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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

The Globe’s film critic picks 6 holiday movies that are actually good

This year, Odie Henderson decided to put together a little holiday movie festival.

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I love movies, so you might be surprised to hear that my Christmas traditions rarely include them. For the most part, winter holiday flicks are dreadful, as evidenced by the glut of treacly, heteronormative, and racially homogeneous films we get every year.

For example, this year’s Hallmark Channel “Countdown to Christmas” festival includes Navigating Christmas, a movie about a divorced woman spending the holidays with her son in a lighthouse on the predictably named St. Nicholas Island. The hunky lighthouse owner is described in the synopsis as “curt but cute.”

“They’re doing this tired plot again?!” I mumbled, rolling my eyes. “These movies are always so damn syrupy!”

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So, when it comes to Christmastime cinema, I’m a real Scrooge. Just give me my Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and 1947′s Miracle on 34th Street, the best Christmas movie ever made.

I’ll even throw in A Christmas Story, which I first saw in November 1983 at the Hudson Mall Twin in Jersey City. That day, 13-year-old me was far more interested in the movie playing in the Twin’s other theater: a sleazy, R-rated stripper fantasy, A Night in Heaven. Alas, that interest was not shared by my parents.

The winter holiday season is more than just Christmas, though you’d scarcely know that from Hollywood. But there have also been Thanksgiving movies, such as 1995′s Home for the Holidays. Adam Sandler created a dreadful animated Hanukkah film with 2002′s Eight Crazy Nights. And more than one plot has focused on New Year’s Eve, such as the 1989 Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan classic, When Harry Met Sally.

(Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any Kwanzaa movies, though I keep secretly hoping that Tyler Perry will someday make Madea’s Crazy Kwanzaa.)

This year, I decided to stop being so darn grumpy and put together a little holiday movie festival for myself. It’s a good year to buck tradition, n’est-ce pas? After all, 2023 has already gifted us a slasher movie about Thanksgiving instead of the usual Christmas-based horror story. That film, director Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, even has a Massachusetts tie: It takes place in Plymouth.

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My choices skew toward older movies (and ones with some dramatic bite). Some of these choices are naughty, and some are nice.

1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Perhaps the quintessential Thanksgiving movie, this 1987 film by John Hughes stars Steve Martin and the late, great John Candy as two men trying to get home to Chicago for that holiday. Mishap after mishap occurs, all of them hilarious, before the film coasts to a bittersweet coda carried off beautifully by Candy’s performance.

2. Remember the Night

This 1940 romantic comedy (with a script by the legendary Preston Sturges) qualifies as both a Christmas and a New Year’s Eve movie. Fans of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity may be surprised to find Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in a much lighter film that also hinges on a crime. Stanwyck steals a bracelet and MacMurray is the D.A. who prosecutes her. Since it’s Christmastime, he postpones the trial, which leads to a road trip and, ultimately, to love. Since this is a Hays Code-era production, it’s no spoiler that Stanwyck gets her punishment and ends up in jail. But thanks to director Mitchell Leisen’s mastery of tone and Sturges’s clever script, we still get a happy — and very romantic — ending.

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3. The Apartment

Speaking of Billy Wilder, his 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner, which culminates on New Year’s Eve, qualifies for the naughty list. To climb the corporate ladder, Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter lends out his bachelor pad for his bosses to conduct their extramarital affairs. He falls for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the mistress of his boss (Fred MacMurray — again!). This is a very dark comedy, but it’s one of my favorites and has the greatest last line in all of cinema.

4. Gremlins

Another naughty list movie. In Joe Dante’s 1984 horror-comedy, the titular creatures wreak havoc on the type of town you’d see in all those Hallmark holiday movies. I think that’s why I love it. Also, Phoebe Cates’s monologue about why she hates Christmas is one of the most delightfully twisted speeches ever committed to celluloid.

5. Miracle on 34th Street

Natalie Wood’s line “I believe. It’s silly, but I believe” sums up this 1947 movie about proving whether Santa exists. Spoiler alert: He does — I think.

6. Almost Christmas

In my 2016 review at RogerEbert.com, I wrote, “Why would I go to a movie about a dysfunctional family holiday when I can see my own version for free?” The answer: for the schadenfreude! Let’s face it, holidays can be hell, and this film reminds me of my own family, especially Mo’Nique’s performance as the perfect “auntie” character. A lot of high drama, but like those syrupy holiday movies I kvetch about, everything turns out for the best at the end.

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Maybe I’m a big old softie after all.


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.