Now is the time of year where we humans rewatch our favorite holiday flicks, the ones we’ve seen a million times and can stand to see a million times more. Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Home Alone 1 & 2 come instantly to mind for me, and I know I’m not an island in that regard. We all tend to revere the same handful or so, largely due to the fact that there really aren’t too many that are transcendent.
In holding dear to our tippy-top favs though, it’s easy to forget about the ones that are just plain very good—or even hear about them. The ones I’ve listed below have yet to get their due, which is a damn shame, because they’re a lot of fun. They may not be perfect, but each has something unique and beautiful to offer. You may not end up watching them every single year, but you may toss them on every couple or so.
Trapped in Paradise (1994) | Dir. George Gallo | 111 min.
When you’re a kid, it’s hard to whether a movie is well-revered, because you have no real awareness of critics or awards or anything. What you see is governed entirely by your parents’ taste—if they like a movie, they introduce you to it, and if not, they don’t. My parents showed me to Trapped in Paradise, which I dug, and have seen many times in my life, and still enjoy. And so I always assumed it was a classic. Not until very recently did I discover it’s universally panned.
Roger Ebert gave it half a star, and he and damn near every other critic at the time found it to be devoid of humor, which is ridiculous—the humor is there, it just isn’t drenched in obviousness. You might hear a joke line, and not laugh, and that’s because it’s not intended to make you laugh—it’s intended to set up the actual laugh moment, which may come stealthily a few lines later. This ‘joke jazz’ so to speak tends go over a lot of people’s heads unless it comes from a source they expect it from—for instance, the Coen Brothers or Albert Brooks. And like those writer-directors, some of George Gallo’s funniest lines barely even read as jokes when written out. Here’s one of my favorite exchanges in the movie:
“What are you doing?!”
“I’m eatin’ scrapple—”
“Don’t touch any of that, we’re gettin’ outta here!”
“It’s got scallions—”
That last line is so goddamn perfect. I love the idea of a guy being ordered to leave somewhere, but wanting to stay because the dish has scallions, and offering that fact up as a valid reason to stay. It’s such a perfect food to choose for the joke. Everybody loves scallions, but nobody ever talks about how dope they are. Lines like these drive me wild. I adore them. Maybe that’s just me, I dunno. Anyway, the movie is chockfull of moments like these, so if that’s your thing, you can’t go wrong here.
Dutch (1991) | Dir. Peter Faiman | 107 min.
This is a quite lesser-known John Hughes movie. And in a lot of ways, it’s just a rehash of better movies of his—think Home Alone meets Planes Trains and Automobiles meets Uncle Buck. But peeking through its derivativeness is an alarmingly original message about why you shouldn’t be an asshole.
This is one of those important kids’ movies that teach you a lot about what life is all about, stuff that no adult would ever really sit you down and explain to you outright. I wish I’d seen it when I was a kid, but unfortunately I only heard of its existence a couple years ago. It still resonated with me as an adult though.
The dumb, lazy slapstick towards the beginning might make you want to turn it off, but stick with it. There are some genuinely funny and deeply touching moments throughout, once you get over that first hump. And Ed O’Neill is, of course, pitch-perfect. I’d say that it’s the second best Thanksgiving movie ever (Planes Trains and Automobiles being first best).
One Magic Christmas (1985) | Dir. Phillip Borsos | 89 min.
Don’t let the poster art fool you—this is a dark, dark movie. Probably the darkest and most twisted Christmas movie of all time, and definitely the most fucked up Disney movie of all time. Ultimately, it does have a happy ending, but the ride is insane. With the kind of turns this story takes, you’d swear George R.R. Martin wrote it or something.
Mary Steenburgen is delightful as always, and Harry Dean Stanton gives maybe his most unnerving performance, as a disheveled neighborhood creep who sneaks conversations with little kids. This is definitely not one to watch with the whole family, but if you’ve got a room full of adults with a penchant for sick, out-there movies, this’ll be perfect. It’s not a great movie, but it’s very good, and undeniably original and unforgettable.
Holiday Affair (1949) | Dir. Don Hartman | 87 min.
This a very light Christmas rom-com of sorts, imbued with a touch of darkness by way of the great Robert Mitchum as the male lead. If you love him in gritty films like The Night of the Hunter or Cape Fear or The Friends of Eddie Coyle, this is a must see. He’s got so much goddamn swagger here it’s insane, and he undresses Janet Leigh with every glance. And can ya blame him? She’s hot as balls here, maybe the hottest-as-balls she ever was.
This is probably my favorite black and white Christmas movie. Apparently, it wasn’t that big a hit when it came out, but from being aired again and again on TCM, it developed quite a following. I guess it was just ahead of its time. It certainly has a modern feel, largely due to his performance.
The Christmas Toy (1986) | Dir. Eric Till | 50 min.
This was a goddamn staple of my youth. I’ve probably seen this fifty times, but I guess me and my sister were the only ones, because I very rarely encounter anyone else who’s even heard of it. Basically, it’s Toy Story before there was Toy Story—in other words, Toy Story ripped it off. But Christmas Toy did it better. On top of its (at the time) unique premise about toys playing and having fun whenever us humans leave the room, it’s got a clever caveat—if humans catch a toy moving, it’ll be ‘frozen’ (dead) forever. This adds danger to the story, which Toy Story certainly lacked, but certainly made up for in adventure.
It’s also better than Toy Story because it looks real. It’s live action with puppets and shit, but the puppets don’t look like puppets, they just look like toys. And the filmmakers do that awesome Muppet Babies thing with the shot composition where you just see the legs of adults, nothing higher. Shit is gorgeous.
I started this piece out saying that these movies were very good, but not transcendent, but now that I think about it, The Christmas Toy is transcendent as fuck. Damn great little movie, man.