Chestnuts roasting on the open fire? Get real. You’ll be doing well to have microwave popcorn in front of the television set. And while we’ll leave you on your own to pick your popping material, we do have some ideas on what movies you should — and shouldn’t — share during the holidays.
Home for the Holidays
Holly Hunter is a single mom with a lot on her mind. As her daughter drops Hunter at the airport, the 17-year-old confides that she plans to have sex that weekend for the first time. The announcement comes shortly after Hunter has been fired from her job at an art museum, where she’d made out with her 60-year-old boss. Hunter stares at her daughter then boards the plane as she heads home to visit her somewhat crazy family for Thanksgiving.
The truth is that her folks — Anne Bancroft plays her overbearing, chain-smoking mother, and Charles Durning is her overreacting, dreamy-eyed father — are not that insane. When the movie was released in 1995, it was touted as a hilarious look at how one dysfunctional family gets along. It is funny. But more often it is poignant.
One such scene is with the furnace repairman who has carried a torch for Hunter since they were in high school together. After some initial chitchat, he matter-of-factly states that his parents have passed away and his siblings moved out of town.
“I’m all alone now,” he says.
His loneliness is juxtaposed against the chaotic bustling at Hunter’s home. Yet, though the family is together, its members are alienated from one another. Robert Downey Jr., who plays Hunter’s obnoxious gay brother, is cruelly judged by his other, self-righteous, uptight sister, played by Cynthia Stevens. Downey is rather ruthless in return. Mom waffles between thinking Downey needs to find the right woman and wanting to see photos of his gay marriage ceremony.
Dad worries that his son may have worn a dress to the wedding but later congratulates his new son-in-law on the marriage. Not all the relations are mended in the end. But if they were, it wouldn’t be family.
It’s a Wonderful Life
When It’s a Wonderful Life was first released in 1946, it was hardly a box office hit, much to the chagrin of its ingenious director Frank Capra. For one thing, a subzero December kept viewers home when the film opened. Though nominated for several Academy Awards, the film was overshadowed by The Best Years of Our Lives, released the same year.
What saved the film from permanent obscurity was its copyright being allowed to expire in 1973 due to a studio foul-up. This allowed television stations to air it for free and allowed audiences to appreciate, among other things, the brilliance of James Stewart as George Bailey, a young man desperate to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls, build skyscrapers and see the world. But family obligations prevent him from pursuing his dreams. Certain his life is a waste, he wishes that he were never born. When his wish is granted, Bailey sees what life would be like for his family, friends and community without him. He also sees how precious his life is, which is why it is returned to him.
The snow, which had stopped falling when Bailey curses his life, returns as he gleefully dashes down the main street of Bedford Falls, greeting the old town: “Hello, oak tree, hello, movie house, hello, you good old savings and loan.”
What gives It’s a Wonderful Life lasting appeal is that Bailey’s life reflects our own. Like him, we crave to be bigger than life when being who we are is truly enough.
If this 1942 musical doesn’t lift your spirits, nothing will. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire play a retired song-and-dance team who decide to run a country inn open only on the holidays, hence the title. Of course, such a business idea would never fly, but this is Hollywood and the pair have instant success.
Crosby and Astaire captivate their guests with song-and-dance numbers such as Irving Berlin’s legendary “White Christmas,” which debuts during the film. It is delivered as only Crosby can do.
But then trouble begins to brew over a dame. Crosby plans to marry her; Astaire also loves her. Eventually she runs off with a Texan millionaire, which is just as well for them — for the time being.
A young, blonde hottie who is eager to be part of the entertainment then hooks up with Crosby and Astaire. Who gets the girl? It’s not much on suspense, but the music and cheer will have you bobbing your head and singing along.
Home for the Holidays (the 1972 thriller)
This B-movie whodunit surely isn’t uplifting or intended to be funny, but at moments you may find yourself laughing out loud, as the whole premise is absurd.
Four daughters visit their ailing father (played by Walter Brennan) for the holidays. Dad has remarried and is certain that his new wife is trying to poison him. But his daughters (one is played by Sally Field, the others are obscure and not worth noting) and his doctor don’t believe him. A snowstorm hits this quiet, deserted town. The roads are blocked and the phone lines are down. One of dad’s daughters is killed with a pitchfork.
The youngest daughter runs through the woods for help. She tries to reach the sheriff, but encounters trouble of her own — someone in a poncho with a pitchfork. Yipes! When she returns home, more bodies are found. Was it the wicked stepmother all along? That would be too obvious, but then again this is a B-movie. Hmmm. Better make that a B-minus.
Home Alone; Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
As W. C. Fields purportedly said, “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.”
If you’re W. C. Fields’ type, the Home Alones aren’t for you. After all, who wants to spend roughly two hours watching Macaulay Culkin play an 8-year-old boy accidentally left behind by his parents? They have flown away for the holidays, and Culkin is left to fend off two crooks, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.
There’s slapstick that works — and this just doesn’t. The only light in this series is John Candy, who plays the accordion and helps the mom and dad get home to their son in the first movie.
Check out more Holiday Survival Guide stories:
Surviving the gatherings of the clan.
Season for sharing
How to help those in need survive the holidays.
Giving on the cheap
Or should we say "inexpensive?"
Pass (on) the stuffing
Ways to keep the holidays from becoming too weighty.
Blue for Christmas
How to battle the holiday blahs.
Avoiding Xmas bling bling
You needn't sell out to the corporate juggernaut.
A gift guide to underground recordings.
Oh, holy naught
This year's Xmas sounds like the hour 13 lineup on the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
A dilettante's guide to holiday imbibing.
Silent night, sober night
How to stay on the wagon.