Forget that last-minute shopping. Here are some last-minute holiday movie recs, submitted for your approval:
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946): Boil it down and this classic tale of redemption and hope is a two-hour-plus Twilight Zone episode. Though I've never seen the connection made in anything I've read about Rod Serling, Frank Capra's movie certainly must have inspired Mr. S and then some. Just give it a look and I'll bet you'll agree with me.
Only one false note in the whole thing, and it starts me laughing every year. I'm talking about the scene with Donna Reed in the dark alternate world of Pottersville. Horror of horrors, instead of becoming Jimmy Stewart's wife, poor Donna became THE TOWN LIBRARIAN! Which gets me on a couple of scores. First, why would a pitstop for floozies and gin guzzlers like Pottersville even have a library? Second, I've worked in libraries for more than twenty years, and the stereotype of the mousy librarian? Uh-uh. Fold that one up like a paper airplane and kamikaze it into a blazing fireplace. In my experience that breed of librarian is as rare as hen's teeth, though everyone seems to believe in it... just like Santa Claus.
MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (1934): Laurel and Hardy in Toyland. Life-size wooden soldiers. Boogeymen on the loose from a cavernous purgatory. Besides that, one of the Three Little Pigs is pignapped, and there's an episode of medieval torture by Old King Cole as a result (well, I'm exaggerating just a little there). There's even a Mickey Mouse ripoff character played by a capuchin monkey who throws explosives from a zeppelin, and lots of weird little gnomes in a dream sequence that will give you nightmares. So, yes -- this is definitely the kind of movie that can warp small children. And I ask you: What more could you want at Christmas time? (NOTE: Beware the musical numbers which, under the proper circumstances, could quite possibly force you to drive icepicks into your ears.)
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966): No. Not the Jim Carrey flick. I mean THE ORIGINAL ANIMATED VERSION! One of Dr. Seuss' finest (half) hours. First shown in 1966 on a December night when Boris Karloff forevermore became "Uncle Boris" to an entire generation. BONUS: Thurl Ravenscroft singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." That's the real deal. I mean, where else are you going to find lyrics about a guy whose brain is full of spiders and has garlic in his soul sung by a gent whose vocal range bottoms out a couple thousand miles south of hell's own basement? Plus, the ending of this one always makes me hungry for roast beast. Barbecued... and rare.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951): Charles Dickens' brilliant ghost story done as a classic Universal horror movie... or as close as anyone has ever come, with maybe just a little bit of Val Lewton thrown in for good measure by director Brian Desmond Hurst. Watch the opening scenes and you'll catch the tone right away, especially when ol' Ebeneezer makes the long trudge from his counting-house to his lonely quarters. In most movie versions Scrooge makes the journey through bustling Victorian streets, but in this one he makes the trip alone, with nothing but shadows and whispering snow for company... and that sets the perfect mood of the piece. Plus, Alastair Sim is great -- definitely my favorite Scrooge (with Patrick Stewart a close second). One last thing: don't miss Ernest Thesiger -- Dr. Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein -- as The Undertaker.
1941 (1979): Some people think this one is Steven Spielberg's greatest train wreck. I think it's hilarious. The Japanese attack California during World War II, but we've got John Belushi as Wild Bill Kelso to protect us. And Slim Pickens, a Christmas tree lumberjack who's held captive on Toshiro Mifune's submarine. And Warren Oates. And Ned Beatty, armed with government issue ordnance. And Eddie Deezen, armed with the most annoying ventriloquist dummy ever seen on film. And most of the cast of Second City TV. There's even a Jaws riff at the beginning of the movie, a young Mickey Rourke if you don't blink at the wrong moment, and Christopher Lee as a Nazi. I had the Belushi poster on my wall in college. I've still got it around here somewhere.
LETHAL WEAPON (1987): When it comes to Christmas action movies most people choose Die Hard, but let me switch up and pick this Richard Donner/Mel Gibson flick. Of course, Donner's best Christmas movie is probably Scrooged with Bill Murray, and Gibson has hit the skids of late, but don't let that stop you from slotting this one in the DVD player. Shane Black's script doesn't just tip its hat at Christmas. Black has something to say about the holidays, and family. Detective Murtaugh (Danny Glover) has one; he's getting ready for an All-American Christmas. Detective Riggs (Gibson) doesn't; his wife is dead, and he's tempted to suck on his .45. The two are thrown together, guns start blazing, and in the midst of all the sound and fury they get a glimpse of each other's lives. Of course, this means we're plunging headlong into buddy movie territory, but it's the chemistry between Glover and Gibson that makes it all work, two very different guys who understand what's important at the right time of the year. Toss in Gary Busey as Mr. Joshua -- one of my all-time favorite heavies -- and Lethal Weapon just flatout cooks.