Thursday, 24 December 2009

After all its only one more sleep till Christmas...

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

So here it is. The long awaited and much anticipated numero uno of Christiana's Christmas Countdown.

And anyone who knows me even just a little bit will probably have known all along what is was going to be, just like I did. The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of those films that is part of my family Christmas tradition. Every year, the family get together and watch, singing all the words to the songs and laughing at the jokes we've seen a thousand times before. And it somehow never gets old.

Part of the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol is because it is surprisingly faithful to its source, the much loved festive treat that it Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Particularly through the use of Gonzo as Charles Dickens (a fact which is constantly disputed by Rizzo the Rat) and the narrator of the story who relays lines from the book in his very individual style.

All the songs are original, extremely catchy and very christmassy making it hard not to sing along even after a couple of viewings.

Another great Muppet Christmas movie is A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) which would be sharing the top spot with The Muppet Christmas Carol if I could. But as I didn't want to seem too obsessed I settled for the film I think of most when I think about Christmas.

As I'm writing this on Christmas eve, I thought I'd leave you with the most relevant of songs from the soundtrack of the film and really hope you enjoy it and have a very Merry Christmas with all the people you love.

Till 2010, fellow bloggers...

"Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."

2. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

What good is a Christmas Countdown without a Christmas classic?!

Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey in this moralistic movie about a man who thinks the world would be a better place if he didn't exist. Cue Clarence (Henry Travers) the angel on a mission to convince Jimmy otherwise and earn his wings.

Suicide and money troubles aside, It's a Wonderful Life is the ultimate feel-good movie directed by the masterful Frank Capra. And Capra and Stewart both cited it as their favourite of the films they were a part of and that's got to count for something.

The film was released later in colour but I wouldn't recommend it. A little bit of charm is lost with the bringing of colour technology to this film. The black and white version the original and just the way it's meant to be.

If you haven't watched the film and don't want to see the ending avoid watching the clip below... Even though it is brilliant.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Baby it's cold outside

3. Elf (2003)

John Favreau directs and Will Ferrell stars in the usual Christmas tale about how an oversized elf travels from the North Pole to New York to find his real father and seek acceptance.

Will Ferrell's performance as the aforementioned larger than life elf is brilliant. The innocence and unashamedly straight faced way in which he plays it makes his character completely believable.

Also worth a mention is the use of stop motion animation in small sections of the film that provide another fantastic and magical representation of the North Pole.

On it's initial release Elf didn't bother the box-office too much and was more of a success on the small screen and through its DVD release until becoming part of mine and many other people's essential Christmas viewing.

This film will have you laughing and cringing all the way through and if you haven't seen it, you need to because you're missing out.

The, The, The..

4. The Grinch (2000)

The Grinch is one of the few Christmas films that criticises the ridiculous over-commercialisation and self-inflicted pressures placed on everyone at Christmas. Of course this is the message also at the centre of the Dr. Seuss book from which it is based, but the film capitalises on this message and makes everyone feel like they wish they had there very own Grinch just to remind people what Christmas is really about.

Usually I find Jim Carrey's acting (particularly in comedies) over the top and I've always thought he's the type of actor you love or, as The Grinch would put it, 'loathe entirely'. However in the Grinch, Carrey's animated and excessive performance suits the role perfectly. Perhaps this has something to do with the character's cartoon origins, but it's one of those times where you actually forget that its Jim Carrey and believe that he is The Grinch. The same can also be said about the world around him for that matter. Whoville is masterfully created as if straight out of a child's imagination which is helped along by brilliant narration by none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins, keeping the film in touch with its literary roots.

Besides the Grinch, the main character of the film is Cyndi-Lou (Taylor Momsen), a young Who wondering what Christmas is really all about. She someone that we can all relate to, we've all felt sometimes that we're not really getting why people go to so much trouble around Christmas and how its becoming a commodity rather than a celebration. And the fact that it is a little girl who is having these feelings makes the message even more poignant. My favourite moment of the movie is when Cyndi-Lou sings 'Where are you Christmas.' I cry every time I watch that. I don't know why, it might have something to do with the fact that I cry at absolutely anything I watch in a film, or maybe its because there's something so pure and so innocent about this performance that really gets me.

Whoville is probably the most christmassy place you can let your imagination go and before Christmas I like to visit it at least once just to get in the mood and remember that Christmas doesn't come from a store...

"...Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Twas the Night before Christmas...

5.The Santa Clause (1994)

You would think that a plot involving Father Christmas falling off the roof of house to his death sounds a bit unsuitable for children, but you'd be wrong.

The Santa Clause starring Tim Allen in one of his better film roles, is all about what happens when Scott Calvin, a work-obsessed single dad is trying to convince his only son Charlie that Santa exists whilst not really believing it himself. But everything changes when Charlie convinces his father to take over Santa's job when he falls off the roof.

The Santa Clause is not really that unconventional, Christmas stories centred around the theme of 'believing in Santa Claus' are common (see Miracle on 34th Street (1994) and The Polar Express (2004)for perfectly good examples of this). But what is different is the way that the film tackles the problems of the non-nuclear family at Christmas especially in relation to children.

This film was never going to be an award botherer and it does come with its own brand of stateside cheese in parts, but its one of my Christmas guilty secrets and a great one for the kids.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

What's this, What's this..

6. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The anti-Christmas story, and not really one for very young impressionable children, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the only film on the countdown that creeps me out a bit. Even now. But that's sort of the point.

Produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, it's visually and thematically stereotypical of this pair's beautifully gothic and eerie style and delivers an Christmas story that flies in the face of convention.

On top of this, a great musical score by Danny Elfman keeps the audience tapping their feet particularly to Oogie Boogie's song (which is coincidentally my favourite song of the film!)

So if your looking for something a bit edgier with a storyline and moral message about Christmas that you can't see clunking down the road from about a mile away, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a great film to watch to get you in the mood for Halloween... I mean Christmas.

All Aboard!

7. The Polar Express (2004)

The newest film in the countdown, this is the first Christmas I have watched The Polar Express. I've avoided it for the last 5 years because of one thing, the character animation. And finally, after some cajoling I gave it a chance.

My opinion is unchanged. There really is something creepy about the way the people are animated in this film. There eyes are sort of lifeless and too close together and the children's faces in particular are devoid of the emotion and excitement they should, considering the circumstances, be showing. The elves are also a little bit disturbing particularly the elf modelled on Steve Tyler of Aerosmith which appears towards the end of the film.

However, it seems a bit unfair to be too judgemental about the animation of the characters when animating realistic human characters is no easy feat. Which is probably why a lot of Computer animated films avoid it by either stylizing the appearance of human characters as in Up (2009), or avoid showing the human characters as much as possible like in Toy Story (1995). And what is lacking in character animation is made up for the magical and breathtaking journey The Polar Express takes us on.

I happen to know that this film is one of my nephew's favourite Christmas films even though he wasn't even born when the film was released. I can understand why he likes The Polar Express so much; His two favourite things are trains and Christmas. And so every year from about October running up to Christmas he watches it over and over again.

And that's the only thing that would make this film better, to watch it as a child with all the innocence and excitement that children should have at this time of year. To actually believe that such a place exists and that such a journey can take you there.

Make the bell ring again, go on give it a chance. Watch The Polar Express this Christmas.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Violence and a sprinkle of Christmas Cheer.. No, this isn't Die Hard.

8. Home Alone (1990)

What more could you want than a bit of senseless violence at Christmas? And what's the family favourite that delivers it better than Father Christmas on caffeine? Why, Home Alone of course. Admittedly the violence is presented in a slapstick, cartoon style and so as a kid you don't think too much about the consequences. And even though the baddies are pretty bad you know they're never going to get killed. Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) are real life Wile E. Coyotes.

But watching Home Alone as an adult (if i can be classed as that) you start to think ludicrous things like 'oh that's not realistic, Harry would at least have been hospitalised with 2nd degree burns if his head was set on fire like that; And Marv would really need to have a tetanus shot after stepping on that rusty nail.'

It's like, it's not bad enough that Christmas isn't as good when you grow up, but you cant even enjoy a bit of mindless violence without your stupid sense of reality trying to ruin your fun.

However, whilst watching this film it occured to me that even with the drabness of old age you can't really ruin Home Alone. Simply because it allows you to remember what Christmas used to be like. Not because as a child it was tradition to throw paint cans off the landing onto unsuspecting visitors heads, but because I remember watching Home Alone as a child. Because I remember watching it at Christmas and I remember the excited feeling related to the viewing experience.

So if you're feeling a little bit lacking in Christmas spirit, watch Home Alone (in glorious VHS for authenticity if you can) and sit under the Christmas tree, look up at the lights and remember for a little while what it was like to be a kid at Christmas.

And here's an oh-so special trailer of the film. So do as 'The Culkin' says and sing along..

Don't say I never treat you!

Monday, 7 December 2009


9. Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually is another one of the Christmas films that you could really watch anytime of the year and you'd still enjoy it. With a huge cast of some of Britain's most accomplished stars it's a bit a rollercoaster in terms of what it offers and what you come to expect from Richard Curtis and the Best of British.

Yes, there are some bits that are annoying artificial and yes, some characters too for that matter (you know who you are!) But overall Love Actually is up there with It's a Wonderful Life for feel-good films. It can melt even the coldest heart like a blob of cream on a warm minced pie.

Richard Curtis is probably one of the best writer/directors around for knowing how to make an audience feel a certain way. And Love Actually is a prime example of this as his weaves his sentimental magic through several inter-linking storylines that revolve around different types of love and romance.

Not all are as fluffy as the main storyline involving Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister and his tea lady (Martine McCutcheon). Undoubtedly the best storyline of the film involves the superb Emma Thompson as the quintessential middle-class mother and wife whose allusions of perfect family life come crashing down around her as she realises that her husband (Alan Rickman) is involved with another woman.

Each storyline clearly works to evoke a different emotion. Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln's plays out for drama; Central to Martin Freeman and Joanna Page's story is a sort of naughty British postcard type of comedy; And Liam Neeson's recently widowed character evokes a strong sense of Pathos as we see him help his struggling step-son (Thomas Sangster)win over his first love.

Central to all these chapters is, of course, love. And that's sadly probably why it is one of my favourite Christmas films. Because although I'm aware I'm being irritatingly insipid in saying this, Love is important. And Christmas is one of those times where we actually get to admit that. It's when we witness it most too. So you might as well revel in it, go on take a look. Because as a wise old toff once said:

'Love actually is all around.'

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Christiana's Christmas Countdown

Well that's the first time my name's come in handy... thanks mum.

Tis the Season to spend the odd lazy afternoon watching all those Christmas films that give you that warm toasty feeling inside. But sometimes the pressure to watch all these films before the big day can be a bit much. So here it begins. My top ten must-see movies for the perennial season. Some choices may be controversial but it's obviously a matter of personal taste. Which I might add, I have plenty of.

So here we go.. Let Christiana's Christmas Movie Countdown begin!

10. Meet me in St. Louis (1944)

Perhaps not an obvious choice as it's not technically a Christmas Movie, Meet Me in St Louis' structure is set around the four seasons of the year. But the highlight is most definitely the Christmas sequence of the film. Meet Me in St. Louis is not only one of my Christmas favourites but is also,in my humble opinion, one of the best musicals of the Classical Hollywood era.

Judy Garland gives a terrific performance alongside the astoundingly talented 7 year old Margaret O'Brien particularly during Garland's show stopping performance of 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.'Filmed towards the end of the Second World War, this song is beautiful and sad emphasising the anxieties of the time, the loss of loved ones and the importance of family and solidarity. A theme and a mood that encompasses the whole film.

It might not seem like the cheeriest of choices to get you in the festive mood but there's something oddly comforting about this segment of the film that reassures anyone unable to get to grips with the idea that Christmas is always the happiest time of the year. The Nostalgic setting of turn of the 20th Century and the feeling of a simpler and happier time also reiterates the unsettled milieu.

The film is also beautifully and skillfully directed by Vincente Minelli, specifically during scenes with Judy Garland where Minelli's evident love for the lead actress is shown through his attention to detail in the soft-focus, framing and mise en scene of the piece.

Meet Me in St Louis
is probably one to ease you into this seasonal period. If its early December and you're not quite sure whether you're ready for full-on festivities, for comedy, an excellent musical score and brilliant performances all round, you could probably do a lot worse than Meet Me in St. Louis.

Oooh, they just don't make 'em like they used to, do they?!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Cloudy with a Flash of Brilliance

Based on a popular American children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is perhaps one of the more bizarre film titles of 2009. Sony's latest computer animation feature could lead you to believe that it's another tediously formulaic kids flick with the sole purpose of cashing in whilst keeping the little ones quiet for an hour and a half.

Well it's not quite that simple.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is formulaic. You can see the cogs of the story working. You can extrapolate that the nerdy professor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) will get together with the secretly geekier weathergirl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris). You know the protagonist will get his father's approval in the end. And you can't help but anticipate that Flint's invention will only take so much before disaster strikes and choas ensues. But none of this really matters (especially to a 7 year old who is probably to busy wishing it would snow ice cream, and to a 22 year old for that matter!) Because despite its predictability, the film is sophicatedly funny (but still quite silly and non-sensical) whilst bragging an animation style all of its own.

The stylized computer animation of the film lends itself to such a ludicrous and imaginative story and allows itself differentiation to the aforementioned cash-cow CGI animations. These animations have all fallen into the same trap. Sub-standard and churned out on a monthly basis, they attempt to keep up with the effortless style and finesse of the undoubtedly unrivalled animation studios at Pixar. This is a trap that Cloudy manages to avoid. With less resources, time and money other studios expect to recreate something which Pixar have got down to a fine art. So instead of jumping on the bandwagon, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs goes against the grain and comes up with something completely unique. And that is a true recipe for success.