Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Howie Balaban: The Couch Critic: What are Christmas Movies?

Regular readers on this site know by now that I’m a fan of movies. I can talk about them with anyone, and I’ll recommend favorites of several genres. Sure, there are a few that I should have seen by now, and there are some I just don’t get or appreciate as much as the majority of people do, but I still love movies.

Moving forward, I’d like to share my thoughts here as a wannabe critic. Keep in mind that I don’t watch a movie for the technical aspects of it. I watch to be entertained mostly. And that’s the biggest thing with this idea: entertainment. I’m simply going to semi-regularly pick an old movie to watch and tell you why I did, and why it’s still entertaining or perhaps if I’m feeling adventurous, why it still has value.

What better way than to start this idea with a bunch of movies that one might find on TV around the holidays?

We’re in the home stretch now, with fewer than a week until the night Jolly Ole St. Nick ambles down our house’s chimneys or magically goes through our apartment’s vents or uses some other form of magic to deliver presents to all the good girls and boys so they wake up the morning of December 25 with wonder in their eyes.

And since it’s that time of year once again, the annual debate has reared its head over what the best Christmas movies are. Some choose Elf, others choose Home Alone. Both are packed with holiday goodness. For all time classics, there are two gold standards – It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (my preference is the Alistair Sim version). There is the comedy one many people gravitate toward (Christmas Vacation) and the one that is unavoidable for 24 hours (A Christmas Story) and believe it or not, there are plenty who find at least one of those meh.

And of course, what Christmas movie list would be complete without Die Hard, the greatest one of all?

But in recent weeks, I’ve noticed a few things in the social media world about other movies that also take place around the holidays. It got me thinking, what are the best movies that fit that description?
Believe it or not, there is a great variety to choose from, whether you want comedy, drama, or action.
A quick google search brought up such movies as L.A. Confidential, Trading Places, Just Friends, Go, The Thin Man, and Lion in Winter.

Of the other ones listed, here are a few of my favorites, and admittedly flimsy arguments in favor of adding them to your holiday watching lineup:

Iron Man 3
There is a scene in this movie’s climax when Tony Stark turns to Rhodey and says, “Merry Christmas!” as an army of iron soldiers flies in to rescue the two of them in a special effects-laden explosive showdown. During the fight scene, there’s a lit-up Christmas tree seen on the ground below.

No, this isn’t enough to make this a Christmas movie.

However, without Robert Downey Jr.’s first Iron Man a decade ago, and the somewhat surprising (in my opinion) success of it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would likely not exist. Without the MCU, there wouldn’t be whole aisles of Avengers toys in stores. And without Avengers toys, what would young comic book fans ask for from Santa Claus? 

Batman Returns
This movie is one I really don’t remember all that much, aside from some memorable scenes involving some of the lead actors. Danny Devito as Penguin was cool, yet gross. Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman was fun to watch. Christopher Walken was his Walken-y self. And to top it off, you had one of the three definitive Batman incarnations of the past 30 years in Michael Keaton. (The other two are Kevin Conroy, who voiced the character for multiple series, and Christian Bale, who played the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. But, without Keaton, chances are neither Conroy nor Bale ever even see the roles written.)

Early in the movie, Walken’s character is giving a speech in front of a big Christmas tree. Most of the best scenes in the movie involve lots of snow on the ground. Almost everyone outside is bundled up because it’s winter and it’s cold.

No, this isn’t enough to make it a Christmas movie.

However, it’s Batman. And since, like most things, Batman can be found on an ugly Christmas sweater if you look hard enough, that means it’s festive enough for this list.

Edward Scissorhands
In looking up these movies, when I came across this title I was admittedly a bit out of touch with it. I haven’t seen this Tim Burton movie in a long time, so I cheated here and looked up a few things to jog my memory.

I was reminded that the film has two beginnings. In one, we meet a grandmother telling a bedtime story to her granddaughter, and the story is about where snow comes from. Her story leads to the second beginning, in which we meet Edward as his creator is about to give him a Christmas present: real hands. Of course, the real hands are not actually given. Otherwise, well, no movie. Right?
The story throughout the movie is not during Christmas, but most of the climactic scenes near the end are, and I suppose one could say that in a way, watching Edward leave at the end of the story, and then flashing back to the grandma at the end watching him create the snow for her has a bit of the best and worst Christmas magic to it.

No, this isn’t enough to make it a Christmas movie.

However, what it does illustrate throughout the entirety of the story is that good will toward man is something that should be practiced all year round. That’s the lesson Scrooge learned at the end of A Christmas Carol, and it’s one we can all take from Edward Scissorhands, even if the lesson is from all the people who met him instead of from Edward himself. 

You’ve Got Mail
Had to look up the Christmas part of this one, too. It’s one I saw in theaters when I was in high school. It was, and still is, a great date movie. Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan at their absolute romantic comedy best, the movie is a bit dated with the technology used. Obviously, if it were made today, their characters would be texting rather than emailing, and there’d be a heavy use of emojis that the other probably wouldn’t understand. 

All that said, when the Hanks character figures out he’s been talking to Ryan’s character, it’s during the Christmas season. By that time, they’d already begun falling for each other’s email persona, and their feelings and moods during the holidays are affected.

As far as happily ever afters go, this movie seemed to hint at one – in the spring – but getting there would not have happened had Hanks not realized, probably during a lonely moment over the holidays, that he needed to eventually see to it that Ryan knew he was really who she was talking to in all those emails.

No, this isn’t enough to make it a Christmas movie.

Yet, it’s worthy of a watch around the holidays because being with the ones you love this time of year – or realizing you want to – is something we should all be so lucky to experience.

First off, let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Gizmo deserves as many memes as Baby Yoda because Gizmo can sing…and he dressed like Rambo in Gremlins 2.


Gremlins is a childhood favorite of mine. And I knew plenty of people who wound up with plush Gizmo dolls as Christmas presents. In the movie – which takes place right around Christmas, by the way – Gizmo himself is a Christmas present for Billy. By accident, Gizmo gets wet and other Mogwais sprout off of him. And they’re not nearly as nice.

Those Mogwai proceed to eat after midnight, which turns them into the movie’s namesake, Gremlins. Some of the creepy looking things actually go caroling!

In the end, Gizmo’s original owner searches him out and takes him back because, quite literally, Billy is not old enough to be responsible for such a thing. Hmm…I suppose I could listen to arguments that Gizmo is a live-action Red Ryder BB Gun and instead of shooting out eyes, being irresponsible led to hijinks and destruction in a small town. 

No, this isn’t enough to make it a Christmas movie.

Actually, though, why can’t it be? Billy’s dad was looking for the perfect gift and he found one in Gizmo. Billy just wasn’t ready. Besides, without the first Gremlins there would be no Gremlins 2 and the incomparable John Glover (who later went on to embody the role of Lionel Luthor in Smallville) chewing scenery as a caricature of every 1980s-early 90s corporate boss ever. We also wouldn’t have a Gizmo workout montage, or Gremlins singing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The original Gremlins is, at its heart, about finding family. Yeah, let’s go with that, and add that to the holiday viewing slate.

Rocky IV
I put this movie here last because it finds itself on so many lists. That said, about a month ago is when it dawned on me that this movie should be watched at Christmas (and as often as possible throughout the year) because there were people posting its premier anniversary date around Thanksgiving on social media. Anyone who has seen this movie knows, though, the Rocky-Drago fight takes place on Christmas Day.

For a little while on this website’s Dads Must Be Crazy Podcast (link here) we actually discussed the merits of whether Rocky IV deserves Christmas movie status. 

There is plenty of Christmasy stuff in this movie.

The awesome training sequence for Rocky is in the cold and snowy mountains of Siberia. There is a Christmas tree at Rocky’s house. The fight is on Christmas Day. And, perhaps the biggest Christmasy part of all: world peace. That’s right. Rocky IV helped put an end to the Cold War between the US and Russia in the 1980s with a speech for the ages. Keep in mind how one of the annual wishes this time of year is for peace on earth, and when this movie arrived on screens it helped to bring that about.

No, this isn’t enough to make it a Christmas movie, per se.

But I think it deserves placement on holiday movie lists anyway. Come on, it brought about world peace! I mean, if I can change my list, and you can change list, everyone can change their lists!
(You just read that last line like Rocky, didn’t you? You’re welcome!)

Howie Balaban wishes everyone a happy holiday season, and his early new year’s resolution is to be more steadfast in his resolve to contribute here more regularly.