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A Christmas Movie Countdown

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Christmas time is full of opportunities to continue traditions and create new memories.  A tradition that we have enjoyed since we had our first Christmas together (ten years ago now!) is our annual Christmas Movie Countdown.  Every year, we choose a new holiday movie to add to our collection.  Each night leading up to Christmas Day, once the kiddos are in bed, we watch a different movie.  At first, we only had a few titles.  Ten years later, we have put together quite an extensive collection.  This year, we added a new twist to the tradition: our two oldest kiddos, Dinomite and Bulldozer, joined us each night and loved it.  Princess is already getting excited about joining us next year.

With so many television and movie options available this time of year (everything from Hallmark Channel to horror movies), it is impossible to recommend the "best" choices for everyone.  Personal preferences with media are as varied as the shape of each individual snowflake, especially when it comes to holiday movies.  Therefore, we won't tell you what movies you "should" watch this year.  We are simply sharing our favorites here.  We provide a brief description of each movie, and why we like it so much.  If you have other recommendations, we'd love to hear about them!
It's a Wonderful Life is one of the most-beloved holiday movies of all time, and with good reason.  George Bailey is a down-on-his-luck man who learns what the world would be like if he had never been born, thanks to the intervention of Clarence, an "angel in training."  While the plot is very familiar and has been reused countless times in other films, it is the performances of the leads (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore) and Frank Capra's perfectly paced direction that make this one an all-time classic.  It's incredible how different scenes in the movie resonate with more or less emotional intensity as one goes from single to married with children, enters middle age, and as one experiences life's unexpected crises of all sorts.  More than anything, It's a Wonderful Life is a story of kindness, love, family and hope, and inspires us year after year with that simple, yet powerful message.  Watch this movie Christmas night, after all the chaos of the day is through, and you're sure to end the day on a high note.
A Christmas Carol is even more well known and just as cherished as It's a Wonderful Life.  The timeless tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve visitations from the Spirits has been produced for film and television dozens of times, but this 1951 version is our favorite.  Alastair Sim's performance as Scrooge is incredible.  A number of great actors have played this part very well, but Sim's transformation from the miserly, cold-hearted Scrooge to joyous, exuberant Scrooge is remarkable.  Although the colorized version is available, there is just something about this story that seems best suited to black and white film (well, in Jason's opinion at least.) This film is the most faithful to the original Dickens story from which it was adapted.  If you haven't done so yet, try watching this on Christmas Eve. It adds an extra layer of magic and emotional impact to the viewing experience that you just can't get any other way. 
Holiday Inn is best-known as the film that brought "White Christmas" into the world, but there is much more to it than one song.  Starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, with songs by the legendary Irving Berlin, Holiday Inn is non-stop entertainment and energy from the first scene to the last.  The story is not very complicated.  A burned-out song and dance man (Crosby) dreams of establishing a resort that is open only on holidays.  He discovers an unknown new talent who steals every show (as well as a few hearts), and engages in a friendly rivalry with his former collaborator (Astaire).  But, the music, holiday-themed set pieces and Astaire's incredible dance sequences (the tap-dancing firecracker scene is one of the best ever) make this one delightful to watch.  
A Christmas Story is the little movie that grew into a cultural institution.  It is also a rare Christmas-time movie that is actually about Christmas from a child's perspective.  Featuring hilarious voice-over narration by Jean Shepard (the author of the story from which the film is adapted) as the grown-up Ralphie, the story focuses on Christmas in 1940, when Ralphie was nine years old. We love it because it strikes the perfect balance for family viewing, despite a few instances of adult language.  Older children will relate to Ralphie's obsessive pursuit of the gift of his dreams, the daily grind of school and bullies, and his daydreaming and wishful thinking.  Adults can appreciate the delightful dynamics between Ralphie's parents, the nostalgia for Christmases past, and the little family quirks that will remind us of our own relatives, near and distant.  
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is another classic in the Christmas comedy genre, although a little more adult-oriented than the films we have featured so far.  The story of Clark Griswold and his quest to create a "good, old-fashioned family Christmas," this movie features all of the physical comedy, sight gags, and one-liners that the "Vacation" movies are famous for.  But it also has a lot more heart than any other entry in the series.  Add some really funny performances (from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Brian Doyle Murray, and of course, Randy Quaid), and some classic John Hughes moments (the SWAT team invading the Griswold home to the tune of "Here Comes Santa Claus") and this one holds up well, year after year. Tuck in the little kiddos early, and enjoy!
Home Alone tells the story of Kevin, an 8-year old boy who is accidentally left behind as his family scrambles to the airport for a vacation to France for Christmas.  Everyone loves the sequences in which Kevin defends his home from the two hapless Wet Bandits (the incredibly funny Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), using various traps and weapons to slow down the crooks. But, for the adults, there is a very sweet story here about family, forgiveness, and love, highlighted by a fantastic soundtrack of Christmas tunes, a joyous John Williams score, and some hearty laughs from John Hughes' script.  This is the rare movie that appeals equally to the kids and adults in our family.
Elf is the most recent production on our list of Christmas favorites, but it fits in perfectly with Christmas favorites of the past.  Buddy is an elf who lives at the North Pole and works for Santa.  His world turns upside down when he learns that he is actually an orphan who stowed away to the North Pole in Santa's sack.  He sets off on a quest to find his biological father, and has a series of crazy adventures in the Big Apple.  Featuring an all-star cast (anchored by the undeniable Will Ferrell), another great soundtrack, and a wacky fairy-tale atmosphere, if you haven't seen this one, you are in for a treat.  We love Elf because it finds the perfect middle ground between kid-oriented fare like Rudolph and Frosty and more sophisticated titles like A Christmas Carol, making it fun for the whole family. 
Miracle on 34th Street is a movie that has been famously made and remade, with fervent fans of both versions on either side.  However, the truth is that you don't have to pick a side, because the two movies (in this case, the 1947 original and the 1994 remake) are so different that you can watch both and have completely different experiences!  The story is the same in both versions.  A man insists he is really Kris Kringle and works as a department store Santa.  He faces trial on charges that he is insane.  Of course, Santa wins and everyone is happy.  We have the remake version at home, and we love it.  It is shot just like a classic '50s movie, and features a great performance by young Mara Wilson.  There are little nuances in the acting and dialogue that you pick up on, and the emotional power punch scenes (like when Santa converses with the hearing-impaired child using sign language.) retain their power year after year.  Again, you will notice the presence of John Hughes in several of our choices (the man had a gift for holiday movies), and he is responsible for the writing and directing here. Loyalists of the 1947 film, keep your faith in the original, but give the remake a shot.  You won't be disappointed.

The Santa Clause is the latest addition to our collection, even though it was released over 20 years ago.  While not as highly revered as Home Alone or A Christmas Story, this is still an original story with tons of character, holiday fun and magic.  Tim Allen plays a divorced father who unwittingly becomes Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, due to an ancient contract that explains how St. Nick has managed to deliver presents to children for several hundred years now.   Allen's slow transformation into Santa is quite hilarious.  His son in the movie is adorable.  We like this movie's take on Santa's workshop, the elves and reindeer.  There is a powerful story about the bond between father and son that the whole movie is built on, which adults can appreciate.  Overall, The Santa Clause is a solid addition to our movie collection, and earns a place among the classics.
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the live action version of the classic children's book and animated feature that are both holiday essentials.  This one has had mixed reactions over the years, with kids much more positive in their reviews than the adults. There is still plenty to like about this for the adults.  All of the moments from the book are here (and oh so many more).  There are some fun, clever songs, as well as the instant classic "Where are you Christmas?", sung by Faith Hill.  And, to top it off, it features Jim Carrey as the Grinch.  It's an over-the top performance in the extreme, as he has some really brilliant moments.  The village of Whoville, the makeup and the costumes are amazing and really bring Dr. Seuss' imaginative drawings to life.  Again, the kids are big fans, so fire this one up early in the season.
Little Women may not technically be considered a Christmas movie, but it holds a place in our holiday movie collection anyway.  In fact, it's not much of a stretch at all since several key scenes take place during the Christmas season.  Adapted from the Louisa May-Alcott book, Little Women tells the story of the March family, a mother and her four daughters, trying to get through tough times and the growing pains of life, as their father serves in the military during the Civil War.  We have the 1994 version, which we recommend because of its faithfulness to the book and because of the incredible cast of amazing actors. Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Christian Bale, and Kirsten Dunst are just some of the A-list names involved.  All that talent translates into some powerful performances that make the movie soar.

The movies below are next in line to purchase for our countdown.  We have not seen them yet, but the reviews are good, and we think they would fill out our collection nicely. 

White Christmas is a natural addition to our library since we already love Holiday Inn, and this seems to be a nice companion.  Featuring Bing Crosby, with Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, this is another song-and-dance classic from the 1940s, with a World War II theme featured prominently in the story.  Fans seem to like this one even more than Holiday Inn, so we are looking forward to it.

Holiday Affair is a lesser known film that sounds like just the thing we need in our collection.  A romance between tough guy Robert Mitchum and the beautiful widow and mother Janet Leigh, this is a lighthearted story that seems to benefit from the Christmas season shine.

What Christmas movies do you enjoy watching after the children go to bed, or with the older kiddos in your home?  We are always looking for new recommendations.

If you're interested in learning about other Christmas traditions our family has, be sure to read the post below!


  1. We have 4 of the movies on your list (White Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th street (the newer one), and Little Women. Our list of favorites also includes The Polar Express, the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Nativity Story, The Muppets Christmas Carol, the 1970 version of A Christmas Carol (a musical version called Scrooge), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Annie Claus is Coming to Town (this year's purchase). I recommend any of those. I have 3 other Christmas Carol movies I'd like to get, as well as Holiday Inn--so those are next on my list to buy.

    1. What fun you must have! I should have mentioned in the post, but didn't that a second installment of Our Christmas Movie Countdown, an animated version is coming soon. That will include The Polar Express, the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc. We do have The Muppets Christmas Carol, but my kiddos oddly enough, are not fans of it at all. Lol. That kind of crushed my husband's heart, as he's a big fan, but that's okay. I've never heard of Annie Claus is Coming to Town. I'll have to check that out! Enjoy your movie watching!