This year has seen more and more streaming services land in the Australian marketplace. It’s becoming a pain to juggle these on a limited budget. But on the plus side there’s so, so much content. Much of it Christmas related. This is certainly not comprehensive, I didn’t even touch on some of the Christmas related stuff on Amazon Prime, SBS on Demand, Tubi and others, but I’ve tried to get a mix of stuff on a few different services.
I’ve always loved Christmas films and TV, even as I got older. There’s something about those simple, lovely themes that I do think can add some beauty to what has become an overwhelming consumerist vibe to the season. All of these have something of that vibe of togetherness, love and reflection, though not always in the most obvious of ways.
Santa Clause (1898) – whilst YouTube is not a streaming service in the way we generally consider, I had to include this curio. Directed by British film pioneer George Albert Smith, this is a one minute 16 second long piece of early cinema trickery as Santa visits a couple of kids. You can see a nice copy from the BFI here.
This Aussie service continues to creatively fend off the bigger international names. That vibe carries through a little into their offerings.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – I reviewed it right here today. It’s an absolute classic.
Christmas TV – One of the cool things Stan does is curate the Christmas episodes of a huge number of TV shows. Some favourites (episode numbers here are how they appear in the Stan Christmas collections, not standard ep numbering):
- Community: ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (ep 2): This may be my favourite thing on this entire list. The spirit of the season examined through the exploration of one (Muslim) person’s mental health and search for the meaning of Christmas. A hilarious take on the Christmas musical in super cool stop motion animation.
- Parks and Recreation: ‘Ron and Diane’ (ep 3): The Parks and Rec Christmas episodes probably don’t stand alone as well as some others. But this still has giggly awed at woodworking royalty Ron Swanson which is beautiful. And the focus on Jerry Gergich, always an underrated supporting character, and his famous Christmas party is a cute way to bring in those traditional themes.
- The O.C.: ‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’ (ep 1): This was in the brief golden period when this show’s dynamic was so sharp. Seth Cohen’s energy comes to the fore here with the made up holiday and Summer/Anna. Even now, so far removed from this show the music still rules. And Ben McKenzie gives a good emotional performance here as Ryan, which delivers a lot of the thematic goods.
Bad Moms 2 (2017) – This is a solid film that never quite lives up to the promise of having a hitchhiking Susan Sarandon play the mother of Kathryn Hahn (what film could). But this is a solid comedy that is actually pretty thematically rich – zeroing in on the mental load on women during the season. Let’s face it, Christmas can be fuckin stressful and most of that falls on mums. Those themes, some really nice performances and some interesting romantic stuff make it worth a look. Note: Looks like this has also popped up on Aussie Netflix as A Bad Moms Christmas since I drafted this.
The streaming behemoth seems to be pretty all in on the Christmas thing, with an endless array of films and specials of their show.
A Very Murray Christmas (2015) – I’ve watched this every December since it came out. Murray’s schtick, which can be hit and miss for me, works really well in this. There are some cool songs that add to the storytelling and Sofia Coppola infuses some of her visual style in here as well. Importantly it’s also super funny.
The Christmas Chronicles (2018) – AKA Kurt Russell Santa The Movie. This is actually quite a meaningful take on the Christmas mythos. Plus it looks really ace and is well acted all round. A lovely sense of magic and wonder to the world created here.
Klaus (2019) – This is an absolutely stunning looking animation. There is an interesting out of time quality to this, there’s no hint as to when it is set. It’s a super interesting take on the character of Santa too, how they reframe it. The film at times falls into the pitfalls of contemporary animation and having too modern a sensibility, with glib winking montages making multiple appearances. But I’ll be revisiting this one for the reinterpretation of the Santa character and the really quite poignant ending.
Nailed It! Holiday! – Nailed It absolutely rules. It is somehow the kindest reality show that pokes fun at people truly awful at what they are attempting. Charming, unserious and Nicole Byers is the perfect host.
- ‘We’re Scrooged’ (season 2, ep 1): A Christmas Carol themed episode with co-host Jason Mantzoukas. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of his comedic energy. But he’s fucking hilarious here. And there’s some delightful riffs on Dickens’ work. The hosts, and I, basically had a laughing fit at one of the cakes presented.
- ‘A Classic Christmas’ (season 2, ep 2): The great Maya Rudolph brings a dry wit to this one that complements Byers and Jacques absolutely perfectly. I could listen to Rudolph riff over stellar incompetence such as not being able to open the fridge every day of the year.
The most recent entrant in the market unsurprisingly already has a huge library of Christmas junk.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – The best Muppets movie and maybe the best adaptation of Dickens’ work (which is one of my favourite pieces of art ever). So charming. Captures that snowbound sense of (northern) Christmas. Shows the class situation of the masses well too and Michael Caine is a really excellent Scrooge. It’s a very funny script but laces it with direct lines from the book to give it the Dickens vibe. Never shies away from the absurdity that it’s the Muppets doing this story.
A Christmas Carol (2009) – Robert Zemeckis is the man and this is a criminally underrated adaptation of the source material. The performance (or four) from Carrey is the best use of his wonderful physicality in the last 20-odd years. And it doesn’t forget this is a ghost story, some of the horror beats are chilling. The script is an excellent, emotionally resonant rendering of Dickens’ novella.
One Magic Christmas (1985) – First the good stuff (and it’s mostly really good stuff). Harry Dean Stanton as a cowboy Christmas angel! An excellent Mary Steenburgen performance as an utterly worn-down mother figure, in a film that is super concerned with class. Another film that digs into the load on mothers at this time of year. Quite an adult film thematically. Now the bad (which is a bit of a spoiler): The film has a woman believe her whole family is dead so she’ll get some Christmas spirit… that’s super super fucked up. But the fact I still recommend this shows how strong (and original) those good elements are.
Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999) – Donald Duck is the worst fuckin character. But despite that, this Disney anthology is a good, easy Christmas watch. Some nice slapstick and traditional Christmas messages presented in a slightly different way. And the final segment functions as a quite sad indictment of what the consumerist nature of Christmas forces us into.
For this first review back (and first longform written review for over two years) I take a look at the most famous Christmas film of all.
It is interesting to consider Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as a Christmas film. It is not until an hour and a quarter in that it even becomes apparent the film is taking place at Christmas time. The lofty reputation as a great seasonal film essentially stems from a single scene – Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey skipping down the main street of small town Bedford Falls joyfully yelling “Merry Christmas” at anyone or anything that crosses his path.
Despite that, it’s still a pretty easy argument to make that this is the best Christmas film ever, simply based on that one scene. The film has built up to it for the best part of two hours and the cathartic, release of exaltation is exhilarating. A release that is similar to the best feelings of the holidays. In this way, the themes of the film are not always the stock standard Christmas ones. Rather they hint at the season and invoke it’s best qualities, the idealism of it. The film also focuses on the virtues of being a good person and above all a kind friend. But the film also notes how everything takes on a harsher intensity at Christmas. So much so that it reaches the point where George is openly considering committing suicide by launching himself from a bridge on Christmas Eve. There’s something obviously very confronting to that. Particularly as it comes toward the end of a film with an incredibly deep emotional core and resonance. This is melodrama, but melodrama that somehow makes the viewer feel in a very real and grounded way.
This is thanks to a seriously great script that builds ambition and dry wit on top of that melodramatic base. In terms of shooting craft, it is a combination of classical chops and innovation. It looks really beautiful, though often the angles are a bit funky. The visual storytelling, particularly early, has some more experimental flourishes. A paused image as voiceover progresses the story and a static shot of angels (represented by pulsing galaxies) discussing the goings on of earth are two of the more notable examples.
There’s a unique pain in the readjustment one must undergo from thinking you’re going to conquer (or at a minimum explore) the world, but in the end never even leaving a small town. This is what Stewart’s George Bailey goes through in this film. It’s a very good performance to convey all of that. He nails moments of rage, heartbreak and crushing stress. Those big emotion driven dramatic moments are not always his strong suit. But here he delivers them, whilst still nailing the lighter comedic beats such as the dancing into the pool, with his masterful timing. His George is utterly beset by bad luck. That, along with the fact he becomes exceedingly conflicted by being trapped in his small town, allow for the wonderful catharsis that the film closes with.
The notion of what constitutes a wonderful life is so artfully and beautifully rendered in the film’s last 15 minutes here. A stark, sobering display of the difference a ‘normal’ life can make. These are the ideas and moments that make this a real classic. It’s just a little more wonderful that they culminate at Christmas time.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
It has been the best part of a year since I published anything on this blog. Whilst I’ve been podcasting regularly for my show Driving Home From the Cinema Reviews and tweeting endlessly about movies, I have not been moved to write anything.
Part of that came from the grind of trying to write about everything I watched in my monthly ‘worth watching’ posts. Especially once I fell so far behind on those, they became a real grind. Plus maintaining my viewing and ratings on Letterboxd, meant I no longer needed those posts to function like a diary as I had in the past.
But over the past little while, I’ve been devoting a little more time to my writing. Not a whole lot, but enough to know there’s still writing I would like to put the time into. As such I’ll be around here a little more from here on out. Every so often, I’ll be publishing two pieces at the same time (with the exception of my best of the year post that will be a one off). One of those will be a review, often (though not always) of a 1001 film. And the other piece will be something different. A piece of analysis, an opinion style piece, a viewing guide. I want to challenge myself to push my writing in other directions, not just stock standard reviews. I’d like to say these publication days will be monthly. But more realistically I’m hoping to get something out there every couple of months.
Hopefully you enjoy them.