One of my greatest holiday joys over the years has been the collection of films we’ve enjoyed as a family. These films were part of my moral education growing up and marked our memories, our growth, our life through the years. We still refer to them, quote them and watch them whenever we get together.
So, each year I now blog about these favorite films, adding a couple more each year to the collection that I consider to be true gifts during this season and always.
My Dad annually showed us It’s a Wonderful Life long before it was the fashion, when his own life shook with urgencies similar to those George Bailey (James Stewart) faces, there in the lonely snow, before he realizes what a blessing his life truly is. It forever changed me, even as a young pre-teen. At any age though, really, there are few films which impact the heart, mind and soul as this one does.
And The Bishop’s Wife (the original Cary Grant-Loretta Young version, not the wannabe Whitney version), taught me early on about how to live out one’s faith in the context of community — at a time when our own local church was in tumult.
Christmas in Connecticut showed my sisters and me that a young and vibrant professional woman like Barbara Stanwyck’s character doesn’t need to shun all traditions nor be fake to find happiness — that she can find a balance between tradition and progress and still be true to herself and make life meaningful, all while having a ton of fun.
The MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis with Judy Garland was perhaps our most quoted Christmas movie growing up. All of us have used lines from it, for years. And besides being the originating story for the beloved song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I now feel more than ever that this is one of the most beautiful and realistic portraits of a family on film anywhere, musical, comedy or drama — and this one has all three. It will always be special to our family.
And of course, Scrooge, whether Reginald Owen or Albert Finney — or Bill Murray! — helped all of us see in a heart-wrenching way how our choices shape our destiny — and how there’s always an opportunity to change course, while we still have our breath.
Not to mention the fun Rankin-Bass TV specials over the years that are still our staples:
The Year Without a Santa Claus (Heat Miser! Snow Miser! and our favorite, “I Believe in Santa Claus”); Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Frosty the Snowman; Santa Claus is Coming To Town (“Put One Foot in Front of the Other”); The Little Drummer Boy with Greer Garson’s imposing narration twenty years after playing Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice; and A Charlie Brown Christmas, which still has the only complete recitation of Luke 2 in any Christmas special I’ve ever seen.
Plus, so many great actors lent their voices over the years: Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Marlo and Danny Thomas, Shirley Booth, Dick Shawn, Fred Astaire. They still live on through their unforgettable performances.
And then there’s A Christmas Story. Ralph wanting his bb gun. Need I say more? Every family has their own favorites, far more than what I’ve listed here.
The thing is: I wasn’t impacted only by what we watched all those years — I was also affected by seeing my parents and sisters affected. Isn’t it always like that when we’re kids? When we see our parents or siblings laughing at a movie, or crying, or leaning forward in their seat, or ‘rewinding’ and playing a scene over and over? It affects us. We remember what matters to them, and before we know it, the same moments matter to us.
And now that I have my own daughters, I see that they notice my reactions too: “Mom, are you crying again?” “Oh, here’s Mom’s favorite part!” and we even quote back and forth to each other, like I used to do with my sisters.
So these days, I enjoy new films and shows that are becoming my daughters’ favorites at their respective ages: Arthur Christmas, The Polar Express, Elf, Miss Patty Cake’s Christmas, Cricket on the Hearth. And I love seeing their excitement when they watch.
I even have my own new personal favorites: Love, Actually; Christmas Eve and The Christmas Candle.
Love, Actually is not about the sacred Christmas story, but it beautifully weaves nine love stories together at Christmas time in a way that movingly (and often humorously) captures the entire range of human experience — life and death, marriage and divorce, faithfulness and adultery, innocence and experience, loneliness and intimacy, and so much more.
I heard writer/director Richard Curtis once say in an interview that Love, Actually was basically the next nine films he wanted to write, but which he instead condensed into one film. As a writer I’m inspired by how he is able to convey the heart of each storyline’s situation/main relationship so quickly, so efficiently, without losing any of the emotion. It’s one of the few films out there that I can honestly say I wish I wrote myself — but that’s the subject of another blog.
Christmas Eve, new in 2015, similarly captures the heart of six different groups of people stuck in elevators in New York City on Christmas Eve because of an unusual power outage. Though not a perfect film, it shows very honestly how being ‘stuck’ brings out the best and worst of these characters, and how they learn to appreciate life — and faith — just a bit more, when they are faced with the possibility that they may not always be around. Starring Patrick Stewart, Cheryl Hines, Juliet Aubrey, Gary Cole and many others, the film came out in limited release but is now available on-demand. It’s a sweet film to watch at home while relaxing over the holidays.
Based on Max Lucado’s lovely holiday novella, The Christmas Candle is an allegory set in 1890’s England that does a beautiful job of showing the two ways we need to live out our faith: (1) prayer/trust in God, beyond our control; and (2) serving others in practical, helpful ways. We can’t save ourselves, as God can, but we can position ourselves for greater understanding, greater hope, greater love, when we do these two things. The moving cast of Hans Matheson, John Hannah, Lesley Manville, Samantha Barks, Barbara Flynn and even Susan Boyle, bring the story to life in a touching, down-to-earth way. True, there are more sophisticated films out there, but the message is still real and meaningful.
It is still — like all of these films — a Magi’s gift, perhaps wrapped in burlap for the bumpy journey, but holding wonderful handiwork inside which blesses us by pointing us to the greatest gift-giver of all.