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Retro Crimbo: George’s top 10 festive flicks

December 20, 2010

Pulling no strings: Kermit and Gizmo are deservedly on the list – but where do they come?

If you’re anything like me, then in addition to eating, drinking and being merry, there’ll be little you enjoy more at Christmas than catching up on a movie or two – and maybe an entertaining, deliberately merry one at that. Yes, I’m talking about Christmas flicks, but not the likes of The Sound Of Music (1965) or The Wizard Of Oz (1939) that always seem to be faves this time of year; nopes, I mean the proper, fully fledged made-for-Crimbo Christmas flicks.

Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve a soft spot for Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) – hey, dubious-to-execrable it may be, but my first viewing of it remains a treasured telly memory of my youth. However, I’m well aware it’s more pudding than plum, so fear not, it doesn’t find itself on this list. What do, though, are my dectet of top yultide movies, chosen both for their quality and, well, because of how much I like ’em – do click on each of their titles for a little extra treat, won’t you?

So, let’s get down to it – yep, the countdown to which flick should follow The Queen’s Speech (er, according to me) kicks-off with…

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10. Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005)

Truly a rare gem to start off with, for this recent slice of European cinema is a fine little flick. Albeit set on the Western Front during World War One, so despite its title not necessarily offering the most joyous Noël, it is nonetheless a piece of real quality. And in spite of its setting – but in many ways because of it – Joyeux Noël also provides a subtle, understated and thought-provoking affirmation of what Christmas is supposed to be all about: goodwill and togetherness. Why? Because it’s the story of the German, French and Scottish troops who crossed into No Man’s Land and greeted each other at Christmas 1914 – yes, that’s right, the ocassion of that famous football match. It’s a bit of a Crimbo weepie, but a real good ‘un.

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9. Elf (2003)

By rights, mention of a Will Ferrell movie shouldn’t belong on a retro blog – well apart from Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy (2004) perhaps, utterly ’70s-set as that is – but this wacky comedy, while being thoroughly modern, bursts with festive fun. All right, while it’s certainly uneven in places, some of the jokes do miss and James Caan is mis-cast as the doubting Thomas character (plus, yes, it probably wouldn’t even be on my list if it didn’t feature the lovely Zooey Deschanel), Ferrell is certainly funny,  its intentions to entertain never let up, it has more edge than the average family flick and is unashamedly Christmassy. In fact, it’s worth seeing alone for the shower room-set duet of Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Trust me.

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8. Die Hard (1988)

On the surface, there’s very little that’s festive about Die Hard – a no-holds-barred actioner-cum-disaster movie, in which gruff charmer Bruce Willis battles against a terrorist group holding his wife hostage in an LA skycraper. It has far more in common with a typical Arnie flick and The Towering Inferno (1974) than with, say, A Christmas Story (1984). However, being set on Christmas Eve as well as being a classic white-knuckle-ride entertainer, it makes for fine alternative Crimbo cinema, resplendent with nice ironic asides to the yuletide setting, as it is. Indeed, somehow the use of Dean Martin’s version of Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow over the end credits seems perfect – and it never snows in LA.

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7. Trading Places (1983)

Eddie Murphy was, of course, the king of comedy in the ’80s, and he was made king in this unforgettable seasonal-set flick. Rude, raucous, a wee bit satirical and featuring many a twisted, evil-minded character, John Landis’s perfect probe into the vicious heart of the American brokers’ markets is blackly comic stuff. Yet, with its star turn from Murphy and finely balanced performances from Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis and especially the late, great Denholm Elliott, it’s also chock-full of charm and winning appeal. Plus, in advancing years though they were, Don Ameche and Ray Bellamy threaten to steal the entire film with their enjoyably wicked, love-to-hate-’em Scrooge-esque villains. One to throw on after the kids have left a mince pie for Santa and finally shuffled off to bed.

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6. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Yup, I can’t deny it, there were a few quality movie versions of  A Christmas Carol I could have chosen as opposed to this one, so why did I go with it? Well, while, I’ll admit, I have a very big soft spot for The Muppets (and, frankly, who hasn’t?), it certainly isn’t just because it features Kermit & Co. Genuinely, The Muppet Christmas Carol is among the very best cinematic adaptations of Dickens’ work of genius. If you’re unsure about that – or are yet to see it – really, give this film a viewing this Crimbo; you may be surprised. The story’s faithfully all here (yes, all the dark bits too) and told with energy, verve and invention – even the songs swing. Plus, Michael Caine is spot on in the main, and only human, role; he could have coasted as Scrooge, instead he’s extra eager as Ebeneezer. And in the end, let’s face it, this is The Muppets and at Christmas – you can’t say fairer than that, surely?

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5. Gremlins (1984)

So into the top five then and it’s the third and final ‘anti-Crimbo’ flick on the list… yes, it’s Gremlins. Many have fond memories of this classic ’80s flick, and why not? With the unfeasibly cute Gizmo and the unfeasibly cute Phoebe Cates, it’s one that’s very hard not to look back on affectionately. Yet, for all that, while Gremlins is definitely high on hilarity and very much a spoof-horror, the shocks, terror and gruesome moments are far more ‘horror’ than, say, Carry On Screaming (1965). For instance, lead villain Stripe the Gremlin is a truly evil, little b*stard, certainly not one for the kiddies. Indeed, the movie’s also a fine subversion of the small-town American Christmas resplendent in cinema and on TV so much this time of year – a great antidote then to the faux goodwill of Noel Edmonds handing out presents to randoms or Cliff Richard’s latest assault on the Christmas charts. Plus, it’s got that scene with the Gremlins singing along to Heigh-Ho in the flickatorium. And Phoebe Cates, if I hadn’t mentioned that already.

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4. The Lion In Winter (1968)

All right, I lied – so pelt me with a snowball – because this one is the actual last ‘anti-Crimbo’ movie on the list. Wait a tick, this acclaimed-to-the-skies, dialogue-heavy, Katharine-Hepburn-Oscar-winning monster historical drama from the late ’60s is actually a festive film? Yep, that’s right, folks. Set at the yuletide of 1183, it tells the tale of legendary, ageing English monarch Henry II – an outrageously good Peter O’Toole – gathering his wife and three sons together to hammer out an agreement over who will succeed him. So out of that what do you get? Only the most emotionally charged, dark and angry Christmas imaginable – but also a very cerebral, articulate and witty one. Think your family’s dysfunctional and doesn’t get on at Crimbo? Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen this. No question, The Lion In Winter is imperious intellectual entertainment (it looks, sounds and just is brilliant), so makes for a fine antitidote to The Santa Claus 3 (2006) or Ernest Saves Christmas (1988). A word of warning, though, after all that turkey and plum pudding, it may also give you indigestion – as Hepburn’s magnificent Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine says, ‘every family has its ups and downs’, but not like this.

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3. White Christmas (1954)

Ah yes, now be honest, can you think of a film that’s more Christmassy than White Christmas? Known as much for the second biggest selling single of all-time that features in its finale (that’d be White Christmas the song then), as it is as a film in its own right, this is a permanent fixture of the festive telly schedules the world over, and rightly so. The tale of two WWII army buddies – and a pair of singing sisters they meet along the way – helping their old general keep his Vermont hotel going by holding a stompin’ variety show one Crimbo, it’s an old-style Hollywood musical that, merely one viewing of which, turns your nostalgia-o-meter up to 11. Yes, they really don’t make ’em like this any more. From the era of Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and High Society (1955) – and featuring a star of the latter, namely Bing The Crosby – it happily sits alongside those two in the quality stakes too. Featuring some top tunes, in addition to the title number, and nice turns from the evergreen Danny Kaye, the sassy Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt) and the game Vera-Ellen, it’s a picture as smooth, lavish and delicious as brandy sauce atop a Christmas pudding that easily warms the cockles of the heart long before the unforgettable finish.

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2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

So, if White Christmas could only make the Number 3 slot, what on earth is Number 2? Well, forgive me, but being the big Bond fan I am, I just couldn’t resist this indulgence (well, it is Crimbo after all). Yup, its the sixth in the official film series based on the novels of Ian Fleming’s British super spy – wait a minute, that one that nobody watches because it’s got the Australian feller George Lazenby in it? Yes, that’s the one. But, peeps, forget all you’ve heard, because this may just be the best Bond film of them all. Seriously. More a romantic story furnished with action and adventure than an action-adventure with romantic trimmings like so many of its Eon siblings, OHMSS has genuine depth, as well as some brilliant fisticuffs, car chases, ski chases, an outrageously good score, a pair of top tunes, beautiful cinematography, two (count ’em – two!) climaxes and some terrific acting support from Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas and Gabriele Ferzetti. And the Crimbo element? Much of the story takes place in the Alps at Christmas time (the villain’s lair is decorated with tinsel and an angel-topping tree, while 007 even says ‘Merry Christmas’ at one point). Oh, and it’s easily the swinging-est Bond film of the ’60s. If that’s not fantastic fare for a retro Crimbo, then I really don’t know what is.

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1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

It had to be… yes, It’s A Wonderful Life is my wonderful Number 1, my top festive flick. Why? Well, like White Christmas, this movie is rightly synomynous with the yuletide and, like Joyeux Noël, it’s overarching aim is to underline the importance of togetherness and goodwill at this time of year – and, indeed, at all times. It’s also, for me, hands down the best movie on this list – in fact, in my eyes, it’s probably one the best movies ever made. Brilliantly plotted, beautifully played and expertly directed, Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a finely paced, thoroughly engaging and always entertaining human drama about little people in a little town, most of whom (unlike in, say, Trading Places) are entirely likeable, as it follows them over the years through times both good and bad – and even through one nightmarish fantasy episode (thanks to C. Dickens esq for the idea, but in turn Back To The Future Part II has to thank director Capra for it too). However, it’s perhaps to James Stewart as ‘Ordinary Joe’ George Bailey that this film owes so much of its winning charm and irresistible heart – he’s one of Hollywood’s all-time heroes. So, just like the character of George himself, It’s A Wonderful Life is the epitome of ‘good’ in the movies – it’s a damn good flick and it’s full of goodness. In short, it’s the simply perfect flick for Christmas.

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Crimbo’s 10 super shorts

Carol For Another Christmas (1964) ~ starring Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) ~ animation

Yogi’s First Christmas (1980) ~ animation

The Snowman (1982) ~ animation

The Christmas Toy (1986) ~ non-Muppets puppetry directed by Jim Henson

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) ~ starring Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson

Bernard And The Genie (1991) ~ starring Lenny Henry, Alan Cumming and Rowan Atkinson

Father Christmas (1991) ~ animation

The Bear (1998) ~ animation

Robbie The Reindeer In Hooves Of Fire (1999)~ stop-motion animation

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George’s top five New Year flicks

5. Forrest Gump (1994) ~ Forrest and Lt. Dan memorably celebrate New Year 1972 in New York City

4. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) ~ Gene Hackman’s preacher leads survivors to safety after the SS Poseidon capsizes on January 1

3. The Godfather: Part II (1974) ~ Michael Corleone reveals his brother Fredo’s fate with a kiss, while at a New Year’s Eve party in Havana as rebels storm the city

2. When Harry Met Sally (1989) ~ Reluctantly, Harry spends New Year’s Eve alone at home, while Sally goes out – but, regardless, the fate of their relationship is unexpectedly decided

1. The Apartment (1960) ~ The story of Jack Lemon and Shirley MacClaine’s Baxter and Fran culminates on December 31 – via a game of gin rummy


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