Of all the guilty pleasures to hide under the bed, an affinity for Christmas-themed cinema surely stands with the guiltiest. No film with a promo poster boasting an upside-down Christmas tree is going to win any awards, and Santa's days of bankable box office gold are long behind him. But I'm still suckered in every year.
The best of them have so much to offer: Ralphie's Wonder Years—esque bewilderment in 1983's A Christmas Story, or the late Ted Demme's contribution, 1994's The Ref. Try watching Home Alone's Kevin McCallister, from the 1990 film, reunite with his mother and not feel the seasonal spirit take over your tear ducts.
There's an undeniable thrill in watching a desperate Clark Griswold stand by helplessly as his fantasy version of Christmas crumbles under a pile of trailer trash and sewer gas ("Hallelujah! Holy shit!") in 1989's Christmas Vacation, or Bill Murray's corporate Ebenezer getting dealt with by the Ghost of Christmas Present's toaster in 1988's Scrooged.
But in the last five years or so, America lost touch with its Christmas spirit. It escapes me what kind of hellish national event could have triggered the sudden drop in yule tidings, but suddenly the instant classics weren't there.
In the eyes of this Xmas sap, 2003 was a banner year. Will Ferrell's Elf managed to pay homage to the '60s stop-motion Christmas classics and soaring-scored, mega-spirited '80s staples like Prancer and Santa Claus: The Movie. Love Actually charmed, and Adam Goldberg's The Hebrew Hammer was a kosher romp. The best of the bunch, Bad Santa, was a filthy-yet-good-hearted addition to a deep well of edgy, left-of-center holiday fare.
But as our long national nightmare worked its coal-stuffing way down our collective chimney, the lack of a decent Christmas movie left giant soot marks on the carpet under the tree.
Robert Zemeckis took great pains to show how we're all just trapped in a German-expressionist hellhole known as Santa's factory in 2004's The Polar Express. That year also brought us Christmas With the Kranks and Surviving Christmas, two of the most violently unfunny movies in the genre. The following year, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's big holiday moment comes when Father Christmas hands the good girls and boys swords and shields and wishes them luck in fighting their apocalyptic war (gee, thanks).
In 2006 the Christmas films piled up, and not one of them was worthy of wiping Rudolph's ass: see The Santa Clause 3, Deck the Halls, The Nativity Story, The Holiday, Unaccompanied Minors and the updated bastardization of Black Christmas.
Last year's sense of holiday spirit could be summed up in two shudder-worthy words: Fred Claus.
So what does this year bring, now that hope has finally arrived? Are we in for another season of cinematic coal?
The answer lies in the hostile, inhumane hands of previously buzz-heavy director Seth Gordon. His Four Christmases tosses any insight out the window of its two characters' ridiculously lavish canyon loft in favor of mindless stereotypes.
Christmases, like Fred Claus, attempts to cash in on Vince Vaughn's willingness to distort the loyal and ultimately well-intentioned character he and buddy Jon Favreau (who, incidentally, directed Elf) crafted in Swingers into a perversion of bitter caricature. It's also telling that Favreau's bit character in Christmases is a 'roided-out, angry freak. How far their screen images have fallen in only a decade.
Horrifyingly, Christmases provides Vaughn's ugly nature with a twin, the unconvincing Reese Witherspoon, and together they sneer at other couples with family plans. If you still find projectile baby vomit hilarious and gross, at least on film, you have some serious inward thinking to take care of.
The couple ends up trekking around to visit their various divorced parents' new families instead of taking a vacation in Bali, as they had intended. Poor things.
They visit a lower-class father who's angry beyond logic and attacks any hint of success, a cougar's den of WASP-y women, a hippie commune and, finally, a warmly bland patriarchal mansion, settings in which neither character wants to be because they seem determined to hate everyone, including each other.
In other words, the state of the Christmas film remains in peril. But there is one bright spot, one shining glimmer of hope, and it may be just as reflective of the New America as the last five years of awful holiday movies have been of the Bush America.
As hinted at by the marvelous, multi- language period drama Joyeux Noël, a 2005 film based on the true story of a French-Scottish-German cease-fire declared on Christmas Eve during World War I, it's clear that other cultures beyond the middle-class white Americans portrayed in most holiday movies still understand the meaning of Christmas.
In Nothing Like the Holidays, opening here next week, the Puerto Rican community of Chicago's snowy (and stunning-looking) Humboldt Park is the setting for a funny and touching family Christmas dramedy.
Stoic Freddy Rodríguez, with an inner goodness that earns our trust, plays a scarred soldier returning to his borough from a traumatic three years in Iraq. Greeting him is a rogue's gallery of neighborhood friends, who tease each other with a cutting wit ("You're a wannabe-legal," laughs one friend) that serves to take everyone's mind off the crises that lurk around every corner, including a character teeming with revenge, a mother preparing herself for divorce and a father (the tender and mild Alfred Molina) hiding a terrible secret.
Director Alfredo De Villa and screenwriters Alison Swan and Rick Najera are unafraid to present the realities of the modern minority world and explore how the Hispanic culture, with its emphasis on family, food and humor, is particularly adept at handling dark turns.
That this family, so torn apart, is able to bring out the Christmas spirit in each other — willing or not — is a grand lesson in how to hang on to the ones you love in a time that seems antithetical to the notion.
Perhaps there's hope for Christmas movies after all.