How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) When I was little, I used to turn off the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas before the redemptive last five minutes. Without the ending, the movie is the ultimate fantasy for a Jewish kid with a case of Santa/tree/carols envy—Christmas, canceled.
Now that I'm grown up, I dutifully watch the movie all the way through and use the end to instruct my children about the holiday's true spirit. The Whos of Whoville hold hands and sing in their empty village square even as their gifts and trimmings teeter on the mountaintop to which the Grinch and his long-suffering dog have repaired. See? Christmas isn't about getting. But somehow, my sons still root for the Grinch to heave the toys into the abyss—it's a let-down for them when he rushes back to return the loot and carve the Whos' roast beast. Maybe this is an intergenerational pathology. Or maybe it's just the anticipation of an enormous, irresistible splat.— Emily Bazelon
As miracles go, the virgin birth has never really done it for me. (I've long suspected Mary was just a fast girl with a knack for spin.) But the Miracle on Ice—the U.S. hockey team's 1980 defeat of the seemingly unstoppable Soviets at the Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.—is one I still marvel at. The story seems made for Hollywood: Tough coach whips ragtag band of amateurs into shape; team, after questioning itself briefly, pulls off stunning upset. But the game itself is more riveting than cinema, the score ricocheting back and forth until the U.S. team, up 4-3, holds the aggressive Russians scoreless for 10 long minutes to hang on to the victory. The purest way to appreciate this terrestrial wonder is to watch clips of the original. But if you want to savor the back story, I recommend Miracle, the 2004 film that starred Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks. The movie has the rare virtue of being a top-caliber Hollywood sports flick—player rivalries swiftly sketched; training montages inspiringly scored; coach's speeches truly moving—that spends enough time on the sport. The hockey here is so fleet and swift and true that when, at the climax, you hear the old tape of Al Michaels screaming, "Do you believe in miracles?" you can only think, "Yes!"— Julia Turner
Eyes Wide Shut
Released over the summer of 1999, Stanley Kubrick's anguished journey through fin-de-millénaire Manhattan wasn't presented as a holiday movie. This tale of jealousy and narcissism may not overflow with holiday spirit, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a work of art that's so thoroughly and gorgeously imbued with Christmas.
The cinematography alone composes a brilliant essay on the yuletide aesthetic: The movie is draped from front to back with curtains of tinsel and shimmering lights, and some form of baubled Christmas tree lends a creepy opalescence to almost every scene. Kubrick's doll's-house reconstruction of New York City, built from the ground up on a London soundstage, perfectly captures the discordant emptiness of Midtown on Christmas Eve.
The film just as deftly articulates the nauseous materialism and alienation of the holiday season. Navigating among decadent champagne parties and Masonic orgies, child prostitutes and drugged-out sex slaves, it returns again and again to a central theme: Christmas is a time for buying, and everything—and everyone—is for sale. Kubrick puts an exclamation point on this bleak sentiment in the final scene, when the miserable couple Bill and Alice take their daughter on a holiday shopping spree. "There is something very important that we need to do as soon as possible," intones Alice, as their odyssey of cruel infidelities finally draws to a close.
"What's that?" asks Bill.
Merry Christmas.— Daniel Engber
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Most remakes of the Charles Dickens classic (and there have been dozens) are stiff and dour outings that try too hard to re-create the 19th century. The Muppet version, while admirably faithful to the original, doesn't have this problem. Indeed, Muppets are the perfect medium for the Christmas Carol. Instead of costumed actors, we get a whimsical Ghost of Christmas Past Muppet, a jolly giant Ghost of Christmas Present Muppet, and a terrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come Muppet. Kermit, meanwhile, makes for a perfectly pathetic Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's much put-upon employee and the father of the sickly Tiny Tim. (Who can stand seeing the lovable frog abused by that miser?) And the songs are damn catchy. I love "When Love Is Gone," the sweet number Scrooge's one-time love, Belle, sings to him as she breaks his heart. That song is reprised at the end of the movie, when Scrooge has transformed, as "When Love Is Found." Dickens might be horrified by the idea of Miss Piggy and gang infiltrating his tale. But given the choice, I bet he'd prefer the Muppet version to the other adaptation for the under-12 crowd: The Jetson Christmas Carol.— Torie Bosch
The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a peculiar subgenre in Hollywood: the comedy in which down-and-out black guy + ostentatious wealth = guaranteed hilarity. But what The Toy, Brewster's Millions, and the Beverly Hills Cop franchise lacked was a Christmas setting. Trading Places unfolds during the week between Christmas and New Year's in Philadelphia, drawing out the standard Christmas movie preoccupation with haves and have-nots, and turning on a nature-versus-nurture wager between two commodities traders, the Duke brothers. Can Eddie Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine, who starts out begging in the guise of a blind, legless veteran, be coached to become a townhouse-residing tycoon? And will Dan Aykroyd's Louis Winthorpe III turn to begging if he's cast out of that same townhouse and into the street? Murphy gets some great lines ("Didn't I tell you that the phone in my limousine is busted, and I can't get in contact with my bitches?") and Aykroyd becomes a drunk, suicidal, gun-toting Santa. Their eventual revenge on the Dukes hinges on whether a cold winter will affect the price of oranges, but the movie's real pleasures lie in the tense banter between rich and poor. "Five dollars," the elderly bartender at the Duke's club murmurs, when presented with his Christmas bonus. "Maybe I'll go to the movies … by myself." — Patrick Keefe