Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Christmas Movies

It's a bright, shiny New Year's Day, and I wrote this sitting sitting in a hip little local cafe, working on my first blog post. This may seem a little belated, but I thought I'd start by discussing holiday movies...starting by taking aim at a sacred cow. Spoiler warnings for all of these, BTW.

It's A Wonderful Life
For a long time when I was younger, I loved this movie. I hate it now. It pains me to say that, because I still really like Jimmy Stewart; but I became done with this movie in the course of one Christmas.

It may have been the last Christmas my grandfather was alive. I loved him, and in some ways, I'm more like him than any of my other grandparents; but unlike me, he was a lifelong alcoholic. He got blood poisoning shortly after my parents got married, and was dependent on them pretty much the whole time I knew them. Rather than take care of him on her own terms and balance his needs with hers, my mother instead fell into a codependent pattern, running herself ragged to preserve the illusion of her father's independence.

I remember sitting with the three of them that year, watching IAWL on my granddad's tiny TV, seeing George Bailey's attempts to see the world get thwarted again and again. His frustration was painful to me. It occurred to me how much it would suck if the same essential thing happened to my parents. What if they spent their whole lives within two hours of their hometown, because of my grandfather? What if death or illness prevented them from ever doing all the traveling they wanted to do, or ever truly having an empty nest? This was an especially poignant possibility since my sister and I often worried about the toll that stress was taking on them both.

In the light these realities, Frank Capra's message of self-sacrifice over self-exploration, of trading the whole world for small town America, seemed like so much garbage.

Fortunately, since my grandfather's death, my parents' health has been very good. They have pursued their interests, enjoyed being grandparents to my niece, and traveled extensively, including Xtapa, Niagra Falls, Italy and the American Southwest. I still haven't been able to go back to It's a Wonderful Life.

Don't get me wrong; I understand what Capra was trying to say. I like the idea that even the most ordinary life has significance, and that you never know all of the impact you have on others. I just still prefer to take a more balanced view. I chose to believe that the missing money turned back up, and that the townsfolk used the money they had collected to put George and his family on a plane.

Whew! Now that that's over, I'd like to write about my favorite Christmas movies.

While You Were Sleeping
I didn't watch this one this year, but I probably have most of the dialog memorized. What can I say? My middle-school crush on Bill Pullman has faded considerably, but I still think he's hot. He and Sandra Bullock make a great couple, and the bubbly warmth of the family in the movie is irresistible. I love fact that Lucy eventually falls for the less ostensibly “glamorous” brother, not the one that never noticed her. Maybe this is the anti-It's-A-Wonderful-Life: it acknowledges the joy of a loving family, but also the importance of pursuing your dreams. I know that a lot of the conventions in this one have been seen 1,000 times since, but to me, this is still a perfect romantic Christmas comedy.

The Family Stone
I think I would have to be in a certain mood to watch this one, an that mood did not come around this year. Nevertheless, I think it's one of the best Christmas movies to be made recently. I like the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker's character, while obviously quite different from the family she's supposed to join, is humanized, rather than demonized, in the end. There is one dramatic scene that addresses the sexuality of older people, and of cancer survivors, with more courage than I have seen in a long time. The movie's only flaws are an somewhat implausible romantic switch-up toward the end, and the way it skirts the edge of maudlin. On the whole, however, I think it portrays its characters and the holiday sympathetically and realistically at the same time. It also reminds you to appreciate the people you love.

Love, Actually
This Christmas was the first time that I've seen this movie the whole way through. It has an all-star cast, and moments that make you laugh, cry, or cheer. It was refreshing to me that it was set in England, although his might not mean as much to others. I liked the way that the storylines overlapped. I appreciated the fact that it dealt with all sorts of relationships, not just romantic ones. Enough connections were made to give you the warm fuzzies, but enough problems remained unsolved for it to be believable. My only warning would be that some of the laughs—especially those provided by Bill Nighy—are on the bawdy side. My favorite story arcs were the one with Liam Neeson, who broke my heart, and Hugh Grant, who brought a touch of Bridget Jones to the role of Prime Minister.

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