In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.
What’s your favorite holiday movie?
Very appropriate that this one popped up now, since we’re almost exactly between Christmases which, face it, is what most people think of when they think “holiday movie.” Well, except for the twisted folk who think of the Halloween franchise, of course.
Groundhog Day is probably one of the better-known and more beloved non-Christmas films, But you have to think really hard to come up with others without looking. For example, which holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles about? (Hint: it’s not Christmas.)
Did you even remember that Eight Crazy Nights is a thing until I mentioned it? And while at least the first Independence Day movie took place around that holiday, it only counts if you stick strictly to America, of course, which is just jingoistic and awkward when you remember that it’s the whole planet being invaded.
Easter movies tend to be about either Jesus or Bunnies, although Monty Python’s Life of Brian absolutely is an Easter film that isn’t strictly about either. New Year’s Eve fares a little better, including the strangely fascinating Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Released in 1995, it was set in the two days leading into the year 2000 — although it wasn’t so much about the holiday as about the existence of recordings of people’s memories as a black-market drug.
Oddly enough, 1995 was the same year that Terry Gillaim’s 12 Monkeys came out — another mid-90s science fiction film set in the very-near future, although in the case of this one, the year was 1996, which was about exactly a year after the release date of the film.
But, for me, this question actually has two answers, and I’ve already mentioned the director of one of the films. However, I’ll start with the more obvious choice.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies I can watch over and over, and from any point I happen to stumble across a re-broadcast. In case you live under a rock, it came out in 1946, directed by Frank Capra, and it stars James Stewart as George Bailey in the story of a small-town Everyman who winds up giving up his own dreams in order to help others.
One of the most fascinating things about the film is the abrupt tone-shift as we move into the third act, more on which in a moment. Up until that point, it barrels head-long into the American Dream — and remember, the whole thing was being produced right as the U.S. defeated the Powers of Evil™ and became the predominant and benevolent World Power — never mind that whole nuking civilians in Japan thing.
George Bailey — born into white privilege in the town of Bedford Falls, around 1907. After all, his father and uncle own the local Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, so the family is well-off. Well, at least until 1928, when young George is planning to embark on a world tour which is cancelled when his father has a stroke and dies.
George is coerced by the board into taking over the company. Meanwhile, George gives his trip money to his brother Harry (whose life he already saved once) to pay his college tuition with the agreement that Harry take over the company after he graduates so George can be free to pursue his dreams.
Needless to say, Harry reneges because of a good job offer; George marries good girl Mary, but the stock market crashes and they have to spend their honeymoon money bailing out the Building and Loan.
Eventually, George starts a housing development with nice and affordable homes while the Big Bad, Henry Potter, tries to subvert him from his mission, but George will have none of it.
And then… George’s addle-brained Uncle Billy fucks up big time, accidentally hands Potter the Building and Loan’s deposits (the modern equivalent of $110K in cash), and suddenly George lands deep in the shit.
This is where the film turns dark and George’s guardian angel Clarence turns up to present George with the proverbial Monkey’s Paw answer to his appeal: “I wish I’d never been born.”
That’s exactly what George gets, and it becomes a beautiful butterfly effect of events. He never saved his brother from drowning, which had enormous repercussions in World War II, leaving hundreds of men to die in a Kamikaze attack. George wasn’t there to stop his pharmacist boss from making a mistake, leading to a kid being poisoned and said pharmacists winding up as a homeless town pariah.
Even the women in his life suffered — his wife Mary went on to become a mousy spinster librarian, and while it’s not absolutely clear how George helped childhood friend Violet Bick, she’s pretty much a whore in the town of Potterville. And even his own sainted mother morphed into one gigantic uber-Karen bitch.
Oh — it’s not Bedford Falls anymore, either, so there’s that.
There is one really brilliant but easy to miss moment in this act, too, and that’s the instant when Clarence starts the process of saving George. See, Bailey is about to dive off of the bridge to kill himself, hoping that his life insurance will take care of all of his financial problems. But Clarence knows his subject well, and in that moment he throws himself into the water first and begins shouting out that magic phrase.
“I can’t swim. Help, help. I can’t swim. Help!”
And what has been George’s life-long pattern? Helping everyone else without thinking about himself. So he dives in and drags Clarence out, and the rest happens.
Now, I don’t care how jaded or cynical you are, but once we get to the climax of the film — when George’s original reality is restored and he races home — if you don’t cry at least once if not for at least the last fifteen minutes of the movie, then you have no fucking heart.
Shit, if the waterworks don’t go off in just the first ten seconds of that clip out of context, make an appointment with your cardiologist now.
Here’s the funny thing about It’s a Wonderful Life, though — on initial release, it bombed. Big time. Critics loved it, but audiences didn’t, and it lost half a million dollars. It probably would have just vanished, except for one incredible fuck-up.
At some point, somebody forgot to renew the copyright, and so the film fell for a time into the public domain, which meant that it could be shown freely forever. And who picked up on that? Television stations, which led to the movie being run over and over around Christmas every year and, ta-da, instant classic.
Okay, slight simplification — the film itself was free. The short story it was based on was not. Still, beginning in 1974, the movie was on the express train to beloved Christmas classic and, honestly, I think that it deserves it.
As for my other choice, which I love even more than It’s a Wonderful Life, that would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is every inch a Christmas movie while not being about Christmas per se, but still being about the hopes of a dreamer pitted against society at large.
Sure, Brazil’s Sam Lowry loses his battle, sort of, but he’s kind of an anti-George Bailey: a man who starts out working for the side of evil only to be liberated by his (most likely never-requited) love for a woman he may or may not have actually met, but rather only saw one time on the way to work.
That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case, he actually wound up getting her arrested and, probably, summarily executed as a suspected terrorist. Oops.
Eventually, he winds up finding refuge in his own fantasia of a world where yes, he did actually matter as he is tortured by people he had thought to be his friends and allies.
All of this is played out against some of the most amazing film design ever, in a world that takes place during the entire 20th century at once, on a Tuesday. In fact, a lot of the aesthetic would have felt totally at home to George Bailey, especially the costumes and technology.
Here’s a really good example of the design and tech of the film:
Anyway, Gilliam’s Brazil is the best version of 1984 ever filmed, period. The movie is also infamous for some useless asshole producer at Universal trying eviscerate it, leading to Gilliam taking out ads in the trades demanding that the studio give his film back.
Luckily, Gilliam won that battle, although we still got to see the version that the hack Sid Sheinberg wanted to release on various Criterion Collections and, yes… it was absolute shite.
Anyway… it’s a nearly perfect film. Go seek it out and watch it, whether it’s Christmas or not.
PS: I’m so sorry that trailers in the 80s sucked ass…