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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 9
In Which Your Humble Columnist Gets into the Spirit of the Season (Again)

  "Hey, what? Like a good action sequence don't belong in Christmas?"
-- Crow T. Robot

It seems like only yesterday that Halloween was upon us. But a month later, we come to the holiday that many take far more seriously, the one in which people invest far more emotion and economics.

Bah, humbug.

Actually, I enjoy Christmas. Though I am a Buddhist, my father is a Lutheran minister, so I grew up loving Advent hymns and finding a great deal of beauty in the candlelight services that take place on Christmas Eve. I enjoy the still Christmas mornings and Christmas dinners. I enjoy the community and family time. Even when my oldest had to spend his holiday in the hospital last year, I was grateful for the time I spent with him. (A digression. Last year my son contracted a nasty MRSA infection that caused his lip to swell to the size of a bloody pus-filled golf ball. I checked him into the hospital and called his mother to let her know what happened, and in no time every member of her family in a
A Charlie Brown Christmas
fifty-mile radius was stretching visiting hours to their limit in order to visit him. He was in the hospital for three days, including Christmas Day. When he finally checked out of the hospital his holiday spirit was depleted. I said, "Look, how many people get to say that their entire family visited them on Christmas Day, and they never had to leave their bed?" He liked that.) So despite my ambivalence towards most organized religion, I really dig the season.

But I hate Christmas movies.

I mean, I really hate them.

Not all of them, of course. I am fond of a few true quill media Christmas classics, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Christmas Story. White Christmas, for all of its saccharine charm, is something I don't mind having on my television, though it's mostly an excuse for me to gawk at Vera-Ellen's legs. But beyond that, the idea of sitting through most Christmas movies is on the same level of having ground glass shoved in my eyes.

I hate their cloying sentimentality and their disingenuous feel-good intentions. I dislike their hypocritical messages and bald-faced double standards. Every season I feel the adrenalin buzz of their hype machines while knowing full well that, as the box office clerk slides my debit card through their scanner for my ticket, I will find the feature disappointing. And it seems to be getting worse; even before Macaulay Culkin screamed across multiplexes in Home Alone, most Christmas movies have hammered their themes on the heads of audiences with the subtlety of a slaughterhouse employee working on the kill floor. Even the movies that are not technically speaking Christmas movies but released on or around Christmas Day inflict levels of torture on moviegoers that one would think antithetical to the season. I suppose some might find The Grinch or The Holiday to be delightful gifts, but they always struck me as lumps of coal.

But there are movies that I do like to pop into my DVD player during the holidays, and that, given very little fudge factor, actually fit as Christmas movies. In that spirit, I have decided to list ten of those, each of which I feel is worthy of being considered "Christmas movies." 

I have one or two disclaimers.  Though many of these movies take place during Christmas, only one of them could actually be considered a "Christmas movie" in any traditional sense. Most could be set at any time, though in all but one of my choices Christmas is referenced explicitly. Though this list should primarily appeal to genre geeks, I'm hoping it will have some cross-genre appeal, and maybe encourage some of you to watch these particular selections as alternatives to It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.

The Thin Man (1934, d. W.S. Van Dyke) On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969, d. Peter Hunt) Superman: The Movie (1978, d. Richard Donner)

The Thin Man (1934, d. W.S. Van Dyke).
I'll admit that I had never seen this cinematic gem until recently, though I had read and loved Dashiell Hammett's novel. It takes place over the holidays, and in one particularly amusing scene Nick Charles (William Powell) spends Christmas morning shooting balloons off of the Christmas tree with a new air rifle. What's it about? Oh, something about Charles being called in from retirement to solve a mystery surrounding his friend Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), but really it's about the banter between Nick and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy). If you don't love it, then you live a very sad life indeed.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969, d. Peter Hunt).
Because George Lazenby only made one James Bond movie, and because his was the first post-Sean Connery picture, this gorgeous adventure picture often gets overlooked by anybody who isn't a Bond fan. That's a shame, because until fairly recently it was my personal favorite of the series. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) is set to deliver his "Yuletide greetings" to the world by spreading a deadly bacteria throughout the world (by a harem of beautiful women, no less), and it's up to Bond to foil his plans. Good chases, including a suspenseful foot chase set to haunting Christmas music.

Superman: The Movie (1978, d. Richard Donner).
Initially the first (and in some ways still the best) big budget superhero comic book movie would seem an odd choice on this particular list; after all, not only is Christmas never mentioned in its 143-minute running time, it also never makes mention of any season that I've ever been able to tell. But consider the plot: a superior being sends his only son to earth so that he may act as protector (or perhaps savior?) of humanity. Think, too, of the fact that the title character goes into hiding for a number of years, to emerge from self-imposed exile when he's thirty. If that's not a Christian allegory, I don't know what is.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979, d. Terry Jones).
I'll admit, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has more laugh out loud moments, but Monty Python's Life of Brian takes far more chances, slaughters more sacred cows and, damn it, is just better as a movie. More Eastern than Western, and perhaps the most farcical and irreverent of anything I could have chosen, this was one of the most controversial movies of its day but is a loving retelling of the Christ story, with Brian (Graham Chapman) filling in for Jesus as a hapless messiah who ultimately joins the People's Front of Judea in order to impress a woman.

1941 (1979, d. Steven Spielberg).
Considered "Spielberg's Christmas turkey" at the time of release, this bloated, frantically paced comedy nonetheless has much to recommend it. Its sense of place and time is very well rendered, capturing the patriotic fervor and paranoia of a nation that finds itself suddenly at war (it takes place one week after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor) with a great deal of tongue in cheek humor and even a little compassion. The flying sequences of a Beechcraft trainer and a P-40 Tomahawk just above the Christmas-decorated streets of Los Angeles are impressively shot. Try to find the fully restored version.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979, d. Terry Jones) 1941 (1979, d. Steven Spielberg) Brazil (1985, d. Terry Gilliam) Lethal Weapon (1987, d. Richard Donner)

Brazil (1985, d. Terry Gilliam).
In Gilliam's surreal, oppressive bureaucratic society, people offer Christmas salutations with all the cheer of a terminal cancer patient. Mrs. Ida Lowry (Katherine Hellmond) recommends medical gift tokens to a friend ("It's good at any doctors and most of the major hospitals. It's also accepted for gynecological examinations, including Caesarian sections.") and Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) tries to evade authorities by hiding behind a small marching band carrying a banner that reads "Consumers for Christ," only to be visited in prison from his former employer dressed as Santa Claus. Gilliam nails the mercenary capitalism that has possessed the Christmas spirit. A masterpiece.

Lethal Weapon (1987, d. Richard Donner).
I didn't mean to put two movies by Richard Donner on my list, but hey, my list, my rules. In Donner's best movie that doesn't involve Christopher Reeve in blue tights, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) finds himself grim after his fiftieth birthday. He receives a little Christmas cheer in the form of suicidal L.A.P.D. Detective Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), with whom he has been partnered after Riggs nearly kills an unarmed suspect in a psychotic rage. By turns humorous and thrilling, this is one of the crown jewels from the Golden Age of Action Cinema, second only to…

Die Hard (1988, d. John McTiernan).
When I first saw the previews for this seminal picture in March 1988 I expected to hate it. Everything from the banter to the gunfights just fell flat, and I didn't think it would draw anything but buzzards to the box office. (Consider that, at that time, Bruce Willis was best known as David Addison on the television series Moonlighting and romantic comedies directed by Blake Edwards. This New York yuppie as an action hero?! Give me a break!) Well, I've been wrong before (ask me about Tom Hanks sometime) and I was definitely wrong about Die Hard. Indeed, if I was going to choose only one movie on this list to see this Christmas morning, this would be the one. We know the story: a baker's dozen of terrorists seize the Nakatomi building in Los Angeles, and find themselves in battle with a New York cop trapped inside. One of these days I'll write my bit about action movies of this period, but all I'll say for now is this is, for me, the movie to beat.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1991, d. Jim Mallon).
Technically, this is not a movie but an episode of one of my favorite MST3K episodes, which roasts a genuinely awful piece of cinematic tripe. However, it features a truly great new caroling standard ("A Patrick Swayze Christmas"), the crew of the Satellite of Love singing their version of "Angels We Heard on High," new Misfit Toys, a sublime holiday invention (the Mads develop a Wish Squisher), and Joel giving a rundown of 1970s office parties. And the lines peppered throughout are universal winners. Of everything on this list, this is the most holiday-oriented work.

Batman Returns (1992, d. Tim Burton).
Since his first feature film in 1985 (Pee Wee's Big Adventure), Tim Burton has specialized in postmodern fairy tales. From Beetlejuice to Ed Wood, from Edward Scissorhands to Alice in Wonderland, his strength (and, it seems, his weakness) is exploring characters at odds with the world in which they live, and this, his second installment in the Batman franchise, is no exception. Oswald Cobblepot (Danny Devito) is, like Batman (Michael Keaton) himself, an orphan who must find his place in the Expressionistic architecture of Gotham City, but has motives polar opposite to those of the Dark Knight. With a strong supporting performance by Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer's seductive turn as Selena Kyle (Catwoman), this is a grotesque, beautifully macabre present.

Die Hard (1988, d. John McTiernan) Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1991, d. Jim Mallon) Batman Returns (1992, d. Tim Burton)

Copyright © 2010 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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