December — and especially December of 2020 — is a very good time to seek a bit of seasonal levity by taking time off in the realm of favorite flicks. And so we present for your enjoyment AWFJ’s wonderfully varied list of recommended movies for ho ho holiday viewing. Our very varied roster features romance, comedy, thrills and lots of food. We’ve selected a baker’s dozen of films that are upbeat, inspiring and spirited, although not all are directly connected to traditional tinsel (or Tinsel Town) celebrations. Here, in alphabetical order, are AWFJ members’ entertaining picks for your holiday movies-to-watch list:
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS – Marilyn Ferdinand
“Christmas time is here / Families growing near / Oh that we could always see / Such spirit through the year.” With these lyrics, set to the somewhat melancholy music of Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas takes on feelings of exclusion many people suffer at this time of year and translates them into a timeless half-hour of animated wonder. Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, had a deep understanding of the tribulations that afflict children and adults alike. Charlie Brown, his perennial misfit, shouts into a seemingly deaf world that the Christmas message of peace and goodwill has been lost as he watches his dog Snoopy win a decoration contest for his blindingly lit doghouse. Charlie takes pity on a scrawny tree and buys it for the Christmas pageant, only to be ridiculed by his classmates. But his deep despair touches the hearts of those around him, and eventually, sage thumbsucker Linus relates the legend of the divine birth that was to herald a new age of love and peace. Nothing much has changed about how Christmas is celebrated, but this gentle and heartfelt tale, matched by a matchless score of modern holiday classics from the Vince Guaraldi Trio, never gets old. Watch the trailer.
A CHRISTMAS STORY — MaryAnn Johanson
Apart from Die Hard, which I know there is some lighthearted debate about the Christmassyness of, my favorite seasonal movie is, hands down, A Christmas Story, the 1983 comedy based on humorist Jean Shepherd ’s memoirs of his childhood in Indiana. I may be a girl, not a boy, and I may have been a kid in suburbia 25 years after Shepherd was, but nothing speaks to me about American childhood, particularly at Christmastime, like this movie. Utterly lacking in sentiment but full of big emotion, a comfortable hominess, and tons of comedy that still makes me laugh out loud after dozens of viewings, this is one movie I treasure every holiday season. Watch the trailer.
BABETTE’S FEAST — Jennifer Merin
Athough it’s not specifically themed for the holiday season, I crave Babette’s Feast at this time of year. Gabriel Axel’s 1987 femme-centric cuisine classic is a marvelous celebration of the spirit of giving. The scenario is set in a small, isolated and repressively religious Danish village where Babette, a French emigree who is fleeing difficult circumstances, comes to work. The restrained yet discernible clash of cultures is resolved in a glorious and transformative act of material and spiritual generosity. Without being preachy, the story advocates for us to welcome ‘others’ to our table to partake of the bountiful pleasures of life. What a beautiful and meaningful message for the holiday season — or for any time of the year. Watch the trailer.
THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY — Esther Iverem
Oh what fun it is…to revisit this ultimate buppy classic and enjoy a reunion of one of the best ensemble casts of the “new wave” era of Black film. Ignore what feels contrived and just enjoy the laughs. Ho-ho-ho. Watch the trailer.
CAROL — Loren King
Carol begins in the days leading to Christmas — all those reds and greens!— because the lonely season is a fitting time for two longing souls to meet and fall in love. Todd Haynes’s 1952-set film, from Phyllis Nagy’s script adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, starts with Therese (Rooney Mara), wearing a company-issued Santa hat, working the toy counter at Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan. What’s certainly the highlight of her day arrives from across a crowded room in the form of fur coat and scarlet lipstick wearing Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) who at Therese’s suggestion buys a train set for her daughter and leaves her leather gloves, accidentally or not, on the counter. (“I love Christmas; wrapping presents and all that,” Carol says. “Then somehow you end up overcooking the turkey anyway.”) Read the full review. Watch the trailer
COMFORT AND JOY — Pam Grady
There are plenty of shows and movies not to be missed during the holiday season: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the 1966 animated classic with the sublime Boris Karloff–accept no substitutes), A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Story, Elf, and the dazzling 1954 Technicolor musical White Christmas are among them. But if I have to go with one (sigh…), it has to be this Yuletide miracle: Comfort and Joy, Local Hero writer/director Bill Forsyth’s 1984 tale of a midlife crisis playing out amidst the holidays. Morning drive-time DJ Dickie Bird’s (Bill Paterson) ennui is something that his brand-new red sports car just can’t fix. Not with him feeling constrained by the forced jocularity of his job and saddened by his much younger girlfriend leaving him to spend Christmas alone. But then he stumbles upon battling ice cream truck vendors in the streets of Glasgow and throws himself in the middle of the cone wars in this charming and absurd comedy. Watch the trailer.
ELF — Sandie Angulo Chen
Every year, a slate of new holiday-themed films hits theaters and streaming services, but few of them join the ranks of the revered Christmas classics that families enjoy re-watching every season. Director Jon Favreau’s 2003 holiday comedy Elf, starring an excellent Will Ferrell, managed to do just that. Ferrell, the epitome of comedic man-child, is perfectly cast as a guileless Buddy, a human brought up by Santa’s elves on the North Pole. Buddy treks to New York to find his biological father (James Caan) and ends up making new friends, including the beautiful and talented Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). An instant hit, the movie isn’t just hilariously quotable (“You sit on a throne of lies!,” “I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite,” “Does somebody need a hug?”), it’s also a lovely reminder of love, laughter, and joy the holidays bring. Watch the trailer.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE — Cate Marquis
It seems like an obvious choice but my favorite Christmas movie is one of my favorite movies of any season: It’s a Wonderful Life. There are many reasons why this film is a perennial holiday favorite, starting with the fact that it is a great Frank Capra classic. Another reason is that it has one of the greatest movie heroes, played by Jimmy Stewart at his best. On top of that, the film has one of the best villains of all time, Mr. Potter, right up there with Scrooge. And then there is the script, with elements of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and resonance with the ideals that drove soldiers during WWII, like democracy and a chance for everyone to succeed, no matter how modest their beginnings. But in this version, it is not the Scrooge character but the hero who goes through a crisis, questioning his choices, choices that benefited his community, not just himself. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it is still a delight, like other great films like Casablanca or Keaton’s The General. It is a celebration of the American tradition of the underdog, rooting for little guy, in this case someone doing the right thing for everyone, something that resonates even now in the era of growing income inequality. It is a modern A Christmas Carol for the last century and this one. Watch the trailer.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS — Susan Wloszczyna
I always cherish when movies don’t sentimentalize a young girl’s feelings and recognize that they, too, suffer from bad moods. Natalie Wood’s stubborn Santa denier Susan in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street reminds me of my opinionated grade-school self, first name and all. But the child performance that truly strikes a chord after the year we all endured as a nation is Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie in this enduring classic. It might not totally qualify as yuletide material – the nod to Halloween is equally memorable — but the musical reaches its emotional zenith when Tootie, anxiously awaiting Santa’s arrival and worried that Old St. Nick won’t know where they live once they move to New York City next year, is consoled by big sis Judy Garland in song. Despite its lilting melody, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is one of the most melancholy seasonal ditties ever. In fact, it inspires a weepy Tootie to race outside in her nightgown to bash the snow people she and her sisters built earlier when she realizes they can’t make the trip to their new home. Her outburst never fails to make my heart melt. My pick is Meet Me in St. Louis, Watch the trailer.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS — Liz Whittemore
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a film I watch from Halloween through the entire rest of the holiday season. The songs are iconic, as is most of the music from composer Danny Elfman. But in this particular film, Elfman voices the main character Jack Skellington. Combined with Burton’s stylistic stop-motion world, this fun and totally out of the box holiday film has a cult following that has even affected the way Disney operates their parks from Halloween to New Years. The Haunted Mansion attraction gets a thematic overhaul in black light, oversized gifts, and outfitted with all the characters from the film every year now. Every first snow, all I can hear in my head is, “What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere. What’s this? There’s white things in the air! What’s this?” Watch the trailer.
PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT — Nell Minow
I watch at least two or three versions of A Christmas Carol every year, with the Alastair Sim and MGM versions my favorites. But the movie I want to recommend is the lesser-known gem, Period of Adjustment, Tennessee Williams’ only comedy, the story of two couples having some marital problems at Christmas time, one just married, one separating after five years. It is beautifully filmed in black and white by George Roy Hill with an outstanding cast that includes Jane Fonda, Jim Hutton, Tony Franciosa, Lois Nettleton, John McGiver, and the only joint appearance of two of the all-time great character actors who were brother and sister, Jack and Mabel Albertson. It is smart, heartwarming, fun, touching, and romantic, and one of the all-time great examples of dramatic structure. Watch the trailer.
Those who are all hat and no cattle are the only cowboys who talk a lot; those with a more even hat-to-cattle ratio tend to be quiet. That’s why it makes sense that The Rider and star Brady Jandreau are always subdued and often silent. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on — Jandreau’s sad-eyed, seemingly placid face communicates the internal struggle of a man whose current life is incompatible with the one he lived and whose future has become something he doesn’t necessarily want. At its core, The Rider is a unique, deeply moving look at a prototypical kind of masculinity defined by two rules: “shake it off” and “what are you, some kind of sissy?” Writer and director Chloe Zhao neatly rejects the insipid trap of the “inspirational” movie, trading in a swelling soundtrack (in fact, the film has almost no music at all) and a neat arc for something that echoes and resonates much more profoundly — asking whether one man can find a new place underneath the sweeping South Dakota sky. Watch the trailer.
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING — Betsy Bozdech
While You Were Sleeping. Sure, it’s pretty corny and has an offbeat premise, but this ’90s romcom starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman is also sweet, funny, and charming, with a great ensemble cast (like the amazing Glynis Johns!). The scenes around the family dinner table — which are full of realistic, free-associated, non-sequitur cross-talk — have become a touchstone for my own clan, especially when we’re seated cheek to jowl during holiday meals. And anyone who’s ever felt lonely at this time of year will sympathize with Bullock’s yearning Lucy. The perfect holiday comfort movie. Watch the trailer.
Edited by Jennifer Merin