We all have our favorite films.
When it comes to the Holidays, this is especially true. Opinions are strong.
Witness the annual debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
Look, I think Stalag 17 qualifies as a Christmas movie – but that’s another discussion.
Naturally, I list some of the traditional favorites as my own – and do not at all understand those few souls who don’t like the classics. I’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life a thousand times, and cry every time Harry Bailey toasts his big brother George. Watching Miracle on 34th Street on Thanksgiving Day sets the tone for my whole Holiday season – and if I start A Christmas Story mid-marathon, I’ll likely stay for the whole thing.
Between Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, I’ve added new phrases to my vocabulary. I’ll watch George C. Scott’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge for hours on end, then see if Bill Murray’s version is showing somewhere on cable. I can even find nice things to say about Bad Santa.
You get the idea.
But what I thought I’d do this time is get straight to a trio of wonderful Christmas movies that have come to be my three favorite of all time. You don’t often see them listed among lists of “favorites”, which suggests to me that not that many people know or remember them.
That’s a shame, because they’re really really good. So, here we go.
3. Joyeux Noel (2005)
In December 1914, an unofficial ceasefire broke out along the Western Front at very the height of World War I. It came to be called “The Christmas Truce”, as soldiers from opposing armies laid down their weapons on either side of No Man’s Land. Reports of shared provisions and stories of impromptu soccer matches spread word of the remarkable events – which posed some harsh realities and difficult questions. What if truly observing the gift of Christmas means setting everything aside, and what if the price of actually doing that meant your own court martial? Which king, in fact, do we serve? Joyeux Noel is riveting, asking these hard questions against the backdrop of humanity’s extreme inhumanity – where even among blasted landscapes, rotting bodies and filthy trenches, the light of the stable still shines through.
2. Mr. Krueger’s Christmas (1980)
If you ask most people what Jimmy Stewart’s best Christmas movie was, the majority would probably say It’s A Wonderful Life. It was one of his best works of all, no doubt – but if those same people have seen this short film from much later in Stewart’s career, their answer is often different. Without spoiling the story, there’s a scene in which Stewart’s character finds himself talking to the Christ-child. Before shooting it, Stewart asked everyone on the set to leave – saying he only had it in himself to do the emotional scene once, and he didn’t want to blow it. Given just ten years after his own son died in Viet Nam, it might be the most moving performance Stewart ever gave. And the film also allowed Stewart to fulfill a lifelong dream: conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
1. The Nativity Story (2006)
If you read Rotten Tomatoes you probably won’t ever see this film. That would be a shame. If you want the traditional version of the events in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, you get that. But what the critics seem to have missed is the texture that comes with that traditional version. What you see is an independent young girl dealing with news she doesn’t especially want, and a family facing scandal as a result. You see a young man, torn between his deeply-held traditions, personal humiliation, and a love he can’t ignore. You see a young, unsure couple learn to trust in each other – and watch unconditional, sacrificial love grow between them. And when his adoptive son in placed in his hands, you see a father completely dissolve into tears and laughter. Oscar Isaac (Star Wars) as Joseph is mesmerizing, and surpassed only by Keisha Castle-Hughes’ Mary (Whale Rider). The actual manger scene is worth every minute leading up to it, the sets and cinematography are perfect – and Ciaran Hinds’ (Sum of All Fears) Herod is one of the more chilling villains you will ever see. Late at night once the presents are under the tree, or with family on Christmas Day…enjoy.