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Screen Themes: Christmas Movie Countdown 2018

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Some people love Christmas movies, some people loathe them.

Entertainment editor John Turnbull sits somewhere in between, so here are five Christmas movies that don’t send him into an irrational rage.

#5 – The Nightmare Before Christmas

Directed by Henry Selick (1993)

After the first ten minutes of The Nightmare Before Christmas, my daughter turned to me and asked, “Are you sure this is a Christmas movie? They keep talking about Halloween”. I replied that this was a Christmas movie like the 1992 Batman was a superhero movie, which either satisfied her curiosity or confused her enough to invoke silence.

Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon when speaking, Danny Elfman when singing) is the Pumpkin King of Halloween town, but he longs for change and when he discovers the existence of Christmas, he’s determined to make it even better. Accompanied by a legion of ghosts and ghouls, Jack kidnaps Santa and takes over, causing hilarity and global chaos along the way.

Although director Henry Selick downplays writer/producer Tim Burton’s contributions, Nightmare is a typically Tim Burton movie, revelling in the weird and embracing the handmade aesthetic. It also has some pretty darn catchy songs.

#4 – Scrooged

Directed by Richard Donner (1988)

To be fair, a Very Murray Christmas was a contender for this list, but lost out for being just slightly too self-indulgent and pointless. Many would argue that this definition fits Bill Murray himself in 2018, particularly those who don’t care for his habit of turning up uninvited at weddings and making himself the centre of attention.

Telling a version of the classic A Christmas Carol story through the eyes of a jaded TV exec, Scrooged isn’t afraid to portray Murray’s Frank Cross as a horrible human being and the actor revels in his crapulousness. Murray is so horrible (in such an '80s way) that the first 20 minutes of the movie are a little difficult to watch — you can just feel the shadow of #MeToo hanging over the proceedings, particularly when Frank argues that a costume showing nipples is fine for network TV.

Still, when the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future make their appearance, the movie finds a remarkable amount of heart and it’s a testament to Murray’s acting ability that he’s able to generate sympathy so quickly after behaving like a total toolbag. Slightly inappropriate for younger viewers (in case the nipple thing didn’t tip you off), Scrooged is well worth a look for fans of '80s comedy.

#3 – Die Hard

Directed by John McTiernan (1988)

I appreciate that there are some people who don’t believe that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but they’re demonstrably wrong. Not only is the movie set at Christmas, but seasonal iconography plays an incredibly important role in the film, not least the immortal scene when an elevator opens to reveal a dead terrorist wearing a Santa hat and a shirt bearing the words “Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho.”

Of course, a Christmas movie is only as good as its villain (one of many reasons Home Alone isn’t on this list) and the late Alan Rickman plays one of the best villains in movie history, the dapper and well-spoken Hans Gruber. Rickman is the perfect foil to Bruce Willis’s grungy John McClane, back when the character was a heroic everyman rather than a physics-defying super soldier (see Die Hard 4.0 onwards).

I’ve heard it said that it isn’t truly Christmas until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza, a sentiment with which I heartily concur.

#2 – The Muppet Christmas Carol 

Directed by Brian Henson (1992)

There are two types of people in this world — those who love the Muppets and horrible, heartless people who would kick a puppy if they thought nobody was watching. If you fall into the latter category, I apologise, but stay the hell away from my dog.

Starring Michael Caine as Scrooge (one of the few human characters), The Muppet Christmas Carol takes a more traditional approach than Scrooged, with Gonzo playing the role of narrator Charles Dickens. It also features pretty much every other Muppet in existence, including Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit, Fozzie Bear as Fozziewig and eternal critics Statler and Waldorf as Scrooge’s ghostly former business partners.

Featuring a soundtrack packed with catchy songs (occasionally sung by Caine himself, to surprisingly good result), a script filled with intelligent jokes for both adults and kids and a genuine feelgood ending, The Muppet Christmas carol is charming as hell.

#1 – Elf 

Directed by Jon Favreau (2003)

Elf tells the story of Buddy, a human baby raised by Santa and his elves after crawling into Santa’s sack one Christmas. When Buddy finally works out that he’s not an elf, he embarks on a journey to find his real father, re-introducing the joy of Christmas to the people he meets along the way. 

There has seldom been a piece of better casting than when Will Ferrell was selected to play Buddy (allegedly after Jim Carrey said no). While the comedian had been building a reputation as an oddball character actor in movies such as Zoolander and Old School, Elf revealed an entirely different side to Will Ferrell — one of innocence and boundless enthusiasm for life. Ferrell is perfectly matched by the gentle charm of Zooey Deschanel as Jovie and the prickly James Caan as his estranged father, supported by a great cast including Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner and Peter Dinklage.

Packed with life lessons from the joy of spreading cheer to the importance of taking risks, Elf is a movie with something for the whole family. Embrace the joy.

Have a great break, everyone. See you in 2019!

Cheers, John

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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