knight. Chris Menges’s cinematography makes Glasgow’s winter light crisply appealing. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t widely available in the United States. But you can sample some of its best scenes on YouTube—that is, until the Criterion Collection decides to digitally remaster this quietly quirky masterpiece for future holiday viewing.

The Preacher’s Wife (1996). This is a remake of the putative classic from 1947, The Bishop’s Wife. (You’ll see what I mean by “putative” if you put yourself through the boredom of watching it). Penny Marshall’s remake with an all-black cast is a quantum leap forward in terms of liveliness. A minister (Courtney B. Vance) needs help saving his church from a rich developer. He also needs something to rekindle his relationship with his choral-director wife, played by Whitney Houston. Enter the angel Dudley (Denzel Washington). It may sound corny, and it is. But it’s never boring, thanks to Houston’s singing (of which the film could have used more) and Washington’s acting, which makes of Dudley a spirit credibly rejoicing in the physical pleasures (snowfall, a dance with a beautiful woman, a tasty pizza) afforded by his new body.

The Dekalog—the Third Commandment (1988-89). In 1988 and 1989, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski made ten sixty-minute films for Polish television. Each uses a biblical commandment as a springboard for depicting a series of struggles against particular evils.

Kieślowski recasts the third commandment, “Honor the Sabbath,” to signify the honor due to any holy day. He then tells the story of a man challenged to honor Christmas in an unexpected, uncomfortable way.

Janusz, a Warsaw cab driver, looks forward to spending Christmas with wife and children. But his ex-lover Eva, whose marriage unraveled after her affair with Janusz three years ago, shows up on his doorstep. Her husband has disappeared, and now she needs the cabbie’s vehicle and his knowledge of Warsaw’s byways to find him. Guilt-ridden, Janusz acquiesces, and throughout Christmas Eve (and well into the morning) the pair undergo a half-dozen adventures that range from amusing to terrifying. Before it’s all over, Janusz hears a confession from Eva, which recasts their quest in an entirely new light. He returns home a chastened and better husband, and perhaps a better Christian.

The Third Commandment encapsulates the contradictions of the season: as frigid as a Warsaw winter night, it’s nevertheless as warm and hopeful as Christmas.

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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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