The winter holidays are the most high-stakes season at the box-office. Whether a studio film has Academy aspirations or merely aims to cash in on the intense market for Christmas break entertainment, December is box-office gold. Supposedly, this is the time of the year when the most exciting movies are released. That could mean the next Best Picture or a highly anticipated new film from your favorite director. Or it could just mean an old fashioned good time at the movies, via a fun matinee break movie. Perhaps, most entertaining of all are the movies that studios believe have a shot at the Oscar race but end up backfiring in notorious box-office bomb fashion. On the eve of an especially good Christmas release year, I thought I’d take a trip through some of the ghosts of Christmas past, considering the last 20 years of Christmas releases via four categorical top 5 lists. For most, Christmas is a time of unfathomable merriness and cheer. For me, this is Christmas as I have known it for the last 20 years.
Usually these films consist of over-sentimental garbage aimed to exploit emotionally vulnerable moviegoers by smashing them over the head with reasons to cry. Unlike the Schindler’s Lists and Pianists of the Best Picture Christmas release (see below), the Christmas Crap film, if it isn’t a Best Picture disaster, is otherwise known as the intended feel-good flick of the season. Though plenty of turkeys have been released over the last 20 years, perhaps no era was as severe as the mid-late 90s. 1998 saw an especially terrible Christmas year with the releases of the three of Hollywood’s most revolting projectiles. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was the first Christmas of the 1998 multiplex boom, which saw the birth of the first Silver Cities, Coliseums, and Colossuses ie. the big screen experience as we know it today. The 90s were a very celebrity-centric decade when it seemed largely presumed by Hollywood that so long as you had Tom Hanks falling in love with Meg Ryan or Kevin Kline, time and time again, everything was gonna be okay.
Michael reflects a period when Hollywood treated John Travolta like he was Jesus Christ. Having been resurrected two year’s prior by Pulp Fiction, the world was ready to embrace the former reject in any shape or form, though the form of preference seemed to be Travolta dancing with a dog. This particular dog-dangling, feel good, gag fest features living angel Travolta – giant wings and all – line dancing to Spirit in the Sky. This scene along with the bed-jumping Motown sacrilege of Stepmom marks a shameful era in Hollywood drivel.
The Postman (1997)
Not as much a feel good movie as it is a complete box office disaster. Until 1997, it was inconceivable that Kevin Costner could mess up his career any worse than he had with his Waterworld debacle. And yet amazingly he did it! He succeeded in outsucking one of the great cinematic botch jobs. Waterworld, and its succeeding post-apocolyptic foray into the world of snail mail, would make a great triple feature alongside Dances With Wolves. I’d call the event the WTF Happened Marathon.
Patch Adams (1998)
A shameless yank at the heartstrings in the guise of an annoying-as-hell Robin Williams comedy about a goofy asshole with verbal diarrhea who entertains dying children with his nonsensical, semi-psychotic rants. The studio’s belief that this is the type of movie the world wanted to see, and – my God – award accolades, is one of the great insults to the general public’s intelligence in a very insulting pop-culture landscape.
An excuse for Julia Roberts to go head to head with Susan Sarandon in the type of safe dramatic confrontations you find in parodies of Hollywood movies. Worst of all, Stepmom features a scene where all the characters jump up and down on a bed while joyously lip-syncing to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Un Chien Andalou comes to mind.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
In many ways, YGM is a hilarious attempt to cash in on the still very young novelty that was the Internet in 1998. The plot revolves around Hanks and Ryan courting via online chat and email! Can you imagine a love story today strictly about getting your emails? This is Nora Ephron’s follow up to 96’s Michael debauch. While I sometimes want to like Ephron, it’s hard to forget a handful of films she made in the 90s that played like poisoning.
The Bucket List (2007)
10 years after winning a well-deserved oscar for As Good As It Gets, The Bucket List is sadly the movie where Jack Nicholson finally said ‘fuck it, I’m out’. It’s a terribly sad note to end on, given that Nicholson is really one of the finest actors of all time. This entry in the geezer film (a genre that is not always as terrible as it sounds ie. Grumpy Old Men, Gran Torino, etc.) sees Jack and Morgan Freeman acting out a set of ‘things to do before I die’ activities. If Nicholson, one of the century’s bravest actors, really wanted to act like he was young, he should’ve gone out with a script with some balls.
This category embodies the true spirit of the Christmas releases. While the Best Pictures or Favorite Movies are all well and good, the Christmas holidays are just as much about turning off your brain as anything else. None of these movies have anything to do with Christmas, nor have anything in common with one another, other than their release dates, but it was the feeling of the studios that for whatever reason, these films were not shituary releases, nor summer movies, but end of the year events. Indeed, as far as my own tastes are concerned, this grab bag consists of the most enjoyably light Xmas watches of the past 20 years.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
While I’m no champion of the superhero genre per say, I’m unashamed to pinpoint 1989’s Batman as the pivotal movie going experience of my life. That film did something deep psychologically to me, turning me onto cinema as a transcendent experience early in life. In the following years Batman: The Animated Series was the favorite TV show of all my young pals and myself. To this day, I maintain that this was for very good reason. It was dark and really quite well-written. Thus, the animated Batman’s big screen debut was a cause for celebration. This film, as well as the series, is perhaps most valuable for it’s alternate portrayal of The Joker, who along with Hitler, is surely among history’s most fascinating villains.
Grumpy/Grumpier Old Men (1993/1995)
Who can possibly resist the site of two geriatric men fighting with shovels? That the answer is no one is perhaps indicative of the heavy presence of angry-geezer films throughout the 90s, which consisted of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon just hating each other. In the saga of the Grumpy and the Old, they play men who are bitter, tired, and have got a real problem with one another. The reason for the grudge doesn’t much matter, it’s the grudge itself that is rich. One might call these golden knuckleheads the great nemeses of the decade.
Dracula, Dead and Loving It (1995)
I can’t say I remember this movie that well. And while ordinarily I’d be ecstatic to have the excuse to re watch it, at this point I’m too busy writing this article. I think I recall mild disappointment. My hopes were very high, as a Leslie Neilson movie in 1995 was an extremely exciting thing. It’s the first film following The Naked Gun trilogy, which is, by far, one of the funniest series of movies I have ever and will ever see. That Dracula didn’t resonate is proof enough that the film is an unworthy follow up so, instead, if you’re looking to laugh this Xmas, just stick to the trilogy. I’m gonna watch them all right now. This article can wait.
Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996)
One of the funniest movies of the 90s. Also significant because it marks the retirement of Judge’s MTV show. When MTV’s B&B was good, it was amazing, and the film brings the best of its’ A-game to the big screen in a cross country adventure with stops along the way from Hoover’s (God)Damn to the sluts of Las Vegas. It also offers a wonderful dose of Mr. Anderson, who in the upcoming months would be transformed into Hank Hill of the brilliant new Judge vehicle, King of the Hill.
Scream 1 & 2 (1996/1997)
Both were released on Christmas. They were clever, self-reflective and given my age upon release, I remember them as quite scary. Over the years, the revitalized 80s Slasher genre Scream spawned – while rehashments like I Know What You Did Last Summer (great movie), Urban Legends, and Final Destination – would become a nuisance, but at first, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson were definitely onto something with this meta piece of genre-deconstructionism.
For film lovers, the autumn and winter seasons see the release of the year’s best films, which spend the first ¾ of the year garnering acclaim at festivals, and then open throughout last months of the year, as close to the Oscars as possible. In other words, the closer a film is released to the end of the year, the more memorable it will be to the academy come voting season. Thus the dramas released around this time reflect the material studios are counting on to win. There are two types of ‘for your consideration’ Christmas movies. I’ve broken this type of film into two categories, though really there are three – the third being the aforementioned best picture bomb (see Patch Adams, Stepmom…). But on the positive side of Oscar season there are two categories: First we have the For Your Consideration genre, which is typical Hollywood fare that predictably receives appropriate accolades. It’s an amusing contrast to the onslaught of Christmas cheer that occurs throughout December to see the release of heavy films with titles like Les Miserables and The Pianist Who Went To The Holocaust. This first list reflects the best of the classic Oscar dramas.
For Your Consideration
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
Ah yes. On the eve of one of this Xmas’s most eagerly anticipated releases – The Wolf of Wall Street – it’s important to look back 20 years to Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest performance, which includes an unforgettable rendition of the beloved classic “Match in the Gas Tank, Boom, Boom”. Also famous for its trendsetting presentation of ‘The Moo-Moo’. The question of what specifically is in fact ‘eating’ Gilbert Grape is indeed one for the ages and probably one best left unposed. More to the point, would it have been too much to ask for a brief appearance, or perhaps ‘hello’, from dandy, Jessica Tandy? I think we all think not.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
For a Hole fan in 1996 the idea of Courtney Love playing a stripper in a movie about Hustler visionary Larry Flynt made the Milos Foreman drama a scandalous must-see. I believe I know a few unfortunate souls who saw it with their parents. But all the sizzling details aside, The People vs. Larry Flynt is a kickass movie featuring one of/if not Woody Harrelson’s best performance. Love fares well too. Her acting even borders on impressive when she applies her real-life histrionics to the not-dissimilar whorish love interest she portrays in the film. It was a genius bit of casting in one of the 90s best films. In a decade divided between those who could or could not handle the truth, The People vs. Larry Flynt may just be my favorite courtroom drama.
And here we have a Leo performance of Titanic proportion – his performance in Titanic. The film’s reputation is clouded by haters, as Celine Dion can be difficult to defend, but I recall at the time the thick hype surrounding the release followed by the wave of month-long sold out shows, packed with people seeing it again and again. Motion picture events in which movie goers would return for multiple screenings were historically common practice, perhaps in large due to the slow evolution of home video convenience, but these days, you just don’t really see that anymore. Looking back Titanic now represents an end-of-an-era type phenomenon. 1997 was the last year before the multiplex invasion, and perhaps somehow, un-coincidentally, also reflects the waning days of Best Picture clout. To briefly put my own hype for the film leading up to its release in context, it’s important to consider what ‘the new James Cameron movie’ represented at that point. His two previous films were True Lies and Terminator 2, action epics that both took the genre to new levels of quality. Titanic had best picture smeared all over it but for all it’s over-the-top extravagance, I maintain my initial opinion, which is that if you forget that you’re not supposed to like it and allow yourself to get caught up in the story, Titanic is a damn fine movie.
As Good As It Gets (1997)
As far as the feel-good genre is concerned, if it has a king it is James L Brooks. The academy loves him for Terms of Endearment but the world loves him more for his contributions to the best years of The Simpsons. Simpsons fans have Brooks to thank, not only for his next-level sense of humor, but his leniency towards heartfelt endings. The writing staff would even refer to beautiful endings such as Bart Vs. Lisa at Hockey and Mother Simpson as ‘The Jimmy’. In As Good As It Gets we have 90s Jack Nicholson at his finest. He plays a politically incorrect OCD case who comes to care for a single-parent waitress (Helen Hunt) and his gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear). Features some great comedy and even better drama but above all it’s a wonderful vehicle for Jack to act crazy, as he’s so damn good at. Like in Cukoo’s Nest, this performance would land him a Best Actor award.
Traffic (2000), In The Bedroom (2001), The Wrestler (2008)
These three films, and I can surely think of more, sort of fall in the middle of the “For Your Consideration” category and the “Favorite Movie” category below. I include them in the Oscar list because I feel they all have more legitimate shots at Oscars than the films in the succeeding ‘favorites’ list. Though, I never actually believed any of these movies would take home Best Picture, though all three were nominated, they are close enough that the academy tends to award the films with misdirected minor accolades such as supporting acting and screenplay. In other words, these are the edgier Best Picture films that, while they contain high-drama and are loaded with Oscar-reel performances, never really had a shot, and serve to round out the Best Picture nominations and exhibit (false) range.
So considering my stance that the movies that tend to win best picture are usually more conventional, it rarely if ever happens that the year’s best picture coincides with my actual favorite movie of the year. And so we arrive at the best category of the Christmas movie release: The Favorite Movie. Most of the best movies of the year are released from September to November, leaving only a handful of truly special ones to keep film buffs eager for Christmas. This year we are especially blessed to have a handful of films from this category being released in Christmas week, such as American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street. But what makes Xmas ’13 an especially excellent year are the releases of Spike Jonzes’ Her and The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Like films from Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson, both past veterans of the Xmas release, Jonze and the Coens’ new films are what anticipating Christmas releases are all about.
12 Monkeys (1995)
This is the first movie I ever saw 4 times in theaters. I didn’t know much about it going in on that snowy afternoon in 1995, nor had I any real notion I was about to undergo a transformative experience. Now almost 20 years later, I still remember being glued to my seat during the credits, trying to wrap my head around the surreal experience. With movies like Seven, The Game, The Usual Suspects, etc, the 90s seemed very heavy on twist endings. Though all aforementioned films are some of the best movies to come out of the decade, none blew my mind quite as thoroughly as Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. And so it is one of the true holy-shit movies of my lifetime. But even having sat through the film theatrically for a total of 8 hours, come 1998, I was no less prepared for Gilliam’s follow up: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas… speaking of holy-shit movies.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is not necessarily my favorite film on this list, though I do love it dearly, but I must give it the title of my all-time favorite Christmas release. This is because I can honestly say I have never been as excited for a movie as I was Jackie Brown. In the 3 years since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had escalated into the king of the 90s, spawning a slew of flashy copycat crime flicks. It was hard to imagine what the next Tarantino flick would look like. The teaser publicity provided some glimpses, with super cool individual character posters and a really weird but awesome teaser trailer showing multiple takes of Pam Grier saying ‘Jackie Brown’ into an apartment buzzer. Also given that Tarantino was doing an Elmore Leonard novel, an author he’d openly praised in interviews as having turned him on to lurid subject matter, the idea of a Tarantino take on Leonard was too good to be true. It’s one of his best films.
Magnolia is a movie I definitely did not see coming. Having already seen Boogie Nights about 5 times, I was a huge P.T. Anderson fan going in and didn’t mind having to trek downtown to the one theater playing its exclusive run. The reward was great as Magnolia proved to be a serious bang for your buck. Clocking in at 3 extremely entertaining hours, Magnolia takes the P.T. ensemble of Boogie Nights and stretches it to the furthest realms of his Altman influence, with an expansive, interwoven Carver-esque tale of parallel desperation and the breaking points that unite us all, etc. It was quick to be called pretentious by haters, and admittedly, given its grandiose emotional ambition, it has not aged well in certain circles. In the making-of the DVD doc, Julianne Moore herself says in many ways it’s a very naïve script but that’s also what makes it such an epic win. PTA, at 26, had the gall to write a big emotional opera and, lucky for us, he was able to obtain the power to pull it off with a fluid, distinct style that confirmed his status as a cinematic wunderkind.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) / Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
O Brother marks a significant entry into this list given the timely event of the Inside Llewyn Davis release, a film that plays like the second chapter in the Coens’ roots music saga. Having now seen ILD, I can say that both films reflect my favorite aspects of the Coens’ cannon. ILD is the yin to O Brother’s yang, especially given the contrasts in tone. O Brother starts somewhere around the beginning of the roots music story in the innocent age of Alan Lomax field recordings i.e. the birth of recorded music. Up until field recordings, the practice of songwriting and performing was an aural tradition, existing for those present at a ‘performance’ alone. The three cousin roots genres were blues, country, and folk, all raw methods of storytelling and expression for no other purpose than expression itself. Somewhere along the line, the performance aspect of the hard luck singer got criss-crossed with entertainment, muddling up the purpose and nature of the craft.
By the time of the early 60s ‘folk-revival’ – the world in which Inside Llewyn Davis exists on the verge of – civilization had advanced enough for music to be valued and judged as a commercial entity, making the genre prone to the likes of ‘careerists’ cashing in on the folk boom, not unlike how starlets cling to what happens to be in at this point of pop-culture. Ironically, at the time of the early 60s, the moment in pop culture was “folk” music, thus it became a genre contaminated with whitewash novelty songs that bastardized the ethos of real folk. And so it was a melancholy time for purists who withheld the traditional philosophy that music is meant for expression and not commodity. But since expression cannot exist without commodity, the singin’ and pickin’ rambler cannot survive without exploiting the thing that makes him pure. In other words: square folk is a little careerist and it’s a little sad, but it’s also where the money is.
But before these big ideas of exposure and monetization compromised the tradition, O Brother presents a simpler time in which education was a privilege and music was the expression of the uneducated ailing soul. This is what makes O Brother, in addition to one of my favorite period pieces, also one of the best platforms for the Coens’ sense of humor. Though I often feel in the minority, O Brother is one of funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Inside Llewyn Davis has it’s comedy as well, but more than any other Coen I’ve seen, it’s my favorite straight up drama, and one that takes on a subject of deep passion with simplistic wisdom and perfect storytelling. Inside Llewyn Davis is a Christmas miracle.