Despite my hard-earned rep as an atheistic radical commie lesbian, I turn into a hopeless ball of schmaltz when the holiday season begins. Every year, I succumb to the sentimentality of Christmas movies.
I used to start crying just 10 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life, when young George gets his ears boxed by the druggist, Mr. Gower. Last year, it only took 3 minutes, when George’s little brother Harry crashes through the ice.
Many people have tired of it because of its overexposure, but It’s a Wonderful Life is a perfectly written and executed film. Jimmy Stewart is outstanding but every performer, including bit players, is stellar. The scenes crackle with intensity and lyricism: George’s heart-to-heart talk with his dad; his confrontations with old Potter; his rousing plea to Bedford Falls to stick together against the evil banker.
Lately, my favorite scene is the “Buffalo Gals” stroll between George and Mary after their plunge in the pool. The flirtatious banter between Stewart and Donna Reed, punctuated by the neighbor yelling, “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?” is priceless.
The dialogue in White Christmas is stilted and there’s that cringe-inducing minstrel number. But when the veterans sing “We’ll Follow the Old Man” and the cast joins in “White Christmas,” I’m a goner. Besides that, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen are cute as buttons, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” rates among the best Hollywood dance numbers, and the “Sisters” drag routine by Danny and Bing Crosby (which Danny seems to be enjoying a little too much) is hilarious.
Other movies I enjoy at Christmas are less obvious. While You Were Sleeping, the wonderful romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, takes place from Christmas to New Year’s in Chicago. There’s a lot of Midwestern holiday warmth, charming performances and many funny lines. My fave is Granny announcing out loud at Christmas Mass: “I liked Mass better in Latin. It’s nicer when you don’t know what they’re saying.”
Another heartwarmer is Little Women with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. There are a number of New England winter scenes that include caroling and gathering around the hearth. The interior scenes capture the warmth and love that pervade the March home. A great story, thoughtful performances and a classy score by Thomas Newman make it a winner. But prepare yourself: Beth still dies. Cue the crying jag.
Another unexpected holiday treat is Millions, a small gem by Danny Boyle, the director of Slumdog Millionaire. In Millions, 7-year-old Damian, who has just lost his mum and who talks with saints, comes upon a satchel containing millions of British pound notes. The sweet boy decides to give it all to the poor, leading to comical misadventures and a scary showdown with the criminals who want their loot back.
Most of the action takes place over Christmas and New Year’s. In one magical scene, Damian flees from the bad guys by following a bright star. He’s accompanied by the big papier-mâché donkey from his school’s Christmas play. In the end, Damian meets his dead mum for a final chat and hug before he and she can let each other go.
The best Christmas stories, like Dickens’ template A Christmas Carol, are dark as well as light. There’s nothing like a good cry, but here’s hoping that you find your way to the light this holiday season.
Jamakaya has been an award-winning writer, historian and feminist activist in Milwaukee for 40 years. Her writing has appeared in dozens of local and national publications. See more about her at http://www.Jamakaya.com.