Holiday Favorites

Our Holiday Favorites: Little Women

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Little Women 1994

I love to watch Little Women in December. Perhaps because the story begins at Christmas, when the genteel-y poor March girls decide to give their Christmas feast to a family even poorer than they are, and use their Christmas money to buy presents for their dear Marmee. That does sound uncharacteristically sentimental of me, doesn't it? I confess I always cry at That Tragic Scene in the movie, too. (I won't spoil it for the few Joey Tribbianis out there who haven't read the book or seen any of the films.) Really, I like Little Women because Jo is so very wonderful.

But which movie version of Little Women to watch? My favorite Jo is Katharine Hepburn in the 1933 adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott book, directed by George Cukor. Hepburn is convincingly boyish and delightful, I could watch her in this role for twice as long. But in recent years, I've turned to the 1994 Little Women, starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Ryder is fine -- not the best Jo, but part of an excellent ensemble cast, including Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Kirsten Dunst as the young Amy, and Claire Danes as Poor Beth. Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation from a script by Robin Swicord.

Our Holiday Favorites: Fitzwilly

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Barbara Feldon and Dick van Dyke in Fitzwilly

Fitzwilly is an underrated, oft-ignored Delbert Mann film from 1967. It might be a cult classic if slightly more people knew about it! I first heard about the comedy through a family friend eight or nine years ago, and I loved it at first viewing. The movie can be watched year-round, but I prefer to wait until December.

Dick Van Dyke plays butler Fitzwilly to Miss Vicki (Edith Evans), a generous benefactress who has no idea of her true financial standing (she's almost broke). He leads her doting staff, compiled of fantastic character actors (John McGiver as Albert is a particular favorite of mine) and soon-to-be-big-names (Sam Waterston plays the chauffeur in one of his first film roles). To keep Miss Vicki in the style to which she is accustomed, Fitzwilly is running several con games. One thing may throw a wrench in his plans -- Miss Vicki decides to write a dictionary for people who can't spell and hires a secretary from Columbia, Juliet (Barbara Feldon, aka 99 from Get Smart).

Our Holiday Favorites: The Muppet Christmas Carol

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Michael Caine and the Muppets in The Muppet Christmas Carol

The first Muppet film to be made after the death of Jim Henson, The Muppet Christmas Carol came out in 1992. My parents took my sister and me to see this in a theater, and we've watched it every Christmas since. Up until a few years ago, we were still bringing out the VHS copy. 

In this take on Dickens' story, Michael Caine gamely stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, a cantankerous grump overseeing an office staffed by Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog) and many rats. Gonzo narrates the film as Charles Dickens, and Rizzo the Rat appears as... Rizzo the Rat. Human cameos in the movie are light. While there are dozens, nay, hundreds of Muppets in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Caine's performance is what makes this movie such a classic. His is the best Scrooge I've seen onscreen.  

Of course there are songs, but this is the last Muppet movie for which Paul Williams wrote original tunes (as of this writing). Memorable songs such as "Scrooge" and "Marley and Marley" are catchy, yet forboding. The only complaint I have with The Muppet Christmas Carol is the overtly saccharine scene when Belle sings farewell ("When Love Is Gone") to a young Scrooge. I always fast forward through it.  

Their Holiday Favorites: Agnes Varnum, Her Mom and 'Bad Santa'

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Bad Santa

Welcome to Their Holiday Favorites, a series in which members of the Austin film community tell us about movies they enjoy watching during the holiday season. We're starting with Agnes Varnum, the Director of Marketing for Austin Film Society. Here's her description of a family holiday favorite:

My mom is a sucker for Joel and Ethan Coen. Raising Arizona was her favorite movie until O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out. Besides Elf and Miracle on 34th Street, our holiday greatest hit is the Coen-produced Bad Santa.

The grungy, foul Santa played by Billy Bob Thornton is exactly the kind of sardonic character that folks without a sense of humor love to hate, but if you ever feel like commercialism and sentimentality have overtaken the holiday, Bad Santa is the cure.

Our Holiday Favorites: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

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Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

Every couple faces the challenge of how to blend two holiday traditions into one. Here's ours: I don't celebrate Christmas. My wife does.

She deserves to have her holiday, but I shouldn't have to pretend to celebrate an event that I don't -- even a secularized facsimile thereof. Yes, I'm one of those people who prefers "season greetings" to "merry Christmas", but I don't want to deny -- or even dampen -- anybody else's celebration of their holidays.

So we've had to build our own holiday tradition, one that allows her to express her celebration for the season, while allowing me to be true to my grinchy self.

Our Holiday Favorites: The Ice Storm

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Elijah Wood in The Ice Storm

My Elijah Wood obsession pre-dates his appearance on the children's television series Yo Gabba Gabba and his starring role in the FX television series Wilfred.

What I do when I become strangely fixated on an actor is search for them on IMDb. I research their filmography and spend weekends watching everything listed, regardless of plot. So, thanks to Elijah Wood I've spent hours watching movies about a comet colliding with Earth, a dancing penguin and human-like people walking through a forest on top of talking trees.

However, if it were not for my Elijah Wood IMDb filmography obsession, I probably would not have seen The Ice Storm. I first watched the film last year, sitting at my desk alone in my dorm room. I remember it was freezing outside (hence, why I was in my dorm room ... wearing a peacoat) and there was a rumor floating around the hall that it was going to snow. People were already scouring campus for trash can lids to get in to slide down the hills. I thought, "Hmmm, instead of actually experiencing the cold weather firsthand, I'll watch a movie about people experiencing cold weather and live vicariously through them." 

Our Holiday Favorites: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

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Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Through time immortal we have viewed Santa Claus as a sweet, portly, cookie- and milk-addicted grandpa, who brings us happiness and joy. This joy is delivered in bundles of presents delivered with FedEx-like efficiency down a fireplace. It is well known that that Santa has a list of who's been naughty and who's been nice. He brings the joy to the nice kids and coal to the naughty ones. I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall ever receiving that bag of coal in years where my naughty points exceeded my nice points. So what if Santa decided to actually punish the kids who were naughty? This is the concept Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale explores.

The first act of this movie from Finland deals with a mining company that unearths something buried under a small mountain on the Finnish/Russian border. That something is Santa Claus and he's not that jovial bowl of jelly we've grown to love. He's a vengeful grandfather with a bone to pick. He's ready and willing to punish the naughty kids and adults. It's this juxtaposition that makes Rare Exports so enjoyable. I appreciated being exposed to a new, fresh and somewhat twisted view of the Santa Claus mythology. It's a real treat to have a character such as Santa Claus juxtaposed the way it was in Rare Exports, which originally premiered in Austin at Fantastic Fest 2010.

Want to watch? Rare Exports is available at I Luv Video and Vulcan Video, and will also be showing at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz this weekend. There is one item you need to know: The DVD/Blu-ray and the website include two short films that formed the inspiration for this movie. I highly recommend watching these AFTER you see Rare Exports. I would consider them spoilers for what happens in the third act of the film. After watching the film, I found them to be whipped cream on a serving of pumpkin pie.

A subtitled trailer for Rare Exports is embedded below.

Our Holiday Favorites: Love Actually

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"Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge -- they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion you'll find that love actually is all around."

And therein lies the brilliance of Love Actually, a movie I fell in love with upon first viewing. An introductory voiceover, normally one of the most annoying cinematic tricks, establishes not only the focus of the film but the darker context when many of us needed it. By autumn 2003, we were no longer reeling from the September 11 attacks, but we hadn't yet adjusted to the post-attack realities, and cynicism was rampant. 

Using footage of actual arrivals at Heathrow airport in the credits, Love Actually reinforces that message: in paradox of the holiday season and all the stress that goes with it, what matters most.

Our Holiday Favorites: Elf

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Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in Elf

For some of us, the moment we saw Elf in the theatre it became an instant classic. My sister and I adore this movie. Quotes from the 2003 film have become part of our lexicon, as we refer to things as "ginormous" and call each other to randomly announce, "Good news! I saw a dog today."

Directed by Jon Favreau post-Swingers, pre-Iron Man, the film focuses on Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), told by his papa elf (Bob Newhart) that he is really a human (gasp!) and that his biological father (James Caan) is on the naughty list (double gasp!).  Buddy makes his way to New York City where he gets to know his father's family and falls for a sarcastic Gimbels worker named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).

I know people who refuse to see this movie because they don’t like Will Ferrell, but they are missing out. His childlike glee in this movie is infectious, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling the character off. With its excellent cast and the deft screenplay by David Berenbaum, Elf is a perfect combination of the silly and the sweet. I've seen it multiple times and each time I can't help getting a little teary-eyed as the crowd sings "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" toward the end. 

Our Holiday Favorites: White Christmas

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Still of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas

[Welcome to Our Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors talk about the movies they watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.]

The Thanksgiving holidays are over, which means that Christmas is storming in, ringing in a barrage of holiday songs for the next four weeks. I grew up surrounded by music, and so the holidays were full of Christmas carols and sing-alongs. However, I was an adult before I ever watched White Christmas (1954), the title song of which is the number one performed secular holiday song, with more than 500 versions, according to ASCAP. It's actually the second movie to feature Irving Berlin's song -- I've yet to see the 1942 film in which it premiered, Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Crosby recorded the song, which went on to win the Best Song Academy Award of 1942.

In 1954, the film White Christmas was developed to further promote the popular song. What came about was a musical comedy featuring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, ex-army buddies who partner together for a song and dance act --becoming successful producers -- and later to save their retired general's failing Vermont inn from bankruptcy. While scouting for new acts they meet the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) and romance blossoms -- despite the obligatory miscommunication to ensure comedic and melodramatic mix-ups.

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