The holidays are a time of rejoicing where we can all gather and celebrate the birth of Santa. When it comes to films that are set during this time of ultimate materialism (and I say that with no negativity because I love getting stuff as much as the next guy who also likes getting stuff), they tend to fall into two categories: using the holidays as a backdrop for dark comedy or to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, whatever that may be (something about peace on Earth and goodwill towards Best Buy).
So in the spirit of the holidays (I don't know why I keep using the plural; it's not like any of the films celebrate Hanukkah), here are five films that will get you in the Christmas spirit or at least give you a reason to get away from your family for a couple hours when you're not watching a football game.
5. It's A Wonderful Life (1946) d. Frank Capra
Admit it: you're charmed by Jimmy Stewart. If you weren't, Vertigo wouldn't be half as disturbing (okay, it probably would, but his casting is just perfect). The film has been parodied countless times, namely the whole "My Life Without Me" part and how a good man shouldn't try to kill himself just because he's had a horrible day. But I would love to see an alternate version where Clarence decides to show Mr. Potter his life and that persuades the mean old cripple to wheel himself into oncoming traffic. Or change his ways. Whichever is more Capra-esque.
All sarcasm aside, it is a heartwarming film and the only one on the list that doesn't feature the dark comedy I feel is necessary override the empty sentimentality inherent in so many of these films.
4. Scrooged (1988) d. Richard Donner
Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is also an endlessly parodied story but never has it been applied to our modern world as wonderfully as it has with Scrooged. There's media criticism, Bill Murray at his comedic best, and a fantastic supporting cast. If you're not struggling to breath by the hilarity of Cross' advertisement for A Christmas Carol, then you don't have a sense of humor and that's too bad.
3. Die Hard (1988) d. John McTiernan
Granted, this film has a reputation more for other elements than its Christmas-time setting, but it's one that's important to the film. It explains why Nakatomi Tower is so deserted. It provides a great comedic moment as Reginald VelJohnson sings a happy Christmas song only to have his car smashed by a dead henchman. And who can forget sending another dead henchman down the elevator with, written in his own blood, "Now I Have a Machine Gun. Ho Ho Ho" If that doesn't sum up what the holidays are all about, I don't know what does.
2. The Ref (1994) d. Ted Demme
After the presents, and the lights, and the snow, and the tree, the most important part of Christmas is spending time with family. And no film nails how excruciating an exercise that can be than the overlooked comedic gem of The Ref. Being held hostage by Denis Leary can really help repair a failing marriage and put a vile matriarch in her place. Sure, there are a couple of distracting Leary-rants, but the real comedic talent in this film is Kevin Spacey, who says what every put upon child has wanted to say to their mother during the holidays: "You know what I'm going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it." That's just heartwarming.
1. Bad Santa (2003) d. Terry Zwigoff
The last film on our list is incredibly raunchy but also extremely heartwarming. That's the beauty of Christmas. It can bring those two polar extremes together. Then again, that may just be the beauty of Billy Bob Thorton. While I don't think it's fair to cast Bernie Mac and Tony Cox as such unlikable fellows, Thorton ain't no saint either. But in a cast full of unlikable people, it is possible to find redemption and comedy. And isn't that why Santa died for our sins?
If you have been offended by this list, just remember: Christmas is a time for forgiveness so please no angry e-mails. I love you.