Santa’s 2007 Movie Smackdown!

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The Smackdown
. You certainly don’t need to believe in Santa Claus to take inspiration from a good film that is either about the holiday or uses it as its backdrop. So here at Movie Smackdown! we’ve asked each of our critics to write a short blurb about a Christmas film that they have a special fondness for. Then we’re going to submit those choices and others to the dreaded blog poll treatment.
Which holiday film or films do you think are worth repeat viewing to get in the holiday spirit? Humbug, you say? Read on…

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No, we don’t think that you will likely choose "Fred Claus" as the Christmas film you’d want to recommend to your friends to see every year or even, maybe, this year. On the other hand, the breadth of Christmas films out there is wide and many have their passionate defenders and detractors. We think Movie Smackdown! is the perfect place to sort this out.

Here are the films that our critics have decided to advocate as the one Christmas movie they think you should either see for the first time or re-visit during the holidays. We have, as you’ll see, a wide diversity of opinion.

By the way, if you’re one of those people who simply want to vote and get it over with, you can go to the bottom of this post and you’ll find the polls there.

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Scott_baradell_9256_web772165_2_2 Scott Baradell recommends "A CHRISTMAS STORY" (1984) 


When I think of classic lines from Christmas movies, "Every time a bell
rings an angel gets his wings" isn’t the first one that comes to mind.
And neither is "God bless us, every one."  No, for me, the most
memorable line ever in a holiday movie is "You’ll shoot your eye out,
kid!" from 1983’s "A Christmas Story" — novelist and screenwriter Jean
Shepherd’s giddily cynical look at growing up in small-town Indiana in
the 1940s.

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The
story line may not, at first blush, strike you as proper Christmas
movie fodder. It’s all about a kid named Ralphie who passionately wants
to own… tin drum-roll, please… a Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine
Action BB gun. Oddly, everybody he talks to seems incapable of
discussing this potential possession without using those words, "shoot
your eye out." The world this film lives in no longer exists and that’s
part of the reason it’s so much fun to visit for a couple of hours.

This is truly the Little Engine That Could of holiday flicks. A
low-budget box-office flop featuring minor stars Peter Billingsley,
Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin, and directed by Bob Clark of
"Porky’s" infamy, "A Christmas Story" began to pick up steam with
audiences when Ted Turner’s WTBS began broadcasting it in the late
’80s. By the mid-’90s, Turner was airing 24-hour marathons of the film
on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The reason for the success?  The
movie has an ear for how kids talk, and a heart for how they feel. It
manages to be nostalgic without being sentimental. And that’s no mean
trick.

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LaurenzabelLauren Zabel recommends "LOVE ACTUALLY" (2003) 

Our family tried to make "It’s A
Wonderful Life" a Christmas tradition, but it never quite caught on.
Then, in 2003, writer Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral,"
"Bridget Jones’s Diary") gave us the Christmas gift of "Love Actually"
as his directorial debut and it’s been a once-a-year screening ever
since. The film is an ensemble romantic comedy set against the backdrop
of the holiday season and, by my count, there are over 20 main
characters and about nine separate romances. Some play out better than
others but, overall, it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you
never know what you’re going to get.

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Hugh Grant is wonderful, as usual, playing the newly elected Prime
Minister of Britain who happens to fall for a crumpet working for the
household staff (played by Martine McCutcheon). He’s as appealing as
ever and his story really is the spine of the piece, if you think about
it. But you never really have the time because there’s so much going
on. My second favorite bit is with Bill Nighy who plays an
over-the-hill rocker who’s just scored a big hit by putting an old rock
standard "Love Is All Around" to Christmas lyrics and knows it’s not
his finest work.

It works as a Christmas movie,
though, because Christmas really is all around. It’s in the presents
people buy each other in this film, in the songs they sing, in the
plays they attend. It’s about people who realize how much they need
other people and, even though this message begins the movie as a 9/11
reference, it’s clearly developed as a holiday theme. Some critics have
tried to slam this film as being too busy but that has never bothered
me on the repeated viewings. I love these characters and if I could buy
them all a present, I would. Instead, just vote for them in our poll
and I’ll be happy.

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LakranaLak Rana recommends "BAD SANTA" (2003)

"Bad Santa" follows hapless Santa Claus impersonator
Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and his elf impersonating sidekick Marcus
(Tony Cox).  Every year the pair get hired at a new department store
only to rob the place blind after it closes on Christmas Eve.  The scam
always goes off without a hitch, but this year things get a little
sticky.  Willie’s severe alcoholic indulgences are getting him into
more trouble than he can handle and store investigator Gin (Bernie Mac)
is hot on their trail.  Also added to the mix is The Kid (Brett Kelly),
a young boy who befriends Willie and slowly manages to pull at his
heart strings.

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When I first watched "Santa" a few years ago I could
not believe some of the things that came out of Thornton’s mouth.  I
certainly expected a bit of raunchiness, but this movie still managed
to surprise me with its verbal freedom.  What I appreciated most was
that Thornton’s Santa did not hold anything back — characterizing, above
all, that Christmas is not always festive and cheerful.  At some point
we have to recognize that it has become a colossal machine and the once
undulterated idea of Christmas is now buried somewhere between a stack
of Pokemon cards and a monogrammed money clip.

If you really think about it, Christmas is just
another day on the calendar.  Just because it’s the holiday season does
not mean that normal life is at standstill.  That’s where "Santa" steps
in.  In my opinion this film details (in a rather exaggerated fashion)
that even though the holiday season is special and should be savored,
"raw" life continues to move forward.  Even though that "raw" life
includes theft, gunshots, bullies, jail, sexual relations, and absent
fathers, "Santa" shows that everyone still has a motive and not
everything is picture perfect just because Santa Claus is coming to
town.

Though it has a tough exterior, "Santa" does manage
to expose its soft underbelly mostly via the relationship between
Willie and The Kid.  What I truly love about "Santa" is that despite
it’s very dark humor, the film still manages to teach a little lesson
at the end without making it an overly sappy encounter: Even the
biggest Scrooge has a heart that can be touched.

So if you want to forget about gifts and money for a
few hours and instead watch a Christmas flick that is not as much about
the fanciful idea of Christmas as it is about real people and their
relationships, then go out and rent "Bad Santa”… and don’t forget to
give it a vote afterwards.

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Mark Sanchez recommends "THE REF" (1994) 

Ho…Ho…Horrors! I recommend this film unreservedly for all the contrary, hilarious impulses it throws at the holiday season. Hard luck cat burglar Gus (Denis Leary) decides to evade the cops on Christmas Eve night by abducting Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis). Really bad idea. Lloyd and Caroline won’t stop arguing, even at gunpoint: Spiky, lacerating, unrelenting. "I hijacked my f*****g parents!" Gus sputters.

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For Gus, it’s all downhill. Every member of the dysfunctional family comes for dinner: Lloyd’s mousy brother brings his smug wife Connie (Christine Baranski), their kids and the matriarch from hell, Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns). Even Lloyd and Caroline’s son sneaks in from military school. Gus cannot maintain the fiction he’s the marriage counselor, Dr. Wong. Cut by cut the adults are emotionally filleted as the forced holiday gaiety is scraped away. All resent Rose and it’s payback time for years of toxic maternal abuse. She’s tied up when there’s a knock on the door, and the in-laws lay it on: "Go on, Mary.. gag your grandma"  Connie tells her daughter.

The Ref offers an upbeat ending that gives story balance and acknowledges the obvious: That few people have the Christmas you’ll see in It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or Gift of the Magi. Sharp dialogue and a superior cast give the movie its zing. Ted Demme directed the script from Marie Weiss and Richard LaGravenese. Above all, The Ref suggests we can use a dose of honesty and forgiveness. That may be the best Christmas present of all. 

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Joe Rassulo
 
recommends "JOYEUX NOEL"

Up until I saw Christian Carion’s French film, "Joyeux Noel," two years ago, Bob Clark’s "A Christmas Story" was my favorite Christmas movie –- ever, as my five-year-old loves to say. I never tired of seeing it, sharing it with my kids, or warning them not to shoot their eyes out with a Red Ryder Rifle! "Joyeux Noel," however, has stayed with me and become my favorite Christmas film, even if it’s too rough in places to yet share with my kids. Its story is simple and based on a real event too impossible to believe yet too irresistible to ignore. The log line might read, "On Christmas Eve 1914, a German opera star and his lover sing Christmas carols on a World War I battlefield resulting in French, Scottish and German troops calling a brief truce to erect Christmas trees along their respective trenches and share a moment of solidarity and simple joy before continuing on with the task of killing one another.”

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The fact that this is absolutely true and that the opera star and his beloved, also an opera star, choreographed the event so that they would have one night together before his possible death, is even more amazing. That such a sequence of events could actually transpire during the middle of a brutal and demoralizing battle is the key to the film’s success. Writer/director Carion overcomes any obvious sentimentality or emotional overload by assuring us that even in the darkest hour, our own human need for love will not only triumph, but become a respite from horror for all those close enough to bathe in its wonder.

Every Christmas film story strives to show the true meaning of Christmas. Usually that’s the argument that man’s nature is ultimately noble and that we should love thy neighbor or something like that regardless of who controls our earthly fortunes — Bush, Allah, Time-Warner or George Steinbrenner. What is miraculous to me about "Joyeux Noel" is that it really does this. And does it by recreating the most beautiful “concert” in the middle of a devastated battlefield splattered with corpses representative of all the living participants who are now listening, enrapt and in tears, on Christmas Eve. This scene enabled me to appreciate my own nature as a man (in the universal sense); that love and beauty, in this instance in the guise of sublime voices and music, can not only reverse the cruelty of man but also convert it to compassion. No other Christmas film that I have seen conveys that simple tome in such a magisterial and compelling way.

To add a coda, the next morning, Christmas Day, each of the combatants agree to delay the killing a bit longer to give the other time to pick up their dead and comfort one another in their loss. It’s a scene of overwhelming sadness because we know, within hours, the field will once again be littered with bodies. We know that soon Christmas and this miraculous event will be a footnote to history and things will return, again, to horrific normalcy because of “orders” from above. "Joyuex Noel" should be required viewing of all leaders of all countries that require the sacrifice of their peoples for the greater good. Perhaps they should all be reminded that the greater good is, ultimately, man (in the universal sense). For that reason, more than any other, "Joyeux Noel" is now my favorite Christmas film.  And in a few years I will let my children experience it. And in the future, my hope is that they will share it with their children. And so it goes.

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Hero_shot_2_2_3Bryce Zabel recommends "HOME ALONE" (1990)

 If you were alive during the 1990 Christmas movie season, you saw this family comedy without the family, maybe even a couple of times, and can probably still conjure up the image of 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin, as Kevin, with his hands to his face. Definitely an indelible image. Culkin was a break-out in this film, and he was never as good in anything since. His believable, smart-ass kid attitude is endearing to the max.

Homealonelr_2 Chris Columbus directs from a John Hughes script that focuses on a picked-on youngest of five kid who, with his large family bustling and hustling to make a Christmas flight to Paris, ends up getting overlooked and left… home… alone. Although Kevin initially gets off on his time to himself with no adults to bug him, the story is really about him having to fight off the efforts of two house burglars by booby-trapping his home. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the self-proclaimed "Wet Bandits" who think it’ll be easy duty stealing from a house where the family’s in Europe. The plot isn’t really plausible and it does get taken over by stunts and special effects, but it doesn’t really matter. This film also supplies some unexpected charm, like mom (Catherine O’Hara) flying stand-by economy to get home, ending up stranded outside of Chicago, and needing to hitch a ride with a polka band led by John Candy. Ask any parent who’s seen this movie: we’ve all been there in spirit, if not in deed.

Christmas infuses the film with its music and imagery but that could be said of many lesser films and imitations. "Home Alone" is a great Christmas film because, in addition to getting the emotion right, it’s also got the spirit of our times all through it. As a little girl asks in this film, "Does Santa Claus have to go through customs?" You wouldn’t find her asking that in Bedford Falls.

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Jonathan Zabel recommends "IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE" (1946)

Like a lot of Americans, Frank Capra had just returned from World War II and he wanted this picture (based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern) to be a celebration of our country’s ordinary citizens. It wasn’t really all that successful at the time nor was it perceived as a "Christmas movie." That happened  when it fell starting in the 1970s when PBS stations used it as counter-programming to big network Christmas specials and gathered steam when a clerical error allowed it to fall out of copyright in 1974.

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The audience has grown over the years and many families make it an annual holiday viewing, something that Capra himself in 1984 called "the damndest thing." In the 80s, a colorized version was released which, ironically, had no problem being copyrighted by has been savaged by film critics although average viewers seem to not be so bothered by.

The film takes place in the fictional town of Bedford Falls shortly after World War II and stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose attempted suicide on Christmas Eve gains the attention of his guardian angel, Clarence who is sent to help him in his hour of need. Most of the film is told through flashbacks spanning George’s entire life and narrated by Franklin and Joseph, unseen Angels who are preparing Clarence for his mission to save George. Through these flashbacks we see all the people whose lives have been touched by George and the difference he has made to the community in which he lives. 

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Amicarella_picJay Amicarella recommends "A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES"  

Does your local newspaper publish a special "Holiday"
pull-out of "seasonal" films and TV specials each year?  (Sorry, the
tough, protect-free-speech-at all-costs print industry can’t publish
the word "Christmas" any more.)  Flipping through the pages of listings
and reading the synopses is just one of many of the Christmas rituals
I’ve developed over the years.  "A selfish ad executive learns the true
meaning of The Holidays…" "A selfish stockbroker learns the true
meaning of the The Holidays…" "A selfish serial-killer learns the
true meaning of The Holidays." 

The only things worse are the bizarre,
creepy "Specials," obviously filmed in mid-June, with titles like "A
Sweeny Todd Country Christmas, On Ice!"  "The cast of ‘Todd’ joins Tim
McGraw, Faith Hill, and David Copperfield at the Tonya Harding
Memorial Rink for a true Country Christmas."   This is not the sort of
fare that will give you any comfort when you stumble home from
gift-shopping, exhausted and irritable and hating humanity, ready to
chuck December and move right on to New Year’s Day. 

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What will offer
solace, and renew your faith in the basic goodness of people is the
film version of poet Dylan Thomas’ "A Child’s Christmas in Wales," a
quiet treat starring Denholm Elliot as ‘Old Geraint,’ an aging Welshman
recalling for his grandson the warm delights of the Christmases of his
youth.  Thomas’ beautiful poetic imagery, perfectly voiced by Elliot,
and complemented by on-location filming in Wales and Canada, whisks you
away from email greetings and electronic cards to a quaint, bygone
world of mulled wine, hearth-roasted chestnuts, handmade ornaments, and
familial bliss. 

At just around sixty minutes in length, this a perfect
family film, with none of the morbid, ghost-story trappings of "A
Christmas Carol," that I believe Dickens put in just to scare the crap
out of kids (It certainly did me, ‘though I love four separate movie
versions of that story.)  Troubled genius Thomas reminds us that
Christmas is not about neurotic adults, full of life regrets, but about
faith, family, and the uncomplicated joys of childhood.  Whether it’s
hurling snowballs at neighborhood cats, or pretending to smoke candy
cigarettes, or simply waking up in the morning to a world gone suddenly
white, "A Child’s Christmas in Wales"  encourages us to embrace the
simple joys of the season, as a child.  And it employs the most perfect
use of one of my favorite hymns, "All Through the Night." 

Christmas Night, when you’re starting to languish
from the excesses of the day and the physical and emotional demands of
the season, is the perfect time to view this gem.

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Randall_2_3Randal Cohen recommends "A CHRISTMAS CAROL(1984)

This Charles Dickens novella was first published in
1843. No other piece of literature better captures the pure spirit of
the holiday. Deeply emotional without being sentimental; deeply
spiritual without condesencion or preaching. Obviously, the tale is
part of our cultural lexicon and  doesn’t need much recitation beyond the obvious: this is the one where Scrooge gets visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and gets in the spirit of things by the end.

1984xmashumbugscroogeThis "A Christmas Carol" is my
favorite adaptation of a story that’s been filmed many times over the years and is a tradition in our house. Released theatrically in the U.K. in 1984 and
first aired on CBS television on December 17, 1984, it features a tour
de force  performance by the late, great George C. Scott who received
an Emmy nomination for his turn as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Truly, this film is a wonderfully instructive experience for
older children dulled by the commercialism of the holiday (it may
frighten the very young). Forget Tim Allen’s shallow comedies, this is
the ultimate cinematic Christmas experience.

To give you some perspective as to how this story has stood the test of time, back in 1843, the man in the red suit we’re so fond of was wearing green and going by the name Father Christmas. Back then, Dickens was also feuding with his publishers so the very first edition of the novella was self-published, complete with lavish binding and hand-colored illustrations. He priced it at five shillings so everybody could afford it. These days the technology has changed, but the story remains the same, and this is the version you should see during the holiday season.

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Beau_pictureBeau DeMayo recommends "THE POLAR EXPRESS"

The film expands a story that can be read in under three minutes into a ninety-nine-minute movie, while remaining true to the visual style of the original. The "Hot Chocolate" production number was derived from a single sentence and a single illustration. The "Hobo," "Lonely Boy," and "Know-it-All" characters, the scenes on rooftops and on the locomotive, and the runaway observation car sequence were all new to the film.

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"The Polar Express" tells the story of a young boy on Christmas Eve who is hoping for belief in the true spirit of Christmas. After falling asleep, a magical train called the Polar Express pulls up in front of his house and he is invited to journey to the North Pole. After reaching the North Pole, the boy is handpicked by Santa Claus to receive the first present of Christmas. He chooses a bright silver bell from Santa’s sleigh which makes a beautiful sound. As the years go by, people around him notice that they can no longer hear the beautiful sound, even his parents and sister. But there are those who still can, those who still truly believe.

I don’t know if you’ll believe after you see this, but you’ll remember what it was like when you did.

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The Decision. Now for a little audience participation. You’ll find two separate polls below.

Poll #1 from Vizu puts our critics’ choices up against each other to see which of our favorites gets the nod. You can only vote once, and for one movie.

Some of you, of course, demand more choice in your life. For you we have another option:

Poll #2 from Poll Daddy lets you vote for as many films
as you want and as many times as you wish. It also includes films that
aren’t in our critics’ picks. It’s a good way to measure passion, we
figure…

Of course, we know there is absolutely zero scientific validity to either of these polls, but we never claimed to be the Gallup organization anyway. Both polls will stay open until Christmas Day. However, we’ll have some of our respective critics weigh in individually with their reactions to the winning film or films the week before.

Thanks for taking part!

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About Bryce Zabel

Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, writer/producer and fast-food cook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of Movie Smackdown. While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, creator of five primetime network TV series, and author of a new non-fiction book about UFOs.
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