“The camera doesn’t lie, or so they say (though others have said it lies constantly, and both are right), but what it does above all else is magnify. If you think it, you can think it a whole lot on the big screen and you don’t have to say a word.” -Director James Gray
“You’re upset because it’s Christmas. Christmas is a time when you look at your life through a magnifying glass.” -Phillip (Steve Martin) in Mixed Nuts
If movies magnify reality and Christmas is a time where life is magnified, then Christmas movies are doubly powerful. Here’s is a list of Jen’s top five personal favorite Christmas movies, and three favorite movie Christmas moments.
5) Joyeux Noel. 2006, French/German/UK/Belgian/Romanian production depicting the true story of a Christmas Eve truce in the WWI trenches. The Irish, German, and French armies spontaneously come together to celebrate and leave their thoughts of war behind. Beautifully written, acted, and shot. It’s a serious drama, and seriously moving.
4) White Christmas. 1954, directed by Michael Curtiz, music by Irving Berlin. I have long held the notion that I control the ability to make it snow by watching this movie. I watched it a couple of weeks ago…need I say more? If you have the DVD, turn on Rosie Clooney’s commentary. It’s a perennial favorite, with a cast that’s hard to beat. Honorable Mention goes to the film that preceded it, Holiday Inn; it may be just as good.
3)Love, Actually. 2004, written and directed by Richard Curtis. All star cast, and a mix of funny, poignant, romantic, and heartbreaking storylines that overlap. Perfect for any time during the month of December. The “real” footage at the beginning and ending of the film was caught by a hidden camera at Heathrow airport. Curtis loved the reality of people greeting loved ones as they came home, and the film grew from there.
2) Mixed Nuts. 1994, Written by Nora and Delia Ephron, directed by Nora Ephron. Just after their success with Sleepless in Seattle, the Ephron sisters turned out this quirky comedy that was largely panned by critics, but has become an honest-to-goodness holiday standard for many, myself included. The cast is wonderful, and Madeline Kahn’s elevator scene may be one of the funniest ever captured on film. Transvestites, homicidal Santas, flying fruitcake, and a postmodern nativity scene; this one has it all.
1) It’s a Wonderful Life. 1947, directed by Frank Capra. After he returned from WWII, Capra’s next film was perhaps his darkest, and the bleakness turned many Americans who were still recovering from the war away. That year the Oscar went to The Best Years of Our Lives, which deserved it. It’s a Wonderful Life endured, though, and here’s why: it’s a story about redemption, told unlike any other story before or since. There are a lot of movies that want to be It’s a Wonderful Life (The Family Man, The Majestic, etc.) but nothing else is. The dream sequence is shot in film-noir style, supporting the hopelessness and dreariness of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey. The rest of the scenes are filmed like a romantic comedy, the end result being a film which says “with grace, your life is a romantic comedy, not a nightmare.”
3) Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck find hope at the end of Capra’s Meet John Doe. Capra’s work is thematic. The scene is another averted suicide, and the snow falls on the couple as they stand at the top of city hall. Beautiful.
2) Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland and Margaret O’Brien’s characters are contemplating a move away from home, and the song’s bittersweet hope is desperate and palpable. Moments like this are what Garland’s reputation as one of the greatest performers of all time are based on, and with good reason. She absolutely shines.
1) Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills exchange glances in The Trouble With Angels. Mills’ character is a trouble maker at a Catholic school. Russell’s is the nun/headmistress who slowly shows her what a life of service means. In the scene, Mills is spying on the nuns as they hold a Christmas mass. Russell catches her watching and smiles slightly, understanding the girl and her fascination because she sees so much of herself in her.
There are many honorable mentions for both lists, and I’ve entirely left out animated features. Another potential list would be the top five versions of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, but it’s just as well to stick to the book instead.
Stories and moments mean a great deal, and those depicted on film become a part of our psyche, our story, our holiday. They some how capture some of the inexpressible emotions embodied in the Christmas season. Gather up your family, pop some popcorn for the tree, and enjoy the magnification of meaning in holiday movies.