The only things kicking off at the movie house this past weekend were Incarnate and Believe, the former about a scientist inhabiting the mind of a boy possessed by a demon, the latter about faith and a Christmas pageant prevailing in difficult economic times. Granted, I've been an advocate for both horror and Christmas movies, but something tells me neither of these would be exemplary of their respective genre. So, despite my innate masochism — and my editor's sick glee in seeing me suffer (Editor's note: this is pretty accurate) — I skipped them both. Rather than ratcheting up to yet another wailing screed about my continuing disillusionment and distrust of movie studios and distributors, at their demoralizing lack of imagination and faith in artists, at their lowest-common denominator sense of intellectual and creative exploration, I thought I'd focus on something that brings me joy. And, well, I guess I got my screed in there, too.
Every year, to celebrate his birthday, Harry Knowles, the critic and lovable weirdo best known for the Ain't It Cool News website, hosts a 24 hour film festival called Butt-Numb-A-Thon. It's invitation only and requires a lengthy application with written, photographic and video-recorded components. Movies and trailers run continuously over the course of the day and include a breath-taking mixture of classics, esoterica and up-to-the-minute world premieres. Obviously, Knowles is operating on his own level and draws a lot of water. To paraphrase a modern classic, I don't draw shit, but have long harbored a minor dream to curate a Christmas-themed version of BNAT. I take half-hearted attempts at it most years but I can't usually convince anyone else to sit through more than three or four movies. And were I to attempt it solo, my marriage would likely find itself challenged. So in lieu of the real thing and in the spirit of the season, I here present today's version of what such a festival might look like.
As a disclaimer, I will say first that this not a list of the best or most festive Christmas movies ever made. It's a list of my favorites so there may be some notable omissions. I'd be happy to discuss their absence some other time. Also, this is essentially raw data: The order in which these should run is another matter entirely and would entail a process that likely would not read particularly well.
First, a few words on Shane Black: he has most recently become famous again for Iron Man 3 (2013), but was on fire in the late 1980s and early 1990s for his genre-defining action scripts. He is also, apparently, obsessed with Christmas movies. Lethal Weapon (1987), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) are all classics in their own right and all set at Christmas. (So is Iron Man 3 but for me it doesn't make the cut.) Kiss Kiss, especially, represents the height of the action screenwriter's craft, artfully blending action, a complex mystery plot, comedy and a singular sensibility into a deceptive watchable final result. It is also, credit to Black as a director, deliciously detailed and visually self-assured. (It is tempting to include The Nice Guys (2016) here, but the Christmas element is not nearly as prominent as in the others.)
Building on the rich vein of comedy so prominent in Black's work, I would of course include National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989). I re-watch this at least once every year, due in equal parts nostalgia, love of a good comedy and masochism. Masochism because Christmas Vacation represents a kind of movie that very rarely gets made anymore. It is a straightforward comedy but John Hughes' script is as warm and fully formed as it is funny. It balances outlandish characters and pratfalls with an emotional verisimilitude in a way that enriches the comedy and the family drama underlying it. Scrooged (1988) works with a similar combination of themes, but skews a little darker, thanks in large part to Bill Murray's hilarious, dynamic turn as the seemingly coal-hearted Frank Cross. Trading Places (1983) shares a space in the same bygone era but with a coarser, racier feel that sets it even farther apart from today's pabulum. More recent examples that might be able to stand up next to these are limited but might include A Very Sunny Christmas (2009), which was produced for television but plays more like a feature, and of course Bad Santa (2003) which can be a lot to take, depending on one's mood.
As counter-point to the dark comedies, A Christmas Story (1983): timeless, canonical, almost transcendent of nostalgia, a pioneer in the blending of comedy and Christmas. To reach back even further, there is a sense memory I can't shake of Babes in Toyland (1961) that awakens a hopeful, child-like Christmas morning feeling of which I thought myself no long capable. And, even though it was produced long after time and experience had begun eroding my optimism, Elf (2003) still managed to tap into that old festive spirit.
And of course, Die Hard (1988), which anybody in the know will hold up as the greatest Christmas movie of all time. Is it a straight-ahead, kick-ass action movie? Of course it is. But I defy you to present a movie more bedecked in Christmas trappings.
More recently, both Krampus (2015) and The Night Before (2015) made pretty strong cases for inclusion on this list. I'll have to give it a few years to see if they can really hold their own.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
CHRISTINE. Based on the grim on-air death of a Florida TV news reporter (Rebecca Hall) with thwarted ambitions and a crumbling personal life. You know, a fun journalism movie. R. 119m. MINIPLEX.
HANDMAIDEN. A young woman on the grift in Japanese-occupied Korea poses as a servant and gets involved with the woman she's supposed to con. Starring Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim. NR. 144m. MINIPLEX.
HARRY AND SNOWMAN. Documentary about a man who rescues a busted farm horse and turns it into a champion show jumper. NR. 84m. MINOR.
MISS SLOANE. Jessica Chastain stars as a lobbyist who takes her formidable skills, cutthroat tactics and alien poise to the gun control fight. R. 132m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MISS SHARON JONES! Documentary about the late soul singer's struggle with pancreatic cancer and hard-won musical career. NR 93m. MINOR.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Director Tom Ford's thriller stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal as a long-divorced couple delving into their shared past in both memory and a manuscript. R 116m.
OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY. Officemates throw a booze-fueled monster party full of HR violations to woo a client and save their branch from closing. Starring Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston and Kate McKinnon. R. 105m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PORCO ROSSO (1992). Hayao Miyazaki's animated adventure about a World War I pilot trapped in the form of a pig. PG. 94m. MINOR.
ALLIED. Robert Zemeckis' engaging World War II movie has throwback style ans post-Hays Code swearing, sex and killing. As married spies, Brad Pitt and Marianne Cotillard are charismatic and vulnerable. R. 124m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
ARRIVAL. Denis Villeneuve's movie about scholars and soldiers trying to determine the threat level of visiting aliens is exquisitely crafted and acted, and suffused with sadness, hope and joy. Starring Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. PG13. 116m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BAD SANTA 2. Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox return for the sequel/one last big score. Like the heist, the movie runs into problems, winding up with more rough humor and less of the anti-heroic fun and surprise of the original. R. 92m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
BELIEVE. Struggling business owner, kid who believes in miracles, Christmas pageant. Spoiler: We smell a happy ending. PG. 113m. BROADWAY.
DOCTOR STRANGE. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton star in a Marvel movie bogged down by pseudo-philosophy and lifted up by strange and wonderful special effects wizardry. PG13. 120m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN. Hailee Steinfeld stars as an awkward young girl who's even more lost when her brother starts dating her best friend. With Woody Harrelson. R. 104m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. Director David Yates and company create a vast, fascinating, Potter-esque atmosphere but the action is antic, rambling and insubstantial. Starring Eddie Redmayne. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
HACKSAW RIDGE. Mel Gibson's movie about conscientious objector, medic and Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is an impressive feat, but drowns the hero's complexities in the din and gore of battle. R. 131m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
INCARNATE. When exorcists fail to help a possessed boy, a scientist (Aaron Eckhart, what is going on?) mind melds with him to battle the devil inside. PG13. 91m. BROADWAY.
THE LOVE WITCH. Arcata-filmed retro comedy-horror with a witch looking for love in all the wrong potions. PG13. 120m. MINOR.
MOANA. A young navigator (actual Hawaiian Auli'I Cravalho) enlists the reluctant aid of a demigod (actual demigod Dwayne Johnson) on a sea voyage to save her home from destruction in this Disney animated feature. PG. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MOONLIGHT. Attention to the little things and small, powerful moments make for a much wider and more hopeful picture of the world in this three-part coming-of-age-and-beyond story. Starring Mahershala Ali. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY, MINOR.
RULES DON'T APPLY. Lily Collins and Frank Forbes play young people on Howard Hughes' (Warren Beatty) studio payroll and forced to cope with his psychological state. Compelling and honest performances and sunny period Hollywood scenery struggle against a dragging script. PG13. 126m. BROADWAY.
TROLLS. The fluffy-haired toys of yesteryear return in retail-friendly colors and CG animation, singing and saving their village from troll-eating baddies. With Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake. R. 83m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill