I don't want to start a fight, but I'm not crazy about "A Christmas Story."
I love Melinda Dillon as the mother of the main character, and I'm aware people re-watch it every year, but there's a big difference between a movie that's fine once and one that becomes a tradition.
It probably comes down to personal preference. Some viewers like the "Home Alone" movies; I can't stand them. A reader wrote to say the Humphrey Bogart "We're No Angels" is a holiday tradition, and I like it but don't need to see it again. Same with "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
What I'm saying is that my favorite holiday titles may not be yours, especially since there are so many options. "It's a Wonderful Life," now regarded by many as the holiday classic, was not a success upon release in 1946 (although it did score five Oscar nominations), but golden-era titles such as "The Bells of St. Mary's," which is name-checked on a marquee in "Wonderful Life," and "Miracle on 34th Street" were huge hits.
A holiday movie is richer if it's not all sweetness — if, as Tracey Thorn sings in her Christmas song "Joy," "it's because of the dark we see the beauty in the spark." Judy Garland offers a similar sentiment in "Meet Me in St. Louis" when she sings, "Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight."
"It's a Wonderful Life" is about a man on the verge of killing himself. "The Ref" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" feature family members who'd sooner tear each other apart than tear a ribbon off a present. "Black Christmas" thinks the reason for the season is thrill-killing. And "Bad Santa" is self-explanatory.
There's an acknowledgment in there that the holidays aren't all mistletoe and holly for many people (by the way, "The Night Before" is a decent gross-out comedy about Hannukah, but options for that holiday, or Kwanzaa or Eid al-Fitr, are few).
Dark elements can make a movie rewatchable — there's more to discover in "It's a Wonderful Life" every time, no matter how often you've tried to peep all the souvenirs of evil in Mr. Potter's lair. And there's an element of hoping things will go differently each time you watch: Who's with me in groaning whenever Uncle Billy mislays the bank deposit that makes everything fall apart?
Since the holidays are a time when many of us feel sentimental, nostalgia also helps; the familiarity of our traditions, and of lines such as "You'll shoot your eye out!" from "A Christmas Story" are a big part of their appeal. I know I could speak along with the characters in all of these seven favorites. Given some time off at the end of the year, I might just do that.
Appalling confession: I was introduced to this tear-jerking classic by a remake: Marlo Thomas' gender-flipped TV movie "It Happened One Christmas" from 1977. My sister and I loved it and our horrified dad told us about the original, which we watched that Christmas Eve and every Christmas Eve since (this year, sadly, will have to be the exception).
This orgy of family dysfunction stars the perfectly matched Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey (don't worry; you're supposed to hate him) as hosts of a spectacularly hostile family celebration. It climaxes with a riotous Santa Lucia dinner where all the guests are forced to don crowns of candles. Or maybe it climaxes in the next scene, a passive-aggressive gift exchange. Anyway, it's hilarious, with a tiny bit of sweetness creeping in at the end.
Only part of this jam-packed classic takes place at Christmas but it's a doozy: Judy Garland tenderly attempts to comfort her grieving sister (Margaret O'Brien) the way only Judy Garland could, by introducing the mournful soon-to-be-holiday-classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
It's Christmas Eve so, yes, there is some tinsel hanging about, but I never thought of "Die Hard" as a holiday movie until "A Very Die Hard Christmas" at Bryant-Lake Bowl brought me around. Josh Carson, who takes on the Bruce Willis role in the BLB stage version, makes a convincing case that "Die Hard" is "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "It's a Wonderful Life" all rolled into one.
Will Ferrell gives an all-time great performance as Buddy the Elf, essentially a man-sized child who gets to do the things kids want to do: run around and around in a revolving door until you puke, eat spaghetti with maple syrup, celebrate Christmas every day. His pure joy when someone mentions Santa ("I know him! I know him!") could power one of those giant snow globe yard displays.
Yes, Alastair Sim is wonderful, but Michael Caine is the best movie Scrooge. Fight me. It cannot be easy to act with a bunch of puppets but Caine and the Muppets, led by Kermit the Frog's peerless Bob Cratchit, do what great actors do: make each other look better.
What this eccentric French charmer gets right is that anytime you gather a large clan for the holiday, there's bound to be lots of extra stuff happening. The great Catherine Deneuve is a matriarch whose home is overfilled with four adult children and their families. Some have secrets (Deneuve's is a biggie), some are at war with each other, some have surprise guests and some would like to enjoy their bûche de Noël in peace. Conflicts aside, Arnaud Desplechin's movie is buoyed by the same thing that makes us anticipate the holidays every year: optimism.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367