Holiday Favorites

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: White Reindeer

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white reindeer

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Traditionally upbeat Christmas movies can be comforting, but there's something to be said for exploring the post-magic realm of holiday cinema. Characters with a melancholy streak and who are too cynical to be taken in by sparkly lights and tra-la-la-ing are pretty interesting to watch, and if you're in that kind of mood, too, then you should check out White Reindeer, which screened at SXSW in 2013.

Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) starts out as the opposite of a Scrooge; she's a realtor working in the Washington, D.C. area, excited for Christmas and for life in general. She has a meteorologist husband, they have important, exciting plans, and they are nice people who say "anyhoo" and buy each other the perfect Christmas gifts.

Very early in the movie, though, things take a completely unfestive turn. Suzanne finds herself alone and completely confused about what she should do with herself, and in terms of Chrismas, she is a bundle of misfiring impulses and misplaced emotions. Her once-favorite holiday has had all the joy pummeled out of it a few days before the 25th, and she's now left to endure everyone's else's merriment.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: Mixed Nuts

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Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

The sadly forgotten Christmas comedy Mixed Nuts (1994) has been a holiday viewing tradition for me since its release 20 years ago. Co-written and directed by Nora Ephron from the earlier French film Le père Noël est une ordure (1982), Mixed Nuts bears almost no resemblance to the director's more famous romantic comedies. The holiday farce deals with the staff of a Los Angeles suicide hotline (Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Rita Wilson) who must contend with a bickering pair of expectant parents (Anthony Lapaglia, Juliette Lewis), a melancholy cross-dresser (Liev Schrieber), a quirky ukulele player (Adam Sandler) and other assorted characters as they face eviction as well as a serial killer known as The Seaside Strangler on Christmas Eve.

So much of Mixed Nuts is the exact opposite of what comprises the standard holiday movie, such as the dark flavor of comedy and the sunny Los Angeles setting (Christmas actually happens there too). And while plenty of Christmas movies tend to draw inspiration from Norman Rockwell, Mixed Nuts goes against the grain by being a film populated with individuals who would never be found in a Rockwell painting. These are people who, for one reason or another, dread the holidays. In that sense, Mixed Nuts is perhaps one of the most relatable and sympathetic holiday films in existence; a love letter for the individual who feels something is lacking for them during this time of the year. As Martin's character puts it: "Christmas is a time when you look at your life through a magnifying glass, and everything you don't have suddenly seems overwhelming."

That's not to say that Mixed Nuts is a depressing movie. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. The selection of holiday songs are highly enjoyable (including Amy Grant's stunning "The Night Before Christmas" which closes the film), the large comedic cast is fun to watch, the comedy, while dark, is plentiful and the film's climax opts for the hopeful, rather than the sentimental. All in all, Mixed Nuts is prime holiday viewing, even it does come in unconventional wrapping.

Where to watch: Mixed Nuts is available on DVD, Amazon Instant Video and in Austin, at Vulcan Video North.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: It Happened on 5th Avenue

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Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Not many remember, or even know of, this touching holiday comedy's existence. I suppose that's fair enough since the release date for this Christmas-set film was actually Easter. It also didn't help that It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) was released in between future classics It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As if this weren't enough, the movie went out of circulation in 1990 without even a single TV airing until a low-key DVD release several years ago saved it from holiday movie obscurity.

It's a real shame, since It Happened on 5th Avenue is not only just as good an offering as those other two classics, but it is also one of those rare films with a blend of humor and pathos that washes over you without warning. Each winter when millionaire Michael O'Connor (Charles Ruggles) leaves his 5th Avenue mansion for his home in Virginia, a warm-hearted drifter named Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) moves in and makes the large estate his own for the duration of the season. This season however, Aloysius has taken in a young war veteran (Don DeFore) as well as two of his fellow soldiers and their families. When circumstances force Michael back to his New York mansion, he is appalled, but proceeds to conceal his identity as he finds himself spending the holidays with his unexpected guests.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Claudette Godfrey Can't Resist 'The Christmas Toy'

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Still from The Christmas Toy

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Today's pick is from Claudette Godfrey, Short Film Programmer and Operations Manager for SXSW:

My job requires that I watch movies every day for 6+ months of the year, but I can honestly say my favorite time to watch movies is around the holidays. So, while there are so many movies from my childhood I love to re-watch each year. Like Home Alone! Scrooged!! The Santa Clause!! And of course Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, which is the creepiest and best Nutcracker ever because of Maurice Sendak's amazing brain.

BUT, the one that truly speaks to 6-year-old Claudette the most is The Christmas Toy. Made in 1986, a few years before Jim Henson passed, it first appeared on TV just before my first birthday. Thankfully, my mother is a Henson fanatic (and a recording-things-to-VHS fanatic) and taped it off TV at some point so we could watch it (multiple times) each year.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Jennifer Harlow and Mark Reeb Head for 'Home' and 'Rent'

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Still from Rent (2005)

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Today's Holiday Favorites are from a couple active in the Austin film community. Filmmaker Jennifer Harlow's most recent movie, the feature The Sideways Light (my review, my interview), premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October. Her husband, actor Mark Reeb, has appeared in a number of local films, including The Overbrook Brothers, Eve of Understanding and the short Happy Voodoo ... as well as The Sideways Light.

From Jennifer Harlow:

There are lots of movies I watch every year at Christmas: Love Actually, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harold and Kumar. Here I make my case for Christopher Columbus's Rent as the best Christmas movie ever, or "Jesse L. Martin Jesse L. Martin Jesse L. Martin."

"December 24, 9 pm, Eastern Standard Time. From here on in, I shoot without a script." Thus begins the story of Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Tom (Jesse L. Martin!!!) and Angel. These friends and lovers, artists all, are trying to survive in New York's East Village in the face of drug addiction, AIDS and poverty. They struggle with being an artist versus selling out, lack of inspiration, and fear of attachment, loss and death. Their mantra at a support group meeting has long been a favorite quote.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: 'The Holiday' Cheers Up Elizabeth

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Jack Black, Eli Wallach and Kate Winslet in The Holiday

Welcome back to Slackerwood's annual Holiday Favorites series. Over the next month or so, we'll talk about our favorite movies to watch in the winter holiday season, and ask various friends in the film community to share their favorites with us too. 

When actor Eli Wallach died earlier this year, I immediately thought of his work in Nancy Meyers' The Holiday. Certainly he appeared in more notable pictures, but The Holiday is near and dear to my heart (as is How to Steal a Million, in which he also appears). A romantic comedy only vaguely related to end-of-the-year festivities, the "Holiday" here represents the short breaks Brit Iris (Kate Winslet) and American Amanda (Cameron Diaz) take from their regular schedules as they trade homes for a couple weeks.

Wallach plays an endearing remnant from Classic Hollywood, the kind of old codger who will namedrop Cary Grant at the same time as he describes what a "meet cute" is. I'm not one to gloss over the deficiencies of the studio system, but as his character of Arthur serves as a way for Iris to finally get some "gumption," I can appreciate his role here. Jack Black and Jude Law (in glasses!) are the love interests for our two leading ladies.

Our Holiday Favorites: Bachelor Mother

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Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn and David Niven in Bachelor Mother

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Bachelor Mother, a 1939 romantic comedy from writer/director Garson Kanin (My Favorite Wife, Born Yesterday), is a film my sister and I make a point to watch together around New Year's Eve. It's one of the only DVDs of which we both have a copy (Monsoon Wedding might be the other). Ginger Rogers stars as Polly Parrish, a department store employee who loses her temp job the day after Christmas and stumbles upon an orphaned baby. Forces beyond her control make her keep the child, although she once attempts to foist the baby off on David Niven's rich playboy character. 

The plot involves screwball antics, a stern and wealthy businessman (played nimbly by character actor Charles Coburn) who yearns for his son to settle down, dancing (of course!), a New Year's Eve sequence at Times Square, sweet romance and It's a Wonderful Life's Frank Albertson (we say, "Hee-haw!" when we see him onscreen) playing a sneaky toy department employee trying to break into management.

Holiday Favorites 2013: AFF's Erin Hallagan and 'The Man Who Came To Dinner'

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Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

I'm always one for off-the-wall, non-traditional holiday films.  And yet, I can't help but adore those old, classic Hollywood films that are also off the Christmas film radar. Austin Film Festival Conference Director Erin Hallagan shares one of these cinema greats with us.  

Although Erin spends her time immersed in creating a stellar conference and guest speaker lineup (both year-round and in October), she also has a great appreciation for the theater. And with her extensive background in theatre arts, it's easy to see why her pick is one for both stage and screen fans alike. Here's what she had to say:

Holiday Favorites 2013: Bears Fonte Is Ready to 'Go' This Christmas

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GO still

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Today's pick comes from Austin Film Festival's Director of Programming, Bears Fonte. Always one to root for a story that's off the beaten path, Bears sent us a movie that might not be the first to come to mind when you think of the holidays. Here's what he had to share with us:

Before she was on the cover of every tabloid, Katie Holmes lent her then budding Dawson's Creek star power to one of the greatest indie comedies of the nineties, Go. Go was Doug Liman's next picture after Swingers, so I was all in, but he once again sort of got upstaged by the screenwriter, John August, who crafted an amazing, fast-paced ensemble comedy that jumps around in time in a Pulp Fiction sort-of-way (but actually far more effectively).  

Holiday Favorites 2013: PJ Raval Enjoys a 'Smiley Face'

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Smiley Face

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Just as I thought we were entering an It's a Wonderful Life trend of holiday favorites this year, Austin cinematographer and filmmaker PJ Raval surprises me with a selection I couldn't have predicted. Raval's most recent film is the documentary Before You Know It (Don's review). He's worked as DP on Austin movies such as The Bounceback and Fourplay, and on the Academy Award-nominated documentary Trouble the Water, among many other films. And you might have seen one of the delightfully family-unfriendly music videos he's shot for local artist Christeene.

Raval's pick is a comedy I saw at SXSW 2007 and loved -- Smiley Face (my review) -- but never thought of as a holiday possibility. Until now. Here's what he has to say about the film:

One of my favorite winter holiday movies is Smiley Face by Gregg Araki. Now trust me, anyone who knows me personally will be shocked I'm listing a "stoner comedy" but I assure you, Smiley Face is an amazing piece of comedy filmmaking.

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