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Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo

Image copyright Columbia Pictures

Image copyright Columbia Pictures

I don’t like Christmas, but I do seem to be a big fan of Christmas movies.

That makes sense, right?

Actually, I know a lot of people who think like that. I don’t know what their reasons are, but I guess that in my case it means that I like the concept of Christmas, or at least someone else’s concept of the holidays, much more than I like the actual execution of a time in the year that is getting dangerously close to screwing with Halloween.

Thanksgiving is gone forever, people. It was kind of a dumb concept to begin with.

Throwing together a list of ten Christmas movies I can watch in the middle of August was shockingly easy. What I’m not going to do is put them into any kind of order of importance. The logic there is that these are fairly different Christmas movies in terms of tone and style, and that one that I might call my favorite Christmas movie one day might not be the all-time champion a couple of weeks later.

This is a pretty static list though. I don’t see it changing anytime soon. You might get a sense of this when you read reviews of Christmas movies I’ve seen recently.

The series of stories that would explain why I hate Christmas (and I’m growing increasingly distrustful of the notion that anything good can happen to me on New Year’s Eve, too) aren’t really worth sharing here. What I can tell you is that when I was a kid, I wanted to live in my favorite movies. I still have that thought sometimes. Christmas is a profoundly awful thing to me, but a part of me likes the concept enough to like Christmas movies I could imagine myself being very comfortable in.

Is that in spite of Christmas? Because of it?

I guess it depends on the movie.  At least some of the movies on this least appeal to the fact that I hate Christmas, but I don’t like completely despise it. That just seems silly. And I guess the small part of me that resists completely despising it (give me time—I have a few more years to build up a dislike for all kinds of things, including Christmas) can, at the very least, entertain concepts of Christmas that I can actually get into.

And I am aware that other observances go on during this time. I just haven’t seen enough movies about them to justify their own lists. I’m sure someone else is out there capable of doing a better job with them anyway.

Anything on this list that you haven’t seen is worth looking into. Every single one of them is an A+.

1.) Bad Santa
2.) The Nightmare before Christmas
3.) Black Christmas
4.) Christmas with the Kranks (just kidding)
4.) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
5.) Scrooged
6.) It’s A Wonderful Life (shut up)
7.) A Christmas Carol (1951)
8.) Love, Actually
9.) Die Hard
10.) Batman Returns  

I apologize for the lack of A Muppet Christmas Carol. It just seemed like three versions of Dickens’ story would be a bit excessive. It is a favorite though.

And, yes, I’m aware that A Christmas Story is not on this list. We’re all just going to have to learn to live with that.

I tried to keep this edition Christmas-themed, but it wound up being just too damn hard. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. I honestly can’t think of any past or recent Christmas movies that I haven’t seen that I feel like I ought to see.

Fred Claus (2007): F+

I didn’t think it was going to be that bad, okay? I can be compelled sometimes to find Vince Vaughn funny (and he’s been showing up in this column a lot lately, for some reason), and I wanted to imagine a fairly impressive cast like this could at least keep things alive for the movie’s stretched-out two-hour running time. I was wrong. I was terribly, terribly wrong, and the fact that I was reminded over and over again of how wrong I was for two ridiculously boring hours reminded me of just how low and depressing my Friday nights can get. The story seems like something Family Guy or The Simpsons would create as an example of painfully commercial holiday movie stupidity, but I didn’t let that serve as a warning of what I might be setting myself up for. I didn’t expect brilliance from Vaughn visiting his brother, Santa Claus (a surprisingly lackluster Paul Giamatti) in the days leading up to Christmas. I was hoping the dumb story would be a decent-enough setup for Giamatti and Vaughn to work well together. I also (stupidly) assumed a cast like Kathy Bates, Kevin Spacey, Miranda Richardson and Rachel Weisz could fill in the lulls of energy I was already expecting by the time the movie had cleared that painful first ten minutes. For two ugly hours, I was proven wrong over and over again by flat performances, comedy that wasn’t funny, sentiment that had all the sincere sweetness of an infomercial for a rest home, and a story that just couldn’t commit to one of those concepts over the over. It couldn’t even balance them very well. When it’s not even possible that Ludacris (who has a small, hellishly bizarre part as a DJ elf) contributing a wonderfully out-of-place song about Christmas over the end credits can save the day, we’re all in very serious trouble. I don’t know if Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin set out to make a new holiday classic with Fred Claus, but if he did, then you can go straight to Lifetime Network TV movie hell, man, because I want those two hours of my life back.

Holiday Affair (1949): C-

There’s nothing really wrong with this very light, very dated Christmas romantic comedy from Robert Mitchum’s RKO days, which Mitchum was supposedly made to star in to repair his public image after his marijuana arrest. Mitchum is charming, if a little out of place in one of the few romantic leads he would ever get to play in his long career. Janet Leigh is classic Hollywood beauty and kindness, but there’s nothing memorable going on with her role or performance. Mitchum is a drifter and veteran, Leigh is a single mom with a boyfriend (Wendell Corey, who is pretty much screwed in the least appealing possible once Mitchum shows up), and they meet. We know what’s going to happen before they ever even see each other. Sparks pop up, love blooms, complications occur, Leigh’s kid makes us realize that annoying child actors are one of the great consistencies of Hollywood through the decades, Mitchum keeps being charming, Leigh keeps being sweet, more complications arise, they part, find each other again, and a small Christmas miracle carries us over the swell of the vintage score. If that’s okay with you, if you like Mitchum and/or Leigh, and if you’re a fan of old Christmas movies, then you’ll be good to go. Anyone else might drift gently into a coma. If you can avoid the coma, look for the late, great Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H and Dragnet) in a small role.

In Bruges (2008): A+

Let’s just say I’m really, really glad I finally finished watching Martin McDonagh’s flawless dark comedy of two hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) waiting in Bruges (oh, okay, I get it now) for orders from their boss (Ralph Fiennes as a character so hilariously, darkly committed to his principles that I almost wish the movie had been about him instead). McDonagh gets plenty of humor from his own script, and from the interactions between his characters, particularly between Gleeson and Farrell, and then Gleeson and Fiennes, but he laces the humor with subtle tension and impressive dramatic touches. He also gets solid work from Farrell. An actor I keep forgetting isn’t half-bad. For a movie that moves at a fairly leisurely pace, even during its frantic finale, In Bruges has this weird feeling that everything ended much too soon. That just means it’s worth watching again.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011): C+

The 3D effects are going to be annoying in 2D, but I knew that going in, and I still laughed a hell of a lot more than I expected to. I definitely laughed more than I did through Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Every familiar (in a good way) note is hit, a few in-jokes are tossed around, and Neil Patrick Harris once again barely seems to notice that he’s the one everyone is waiting to see in this. I laughed more at Neil’s contribution to the film more than I’ve laughed at any comedy in a good while, but Kal Penn and John Cho revisit their comedy duo chemistry nicely, and the jokes are rarely gasping for air. What the hell else do you want from this? I could have done with a little of the franchise’s central theme, but you can’t have everything.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965): A

Jean Luc-Godard has made one or two movies about French surrealism blended with the kind of detached “I’m really just way too goddamn cool for all this” mentality that certain French filmmakers seem to have a particular knack for. Just one or two. Pierrot Le Fou (I’m assuming this is where Cowboy Bebop got the title for one of their episodes from) works as a one-time viewing. But only if you really don’t want to go any deeper than the story of a bored husband and father (played with a perfect drollness by Jean-Paul Belmondo) chucking it all away to leave with his kids’ babysitter (the gorgeously unpredictable Anna Karina). This is the kind of movie that cements the argument that true masterpieces of their time, place and style need to be watched more than once. There are countless subtle touches to the broad story of the doomed relationship between the leads that doesn’t really unfold, so much as it explodes, reassembles itself, and then explodes again. There is fantastic word play and substantial gravity behind Godard’s script. There are just so many things going on around Karina and Belmondo, I really one viewing is going to give you everything this movie could. One time around this crazed world of Godard’s will give you an understanding of why his films have had such an extraordinary influence on so many noteworthy American filmmakers. Repeated visits to Pierrot Le Fou will give you even more than that.