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Amazin’ Avenue Recommends: Christmas movies and specials

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We share our recommendations of movies and specials for the occasion.

Chevy Chase In ‘Christmas Vacation’ Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images

It’s A Wonderful Life - Allison

This classic airs on NBC every Christmas Eve and my family always watches it together. It uses the premise of showing George Bailey a world in which he was never born to illustrate one of the most central tenants of the human condition - the fact that each of us touches so many lives in ways we do not even realize and that, given the choice, one should always choose kindness. Mr. Potter is the type of villain that will never go out of style - the embodiment of bitterness and greed. I’m not one that gets choked up at movies that often, but this one makes me misty every time. “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends,” is a quote I’ve always wanted to have framed or tattooed on me because it is such a beautiful and simple sentiment. And it’s true. It is the very spirit of the holiday season to remember this message and practice gratefulness for everything we have and the ones we love.

Home Alone - Allison

In a lot of ways, Home Alone conveys the same central themes as It’s A Wonderful Life in a more silly and zany package. Just like George is left to experience a world in which he was never born, Kevin McCallister is left to experience a world in which his family does not exist. The message is the same: it’s hard to appreciate all the great things and people you have in your life until they are gone. But the tone of the films could not be more different. Home Alone is really mostly a comedy that takes place during the Christmas season and it is so quotable (“Keep the change, you filthy animal!”). And of course, the slapstick comedy of the pranks Kevin plays on the two burglars that attempt to rob his home while his family is away, is unmatched. What is also unmatched is the score, composed by the legendary John Williams. But to me, the scene that elevates this movie to a Christmas classic and not simply a movie that happens to take place during Christmas is the scene in the church between Kevin and his older neighbor, who is experiencing a rift with his son. He is watching his granddaughter sing Christmas carols in church because it is the only way he can see her. At the end of the movie, in addition to the resolution of Kevin’s hijinks, you see the old man’s story resolve in parallel and it really makes for a beautiful ending. I don’t have a particular day that I watch Home Alone the way I do with It’s A Wonderful Life, but I watch Home Alone at least once every Christmas season and I can recite basically every line of dialogue from memory.

Tokyo Godfathers - Christian

Anime treats Christmas kind of the same way that Japan treats Christmas—as a mainstream Western curiosity appreciated mostly for commercial and aesthetic purposes. In that sense, it’s kind of arbitrary that Satoshi Kon’s holiday masterpiece takes place during the Christmas season, but the warm-hearted themes play perfectly well into the movie’s jolly and rotten aesthetic. Tokyo Godfathers is a darkly hilarious romp that plays a little like the birth of Christ in reverse, with our three homeless magi trying to find the parents of an abandoned baby they find while dumpster diving. What makes this movie so endearing is the spunk of our heroes: They are so dead-set on saving this helpless child despite their own helplessness that it’s hard not to reach through the screen and push them towards the finish line. It also has wonderful commentary on gender, doubts about the efficacy of traditional family structures, and magical visuals emblematic of Kon’s most celebrated works. It’s very different from normal holiday fare, and so rewarding in its execution.

Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas - Vas

In general, I enjoy TV shows more than movies, so around the holidays I tend to seek out Christmas specials over films—other than It’s a Wonderful Life, which Allison covered and is an annual staple for me, and Elf, because it’s just straight-up hilarious. Sitcom Christmas episodes can be hit or miss, but often the good far outweighs the bad. There are so many classics to choose from, but the one that reliably hits the mark for me is the eleventh offering of Community’s second season, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas. The show was always known for its high-concept episodes that packed in a lot of laughs and a lot of heart into 30 minutes, and I would argue this one ranks in the top five all-time for the show. In it, the socially-inept and pop culture-obsessed Abed (a character played brilliantly by Danny Pudi) envisions everyone as stop motion and believes this particular Christmas to be the most important in history, and his friends play along with him in order to get to the root of his problems. As his friends trek into his mind in a group therapy session, the reason for Abed’s perception is eventually revealed and it is absolutely soul-crushing. However, his friends step up for him in the end in a touching way that helps him cope with his depression. I’m trying to be purposely vague to not give away the plot, but the ending is genuinely heartwarming. Oh, and the episode reveals the meaning of Christmas, and it’s just perfect (even if I disagree with Dan Harmon’s opinion on it).

Doctor Who Christmas Specials - Vas

I am currently making it through my first watch of the BBC sci-fi classic Doctor Who (the 2005 revived run), and it’s been a blast. Beginning with the 2006 David Tennant season (Tennant will always be THE definitive Doctor), the show brought us an annual Christmas special, and they often provided some of the wackiest and most enjoyable episodes. You may not think alien invasion or time travel when you think about the holiday season, but Doctor Who will change that in a hurry. The plots are over-the-top in that typical Doctor Who style, but they still feature a lot of heart and a ton of plot and character development for the overall story arc. The specials has gone more high-concept as the seasons have gone on, which episodes centering around a voyage of the space Titanic and another that brings its own spin on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There are a lot of great Christmas specials, but The Christmas Invasion, Tennant’s first episode as The Doctor, remains a favorite of mine, as does the Titanic-themed Voyage of the Damned featuring a one-off appearance from Kylie Minogue. If you’re looking for a good cry around the holidays, The End of Time, Tennant’s final episodes, loosely fall into the Christmas realm, and the ending is a doozy that will leave you speechless.

A Christmas Story - Grace

I’m a big movie dork, and a big Christmas fanatic—I start to listen to Christmas music in August—so Christmas movies are my forte. To me, A Christmas Story is THE definitive Christmas movie in that it completely sums up the holiday season and Christmas. We have all been Ralphie, wanting that one gift so much it consumes you. We all know these characters, the curmudgeonly dad with his own unique set of gripes and grievances, the mom who has to hold everything together as the glue of the family, the younger brother who gets on everyone’s nerves but is still loved anyway. It captures the feeling of being a kid, the way the little things become life or death situations because Scut Farkus might actually kill us for all we know. This was my favorite film when I was a kid and still is among my top 3 all time, because I just want to go back to this world over and over again. It’s so calm, so relaxing. You know everything’s going to work out, Ralphie’s going to get that Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time, and all will be right with the world. Even if he does (almost) shoot his eye out.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - Grace

Because I am such a big Christmas movie person, I felt the need to shout out two for this, but Allison took It’s a Wonderful Life. I agree with every single one of her points except that I don’t only get misty, I’m full on Niagara Falls by the end. So I went with another classic that gets me crying, and that’s the classic Miracle on 34th Street. I love this movie so much. In the way that A Christmas Story perfectly distills the feeling of the Christmas season, Miracle on 34th Street does that but in relation to Santa Claus. Natalie Wood, in one of her several iconic roles, is such a wonderful child actor, matter-of-factly logical and distrusting of this so-called “Kris Kringle.” And watching her come to believe in his being Santa Claus by the end of the film is one of the most magical stories committed to celluloid. Edmund Gwenn is a perfect Santa Claus to the point that I can’t watch him in anything else.The most magical moment in this film, and the one that makes me cry everytime (and occasionally when I’m simply describing the scene to people) is when he is working in Macy’s as the store Santa. A little Dutch girl comes up, a refugee from World War II, and she speaks Dutch to Santa. Her adoptive mother explains that she told the girl that Santa wouldn’t be able to speak to her, but the girl saw him on the television and knew he would. And in that moment, Kris begins speaking to the girl in Dutch, and the look on that girl’s face is pure wonder, and they begin to sing a song in Dutch together. That is the magic of Santa. That is the belief we all felt in the big man when we were younger, and the love and joy some can only dream to reach. It’s a beautiful moment where the viewer themselves questions whether this is actually Santa they’re watching, and they begin to buy into the possibility that it is. And reader, I am in fact crying over my keyboard just writing about this scene. It’s perfect. (Also, I just want to take this opportunity to tell you all to stream Happiest Season on Hulu, a true modern Christmas delight. Give it a shot, it’s lovely and might make you cry like it made me.)

While You Were Sleeping - Linda

It goes without saying It’s A Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown Christmas are classics that I need to watch every year with my family. I’ve decided to go a different route and pick one that doesn’t get the recognition it should although perhaps this will be the year it finally does. On the surface While You Were Sleeping seems like your typical rom com with hijinks and wacky misunderstandings that eventually leads to a Hollywood happy ending. However there are some deeper meanings that could resonate more this year. Sandra Bullock’s character Lucy is alone and forced to work the holidays since she has no family to spend them with like her coworkers do. However, after an accident on the subway she eventually gets pulled into the boisterous Gallagher family. She falls in love with Jack Gallagher, played by Bill Pullman, but at one point she says she fell in love with the entire family. This can be a hard time of year for those who are alone or missing their families, this year especially when many people might not be able to see their loved ones for the holidays. I have always loved this movie but it is a bit more relevant now in 2020.

Catch Me If You Can - Linda

Once again I am going rogue and not going with a standard holiday movie. I’m not even sure anyone else considers Catch Me if You Can a Christmas movie besides me but it was on TV last week and that was all the confirmation I needed that some TV executive somewhere agrees with me. Based on an incredible true story, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr. who runs away from home as a teen and starts forging checks to make ends meet. Once he gets good at it, he makes an incredible fortune from check forgery all the while posing as a doctor, a lawyer, and an airline pilot. Sure that is not the typical plot of a Christmas movie but eventually he captures the attention of the FBI and agent Carl Hanratty played by Tom Hanks.The two always end up talking on Christmas and one scene is straight out of a European Christmas card. It is set in a quaint town square in France with a choir singing carols in the background. Snow is on the ground, Christmas lights are hung, and it’s beyond picturesque and charming that is in complete contrast with the action that is happening in the scene. That scene alone is what sold this to me as a Christmas movie. Sure it’s not set completely at Christmas but it’s got an incredible cast, Hanks is brilliant, and it captures the glamour of flying in the 1960s. It’s one of my favorite movies and everyone should watch it, even if it is after the holidays.

Marge Be Not Proud, The Simpsons Season 7, Episode 11 - Linda

The Simpsons have done quite a few classic Christmas episodes, but this one has always been my favorite. It is insanely quotable, it’s relatable, and has the signature Simpsons humor throughout. Bart is caught stealing a video game which upsets Marge, not only because he did something wrong but because she thinks he is growing up away from her. Bart, for his part, feels guilty he disappointed Marge and is desperate to make it up to her. They eventually exchange Christmas presents which repairs the relationship between the two. The Simpsons is obviously known for its humor but at its best are the moments of tenderness between the family which this episode perfectly captures. Come for the humor, stay for its heart.

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Brian

I’m a sucker for everything about the Peanuts TV specials. They’ve been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and they manage to capture both the joy and the necessary sadness that comes from being a child. Hell, from being a person at all. There is something about Charles Schultz’s work that covers so much human emotion in such little time, that it feels almost effortless.

Featuring one of the greatest Christmas records as its soundtrack, the special zips along with a light jazz backdrop, which manages to give the special a tone all its own. The first strands of “Christmastime is Here” evoke an instant reaction. But the moment of the special that hits closest to home is a music-less one. When Linus recites the Gospel passage of Christ’s birth, whether you are religious or not, is done with such grace and calm, that it can’t help but be moving.

We are due to watch it on Christmas Eve, and I have a lump in my throat already.

Hey Arnold! - Arnold’s Christmas

As a child of the late 90s and early 2000s, my fondest memories of Christmas-related pop culture are not from any movies or music, but rather from all the special Christmas episodes from my favorite cartoons on Nickelodeon. There are a number of options I could have chosen from here, but the Christmas episode of Hey Arnold stands above all the rest. The show as a whole was not afraid to get shockingly real for a children’s show, and there is perhaps no greater example of that than the story in this episode of how Mr. Hyunh had to be separated from his infant daughter during the Vietnam War. The ensuing quest that Arnold embarks upon to track down this long-last daughter as a Christmas gift results in a tear-jerking ending that, in re-watching the episode now, comes across as even more poignant with the knowledge of how many immigrant and refugee families have been tragically torn apart from each other in recent years. The show as a whole was often at its best when focusing on its main character’s radical decency - something the world could use so much more of these days. This Christmas episode proved to be the perfect vehicle for that theme, and as such it stands out as a television highlight for myself and so many others who grew up during this time.

Bones - The Man in the Fallout Shelter - Kellyanne/LaRomaBella

I had great difficulty among a number of Christmas-related episodes across a number of shows, including The West Wing (In Excelsis Deo & Noël), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Amends), Parks and Recreation (Ron & Diane), and The Great British Bake-Off: Holiday Edition.

Ultimately, I chose the first season Christmas episode of Bones, titled The Man in the Fallout Shelter. The Squints are getting ready to go home/go to the Company Christmas Party. Bones channels her inner Scrooge, lamenting to Angela about Secret Santa (or Secret “Satan”) when Booth arrives with the victim of the week - a 50-year old skeleton discovered when a fallout shelter was being demolished. Bones immediately gets to work, ordering Zack and Hodgins to clean the bones and search for insect evidence, irritating both Booth and Angela since it’s Christmas (and there’s a party upstairs)! Hodgins ignores Zack when he asks him to put on a mask before he cuts into the bone. Zack cuts, dust particles fly into the vent that picks up contaminants and ‘lo and behold. Alarms sound and doors are locked down! The contaminant is identified as Valley Fever and everyone is stuck at the lab for the next few days while they’re tested for infection. Good job not following protocol, Hodgins!

During lockdown, we find out more about the characters - one of the primary reasons Bones dislikes the holiday so much? Her parents went missing on Christmas. Booth has a son named Parker. Zack has a HUGE family in Michigan. Angela’s dad is Billy Gibbons (yes, that Billy Gibbons). We also find out that the victim of the week bought tickets to Paris for himself and his girlfriend, Ivy, a black woman, by selling off his coin collection. Interracial marriages were not permitted at the time, so they were going to marry in the only place they could - France. Unfortunately, the victim was murdered over his collection, leaving behind a devastated and pregnant Ivy who thought she’d been abandoned.

Booth and the Squints have their own Secret Santa, exchanging wonderful home(lab)made gifts. Bones, on the other hand, gives the best Christmas gift of all, working all of Christmas Eve day and night tracking down Ivy, who arrives with her granddaughter, Lisa, after the group tests negative and is released from the lab. Ivy proudly speaks about how Lisa is going to be a doctor, but the granddaughter laments that she can’t afford it. Bones gives her the tickets, explaining that her boyfriend had bought the tickets and intended to take her to Paris. She also tells her about a rare coin found in the victim’s belongings that is worth over $100,000. That doesn’t matter to Ivy who responds to Dr. Brennan’s “I have something even better” with “What could be better? You’ve given me back my life.”

The episode ends with Bones opening her parents’ Christmas presents given to her on the Christmas they went missing. She gives a tearful smile as she enjoys the card and gifts in a private, both to the team and to the audience, heartwarming moment. It’s a poignant episode that demonstrates friendship, hope, and healing.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation - Chris

While there are a bunch of Christmas movies that are enjoyable to watch again and again, the only one that’s a lock for me every year is Christmas Vacation. Even with the vast majority of the movie feeling like it’s committed to memory, there’s usually something subtle that catches your attention with each re-watch.