by Luke Hickman
It's that time of year again - the time where we watch more holiday programming than we might want to. Every household has its own unique Christmas traditions and list of must-watch holiday movies. Growing up, we always watched 'Home Alone,' 'A Christmas Story' and 'Christmas Vacation.' Plenty of families watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' (thanks in large part to that classic film's time as a public domain title), 'Miracle on 34th Street' and 'White Christmas' - which admittedly was one of my family's flicks too. But now, having a household of my own, with a movie-loving four-year-old and a wife who puts up with it, it's time to create my own family's annual holiday must-watch list.
Obviously, with some of the titles being R-rated, I'm not going to let the kids stay up late to partake in the inappropriate holiday cheer, but there's nothing wrong with saving some of the fun for the adults. You can make a list two miles long of standard and appropriately festive films, but this year I wanted to make a checklist of the unconventional Christmas flicks – the ones that might not have so much to do with Christmas, but are set during the holiday season. Agree with it or not, here is my list of Nontraditional Must-Watch Christmas Movies.
Send the kids over to Grandma's house, because the only way to suitably watch 'Die Hard' is loud. If you simply put them to bed early, John McClane's foul mouth, shoot-outs and explosions are going to wake the kids, let alone the neighbors.
While both of the first two 'Die Hard' movies are set during Christmas, I've omitted 'Die Hard 2' (a.k.a. 'Die Harder') because it isn't nearly as good or as much fun as the original. Bruce Willis plays Detective McClane, a New York City cop trying to mend his broken marriage with his wife over the holiday. At McClane's wife's company Christmas party, instead of drinking egg nog and celebrating like a typical company outing, the LA skyscraper is overrun by a terrorist mastermind (Alan Rickman) and all of the guests are held hostage. McClane flies in late from NYC and is off in another part of the building when the takeover happens, so he's got the element of surprise on his hands as he tries to foil the bad guy's plot. Too bad he doesn't have any shoes.
Coming out during a decade full of cheesy Chuck Norris action movies, 'Die Hard' was the shining light at the end of the tunnel, proving that not all action movies have to suck. I was too young to see 'Die Hard' when it opened, but I remember both of my parents returning from a showing loving it. It also proved that good action movies will fully entertain both sexes.
I'm sure I'll get hate mail for including 'Die Hard' on this list and not 'Lethal Weapon,' but I'm sticking to my guns that 'Die Hard' and the series that followed is far superior to the 'Lethal Weapon' films. From 'The Animaniacs' and 'Duke Nukem' to 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' (which coincidentally has a fantastically inappropriate Christmas special of its own) and ''Hot Fuzz',' 'Die Hard' has a much larger pop culture presence than 'Lethal Weapon.'
Truth be told, I'm a sucker for good films that portray romance in an honest, unsweetened, light manner. Fitting that criteria, 'Love Actually' is one of my very favorites. It's a British ensemble piece that genuinely focuses on the best part of the holidays – no, not the presents – but the mass amounts of love.
'Love Actually' gives nine (maybe more) examples of love, different aspects of the one characteristic that is emphasized and magnified during the month of December. There's "new love" in the Colin Firth storyline, a love that develops between two people that don't even speak the same language; "lost love" in the Keira Knightley/Andrew Lincoln storyline where she is married to another man and he never had to opportunity to express his feelings for her; "first love" between a fragile kid whose mother just passed away and his cute American classmate that's moving back to the States; "unconditional love" in the Laura Linney storyline when she tosses aside the man of her dreams to take care of her mentally ill brother; "innocent love" as Martin Freeman falls for his new assistant lighting designer on the adult film set they work on (despite working for a dirty industry, the two are completely shy, innocent, and untarnished by their work); "forbidden romantic love" between prime minister Hugh Grant and his new intern; "undying love" as Liam Neeson tries letting go and readjusting after his wife's untimely passing; "hardcore devoted love" as Emma Thompson secretly suspects husband Alan Rickman of cheating on her with a younger woman; and typical lust ("physical love") as a twenty-something heads to the States to see how much American tail he can wrangle with his British accent. Did I miss any?
'Love Actually' runs a lengthy 135 minutes, but it flies right by. Rumors say that Richard Curtis' original and unreleased director's cut ran 210 minutes, but considering how fine a film it is, I'd love to see that cut – that is, if it exists.
'The Ice Harvest'
'The Ice Harvest' is a dark and gritty retro "film noir" heist flick set during Christmas and starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, easily the best Harold Ramis film since 'Groundhog Day.'
Cusack, a crooked lawyer, and his partner in crime Thornton, a sleazy strip club owner, just stole $2 million in cash. The only thing keeping them from freedom is the raging ice storm and their malicious suspicions of one another. Keeping 'The Ice Harvest' true to form is spider-woman Connie Nielson getting involved in their mess.
Just like 'Love Actually' and 'Die Hard,' make sure the kids aren't around for this one. It's filled with debauchery, strippers, violence, loads of language, and a fantastic performance from Oliver Platt. Why not ring in the holiday with a good old fashioned vulgar heist movie?
Believe it or not, this is my favorite of the '80s/'90s 'Batman' movies. Schumacher's films were too silly and Tim Burton's first 'Batman' didn't have a solid tone. I give the Christmas theme of 'Batman Returns' all the credit for creating the unifying tone that carries through the film. The Penguin's evil plan not only threatens children across Gotham, but also Christmas itself. What an odd choice it was for Warner Bros. to release 'Batman Returns' more than six months prior to Christmas.
I love the opening attack on Gotham during their celebratory lighting of the city Christmas tree. I love the soundstage sets used for creating the snow covered streets of Gotham. And as corny as it may seem, I love seeing The Penguin's soldier penguins and their run-down zoo hideout. It's quite unique seeing a comic book movie take place during the most festive holiday season.
I could have done entirely without the whole Catwoman subplot because Danny DeVito's Penguin storyline is more than hearty enough to have carried the whole film. Truthfully, it's the best thing he's done since 'Taxi' and the only thing he's done since then that has been better is his role as Frank Reynolds on 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.'
None of the Burton / Schumacher 'Batman' films hold a candle to the route Christopher Nolan has followed, but I'd put 'Batman Returns' up against any of the other old 'Batman' films any day.
Everything you've thought about Santa Clause up until now is a lie. When a wealthy scientist orders his men to excavate a mountain in Finland rumored to be the residence of Father Christmas, all hell breaks loose – literally.
A village of reindeer herders find their stock slaughtered and children start disappearing, so they take it up with the excavators. Turns out the lore of Santa Clause isn't holly and jolly. The man known as Father Christmas is a demonic eater of children who has been confined to the center of the mountain for a very important reason – to stop him from paying your children a visit in the night.
Once again unleashed to bring hell on Earth, the reindeer herders must fight against the scientist's soldiers to send the bastard back to hell. Sounds uplifting, right? 'Rare Exports' is daring and playful at times, a completely unprecedented take on lore of Santa Clause. You'll not only want to hide your kids from Santa, but keep them safe from viewing any of this film. Seeing full frontal nudity of old Saint Nick and his sugar plums isn't exactly the best way for your kids to get in the holiday spirit.
This is one of the very first films I became obsessed with in my youth. Consider I wasn't even a teenager yet, that's quite odd. But it's always remained one of my very favorite Tim Burton movies.
Even though Johnny Depp was 27 at the time, he looks very young. Perhaps it's the fact that he's an ageless creation from a brilliant somewhat-mad scientist. When his creator (Vincent Price) dies, Edward is left all alone in the empty rotted-out shell of a mansion. He's lacking one last part to make him complete – hands. With no chance of ever being complete, Edward learns to function with his make-shift supposed-to-be temporary hands, a set of scissor blades.
It's never revealed how long Edward remains trapped in solitude, but it isn't until an Avon lady ventures up to the front door that Edward dares to step out into the real world. While trying to integrate himself into normal society, he experiences first love with the Avon lady's daughter (Winona Ryder).
The final act of the film is set during the holiday season. Although not comprised of any classics, Danny Elfman's original score is perfect for Christmas listening. It's beautiful, iconic and memorable – as is the film. And we can't forget that it ultimately answers the question, "Where does snow come from?"
I'm expecting floods of bashing and negative comments for selecting this film for my list, but I once again stand by my decision. I thought it only fair that a rom-com make the list and, honestly, I find 'Just Friends' hilarious.
'Just Friends' came out right around Ryan Reynolds' peak. Luckily, Dane Cook's quick 15 minutes of fame burned us all out really fast around this same time. Had it not, I fear Reynolds' flame would have already been extinguished by now.
Reynolds plays a record executive who's sole duty is to get a Britney Spears-esque pop star (Anna Faris) back on track with her career, so he accompanies her to a Paris retreat. When their private jet breaks down mid-flight and they're forced to land in the small town Reynolds grew up in, they have no other option but to spend the holiday with his family. While in town, he's confronted with the overweight past that he ran away from – including his cute high school best friend and secret crush (Amy Smart).
Although 'Just Friends' suffers from the expected cliches of the genre, it's humor is what makes it worth watching. Reynolds is great, but the supporting cast is what keeps it fresh. Reynolds' mom is played like the air-head mom in 'Better Off Dead' (don't worry, it too made the list). Played by Chris Marquette, his mouthy brother is a constant source of laughs. Chris Klein plays another now-cute nerd from high school also trying to win over Smart. But the best of them all is Faris. Her ding-bat blonde pop star portrayal is perfect. She's sassy, nutty and possibly crazy. Had 'Just Friends' featured any other cast, it wouldn't be as worthy a film as it is.
I'll never forget the press screening for 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' because it was also a promotional screening with only three couples in the general audience. Obviously, they had no clue what they were about to see because we press watched as they each of the three couples shuffled out over the first 45 minutes of the show. By the time the credits rolled and lights were raised, there was nothing but press members hanging around with faces sore from smiling and laughing so hard.
After tripping an alarm during a failed robbery, Robert Downey Jr. sprints through downtown Los Angeles with the cops hot on his trail. In a last-ditch effort to get away, he ducks out into a movie audition and pretends to conduct a screen test. The casting agents like what they see, so he gets the role but is forced to follow around a private detective (Val Kilmer) to get a feel for his character. While following an investigation, the two get wrapped up in a deep and dangerous murder case. Hilarity and the gorgeous Michelle Monahan ensue.
This is the role that began Robert Downey Jr.'s triumphant comeback. Prior to this, Val Kilmer had already fallen victim to terrible direct-to-DVD roles, which is also where he's remained since, but it fantastic to see him back at the top of his game even if it was for just one film.
If you haven't see 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' and you don't mind a film set during the holidays that's chock full of foul language, then this is a must-see. It will leave you anticipating the next 'Iron Man' movie because it will reunite Downey Jr. with 'Kiss Kiss' writer/director Shane Black.
While this movie has always been a Hickman Family classic, it has never been a Hickman Holiday Movie. 'Better Off Dead' is already considered a cult classic, but I'm branding it a cult Christmas classic.
As a kid, I remember seeing John Cusack in more movies than any other actors. My mother hosted day care for a couple kids whose parents owned a small video store, so they "rented" us VCRs and movies for free almost every weekend. 'Better Off Dead' and 'One Crazy Summer' were two frequent repeat rentals. We also had an edited copy of 'Stand By Me' that we recorded off television and watched time and time again.
To this day, whenever the Hickman boys gather for joint family Christmases, it's a sure thing that at least one of us is going to squish our own cheeks together and say an elongated version of "Christmas," mimicking the crazy neighbor's mom trying to teach English to the French foreign exchange student. And just as the first brother does it, we all simultaneously begin to quote it along with him.
There are far too many memorable moments in 'Better Off Dead' to mention them all, but here are a few: the way the Asian racers say the name "Lane Meyer" over their loud speaker,"Two dollars," "This mountain is pure snow! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is," Lane's pervy genius little brother, the gross neighbor Ricky, and so on. I could go on forever, but I'm pretty sure you're well aware of how great 'Better Off Dead' is.
Anyway, that's my Non-traditional Must-Watch Christmas Movie List. What's yours? Please share your unusual holiday picks in the forum.