NPR logo A Contrarian Christmas-Movie List: Nine Seasonal Scenes That Truly Stand Out


A Contrarian Christmas-Movie List: Nine Seasonal Scenes That Truly Stand Out

James Gandolfini, left, and Ben Affleck star in Surviving Christmas. Photofest hide caption

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James Gandolfini, left, and Ben Affleck star in Surviving Christmas.


For most folks, Christmas movies are a seasonal treat that get pulled down from the attic with the ornaments and the tangled strings of lights. And like those brightly colored tree decorations, the movies often get taken for granted, viewed so many times that they become nothing more than a familiar background for holiday festivities. But when you've watched and rewatched these films as many times as I have, you start noticing weird and wonderful details that might escape the casual viewer. Here are a few, for your December delectation:

Best Individual Performances In
Otherwise Forgettable Christmas Movies

James Gandolfini in Surviving Christmas — This comedy, starring Ben Affleck as a lonely millionaire who hires a family to be his hosts for the "perfect" Christmas he attempts to choreograph, starts out caustic and funny before losing its spine in what feels like a series of studio-enforced plot twists. But Gandolfini plays the father of the family in question, and he generates a palpable rage throughout — towards Affleck, wife Catherine O'Hara, and pretty much anyone else in his path — that's riveting to watch.

Katy Mixon in Four Christmases — Jon Favreau directed an acknowledged contemporary Christmas classis (Elf), but he also co-starred in this blisteringly unfunny farce about a self-involved couple (Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon) who wind up having to spend December 25 at the four homes of their respective divorced parents. Favreau plays Vaughn's brother, a UFC fighter; Mixon is Favreau's wife, and while the character might have been merely a gum-smacking bimbo in the hands of a lesser performer, Mixon gives her smarts and sass in a movie that's sorely lacking in both. With the wacky parents all played by Oscar winners (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight), it was no small feat for Mixon to walk away with the movie.

Paul Giamatti in Fred Claus — Vince Vaughn strikes again, this time playing the slacker brother of Saint Nicholas. And while most of the movie is a painfully humdrum manchild-makes-good saga, Giamatti gets to unleash his too-rarely-tapped comic side as Santa Claus. Balancing the joy and generosity that the Man in Red is known for with a constant exasperation over his ne'er-do-well sibling, Giamatti is comic perfection. It's a lousy movie, but worth TiVo-ing just for the Giamatti bits.

Paul Giamatti dons the white beard in Fred Claus. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Paul Giamatti dons the white beard in Fred Claus.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Worst Moments Of Beloved Christmas Classics

The "What Can You Do With a General?" number in White Christmas — Even classic-movie buff Leonard Maltin admits that this song is the worst one that Irving Berlin ever wrote, and not even Bing Crosby can sell it. It's certainly not the sort of Berlin song that one imagines popping up in a cabaret revue or a jukebox musical, since it so specifically deals with the film's plot point about a retired Army top dog (played by Dean Jagger) who resents being put out to pasture. Granted, it's not flat-out offensive — unlike the blackface number in "Holiday Inn," the movie where Crosby introduced Berlin's all-time hit "White Christmas" — ┬ábut it's a pretty weak moment in an otherwise entertaining movie.

The Pottersville Version of Mary Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life — So if George Bailey (James Stewart) had never been born, the warm and vivacious Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) would have become a myopic spinster librarian? George is a heck of a guy, and Mary adored him from childhood, but why should she be denied love just because he didn't exist? (And would a honky-tonk Gomorrah like Pottersville even have a library?) I prefer to think that the alternate-universe Mary would have married the smitten Sam Wainwright and lived comfortably on his arms-manufacturer profits.

Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (All Versions) — Charles Dickens spins a moving yarn about a man who could have had a family and the love of a good woman and a joyous life, but who instead wasted most of his existence on greed and selfishness. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption would be a powerful enough tale on its own — but no, the author stacks the deck with the inclusion of the frail, impoverished Tim Cratchit to milk easy tears from his audience. He's less a character than the embodiment of Victorian bathos, and that means any adaptation of A Christmas Carol gets less interesting the moment Tiny Tim appears on screen.

Sexiest Moments Of
Otherwise Wholesome Christmas Classics

Buddy and Jovie Duet on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" in Elf — Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human who's been raised in Santa's workshop at the North Pole — is immediately smitten with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) when he begins working alongside her at Gimbels department store. The two don't really start bonding, however, until Buddy innocently wanders into the ladies' room where Jovie is showering, and the two sing together. Ferrell's complete, wide-eyed ingenuousness keeps the scene from feeling creepy, even if you're one of those people who refers to that popular holiday standard as "The Date Rape Song."

Donna Reed and James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Donna Reed and James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life


George Bailey and Mary Hatch Walk Home Wet in It's a Wonderful Life — Our hero attends his younger brother's high-school dance and winds up entering the Charleston contest with his old friend Mary. Mary's embittered date (played by Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, no less) opens up the dance floor beneath them, sending the duo (and most everyone else at the party) into the swimming pool. On their way home, George and Mary — now wearing, respectively, an ill-fitting football uniform and a bathrobe — start flirting, and Mary winds up hiding naked in a bush, asking for her robe back. Gloria Grahame may get the wolf-whistles as Bedford Falls bad girl Violet Bick, but Mary's disrobed moment definitely ranks as the classic film's hottest scene.

Cary Grant Ice-Skates with Loretta Young in The Bishop's Wife — If you like your sexiness on the subtle side, this is the movie for you. Grant, after all, is playing an angel whose only agenda is to help out a tightly wound bishop (David Niven), even if that means lavishing some attention on the cleric's long-neglected spouse. Grant and Young's scenes together aren't meant to be seductive or even flirtatious, but the two have such old-fashioned movie-star charisma — and generate such palpable chemistry — that it's impossible not to get caught up in their moments together.

Alonso Duralde is the author of the new holiday-cinema guide "Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" (Limelight Editions).