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Love Actually (2003) -vs- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Bryce Zabel, Editor-in-Chief Crowning a Yuletide Smackdown Champ, Christmas 2009

Well, it’s come to this. After three years of polling here at The Smack, our readers have narrowed our field of ten Christmas films in the first season down to three, then last year from three to two, and this year we end it in a showdown with our top two.

In 2007, we asked ten of our SmackRefs to each recommend a Christmas film that they have a special fondness for, something that can stand the test of repeat viewing.  That poll turned out to be a squeaker with an unexpected winner when the nostalgia-rama  “A Christmas Story” edged out traditional favorite “It’s A Wonderful Life” with a strong third place by the relatively new “Love Actually.”

Those were the finalists in the 2008 reader’s poll. That one turned out to be a photo-finish with  “Love Actually” taking win, “It’s A Wonderful Life” taking place, and “A Christmas Story” only managing to take a semi-weak show.

Now — in Christmas 2009 — we finish the season with our top two finishers in the ring against each other to decide, once and for all who the real champion is in the “No-Humbug Zone.”

Are you ready to rumble? We are. And it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

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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.

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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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, for more revelers than you can imagine, it’s turned out to be an annual event. The film is an ensemble romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the holiday season and, by our 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.

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. Another great story involves 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 they are just channeling their inner Scrooge, we think. We love these characters and if we could buy them all a present, we would.


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About Bryce Zabel 196 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, creator of five produced primetime network TV series, and fast-food frycook, 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. That, plus the fact that he has a new StudioCanal produced feature film, “The Last Battle,” shooting this summer in Europe about the end of World War II. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and a past enthusiast of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. His new what-if book series, “Breakpoint,” just won the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has so far tackled JFK not being assassinated and The Beatles staying together.
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