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Back in Time: 2019

As I noted in the previous Back in Time article, it seems kind of silly that we put out a “best of the year” list at the end of each year and then just walk away, as if we never watch another movie from that time period again. I watch older movies all the time. Just a few days ago I watched a movie from 1929 that makes me totally re-evaluate that list (as there are now two films on it). So why don’t we ever step back, look at a year again, and amend our best of the year lists? That’s what I’m doing here, going back a year at a time. In this second installment, I’ll talk about my favorite films of 2019, pointing out as I go which ones wouldn’t have made my list at the end of that year because I hadn’t seen them yet.

12. Point Blank. Joe Lynch’s remake of this French thriller was really strong – energetic, exciting, with strong characters and just the right amount of comic relief. It’s a blast to watch.

11. Zombieland: Double Tap (watched in February 2020). While not quite as strong as the original, the second Zombieland film extends the universe in a logical way (at least from a character standpoint – there’s some handwaving going on about how the universe functions from a technical standpoint, but that’s acceptable in a comedy of this type). It’s funny, and it’s fun to watch.

10. Yesterday (watched in February 2020). Richard Curtis has gone in an interesting direction with these sorts of magic realism romcoms. A movie about a man in a world that has somehow forgotten the Beatles is really high concept, but the likable characters and good direction by Danny Boyle carry this forward and make it a winner for me.

9. Klaus. There are a lot of Santa Claus movies out there, including a lot of origin stories, but I never knew that what I really needed was the one that linked old St. Nick to the postal service. This animated film is one of the most charming Santa movies I’ve ever seen.

8. Tread (watched in May 2020). Paul Solet’s bizarre little film is half documentary, half reenactment, and all totally bonkers. The true story of a man who got fed up with his small town and decided to build a tank to flatten it is totally gripping and utterly engrossing.

7. It Chapter Two (watched in March 2020). I know that a lot of people didn’t think the conclusion of this two-film saga was as good as the first part, but I was pulled in and moved by the whole thing. It is my favorite Stephen King novel, and I really felt like this film did it justice.

6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (watched in June 2021). I never thought that Quentin Tarantino would make a fairy tale, but that’s kind of what this is. As he did with Inglorious Basterds, he created some amazing and moving characters, dropped them into real historical events, and then let things go completely off the rails in a highly satisfying way. In fact, this is now my second favorite Tarantino film, after the aforementioned Basterds.

5. Spider-Man: Far From Home. It almost feels quaint writing about this movie, having seen No Way Home, but this remains one of my favorite Marvel movies. Tom Holland is my favorite Spider-Man, and I thought this film was a fine epilogue to the Infinity Saga that ended in Avengers: Endgame.

4. Joker (watched in Jan. 2020). Batman villain by way of gritty crime drama, Joaquin Phoenix absolutely nails his performance in this movie about a man whose own weakness and the crushing weight of his life ultimately leads to an explosive self-destruction. If they never make a sequel to the film, I think it stands just fine on its own. 

3. Shazam! Outside of Superman, the original Captain Marvel is my favorite DC hero, and I had high hopes that this film would be a lighthearted adventure worthy of the premise of a boy who transforms into the world’s mightiest mortal. What I did not anticipate was a film with a profound message about the power of a found family, and a finale that left me giddy, as it introduced beloved characters that I never would have guessed I would see in a feature film.

2. Knives Out (watched in February 2021). Of all the films on this list, this is the one I’m most angry with myself for sleeping on. The trailers looked like it would deliver a quirky little murder mystery. I was unprepared for how layered, complicated, and altogether satisfying the movie would be – to say nothing of how much fun it was to watch this phenomenal cast tear up the scenery. I couldn’t be happier that there are more Benoit Blanc mysteries in the works.

1. Avengers: Endgame. This topped my list the moment I saw it, and I sincerely doubt there is anything that can possibly topple it. The grand finale of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe up until that point was epic, moving, heartbreaking, triumphant, and contains perhaps the single greatest moment in any superhero movie ever made. Yeah, you know what moment I’m talking about. That one. Magnificent. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. In 2019, he thought that the last couple of years had been lousy, but they were bound to get better, right? 

What makes a Christmas movie?

The movie that launched a thousand arguments.

Over the last few years, as the Die Hard debate reached peak internet meme status, there seems to have been some degree of confusion as to what constitutes a Christmas movie. “Well if Die Hard is a Christmas movie,” says some joyless homunculus, “then so does Lethal Weapon! So does Gremlins! So does Batman Returns!”

To which I reply, “Yeah, okay.”

To my way of thinking, there are three qualifications for being a Christmas story, and any film which matches at least TWO of them can rightly be called a Christmas movie. These qualifications are:

  1. The film must primarily be set during the Christmas season. The vast majority of great Christmas movies have their climax on Christmas Eve, but any time in the stretch from post-Thanksgiving until New Year’s qualifies. The key word here is “primarily.” A film that has only one scene at the holidays, such as Toy Story or several Harry Potter movies, does not meet this qualification, no matter what the Freeform network tries to tell you. The classic It’s a Wonderful Life sneaks in because, although large parts of the movie are non-Christmas flashbacks, the framing sequence and the entirety of the film’s action take place on Christmas Eve. In a fantasy setting where Christmas would not logically exist, I will accept as substitute their local equivalent, such as Hogswatch (Hogfather) or Life Day (The Star Wars Holiday Special). 
If we don’t see Santa, does it still count?
  1. The film must include traditional Christmas figures in a prominent role. These figures include but are not limited to Jesus (remember him?), Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, and Krampus. The figure does not necessarily have to be the protagonist to qualify, but they must feature in a large way. In Ernest Saves Christmas Santa is a supporting character, whereas in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street he never appears on screen, but as the story is about Big Bird’s quest to discover how Santa enters a home with no chimney, it still meets this requirement. Interestingly, this qualification can be applied to a film retroactively, if it becomes beloved as a holiday classic. Upon their original release neither the Grinch nor Jack Skellington would have been considered “traditional” Christmas characters, but nobody would dispute their status today. 
Yep. It counts.
  1. A film must feature one of the traditional Christmas themes, such as love, hope, generosity, faith, redemption, family, or fear. Yes, fear. What, did you think that line in the song about “scary ghost stories” is just a throwaway? Before Halloween grew into the holiday it is today, scary stories were a Christmas tradition. It is no coincidence that the most re-told Christmas story of all time is about four ghosts trying to scare a miser straight. This is also the reason horror movies such as Silent Night, Deadly Night are acceptable as Christmas films. (If you’re into that sort of thing. If you don’t like horror movies, there’s no requirement that you watch them.)

So there’s our litmus test. Pick a movie and ask yourself if it fits at least two of these qualifications. If it does, it’s a Christmas movie. Some examples:

  • A Christmas Story.  About a family at Christmastime with a main character hoping for a special gift from Santa. Meets all three qualifications.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life. As mentioned before, it sneaks in on #1, and as a tale of redemption, meets #3.
  • Any traditional retelling of A Christmas Carol meets all three qualifications. It takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s the story of Scrooge’s redemption, and the story is so universally known that Scrooge and the ghosts all count as traditional characters, even if interpretations of them vary significantly. Most non-traditional versions, such as Scrooged or A Flintstones Christmas Carol also qualify.
  • Home Alone. Set at Christmas, with its major character arc being the redemption of a family (focusing on a child and his mother) with a strained relationship. Try not to think too hard about the fact that they had to re-learn the same dang lesson the next year.
  • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Meets #1 and 2. I will not venture to make an argument that this film has anything that counts as a “theme.”
  • The Sound of Music. While inarguably a classic film, the only qualification it meets is #3, so sorry, it’s not a Christmas movie. Please remove “My Favorite Things” from your holiday playlist immediately. 
It’s got a guy in a red suit that can fly around the world…
  • Shazam! Set at Christmastime (the climax, in fact, takes place at an actual Christmas fair), with a surprisingly strong message about the family you choose rather than the family you’re born with. It’s a dark horse candidate, but I say this superhero film counts as a Christmas movie. 
  • Die Hard. The argument that started it all, but honestly, I don’t even know why there’s a question. Set at Christmas, and features the redemption of John McClane as well as the film’s true hero, Sgt. Al Powell. Set up your gingerbread  Nakatomi Tower, it counts.
  • Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. The film is expressly set five days before Christmas and features Santa Claus, as well as other holiday figures such as the Ice Cream Bunny, Thumbelina, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry… Finn? Look, this movie is a brain-torturing mess and watching it should never be attempted without the assistance of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, but it still technically qualifies.
  • Miracle on 34th Street. Goes from Thanksgiving until Christmas, it’s all about faith and family, and it stars Santa Claus. Boom, boom, boom, done.
It’s surprising how close this one is.
  • Holiday Inn. This 1942 classic almost doesn’t make it. While it is undeniably a love story, it time skips to several holidays over the course of the year. I say it meets standard #1 because it both begins and ends at Christmastime. It also gets bonus points for giving us the classic song “White Christmas,” 12 years before the movie was kinda-sorta remade with that title in a version that is more clearly a Yuletide film.
  • Any Hallmark/Lifetime/Netflix movie about a no-nonsense businesswoman who finds love with a small town boy and his adorable dog and/or child at the holidays qualifies. Go ahead and cue ’em up.
  • Avatar. This meets none of the qualifications. That was stupid, why did you ask?

So there you have it, your litmus test for Christmas movies. You’ll notice this test says nothing about the quality of any such movie (I’m lookin’ at you, Ice Cream Bunny), just whether it has enough Christmas flavor to count in your yuletide marathon. Hope this was helpful!

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