Dartmouth students pick favorite holiday movies for break

by Joseph Debonis | 11/21/06 6:00am

When you finally surrender to studying for those miserable finals and tire of sleeping on the couch because of myriad invading family members, the realization hits that with Thanksgiving comes a limited number of joys: football for some, turkey for others, shopping for the brave few and the universal delight sure to warm the hearts of the "grinchiest" folk, the commencement of the holiday movie season.

While it is impossible to avoid succumbing to all that holiday cheer, we cannot all erect our Christmas trees before the leftover turkey has even reached the refrigerator. The more sensible avenue to perpetual thoughts of eggnog and candy canes is a popular, family-friendly tradition conducive to all that post-feast indigestion, as well -- the great holiday movie.

For the viewing pleasure of you and your kooky Aunt Gladys (who smells and just will not go home), here is a comprehensive, categorized list, spanning 60 years, of the 15 best holiday movies, guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, hug your dog and anticipate the holidays with the starry-eyed innocence of youth. Compiled from a thorough survey of Dartmouth students in conjunction with high-brow, "official" critical reviews, these are definite crowd-pleasers -- Be sure to claim a spot on the sofa lest you miss out.

Life is simply incomplete without viewing the following three classics:

"It's A Wonderful Life" (1946): Frank Capra's consummate, All-American holiday masterpiece features a fantastic James Stewart who, as George Bailey, is shown by his guardian angel what life would be like without him. An enduring cinematic staple, "Life" is sure to elicit a hug and a few tears.

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1947): In a supreme lesson on faith, the original "Miracle," without any magic or logic-defying stretches, leaves the viewer flirting with the reality of Kris Kringle. As a harsh satire on consumerism, this holiday tearjerker packs intellectual weight as well.

"White Christmas" (1954): From the director of "Casablanca" comes a cozy Hollywood musical featuring Bing Crosby and inspired by his best-selling holiday single. If nothing else, you will find yourself curled up by the fireplace just waiting for the white stuff to start coming down.

Attaining a status similar to the aforementioned classics, the next three animated films are relished by children and adults alike:

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965): This beloved television special has left its mark on the childhoods of multiple generations. With lovable characters, a jazzy Vince Guaraldi soundtrack and a confident message about the true meaning of Christmas, "Charlie Brown" continues to delight year after year.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966): The poignant, clever and utterly entertaining fable by Dartmouth alumnus Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel '25) is adored around the world. It features the notion -- rather, the fact -- that holiday-inspired love can alleviate just about any mean spirit.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993): What some deem a modern take on the "Grinch," Tim Burton's stop-motion tour de force features a deft story and an unforgettable, Grammy-nominated soundtrack by Danny Elfman. After attempting to hijack Christmastown, the memorable Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, has a change of heart and rescues it.

What would the holidays be without a dose of witty and heart-warming comedy? The following five films are riotous with conclusions that are candy-cane-sweet:

"A Christmas Story" (1983): This nostalgic, hilarious and sentimental yet subversive film features Ralphie, a nine year old desperately seeking nothing but a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The charming series of vignettes captures the essence of 1940s America and Christmastime through a boy's eyes.

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987): Steve Martin and John Candy shine in this pitch-perfect John Hughes comedy about a Chicago businessman desperate to get home and spend Thanksgiving with his family. Comical travel inconveniences and Candy's wacky sidekick complement the touching ending.

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989): Easily the funniest of the Chevy Chase-driven "Vacation" movies, the Griswold family's perfect Christmas is marred by a number of side-splitting incidents and unpredictable relatives. Once again, great comedy is balanced with heart in this perennial favorite.

"Home for the Holidays" (1995): Directed by Jodie Foster and featuring a shrewish Anne Bancroft, it is Holly Hunter who brilliantly carries this Thanksgiving coming-home story. A screwball cast of characters fleshes out an entertainingly wacky family.

"Elf" (2003): Despite a tacky, albeit appropriate ending, this whimsical family comedy delights kids and adults alike. No one but Will Ferrell could create a character that is all at once innocent, inappropriate, shamelessly naive, endearingly cute and uproariously comical.

A slew of corny, holiday family fare hits the box office each December, but the next two films have emerged as beloved classics deserving of repeated screenings:

"Home Alone" (1990): Panned by some critics as a tenuous, kiddie prat-fall flick, this Macauley Culkin romp never fails to entertain. In between the slapstick and clever gags, "Home Alone" empathizes with the "left out" mentality experienced in childhood and reinforces the meaning of family at the holidays.

"The Santa Clause" (1994): This Tim Allen success story stands out in a field of admittedly corny family flicks with an uplifting holiday fantasy that steers clear of any forced sentimentality. Cynical Scott Calvin (Allen) undergoes a transformation as he fills some pretty big shoes and, of course, becomes the best dad ever.

Two more modern -- and more adult -- holiday tales are sure to instill a faith in the warmth and love of the holiday season:

"Love Actually" (2003): Utterly charming, and possessing a superb British and American ensemble cast, "Love" weaves together a number of alluring storylines with affection and wit. A shamelessly self-indulgent romantic comedy, "Love" is endlessly pleasant and ripe for repeated viewings.

"The Family Stone" (2005): With an ensemble cast (grounded by dazzling matriarch Diane Keaton) that's hard to beat, this dramedy follows the Christmas of the eccentric but wholly lovable Stone family as they are introduced to son Everett's uptight fianc, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). Based on a simple plotline, "Stone" expands beautifully into a comical but emotional story about Christmas, relationships and family.

So go ahead; stuff yourself with turkey, bread and cranberry sauce, plop yourself on the couch, and engage in a meaningful viewing experience with those you love (or maybe loathe) the most. If you do not come out a better human being, bursting with passion for the holidays, you will at least appreciate smelly Aunt Gladys a smidge more. Maybe you will even be compelled to hug her. 'Tis the magic of the holiday season.