THE RULES: A fantasy style draft, in which Joseph Williams and contributor Sutter Vaught will go back and forth for five rounds, selecting picks to create a roster of the ALL TIME GREATEST CHRISTMAS MOVIES.
Joseph’s Pick: It’s A Wonderful Life
There’s no way I can’t take this movie as my first pick. It has slowly risen up my list of all-time favorite movies to take the #1 spot. I’ve watched it every year since I was five. I’ve made a tradition at the Belcourt now to see it annually on the big screen. Its pathway to becoming a perennial classic embodies the true underdog story of Christmas. It is inspiring. It’s historical. It’s also very raw and real about the at-times brutal realities of life. But it also speaks to the true impact one life can have on so many others. If that’s not the story of Christmas, I don’t know what is.
To my big brother George, the richest man in town. No man is a failure who has friends.
It’s a Wonderful Life for the win!
HA! I knew you’d pick that one. A solid movie, but a FOOL’S CHOICE, as you left open the actual best Christmas movie of all time!
Don’t get me wrong, It’s A Wonderful Life is a great movie, for sure, but to me, it’s not a great Christmas movie. It’s always been more of a movie about America and the good and bad versions of capitalism (color me shocked that the infamous 47% tape didn’t lead to a Romney/Mr. Potter mashup tumblr) than it is about the Christmas spirit. Plus, George Bailey is
kind of definitely a major dick. Homeboy’s got an awesome wife and a brood of loving and well-behaved kids. Yet he runs around complaining, pretty viciously lashes out at said wife and kids and pretty much anyone else who crosses his path–remember that moment where he thinks about pegging Janie in the head with the piece of broken bannister? Or when he threatens to hang Zuzu’s teacher?–and then goes off to kill himself. Then, after an ego boost from an angel and CA$H MONEY from everyone else, his problems are solved. I kind of wish Clarence had just been like, “Yo, George, sack up and get your sh*t in order. You’ve got a wife and kids to take care of, so stop feeling sorry for yourself and taking it out on them. Seriously, dude.” [Also, sidenote: Pottersville seems like it would be WAY more fun than Bedford Falls.]
Now, It’s a Wonderful Life is still a well-made, well-acted dramatic film and deservedly holds its place in the pantheon of American classics. But it’s not a movie that I eagerly settle down to watch every Christmas. Call me a sentimentalist, but I prefer my Christmas movies a little more merry.
Sutter’s Pick: Miracle on 34th Street
The right choice, of course, for GREATEST CHRISTMAS MOVIE OF ALL TIME is Miracle on 34th Street. Not the 90s remake with Mara Wilson or the garbage 50s TV version that Netflix is currently trying to pawn off on us. No, I’m talking about the 1947 classic that rightfully bears the distinction of featuring the only Oscar-winning portrayal of Santa Claus (by an amazing Edmund Gwenn). It’s the perfect Christmas movie, because it perfectly captures the Christmas spirit. As you watch Kris Kringle work his magic, singing to the Dutch orphan, rebelling against commercialization in favor of making kids happy, and just generally acting all Santa Claus-y, you can almost recapture the feeling of being a kid on Christmas morning.
As he wins over John Payne, then Natalie Wood, then Maureen O’Hara, he wins over the viewer too. There is a Santa Claus! Don’t be jaded! Believe in Santa, believe in goodness, believe in giving and helping! And if some uppity shrink is an ass to the nice janitor kid, smack him the upside the head with your cane! The film builds to the awesome courtroom scene, with mailbag after mailbag being dumped on the bench in an exuberant triumph over cynicism. And that’s a huge part of what the Christmas spirit is about: shaking off the cynicism and believing that people and the world are good. Boom. Team Sutter, already leading the league.
Like many who have come before you and surely many after you, you just miss the whole point of It’s a Wonderful Life. These arguments against George, the plot, and the holiday sentimentality show how perfect of a film it is. George is a dick at the end of the film. But aren’t we all at times? With the chaos of work, family, friends, and the million other unimportant busy things that make up our life, don’t we all act out in anger? Sure, we don’t all end up on a bridge and suicidal. But we all take for granted the blessings we have. We let the stress of our work take away from the hundreds if not thousands of people we interact with daily who we have the opportunity to bless and help make their lives better…. or in stress, make their lives worse. We miss all the great friendships around us. We miss how communities around us have shaped us. We always think about all the dreams we had that never came true, missing the dream life right before us. It truly is a wonderful life. We need that reminder on Christmas Eve and the holidays more than ever before. A tingle goes down my spine every time. A lesson for the whole next year before the next Christmas comes. THAT is the perfect Christmas movie.
Miracle on 34th Street is great and was near the top of my draft board. I won’t even tear it down. I will say that it’s not even on my “Must-Watch-List,” although that classic is underrated and it’s a testament to the power of the story that it’s been re-made (albeit, horribly) multiple times. It’s a movie that makes you feel good. But it’s not deeper. It doesn’t strike a deeper chord, beyond the classic cynicism of adult life and the innocence of childhood belief. It’s Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus in a feature-length film. And I love it. But it’s not a first-round pick.
Not deeper? Garbage! Watch this clip. It’s not just about believing in Santa Claus. Maureen O’Hara is talking about learning to trust people again after her divorce, in order to start a relationship with John Payne. [And on that note, using the Macy’s Day Parade to pick up the hot single mother across the hall is one slick move. Get after it, Mr. Gailey.] Miracle on 34th Street reminds us that cynicism is just a defense mechanism and that we need to have faith in our fellow man. For those of us who, unlike George Bailey, are not gifted with angelic intervention when we start to act like dicks, that’s a much more important lesson. And for those of us who like our character change to actually be earned, it’s a better viewing experience too.
Joseph’s Pick: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Silly Sutter. You left the next best Christmas movie out there. The one that perfectly captures the comedic chaos of modern-day Christmas sentimentality and family togetherness. Filmed as the 80s rolled into the 90s and featuring the last great performance of Chevy Chase’s career, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a must-watch of the holiday season. The best of the modern classics.
Cousin Eddie and his RV, which we shouldn’t be getting too attached to because it’s gonna be gone when they leave in a month. The sledding scene. The cat wrapped up as a present. The Pledge Allegiance Prayer. The gift that keeps on giving all year round. Elaine Benes and the Headmaster from USA High as next-door neighbors. Chopping down your own Christmas tree… TWICE! A nuclear amount of lighting. Sentiment gone wrong made redemptive.
Family is important. They’ll drive you crazy but there’s nothing like them. You love them more than anything because they are who you are. Snuggling up by the fire, laughing through the chaos and tension and misunderstandings because it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. Without every bit of it
It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’ll understand if you give up now.
It’s hard to find fault with your second pick. I may not laugh as hard at the one hundredth viewing of it as I did at my first, but it’s a classic and has got some great moments. That said, it’s an interesting pick from the guy who just said Miracle on 34th Street wasn’t deep enough. To quote my grandmother’s response when we asked her if she liked it: “Well…uh, it was very…slapstick.” It’s fun and it’s goofy, but that’s all it is. So you’ve got a depressing downer where the hero’s character change only comes on account of an angel telling him how special he is and Randy Quaid. I’m winning so far, and I’m about to become even winning-er because…
NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO
Sutter’s Pick: Die Hard
Christmas is about family. It’s a time to gather with loved ones and show your love by exchanging presents. And what greater present could a man give his wife than to walk barefoot across glass while gunning down the Eastern European terrorists who have invaded her company’s Christmas party.
The movie is great. It might be the most well-written, most perfectly structured action movie of all time. Its set pieces are impressive, its dialogue pops, and it boasts the most colorful and entertaining supporting cast of all time (seriously…Argyle, Theo, Officer Carl Winslow, The Douchey Reporter who is also Walter Peck from Ghostbusters, and of course, Harry “Hans! Bubby!” Ellis). Bruce Willis has never been better (well, he’s always awesome), and Hans Gruber is an all-time top five villain.
But more importantly, it’s a great Christmas movie because it’s all about the sacrifices that one man will make to save his family. It’s such a perfect Christmas movie that I am still torn about whether I should’ve chosen it first. At the beginning, John McClane’s marriage is on the rocks, because he’s angry and married to his job as a cop. It’s actually kind of like a modern day It’s A Wonderful Life. I mean, try and tell me that Reginald VelJohnson shooting Karl at the end isn’t basically just Clarence getting his wings. I dare ya. McClane doesn’t realize it, but he’s being selfish and terse at his family’s expense. But instead of getting all George Bailey mopey about it, he’s proactive. First, he flies out to LA to spend Christmas with Holly and fix things, and then secondly, he rappels down the side of the exploding roof of a skyscraper and gets the drop on Hans with the gun that he’s attached to his back with giftwrap tape. If that doesn’t say Christmas to you, then you had better start practicing saying “Joyeaux Noel”, you commie.
In conclusion, yipee-kay-yay motherf***er to all, and to all, a good night.
At the rate that I’m burning through all the BEST Christmas movies, you’re gonna need to dig deep and ace these next few rounds if you have any hope of catching up.
First round picks are very different from second round picks. As you’ve just made us all very aware with your pick.
Look, you’re talking to the guy who stood up strong for Die Hard in a debate last night about its status in the pantheon of Christmas movies. I stood up for it in a big way. And I love Die Hard! It is a Christmas movie. HOWEVER, while it is a 1st or 2nd Round pick EASILY in a Fantasy Action Movie draft or a Best Use of TV Stars in an Action Movie Draft… it has no place in the 2nd round of this draft. And probably no place at all in the first five rounds of this draft.
Look, everything you said about the movie is true. And yes, I even said last night… “Look, nothing says Christmas like a man doing the things he does for family, America, freedom, and stopping one of the greatest villains ever.” These are my words. And I’ll be honest about them.
HOWEVER, this is the best Christmas movies. And if a large swath of people aren’t even willing to consider a film a Christmas movie, you’ve got a weak player on your team.
And these aren’t the same people that contribute to high ratings for Dancing with the Stars & Two and a Half Men. These are strong lovers of both Christmas and film. I persuaded them they were wrong.
But so are you in picking Die Hard this high in the draft.
We put this to a poll of film scholars and the public, I’m winning through the first two rounds. Easily.
And I’m about to blow this game wide open.
Look, I didn’t realize we were crowd-sourcing our adjudications of quality or looking for the most recognizable Christmas movies of all time. If that’s the case, let’s just throw the made-for-TV Christmas Shoes movie up on the list and call it a day.
But if we are talking about the Greatest Christmas Movies of all times, Die Hard belongs near or at the top of the list. Die Hard is a Great Christmas Movie, and if anyone says otherwise, THEY ARE WRONG AND I WILL FIGHT THEM.
And I would shocked if you could name one “film scholar” who holds Christmas Vacation in higher esteem than Die Hard. SHOW YOUR WORK, WILLIAMS. Check minus minus for that kind of lack of citation.
Joseph’s Pick: White Christmas
This next film is Palmer’s 2nd favorite movie of all time. It’s also one of my mom’s all-time favorites. Since I picked my Dad’s in Round 1 and my sister’s in Round 2, it’s time to pick one for my mom. And my wife has already said that our marriage is on the rocks because I didn’t pick this first. So there’s that as well.
I must admit, it’s taken me multiple viewings and lots of listens to the soundtrack to understand what so many Americans, young and old, see in this film. But it’s one of the all-time greats. It has one of the contenders for Mr. Christmas, himself.
As my wife says, it also has…
“The perfect amount of Christmas cheer. Bing Crosby. Rosemary Clooney. The right amount of romance that is classic, classy, something you can get behind with everything in you, Christmas love, but not cheesy and not over-the-top. Dancing perfection. Danny Kaye, who has just the right amount of edge. Vera-Ellen, whose little toe has more dancing ability than anyone else in movie history. It’s just perfect.”
White Christmas in World War II. White Christmas finale, with true love and helping out a man who has helped keep freedom alive for so many. Giving back to your mentors. Finding how to count your blessings instead of sheep.
Show business. Military service. Romance.
And may all your Christmases be white… go ahead. Light a fire. Let Bing sing you to sleep.
It’s a Wonderful Life
This isn’t fair. Nowhere close. You better make this next one count.
Light a fire and let Bing sing us to sleep? What the hell is going on here, Williams? Are you trying to kill us all? Don’t listen to him folks! Stay awake and make sure that all fires are extinguished before bedtime! Just like Smokey said, only you can prevent [Christmas] fires!
So, uh, White Christmas. Hard to find anything too negative to say about that film. It’s good. I mean, it’s a fairly paint-by-the-numbers studio system musical, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Except…once you’ve seen [WARNING: OLD-SCHOOL NSFW RACISM] this picture of Bing Crosby (not to mention the “Abraham” number in WC‘s predecessor, Holiday Inn), it’s hard to stomach him singing about his dream of a “white” Christmas. I prefer my Christmases to be about unity, not RACISM, but to each their own, I guess…
Of course, ad hominem attacks on the stars of these movies are probably not the direction I should be taking, given my next pick, since I guess having Joe Pesci threaten to bite off your fingers as a child carries with it some serious psychological side-effects.
Sutter’s Pick: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Now, many people would argue that the sequel is inferior to the original. And I guess those people are entitled to their opinions. But they would be wrong. Dead wrong.
And no, I am not just choosing this one so that I can have a public platform to promote my theory that the Bird Lady and Margaret from Boardwalk Empire are the same character [although the fact that Margaret has now relocated to New York supports that theory even more and we all know it’s totally going to happen…I mean, come on, people think about the Bird Lady’s speech about how the man who she loved betrayed her and her Irish accent and SERIOUSLY THEY’RE THE SAME PERSON JUST YOU WATCH].
No, I’m choosing this one because this movie because, like Miracle on 34th Street, it captures the pure, unadulterated joy of being a kid at Christmastime. Eating pizzas (extra cheese) in limos, running up the room service bill while watching gangster movies, going on a spending spree at Duncan’s Toy Chest…even at 25, that still sounds like an awesome time. And at a time of the year when spending extended amounts of time with family can sometimes be a bit, uh, overwhelming (to any family members who might read this, I’m obviously not talking about you…you obviously know who I’m talking about), this movie allows us to indulge in the fantasy of escaping from all the familial chaos while simultaneously reminding us how important family really is.
Oh, and also, this film marks Kevin McAllister’s transformation from kid defending his house to full-on Saw franchise villain (seriously, he’s pretty sadistic in this one, and Harry and Marv are apparently immortal, because he would’ve killed them like ten times over), and so there’s that.
Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. I know if I was going to be hosting a Christmas party on a desert island that had electrical outlets and some sort of film-viewing technology, those are the only DVDs I’d need. But who knows, maybe you’ll come up with something inspired in the next round.
Fascinating. I had told myself that if you didn’t pick a certain Christmas movie, I was definitely taking it in the next round. THEN, you went and picked the one movie that made me second-guess that. We’ll get to more of that in a moment.
First of all, with all due respect, Mr. Vaught… if this were a Fantasy Movie Draft, that would be one thing. You’re a better film critic than I am. Your team and drafting ability in a All-Time Top Movie Teams situation would put you at a decent-sized advantage. And, in such a draft, most film scholars would put Die Hard far above Christmas Vacation. Agree.
But this is the Fantasy Christmas Movie draft. And no amount of contrarian drafting strategy with dark horses and great films that are sometimes mentioned on Christmas film lists to be non-cliche will change that. Which of us can draft the best overall team of Christmas movies?
It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas Vacation, and White Christmas vs. Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard, and Home Alone 2.
It’s not even close heading into the fourth round. That’s okay. While we both know that you’re the top movie critic, we both also know I’m the Christmas movie king. So I respect your unconventional approach.
I’m a big Holiday Inn fan, but it just doesn’t carry the same places in the hearts of people all across the heartland of America as White Christmas, the film that took some aspects of Holiday Inn, and made those into a true Christmas classic.
Ad hominem attacks. Unconventional films that many wouldn’t even think about listing in the first 20 movies when asked to list Christmas movies. That’s… a thing.
Each of us get two more movies to add to our “teams.”
Joseph’s Pick: The Santa Clause
With my fourth pick, I’m going with THE SANTA CLAUSE.
I’ve got two classics. I’ve got the modern classic.
Now I’m going with a childhood favorite that has only gotten better with age.
This one has it all. Tim Allen in his prime (Top Film, Top Book, Top TV Show). An interesting take on one of the simplest parts of Christmas. Answers life-long questions about longevity of St. Nick and Santa Claus.
A movie about broken families that come back together again. A movie about the skeptic and cynic in all of us being in awe of Christmas magic and miracles. A movie about the danger of our society’s political correctness and dependence on everything outside of faith.
A movie about believing in the face of so much pressure not to.
A movie about the childlike joy of Christmas morning.
A movie about the return to innocence.
And really awesome elves who would have saved those Prison Break guys a lot of trouble and strained storytelling.
This one has it all.
I honestly have no clue what you could possibly come up with next to make this anywhere close to competitive.
To address your argument, I AM picking based on Christmas movie superiority, not movie-movie superiority. Duh, that’s why Die Hard didn’t come ahead of Miracle on 34th Street. To me, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard, and Home Alone 2 are movies filled to the brim with the values and sentiments that I feel embody the Christmas spirit.
The Santa Clause isn’t really my thing. I enjoyed it as a kid and Judge Nelson knows how to rock a tacky Christmas sweater, but Tim Allen is the worst and the whole child-actors-playing-immortal-
Now, I’ve been agonizing over pick number 4 for a while, partially because there’s a lot of good candidates and partially because I’ve already picked the three movies I NEED to watch every Christmas. Do I pick up Home Alone as a handcuff to Home Alone 2? Do I show some love to a forgotten classic like Beyond Tomorrow? Decisions, decisions…
You want contrarian drafting strategy? Well, HOOOO BOY, here it comes. Since you’ve got, amongst other things, a verbally abusive Jimmy Stewart contemplating suicide and a man MURDERING SANTA CLAUS AND ASSUMING HIS IDENTITY (Food for thought: The Santa Clause is really just a holiday remake of Single White Female), I guess I’m gonna have to get a little darker to keep up.
Sutter’s Pick: Gremlins
Another film that you will undoubtedly (and wrongfully) try to boot out of the Christmas movie canon. But damn it if I don’t watch it every year. As much as I love the sentimental side of Christmas, Gremlins is a great palate cleanser that crosses the line from mirth into mischief and mayhem. And yet, it stays playful enough that it doesn’t completely violate the spirit of Christmas (Bad Santa serves a similar purpose, and I thought about saving that for my last pick, but it gets too dark, whereas Gremlins manages to (very barely) skirt the line between zany and horrific). I especially enjoy the way the movie plays off the conventions of It’s A Wonderful Life. The film has its own decidedly un-Capraesque way of dealing with Mrs. Deagle (its Mr. Potter surrogate) and Billy’s mom is no Donna Reed when it comes to Christmas cookie baking in a great scene that never fails to crack me up. Look, I’m a sucker for dark humor, and this movie does it right.
To summarize my feelings, it’s sometimes nice to take a break from all the good cheer and enjoy some guilty laughter. And Gremlins is pretty perfect for that.
Your move. What’s the next add to the roster of the Safe-Bets?
Joseph: Well, there you go again. I have to give you respect for staying the course with your Unconventional Christmas. It’s nice to see you’ve all-but-given-up on trying to compete with me on a basic level of best Christmas movies. You’ve had to go unorthodox time and time again to try to keep up. Well, with my fifth pick, I’m going with a dark horse holiday film. Consider it the James K. Polk of Christmas movies. Still presidential, but came out of nowhere.
Joseph’s Pick: The Bells of St. Mary’s
I seriously considered two picks here – the original Home Alone, which is worthy of a spot on any list based on the church scene and final scene alone, and The Muppet Christmas Carol. BUT, when push came to shove, I’m going with a movie I never appreciated until two years ago. Just as It’s a Wonderful Life became my favorite film ever, I finally appreciated the film that played at the Bedford Falls Bijou Theater… THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S!
It gets its spot here based on this scene alone:
Probably the best nativity scene ever. Nay, definitely the best one ever. But the greatness of this film starts there and builds to debates over what is in the best interests of children to nuns giving boxing lessons… and then THAT ENDING! Family reconciliation. Selflessness. INGRID FREAKIN’ BERGMAN! Bing Crosby’s soothing voice. Grace given and received. It’s Christmas.
Pure and simple.
As a good Irish-Catholic boy, I can speak no evil of The Bells of St. Mary’s. Seriously, even if I hated it–which I don’t, it’s great–I can’t even muster any good trash talk for this one, because it would earn me the righteous Irish fury of my older family members. But you ain’t got me beat yet, because I can parry with my next pick, because The Bells of St. Mary’s is to Irish-Catholics as The Muppets are to Human Beings Who Are Capable of Enjoying Things.
Sutter’s Pick: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Now, before I submit this one, let me first say that I struggle to watch Christmas Carol adaptations, because they’ve been done in every conceivable way. But when it comes to this one…well, f**k it. I choose The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. I love Christmas, I love Michael Caine, and I love the Muppets, so this is a grand slam for me. Plus it’s fun to envision Gonzo Charles Dickens writing Great Expectations–Miss Piggy would make a terrifying Miss Havisham.
So I guess that brings this year’s Christmas Movie Fantasy Draft Smackdown to an end. So whose team wins?
Wait, what? There’s no possible way of keeping score?!
Oh. Well then I guess the lesson learned is that Christmas movies come in many flavors, and no matter who has a better list (me, obviously), there’s at least ten great movies to sit down and watch this Christmas season.
Merry Christmas to one and all.