In more than 100 years of moviemaking, Hollywood has produced plenty of holiday heartwarmers: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Miracle on 34th Street.” “A Christmas Story.” “Die Hard.” Moviegoers love cozying up with their seasonal favorites. But what if you’re looking for something different? What if you’re tired of watching the same old movies every year? With hopes of expanding seasonal watch lists, we asked a handful of Minnesota film experts and movie buffs about their preferred holiday fare. Their answers (sent via e-mail) were edited for length and clarity.
Catherine Allan, documentary film producer, retired from Twin Cities Public Television
Her pick: “Elf” (2003) by director Jon Favreau.
Why it’s a favorite: “The sheer goofy sweetness and hilarity of Will Ferrell as Buddy dressed in a giant elf costume encountering Christmas for the first time in Manhattan gets me every time. I love the slapstick scenes of discovering life on Earth, like when he goes giddily round and round the revolving doors of the department store until he gets sick. Ferrell has the perfect face for projecting a child’s excitement about Christmas. I never saw the film when it first came out and only ran across it by accident one night on television. Now I try to catch it whenever it’s playing this time of year. Like ‘Groundhog Day,’ the film is a classic with a good script, strong cast and an iconic performance by Ferrell.”
Stephanie Curtis, co-host of MPR News’ “Cube Critics” podcast
Her pick: “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946) by directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Why it’s a favorite: “In a melancholy version of a ‘meet cute’ scene, a dashing British World War II pilot contacts an American radio operator as his crippled plane descends to Earth. Unperturbed airman Peter Carter uses his last moments to quote Raleigh, crack wise about politics, and talk up June, the woman on the radio. ‘It’s funny. I’ve known dozens of girls. I’ve been in love with some of them. But an American girl who I’ve never seen and who I never shall see, will hear my last words. That’s funny. It’s rather sweet,’ says David Niven playing the dashing Carter, as Technicolor flames lick the windows of his plane. It’s not American movie-star bluster, but a steely English forbearance he displays. I saw the movie for the first time on the big screen at the Oak Street Cinema and fell for the sheer beauty of Powell-Pressburger’s Technicolor England and black-and-white vision of the afterlife. But in later viewings, it’s the witty movie’s unabashed tribute to virtues of human rights and the special relationship between America and the U.K. that keeps me coming back again and again. There is no snow, no New Year’s kiss, no family gathering around a tree, but its optimistic vision of humanity working together, marching toward a better world, is a needed vision each new year. And (spoiler) Peter and June do get to meet IRL.”
Melvin Carter, St. Paul mayor
His pick: “Elf” (2003) by director Jon Favreau.
Why it’s a favorite: “This film is a classic holiday charmer for the whole family. It’s funny, corny, innocent and magical — the best holiday movies check all of those boxes. Our family has great laughs over the jokes and silly situations Buddy finds himself in. It’s a great reminder that we should accept ourselves just the way we are.”
Favorite line: “I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.”
Lazerbeak, CEO and beat-maker, Doomtree Records
His pick: “Love Actually” (2003) by director Richard Curtis.
Why it’s a favorite: “Every. Single. Scene. Is. Memorable. I still rewind the part where Hugh Grant dances through the halls of his new Prime Minister abode to the classic song ‘Jump (For My Love)’ by the Pointer Sisters. It’s become a new family tradition for my wife and I to watch this at some point every holiday season. Aside from being an excellent holiday movie that takes place during the mania that ensues every December, I also wholeheartedly believe that ‘Love Actually’ is the single greatest film of all time. So you really can’t go wrong here.”
Tom Letness, owner of the Heights Theater
His pick: “Portrait of Jennie” (1948) by director William Dieterle.
Why it’s a favorite: “The ravishing black and white cinematography by Joseph H. August, much of it shot on location in New York City. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score based on themes by Claude Debussy. And the great performances from Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones and Ethel Barrymore. If you want something classic outside of the Christmas box, this film’s message of love transcending time and space should do the trick. But like all classic Christmas tales, its message will only work if you believe.”
Susan Smoluchowski, executive director, Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul
Her picks: Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and Patricio Guzmán’s “Nostalgia for the Light” (2010).
Why they’re favorites: “I saw ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, the year it opened. I was with a lovely, motley crew whose families were dispersed around the world. We popped a turkey in the oven and set off for the theater to see this remarkable film about an eccentric family for which I felt such empathy. I first saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ on the big screen at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. It was so stunning that, when the credits had run, no one in the audience could leave their seats. It’s the scenes of the night sky in the Chilean desert, accompanied by the most haunting music. Although it is expressly a political film (about the impact of Pinochet’s regime), it is really a philosophical musing on time and memory and life and death. The soundtrack is one of the most beautiful in any film I’ve seen. And the cinematography makes it unforgettable.”
Sheryl Mousley, moving image senior curator, Walker Art Center
Her pick: “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2001) by Béla Tarr.
Why it’s a favorite: “It’s easy to say ‘Love Actually’ as a British film about the complications of love in stories leading up to the Christmas holiday, especially when everything around the Walker turns toward the British Arrows this time of year. But when I want to sit down and watch a film that shakes my soul, I turn to Béla Tarr’s ‘Werckmeister Harmonies.’ The opening scene that runs about 11 minutes shows a man orchestrating a dance with drunken bar patrons acting out the planets and a total eclipse of the sun, which disturbs then quiets the drinkers. This is truly one of the most amazing unedited takes in the history of cinema. The brilliant sound composition by Mihály Víg, with his use of classical music by Bach and Johann Strauss to complement his musical support of the story of a small Hungarian town being taken over by an unruly circus. The film’s title refers to the musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister whose harmonic principles were seen as outmoded — same as with the fading communist era, both needing a new theory of tuning and harmony. If you want to watch a film about love, then stick with ‘Love Actually.’ But if you want to go on a voyage of wonder as you explore the Hungarian decline after 20th-century changes in Eastern Europe, then ‘Werckmeister Harmonies.’ ”