Christmas Movie Reviews
Now that December has arrived, my brother informed me that Christmas movies are now allowable. I feel Christmas is the only time of the year where I can admit to liking sappy stories without earning social derision. Somehow, the “magic” of the season makes everyone more willing to embrace emotion. Until January 2, then all sap must end immediately.
Christmas movies seem to fall into two categories: Watchable and Unbearable. Part of the problem, in my viewership experience, is the lack of strong story development. Most made-for-TV Christmas themed movies follow one of two narrative arcs:
Arc 1: Girl/Boy is deeply unhappy. She/He just broke up with a long-term romantic partner and he/she no longer likes their job/boss. The hero/heroine returns home and meets up with a former boyfriend/girlfriend. Sparks fly but old problems arise. Then the magic of the season makes them realize they love each other and the film ends with them kissing.
Arc 2: Insanely rich man/woman lacks an emotionally stable relationship. His/her significant other only likes him/her because of money/power/looks. Christmas season starts and the hero/heroine finds no joy in the season. To them, Christmas feels “hokey” and they can no longer find a reason to celebrate. Then a romantic interest and/or precocious child enters their life and melts their ice cold heart. Film ends with the hero/heroine either getting married or making significant changes to their company that reflects their new outlook on life.
A major problem with most Christmas movies is something I call “instant love”. This occurs when the hero/heroine meets their love interest and sparks fly immediately. They know nothing about each other but fall madly in love after three seconds of looking into each other’s eyes. Alternatively, they spend the whole film hating each other and acting hostile until the final act where they proclaim their undying love and then share a passionate kiss while the credits roll. Most television films follow this format since it requires little writing talent to create and does not ask much of the actors. However, this lack of development makes the film seem cheap and the story somehow unfinished. One reason Christmas movies (especially television movies) seem familiar is that most of them follow the same plot with various levels of acting talent.
Below are some of the Christmas Movies I recommend organized by Television/Streaming and Cinematic Release.
12 Dates of Christmas (ABC Family/Freeform)
- Starring: Amy Smart, Mark Paul Gosselaar
- Synopsis: A story that follows Kate, a young woman who after a horrible blind date on Christmas Eve, wakes up to find she is re-living that same day and date all over again. (From IMDb)
- Review: Groundhog Day set at Christmas with an unending blind date. This movie deftly explores loneliness, letting go, moving on, and embracing romance. Amy and Mark-Paul play off each other quite well and they make their characters’ romance seem plausible instead of hokey. I watch this every year.
The Spirit of Christmas (Netflix/Amazon Prime.YouTube/iTunes/Vudu)
- Starring: Thomas Beaudoin, Jen Lilley, Robert Walsh
- Synopsis: A young lawyer must close out a client’s estate before Christmas this includes selling an Inn. She soon discovers that the Inn hides a few secrets, including a spirit that takes human form twelve days before Christmas. (IMDb)
- Review: The name of this movie is a little misleading. It is not scary or creepy in anyway. Instead, it is a murder-mystery romance. Kate, the lawyer, ends up butting heads with Daniel, the former owner of the Inn who is now a ghost. Together they decide to figure out how Daniel died ninety years ago. This is one of the better “television” Christmas movies I have watched. Both characters are fully developed, the mystery is intriguing, the romance is not instantaneous, and the acting is excellent
The Princess Switch (Netflix)
- Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Sam Palladio, Nick Sagar
- Synopsis: One week before Christmas, a duchess switches places with a baker from Chicago, who looks exactly like her and they fall in love with other’s beaus. (IMDb)
- Review: Netflix really upped their Christmas movie game this year. I actually recognize the two leads in this film: Hudgens from High School Musical and Palladio from Nashville. This is a retelling of the classic The Prince & The Pauper storyline, just set at Christmas with a female lead. Hudgens does a great job making the Duchess and Stacy two unique people. She also has excellent chemistry with Palladio and Sagar. While the plot is familiar, it is a complete narrative arc and all the actors can actually act. Shocking I know.
The Holiday Calendar (Netflix)
- Starring: Kat Graham, Quincy, Ethan Peck, Ron Cephas Jones
- Synopsis: A photographer inherits an antique Advent calendar that seems to predict her future, including a budding romance. (IMDb)
- Review: Yay another film where I recognize the lead actor! Graham previously starred as Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries. Magic seems to follow her everywhere. This is Us fans will recognize Ron Cephas Jones, he portrayed Randall’s biological father in Season 1. The narrative explores destiny, romance, growing up, and chasing your dreams. Like most of the movies on this list, the plot is a little gimmicky but wholly enjoyable.
A Christmas Prince (Netflix)
- Starring: Ben Lamb, Rose McIver, Alice Krige
- Synopsis: A young journalist travels abroad to cover a royal family, and finds herself in a real-life fairytale. (IMDb)
- Review: This was Netflix’s alternative Hallmark offering from last year. While the two leads are cute and do the best with the material provided, the narrative suffers from a lack of tension. The two major roadblocks presented for the lovebirds to overcome do not feel urgent or threatening. Everything feels too sugary sweet and programmed for maximum “Christmas Magic”. Given that this is Netflix, a computer algorithm probably played a role in the plot development. Overall, A Christmas Prince is a pleasant way to pass two hours. I would not bother with the recently released sequel, A Christmas Prince 2: The Royal Wedding, it magnifies all the narrative problems from the first movie and makes them worse.
12 Men of Christmas (Lifetime/Amazon Prime/iTunes/DVD)
- Starring: Kristin Chenoweth, Josh Hopkins
- Synopsis: A public relations executive uses her media savvy to help a search and rescue team in a small Montana town. (IMDb)
- Review: This film only works because of the acting talent of Chenoweth and Hopkins. Without them, it would have failed spectacularly. Chenoweth plays EJ Baxter, a PR exec who discovers her fiancée sleeping with her boss. EJ decides to take a PR job in Montana and ends up helping the search-and-rescue team raise money for a helicopter by producing a shirtless calendar starring all the guys. Hopkins’ character, Will, takes exception to the idea and sparks fly. I laughed more than I expected and would watch this again.
El Camino Christmas (Netlfix)
- Starring: Tim Allen, Luke Grimes, Jessica Alba, Dax Shepard
- Synopsis: A young man seeking the father he has never met ends up barricaded inside a liquor store with five other people on Christmas Eve. (IMDb)
- Review: El Camino Christmas is an “alternative” Christmas movie. It is more like a crime caper that happens to occur at Christmas. If you want something different, this one is worth checking out. However, it does not have a happy conclusion and is actually rather depressing.
White Christmas (DVD/Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu)
- Starring: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye
- Synopsis: Singers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis join sister act Betty and Judy Haynes to perform a Christmas show in rural Vermont. (IMDb)
- Review: I love this film. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are two of my favorite actors from the 1940’s and 1950’s. If you have never seen this film, I think it is worth watching for both the Christmas cheer and the cinematic history. The classic Hollywood films took a more nuanced approach to romance and spent more time on character development than the “instant” love trope of today’s movies. This approach results in a well-paced and fully developed storyline with memorable characters. If nothing else, the scene where Crosby and Kane sing Sisters is awesome.
Christmas with the Kranks (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu)
- Starring: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd
- Synopsis: With their daughter away, the Kranks decide to skip Christmas altogether until she decides to come home, causing an uproar when they have to celebrate the holiday at the last minute. (From IMDb)
- Review: Tim Allen is the king of Christmas movies. Based on John Grisham’s novel Skipping Christmas, this film explores what to do when the kids grow up and leave the family home. Luther (Allen) talks his wife Nora (Curtis) into going on a cruise. This causes tensions with their Christmas obsessed neighbor Vic Frohmeyer. I like this movie. It is sentimental without being sappy and manages to convey the spirit of the Christmas season in a fun and unexpected manner.
The Santa Clause (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, David Krumholtz, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd
- Synopsis: When a man inadvertently kills Santa on Christmas Eve, he finds himself magically recruited to take his place. (From IMDb)
- Review: Santa will always look like Tim Allen. This is essentially a Santa Clause origin story with a very unwilling participant. At this point, if you have not seen this film, I am not sure what you watched as a kid. Nostalgia plays a strong factor in my enjoyment of this movie.
The Santa Clause 2 (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell, David Krumholtz, Eric Lloyd
- Synopsis: Scott Calvin has been a humble Santa Claus for nearly ten years, but it might end if he doesn’t find a Mrs. Claus.(From IMDb)
- Review: Bernard! We are going to pretend that Santa Clause 3 never happened and the movies ended with this one. If you liked The Santa Clause, you will probably like this one.
It’s a Wonderful Life (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
- Synopsis: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed. (From IMDb)
- Review: My dad wants to watch this every year. This is a Christmas classic that appears on every television channel starting almost immediately after Thanksgiving ends. I have watched this so many times I could probably act out the whole film with my eyes closed. It is an enduring narrative about never giving up and appreciating those people in your life who need you more than you can ever know.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer
- Synopsis: The journey that led to Charles Dickens’ creation of “A Christmas Carol,” a timeless tale that would redefine Christmas. (From IMDb)
- Review: This is an entertaining look at how Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Stevens does an excellent job portraying Dickens as he suffers through writers block, parental issues, and financial problems. If you enjoy A Christmas Carol, you will like this entertaining look at how writers move past personal obstacles and create enduring masterpieces.
Jingle All the Way (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson
- Synopsis: A father vows to get his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. However, every store is sold out of them, and he must travel all over town and compete with everybody else in order to find one. (From IMDb)
- Review: Arnold takes a break from saving the world and conquers everyone’s worst nightmare: trying to buy a sold out toy before the advent of online shopping. This film required Arnold to show some emotional depth and he mostly pulled it off.
Christmas in Connecticut (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet
- Synopsis: A food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife must try to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. (From IMDb)
- Review: I enjoy watching all the older Hollywood Christmas movies. This is actually a screwball comedy that happens to occur at Christmas. As with older films, the narrative relies exclusively on dialogue to drive the plot forward. If you want a more refined yet humorous Christmas movie, this is worth watching.
Holiday Inn (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale
- Synopsis: At an inn, which is only open on holidays, a crooner and a hoofer vie for the affections of a beautiful up-and-coming performer. (From IMDb)
- Review: Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas actually debuted in this movie. The set for the Holiday Inn is also the ski lodge from White Christmas, which debuted twelve years after this film. Holiday Inn is a fun film about two guys and two gals trying to find their way in the world. If you like White Christmas and Bing Crosby, you will enjoy this delightful film.
The Bishop’s Wife (DVD/Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/iTunes)
- Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven
- Synopsis: An angel in human form enters the life of a bishop in order to help him build a new cathedral and repair his fractured marriage. (From IMDb)
- Review: Cary Grant plays an angel who helps a struggling couple reconnect. Grant is charming and quite convincing as a debonair angel. This is a Christmas story, a love story, a comedy, a drama and an all-around inspiring film. As you can tell, I really like movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood.