Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Critic's 12 Faves of Christmas

Merry Christmas, happy holidays and joyous tidings dear readers; whatever you happen to be celebrating! As my gift to you, I've listed the 12 things that get me into the holiday spirit, and hopefully one of them will bring you the same joy it gives me year in and year out. From classic movies to drunken mall Santas, there's something for everyone here! 

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

1. Christmas in Connecticut: 1945, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, and Sydney Greenstreet 

Forget It's A Wonderful Life. This screwball comedy starring two of the big names in classic film noir (Stanwyck and Greenstreet, respectively) step out of their shadowy typecasts of gangsters and femme fatales to quite literally romp in the snowdrifts of New England. A brilliant businesswoman in Manhattan (Stanwyck) has typecast herself as a doting housewife living in the backwoods of Connecticut in a famous magazine column that pays for her mink coats and comfortable lifestyle. All that threatens to come to a halt when her boss at the magazine that publishes her column asks her to host a returning war vet at her idyllic home; which of course doesn't exist! A she frets in her cramped high-rise apartment, hilarity ensues.

2. It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas - Single by The Pet Shop Boys 

 The perfect blend of cynical and sweet; it's just not truly the holidays until this quirky gem comes on. "Bing Crosby, are you listening to me??"


Image courtesy of Tantor Media, Inc.

 3. The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir, by Ken Harmon; audiobook read by Johnny Heller 

When you've got "North Pole" and "Noir" together in one title; what's not to love? A quick read or listen, this celebration of the hard-boiled detective mystery novels follows the misadventures of Gumdrop Coal, a two-foot-three-inch hard-nog drinker who has the nasty job of delivering coal to kids on the Naughty List. Disillusioned after 1,300 years, he's ready to lose himself to the bottle of eggnog until one parent of a particularly naughty kid winds up dead. Who framed him? And is ol' Kris Kringle, (aka: The Fat Man), next? A send-up of all your favorite childhood characters (even little Ralphie from The Christmas Story puts in an appearance) against the shadowy backdrop of crime fiction at its best. Audiobook features the voice talent of New York native Johnny Heller, who gives Gumdrop the right amount of Brooklyn grit to his voice and gives the perfect accompaniment to this twisted tale. 

Listen to an audio clip HERE.

4. Hershey's Kisses Bell Choir Commercial

Self-explanatory. I grew up seeing this commercial for as long as I can remember, and it always rings in the holiday cheer for me. When I visited Hershey' Chocolate World in PA over Thanksgiving this year, they had an interactive display where you could make up your own melodies using the Hershey's bells. Timelessly brilliant and delicious.


5. Brian Setzer Orchestra - Boogie Woogie Christmas

Image courtesy of

This is essential to my Christmas soundtrack. This album has gotten me through the toughest wrapping, letter writing, cookie baking, and what have you - it's the espresso jolt to your holiday blues; and far superior to his following installment, Dig That Crazy Christmas (although that too has moments of brilliance, most notably with "Angels We Have Heard on High"). It also features the best version of "Baby It's Cold Outside", a duet with the timelessly talented Ann Margret (also known as one of Elvis's old gal pals; see Viva Las Vegas) and a version of "O Holy Night" that will make your momma cry. Enough said. Go listen!


6. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Long before the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp duo became trite and tacky, back in the early 90s they came together to create a film that is truly magical. A true modern day fairy tale, it centers around why it always snows around Christmastime in a particular suburban town of Florida, and blossoms into a story of deep tolerance, acceptance, love - and the ultimate consequences of all three. Featuring some of the most heartrending music created by the brilliant Danny Elfman and the very last major film performance of the incredible Vincent Price, it is the kind of film that will melt your heart like a snowflake on your warm gloved hand.

7. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Image courtesy of Chris Van Allsburg and Houghton Mifflin.
I'm talking about the book, NOT the movie. Sorry to all you fans of the film out there, but I pretty much pretend that doesn't exist. This book was one I would constantly take out of my local library to read as a kid; and I'm not sure why I never thought to ask for a copy of my own until I was 23 years old. With the beautiful painted illustrations (also done by the author, a rarity in children's books) and the message of belief in the spirit of Christmas well into adulthood, giving these well-worn pages another read-through has become a happy tradition for me.


8. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (BBC, 1988) 

Though the special effects are dated by today's standards, the BBC version of C.S. Lewis's masterpiece is still my all-time favorite. While it is not what one would consider to be your standard holiday fare, the tale of good overcoming evil and the end of "always winter, and NEVER Christmas" is something that continually warms my heart and fills the corner of my soul that loves a tale of high fantasy adventure and children coming-of-age. Or maybe it is just my love for big cats. Regardless, much like the book, it never ceases to warm my frozen little heart.

9. Bad Santa: 2003, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox,  and Bernie Mac 

This one ain't for the kiddies, folks! A friend of mine introduced me to this one a few years back and it is rude, crude, and HILARIOUS. Down-and-out Billy Bob (he has a character name; but let's just face it, he's being straight-up Billy Bob) scrapes by year to year on Jim Beam and the profits he makes stealing money from malls on Christmas Eve while posing as a mall santa with his accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox). The heist goes like clockwork until a particularly OCD mall security officer (Bernie Mac, God rest) is onto them to bust up their Christmas looting tradition. Throw in a sweet kid that makes Billy Bob's scroogey self have a change of heart, and you've got a film that's like the rum in your eggnog - spicy and fierce with some bitter notes, but cuts the sweet in the most delicious of ways.

10. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

This movie pretty much has it all - Halloween, Christmas, jaw-dropping animation, amazing music, and a story about being true to yourself. Sometimes I really miss the old Tim Burton. 'Nuff said.

11. Homespun Christmas Music Compilations 


A few years ago, a relative of mine made a "Christmas Collage" custom CD collection of favorite Christmas tunes. It is a two-disc set, and it gets me through the long drive down to visit my family in Maryland, as well as exposing me to some great/semi-obscure holiday music, pulling me out of my Brian Setzer and Wham's "Last Christmas" rabbit hole. Favorites include "IIl est né, le divin Enfant" (He is Born, the Divine Child) performed by Les Sambalélés, Noel Nouvelet/Patapan performed by Steve Schuch, and The 12 Days of Christmas performed by Straight No Chaser (see below). A unique and awesome gift that keeps giving year after year.



12. YOU, dear readers. 

You kick my butt in gear and keep me working on this lovely blog o' mine. Your continued loyalty, even when the time between updates gets a little longer than it should be, is always appreciated, and your comments are a gift to me. Whatever you happen to be celebrating, I hope it is happy and filled with the warmth of family, friends, and, when called for, the occasional good stiff drink. Cheers!

Toby sez:

I didn't get enough catnip in exchange for getting dolled up in this pic. But Meowy Christmas, one and all.

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