More Christmas movie favorites: Our final five holiday hits

Christmas Story House.
The "Christmas Story" house in Cleveland, Ohio, as pictured in the film. Via the "Christmas Story House and Museum" website.

WASHINGTON, December 2, 2014 – In our previous article, we explored the first half of our Top Ten picks for the best Christmas films ever. Now for the final five, including one astounding entry from Finland and our Number One pick.

Let’s go.

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947). It’s odd to think back that, during this writer’s very Roman Catholic childhood, most Catholic parental units customarily followed the Catholic Church censor’s instructions for acceptable motion picture viewing. A little like an early version of today’s PG-13 rating system, our very own motion picture police forbade us to watch this ubiquitous Christmas shopping classic on TV in the 1950s, due to what was referred to as its “low moral tone,” something that meant little to us kids at the time.

Later in life, when we matured into young adults rebellious and wicked enough to actually watch this evil, forbidden film, we quickly recognized where the censor discovered this “low moral tone:” the film’s matter-of-fact treatment of divorce and single parenthood, something far more controversial back then than it is today. Likely, no one remembers this in 2014.

READ ALSO: Christmas movie favorites: Ten to enjoy this holiday season.

The best part of this unabashedly Christmas shopping friendly film, along with John Payne’s great, nice-guy turn as our secular hero, is Edmund Gwenn’s incredibly believable turn as Kris Kringle, the old dude who claims he really is Santa Claus as he dons his suit at Macy’s flagship store. By the end of the film, Gwenn makes you wonder if there really is a Santa Claus after all. If so, it’s surely he. Or today, perhaps, his ghost.

Here’s a key clip from the (not very perfectly) colorized edition of this originally black and white film.

4. “A Christmas Carol” (1951). Our Top 10 list thus far has been admittedly U.S.-centric. So let’s take a detour now to mid-19th century London to explore a key British contribution to the celluloid Christmas landscape.

The 1951 British film version of Charles Dickens’ timeless short novel “A Christmas Carol,” starring veteran English thespian Alastair Sim as that old skinflint, Uncle Scrooge, comes closest, we think, to Dickens’ original sentimental tear-jerker. The original book is quite dark, much like one of the Grimm Brothers’ un-Disney-fied fairy tales.

This starkly black and white British film version, for all its obvious sentimentality, captures not only Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas miracle. It also refuses to flinch from the darker side of Victorian London, something the once-impoverished Dickens himself never forgot.

Although there is reputedly a colorized version available (we haven’t seen it), the original, stark, B&W film−distinguished by Sim’s nasty, scowling visage, which persists unbroken nearly until the film’s final scene−that’s the one to watch if you prefer your Victorian squalor reasonably grimy and accurate.

Scrooge’s London here is as relentlessly pinched and unpleasant as that ultimate penny-pincher himself, reflecting Dickens’ brooding, lifetime bitterness toward the indolent upper classes−actually the long-ago analogue to today’s hallowed 1% if you think about it.

Yet Dickens’ seemingly contrived happy ending does have an almost religious element of redemption here, even for the evil rich, as personified by Scrooge. You can still face your sins, ask for forgiveness, and try to put your life on a brighter, more upright and moral path, perhaps finding real salvation before it’s too late. That’s what Scrooge learns from the spirits that torment and educate him: a life-lesson that motivates him to deploy his great wealth to rescue others laid low by tragedy, sorrow, and pain, much as Jesus himself might have urged him to do. It’s a Christian message, really, that drives this otherwise strictly secular story.

Scrooge’s redemption is a timeless lesson that today’s crooked bankers and more crooked politicians should take to heart. And won’t.

But let’s end this discussion on a positive note. We’ll visit Scrooge not in his darkest hour. Instead, let’s drop in on him just moments after he’s discovered the real secret of the Christmas spirit.

3. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). We could go on and on about this wonderful film. But we encourage you to peruse our colleague John Haydon’s entertaining and informative article on the topic.

READ ALSO: Capra Christmas Classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: Why we love it

Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed.
Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are about to get a very wet surprise. Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed dance dangerously close to the concealed swimming pool. (“It’s a Wonderful Life” film still, public domain.)

This film’s all-American optimism in the face of disaster and temptation, its good-heartedness in opposition to instinctive greed, and its surprising grittiness—a balance against too much sentimentality—combine to make “Wonderful Life” a contender in any Top 5 or Top 10 Christmas film list. In a way, it’s almost like an American “Christmas Carol.” Except that the evil banker never learns, which is actually spot-on if you think about it.

Trivia buffs: as depicted in the adjacent and somewhat fuzzy still, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing on top of a swimming pool cover that is soon to be surreptitiously opened by a dastardly young man who’s a rival for Donna’s hand. Who is that nasty guy?

Before we give you the answer, why not take a look at the closing moments of this uplifting film to ponder the meaning of it all. But be sure you view the clip before you peek at the answer to our mini-quiz.

Now the film’s finale:

Our mystery villain/prankster? You mean the last time you viewed this classic film, you didn’t recognize Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, former chief crooner and heartthrob in many “Little Rascals” shorts in the 1930s? Yep, that’s him. Switzer came from a nasty family background and never outgrew it fully. He met an untimely end just a few years after this film was made, shot and killed in a still-murky altercation. Too bad he didn’t have an angel like Clarence in his corner. So it goes. No more Merry Christmases for Alfalfa.

2. “Rare Exports.” (2010) We discovered this Finnish film on Netflix at Christmastime in 2012 as we surfed for random Christmas downloads. We were absolutely blown away by its originality and dark hilarity. It’s completely, utterly different from anything else on our list and resembles no other Christmas-themed film you might ever chance to see, including that nasty, 1984 mad slasher classic, “Silent Night, Deadly Night.”

“Rare Exports” is gloomy and spooky, the antithesis of our favorite American classic Christmas films, reflecting in many ways the peculiarly introspective and somber inscapes characteristic of Finnish films. But this one is amply redeemed as a modern holiday classic. Its self-deprecating humor, sly innuendo, political reference points and outright hilarious satire on Christmas commercialism are likely to make this one unique in the annals of Christmas films for decades to come.

This Aki Kaurismaki-directed film is brightened considerably by the presence of its weird, gawky, highly intelligent young hero, an 8-year-old named Pietari Kontio. He and his widowed dad Rauno live somewhere in Finland’s frigid northern region close to that country’s still dicey border with Russia.

Pietari and a young friend discover a substantial, American-led drilling operation nearby and decide to investigate. It looks like those rapacious Yanks are tunneling into a large hill resembling an ancient, indigenous burial mound.

Not long after this excursion, kids start to disappear from Pietari’s remote town. Strange talismans resembling voodoo dolls are left in their stead.

Making matters worse, the village reindeer herd—the town’s main source of protein during its harsh winters—is also being slaughtered and devoured by… something.

It turns out we’re being let in on a peculiarly Finnish version of the Father Christmas legend. The Santa(s) we encounter here proves the very antithesis of either Old St. Nick or the American Santa Claus. But never fear. Asserting his 2nd Amendment rights, Pietari, his dad and the villagers start packing iron as they confront the truth about Santa−with unexpectedly scary and unexpectedly funny results.

We won’t give the rest away. No spoilers here.

This haunting, scary, beautiful, occasionally gory film offers a strange but wondrous combination of terror and laughter all strung together by a surprisingly compelling mystery plot. A few short scenes might be a little rough for little kids in front of the TV. But in the main, this is an easy, just-short-of-PG13 film the whole family can actually enjoy together and one that boys Pietari’s age and a bit older will seriously get into. No, they will love it.

Check out the trailer below, and download this film immediately from Netflix:

1. “A Christmas Story.” (1983) Although this writer originally hails from Cleveland and attended high school not far from one of the locations where this cult classic was filmed, he only discovered this film about five years ago TV by chance on TV.  It so definitively re-creates the times and the spirit of a Midwestern Christmas back in the day, for which reason it’s  earned our top spot once again on this year’s list.

“A Christmas Story” is based on a number of short and semi-biographical works of fiction by writer Jean Shepherd. Its script and some of its dialogue is primarily derived from Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” Set in 1940s Indiana but with sets that look very 1950s (except for the cars), it’s a surprisingly accurate (and very funny) depiction of the Way We Were back in the day. That’s a big part of its enduring charm.

Famous Leg Lamp.
The best “major prize” ever: “Christmas Story’s” famous leg lamp. Buy one for your own living room, via the Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, where we found this image.

The film’s footage was shot in a variety of locations. The famous Parker family house and select outdoor environs were filmed in the funky, arty, ethnic West Side Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont. This was a working class ‘hood in the ‘40s and ‘50s that’s is now rather trendy in 2014 Cleveland, a Democrat machine casualty that has surprisingly copped the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Although it’s not obvious in the film, many of the houses in this film’s Cleveland-filmed scenes are perched precariously on the cliff-edge of the city’s still quite-industrialized Cuyahoga Valley.

BTW, the “Christmas Story” house itself is now a museum where you can acquire your very own leg lamp. You can add this one to your itinerary the next time you’re in town visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or catching a performance of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra which is far more culturally enlightening.

Some scenes in the film, including those at the school and in the schoolyard, were actually filmed farther north in St. Catherine, Ontario, a province that for years has proved a low-cost mecca for strapped film producers looking to save a buck. The rest of this film’s scenes, including house interiors, were filmed on a soundstage.

As the film opens, we’re introduced to the Parker family, all of whom are completely normal and totally eccentric at the same time. Our young hero, the bespectacled Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) resides with his dad (Darren McGavin in perhaps the finest role of his life), his mom (Melinda Dillon) and his pain-in-the-tush kid brother, Randy.

Ralphie’s fondest Christmas wish is for Santa to bring him a fabulous Red Ryder B.B. gun. Despite the lack of sanctimonious 2nd Amendment opponents in this era, Mom steps up to the plate to take their place instead as the plot thickens and Ralphie’s hopes begin to fade. She’s opposed to the gun for the usual 1940s-1950s mom reason, namely that Ralphie’s likely to find a way to “put out his eye”− something this intrepid reviewer actually came close to doing back in the early 1960s.

Key scenes in this film have become cult classics, including the Old Man’s grouchy behavior, particularly when confronting an ancient, balky furnace; Ralphie’s frequent, exciting, but imaginary adventures, precursors in a way to “Calvin and Hobbs”; double- and triple-dog dares, including that always-disastrous tongue-on-the-frozen-flagpole trick; and, finally, that fantastic, world-famous Leg Lamp (pictured at top) dad receives as a “major” top sales prize.

Some critics dislike the voiceover narration in this film. It’s performed by author Jean Shepherd himself in the guise of the adult Ralphie. But the narration, at least for this writer, never gets tedious, and may even have influenced, to an extent, its use in the late, almost great Fox comedy series “Arrested Development.”

Better, the voice-overs get to the essence of what it felt like in those days to be an imaginative, intelligent young kid with a sense of adventure. That spirit is something that always beckoned from beyond the dreary, industrial valley below or its counterpart in Indiana, promising a world where good guys always triumphed, where bad guys always went down to defeat, and where the American Dream seemed always within reach, particularly if you owned a Red Ryder B.B. gun.

We tried to find a good clip from the film. But all the short YouTube videos are festooned with dull, opportunistic ads and watermarks that obscure the footage. Rather than annoy you with these, here’s a clip of people visiting the “Christmas Story” house in Cleveland. It’s now an enormously popular museum with a gift shop across the street where you can pick up Leg Lamps in all shapes and sizes. As for the film, for years it’s been easy to find on cable and download services as well.

That wraps up our 2014 Top Ten list of Christmas movie classics. Let’s promise ourselves we’ll watch at least one of our own favorite Christmas films while indulging in loads of real or imagined holiday nostalgia on Christmas Day.

Contribute your own selections in our Comments section below. And let’s all wish each other a Merry Christmas. May God bless us, every one.

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