Top Ten: The best (and worst) holiday movies and videos

CDN navigates you through the pantheon of holiday movies, avoiding the land mines and finishing with a Top Ten bag of picks full of favorite flicks. And a few dogs.

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Edmund Gwenn speaks with a skeptical Natalie Wood in this colorized still taken from a trailer for the original, classic 20th Century Fox film.

SAN DIEGO, December 22, 2016 —Looking forward to curling up around the TV with loved ones to enjoy any one of the countless holiday classics? Having trouble deciding what to watch first? Well be of good cheer and keep the faith. Your ol’ pal Bob has come through. I’ll navigate you through that holiday section of the video store, avoiding the land mines and finishing with a bag of picks full of favorite flicks.

Before we get to the reviews themselves, I realize that the suspense here is just about killing you, so let’s cut right to the bone. First, my Top Ten List. Then, my explanations. Some of these will not surprise you at all. Others on the list are debatable indeed. Many will take issue with me. Just remember to be kind. It is the holiday season after all.

Bob’s Highly Recommended Top 10 Holiday Videos

1) It’s A Wonderful Life


2) Miracle on 34th Street

3) Scrooge (Musical Version)

4) A Charlie Brown Christmas

5) How The Grinch Stole Christmas

6) A Christmas Story

7) The Santa Clause

8) The Santa Clause 2

9) Jingle All the Way

10) Home Alone

Obvious Question One: Why did I not pick the favorite classic of many, White Christmas?

Although I can objectively admit that this was a well-made, spectacular production with a talented cast, personally I just didn’t like it very much. How’s that for blatant honesty? A good musical to be sure, White Christmas simply doesn’t do anything for me over the holidays. Besides, the song, White Christmas is one of my least favorite Christmas carols. Not that it’s a bad song. The melody is actually quite nice and Bing Crosby sang this Irving Berlin composition as well as anyone possibly could. Still, the tune is overdone and plays on the radio far too frequently, often with jazzed up versions that mess with the tempo and change the melody line, massacring  the piece altogether. This makes my Christmas a little less merry. True, deadpan versions of the song are not the fault of the movie itself. But what can I say? A bad taste has been left in my mouth. Sometimes a film can be good but not our own cup of tea. If you love White Christmas, please realize that no harm is really being done here. After all, White Christmas is on everyone else’s movie list. But for me to place a film on my own sacred scroll, I must be able to actually enjoy the thing whether it was good or not.

Obvious Question Two: Do you have any favorites that did not make your top ten list?

Yes, Disney’s Babes in Toyland. It was delightful, brilliant, horrible and stupid, all at the same time. This means it’s good enough for me to personally enjoy but terrible enough to quarantine it from my Top Ten List. I’ll explain the good and the bad with Babes in Toyland when I get into the movie reviews themselves.

Obvious Question Three: Do you have a list of the worst Christmas movies?

Oh yes!  Thank you for asking! Can you sense that I am salivating right now? However (and this is really important) although many awful holiday movies have been released, the few I personally hate are so bad, they deserve to be highlighted in isolation. Therefore, this will not be much of a list.

The absolute worst Christmas movie ever made was The Grinch. I refer to Ron Howard’s remake of the Dr. Seuss animated classic. You will notice that the original version made my Top Ten List. This means I feel as much admiration for the television classic as I feel contempt for the remake.

The other worst (and many will disagree with me) is Elf.

  1. I let the cat out of the bag. Now you know the favorites and the least favorites of your ol’ pal Bob (as if this has been keeping you up at nights).

P.S. As I type right now on my laptop, the coffee shop is playing Christmas music. I am listening to Barbara Streisand’s version of Jingle Bells and it is reminding me of something painful: Although I do not have a Top Ten List of Worst Christmas Songs, this one would be absolutely, positively on the very highest pinnacle. Indeed, it could not possibly be higher. I actually like Babs as a singer and I even own a few of her CDs. But her version of Jingle Bells? Oh… Let’s see…. How about if I just mercifully drop the subject?

The reasons behind my Top Ten List:

NOTE: The more familiar the movie, the less I felt I needed to spend time explaining myself.

1-2 It’s A Wonderful Life/Miracle on 34th Street

I gave the number one spot to Wonderful Life but it’s really closer to a photo finish with Miracle on 34th Street—the original 1947 version, by the way andnot the 1994 remake. Both movies deserve the status of “classic.” They are not only the best Christmas movies of all time. They are among the best movies of all time, period. I’m not sure any comments are necessary for films that so obviously exist in the stratosphere, but I will make one observation about fantasy in general. When dealing with far-fetched stories such as Santa Claus or angels sending people into alternate time realities, the writing and acting becomes even more crucial. If we don’t accept the people, we do not believe in their fantastic tale either. Both these movies were cleverly written and expertly performed by actors who breathed real life into the characters.

3) Scrooge (Musical Version)

Excellent acting and well written dialogue, true to the style of the original Dickens classic and filled out with pleasant musical numbers which enhance, rather than take away from the story. The style of music and street choreography may remind you of the film musical, Oliver. Added dialogue includes a more detailed look at the many paupers who owe Scrooge money and the very clever twist of Scrooge finding himself in hell, (courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Future, of course).

SIDE NOTE: I do not let a Christmas go by anymore without watching this movie. Although most professional reviews praised the acting and gave obligatory kudos to the Dickens story itself, I was disappointed to see many critics unhappy with the songs (composed by Leslie Bricusse, who also did Willy Wonka) Some labeled the music as “bad to mediocre” and I couldn’t disagree more. If you have read such reviews, do yourself a favor and ignore them. Oh certainly, in any musical there will be one or two pieces that you could have done without, but most of the score is excellent. From the extremely clever and fun number, “Thank You Very Much” to the sweet melodic “Happiness,” Scrooge, the Musical should take its place with the greats and perhaps will someday. Remember, there was a time when It’s A Wonderful Life was considered a flop too.

4) A Charlie Brown Christmas

Come on! It’s Charlie Brown! Need we say more?

5) How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Please do not confuse this annual, animated television gem with that Milk Dud Jim Carrey gave us under the direction of Ron Howard. Dr. Seuss was a genius. As for Dr. Howard? Well, he’s normally a decent director, but if any genius lurks inside this film, it hibernated as he marched the Grinch into the parade of remakes. Never mind. My critique of Ron Howard’s version comes up later. For now, try to pretend that movie was never produced and instead make sure you never let a Christmas pass without seeing the real story. This version is as fun as it is charming.

6) A Christmas Story

Not as heartwarming as some of the others, but for over three decades now, people have absolutely loved it. Set in the forties, the story nevertheless looks and feels quite familiar to anyone who remembers what it was like to grow up with a typical mom, a temperamental dad and a generic school bully. By the way, am I alone in this, or is Ralphie just about the funniest looking kid ever to show his little mug on the screen? He’s perfect for the part. The adult narrations blended with Ralphie’s dopey expressions were undoubtedly an inspiration for television’s The Wonder Years.

7) The Santa Clause

A unique idea and fresh take on the Santa Claus legend. This time, we learn that Santa Claus is actually the title of an office to be filled. When one Santa dies, another takes his place. The movie would not have worked without the subtle but piercing wit of Tim Allen. His timing and facial mannerisms are priceless.

8) The Santa Clause 2

Normally I hate sequels with a passion. This movie was an exception and for a very important reason; There really was a new story to tell! The producers (for a change) chose not to retread Movie One. As a matter of fact, although its predecessor was a good movie, The Santa Clause 2 is a GREAT MOVIE! I ranked it after One only because the originality of the premise owes everything to the first chapter.

Elizabeth Mitchell (known today for her intriguing role on Lost) was very convincing as a stuffy, but three-dimensional High School principal who falls in love with Tim Allen. Who would have thought that in the midst of talking animals, plastic giant toy villains and flying sleighs, a movie could be so convincingly romantic? Another verification to what I said above; If we believe the actors, we believe the entire film.

Oh yes. While we are on the subject, I guess I should say something about The Santa Claus 3. It was as bad as Two was good, everything one fears in a cookie cutter sequel and much much more. How’s this for an original premise? Santa works too hard and doesn’t spend enough time with his wife! Wow! Where oh where have we ever witnessed a fresh angle like that?

The North Pole is also visited by his in-laws and (hold onto your seats) they don’t get along! (Oh, my sides!)  This pathetic send-up includes a lame attempt to mix the It’s A Wonderful Life theme with Chris Kringle. Supposing Scott Calvin had never become Santa Claus? Just how depressing would life be up in the North Pole? The blend worked about as well as juicy, sirloin steak with peanut butter. The only bright spot is Martin Short, hilarious as the evil Jack Frost who wants to replace Santa Claus. I won’t ’t say Short saved the movie. Not even Jesus could save this movie. But Short does get a good deal of screen time, so this may be worth watching… ONCE. Still, all in all, it stinks like one of those animals on the ice planet of Hoth. You know, the one Han Solo thought smelled bad on the outside until he opened it up with a Light Saber.

9) Jingle All the Way

I can’t call Schwarzenegger a bad actor any more. After all, he fooled us into thinking he was a Republican when he ran for Governor, an Academy Award caliber performance if there ever was one.

Anyway, this movie is so nutty and so zany, and so outrageous and so impossible, and so unbelievable, IT ACTUALLY WORKS, bad acting and all! Just seeing one hundred crooked Santas (led by Jim Belushi) dog pile on top of Arnold makes the whole outing worth it. It’s also fun to watch the Governater being laughed at by two smug store clerks who treat him like an imbecile, simply because he didn’t know it was too late to buy a Turbo Man for his son.

“Where have you been? Turbo Man is only the hottest action toy ever! Duh!”

At this point, Schwarzenegger grabs them both by the collar, lifts them into the air and says, “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”

This film is full of repeat watchability, and I laugh out loud every single time I view it!

10) Home Alone

I do love this movie, even though it was very overrated when it came out. Would you be amazed to learn this was once the highest grossing film of all time? The film’s premise is also far fetched and difficult to swallow, but Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern brighten things up as bumbling villains. Normally I do not care for slapstick but it works well here. Also, (at the expense of sounding like a sentimental mush pot), I cannot watch the old man reconcile with his family without getting teary eyed. I know, I know. I sound like Costanza!

John Williams wrote a beautiful score for this movie, which helps us forget the obvious elephant in the room: Macaulay Culkin cannot act! No matter. Everyone else in the movie is quite good. Even Culkin is effective in one scene, walking through his lonely neighborhood, looking earnestly through decorated windows, watching families gather for Christmas Eve and feeling left out, as we listen to the modern but worthy Williams carol, Somewhere In My Memory.

It’s ironic that this review follows Jingle All the Way. By comparison with Kulkin, Schwarzenegger comes across like Laurence Olivier. But Home Alone is still worth watching every year!

Separate Comments About BABES IN TOYLAND

Although quite corny in places, I cannot forget the thrill I had seeing this movie in the theater as a child. Considering the time in which it was filmed, Babes In Toyland had wonderful special effects and plenty of Disney magic. If you can stay with it up to the time the children actually enter Toyland (about half way through) you will find that the wait was worth it.

“The March of the Toy Soldiers” number and final battle sequence are absolutely spectacular. I am disappointed that this movie didn’t become more popular when it was released. But with an all star cast, including, Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) as an enjoyable villain, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello of the early Disney family, the hilarious Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins) as the toy maker himself, and timeless Christmas music from Victor Herbert’s original operetta, Babes and Toyland should be an annual tradition.

Why then, did it not make my Top Ten list? Because my original review of this movie is one of the most mixed I have ever written. The bad parts in this one are so terrible and the good parts are so wonderful, one not only feels frustrated, but must also wonder what went on behind the scenes of that production. Either a lemon script was partially saved or a brilliant script was pushed off the wall, and, like Humpty Dumpty, (who ironically would have blended in well with the background of this movie), no one could put it together again.

There is little to redeem the first half of the film. In places, the songs and dialogue get so stupid and so childish, you would be embarrassed to have your friends or family walk into the room and catch you watching this albatross. Yes, the movie was made for children so we need to cut a little slack, but not much.

Although we can accept the fact that Mother Goose Village is a setting for youngsters, Disney’s hallmark genius and well deserved reputation are generally demonstrated in his ability to entertain kids and adults alike. Not so this time. Early in the film, the talented actors are wasted with stilted dialogue that often rhymes: an interesting experiment that simply did not work. In the second half of the movie, without warning, the characters are suddenly not rhyming any more (Go figure.) Once the kindergarten poetry stops, the conversations are crisp, witty and at least a bit more realistic.

True, Part One did feature some fabulous dance numbers. But honestly, you would do better to read the Cliff Notes and then fast forward to the second half. The movie, after all, is called Babes in Toyland and (trust me on this) the part about Toyland is better than the part filmed for babes.

I still love the movie, mostly for nostalgic reasons. But if I placed it in my Top Ten List and you watched the first half, my reputation would be on the line. I do not love Babes in Toyland enough to put it high on a list and I love it too much to put it on the bottom. So instead, I offer this review alone, apart from any list at all.

LOUSY MOVIES

There are too many bad Christmas videos to count them all. Undoubtedly people will argue over the worst more than the best. I did not want to spend a lot of time talking about the clunkers. Instead, I will list the two I despise the most.

1) (Absolute Worst!) THE GRINCH (film version)

This was only the promotional title. For its release in America, the official billing became: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

If I wanted, I could review the title alone: This is NOT Dr. Seuss’ version. In fact, it could not possibly be more the opposite of Dr. Seuss’ version. It is Ron Howard’s version. It was not the same story and it did not have the same message! These are not insignificant points.

Once again, I love the original Dr. Seuss book and the annual half hour animated CBS special that Seuss (Theodore Geisel) also worked on. He was no longer alive when the bomb squad accidentally missed this WMD. Perhaps God in his mercy took Geisel home first.

Why do people feel they need to tamper with classics? Is it to put their own names on pieces of art that were already signed by others? Is it for money? They usually deny either of those reasons. “Oh, I’m doing this as a tribute,” they claim. In the case of director, Ron Howard, I am not sure if he would call this a tribute. Hopefully not. It would only make the project more of a travesty.

To be fair, there were a few good things about the movie. Visually, it was stunning and fun to watch from the standpoint of eye candy alone. And I suppose if we had to have a real live actor portraying the Grinch, Jim Carey did about as good a job as anyone could.

This version also had a beautiful song. And…That’s it. I can compliment nothing else. Getting more out of me would be like trying to suck blood out of a turnip. If only they’d released the song alone… But alas, we are dealing with Hollywood, where producers ask themselves only two related questions: “Is this marketable?” And, “Will this sell?” Seldom (if ever) do they wrestle with enough artistic integrity to raise their hands from across the big boardroom table and spit out the words, “Say, J.B., should we really do this? Is it really necessary?”

How do you take a thirty-minute television special (even less, minus the commercials) and make a two-hour movie out of it? Obviously, you have to pad the story. In this case, so much stuffing was jammed inside, we can barely taste the original turkey, although turkey is certainly an appropriate description for a film that should have borrowed Tim Burton’s title, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Learn about sensitivity and Political Correctness as flashbacks show us a boy Grinch who grew up in a dysfunctional environment and was picked on by all the other little kids at Whoville Elementary School. Learn about the girl he fell on love with who wanted nothing to do with him. See? The problem wasn’t in his own nature. Although the film does start with the familiar narration, “His heart was two sizes too small,” it then goes on to prove that his heart actually had nothing to do with the problem. It was the surroundings, Silly. Didn’t you know?

But I saved the best for last. Check out this new ingredient, something you’ve never seen in a Christmas story before! The people of Whoville are only into the commercialism of Christmas! They have forgotten what Christmas is really all about! Oh, Howard, you have certainly topped yourself this time. Rarely has such creativity enveloped the wonderful world of winter cinema. Just imagine, a message about the commercialism of Christmas! I was so amazed, startled and downright shocked, I almost spilled my box of Hot Tamales! Only one person in Howard’s Whoville protested commercialism: Cindy Lou Who. You remember her: “Little Cindy Lou Who, who was two.” Only this time she is not two. She’s old enough to give speeches about greed and other capitalistic invasions of the holidays.

Am I crazy? Wasn’t Dr. Seuss’ ENTIRE MESSAGE that the people of  Whoville WERE NOT into commercialism? Doesn’t the Grinch learn this when he steals all their gifts, decorations and food, only to find them singing and celebrating anyway?

If asked why he felt compelled to change everything around, perhaps Howard would say, “We needed more of a story. After all, the original was under thirty minutes and we were making it into a two-hour feature.”

And therein lies the very source of his problem. The mistake was assuming this needed to be made in the first place.

I will close with the irony of ironies: For the sake of money alone, Hollywood turned a beautiful Christmas tradition into a lecture against commercialism. Good one, guys!

2) ELF

I realize I may lose a lot of friends over this “beloved classic.” Admittedly, I am biased here. I simply cannot stand Will Farrell as an actor or a comedian. I’m sure in real life he’s a nice guy. But on the screen, seeing him in a preview is like watching a flashing, yellow warning light, or the words, “Caution! Regardless of how novel the original idea may have once been, Will Farrell eventually joined up with this project.”

Look, I know a lot of you think the movie was cute and I’m not trying to be unsentimental here. I don’t mind stories about elves. I loved Lord of the Rings. If that trilogy didn’t feature elves, nothing did. And you already saw two installments of The Santa Clause on my Top Ten List. Both films were literally loaded with elves from start to finish. No problem here with elves. I want to make that abundantly clear. I am hoping to avoid a lawsuit, just in case there is some Elf Anti-Defamation League out there somewhere looking for microaggressions.

I guess this is one of those opposite reviews, the kind you might find in the Bizarro Universe: Just as The Santa Clause would have flopped if not for Tim Allen, Elf might have succeeded if not for Will Farrell.

Now I should say… There was one bright spot in the film: Bob Newhart, as Will Farrell’s elf dad. For five minutes I thoroughly enjoyed myself, thinking I had discovered a new Christmas treat. Unfortunately for my soon-to-be-dashed holiday hopes, after those five minutes, the movie continued.

“What was wrong with it?” you ask. If you saw the movie and if you are a Will Farrell fan, nothing I say will matter and there is little point in me wasting my time to convince you. And so, just ignore this critique and enjoy the movie. I can be happy for you, if you can appreciate the freedom of a country that does not allow torture.  As for me, I should never again in my life have to be in the same room with this video.

On the other hand, if you did not see the film and you want to know what was wrong with it, perhaps some brevity would be most effective here: IT STINKS!!!!

I guess that was a bit too brief. Sure… OK… I’ll provide a little more detail: IT REALLY STINKS!!! You want more? IT SUCKS RAW EGGS WITH TWO STRAWS!!!

But hey, that’s just my opinion. You should go rent it, and… Merry Christmas!

 

Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and a columnist. Details of his show can be found at  www.bobsiegel.net

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Bob Siegel
A graduate of Denver Seminary and San Jose State University, Bob Siegel is a radio talk show host and popular guest speaker at churches and college campuses across the country, using a variety of media including, seminars, formal debates, outdoor open forums, and one man drama presentations. In addition to his own weekly radio show (KCBQ 1170, San Diego) Bob has been a guest on many other programs, including The 700 Club, Washington Times Radio's Inside the Story, The Rick Amato Show, KUSI Television's Good Morning San Diego, and the world popular Jonathan Parkradio drama series, for which Bob guest starred in two episodes and wrote one episode, The Clue From Ninevah. In addition to CDN, Bob is a regular contributor for San Diego Rostra. Bob does a good deal of playwriting as well (14 plays & 5 collaborations), including the award winning, Eternal Reach. Bob has also published books of both fiction and non-fiction including; I'd Like to Believe In Jesus, But...and a fantasy novel, The Dangerous Christmas Ornament.