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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Listless in December

‘Tis the season for lists. Shopping lists. Card lists. To-do lists. Naughty and nice lists. The stress (or, depending on your point of view, fun) we put ourselves through at this time of year seems to demand that we keep lists everywhere—mainly to impose some organization on growing chaos.

People who write are also busy making (and publishing) lists as well. It is the time of year when many critics are compiling their top-ten lists for the year. And an amazing number of people compile and share lists of their favorite Christmas movies. I am no exception, and I have been intrigued to observe over the years that among my most viewed pages (year-round, not just at Christmas time) is invariably this one from seven years ago in which I enumerated my five (fairly obvious, no-brainer) Christmas classics. Less visited but still popular, presumably mainly with people wielding search engines, is the follow-up list of what I called the kitschy not-quite-classics.

Strangely, years ago I always thought that writing a weekly column would be a cinch around the holidays. I took that cue from columnists like Ann Landers, whom my family avidly read in the local daily newspaper and discussed thoroughly around the dinner table. For those not familiar with Ms. Landers, she was what is called where I live now an agony aunt. Anyway, the week of Christmas, her column would always begin with something like this: “Due to popular demand I am again reprinting my Christmas column of 10/20/30/pick-one years ago. I still get requests to reprint it every year.” Then the rest of the column would be a verbatim reprint of what appeared in that space the previous year, the year before that and the year before that ad infinitum. It was usually some touching or uplifting story or message suited to the holiday season. I always tried to imagine what kind of person sits down and writes a letter to a newspaper columnist asking her to reprint a column that had already run in the paper. Did these people clip the column and then lose it? Or did they pass it around to all their friends and relatives so often that it became too yellowed and wrinkled to read? Or maybe they didn’t clip it at all and just wanted to read it again? Clearly, this was something that begged further study, but to my knowledge no such research has been done. In fairness, this was in the days before photocopiers were as commonplace as now, even in workplaces. And certainly eons before anyone had even imagined personal computers and scanners, let alone the idea of having them in virtually every home. So I suppose, in the context of that age, sitting down to the old manual typewriter and cranking out a letter to someone in some other part of the country may have made sense to get a copy of something.

By the time I got around to trying the weekly commentary thing, however, things had changed. It actually did occur to me early on, hey, maybe I will just write for the week of Christmas, due to popular demand (the rationale being that I am popular with myself, which come to think of it, maybe Ann Landers was too) I am reprinting my profound and provocative list of classic Christmas movies. The problem with this idea, obviously, was that, if anyone actually wanted to read that list again or, for that matter, anything else I had written, it was all just a couple of clicks away on my well-organized web site. The days of reprinting columns seems to be over. I suppose I could still do it and just have a link to the old column, but that would make it awfully short. No, I am stuck trying to come up with something new, even around the holidays.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that this year more people are making these top-ten Christmas movie lists. And there is a mildly disturbing trend in the kinds of appearing on these lists. For example, Donald Clarke of The Irish Times actually compiled several lists (Best Christmas Horror, Best Arthouse Christmas, Most Miserable Christmas and Best Nativities) for his spread in the paper’s entertainment supplement last Friday. He also had a list of best TV Christmas specials (available on DVD) that featured such holy and reverent series as Yes, Minister, Father Ted, The Office and The Simpsons. He even had a list of the worst Christmas movies. Now, you would think with selections such as these, he would have gotten his more morbid impulses out of his system and the actual list of all-around best Christmas movies would be fairly straightforward. And, certainly, it contained such mainstays as It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1951 version of Scrooge and the original Miracle on 34th Street. But it also included such non-traditional entries as The Thin Man and The Lion in Winter, which are fine movies but not really “about” Christmas, even if they do take place at Christmastime. His other edgy entries include Joe Dante’s darkly comic Gremlins and what is apparently on its way to being a hardy holiday perennial, the sweet and sentimental Bad Santa. Gremlins is a bit problematic because of one line that enraged parents. While ostensibly a kind of horror movie, its Spielbergian riff was guaranteed to appeal to smaller kids. And, if Christmas itself was a movie, then Gremlins contains one heck of a spoiler. Bad Santa actually fits the standard Christmas movie mode because it is about a man who has lost his faith but gets it back, although the holiday takes quite a spiritual beating along the way. Similarly, another of Clarke’s choices, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, qualifies as a bona fide Christmas movie for the same reason, but in the unfortunate context (when viewed as a holiday film) of suicide.

The same day as Clarke’s print media list fest, my man Mark Kermode at the BBC was doing the list thing on the airwaves. He compiled his own ten-best list of Christmas movies, for the purpose of having listeners vote on selecting the single best one. His list, similarly, had its warped aspect. Again, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street were present, although not the 1951 Scrooge. Like Clarke, he also included Gremlins and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Unlike Clarke, he did include Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which Clarke included on his list of worst Christmas movies, largely on the weight of the presence of Pia Zadora. Kermode also includes another flick that made my Christmas kitsch list: 1988’s Scrooged. His other choices may, to some, be disturbing, e.g. the 1974 slasher flick Black Christmas. (Kermode has a standard line that the truly best Christmas movie of all time is not actually a real movie but a fictional movie-within-a-movie that appeared in 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas. It was called Santa’s Christmas Slay and had the tagline, “He knows who’s been good and bad, and he’s got an axe.”) He also includes The Nightmare Before Christmas, which certainly qualifies, although it is actually a strange Christmas/Halloween hybrid. A stranger choice is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is a wonderful movie but hard to justify as a Christmas one—inclusion of Fathers Christmas notwithstanding.

I am sure that there are lots more similar lists out there, but I am too overworked (because of having to write columns at Christmas time) to go looking for them. But it is safe to say that best-movies lists, like film reviews, in the end tell us much more about the reviewers (yours truly included) than they do about the movies or, in this case, the holiday.

-S.L., 6 December 2007

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