The People’s Critic’s List of the Top Ten Holiday Films

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The holiday season is finally upon us.  With Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, The People’s Critic has been asked to re-post the Top 10 Holiday Film list.  Like my Top 10 Thrillers list posted in October, I made a few minor updates on the list, but I continue to stand by the rest.

At this festive time of year, people need guidance on how to make the most of the precious hours they will spend watching holiday movies.  Unlike Halloween movies, holiday movies suddenly feel weird once January rears its ugly head.  Thus, here is your guide to assure you make wise choices for your holiday entertainment.  I have pain-stakingly devised a secret list of criteria designed to assure a reliable systematic ranking.  (And yes, I am aware that I neglected to include A Christmas Story, The Polar Express, and a host of classics and musicals – if you don’t like it, make your own list.  Merry Christmas!  Where’s the Tylenol?)

Edward Scissorhands10.  Edward Scissorhands – Now hold on there!  Edward Scissorhands, a holiday film?  The film was released December 19, 1990.  It also has Christmas scenes and a beautiful “snow” motif.  But most importantly, it is a film about accepting differences – even if those differences involve robotic-like anatomy linked to scissor appendages.  Tim Burton’s masterpiece fits nicely under the holiday-guise and is a gothic allegory for society’s corruption!

 

The Ref9.  The Ref – Denis Leary strives for the main stream in director Ted Demme’s hilarious film about a cat burglar who takes the wrong couple hostage as he attempts to evade the police on Christmas Eve.  Leary finds himself the victim as his husband/wife hostages continuously drive him nuts with their bickering and fighting.  Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are delightfully venomous as the couple and Leary is in fine form as the tortured criminal!

 

Trading Places8.  Trading Places – Based on a rather high-brow social experiment, Trading Places finds the lives of socialite Dan Aykroyd and street-bum Eddie Murphy suddenly switched as part of a wager between two rich CEOs.  The nature vs. nurture wager revolves around whether Aykroyd will resort to crime when he loses everything and whether Murphy will become a responsible executive when given opportunity.  As serious as this may sound, the movie is a triumph of the comedy legends.

 

Gremlins7.  Gremlins – “No bright light, don’t’ get him wet, and whatever you do – don’t ever feed him after midnight.”  These are the three rules that are sure to be broken when Randall Peltzer brings his son Billy home a strange new pet for Christmas!  In no time Gremlins are unleashed on Kingston Falls.  In the same vein as Edward Scissorhands, this film dances the line between horror and comedy with great results.  A classic!

 

Home Alone6.  Home Alone – We all have Macaulay Culkin’s shocked face frozen in our cerebral cortex from when he slapped on too much aftershave.  However, John Hughes’s Christmas blockbuster is both a holiday film as well as a solid entry in the Hughes tradition.  Even with an 8-year-old protagonist, Hughes doesn’t let up on the youthful angst, creating a coming of age story wrapped up with a nice bow (and a few black eyes for those wet bandits).

 

planes trains5.  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – Ok, so we’re in the top five, so I will curb my dark sense of humor that has clearly influenced the previous five entries…at least until number 2.  It’s John Hughes again with the film that made Uncle Buck possible, which in turn made Home Alone possible.  Although I’m sure the pitch meeting went something like this: “So John Candy and Steve Martin – SOLD!” the movie gives the two comedy icons plenty of material as they must reluctantly travel together to get home for Thanksgiving.  I don’t care who you are – if you don’t tear up the first time you see the final scene, you’re not human!

 

elf4.  Elf – Perhaps the first of the modern classics, John Favreau directs Will Ferrell who plays Buddy the elf who was raised by Santa only to discover he is actually human.  Favreau brilliantly balances the tone between silly and genius creating a film that is as enjoyable for children as it is for adults.  Ferrell is joined by James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, and Bob Newhart who all contribute to this film’s success.  This film has become virtually unavoidable, but it doesn’t mean it’s not good.

 

it's a wonderful life3.  It’s a Wonderful Life – Not just a great holiday movie, but one of the best films ever made.  Frank Capra’s crowning achievement finds Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey who just can not get out of Bedford Falls.  In a film class I took, a professor made a very compelling case for how this film fits nicely in the horror genre in a twisted, Twilight Zone kind of way.  Nonetheless, the classic story about a man being shown what the world would be like if he never existed takes Dicken’s Christmas Carol to a new more relatable place where Scrooge is replaced by a nice guy who lets life get him down.

 

scrooged2.  Scrooged – Ok back to dark comedy territory.  I was told that for my “holiday movie list” Groundhog Day was not an appropriate title as the title “holiday movies” implies films that take place during or around November/December.  I will agree to disagree, but fortunately, there’s an easy alternative – Scrooged!  Bill Murray plays Frank Cross (“a thing they nail people to”), a TV executive who has let greed get the better of him.  This film is a showcase for Murray as it would likely  be terrible without him.  However, because of him, it’s so good that it’s my #2 holiday film!  And with the recent trend of NBC airing live musicals in December (last year’s The Sound of Music and this year’s Peter Pan), I have to wonder if NBC president Jeff Zucker keeps this film’s lesson in mind!  On a side note –  if you are looking for a Christmas-y Groundhog Day, it’s been brought to my attention that ABC Family created an absurd rip off called The 12 Dates of Christmas with Amy Smart and Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).

 

christmas vacation1.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – This film has it all: memorable characters, big laughs, emotional moments, and quotable lines.  Chevy Chase attempts to host a family Christmas that promises to blow up in his face, even literally!  There is no getting tired of the jewel in the Griswold franchise crown; you’ll be sure to have the “hap-hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny F@#kin’ Kaye!”

 

Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Arthur Christmas, Love Actually, and Die Hard.

What do you think?  Did I get it right or did I miss your favorite holiday film?  Let me know!

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Mockingjay pt1Last year at around this time, I reviewed  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and I discussed the impact of splitting films into separate parts with separate release dates. While not sold on the concept, I did give Smaug and director Peter Jackson credit for effectively demonstrating the merits of this controversial choice. I cannot say the same about the final chapter of Hunger Games series, Mockingjay.

Mockingjay picks up right where Catching Fire left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued by a rebel organization calling themselves The Mockingjay, after she brought down the arena’s force field at the end of the 75th Hunger Games. Tributes Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) were also rescued while Johanna (Jena Malone) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were captured by the Capitol. The group is hiding out in the mysterious and mythical District 13 and are looking to unite the other districts in overthrowing the Capitol.

Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) along with Katniss’s family are among the thousands who managed to escape the Capitol to District 13. When District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) approaches Katniss to sign on as the face of the rebellion, Katniss responds with ferocity over Coin leaving Peeta behind. Still, upon seeing the ruins of her home District 12 and with the advice of ex-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Haymitch, Katniss reluctantly agrees to be The Mockingjay for Coin’s rebel cause.

Unlike the first two installments, this film does not follow the familiar design of holding a reaping that leads to an enclosed arena battle. Here the world itself is the arena and it is a battle of ideologies, not just individuals. This bodes well on the surface as Mockingjay has an opportunity to be fresh, exciting, and perhaps even significant. Instead, Mockingjay is a far messier film than its predecessors, and the cause is the decision to split this story in half. A film about a dogmatic battle between characters as vibrant as these should resonate with intensity from start to finish. Instead, Mockingjay goes the Breaking Dawn route and draaaaaaaawwwwwsss out its first act knowing that it has all the satisfaction coming up next year. There are several scenes that could have easily been cut from this movie, but are added to pad running time. While this is a major fault and complaint, it is basically my only one. Mockingjay has some really insightful things to say about war and propaganda’s role in furthering a cause. I actually wish more time was spent on that idea than with overblown scenes of Katniss visiting her home or staring at rubble. It also is very well acted. Every role is filled out with a dynamic performance and every character is memorable and serves a purpose. As a set of films, this could have been a very solid trilogy with a biting finale. The choice to split it up will forever prevent these films from achieving that overall status; however, the extra half a billion dollars Part 2 fetches will probably keep that artistic integrity safely out of sight. So get ready for more films with titles that require a colon AND a hyphen. Of the three films in the series, this is the worst, but hopefully will give way to a superior conclusion. B

Mockingjay is rated PG-13 and somehow manages a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong (Screenplay) and Suzanne Collins (Novel, Adaptation)

Interstellar

interstellar2A Christopher Nolan film release is event movie territory. Interstellar, Nolan’s first film since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, has far more in common with his 2010 mind-bender Inception than with the “Caped Crusader,” however. First, they are both one-word titles that begin with “I” and second both deal with the complex nature of time’s relativity to the dimension of space and the time that one’s consciousness is inhabiting combined with the levels of both of those times’ relativity within the separate levels of that dimension. Call it a director trademark. All that aside, Interstellar is a phenomenal film.

Interstellar is set in an undetermined future where blight and dust have decimated most of the food supply on Earth. Modern industrial society has ceased to exist and a “caretaker” generation has taken over, where most children will be raised to be farmers and few will see education beyond secondary school. Matthew McConaughey takes the McConnaissance to an epic level as Joseph Cooper, a former NASA test-pilot turned farmer living with his two children and father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Frequent dust storms have eliminated virtually every crop but corn, and corn is likely not far from extinction as well. When some strange gravitational pulses begin influencing some of Cooper’s farm equipment, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) notices some patterns left behind that reveal coordinates to a secret NASA lab operating underground. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) heads the operation and when Cooper stumbles upon the lab, Brand presents Cooper with an interstellar mission that has the potential to save humanity from extinction but also requires that he leave his family with no guarantee of return. Cooper reluctantly accepts and with a crew including Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), and scientists Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), Cooper leads a space mission to explore a series of potentially promising alternatives to Earth.

Now if you’re in that group of  people who only take their dystopia with a side of Jennifer Lawrence, hear me out. Interstellar is the most immersive film of the year, eclipsing even last year’s Gravity in terms of cinematic experience. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like Steven Price’s Oscar winning score from Gravity, the score in this film, composed by Has Zimmer, plays an equally pivotal role. Swells and crescendos of synthesizers and pipe organs counter-balance equally ominous moments of complete silence, all of which emphasize the overall mood.

The cast is adequate, but what actor is playing which role in this film is actually quite inconsequential. McConaughey is the only actor who has to carry any substantial weight and his performance is best categorized as “alright.” In fact, the film boasts a parade of cameos, which work to draw attention away from the film’s principal actors. At one point, you may have to check your ticket stub to make sure you didn’t accidentally walk into a screening of Ocean’s Eleven. But like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. This is a big movie, so see it on a big screen! A

Interstellar is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes.