Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Nerfherder's Guide: Finding the Right Holiday Movie/TV Special for You!

By Andrew Braid

Happy holidays, everyone! And speaking of holidays, what better way to celebrate them than by watching some great holiday movies and TV specials? (Because pfft, it's not like the season's about family or anything)
But maybe you're having trouble deciding what to watch this year, or you want to try something new, or you don't even know what you're looking for. And there's my cue to offer assistance to those in need! So sit back and read on as we look through what you might want to be watching this holiday season!
So let's see...

If you want a good old classic animated special: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Probably my personal favorite out of all the old 60s animated Christmas specials (I was a huge Peanuts fan as a kid), it's a bona-fide classic, namely because it takes real risks. The special openly questions and critiques the commercialization of the holiday (entirely through the perspectives of children, no less). The voice actors were all real kids (all pretty much completely inexperienced with acting), lending the dialogue and singing a raw, honest and believable quality that allows the special to connect with viewers in a manner that's never really been replicated since. And of course, there's the famous (or infamous, take your pick) Linus speech, regarding "what Christmas is all about". I mean, what other special would have the balls to include a scene like that at all? (according to behind-the-scenes stories, apparently no one)
Then again...

If you want a good old classic animated special, but without all that quoted-verbatim religious text, or any direct religious connotations for that matter: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Come on, I kinda had to use this pic.

 Probably the best-known and revered holiday special ever, competing with Rudolph and Charlie Brown for the title (honestly, why does it seem like the 1960s produced all the best stuff?). Everything about it is just indisputably classic, and it helps that's it's a pitch-perfect adaptation of the original Dr. Seuss book (but now with songs!). So this is basically just an extra reminder to watch it again, in case you've forgotten to.
Though try to avoid any TV airings, since they often seem to cut stuff out to fit in more commercials, and that's just not the right way to treat any film, let alone a classic like this.

If you want a movie that reminds you of a simpler time, when you still loved Jim Carrey: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

The 2000 live-action Grinch is one of those special kinds of movies where you love it as a kid, you grow up with it, you realize that it really isn't a good movie for more than a few reasons, but damn it you can't help yourself from watching it every year anyway. I mean come on, can't I have this one guilty pleasure thing before Hollywood makes another version and really does ruin it?

Pictured: The J.J. Abrams reboot.

On second thought, I kind of want to watch that version...

If you love celebrating the holidays with child neglect and sadistic (yet still family-friendly) violence: Home Alone
Is it just me, or is this image just tailor-made for a caption contest? Feel free to post any, BTW.

Seeing how it plays nonstop on TV around this time, it's fair to expect that you'll end up re-watching this one over the holidays (if you haven't already). So I think you'll forgive me for the lack of details here.
However, it must be said: god dammit that ending is the most emotionally manipulative thing ever put to film...
...and I totally still cried when I last watched it.

If you want a Christmas-set horror movie, but then realized that those all tend to suck, so screw it: Gremlins

Because it's just not Christmas without this scene:

If you love comic books/superheroes: Justice League, "Comfort and Joy"
Truly, Santa Flash is the best Santa. I mean, you can't even tell who it is!

While "Christmas with the Joker" and "Holiday Knights" are both great Batman: TAS episodes for providing your Holiday/DCAU fix, the best one is Justice League's "Comfort and Joy", where we see the League members get some much-needed downtime (and personal time, in John Stewart and Hawkgirl's case). You know it's a good episode when Batman and Wonder Woman never even show up, and you honestly don't care.
Speaking of Batman...

If you love comic books/superheroes, but also like your Christmas movies dark and weird: Batman Returns (1992)
Selina Kyle, all prepared for Black Friday sales.

It's a Christmas movie with Batman! How could you not love that? You know, aside from the creepy (and pretty pervy) nose-biting Danny DeVito, plot elements that don't really make sense the more you stop to think about them, truly bizarre action scenes (need I remind you the climax involves rocket-equipped penguins?), and just generally being the least kid-friendly Batman movie ever (well, until The Dark Knight anyway).
Yeah, it's an undeniably flawed movie, and yet I still find myself to be one of those people who honestly likes it more than the original '89 Batman. With the first one Burton had some restrictions to work with, namely that he had to make it a Batman movie first and foremost. This one is where we got to see what a Tim Burton movie about Batman would really be like (and I'm talking early 90s Tim Burton, and not lazy, tapped-out present day Tim Burton).
And man was it weird.
Truly, truly weird.

If you love comic books/superheroes, and need your Shane Black fix: Iron Man 3
Not quite what I had in mind for a "quiet Christmas alone"...

Recent, yes, I know, but you know what? If it's an excuse to re-watch the best in the Iron Man series, I'll take it.
And if you're still not convinced that you can consider it a Christmas-appropriate movie (despite it being set all around Christmas, because Shane Black), then just pretend that Ben Kingsley's Mandarin turned out to be Santa the whole time.
Okay, I REALLY want to see that movie now...

If you really need your Shane Black fix: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Because A) It's a brilliantly funny film noir/comedy,
and B) This is when Shane Black discovered that he could only make good movies if he shoved Christmas into the background somehow.
Michelle Monaghan in a sexy Santa outfit = It counts!

Okay seriously, you STILL haven't gotten your Shane Black fix? Fine, here: Lethal Weapon

I mean jeez, I think you've had enough.

Obligatory mention of Nightmare Before Christmas required by anyone under 30: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Because it's kind of just a given that everyone watches this one any chance they get (myself included).

If you want to watch a recent holiday special that proves such things can still be good:  Prep & Landing

Yet another sign that Disney Animation has gotten its groove back, this 2009 Emmy-winning TV special (executive produced by Pixar's John Lasseter) takes a fresh twist on the whole Santa idea, where elves have a special job of coming to houses early to prepare things for St. Nick's arrival (this is how he gets in and out of each house so fast). This usually involves Christmas-themed spy gear and a fully functioning command center back at the North Pole. But really the special is a mid-life crisis story about a veteran of the prep & landing elves who becomes dissatisfied after decades of doing the job, and who must rediscover his inspiration as to why he does what he does. It has all the Disney humor and heart you've grown to expect, mixed with a more adult-skewering story that prevents the special from ever falling deep into cloyingly cutesy territory. Still growing in popularity (and for good reason), this is one to add to your yearly tradition of rotating holiday specials if you haven't already.
Oh, and watch the sequel special too (Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice), it's just as good.

If you want to watch a recent holiday special spinoff that's actually kinda underrated: Kung Fu Panda Holiday
Come on, give it a chance! Your skepticism is making the panda sad.

While a lot of this special's success comes from its genuine continuity within the film series (taking place in between the first and second movies), it's really just a quality family and holiday-themed story at its core. Kind of predictable, yes, but the execution is very much in keeping with the humor and heart many of us are familiar with from Kung Fu Panda. Having the whole voice cast from the movies and excellent animation quality that looks near-indistinguishable from said movies certainly helps too (seriously, how much did DreamWorks spend on this thing?)
As a big fan of the Kung Fu Panda movies I was pretty skeptical going into this holiday special when it first aired back in 2010, concerned that it might just be a hollow cash grab coasting on the brand name. Since then I've made a point of watching it every year. It honestly is that good, especially if you're a fan of the series.

If you're a Whedonite who absolutely, desperately needs something, anything by Joss Whedon to help celebrate their festivities: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Amends"

Because what better way to celebrate Christm- er, the holidays (Willow is Jewish, after all) than with an episode about the First Evil, Buffy's erotic nightmares, and Angel wanting to commit suicide?
In all seriousness though, this is yet another excellent episode from Buffy's third (and best) season, written and directed by Joss Whedon himself (so you know it's great!). The final minutes in particular are among the best moments of the entire series, with Angel and Buffy's tearful, angry and frustrated feelings giving way to a truly affecting, life-affirming conclusion.

If you need to watch the best version possible of A Christmas Carol: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Think of it this way:
A version of A Christmas Carol with The Muppets would be amazing.
A version of A Christmas Carol starring Michael freakin' Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge would be amazing.
This movie has BOTH of those amazing things.
Do the math.

If you need to watch the best version possible of A Christmas Carol, but you're also really crunched for time: Mickey's Christmas Carol

While admittedly cut a bit short of its potential by having to fit into a half-hour running time, Disney still nonetheless knocked this one out of the park. Making the most of its various Disney characters, it also nails many of the story elements, from the early introduction scenes with Scrooge to the dinner at Bob Cratchit's home. It even gives one of the darkest depictions of the "Christmas Yet to Come" sequence I've ever seen (though if you know your Disney, it's actually not all that surprising). While it still tends to get TV airings every year, I think it could still use some more attention and recognition than it currently gets, so definitely check it out if you never have.

If you want a Christmas-themed romantic comedy (comfort food edition): The Holiday

Is The Holiday actually a good movie? Well, uh... let me get back to you on that.
But is The Holiday pretty much the definition of a "comfort food" movie? Definitely, and then some.
In case you don't know the term, a "comfort food" movie is, well, a movie like The Holiday: it's light and fluffy, pleasantly sweet, and features a bunch of likable actors (Kate Winslet is way better than this movie probably deserves, but man does she commit to it). It's also kind of self-indulgent (seriously, who makes a romantic comedy that's 136 minutes long?!), and doesn't demand much thinking on your part (yet still isn't all that stupid). Throw in some extra pinch of whatever quasi-piece of intelligence that the movie can show to mildly impress you (in this case the whole old screenwriter plotline that allows the movie to point out movie tropes and cliches whenever it feels up to it), and you're all set!

If you want a Christmas-themed romantic comedy (ultimate special guest-star edition): Love Actually
Who knew Rick Grimes was such a romantic?

Set around the weeks leading up to Christmas, Love Actually follows so many different storylines involving major British actors that it feels like it really does live up to its promise of being "the ultimate romantic comedy". There's a love story with British Prime Minister Hugh Grant, we have Liam Neeson moving on after the death of his wife while his kid son has his first crush, there's the above secret love that Andrew Lincoln has for Kiera Knightley (then again, who doesn't?), and we have Colin Firth as a struggling writer who falls in love with his Portugese housekeeper. There's even a plot where Martin Freeman plays a porn actor (yes, this happens) who tries to ask out his co-worker on a date... while she's- well, you know (yes, this also happens). This is the movie that boldly proclaims: why pick one rom-com plot/scenario when you can have ALL of them? I mean I'm pretty sure I only listed about half of this movie's plotlines just now anyway...
Plus, Bill Nighy. Just... Bill Nighy.
Bill Nighy says: "Be awesome like me, and go see this movie".

And finally...

The Best Christmas Movie Ever: Die Hard

Well come on, it's just common knowledge at this point.

And that's the end! Thanks for reading, and happy holidays to all!