I’ve got two. The first, obviously, is Die Hard. Look, I like Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas as much as the next guy, but for me, nothing says it’s Christmastime like a handgun taped to Bruce Willis’ bare back and Hans Gruber taking a long, hard fall from Nakatomi Plaza. Some greet the holidays by lining up for Black Friday bargains; I prefer to watch Dick Thornburg get punched in the face. That’s just me.
The other is a more traditional/predictable pick: It’s A Wonderful Life. I know, I know, easy one; it’s labeled a “Christmas movie,” and indeed, the action of the third act takes place on December 24th, culminating in much yuletide merriment (and George’s immortal run down Bedford Falls’ Main Street, shouting “Merry Christmas” to the buildings along the way). But it’s so much more than a simple holiday picture; it is a mediation on our very existence, on the mark we leave by the kind of life we choose to lead. And it’s a wonderful romance. And it’s funny as hell.
What’s interesting about the film is how much of its reputation is tied to the storytelling gimmick; people forget that George doesn’t even meet Clarence until the 99-minute mark, so the famous “here’s the world if you’d never been born” show-and-tell only comprises the third act of the picture. Up until then, it is an uncommonly detailed and moving biography of a common man, and it finds Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart doing some of their absolutely finest work.
It’s a perfect movie, filled with heart-wrenching moments and classic scenes, beautifully rendered (it took me a good dozen viewings to really take notice of the evocative, shadowy photography during George and Clarence’s visit to his abandoned house), and every performance is wonderful — even the throwaway roles, like good-time girl Violet and Mr. Gower the pharmacist, are fully drawn. They have to be; it is the film’s rich sense of community that makes its closing scene so tremendously moving.
There may be no sequence in all of film that gets to me like the last ten minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life, no piece of film that you can guarantee, with this much certainty, will make me openly weep. But what’s amazing about that fact is that there’s nothing sad happening here — it is the end of George’s troubles, the resolution of the third act crisis, the “happy ending.” But it wrings me dry every year, because it is about more than crass manipulation for cheap, easy tears; it is a celebration of a good man. In that last scene, George sees what that trip with Clarence hinted at: that the money isn’t important (if it were, Mr. Potter wouldn’t be a figure of derision). George is loved, by his friends, by his family, by his wife, who sounded the alarm to all when he was in need. The things we do in our life, the way that we treat those in our lives, those things have consequences — not a radical notion, but usually one with a negative connotation. George Bailey is good to other people, thinks of himself last, and when he hits a bump, all of those favors and considerations come back, multifold.
That simple idea, more than the almost-incidental placement of the action to Christmas Eve, is the reason that we revisit It’s a Wonderful Life ever year. For me, the older I get, the more it means to me, as I understand what it is to have lifelong friends and a family who will do anything for you. When I was a kid, I thought Harry Bailey’s toast (“to my brother George, the richest man in town”) was a funny line, since he says it from in front of that huge pile of donated money. When you get older, you start to understand what that line really means.
What about you? What are your holiday “must-see” movies?