Tag Archives: movies

Top 10 Christmas movies that aren’t about Christmas

The Christmas movie top 10 is a tradition in itself. This year, Lovefilm have a straightforward list of 10 Christmas classics, while Topless Robot tries to escape schmaltz with 10 non-traditional Christmas movies. But I think there’s a third way.

Towards the end of his piece on our predictable responses around this time of year, Michael McIntyre points out that for five strange days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, everything goes slightly strange:

The fact that he specifically mentions this as being the only time of year when people actively seek out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) got me thinking: what other movies would work here? Which not-directly-Christmas-related films would it seem silly to actively seek out at any other time of year, but in that liminal holiday period suddenly attain a mysterious resonance?

Slightly bonkers, slightly dreamlike; dramatically light, but consistently entertaining. A film that all the family can enjoy, or be weirded out by, or enjoy being weirded out by.

Thinking along these lines, I’ve picked 10 films that just seem right for this occasion. Films you probably wouldn’t choose to see at any other time of year, but have certain qualities that can be enjoyed if everyone is in the right mood. Films that can also in many cases be obtained on DVD very cheaply, or of course rented from Lovefilm.

You can watch the trailers for all 10 movies in this 21-minute-long playlist, but I’ve also embedded them against each entry individually:

Finally, if you’re a Lovefilm member, I’ve made things easy by putting them all together in this collection.

10) Mystery Men (1999)
Rotten Tomatoes 60%

An ensemble cast peforming a mostly ad-libbed super hero parody, competing theatrically with The Matrix, you can clearly see from the ratings that this did not float everyone’s boat. But something in the mixture of tropes defied and tropes embraced really works for me here, and Tom Waits is excellent as the non-lethal-weapons specialist.

Capt. Amazing: I knew you couldn’t change.
Casanova Frankenstein: I knew you’d know that.
Capt. Amazing: Oh, I know that. AND I knew you’d know I’d know you knew.
Casanova Frankenstein: But I didn’t. I only knew that you’d know that I knew. Did you know THAT?
Capt. Amazing: Of course.

There’s a lot of that kind of thing. Weirdly, the trailer contains hardly any of the parts I’d have picked, but at least you get an impression of the tone:

9) Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
IMDb 7.9
Rotten tomatoes 100%

Mild Peril. Never really taken seriously. But sometimes I’ll be watching a film with really engaging, likeable characters, and I realise that even though everything is lovely right now, the arc of the story inevitably demands that everything has to go wrong, and I find myself wishing that sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to follow some likeable characters through some really really mild peril – especially at Christmas. Kiki’s Delivery Service is that film. Provided, of course, that you are prepared to watch the subtitled version, as the dubbed version features the extreme peril of Kirsten Dunst voicing the protagonist.

Japanese trailer (because the american one features the terrible dub):

8) Groundhog Day (1993)
IMDb 8.2
Rotten tomatoes 96%

An amazing collision between a terrifying sci-fi premise (he lives the same day over and over – there is no escape from… Groundhog Day!) and light romantic comedy (but Phil Connors is about to learn… that sometimes… life… etc etc), the movie is actually immaculately constructed, squeezing all the comic potential available in the premise without being repetitive, and actually building an effective overarching story, with Bill Murray walking around delivering all kinds of baffled zingers, like this:

Phil Connors “Well what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today!”

7) Galaxy Quest (1999)
IMDb 7.2
Rotten tomatoes 89%

Clearly, this is just Mystery Men for Star Trek – but as you can see from the ratings, a much more successful execution of that idea. The trailer sets the scene quite thoroughly:

And there’s a lot of this kind of thing:

Guy Fleegman: “I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m just “Crewman Number Six.” I’m expendable. I’m the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I’ve gotta get outta here.”

What I find particularly cool about this film is that since they needed to draw a clear line between seventies era TV special effects and ‘real’ suff happening, they brought in ILM and Stan Winston to deliver some excellent special effects that still stand up today. In the most extreme example, a classic of the genre is the Screen Shake: the ship is under attack, so the cameraman waves the camera around while the cast members fling themselves about the place to make it look as if the ground is shaking. To clearly demark the ‘real’ setting, in Galaxy Quest the bridge set was built on an enormous pneumatic configuration that could physically shake the set itself, creating something of a safety hazard. That gives you an idea of how much effort they put in just to execute this kind of thowaway gag.

6) Lilo & Stitch (2002)
IMDb 7.1
Rotten tomatoes 85%

A rare success for Disney during their incredibly ropey early 2000s period, this film is a perfect example of the benefits of investing in one person’s creative vision (or in this case a tight team of two: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois). It represented such a departure from what Disney was known for that this became the central point of the advertising campaign:

Consider this line:

Lilo: “Aliens are attacking my house! They want my dog! Oh good, my dog found the chainsaw.”

This is not the kind of line most movies can deliver, especially not Disney movies. One final endorsement: this is one of only 5 movies that have made me cry.

5) Labyrinth (1986)
IMDb 7.3
Rotten tomatoes 59%

This should need no introduction. With an incredible combination of imagination and puppetry, almost every scene is a delight, which makes it all the more tragic that the film was a box office disaster. Then again, it was released in June. Perhaps as a Boxing Day release,  in its proper place, the audience would have been in the right mood.

In case you need reminding of the creative insanity at work here:

Didymus: Sir Ludo, canst thou summon up the very rocks?
Ludo: Sure. Rocks friends.

4) Willow (1988)
IMDb 7.1
Rotten tomatoes 46%

After the incredible popularity of Star Wars, George Lucas seemed sure to find success with a more traditional fairy tale. But while it wasn’t a box office disaster like Labyrinth, it still performed disappointingly, and critics in particular took against it  (consider that Lilo & Stitch also gets 7.1 on IMDb, but 85% on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes compared to Willow’s 46%).

Of course, we know what has to happen in this kind of film, as this quote makes clear:

Cherlindrea: Elora Danan must survive. She must fulfill her destiny and bring about the downfall of Queen Bavmorda. Her powers are growing like an evil plague. Unless she is stopped, Bavmorda will control the lives of your village, your children, everyone. All creatures of good heart need your help, Willow. The choice is yours.

Once again, I suspect this was just a movie out of step with the calendar: released in May, this is the kind of imaginative, escapist fare ideally suited to the Christmas period.

3) Barbarella (1968)
IMDb 5.7
Rotten tomatoes 74%

With Robert Rodriguez’s planned remake with Rose McGowan falling through last year (apparently on the grounds that he would have had to film it in Germany), we have to make do with the original, which is perhaps no bad thing. Mixing together several stories from the already bizarre original French comic, an implausible number of Paco Rabanne-designed costume changes, and earnestly surreal tongue-in-cheek performances from a surprisingly large cast, Barbarella has something to marvel at throughout. The trailer does a pretty good job of showcasing the range of weirdness on offer:

2) Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
IMDb 6.6
Rotten tomatoes 68%

Having recently listened to the free Librivox reading of the original, I can now see this is a very smart reworking of the original tale, with Tim Curry the perfect casting choice for Long John Silver, and all some fairly major rewrites to avoid the violence and death that went on originally, as you can tell from lines like:

Pirate: “Dead Tom’s DEAD!”

With some excellent plotting that strikes the fine balance between comedy and story, this is for me one of the best muppet movies. The DVD menu is also funny in its own right, which is an incredible rarity. I can’t find the trailer in good quality unfortunately:

Alternatively, the first two minutes of this YouTube serialisation of the film happen to be my favourite scene:

1) Clue (1985)
IMDb 7.2
Rotten tomatoes 74%

Tim Curry is back again in a surprisingly brilliant adaptation of the board game that we know in the UK as Cludeo. Another product of ensemble cast ad-libbing, it’s extremely silly, with a fairly consistent stream of things like this:

Mrs. White: “…he had threatened to kill me in public.”
Miss Scarlet: “Why would he wanna kill you in public?”
Wadsworth: “I think she meant he threatened, in public, to kill her.”

Line-by-line there’s nothing particularly amazing (apart from some of Curry’s delivery), but the fact that there’s just so much silliness, all in service of a surprisingly interesting mystery, makes for an entertainment experience as cosy and removed from everyday life as those strange post-Christmas days.

Ratings Overview

Since these movies have an unusual appeal that I think is maximised during an unsual period, the usual ratings will not be that useful a guide. Still, out of interest I plotted them, with bubbles scaled by the number of votes received on IMDb to indicate roughly how well-known these films are:

While the usual broad correlation between the two ratings systems is evident, the more striking feature is the vertical line of movies from Willow to Galaxy Quest, which seemed to entertain those that sought them out by about the same amount, while critics (in aggregate) veered wildly between hit and miss.

It’s always surprisingly hard to be sure if a movie will deliver what you want, and in the case of these films perhaps even more so because their charms are unconventional. But if you do take a chance on any of these, or if you had any filed mentally under “I should watch that one day” but take up the Christmas viewing opportunity, do let me know what you think. And remember, whichever you end up watching this Christmas, no matter how terrible, there’s always something to enjoy in any film. Apart from The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

Learning from Disney’s mistakes

Up until Home on the Range in 2004, Disney was releasing a hand-drawn animated feature pretty much every year. The Princess and the Frog marks their return to the form after a gap of five years. I read the story behind this output interruption in a few places, but it became clear that nobody was bringing the data behind it together in a clear way, so that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

The turning point is 2004, and the question is this: What will become of animated movies in general, and Disney animation in particular?

[Read the full analysis of this question at this post’s new location, Tower of the Octopus]