Forget Miracle on 34th Street; Watch These Great Christmas Movies Instead

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 14 2011 11:55 AM

The Top Five Underrated Christmas Movies

Scrooge.
A still from 'A Christmas Carol' (1971).

Last week, I looked at the bottom of the barrel: those obscure and terrible Christmas movies one sometimes encounters late at night this time of year. But the season brings unexpected (and, in some cases, largely unheralded) joys as well.

So today I am going to look past It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, worthy staples though they are, and call attention to a handful of oft-overlooked, frequently wonderful Christmas films that can add a little extra kick to your holiday. 

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Christmas and ghosts have always gone together, perhaps because of the stillness and sense of wonder that the season evokes. Beyond Tomorrow leaves Christmas behind after it introduces us to its main characters, but the good fellowship of the season lingers. Three bachelor engineers chuck their wallets out into the snow, as a sort of Yule-time experiment. Two are returned: the first by a young man, the second by a young woman—and these two, as you might have guessed, fall in love. Unfortunately, the old-timers who brought them together die in a plane crash—but, in genial ghost fashion, they return to help out their young duo, who have met with difficult times. To the film’s credit, it has a lower treacle quotient than this plot summary may suggest; God is even given some lip by a determined mother. And you can watch the whole movie on both Hulu and YouTube.

You wouldn’t really expect born enemies Tom and Jerry to be master cockle-warmers, but that’s just what they get up to in The Night Before Christmas, released the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tom has made plans to eat his nemesis, and goes as far as to festoon a mouse trap with the trimmings of the season. Jerry, naturally, is not having it, but manages to shut himself out of the house after one piss-take too many. What ensues is a final act that, at the very least, will start your lip quivering. (Even if there is a moment when you’re sure Tom will treat himself to a mouse-sicle, or perhaps a rodent-based kebab of some kind.)

For some Grinch-like reason, this animated version of the Dickens classic has not yet made it to DVD. But if you want to discover the spookier side of Christmas Town, this would be your stop. Opening with a rough and ragged version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”—a carol which features the Devil—while transporting us up and down the London skyline, this production of the evergreen story can give kiddies nightmares. An awesome Jacob Marley speaks with his gob pried open at a hellish angle, while Alastair Sim’s Scrooge pretty much falls apart (but with his tart humor still in evidence). The animation is a marvel: It looks, at times, like an engraving come to life, in all of its subtle shadings. A number of quick camera movements lend the film a vertiginous quality in keeping with what you might feel should you be whisked skyward on the vapory arm of a ghost.  

It is the visage of Basil Rathbone that is most keenly associated with Sherlock Holmes, but Jeremy Brett might as well have been the master of ratiocination himself, given how fully he embodied the part. We tend not to think of Holmes as a Christmas-y kind of guy, but that’s only if you’ve not seen Granada’s 1984 production of The Blue Carbuncle. Yes, there’s a potboiling mystery about a gem, but that’s almost incidental. What we’re here for is friendship, and it is friendship we witness, as David Burke’s Watson lightens up Brett’s Holmes (even if he is robbed of what looks like a nice spot of ale, thanks to his companion’s impatience). We’re treated to one Victorian Christmas vignette after another, with all of the attendant sounds of the holiday. And if you turn your lights down, and get up close to the screen, it feels like you’re in the front room of 221B, with an excellent goose awaiting you on the sideboard, amidst estimable company. (Or, if you just can’t wait, you can watch it on YouTube.)

And so we come to the Christmas film—or, strictly speaking, television special—that you absolutely must see at some point in your life, even if you could give a toss about Christmas. Ricky Gervais’ David Brent is as fully drawn a television character as there’s ever been, and the Christmas special that wrapped up the original version of The Office brought redemption for a man who seemed irredeemable. (Dickens would be pleased.) Of course, said redemption occurs only after tunneling to new lows. Doesn’t matter—it’s a Hallelujah chorus moment when Brent stands up for himself with two simple words that are anything but “Merry Christmas.” The season gives in all kinds of ways.

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