From as far back as Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which struggled to find its footing in the end-of-the-year glut of late December 1946, predicting the canon of Christmas movie future has never been easy. Some of today’s favorites had to survive a critical drubbing, or a ho-hum box office. Others needed a push from cable TV. And still others just didn’t seem like holiday movies, becoming classics almost accidentally thanks to reclassification or cult followings.
The holidays have given us an occasion to dig through the archives to see if New York Times critics were on the right side of history when they first reviewed these films, or if they missed an annual tradition in the making. Here’s a sample of 10 that are currently available to stream — some established favorites, others quirky upstarts — along with excerpts from what our critics first thought of them and links to their full reviews.
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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)
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Frank Capra’s classic tear-jerker about Christmas Eve as a dark night of the soul has been a Yuletide standard-bearer for so long that it’s easy to forget what a ho-hum reception it got at the time. A best picture nomination was the sole consolation prize for a film about a small-town family man (James Stewart) that neither critics nor audiences fully embraced until the mid-1970s, when its revival as an annual television staple commenced. Sentiments like these, from Bosley Crowther’s review, were common:
Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities. And Mr. Capra’s “turkey dinners” philosophy, while emotionally gratifying, doesn’t fill the hungry paunch.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”]
‘White Christmas’ (1954)
Irving Berlin won an Oscar for the song “White Christmas,” but not for the movie “White Christmas,” which wasn’t produced until a decade after “Holiday Inn,” the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire musical in which the song first appeared. Christmas was but one of the occasions for mirth in “Holiday Inn,” but here it is the VistaVision payoff to the team-up of two different song-and-dance acts. Crowther was unimpressed:
“The colors on the big screen are rich and luminous, the images are clear and sharp, and rapid movements are got without blurring — or very little — such as sometimes is seen on other large screens. Director Michael Curtiz has made his picture look good. It is too bad that it doesn’t hit the eardrums and the funny bone with equal force.”
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “White Christmas.”]
‘Black Christmas’ (1974)
Before taking a decidedly warmer view of the holiday season with “A Christmas Story,” the director Bob Clark offered this nasty piece of counterprogramming, a proto-“Halloween” slasher film with big scares and boozy wit, much of it coming from Margot Kidder. “Black Christmas” proved to be vastly influential, particularly in its use of first-person camera, but contemporaneous reviews, like A.H. Weiler’s, were dismissive:
This moody depiction of the Christmas slayings of university sorority sisters and their housemother, among others, is as murky as the script, which dotes largely on obscenities that are no more pointed than the violence, dull direction and pedestrian performances.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “Black Christmas.”]
‘A Christmas Story’ (1983)
Clark’s nostalgia-soaked comedy about a put-upon nine-year-old (Peter Billingsley) in the 1940s and his disaster-prone Midwestern family owes its popularity to Turner broadcasting, which turned a modest hit into a phenomenon by airing it relentlessly on TBS and TNT. Cherished details like the “Little Orphan Annie” decoder ring, a triple-dog dare on the schoolyard and the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle were lost on Vincent Canby at the time:
There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in “A Christmas Story,” but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “A Christmas Story.”]
Chaos and malevolence come to a Capra-esque small town in Joe Dante’s anarchic comedy about an exotic pet from Chinatown that turns out to be a troublemaking Christmas present. Dante’s Looney Tunes-style upending of its wholesome holiday setting pushed its PG rating far enough to help trigger the development of PG-13, and the kiddie-movie violence left Canby shaken:
[Dante and the screenwriter Chris Columbus] attack their young audience as mercilessly as the creatures attack the characters. One minute they’re fondly recalling Frank Capra’s sentimental classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the next minute they’re subjecting this Capraesque Smalltown, U.S.A., to a devastation that makes the original ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ look benign.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “Gremlins.”]
Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” had been adapted so many times to heartwarming effect — as drama, in the Reginald Owen and Alastair Sim standards from 1938 and 1951; as a musical, with Albert Finney in 1970; and with Muppets in 1992 — that it needed Bill Murray to drop a few coals in the stocking. The film’s spiked nog of cynicism and sentimentality wasn’t easy for some to swallow, including Canby:
As Frank Cross, the ratings-mad program chief of the IBC television network, Mr. Murray’s contemporary Scrooge is a joy as long as he’s making life miserable for everyone around him. When, finally, Frank sees the error of his ways, the movie succumbs to its heart of jelly.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “Scrooged.”]
‘Die Hard’ (1988)
The question of whether “Die Hard” is a true Christmas movie, rather than merely the template for the last 30 years of action cinema, has been a perennial debate for a long time now. But in 1988, critics like Caryn James were mostly coming to terms with its blockbuster excess:
Partly an interracial buddy movie, partly the sentimental tale of a ruptured marriage, the film is largely a special-effects carnival full of machine-gun fire, roaring helicopters and an exploding tank. It also has a villain fresh from the Royal Shakespeare Company, a thug from the Bolshoi Ballet and a hero who carries with him the smirks and wisecracks that helped make ‘Moonlighting’ a television hit. The strange thing is, it works: ‘Die Hard’ is exceedingly stupid, but escapist fun.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “Die Hard.”]
‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ (1989)
The idea of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) — that hapless, foolhardy model of Midwestern fatherdom — was always more potent than the “Vacation” comedies themselves, which had already worn out their welcome when this second sequel came along. Yet the various slapstick catastrophes in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” were a hit with audiences, who laughed over the loud sighs of critics like Janet Maslin:
Fatigue is in the air. This third look at the quintessentially middle-American Griswold family, led by Clark (Mr. Chase) and the very patient Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) is only a weary shadow of the original ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation,’ which found a lot to laugh at as it followed the dopey paterfamilias Clark and his quarrelsome brood on a hellish cross-country journey in their station wagon.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”]
‘Love Actually’ (2003)
Christmas seems like the only occasion big enough to accommodate this oversized mistletoe from Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” who combines about half a dozen rom-coms into one mega-rom-com. The film’s too-muchness is an annual indulgence for fans, but A.O. Scott, in one of his most blistering reviews, is not one of them:
A romantic comedy swollen to the length of an Oscar-trawling epic — nearly two and a quarter hours of cheekiness, diffidence and high-tone smirking — it is more like a record label’s greatest-hits compilation or a “very special” sitcom clip-reel show than an actual movie.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “Love Actually.”]
‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005)
Starting with his breakthrough script for “Lethal Weapon,” Shane Black has set six of his films over Christmas in Los Angeles, but “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” his directorial debut, is especially keen about finding evidence of the holiday in a city where it isn’t so obvious. This neo-noir buddy picture about a thief posing as an actor (Robert Downey Jr.) who joins forces with a private eye (Val Kilmer) on a murder case is Yuletide fun for smart-alecks, but not for A.O. Scott:
I don’t think “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is an altogether bad movie. It’s just a movie with no particular reason for existing, a flashy, trifling throwaway whose surface cleverness masks a self-infatuated credulity.
[Click here to read the full New York Times review of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”]
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the character played by Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” He is Clark Griswold, not Griswald. An earlier version of this article also misspelled the surname of an actor. He is Alastair Sim, not Sims.
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