Two years ago, back when this blog was still Some Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade and practically nobody had heard of it, I ran a series called Do They Know It’s Christmas? It was a list of Christmas films that weren’t really Christmas films. They might have featured Christmas as a backdrop or maybe even had only one scene involving it, but weren’t really all that concerned about the holiday itself. Since we’re less than a week from the big day and some of you are likely looking for a break from Grinches and reindeer and such, I thought I’d dig this up from the archives. Here then are my top ten Christmas films that aren’t really about Christmas. Enjoy!
#10: Rocky IV
Christmas Connection: The climactic fight between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago takes place on Christmas Day. Or Just Another Dreary Soulless Day in the Bread Line, as it was known in the Soviet Union at the time.
When you get right down to it, nothing says Christmas like two ‘roided up monsters beating the crap out of each other for 15 rounds (oh, sure, like Stallone got that physique by lifting trees and running from the KGB). And as an extra bonus in your stocking, Rocky even manages to end the Cold War, drawing a Slow Clap from Gorbachev in the process. Merry Rozhdestvom indeed.
Rocky IV completes the transformation of Rocky Balboa from plucky underdog to unstoppable superhero, although somehow along the way he never quite learns to stop leading with his face. In fact, Rocky’s primary strategy seems to be taking advantage of his opponent being worn out from beating the daylights out of him for 14 rounds. The one time Rocky actually boxes (the second Lang fight in Rocky III), he wins in three rounds. Think of the wear and tear he could have saved himself if he’d only, I don’t know, defended himself at some point. I guess that tactic died along with Apollo Creed.
I remember people in my audience lustily shouting for Rocky to “kill that fucking Russian” during the big fight, making for an enjoyable holiday experience for all in attendance. Never mind that this paragon of the American Way left his only child home alone on Christmas to go beat up someone in an unsanctioned fight. And worse, he leaves him alone with Paulie’s sexy-voiced robot. They’re lucky they didn’t come home to find the kid passed out in a spent heap with the robot and a very confused vacuum cleaner.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Not really. It seems more like the fight was set at Christmas to tie in with the November release date than for any other compelling reason. Sure, Rocky’s kid gets a “Merry Christmas” shout-out at the end of the fight, but unless Rocky Jr. was tuning to pirate radio coming out of central Asia, the chances are good he missed that. And besides, sexy-voiced robot.
Christmas Connection: The film takes place right in the heart of the Christmas season, about a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Right when everyone was in the mood for wacky hijinks, apparently.
1941 will forever be known as the film that made Steven Spielberg mortal, that proved he couldn’t simply turn anything into gold just by pointing a camera at it. It’s a bit of a mess, a comedy that thinks bigger equals funnier, and its story is really nothing more than a series of vignettes featuring characters trying to scream louder than the others, something the filmmakers seemed to have recognized: the curtain-call end credits feature almost nothing but clips of the characters yelling.
I also love every sloppy minute of it. Maybe it’s nostalgia, seeing as how this was one of the first films I ever saw on HBO and so therefore saw it about a billion times that year, or maybe it’s because whatever the film lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. It’s sort of like that one friend who has horrible taste in music, movies and television but whom you keep around because he’s a blast when he’s drunk.
Beyond the level of guilty pleasure, there are a few things to recommend here. The FX work is top-notch, with some really great, detailed model work, especially during the dogfight over Hollywood Blvd. Spielberg actually nails the opening Jaws parody, and the jitterbug contest is one of the moments I point to when I claim that he has the chops to take on a musical. And John Williams bats the score right out of the park with music that is every bit as raggedly enthusiastic as the film tries to be. Wouldn’t be the last time Williams gave a Spielberg film a better score than it deserved (hi there, Hook).
But then again, you’ve got Slim Pickens feigning constipation, which is a pretty apt metaphor for the whole production: something that strained to get out, with pretty crappy results.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Definitely. Christmas decorations are all over the place, and even feature heavily in several gags. Pickens’ character sells Christmas trees when he’s not dealing in covert constipation attacks, and Dan Aykroyd invokes the spirit of Christmas when convincing everyone it’s better to be beating up Huns and Japs than each other. The final joke of the film is the nailing up of a Christmas wreath causing a near-demolished house to finally collapse into the Pacific. Even better, at one point, an errant anti-aircraft gun inadvertently turns a Coca-Cola Santa billboard into an instrument of destruction, kicking off the cola wars a full forty years early. Kind of fitting that most of the Christmas references have some form of destruction attached to them, seeing as how this film probably ruined a lot of Christmases for those involved.
#8: Lethal Weapon
Christmas Connection: The film takes place in December, and the final scene is on Christmas Day. Fortunately for Mel Gibson, Hanukkah is given a pass altogether.
First of all, take a good look at Mel’s eyes in that poster and tell me you’re the least bit surprised at his behavior recently. Even Danny Glover looks reasonably suspicious. Either that or he sees where his career is going after this series.
That said, I honestly don’t think I’ve seen this film since the late 90s. I know there are people who worship at its altar, and it’s an undeniably fun, exciting action film, but for some reason it never quite clicked over into classic must re-watch status for me. Maybe it was the ever-diminishing returns from the sequels, none of which I can say I cared for in the least. And while I usually try not to hold bad sequels against a film (hey there Star Wars), just knowing that Joe Pesci and Chris Rock are waiting down the road just sort of dampens my enthusiasm.
Speaking of the sequels, what kind of tagline was, “The magic is back” anyway? What, the magic of a suicidal, borderline psychotic cop helping his partner save his daughter from an underground porn ring? That kind of magic? And then for the third film, they trotted out, “The magic is back again.” I was mildly disappointed the fourth film didn’t feature, “The magic is still hanging around, apparently.” Also, if you look at the movie posters for the four films in succession, Gibson actually offers up a pretty decent history of mens’ hairstyles from the late 80s and early 90s.
But the original film is still a classic buddy cop picture, and undeniably the template for a good majority of the buddy cop films to follow it. Looking back at photos from the film when putting together the title montage for this series, I was struck by how charismatic Gibson was back then. He was damned good-looking and charming as hell. Now, as we know, most likely from his Jew-hating pact with Satan.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Well, the film does kick off with a rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock,” and we’re introduced to Riggs at a Christmas tree lot doubling as a drug den. So yes, it’s a white Christmas, just not in the way you’d think. And we wrap things up on Christmas Day, with Riggs giving Murtaugh the bullet he was going to use to kill himself. What we don’t see is Murtaugh giving Riggs the clip of ammo he was going to empty into Riggs if he didn’t stay away from his daughter.
#7: Trading Places
Christmas Connection: A pivotal scene takes place during an office Christmas party. And one could reasonably argue that Jamie Lee Curtis’ breasts bring joy to the world.
One of the benefits of having worked for an online stock broker — aside from being laid off in the wake of 9/11 — was finally being able to understand just what the hell happens at the end of Trading Places. It’s not essential to enjoying the film to know just what’s going on — it’s enough to know that the good guys pulled some financial maneuver and ruined the bad guys — but let me tell you, watching this after I’d crammed for and passed my Series 7 test, it was like a light went on. I have to admit, I became a little insufferable after that, forcing my friends to listen to me explain the climax: ”Hey, congrats on the new baby! So, at the end of Trading Places…”
This is probably my favorite Eddie Murphy movie, mostly because it forces him to actually play a character rather than simply relying on him being Eddie Murphy. Not that he doesn’t have his moments, but it feels here like his antics are in service to the story rather than the entire basis for it. Despite having been a teenager at the height of his fame, I never really got into Murphy all that much; I’d written off Saturday Night Live by that point, and I was too busy worshiping at the altar of Spielberg to pay much attention to anything that didn’t have the Amblin logo in front of it, so Buckwheat and Beverly Hills Cop were never big touchstones for me, at least not until well after the fact.
It’s also a little sad watching Dan Aykroyd in this, knowing he had maybe one or two more really good comedic performances in him before his long fallow period in the late 80s. He’d do Ghostbusters and Spies Like Us, and then it was on board the Suck Express, with stops at Caddyshack II, The Couch Trip, The Great Outdoors, My Step-Mother is an Alien, Loose Cannons, and I’m just going to stop right now because I’m starting to feel bad for the guy.
I could go on about the film, but I’m starting to feel the urge to explain short sales and margin calls, and I’m not about to undo years of hard work and discipline by going down that route.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: They know it, they just don’t seem to like it very much. Aykroyd disguises himself as perhaps the worst Santa ever to crash his office Christmas party in order to plant drugs and discredit Murphy, and we’re treated to him eating pilfered salmon on a subway train while nearly swallowing half his beard in the process. Then he puts a gun to his head and eventually tries to overdose on pills. Merry freakin’ Christmas indeed.
Christmas Connection: It’s Christmas time in a dystopian society where a faceless, monolithic government blindly grinds its citizens beneath its heels. You know, a documentary.
I’d always liked movies growing up, but Brazil was the film where the whole thing finally clicked and it turned from like to love. Oh sure, I had Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but those were just high school crushes. Brazilwas the first film I loved that made me feel like I was a smarter film fan for loving it.
It didn’t hurt that I first saw the film my freshman year in college, when I was just starting in on my English major and so was in the process of having my head cracked open to the idea of reading something with an eye for more than what was just on the page. Of course, it was on a VCR in a dorm, so a lot of the visual majesty was lost on me until I managed to see the widescreen version on DVD — and I regret never having seen this on the big screen — but even on that old square television, Terry Gilliam’s magic was obvious.
And, of course, being someone who fancied himself a creative sort (and still does, obviously), the idea of the human imagination being more powerful than the worst humanity could do to itself was incredibly compelling. The film so effortlessly switches back and forth from cold gray reality to soaring lyrical dreamscapes that, when the narrative actually transitions to Sam’s dream of escape, we don’t even realize it until those giant heads pop into view and we see Sam’s distant yet happy expression. In the physical sense, the machine has won, but spiritually, it’s a resounding victory for the soul.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Oh yes, everyone is downright jolly and happy and giving gifts to one and all. Granted, every gift is exactly the same and given with about as much sincerity as giving someone the time, but hey, it’s the semblance of the thought that counts, right?
Christmas Connection: Battleground recounts the Siege of Bastogne, which took place from December 20th to December 27th, 1944. That’s the battle where, when asked by the Germans to surrender, American commander Brigadier General Clement McAuliffe responded, “NUTS!”, which pretty much makes him the most awesome man in the history of everything.
Man, Christmas sucks. Parking at the mall is a nightmare, the crowds are even worse, relatives come crawling out of the woodwork bearing every annoying family tradition they can think of, it’s usually cold and/or wet, and it seems like just when you finally get all the decorations up, you’ve got to take them back down again. What a damn nuisance.
Yeah, right. The 101st Airborne Division had that beat. Oh, they had the cold and/or wet. But they also had to sleep in frozen holes in the ground, had to deal with dwindling supplies with little hope of resupply due to bad weather, had trees exploding around them due to the sap freezing inside them, and oh yes, four German divisions bearing down on them who wanted nothing more for Christmas than to roll over them on the way to Antwerp. That line for the mall Santa doesn’t seem to bad now, does it?
Before Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Battleground was THE definitive World War II film. Made just four years after the end of the war and so steeped in both the weariness of the war and the euphoria of its ending, it’s a film widely praised for its authenticity, not only in its historical aspects, but in how it shows the day-to-day routine of the men who made that history There’s no John Wayne here, no larger-than-life hero who somehow saves the day. It’s just a bunch of guys who were in the right place at the right time and with the right amount of stubbornness. They want to go home. They make mistakes. They’re afraid. But they’re also determined, and watching that determination stand up to ever bleaker odds is an inspiring experience.
There’s a great moment that caps the film, where the group’s platoon sergeant (played with template-setting grit and world-weariness by James Whitmore), rouses the now-relieved defenders into marching formation and faces them back towards the front, only to have them about-face and head to the rear. And you can see all the weariness and hurt just melt away as they know they’re about to get the first real rest they’ve known for nearly two weeks.
And they definitely earned it. The defense of Bastogne was a major part of stemming the massive German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, and it’s for no small reason that those defenders were given — and proudly accepted — the nickname “the Battling Bastards of Bastogne”. All told, more than three thousand American soldiers were wounded or killed in the action. So think about that when someone grabs up that last Xbox Kinect off the shelf or swipes that really close parking space. People suffered through a much worse Christmas than that so you could suffer through yours.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Oh, they’re painfully aware of it. German propaganda dropped into their lines goes out of its way to remind them of the fact. And an Army chaplain, his feet bundled up in blankets and rags, leads an outdoor Christmas service where there are no Catholics or Lutherans, just a bunch of weary guys who want to spending Christmas anywhere else.
#4: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is sort of the red-headed step-child of Python films. It didn’t inspire the geekish devotion Monty Python and the Holy Grail enjoys, and it didn’t step on toes the way Monty Python’s The Life of Brian so brilliantly managed to do. And as the last film featuring the full group, there’s a tendency to look on it the way fans look at the last Beatles albums, as the last gasp of a group at its end, and so somehow not as relevant as their earlier work.
And while the film does have some rough patches, and feels more like a thinly-connected series of sketches than even the loosely-plotted Holy Grail, it’s still great Python. It’s also sort of revealing, when you consider it’s the work of men just entering their forties and rife with questions on why we’re here and what awaits us when we’re gone. The zanies from the 60s have realized their lives are half over and have started to wonder what’s the point of it all.
So if that makes the tone a little darker, it certainly doesn’t make the film any less funny. You’ve got Terry Gilliam’s terrific “Crimson Permanent Insurance” to start things off, the killer “Every Sperm is Sacred” production number, Terry Jones’ stomach-turning Mr. Creosote, and the delightfully black sequence where Death interrupts a dinner party. And I always get a tug of nostalgia at the end when the credits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus play on the TV at the end, as if the group itself is bidding farewell to this screwed-up world to drift off forever into the cosmos of our memories.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: In Heaven they sure do. Not only is it Christmas all the time, not only do you get topless Vegas showgirls in Santa outfits, but you get The Sound of Music twice an hour and Jaws 1, 2, and 3. Which is like getting an iPad, a pair of socks, and a lump of coal shoved down your throat. And who hasn’t had one of those Christmases?
#3: Edward Scissorhands
Christmas Connection: The story takes place over Christmas, giving Hot Topic a guaranteed holiday season sales leader for years to come.
I’ve always been of the opinion that Edward Scissorhands is sort of Tim Burton’s apology for Batman. Well, maybe “apology” is too strong a word, but it certainly seems like Burton is bemoaning what that film turned him into.
If you look at Edward as Burton’s surrogate — and really, how can you not — Edward’s story very neatly follows Burton’s career: quirky artist who gains popularity, which then evolves into an all-consuming monster, after which he decides he’s better off going back to being the solitary creator. The all-consuming monster, of course, beingBatman. It’s Burton saying he’s Edward, more at home up in that mansion making his ice sculptures than venturing down into the town that will only misunderstand and use him in the end. You could even look at Edward’s origin — a cookie machine turned into a man by Vincent Price’s aging inventor — as a version of Burton’s time at Disney, a cookie-cutter shadow of its former self presided over by the spirit of its dead creator.
Of course, unlike Edward, Burton did eventually go back down into the town with Batman Returns, only to seemingly scramble back home with films like Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! But now it seems like he’s moved into town for good, and as such his films have gotten bigger and bigger and less and less personal. If there’s still an Edward inside him, he’s run out of ice, and it isn’t snowing anymore.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Oh yes, as the pivotal scene that leads to the town turning against Edward happens as Edward’s adopted family puts up some of the most garish Christmas decorations imaginable, complete with stapled-on snow on the roof. We’re also treated to Alan Arkin’s hilariously earnest rendition of “I Saw Three Ships,” literally shouted from the rooftops.
Christmas Connection: As any parent can relate to, Christmas is ruined by a horde of little monsters.
Ah, Gremlins. If all was right with the world, it would be you and not Jimmy Stewart and Peter Billingsley crowding our airwaves every year. We’d all have Gizmo tree-toppers and hang little Stripes from the boughs, and furiously try to finish all our food before midnight. Because even though it was released in the summer, and even though it’s mostly about Christmas being destroyed, no other film so expertly captures the American attitude towards the holiday, when people turn into tacky, greedy, all-consuming gremlins themselves.
You can boil down Gremlins to the classic Christmas faux pas: getting someone exactly the wrong gift. Only instead of not fitting right or being an ugly color, it jumps out of a Christmas tree and attacks you with a carving knife. The only advantage is that, judging by the end of the film, Mr. Wing has a much more lenient return policy than Target or Wal-Mart; he doesn’t even require a receipt. Although the burning ruin of half the town is a pretty good proof of purchase.
Gremlins was part of one of the greatest movie summers ever. On the weekend it opened in 1984, you also had the option of checking out Romancing the Stone, Sixteen Candles, Star Trek III, and two little art films called Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And before the summer was over, we’d get The Karate Kid, The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds and Red Dawn, with Gremlins and Ghostbusters duking it out for the top of the box office all the way. Heady times indeed for a young geek.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Yes, a notion the gremlins do their best to disabuse them of. And of course, there’s the heart-warming story of Phoebe Cates’ dead father in his Santa suit in the chimney. If that doesn’t get you in the Christmas spirit, nothing will.
#1: Die Hard
Christmas Connection: A gang of terrorists help create the first remotely interesting office Christmas party in the history of office Christmas parties. Sorry about the explosions and dead people though.
Nearly twenty-five years after its release, I don’t think people understand just what a left-fielder Die Hard was. An action movie starring the guy from Moonlighting was not considered much of a slam dunk, even with director John McTiernan hot off the success of Predator. It was up against summer blockbusters like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Coming to America. And yet not only did the film open in July and manage to stay in the top ten well into October, it became a genre: ”Die Hard on a ______.”
That’s because Die Hard is just damn near the best action movie ever made. It’s got a protagonist who actually gets hurt. Badly. Bad enough to make you believe even some of the more nonsensical stunts he pulls. It’s got truly charismatic bad guys the film actually gets you to root for; they’re even given a downright heroic moment when they finally open the vault they’ve come to rob, and despite the fact that they’ve killed one man in cold blood and are trying their utmost to kill our hero, you can’t help but cheer for them a little when it happens. And it’s just pretty damn spectacular. Things don’t just blow up — they blow up real good.
And it has to be one of the most quotable movies of all time. ”Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.” ”Welcome to the party, pal!” Almost everything Hans Gruber says. And, of course, the ultimate in Christmas sentiment, “Yipee ki yay, motherfucker.” Try it when you begin emptying your stocking this morning.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: The good guys know; the bad guys know but don’t care. And at it’s heart, it’s a movie about two people who just want to spend Christmas together and the band of invaders who make that hard for them. So, pretty much every family Christmas ever.