August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

The 38 best Christmas movies, TV specials to watch in 2020

Because you’re a socially responsible person, you’re not going anywhere this Christmas, and you’re not seeing anyone other than the people you saw yesterday and the day before that, so you’re probably going to be watching even more television this holiday week than in years past. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it.

It seems only right to begin with Dolly Parton, who donated $1 million to vaccine research, has gifted more than 150 million books to children and with similar if marginally less significant largess brings the world a double dose of cheer this year. A Holly Dolly Christmas (CBS All Access), which is also a big, long ad for her new album of the same name, is mostly just Parton sitting on a pew in a church-themed set, talking and singing and being her awesome casual self. “It’s not a big Hollywood production show, as I’m sure you noticed,” says the singer, adding, “Of course, we were smart about testing, wearing masks and social distancing.” (Fellow country pop star Carrie Underwood has a somewhat grander album-based special, “My Gift: A Christmas Special From Carrie Underwood,” streaming on HBO Max; like Parton’s, it emphasizes the spiritual over the secular.)

Directed by Debbie Allen, whom we will meet again before this piece is over, “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” (Netflix) is a sort of musical Hallmark film injected with star power. Christine Baranski is the Grinch/Scrooge/Mr. Potter figure, returning home from the big city to her impossibly picturesque home town to throw everyone out to make way for a mall. Treat Williams is the boy she left behind and Parton is an angel named Angel, who may be a hallucination, but of course isn’t. It doesn’t make much practical sense and might prove tough sledding to less sentimental sensibilities: Even when the story turns dark for a minute, it turns dark for less than a minute. Yet this might be a true picture of the world through Parton’s eyes. And it’s good to see Baranski flexing her musical theater chops; especially good is her duet with child bartender Selah Kimbro Jones.

Christine Baranski, left, and Selah Kimbro Jones duet in “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square,” from Netflix.

(Netflix)

Mariah Carey, who has so many chops that she needs a freezer to store them, has a new special streaming on Apple TV+, “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” an hour of music, dance and spangly costumes laid out on a thread of a plot in a green-screen wonderland. (Christmas spirit is flagging, call Mariah.) As Santa’s secretary, Billy Eichner (already an elf in last year’s “Noelle,” streaming on Disney+), motivates such narrative as exists; Misty Copeland performs as the Sugar Plum Fairy; Carey makes a trio with Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson and another with Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri. Heidi Klum, in a two-second cameo, gives one of my favorite performances of 2020.

Also included in the Carey special is some new holiday Peanuts animation, in the classic style. The original “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” streaming this year from Apple TV+ , whole and in its proper aspect ratio, is the earliest TV Christmas special to still qualify as contemporary; age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds, Vince Guaraldi score, dancing children, wintry calm or Sally Brown stating, in a quiet voice of reason, “All I want is what I have coming to me; all I want is my fair share” — a line that would fit in any Martin Scorsese movie you could name, but would not be as well delivered, nor make me as happy.

Equally evergreen if less transcendent are the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, with their weird plots, bizarre mythologies and celebrity narrators. I can’t say much for the conventionally animated specials; stop motion is what brings these strange tales to herky-jerky life, and AMC and Freeform have a passel of those, including but not limited to: the seminal 1964 “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (AMC, 5 p.m. Friday, also on Freeform, 8:50 p.m. Thursday), with its dentist elf and misfit toys; the 1976 time-traveling sequel “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” (AMC, 7:45 a.m. Thursday, 4:45 a.m. Friday); “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” from 1970, with Fred Astaire (Freeform, 10:50 p.m. Wednesday, 9:55 p.m.Thursday); “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” from 1974, whence come Heat Miser and Cold Miser (AMC, 12:30 p.m. Friday, 4:45 a.m. Saturday); and the epic team-up “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” (AMC, 8:45 a.m. Friday, 7 a.m. Saturday), in which the most famous reindeer of all is framed for robbery.

Mariah Carey surrounded by a snowy Christmas set in "Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special."

Mariah Carey brings the power of melisma to revive the North Pole in the Apple TV+ “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special.”

(Apple TV+)

It’s business as Christmas-usual among what used to be called the broadcast majors, which have already run through most of their seasonal specials. CBS brings the gift of yule-themed prime-time episodes of “The Price Is Right” and “Let’s Make a Deal” (8 and 9 p.m. Monday). ABC presents the finale of this year’s “Great Christmas Light Fight” (9 p.m. Wednesday) — which, unfortunately or not, is not people throwing colored bulbs at one another — along with the traditional serving of its corporate master, “Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Celebration” (9 a.m. Friday, when everyone is still in their bathrobes and pajamas); getting in Tituss Burgess to host, alongside Julianne Hough, is a happy choice.

Apart from its customary Christmas Eve showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (8 p.m. Thursday), which spreads a two-hour movie over three hours, NBC is going full “Grinch” this week, beginning with a Monday repeat of a taped performance of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” with Matthew Morrison as the furry green grump (8 p.m.). (It remains available to to stream from Hulu.) Like every “Grinch” that isn’t the Dr. Seuss original, it has been fleshed out and the character’s hate of Christmas made more … psychological (in spite of Seuss’ “Please don’t ask why/No one quite knows the reason”). Morrison’s performance, which reportedly took cues from Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker — yikes — has taken some critical lumps, but there is something magical about theater and stagecraft, even on film, that all the CGI in the world can never match, and the production honors Seuss’ drawing style. Christmas night pairs the 1966, Boris Karloff-read cartoon special, which finds the sweet spot between Seuss and animator Chuck Jones (8 p.m.), with the 2000 Jim Carrey film, which has its own way with the book (8:30 p.m.). For some, of course, that film is the primary text.

Christmas is increasingly a time for old-movie marathons, chief among them the now traditional 24 hours of “A Christmas Story,” double-broadcast on TBS, from 8 p.m. Thursday, and TNT, from 9 p.m. The story of a small boy’s dream for an air rifle, a grown man’s love for a lamp/leg, a smaller boy eating like the piggies do and a mother who manages to keep them in order, it has given the world the double-dog dare and made narrator-author Jean Shepherd a signal sound of the holiday and will keep it so for generations to come. (Give yourself the present of listening to Shepherd’s radio work, which can be found here and there around the internet.)

Madalen Mills and Forest Whitaker in "Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey."

Madalen Mills and Forest Whitaker in “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.”

(Gareth Gatrell/Netflix)

Sundance offers a blizzard’s worth of “White Christmas,” from 2 p.m. Christmas Eve through Christmas morning. It’s a movie I never need to watch again, so well do I know it, but inevitably will, for Bing Crosby cracking up at the end of “Sisters,” the harmonies of “Snow” in the club car — at which point I shall bemoan the loss of a great rail tradition — and Barrie Chase’s avant-garde declaration, “Without so much as a kiss my foot or have an apple.” (We do fast forward through the minstrel number; it’s not in blackface, but still.)

Will Ferrell’s “Elf,” which is 17 this year, is maybe the last film to become a bona fide Christmas classic — a kind of mythological “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” now that I think of it. (Frank Capra is a presiding seasonal spirit no less than Parton.) It dominates Starz Encore on Wednesday and Thursday, though you’ll find it on AMC this week as well. With Ed Asner as the best Santa this side of Edmund Gwenn — and was Gwenn really Santa, anyway? If your “Elf” thirst doesn’t end with the closing credits, Netflix’s “The Holiday Movies That Made Us” offers some documentary background for the film, as well as on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

I am Team Alastair Sim when it comes to screen “Carols.” The 1951 British adaptation in which he stars will get multiple Christmas Eve and Day showings on FXM; there are some wayward additions midfilm, but Sim feels definitive both in his stingy pride and his ecstatic reformation. Director Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” streaming on Disney+ (but also getting a Freeform showing, 3:05 p.m. Tuesday), is a trip deep into Uncanny Valley; I find it almost unwatchable on that account, though viewers raised on video games may feel right at home. But it is also unusually faithful to the text, with Jim Carrey (him again!) more than unusually restrained as Scrooge; it’s one of his best performances, in fact, and this may be one to just listen to, as if it were the radio, as you add another tablespoon of brandy to the figgy pudding or disentangle the cat from the Christmas tree.

Turner Classic Movies reaches into its deep pockets and finds much the same candy as last and every year, including the MGM’s 1938 “A Christmas Carol” ( 6 a.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Thursday), a lightweight interpretation coming in at a compact 69 minutes; “The Bishop’s Wife” (5 p.m. Thursday), a not-quite-romantic, not-quite-triangle with David Niven as the bishop, Loretta Young as the wife and Cary Grant as the angel you’d all in all rather see her leave with ; “Christmas in Connecticut” (5 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Thursday), with Barbara Stanwyck as a postwar Martha Stewart, but without the skills, backed into a corner to protect her brand; and the lesser known “Holiday Affair” ( 9 p.m. Tuesday, 1 p.m. Friday), a rare Robert Mitchum romcom from 1949, with Janet Leigh the object of his intention and a remarkably natural performance by young Gordon Gebert as her son. Features department stores, Christmas presents, a re-created Central Park Zoo with live seals, and Harry Morgan as a skeptical policeman.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis walk down a holiday-lighted street in the snow in a scene from "Happiest Season."

Kristen Stewart, left, and Mackenzie Davis in Hulu’s “Happiest Season.”

(Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

“Meet Me in St. Louis” is also on the TCM docket ( 5 p.m. Wednesday, 1 p.m. Thursday), because it’s not Christmas until Judy Garland tells you to have a merry little one. Mary Astor, who plays the mother in that film, plays it again in the 1949 version “Little Women” (11 p.m. Wednesday, 4:15 a.m. Friday), which uses the same screenplay as the 1933 Katharine Hepburn version and subs in June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien as Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth and must be somebody’s favorite version of this partially Yuletide tale. (This year, you can meditate on its epidemic storyline.) And it would be less than cultured not to mention “The Shop Around the Corner”( 7 p.m. Thursday) with Ernst Lubitsch applying his famous touch and a sprig of mistletoe to James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, pen pals who do not realize they are also feuding co-workers and vice versa. It all comes to a head at Christmas, like “Die Hard.”

New movies, made for TV — or maybe not; who can tell anymore? — include “The Christmas Chronicles 2″ (Netflix), which brings back Kurt Russell as the man in red and white and is yet another film based on the idea that if children don’t get toys on the morning of Dec. 25, there is no Christmas. It’s essentially a superhero movie, with an Oedipal element — an elf with surrogate father issues means to take Santa down. Real-world Russell partner Goldie Hawn gets more than a cameo this time as Mrs. C. There’s some nice practical and digital world-building and a cornball musical number midway through, with Russell and Darlene Love, that beat down my resistance. Also on Netflix: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” a sumptuously mounted (mostly) Black Victorian musical fantasy, with Forest Whitaker as a more than exceptionally gifted toymaker coming out of a slump with the help of granddaughter Madalen Mills; it’s a quiet, centered performance that balances the noisier elements of a film that plays at times like Rankin/Bass filtered through Terry Gilliam, filtered through Baz Luhrmann.

Happiest Season (Hulu) finds Kristen Stewart and girlfriend Mackenzie Davis, reluctant to come out to her parents, on a frustrating holiday trip to their home. Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza are the less conflicted friends you want to follow out of the movie. And Disney+ has the charming winter-set Godmothered,” as in Fairy, with a nimbly funny Jillian Bell as a bumbling apprentice fairy out to aid local news producer and single mother of two Isla Fisher — a widow, naturally. It owes a debt or two to “Elf” and is obvious in its outlines, but the coloring within those lines is well done. And the conclusion, apart from a Power Was Always in You moment, is in a small way radical.

An extraterrestrial Grinch stealing presents in "Alien Xmas."

An extraterrestrial Grinch attempts to steal Christmas — or the presents anyway — in the Netflix Christmas special “Alien Xmas.”

(Netflix)

What else? “LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special” (Disney+) employs a doohickey that opens a portal in time to bring in as many characters as 48 minutes will hold, from “A New Hope” to “The Mandolarian.” (Yoda on Dagobah: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Luke: “Isn’t trying, like, a good thing?” Yoda: “Participation trophies for Jedi, there are not.”) LEGO Star Wars is the best “Star Wars,” as far as I’m concerned, the one expression of the franchise to keep things in proportion. Some Grinch energy animates — or puppet-animates — “Alien Xmas,” a smart but not smart-alecky, sweet but not sticky stop-motion special, streaming on Netflix, concerning an extraterrestrial race that travels the universe hoovering up other planets’ stuff in order to fill, yes, the hole in their cold materialistic hearts. (Have you not got the memo? It’s better to give than to receive.) A little elf girl and literal puppy save the day, but not before aliens and elves fight it out on the streets of Christmastown.

Giving and the taking is also a theme of “Captain Underpants: Mega Blissmas,” a special edition of the metafictional, multi-style Netflix cartoon series that finds schoolkids George and Harold and their unconsciously superheroic principal traveling back in time to reboot Christmas and give it “an upgrade,” hoping to swap plain vanilla Santa Claus for “Jacked New Santa,” a pun for those with relatively long memories, and Christmas trees for “titanic tree-bots.” (George: “All things change and Christmas is a thing.” Harold: “You’ve got to break some eggs to make eggnog.”) You can guess how it works out, but it’s worth watching it happen. I detected a “Rushmore” homage and a swipe at Scientology; it’s that kind of cartoon show.

My favorite new Christmas-related offering is “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” which debuted on Netflix back around Thanksgiving, and follows Debbie Allen — I told you we’d see her again — and her helpers as they prep her Baldwin Hills-based Dance Academy’s annual take on the holiday perennial. It’s a feel-good film that is not in the least sentimental, about classical technique and new vernacular, teachers and students, adults and children, the school and the street, bodies and body image, self-discipline and the freedom it confers. And racism. There’s plenty of cuteness too — lots of little kids are involved — and where dance stories often focus on obsession and dysfunction, this leans to dedication and joy. If this roundup has you overwhelmed, just watch this film over and over.