It wouldn’t be the holidays without sitting down with some eggnog and a blanket to watch your favorite Christmas films. Maybe you like the all-time greats like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer or you’re into the modern classics like Die Hard. We spoke with several members of the Arkansas film community to find out their favorite holiday films.
AMBER LINDLEY - Meet Me in St. Louis
Writer and Producer
One of my favorite holiday films is Meet me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincente Minnelli. It is this delightful musical that is like a beautiful box of lavishly decorated Christmas cookies that your grandmother delivers…while she entertains you with stories from Christmas’ of long ago. Seriously, it is visually scrumptious! It is a story about a large family, specifically the family’s four sisters, living in St. Louis at the turn of the century. Their problems and conflicts are both humorous and endearing. The film climaxes on Christmas Eve and involves the soothing charms of Judy Garland while she sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. In an instant, you will get visions of your most cherished friends and family and wish they could be near to you.
Meet Me in St. Louis is a smart and historically significant film and that is actually why it is one of my favorites. It was released in 1944 just months after the D-Day invasion. The filmmakers and Minnelli had a wonderful understanding of their audience and they supplied them an unapologetically nostalgic holiday experience. As society was separated by rationed resources and desolation, death and war, Meet Me in St. Louis was an escape to a world where the first problem the audience encounters is if the homemade ketchup is too sweet or too sour. The film was a gift of peace and prosperity during a time of survival and world wide exhaustion. The war time theater experience that focused on the luxury of families and friends being together was highly successful and a well deserved respite for those on the home front working to keep our world together. Perhaps, that is why it still resonates today?
It is a Christmas card from MGM that always blesses me with a laugh, a few tears, and the memories of a romanticized family Christmas that we all wish for everyone during the holidays.
BO COUNTS - Gremlins
Christmas movies! Such a nuanced topic, especially these days when the Internet puts thousands of choices at your fingertips that used to only be found in the belly of video stores or in the hands of that one friend that had way too many bootleg copies of lost films. I always happened to fall into the latter of those categories. Each year people are bombarded with top 10 lists of all the classics, and finally the masses are starting to lean into the camp of the true believers that yes, Die Hard is in fact a Christmas movie. But I’m not here to give you one of those lists, nor to try and impress you with movies you’ll never be able to find like 3615 code Père Noël which is, in fact, a masterpiece of holiday madcap horror schlock. I am, however, here to present to you the fact that Gremlins is one of the best Christmas movies. Ever.
Contrary to popular belief, Stephen Spielberg did not actually direct this movie. I can’t tell you how many uneducated “reviews” I see from “credible” sources listing him as the director. Yes, his name is on the poster, because he was the executive producer but the real credit for this magic needs to go to the amazing team of writer Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante. Without these two juggernauts of Hollywood, we wouldn’t have such films as The Goonies, Home Alone, The Howling, or one of my all time favorites The ‘burbs. Together these two managed to craft a holiday tale that has something for everyone: a heart-warming tale about a family just trying to get by, young love, holiday gift giving, good vs evil, a boy’s bond with his pet, mass hysteria, chaos, brutal murders, tongue-and-cheek humor and the world's first Baby Yoda. That’s right. Gremlins gave birth to the prototype for everyone's current focus of our collective unbiased adoration. Gizmo is one of film histories most lovable heroes. He’s loyal, he’s brave, he’s musical, and if you haven’t seen him, HE’S THE MOST ADORABLE THING EVER. You might still be asking “But is this a Christmas movie?” Absolutely.
What even makes a Christmas movie? I’d be willing to say that It’s a Wonderful Life is less of a Christmas movie than Gremlins. Heck, most of that movie doesn’t even take place during Christmas! Gremlins does make nods to the holiday classic, taking place in a Bradford Falls-esque Kingston Falls and even has a shot of his mother watching said film. Gremlins is a film that’s completely saturated with Christmas themes. You’ve got the overly happy Billy (Zach Galligan) who’s constant optimism borders the nauseating, balanced by his love interest Kate (Phoebe Cates) who brings a more realist approach to the holidays and shows that not everyone has a great time during the holiday. You’ve got Billy’s father, Rand (Hoyt Axton) who is a struggling inventor trying to make ends meet for his family so that he can finally get some quality family time during the holiday and his mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain) who goes from cliche holiday mom to a hard-boiled monster slayer when the situation turns grim. (There has yet to be a better kitchen fight scene made!) Sold yet? Some may say there’s no Santa...but there’s a fantastic chimney Santa death reference that does more than enough to fill that need. Yet even with all this death and mayhem, this movie has undeniable heart and wit. You can’t help but be in a good mood watching the town get torn apart by Stripe and his legion. You get all the ups and downs of the holiday season in a fantastic comedy-horror that’s edgy enough for the Grinches in your family but fun enough that the whole family can enjoy it. Plus it re-affirms one of the most important rules of any christmas present...always follow the directions.
DANIEL CAMPBELL - National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Just the relationship, alone, of Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie make National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation my favorite holiday film of all time. The dialogue between those two makes for some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a movie. My favorite scene, without a doubt, is when Cousin Eddie, unexpectedly, shows up to The Griswold’s home.
Eddie: You surprised to see us, Clark?
Clark: Oh, Eddie... If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am now.
I laugh about that exchange randomly throughout the year. And it’s written by John Hughes. The John Hughes/Christmas script combo is unbeatable.
MARK THIEDEMAN - BIRDSONG (El cant dels ocells, 2008)
A solemn antidote to all the Christmas Stories, Christmas Vacations, and Christmas Carols out there, Albert Serra’s minimalist road-trip follows the three magi in long, slow, luminous black-and-white images as they trek across mountains, lakes, and deserts, barely saying a word to each other. Finally, they arrive upon the Christ Child, and a blast of music in an otherwise monastic film reminds us of the grandeur and humility of faith. Sadly — you guessed it — this stunning movie was never acquired for distribution, and you won’t find it anywhere here in the States. You can, however, access a couple artful alternatives, Bergman’s ornate ghost story, Fanny and Alexander, or — if you’re feeling naughty — Kubrick’s tree-light speckled masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, which turned 20 this year.
ALEXANDER JEFFERY - Elf
When it comes to tackling a wide array of genres, both big and small, it seems that John Favreau can almost do no wrong. (We'll just ignore Lion King for now). Favreau's background in improv grounds even his most fantastical stories in reality, creating a human (and often funny) movie-going experience. Drawing inspiration from filmmakers like John Ford, Favreau allows dialogue to play out in two-shots and allows his actors to make light of absurd material. A big follower of Joseph Campbell's teachings on mythology, Favreau is one of the first filmmakers to blend improvisational comedy with the same mythology that made the original Star Wars a huge success. It's this unique take on the material that makes "Elf" a perennial classic and my favorite Christmas movie.
AMOS COCHRAN - Home Alone
A weekend or two before the Christmas holiday in 1990, I remember driving with my parents out to the Northwest Arkansas Mall Cinema to see a movie called “Home Alone. The minute the opening titles started nothing seemed out of the ordinary but :10 in the moon peaks out of the corner of the screen as the music shifted to the strangest, most eerie yet comforting sounds I had ever heard. This was not Christmas music, but it also was, and it was absolute perfection. I had no idea that I was really listening to John Williams for the first time and seeing how powerful music can be against picture. This feeling continued through the titles as the words “Home” and “Alone” moved across the screen to meet up with a simple house, ending with the light turning on. I was completely sold.
The story that unfolds is one we all know now, Kevin is left alone over the Christmas Holiday while he protects his house from Harry and Marv. While his family, especially his mom, (who really should have just waited for the morning flight) try to get back to him. How this story turned into my absolute favorite holiday movie is hard to explain. It’s funny, scary, the sets are Christmas perfect, and the acting is exactly what it needs to be. I think what makes it so wonderful is how my view of the film changed as I got older. I can remember very well watching it with my mom in the years that followed and she would always cry at the end when Kevin’s mom comes around the corner and is standing behind him before he sees her and runs for a hug (John Williams has a lot to do with the tears.) I used to roll my eyes and think all the cool stuff has happened at that point in the movie. Fast forward many years and the first time I watched the film with my daughter when she was about four or five. As soon as Kevin’s comes around the corner- I TOTALLY LOST IT. I immediately called my mom and told her that I finally understood why she had cried all of those years.
So how does a little oddball movie set at Christmas time with wet bandits, tarantulas, choirs, nasty uncles, cheese pizza, polka bums, booby traps, scary neighbors, micro machines, talking furnaces, Michael Jordan cut outs, after shave, hide away beds, uneaten macaroni, and a whole shoebox full of dangly earrings add up to my favorite Christmas movie? Because it always speaks to the fact that isn’t about any of those things, but the people you share the season with.
At the ACS, we believe that if we provide filmmakers an arena to exhibit their talents, and film enthusiasts a healthy diet of quality programming, we can inspire more Arkansans to make and watch more films. By supporting filmmakers, festivals, theaters and young people interested in filmmaking throughout the state, we hope to create statewide network, pool Arkansas’s resources and be an umbrella organization that feeds all things film. We believe a rising tide lifts all boats.
To be a filmmaker, we have to connect to create. A painter needs a brush, paint and a canvas. A director needs a writer, a cinematographer, a sound mixer, production designer, editor, actors, distributors, and an audience. We cannot do it alone. This art form forces one to collaborate and thus, creates jobs. Filmmaking is unique in the arts in this way. It takes an army.