By John H. Foote
I was a child through the sixties, when boys asked for Tinker Toys, Fort Apache, the Big Jim Sports Camper or the old reliable hockey gear and sticks. The greatest gift I ever received as a child was a brand new set of goalie gloves, my God I can still smell the unspoiled leather.
My dad was strictly blue collar, working in General Motors, my mom was at home until we were all (three boys, one girl) in school. My dad’s parents spent Christmas Eve through Boxing Day with us, and Christmas morning was magical. I do not know how they did it, but there was always a mountain of gifts under that tree. Such bounty! Years later I watched my own girls walk out to that same mountain, and it left me glowing inside. To be able to do that for them, was magical.
My wife loved Christmas, and the day after Halloween the carols came out of her CD box, the tree went up later thank God, but she so loved Christmas. I think because the spirit of the season was in her year-round, she lived it all the time. When she died, I feared Christmas but with my girls, family
Losing her gutted me, but I feel her near during the holidays most.
Those warm, yet faded memories are reflected in my choices for my must-see Christmas films. How could they not be?
The warmest memories come from The Polar Express (2004) set some time in the fifties, but looking so very familiar with its
Through my childhood, the TV staples were Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, created on the CTV studio lot; How The Grinch Stole Christmas, with Karloff made immortal; and the now forgotten The Night the Animals Talked, a cool little story about the birth of Jesus and the animals in the stable. And yes, I cringed all through the Star Wars Christmas Special…didn’t you?
From the big screen, here are my essential Christmas movies.
5. BAD SANTA (2003)
Profane, vulgar, entirely politically incorrect yet absolutely hilarious, Bad Santa is an uproarious black comedy that has the courage to remain as black as night right through to its conclusion. Make no mistake, this is not a family film, nor should little kids permitted to watch. Billy Bob Thornton is Willy, a drunk who once a year dresses as Santa for a department store, which he and his vicious little Elf Marcus rob on the last night of shopping. They usually walk away with enough to last them a year. Thornton is brilliant as the most despicable Santa you will ever encounter, usually plastered on the job, prone to shouting obscenities at children (I’m on my fucking lunch break”) and hooking up with a beautiful bartender with a Santa fixation. Black, vicious fun that leads to our hero finding some good within himself and befriending a loyal little boy who needs a friend as much as he does.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
This was never meant to be a holiday classic, yet
James Stewart was great before, and great after, but he never surpassed his stunning performance here.
3. THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004)
While watching this with my daughters the day it was released I felt I was giving them a glimpse into the North Pole and the inner workings of Santa Claus. A beautifully created film that captures with affectionate warmth a young boy on the cusp of not believing, he is given a chance to meet Santa, swept away on the magical Polar Express at midnight. From the moment the kids on the train see elves in the streets, the film is pure magic. And yes, Santa is everything we hoped he would be – gentle, kind, majestic, near regal. A sweeping, though overused score might be the only flaw in this magical trip to the North Pole. Believe, is all the film asks. The portrayal of the children is wonderful, especially Hero boy and Hero girl, but the moment Santa appears we get at once why Christmas as a child is so magical. Based on a novella, expanded for the screen.
2. A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)
This wonderful Canadian film has grown substantially in stature since its initial release. The story of Ralphie and his wish for a Red Ryder BB Gun brings back warm memories of the days leading to Christmas, the excitement, blown fuses, flat tires, endless lines to see Santa in a department store, and finally, through a father’s love, that gift to end all gifts. The father seems distracted throughout, but it is he paying attention to what his son really wants. That hideous pink bunny suit, little brother Randy, the warm, loving mother, all Christmas perfection. Brilliant on every level. Confession? It is kind of flawless and all very familiar. You can almost smell the Christmas air, the inside of the school, and that big sprawling home, ruled with an iron fist by the father, or so he thinks. One of the loveliest moments comes at the end when with the boys in bed, the mother finally sits, slipping an arm around the father, a gentle display of genuine affection. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are so often forgotten as the kids take centre stage, but they are the heart and soul of the film.
1. SCROOGE/A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)
Alister Sim was born to play Scrooge and gives the performance of several lifetimes as the miserly man who holds humanity in utter contempt. A British character actor, who forged a career on film and stage he was astonishing, just once, in the best adaptation of Dickens’ beloved Christmas novel. Three ghosts sweep the cranky old humbug into his past, the present and his future to show him he will be damned if
And then, the morning after. A smiling, near giddy Scrooge, wakes up, drunk with delirious happiness at being alive. He dances about the room, scaring his maid, attempts to stand on his head, finally pushing the poor maid (working Christmas Day) over the edge, before raising her salary and giving her the day off. He rejoices in being alive and sharing his substantial wealth with everyone he encounters, especially Bob Cratchit, who he helps, and the old boy befriends Tiny Tim, who does not die. Twenty times or more I have seen this film, twenty times or more, tears slip down my cheeks watching him find his decency and goodness. That he had shown nothing but barely concealed hatred for mankind is washed away with his giddy actions and a bright, beautiful smile. Watch him go through the door into his nephew’s parlour, both terrified but so happy to be there. Very few actors could pull that off.
Other actors, fine actors, Reginald Owen, George C. Scott, Henry Winkler, Patric Stewart, Albert Finney, and Jim Carrey have attempted to play Scrooge, all very good, but none of them touches the arc achieved by Sims. How did they miss him for an Oscar nomination?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.