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Everydave’s Christmas Classics Collection

My friend Max over at Power Pop Blog‘s been running reviews of some of his favorite Christmas films lately, most are classics indeed. To me, sitting around with the family, watching Christmas specials was one of the most happy of memories of my childhood winters, not far behind getting to the stocking Christmas morning. Of course, decades have passed, but those moments are still special to me, so I give you a list of my Top 10 Christmas movies or TV specials, in no particular order. To me, Christmas isn’t quite Christmas without catching these…

The Oldies:

A Christmas Carol – the 1951 B&W version if you please, with Alistair Sim playing Scrooge. The kiddo in the house likes the more recent animated one, which is actually quite good, but nothing beats Sim’s acting, Cratchitt’s cheerful optimism and the charm of the story. Plus it was the one my Mom and I watched many a Christmas Eve together.

It’s A Wonderful Life – now a classic, surprisingly it wasn’t considered much of a movie for a few decades after its 1946 release despite starring the then-hot Jimmy Stewart. Is there a better reminder of how the “butterfly effect” means our lives have impacts far and wide, or to have hope that good will prevail over greed and spite?

The Cartoons:

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – the original, the Dr. Seuss-approved version in all its animated glory. Sure the cartoons look primitive compared to the current CGI efforts but nothing beats the simplicity of the story and the innocence of little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two, or the empathy little Max the dog provokes trying to haul that sled up the mountain.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer – Rankin/Bass’s claymation giant, another of those childhood traditions. Burl Ives as the snowman and the Island of Misfit Toys are as wonderful as any Christmas characters. Maybe one more people need to see to this day to be reminded being different can be quite OK

Charlie Brown Christmas – the acme for that great comic strip, a 1965 cartoon that defied convention (and apparently killed off the aluminum tree business in the doing!). There was a whole lot of psychology in that kids’ comic and animated spinoff, and how many of us relate to Charlie, feeling overwhelmed by it all and searching for meaning. Linus’ reading is still pretty much my favorite little telling of the Christmas story. And of course, a crazily-good jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi recently picked by Billboard as the best Christmas album of all-time.

The Romances:

Love Actually – it was a hot, stormy afternoon when I first saw the 2003 modern classic. No matter, I loved it and found it enthralling. A fun and feel good movie, which at the time seemed revolutionary with the way it tied together so many interwoven stories dealing with love, requited and not, at Christmas time. It took me about four viewings to finally see how all the stories tied together (I think…maybe I’ll still find more this year.)

The Holiday – a 2006 film that my sweetie introduced me to a few years back; one of her Christmas traditions which I now share with her. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet are romantically doomed, it seemed in their homes this Christmas, so they trade homes (one in California, the other rural Britain) and find love with men from the others’ lives, Winslet’s brother and a musician contracted to Diaz. Eli Wallach gives a tour de force performance near the end of his life, as an aging screenwriter brought back to “life” through Winslet’s friendship.

The New Fun Ones:

Polar Express – I still can’t get over how realistic the motion-capture animation of this one is…but since it teams movie-maker Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks up again (they of course collaborated on the ’90s great Forrest Gump) why should I be surprised? A great reminder of the power of belief.

Elf – probably if I was ranking them, this one would be the one to squeak in at #10; I like it but find most people I know head-over-heels love it. Part of that stems from how generally, I’ve never been a fan of Will Farrell. But it’s impossible not to like Buddy the Elf and his over-the-top enthusiasm for everything…including of course Zooey Deschanel…he was human after all (to his surprise.) Some of the best laughs of the Christmas season…”call me an elf one more time…! – You’re an elf! He’s an angry elf!”

Christmas Story – poor Ralphie, he’ll shoot his eye out! Who can’t relate to the childhood of his, wanting just one thing that seemed out of reach at Christmas, being inundated with pink bunny suit pyjamas instead? Like the previous one, few things get me laughing harder every December than that bunny suit, the store Santa and his big boot, and of course…the leg lamp! It’s a major award after all!

Maybe a new one will be added to the list this year, who knows. But even if not, I feel like it’s a good Christmas-time if I’ve checked these ten off the list.

Anyone else have their own list?

Books : ‘The Midnight Library’, Worth Staying Up Late For

One of everyone’s favorite Christmas movies is It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet if movie-maker Frank Capra and leading man Jimmy Stewart weren’t already stars when it came out back in the 1940’s, they might not have thought life was so wonderful. Initially, the movie flopped. Decades later of course it was resurrected and became a holiday staple and a film that’s sold tons of DVDs and moreover, influenced many people in a positive manner. You never know.

Which is the underlying theme to the latest book I read, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The novel is currently sitting at #12 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and noteworthily is the oldest, the only one of the top dozen to have come out in 2020. Rightly so. The book has staying power, because it is, first and foremost a good story. Haig managed to take a tablespoon each of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, added in a pinch of a positive mental health info and served it up in a modern-day, social media obsessed setting. The result was tastier than one might imagine.

The Midnight Library, in capsule summary involves the life, and nearly the death, of a 35 year-old woman named Nora. She lives in a run-down British city and feels like her life is worthless, and furthermore, that she’s squandered a number of chances to have the BIG life, the IMPACT life. She could have been an Olympian. Could have been a rock star. And so on. Instead, she’s lonely and unemployed. Through magic, God or some combination of those factors and others beyond explanation, she has a chance to see how her life could have come out… and finds a way into her best possible life. That’s the short description, I’ll put a somewhat more in-depth look at it at the end for those not scared off by “spoilers.”

Although Nora at first seems almost insufferable in her morose nature and self-pity, there is a part of her that I can relate to. A part that I think all of us can. The part that wonders “what if?” She quickly goes through a wide range of personal growths to learn – to really take to heart – that what matters most isn’t what you have done…it’s what you are going to do now. To quote the band Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It.”

After a slightly slow start, as we get to know the depressed lass in the depressed city, the book really picks up and turns into a page-turner. As well as a philosophical contemplation deeper than many so-called “self-help” books.

The Midnight Library. Pick it up some afternoon, and you might just find yourself still reading it at midnight. I give it 4 Dewey Decimal Card Catalogs out of 5. PS – this is a book just ripe for a Hollywood take.

More detailed overview with spoilers:

Nora Seed seems like a loser. That seems harsh, but is reality too. Because Nora seemed like the girl who could have it all. One of the best swimmers in the country. Smart. Curious. A great songwriter and musician. Concerned about the environment. If not centerfold material, plenty pretty enough to turn many a man’s head. Yet we find her depressed and depressing, just fired from her mediocre job in a failing store, with a cat which meets its demise on the road, and one real close friend who lives half a world away. Her brother seems to hate her for breaking up a band they both had been in and she periodically receives texts from the seemingly fine man she dumped days before they were to get married. She’s down enough to consider killing herself, but even her suicide attempt is half-hearted at best.

What it does though, is take her to a mystical place – the Midnight Library. A sort of never-ending library, with only one other person present – the old school librarian she used to play chess with years ago. The books are books of her life. Lives, actually. Each gives her a chance to see how her life would be had she done things differently. Not only see, in fact, but walk into those lives. Suddenly she is married to the man, who runs a charming country pub with her now. Or she studied a bit harder and is now a serious environmental scientist studying melting glaciers in the Arctic. Or she stayed in the band, which has become U2-big…she’s about to step onto stage in front of tens of thousands of Brazilian fans. Or she put her all into swimming and went to the Olympics. Or maybe she’s married to the nice young man down the road who was a bit shy, but also is a hugely successful surgeon whom she has a little daughter with.

But, need we remind you, besides all the glamor and appeal, each life has its own issues and problems anew. Pubs offer pub-keepers chances to spiral up their drinking and catch the eye of many passing women. Arctic research brings you in contact with more polar bears than fine dining establishments. Being a rock star offers temptations all too enchanting, yet deadly, for many. The grass isn’t always quite as green as it seems on the other side of the fence.

It turns out there’s only one real book for Nora to find a life she’ll find worthwhile and not be full of regrets. The question is will she open it before the library closes?

Christmas Movies Are Like… Beer?

It’s as predictable as the car blocking traffic in the mall parking lot waiting for the perfect spot to open up or the fruitcake under the tree from Aunt Madge – it’s the most wonderful time of the year for people to get hot under the collar debating movies. Or in particular, the best Christmas movies. Every year we seem to be inundated with a new horde of lists telling us what the “best” holiday movies are; every year people argue over said lists endlessly at the work water cooler and family dinners. 

A perfunctory google search quickly offered up Esquire magazine’s top 40 and Rotten Tomatoes list of the best 50. Each had its own quirks and things to get tongues wagging. Both for instance, included the 1974 slasher-horror flick Black Christmas (#38 on Rotten Tomatoes, #19 over at Esquire). Both had more than one version of “A Christmas Carol” – four on Rotten Tomatoes, which picked the 1951 Alistair Sim one as “the definitive”, and three on Esquire which agreed the ’51 B&W take on it is “still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ legendary tale… yet rated The Muppet Christmas Carol higher. If only director Brian Hurst had thought to have Ebenezer Scrooge visited by Fozzie Bear in the night.

Both lists did agree on the top pick. Rotten Tomatoes call it “the holiday classic to define all holiday classics.” Esquire suggest “few films define Christmas like” it. Yet, surprisingly, when It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 1946, fans were indifferent to the now-classic Frank Capra ode to friendship and loyalty.

It’s hard to argue with the choice…particularly if like me, your sweetie’s hung a framed movie poster of it in the bedroom. But to me, asking my favorite Christmas movie is like asking me to pick a favorite color. Well, I like teal blue tones, but not if we’re talking about cuts of meat. Actually, it might be more akin to asking me what my favorite beer is. Sure I might prefer Blue Moon or Sam Adams to Bud Lite, but the answer is still “whichever is cold and in the fridge”! The favorite Christmas movie is often the one that we’re watching in the moment. The one that brings the whole family together sharing old memories and creating new ones.

That said, to me a season wouldn’t feel like Christmas without seeing most, if not all of the following ones from the Silver Screen and small screen: A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Love Actually and A Christmas Story.

The Grinch – the ’60s animated TV version, true to Dr. Seuss’ words and other-wordly visuals- was a family tradition for me growing up and even as I got to be reading adult novels and reference books, was a reminder of how much those Seuss books entertained me and made me want to read on my own. I still feel curiously happy when walking past a rack with hardcovers of it, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop and the like. Subconsciously I guess it harkens me back to one of the happy times in my young childhood; consciously it pleases me to know that kids today are still learning to love reading and words through his rhymes just like I did.

I’ve seen many good adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but I go with the lists I mentioned in adhering to the ’51 version as the definitive one. Sure it’s B&W, the sound a little tinny and the special effects, Scrooge flying through the ghost-ridden air and so on, are cheesy but its tough to beat the charm of Sim as the changed man on Christmas morning or not to break out laughing at the frightened maid who encounters a freak of nature – a singing, cheerful Ebenezer Scrooge! Of course, the real reason it perhaps is my pick of the many is that it was for years a Christmas Eve tradition for my Mom and I to watch it. It would be quite a letdown if no station was running it!

It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderful, plain and simple. It never hurts to be reminded of how we impact those around us more than we know, or how doing the right thing will get noticed and eventually be returned to you. I don’t think I saw it until I was in my 20s, but now not a year goes by without watching it with loved ones.

Love Actually is a bit of a variation. I first saw it at a local library mid-summer, during a thunderstorm. And of course that’s not all together unreasonable. It’s more of a romcom than straight ahead Christmas flick; it just happens to revolve around all those intertwined stories happening at Yule time. Since it came out 15 years back, there’ve been a slew of movies which have imitated its entanglement of storylines, but none I’ve seen do it as well. As a music fan, I’ll forgive it for making Mariah Carey richer still by re-popularizing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because, hey has there ever been a cuter kid than little Sam playing drums watching the love of his life, 12 year-old Joanna, belt it out on stage at the school pagent? Besides, it makes up for that “digression” with the knowing cynicism of Billie Mack and his laughably honest assessment of his “crass” Christmas single as being crap! There are a hundred things that make me laugh every time I see it, from the kids’ dismayed “We hate uncle Jamie!” when he takes off from the house without dropping off presents to the intentional juxtapositioning of the shy, bland conversation of John and Judy with the X-rated sex scene they’re supposed to be filming. Speaking of, it’s a classic you really want to have the DVD of… TV is prone to cut out their whole storyline and edit some other parts so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

A Christmas Story likewise makes me laugh… the father’s joy at the Leg Lamp, his simmering hatred for the Bumpkuses’ hounds , the pink bunny pyjamas and of course the greatest Bad Santa ever… they never get old. Naysayers who’ve popped up this season complaining that it’s not politically correct (being nostalgic for a time when women stayed at home and cooked, making fun of people with accents, a kid who’s only interested in the gifts part of Christmas all rub them the wrong way ) miss the point, and maybe a funny bone. It’s funny because it’s nostalgic and relatable for so many of us. Like Rotten Tomatoes (ranking it #13) it’s “warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous.”

But back to the beer analogy. The one on hand is often the best one. As time goes by and my life changes, my personal list shifts too. I first saw the Family Stone (picked by Esquire as their 30th best) about three Christmas’ back. It was already a favorite of my sweetie. So seeing it with her has made it special to me now, and a newcomer to our joint “must see” list. That one by the way, was surprisingly under the radar for one with as Esquire term it, an “all star cast” headed by the likes of Rachel MacAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Diane Keaton. It blends humor and sorrow rather superbly studying one dysfunctional family”s – is there any other kind?- holiday. Likewise, last weekend we all watched Elf, a bigtime fave and annual tradition for her and her kiddo, which has elevated its status on my personal list considerably.

Some movies for you to consider over the next couple of weeks… but more importantly, a call for you to look back on your own happy holidays of years gone by and make your own, personal and meaningful list. Time flies by, so remember to take a moment or two to live in the present,not just the presents this December. And maybe grab me a beer if you’re going to the fridge!