Once upon a time, you could tell when Christmas was coming because of the holiday-themed ads on TV. But since they’re now appearing between Halloween and Thanksgiving, it’s the holiday movies and specials that signal the arrival of the Christmas season. Herewith, some of the best and worst movies of the holiday season.
5 – “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (1964). In the mid-’60s, several charming TV animated specials appeared for holidays, including “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and this stop motion story about a misfit reindeer who saves Christmas “one foggy Christmas Eve.” It features Burl Ives, whose snowman character sings the unforgettable “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.”
4 – A Christmas Carol (1951). OK, so the special effects aren’t much after all these years. But of the dozens of versions of Dickens’ timeless tale about a miserly businessman discovering the meaning of Christmas overnight on Christmas Eve, this British black-and-white version is the best. The reason? Alastair Sim, whose Ebeneezer Scrooge is cold, repellent, confused, warm, vulnerable and effusive. It’s 88 minutes long and the spirit of Christmas surrounds you.
3 – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Still one of the most popular Christmas shows on the TV calendar, audiences remain drawn to how Charlie Brown, Linus and eventually everyone else finds the spirit of Christmas in a tiny neglected Christmas tree.
2 – A Christmas Story (1983). Remember that one Christmas where you wanted one gift more than anything else you’ve ever wanted before – or since? For me, it was a GI Joe in ’64. But for Ralphie, growing up in a Midwestern town before World War II, it was “an official Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range” BB gun. Problem is, everyone tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” The film opened to mixed reviews, but audiences saw what the critics missed and the movie is regarded as a holiday gem.
1 – “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Speaking of mixed reviews, when this film opened late in 1946, it received only a so-so reaction from critics and the public alike. At Oscar time, the film now regarded as one of the most uplifting movies ever made was nearly ignored, winning a single Academy Award for special effects (Jimmy Stewart was running through a snowstorm in the middle of August). The Frank Capra classic about an American banker meeting up with his Guardian Angel on Christmas Eve while contemplating suicide is now America’s favorite Christmas movie. Mine too.
Honorable mentions: “Home Alone” (1990), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966), “The Santa Clause” (1994) and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947).
BAD CHRISTMAS MOVIES
5 – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964). Kidnapped by Martians, Santa eventually wins them over. Whose idea was this?
4 – Star Wars Holiday Special (1978). Starring cast members of the smash hit movie along with Bea Arthur (Maude) and Harvey Korman from the Carol Burnett Show. Oh. My. God.
3 – “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984). Santa Claus as a serial killer. The movie poster showed him heading down the chimney with an axe. Great fun for the whole family.
2 – “Jack Frost” (1998). Michael Keaton stars as a neglectful dad who dies on Christmas Eve and returns to life as a snowman with stick arms. Critic Roger Ebert calls the character “the most repulsive single creature in the history of special effects.”
1 – Prancer (1989). A sickening sweet story about an 8-year-old girl who is convinced that a wounded reindeer is really Prancer from Santa’s sleigh. One hundred and three minutes long, of which the last hour is sheer agony.