Christmastime is here again and Movies In Focus is presenting you with a list of Christmas movies to watch over the festive season. Some are naughty and some are nice, but they’re definitely an intriguing selection of movies to light-up your Christmas tree during the holiday season.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION
The best and most successful of the National Lampoon Vacation movies, Christmas Vacation once again sees Chevy Chase in his trademark role of Clark Griswald. This time around Clark wants to have a good, old-fashioned family Christmas – much to the chagrin of his long suffering wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo). Festive fuelled mayhem ensues – and that’s not even factoring-in Randy Quaid‘s Cousin Eddie.
Written and produced by the great John Hughes, this Jeremiah S. Chechik directed comedy is an honest portrayal of a family Christmas, showing that your heart might be in the right place, but that means nothing in the grand scheme of things!
Richard Donner’s Scrooged is a flawless interpretation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. The great Bill Murray has never been better as the Christmas-hating TV executive, Frank Cross. However, everyone in the cast of Scrooged impresses – Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard all do sterling work.
Richard Donner is a director who knows how to master different genres and get gets the tone just right, ensuring the film has the right amount of humour, heart and snark to keep it entertaining.
From the dark humour, to the excellent production design and wonderful Danny Elfman score, Scrooged is a perfect as a Christmas movie can get.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Part comedy, drama and fantasy film, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life delivers on all levels, and its two hour running time manages to cram in a few important decades of US history. Originally overlooked on its original release, the film only became popular due to a clerical error that led to the film falling into the public domain – meaning that television stations could show it free of charge. It was this heavy rotation that brought the film back to the public conscience and rightfully lifted the film from obscurity to masterpiece status.
Based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern It’s A Wonderful Life is a true cinematic masterpiece that would melt the coldest of hearts. I know that statement is a tired cliché – but it is very true. The heart of the film is James Stewart’s magnificent performance, his first in many years due to his WWII military service. Stewart shows excellent range in his “everyman” persona that that has made him a legend. He is easily able to show George grow from a young man in his early twenties to a middle aged business man without the use of prosthetics or fancy cinematic gimmicks.
Joe Dante’s comedy-horror Gremlins is as festive as it is freaky. The film is a Spielbergian/Capra-gone-to-hell (Crapra?) tale about a horde of mischievous creatures destroying small town USA during the Holiday Season. The great cast which includes Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Corey Feldman, Judge Reinhold and Dick Miller all embrace the looney tunes tone of Joe Dante‘s film.
Gremlins features some wonderful practical special effects and a glorious score from the brilliant Jerry Goldsmith. They all combine to sell the manic fun of this 1984 flick which was written by Chris Columbus.
Gremlins was massive hit when it was released in 1984, grossing $153 million at the US box office.
THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT
Davis plays a mother who discovers that she’s actually a finely honed killer with memory loss. Who knew that amnesia, hitmen (and women) and Christmas were so well suited?
Black scored a record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight – which was Renny Harlin and Geena Davis’s follow-up to the pirate flop, Cutthroat Island. The 1996 festive thriller might have disappointed at the box office, grossing $33 million at the US box office and $89 million globally from a $65 million budget, but it’s brilliant fun and exceptionally well executed.
Geena Davis was one of the first female action heroes and she’s great in this explosive thriller – seek it out.
KISS KISS BANG BANG
2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang saw Shane Black directing Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr in this wonderful action comedy. Kilmer was post-Batman, Downey was pre-Iron Man and they share great chemistry in this witty Christmas Noir.
At the time of its release Downey Jr was climbing his way back up the career ladder – he still had The Shaggy Dog to come. Then Iron Man hit and he went on to become one the biggest stars in recent times. He re-teamed with Black on Iron Man 3 (the best in the franchise).
Val Kilmer recently overcame cancer and he has a new autobiography out titled, I’m Your Huckleberry and he has a supporting role in next year’s Top Gun: Maverick.
The $15 million film grossed just $4 million at the US box office (and an additional $11 million elsewhere), hardly a hit to write home about, although that does have something to do with Warner Bros. releasing it on only 226 screens.
REINDEER GAMES / DECEPTION
Ben Affleck, Gary Senise and Charlize Theron star in Reindeer Games, a festive thriller about a bunch crooks dressed as Santa Claus robbing a casino at Christmas.
John Frankenheimer directed the film which bombed back in 2000, grossing $23 million the US box office and just $32 million globally from a $42 million budget. It was released with the bland and generic title Deception when it went straight to DVD in the UK.
Frankenheimer’s film makes the most of its desolate and snowy landscape and there are a few fun lines scattered amongst the gritty action. Criminally under-rated and unfortunately little seen, Reindeer Games needs to be added to your Christmas watch list.
Tim Burton’s 1992 caped crusader sequel is probably the best Batman flick ever made. A German expressionist film with an $80 million budget, this dark tale of the Dark Knight is helped by its gloriously grim festive setting. Brilliant.
Burton ditched the outdoor sets at Pinewood Studios, setting up camp on soundstages in Burbank, a move which helps to give Batman Returns a claustrophobic quality, a sense of oppression. The steely palette and angular sets along with the wintery setting give the film a unique look and style. Sure, Burton’s ’89 film may be set in a netherworld between the ‘30s and ‘80s, but the Gotham City of Batman Returns appears to be set in a parallel universe.
END OF DAYS
End Of Days sees Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting Satan (Gabriel Byrne) during the 1999 festive season. Okay, so I know it’s The Omen meets Terminator 2, but I loved this on-the-cusp of the millennium and I still love it more than 20 years on.
The end of the last millennium saw a huge amount of nihilistic horror and science fiction films hit movie screens. A really good one of these was Peter Hyams’s Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner 1999 End of Days.
The film was Schwarzenegger’s comeback film after the debacle of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin and heart surgery (the two weren’t related). It’s not Schwarzenegger at his best, but Peter Hyams’ dark visuals, John Denby’s score and an interesting supporting role of Gabriel Byrne as Satan makes this an interesting curiosity. The film relied heavily on the fear of the new millennium and it pretty much reflects what the world was like at that point in time.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR
Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack. Christmas. Three Days Of The Condor is 1970s cinema at its best. Redford is at his movie star best and the festive setting helps add some wintry chills.
Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a lowly CIA analyst (codename: Condor) forced to go on the run when he accidentally stumbles across a political conspiracy. Turner works for the ‘American Literary Historical Society’, a deep cover section CIA agency that looks for hidden codes within printed literature. He’s a bookworm on the lowest link of the spy chain and he’s totally out of his depth when he must outwit the assassins who are out to kill him.
Pollack keeps the tension tight and makes the best of Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Rayfiel’s script. The wintry New York streets are the perfect setting for this tale and the grit and cold is brought to life by Oen Roizman’s superb cinematography. Dave Grusin’s score might be a touch dated, but it’s the perfect accompaniment to this very ‘70s thriller.
ENEMY OF THE STATE
Enemy Of The State sees the mighty Tony Scott direct Will Smith/Gene Hackman in this great paranoia thriller. Scott shoots with visual fervour, giving this festive actioner some incredible energy.
This techno thriller mirrored a world in flux, one where digital technology was beginning to take over. However, the themes in Enemy Of The State are as important today as they were in 1998 – more so, even. The film was a semi-riff/continuation of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which also starred Hackman (as ‘The Best Bugger in the Business)’, and that’s one of the things that makes it so good. It’s a 70s-style paranoia thriller updated to the digital age.
It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you!
DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER
If 1988’s Die Hard is a Christmas movie then Renny Harlin‘s 1990 follow-up is even more-so than John McTiernan’s original. Harlin’s film has snow and everything! Die Hard 2 isn’t Harlin’s only Christmas cracker, he also directed 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Bruce Willis‘ John McClane once again fights terrorists on Christmas Eve – something which makes him the equivalent of an ass-kicking elf. This time the action takes place in Washington’s Dulles International Airport as McClane’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) circles the airport from above. If Die Hard was like The Towering Inferno, then Die Hard 2 is the equivalent to Airport.
Renny Harlin’s film might lack the claustrophobic feel of Die Hard but this sequel is almost as good as the original!
Is Die Hard a Christmas film? You bet your ass it is. Bruce Willis has never been better and Alan Rickman is outstanding in John McTiernan’s flawless 1988 actioner. Great script and flawless direction make this the greatest action film ever made.
The set-up is simple: Bruce Willis’ New York Cop, John McClane arrives in Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). However, the Nakatomi Tower Christmas party is crashed by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his group of terrorists, intent on stealing millions of dollars worth of bonds from the company vault. Ho. Ho. Ho.
Writing-directing brothers Ian and Eshom Nelms have delivered something special with Fatman. The film’s central coup of casting a bushy-bearded Mel Gibson as an ass-kicking Father Christmas is a masterstroke and the Lethal Weapon star delivers in a big, big way. However, there’s a lot more to the film than that premise and it turns out that Fatman is the present you didn’t know you needed this Christmas.
Fatman is much more than a gimmick which sees a berated Mel Gibson playing a gun-totting Santa Claus. Sure, that’s an element of this festive thriller but there’s so much more to unpack in this hugely entertaining Christmas cracker.
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE
As a Christmas-zombie-musical-teen-comedy, 2018’s multi-genre straddling Anna And The Apocalypse could have gone either way (with the odds on totally disastrous). However, director John McPhail has managed to overcome these odds to deliver a charming film which impresses on all levels. You’d think that one of the movie’s many balls would be dropped, but McPhail juggles them all to deliver a film which will surely become a festive favourite for genre fans.
Anna And The Apocalypse is a refreshing entry in the increasingly crowded zombie genre but it’s a little gem of a film that keeps surprising as it moves along. The acting is great, the songs are fun so you’d be one the walking dead if you didn’t come out of it wanting to see it again.