Casino Royale (1967) Some movies are improvised on the set; Casino Royale ’67 looks like it was improvised in the projection booth. Or as my daughter put it, “I’m going to erect a tombstone for this movie. It will read ‘Here lies logic.'” The film’s production is legendary in its lunacy, and I suppose the upside to the “try anything, never care” approach is that we get a movie unlike any made before or since, not to mention the solid laughs we get from Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, here set loose to be funnier than anything in the script. And oh, that script is a clunker, an embarrassing slog of lame punchlines and lamer slapstick. (I’m reminded of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which always left me imagining a stoic Stanley Kramer asking Sid Caesar, “This is what ‘comedy’ is, right? Lots of yelling and falling? Ho ho!”) It’s only the lunacy of the ad-libbed filming that salvages it. Meanwhile, the intentionally structureless plot and manic color scheme fails in its 60s groovy authenticity, coming across instead as what a handful of old white guys think a psychedelic freak-out might be. The nonsensical noise is fascinating but ultimately tiresome.
Battleground (1949) War films of the 1940s have a reputation for being jingoistic and glossy in their representation of battle, but that’s not entirely true. Case in point: Battleground, William Wellman’s complex, realistic, and quite often brutal account of the Siege of Bastogne. The film opens with a light touch and ends on a prideful up note, yet everything in the middle is quite sober, never flinching from the horrors of war. Sure, we may not get the blood and guts of Saving Private Ryan‘s D-Day sequence, but what we get instead is often more haunting. Death is inescapable, always on the minds of the characters, a specter of fear. In one sequence, a dying soldier’s last words are him weeping for his mother; later, our GIs hear a dying German soldier doing the same. In another, a soldier becomes obsessed with dying alone and anonymously after a friend, freshly transferred, is killed before anyone in his unit even knew his name. Wellman presents the story with a matter-of-factness that never becomes overwhelmed by cynicism, buffeted in a patriotism that avoids preachiness. The film maintains a human touch throughout. The massive ensemble is quite impressive, most notably James Whitmore’s Oscar-nominated turn as a tobacco chomping sergeant. It’s one of the finest war films ever made.
Becoming Santa (2011) This documentary about an actor seeking to regain the Christmas spirit by volunteering as Santa across the country has a sweetness to it that makes it easy to overlook its shortcomings. The film cuts between his journey, presented in a first-person style a little too reminiscent of History/Discovery-esque reality shows, and more straightforward doc about the history of the Santa legend, delivered in a talking head interview style reminiscent of what the History and Discovery channels used to be before they dumbed down. The latter offers little new for those familiar with St. Nick’s backstory, but it’s still quite fun, as the interviewees are enjoyable and the editing keeps things light. The former is a little more problematic as it feels paced for the basic cable crowd and as such comes off a little less than authentic. There are some great moments here, though, and the kindness behind it all creates a pleasant mood perfect for the season. (It doesn’t hurt that the subject makes a terrific Santa.)
Star in the Night (1945) One of my favorite short films, and one I look forward to revisiting every year, which is why I’m featuring it here despite its two-reel status. Ostensibly a gimmicky modern take on the Nativity legend, director Don Siegel, screenwriter Saul Elkins, and a knockout cast led by J. Carrol Naish turn this short into an examination of human decency. This is a movie about the good in all of us; kindness blooms and spreads with lightning speed, and what’s great about Star in the Night is just how obvious the kindness is once it’s needed, even to those who moments earlier knew no need for it. Naish’s performance as the grump overwhelmed by the good deeds that unfold in front of him reduces me to a puddle of tears with every viewing, while Siegel (his first film!) adds magic in the little touches. When Nick pauses, then pours that second cup of coffee… that’s absolute storytelling perfection.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) What would Christmas in Connecticut be without S.Z. Sakall? Stanwyck, Morgan, and Greenstreet are all in top form, to be sure, but this is Cuddles’ show all the way. It’s his energy and joy that carry the whole dang thing and earn the biggest smiles. And when he slaps those cheeks! He’s hunky dunky.
Elf (2003) Back in 2003, I was convinced Bad Santa would be the Christmas movie I’d revisit every year, while Elf would hit the sidelines as an enjoyable but lesser effort. In the nine years since, I’ve rewatched Bad Santa just once*, while Elf has earned a place in my heavy rotation. This is a movie I liked but seriously underestimated on my first go, mistaking its simplicities for, I dunno, weaker filmmaking, maybe? Whatever the case, I’ve since welcomed every revisit and still find its innocence and charm to always hit the holiday spirit spot. There’s a lot that still comes off as goofy; this is an awkwardly assembled story, one that rushes through certain plot developments (Buddy’s relationship with his brother) while stretching out others (pretty much anything involving Walter at work), leaving the film in a no man’s land of mixed tones and cluttered target audiences. Yet it works – by god, it works. It’s a lovely, winning tale, sent soaring on Will Ferrell’s zany lead performance, anchored by James Caan’s oddly serious supporting work. Watch the scene where Walter abandons the meeting with his boss. It’s all in the eyes and the softness of voice. While everyone else is playing it as a cartoon, Caan’s taking a more grounded approach, which adds to the movie’s emotional core.
*(Which is not a knock on the quality of Bad Santa itself. I just never got around to it. These things happen.)