Sunday, December 18, 2016

Staff Picks: Our MVP-Worthy Christmas Movies

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It's hard to believe that today marks exactly one week until Christmas! I don't know about you, but Christmas usually brings back fond memories for me. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so Christmases would involve bundling up and traveling to visit family, where we would eat really good Italian food and open presents in a small living room. I love Christmas. It's my favorite holiday — the food, the music, and the lights all fill me with a sense of hope and joy. And as 2016 draws to a close, those are two things we desperately need before we enter 2017.

One of my favorite traditions is watching certain Christmas movies during the holidays. Perhaps you and your family and friends have a certain film — or films — that you watch every year together. For me and my family, it's the 1966 animated special Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember coming home from candlelit Christmas Eve services with my family, only to put on our footie pajamas and curl up on the couches with that movie.

In celebration of Christmas movies and traditions, our staff is changing things up this week: rather than a TV MVP post, our final MVP-style post for the year will revolve not around television, but our favorite Christmas movies. (Thank you, Chelsea, for this idea). So sit back, relax, and enjoy our Christmas discussions!

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Jenn's Pick: Elf

There are exactly three movies I watch each Christmas season, or else it doesn't quite feel like the holidays: Love Actually, The Holiday, and Elf. Jaime and I have been friends for a long time, and one of the perks of our friendship is that whenever Elf is on television, one of us will text the other to alert her of it. I don't know what it is about this particular movie, but to me, Elf is the perfect blend of cheesiness, comedy, and heartwarming fun. It centers around a human named Buddy (played by Will Ferrell) who is adopted and raised by elves in the North Pole. When Buddy becomes an adult, he journeys to New York City to find his real father and, in the process, finds out what family and Christmas are actually all about.

I can't express how much fun this movie is. I've seen it dozens of times, and still always laugh whenever Buddy yells: "SANTA'S COMING!" I still swoon a bit at the duet between Buddy and Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) to "Baby It's Cold Outside." And I still feel the heartbreak when Walter (James Caan) tells Buddy that he doesn't care if he's his son or not. I think what makes Elf such a beloved Christmas movie is the fact that it doesn't try to take itself too seriously. There are a lot of silly things about it, and sometimes Christmas movies focus on heavy topics and overlook the childlike fun that can be had during the season. With its wacky sense of humor and emphasis on characters, Elf is the perfect movie to curl up with this holiday season. (And every holiday season for that matter.)

I can't get enough of this movie, and I doubt I ever will.

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Jenn's (Bonus) Pick: The Santa Clause

I just recently re-watched The Santa Clause and was struck by how timely it still is (minus the technology). This movie was such a part of my childhood, mostly because it came out during that time, but also because Tim Allen was a huge part of my childhood. And as I reflected on the subject matter in the movie, I realized it's so beloved to me not just because it's good but because it reminds me of another similarly-structured movie: Mrs. Doubtfire.

Interestingly enough, both movies focus on a divorce and the impact it has on a family. But The Santa Clause takes a really great route with divorce: Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is a strict businessman who can't connect well with his young son, Charlie. And Charlies step-dad and mother insist on Charlie growing up too quickly. When Scott Calvin accidentally becomes Santa Clause, it leads him down a path of self-discovery and reconciliation with his young son, and estranged wife. The Santa Clause is such a fun 90s movie. But it's more than just that — it's a movie that captures the spirit of family during Christmastime and emphasizes the idea of believing without seeing in something.

It's a film that manages to capture the magic of Christmas without excessive cheesiness, and uses the holiday and Scott's eventual role as Santa as a way to show that sometimes kids really have it right. Christmas should be about recapturing the innocent children within each of us rather than forcing ourselves to grow up too quickly. If you need a good pick-me-up this holiday season or just want a good 'ol-fashioned blast of nostalgia, watch The Santa Clause!

Marilyn's Pick: It’s a Wonderful Life

I can’t remember the first time I ever saw It’s a Wonderful Life. Much like candy canes, Christmas trees, and off-key renditions of Christmas carols, it’s always been a part of my annual holiday experience. I remember watching it with my parents when I was a kid. I remember the awful years where they tried to push the “colorized” version on us. And I remember when I got my first VHS copy of the film. To this day, I still watch this classic at least once during the holiday season, surrounded by my family.

I don’t think I have to talk to you about what this movie is about — even people who have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life know at least basically what the premise is. A man, George Bailey, at the end of his rope and believing his entire life is a waste, wishes it away on Christmas Eve. Through the intervention of prayer (both his own and those of his friends and loved ones), an angel is sent down to help him. The angel, a lovely little old man named Clarence, decides the best way to teach George Bailey a lesson is to grant his wish. He shows George what the world would be like had he never been born.

It’s bleak and horrifying (and sure, a little overly dramatic) and it’s not long before George is sobbing to have his life back.

Even knowing how this movie goes — having portions of it committed to memory by this point in my life — there is no more heartwarming scene in all of cinematic history than when George watches a steady stream of friends and relatives parade into his living room to share their love with him. For anyone who has ever felt the bitter taste of despair, this moment hits a nerve. It’s made me cry more than once, I have to admit.

Plus, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without It's a Wonderful Life. It’s a classic, and for a very good reason. If you haven’t given it a look yet, make this year the first year you do.

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Ilene's Pick: Love Actually

This movie is an oldie but a goodie, and a holiday classic. Love Actually is the movie that reminds me the most of the holidays, my family, and my friends. It truly encompasses the holiday spirit and the ever-itching need to feel at home. Every year, I wrangle my friends together with pizza, drinks, and pillows and sit down for the three hours of heart-wrenching, holiday-spewing joy. I laugh, I cry, I cry a lot, I wallow at my non-existent love life and this year is no different (well, it is a little different).

This year, the movie brought a whole new level of sorrow, joy, and unadulterated fluffy happiness. Watching Alan Rickman grace my screen, like he has for the past 13 years, truly broke my heart and initiated waterworks. I couldn’t watch a scene without turning into a sobbing mess. This is the first year where I can’t go to IMDb and see what his next project is going to be. It’s three hours of frozen time that I am truly grateful for this holiday season — a piece of movie and holiday history that I can come back to year after year, whenever I need my daily dose of my favorite villain, father, and wizard.

Now, I have not forgotten about the rest of the cast, who is equally flawless. I spent a good amount of time this year stalking my favorite celebs and catching up on their lives and projects. This movie brings back nostalgia by the boatloads. This led to me reminiscing over my 13-year-old self — the version of me who first saw the movie. Who was I with the first time I watched this? (Answer: My mother.) Who else did I make watch this movie? (Answer: My very reluctant aerospace engineer dance partner.) Who else have I forced this movie upon? (Answer: everyone.)

Love Actually encompasses the holidays for me. It gives me the warm and fuzzies — the hit of nostalgia I need to end the year and begin a new one. There is a reason this movie is a classic. It relates to people in all the stages of their lives, and allows us the chance to parallel our lives with theirs. We get to grow up with all these amazing actors and watch them as they grow, as if we know them and are proud of them ourselves. And it all started with Love Actually.

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Nora's Pick: Home Alone

Home Alone is my favorite Christmas movie and it’s not Christmas until I’ve watched it. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for John Hughes movies (although it was directed by Chris Columbus) and classic movies that wouldn’t exist with today’s technology.

My fondness for Home Alone stems from my memories of seeing it in the movie theater when I was a kid (I’m old, I know). It was Black Friday, a day that had no meaning to me back then, but I remember bundling up and going to the Patio Theater in Chicago to see Home Alone that night, well after the sun had gone down. When I was a kid, it was a real treat to go to the movies, so to see this in the movie theater — well, it was a big deal.

The Patio Theater was magical. There were twinkling “stars” on the ceiling and even moving clouds. My love of film was born at those small theaters before stadium seating and endless trailers.  Kevin McCallister was roughly around my age and therefore, I could see myself in the movie — although I didn’t live in a grand house in the northern suburbs, nor would my family jet off to Paris for the holidays.

Home Alone has plenty of laughs but it also has moments of tenderness that make it a feel-good, somewhat bittersweet movie. My favorite part is when the McCallister clan is running through O’Hare Airport to Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” I cannot listen to that song without thinking of that scene. It’s frantic and fun watching the McCallisters try to catch their plane while we know that Kevin has been left home alone. I laugh at it too because, man, how easy was it to get to your plane back in 1990?

When you see Home Alone as a kid, it’s impossible not to think what you would do in Kevin’s situation. I’m pretty sure I would have just eaten Skittles and played with my Barbies the whole time. But this film is about the importance of family. We see this with Kevin, but also with the old man next door.

Home Alone always makes me think about my family. I live in Australia now, so my Christmases take place in summer (something I will never, ever get used to) and watching it transports me back to Chicago and my childhood — I’m sitting in the Patio Theater under the stars with my dad, brother, and my mom, who is no longer with us. It reminds me of the wonderment and joy Christmas morning brought and how really, a wonderful, fun, loving family like mine, was the best present I could ever receive.

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Erin's Pick: Prancer

Prancer is a simple story told simply. It doesn’t have glitz and glamour, flashy musical numbers, or big stars. Its production value isn’t exceptional, and in many ways, it is an unpolished film. However, all of that adds to the charm. It has the feel of a homemade Christmas ornament rather than a slick, shiny store-bought bauble. That is to say, it has a lot of heart. And the heart of the movie is young Jessica Riggs. Jessica nurses a reindeer back to health in hopes of returning him to Santa in time for Christmas Eve. She thinks it is Santa’s because she believes in all things magical, harboring all that childish wonder that becomes so elusive to us as we grow up. She is the epitome of the Christmas spirit.

Jessica is played wonderfully by Rebecca Harrell. As a child, I was in awe of her character and her tenacious drive to help the reindeer in which she was the only one to believe. As an adult, I am in awe of the young actress that portrayed her so perfectly. It is an incredibly authentic performance by a child actor. The skill must come so naturally to Harrell because she did not have much experience before this movie. You can see the innocence in her eyes and hear the gumption in her voice. She’s so convincing she almost has you believing in Santa again and wondering why you ever stopped.

I love the shenanigans Jessica gets into as she hides Prancer and tries to make him well. But it is the heartfelt scenes between Jessica and her dad, played by Sam Elliot, that are intensely moving. Harrell has this crying thing down — the quiver in her chin and these big crocodile tears hit you right in the feels. She says that she just wanted him to tell her that “things were going to be okay.” I remember that feeling as a kid. You need that assurance from someone you trust and that first instance where that someone can’t guarantee that is scary and sad. Her dad reassures her in a different way, though. He listens to her and opens up and it is just a really beautiful scene. It’s so well-written and superbly acted. I cry every time.

I saw Prancer in the theater when I was eight years old. I was around the same age as Jessica and I totally related to her character. I loved Christmas. I mean, I really, really loved it. I believed in Santa Claus a lot longer than my friends and classmates. When it came out on video, we bought the VHS from McDonald’s. Remember when they did meal tie-ins with movies? Oh, the early 90s were some crazy times. It was added to the lengthy queue of holiday movies I would watch every December. As I grow older, it remains at the top of that list, even as my enthusiasm for the holiday wanes. It’s a good reminder of the spirit of Christmas and how I felt about the holiday as a child. “Yes, Santa, there are still Virginias in this world.”

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Jen's Pick: Arthur Christmas

I grew up watching all the classic Christmas movies like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and, of course, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. However, new traditions emerged after I started a family of my own. One of those traditions is Arthur Christmas.

The tradition started by accident, as traditions often do. My husband stumbled upon Arthur Christmas when searching for a movie On Demand for our daughter. They watched and he immediately realized that I would enjoy the snappy British humor. Snappy British humor is my jam. I watched and loved it. Then, my daughter got her grandparents to see it when they came over for Christmas Eve. They watched and loved it... and now we watch it every Christmas Eve.

Arthur Christmas tells the story of the Santa family. The title of “Santa” is passed down generation to generation. Arthur's older brother, Steve, is next in line to take on the job after their father, Santa, is ready to retire. Steve is essentially running the show and approaches Christmas, with the help of the elves, with military precision. Santa — who's kind but slow and spacey — just goes along for the ride. Then, of course there's the hilariously wonderful Grandsanta who desperately wants back in the sleigh.

At the center of all this is young Arthur, who is the sweet but clumsy and very often overlooked youngest sibling. As the youngest, Arthur speaks to me on deeper level. When Steve, Santa, and the elves accidentally fail to deliver one of the presents, it is only Arthur who really cares. Arthur, with the help of a delightful elf named Bryony, is determined to bring the little girl her present before Christmas morning.

Arthur Christmas has something for every generation to love, which is why it's become one of our family traditions. My husband, parents, daughter and I all identify with one of the characters in some way. I also adore the movie because it explains some of those difficult-to-answer Santa questions my daughter always manages to ask. Seriously, the present delivery method in the beginning of the movie is absolutely genius. My daughter never asked me again how Santa delivers all those presents in one night.

Besides the side-splitting humor, Arthur Christmas is a heartwarming story about family. It teaches how every person in a family has special gifts. Part of growing up is learning what your gifts are, what makes you unique, and the best way to share them with the ones you love and the world. Arthur Christmas encourages everyone to embrace their uniqueness and individuality because those differences ultimately make your family stronger. It's a message everyone needs to hear, not just children, and especially at the holidays — a time of year we spent a great deal of time with our families. It also embraces the true meaning of Christmas and what it really means to be Santa... as any good Christmas movie does.

So if you have room to add one more Christmas movie tradition to your list, I highly recommend Arthur Christmas. You will laugh until you cry, cry until you laugh, and be reminded of all the best parts of Christmas... and family.


Rebecca's Pick: The Polar Express

I read The Polar Express at a young age and enjoyed it, but the book didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. I hardly even remember any details other than the basic premise: a kid who is starting to not believe in Santa Claus anymore boards a magic train on Christmas Eve that takes him to the North Pole.

Cut to 2004 when the movie came out. I went and saw in theaters with my family, and I absolutely loved it. Even now, 12 years later, I get excited to watch it every Christmas. There’s just something magical about The Polar Express that other Christmas movies can’t capture. First and foremost, belief is a central theme to the storyline, and I’m always a sucker for a good story about a character coming to believe in something bigger than themselves. I also really enjoy the character development that happens among multiple characters. The movie explores some pretty intense stuff (for example, there’s a hitchhiking ghost/angel guy who hangs out on top of the train and can be a little scary), but does so in a way that is accessible to everyone, regardless of age. Even as a movie aimed at kids, it makes you think and feel and wonder, and I think that’s the most important thing any type of media can do.

And, of course, there are the core elements of every great movie thrown into The Polar Express as well: humor, singing, dancing, and Tom Hanks.

But the ending is what makes the movie so great for me. (Spoiler alert) The main character, who remains nameless throughout the movie, receives the first gift of Christmas from Santa, and he asks for one of the reindeer’s magic bells, which only ring if you believe in the spirit of Christmas. At the end of the movie, the boy talks about how there were some years when his friends and sister didn’t hear the bell ring, but he always could. It makes me absolutely melt, and I usually have to go to the bathroom and get a big wad of tissues. I would love to read the book again now as an adult — I have a feeling I will enjoy it a lot more now than I did as a kid.

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Jon's Pick: Die Hard 

While many associate Christmas films with heartwarming and loving tales of giving back, and Christmas magic, I associate this time of the year with the image of Bruce Willis mowing down 80s European bad guys in Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve.

I’ll just say it now: I love Die Hard. It’s one of the best action movies ever made and one of the best Christmas movies ever made. For those who have not seen it, this is the plot: It’s Christmas Eve. NYPD cop John McClane is in L.A. visiting his ex-wife Holly at her office Christmas party in Nakatomi Plaza. Soon, terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) invade and take everyone hostage... except McClane. McClane must stop Hans and his merry band of killers before they kill everyone in the building.

Die Hard may not be the first movie you think of when it comes time to watch a holiday movie, but that’s what makes it so great. It’s a Christmas movie in the most unconventional sense possible.
I remember seeing this film for the first time many years ago, as a teenager growing up in rural New Jersey. My dad and I were watching it together. What I remember the most is that it was on an old VHS tape (remember those?) we had rented from the library. I watched it with him and was struck by how many tropes it used that have been utilized by other Christmas films in the past. At its core, the film is about a man estranged from his family trying to make it and see them on Christmas Eve. It’s a Christmas story we’ve seen done numerous times before... except this one has the man fighting through waves of baddies.

Along with that twist on an old tale, Die Hard has sly little references to the holidays too. The entire soundtrack is peppered with Christmas music (even Run-DMC’s Christmas in Hollis shows up in the very beginning) and the score contains snippets of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 (mainly Ode to Joy). There’s a scene where McClane is crawling through a vent (symbolism for a chimney) and there’s dialogue such as “I have a machine gun... Ho. Ho. Ho.” (Read that in Alan Rickman’s voice and you have a VERY good idea of what that line sounds like.)

I love Die Hard because it’s so against the norm from what a Christmas movie should be. I enjoy Home Alone, The Polar Express, The Grinch, The Santa Clause, and any other Christmas movie as much as the next person. However, Die Hard plays around with those conventions of what a Christmas movie should be and exaggerates them. That is why it is a favorite.


Chelsea's Pick: The Holiday

Considering it’s the 10th anniversary of The Holiday this month, it’s only fitting I celebrate by gushing about it being one of my favorite holiday films of all time. It has everything fun and cheesy about Christmas movies that will hook a gal. You’ve got Kate Winslet in her first romantic comedy and not an Oscar-bait role, Jude Law as the hot dad named Graham, and Cameron Diaz in one of her most tolerable performances. The greatest surprise from the cast will always be Jack Black as Miles, the oddly perfect romantic leading man. The story follows Diaz’s Amanda and Winslet’s Iris as two women who switch houses on a home exchange website, both looking to escape terrible relationships and overworked lives, and reevaluate want they want. This goal is complicated when they meet Jude Law, hot dad of the year, and Jack Black, the dreamboat composer, respectively.

What makes The Holiday a truly great film is how simple of a film it sets out to be. There aren’t any grand twists or soap opera-esque betrayals at the end of the second act. It’s a fun premise ahead of its time with real people and real emotions. Cameron Diaz is stupidly relatable singing "Mr. Brightside" with a glass of wine one moment then having a face-off with a puppy the next. She jumps into a casual fling with Iris’ brother, Graham, before realizing that he’s a widowed father of Sophie and Olivia and is afraid of letting women get too close because of his kids. It’s these scenes where you see writer-director Nancy Meyers work her best magic. She knows how to get children to give charming performances (Mr. Napkinhead, anyone?) without having them be precocious know-it-alls.

On the other side of the pond, we have Iris working through her unrequited love that hits so close to home for anybody that has had a crush on someone that doesn’t want to date you but still wants you in their life. She strikes up a friendship with Miles, the adorable composer friend of Amanda’s ex, and Arthur Abbott, an aging screenwriter from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Arthur suggests Iris watch films with strong leading females that match her strong personality, because the way she is with Jasper doesn’t match the gumption she has inside of her. Iris and Miles bond over their cheating partners and slowly fall for each other, while also helping Arthur prepare for his screenwriting guild honor.


The best thing about every Nancy Meyers film is how realistically adult they are. People have conversations and the drama comes from basic human flaws. She bases everything in her characters and their relationships, and it’s comforting to see people being sweet, messy, and genuine with one another. Meyers embraces rom-com tropes, particularly the “meet cute.” Every set of characters has their own meet cute in the film, from Iris and Amanda meeting online to Jude Law's character banging on Amanda’s door to Miles getting dirt out of Iris’ eye. You know everything is going to work out and it’s cheesy, but you don’t care. You want to escape into Sophie and Olivia’s Christmas light fort and let the magic of the holiday take over.


Stephanie’s Pick: Holiday Inn

I know the traditional Bing Crosby Christmas movie is White Christmas but let me tell you something: White Christmas wouldn’t even exist without the film Holiday Inn, which stars Crosby alongside Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds.

The plot is this: Jim (Crosby) retires from his song and dance act with Ted (Astaire) in order to enjoy the quiet life of farming. When that proves too difficult, he turns his farm into an inn that is only open on public holidays. For each day, he performs a song related to that holiday. Linda (Reynolds) soon joins him as his singing partner but trouble ensues with Ted “falls in love” with her and wants to steal her away to perform with him instead.

The main hallmark of Holiday Inn is the song “White Christmas.” Although Crosby had sung it prior, his performance in the film is what brought the song to popularity. Holiday Inn came out during WWII and the song resonated with soldiers who were wishing to be home for the holidays. The demand for the song was so high and it became intrinsically tied to the war, Paramount Pictures decided to make a movie that included both. And so White Christmas was born.

If you only watch White Christmas though, you’re cheating yourself out of a real treat. Holiday Inn is funny, poignant, and full of fabulous song and dance routines. The highlight dance number is Astaire’s famous 4th of July performance. As he taps across the stage, he sets of a variety of fireworks and firecrackers around him. Tying everything together is Christmas and the desire to be with those you love during the holidays. “White Christmas” becomes almost a theme song for Jim and Linda’s blossoming romance and the way it brings them back to one another is heartwarmingly sweet.

Now, full disclosure: there is a blackface scene. I know, I know. But let me give you the context before you outright dismiss this amazing film. Because Jim does a performance for every holiday, he does one for Lincoln’s birthday and because he’s trying to hide Linda from Ted, he has them perform in blackface. In all honesty, this number is not important or very good so I usually skip it entirely. The only important plot point is this: right before the number, Jim asks Linda to stay at the inn in between holidays and she agrees. So go ahead and fast forward past this part.

On a whole this movie really is a delight and I’d highly recommend adding it on to your Christmas movie marathon. Make it a double feature even: Holiday Inn and then White Christmas.

What's your favorite holiday movie? Tell us — and share your nostalgic stories, too — in the comments below!