Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Every child in America who grew up with a TV in their house knows the familiar stop-motion tale of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and that fateful foggy Christmas Eve. Kids sing odes to Rudolph in holiday school concerts and the reindeer's familiar image flies across TV screens in ads for companies like Office Max, Verizon and the insurance company Aflac.
For many, it just doesn't feel like Christmas until they watch Rudolph save the day with his shining red nose. That's because it's the longest-running holiday special in history, airing every year since its premiere in 1964, on NBC's The General Electric Fantasy Hour. Generations have grown up watching Rudolph go from misfit and outcast to hero, which makes this the ultimate family movie for Christmas. When the flutes sound the first notes to the theme song, both parents and kids will know the lyrics by heart.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
A year after NBC premiered Rudolph, CBS debuted its own soon-to-be classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a story lamenting the commercialization of Christmas, and it was sponsored by Coca Cola, which ran spots equating the magic of Santa Claus with the magic of high fructose corn syrup. But hey, it was the Mad Men era.
Specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas were a big deal at the time; they were among a handful of shows broadcast in color, and the networks used them to one-up each other. Nowadays the griping over the secularization of Christmas usually falls to talking heads, but in the 1960s the cause was embraced by Charles Schultz, and he decided to argue his point through Charlie Brown, Linus and his ever-present blanket.
If you're not in the mood for Christmas, don't worry–at the beginning of this special, Charlie Brown isn't either. But like Charlie, you'll come around by the time the end credits roll.
A Christmas Story (1983)
A Christmas Story is like The Big Lebowski of holiday movies–fans will hear the word "fragile" and chuckle, "Must be Italian!" the same way Lebowski devotees relish the chance to belt out, "This aggression will not stand, man!"
Based on a magazine writer's semi-autobiographical essays for Playboy magazine, A Christmas Story quietly passed through theaters during the 1983 holiday season. It was a forgettable film as far as most critics were concerned.
But this story of decoder rings, Red Ryder BB guns and leg lamps of Italian provenance amassed a cult following in VHS sales and holiday re-runs. Unlike older classics like Rudolph and Frostie, A Christmas Story has never been shown on a major television network.
Its jokes are enduring, and it's got a wistful, Wonder Years feel thanks to the narration. And if you haven't seen it, now's your opportunity to see what everyone's been talking about.
Home Alone (1990)
To an elementary school kid, Home Alone ranked right up there with Japanese robots and baseball as the most awesome things in the universe. The plot makes no sense, the violence is cartoonish, and every adult in the movie is an idiot. Kids love it.
Here's the plot: Macaulay Culkin plays Kevin, a young boy about to leave for a Paris vacation with his family. In a series of events involving faulty alarm clocks, bad headcounts and a mad dash to the airport, Kevin's family boards the plane and arrives in Paris without him. Kevin wakes up to an empty house and starts living it up like any kid would do.
Meanwhile, two bandits have been skulking around Kevin's neighborhood, and they zero in on his home as a prime target for a holiday heist. That's when Culkin goes into MacGyver mode, and the second act is mostly Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern walking into increasingly painful-looking traps. Somehow, after nearly murdering two burglars, eating a steady diet of pizza and reuniting with his mother, Kevin learns the meaning of Christmas.
Remember when Will Ferrell was funny, before he spent the better part of a decade making ill-advised sports comedies?
In Elf, Ferrell was fresh from Saturday Night Live and was a rising movie star on the strength of roles in Zoolander, Old School and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
Ferrell plays an orphan who was raised by Santa Claus on the North Pole. When he heads to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan), Ferrell meets up with Zooey Deschanel and scores a job as a store Santa's holiday helper. Along the way, there are lots of great shots of Manhattan in all its festive holiday glory.
With Favreau in the director's chair, Ferrell, Deschanel and Caan hit all the right notes, from sweet to hilarious. Elf offers a lot to keep kids entertained, but it doesn't forget its adult audience, making this a true family movie.
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