Jacob's Favorite Christmas Films: #1. "A Christmas Story" (1983)
No, this choice wasn't the easy way out.
I didn't just choose A Christmas Story because it's the subject of a TV marathon that made the film into a cultural force so absolute in its control of the holiday that a Red Ryder BB Gun can be just as easily associated with Christmas as any other traditional symbol related to this time of year. I chose A Christmas Story because it's a legitimately great film, directed, written, and acted at a level that most "holiday" films struggle to match. This isn't just a great Christmas film, it's a great film about American nostalgia, a sincere period piece with just the slightest post-modern touch of cynicism. It's a masterpiece and a miracle of a film, especially when you consider where the film came from.
First of all, the title is almost misleading in a way. Not in its subject matter, A Christmas Story is a story set around Christmas. However, it was based on a novel by radio personality and author Jean Shepherd, and the novel is called "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash." To be fair, I think that's a great title, but you can see why producers might have wanted to change it. On top of that Shepherd himself wrote the screenplay with screenwriter Leigh Brown and director Bob Clark, ensuring that the film reflected those stories. But as the ultimate reflection of Shepherd himself, he narrated the entire film, using his radio background to its full effect.
I tend to dislike most ongoing narrators in films, but Jean Shepherd's narration of A Christmas Story is an all-time great performance. It's very clear that Shepherd drew from his own life for these stories, as they're told with an alarming familiarity and warmth. The quality of the writing itself though is the kicker. I can't tell you how many times I've laughed at the line, "In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan." Every line that Jean Shepherd delivers is a carefully constructed sentence of pure genius. Every joke is considered from Shepherd, and they all land perfectly.
That's not to say that Jean Shepherd is the only actor pulling his weight here. That might be the film's greatest miracle, every single actor in the main cast pulls their weight. Even the kid actors are alarmingly good, but they're no match for the one-two punch of Melinda Dillon as Mother Parker and Darren McGavin as The Old Man Parker. These two might have just looked like caricatures of parents when I was a kid, but as I've gotten older, there's a depth to these two that I didn't pick up on. They're warm and full of life, and I think it says a lot that the film dedicates one of its final scenes to just the silhouettes of them watching snow fall. It's a beautiful scene, as brief as it is.
What sends A Christmas Story to the top of this list though is the directing by Bob Clark. And now here's the part where I have to explain just how strange of a choice Bob Clark was for this material. Here we go...
I've mentioned the film Black Christmas from 1974 a lot throughout this list. I just wanted to put it in the back of your mind for two reasons, one of which I've already touched on, the other I'm finally about to get to. The first is that Black Christmas was a proto-slasher film that desecrates the holiday of its title. The second is a bit more surprising. Bob Clark directed Black Christmas, meaning that he directed one of Christmas' most infamous nightmares and one of its greatest celebrations, just under a decade later. It's even odder to find out that Bob Clark directed A Christmas Story when you realize the movie he made before it was Porky's in 1981.
Apparently the success of Porky's was what allowed Bob Clark to make A Christmas Story, which was a passion project that he'd wanted to make for years. The passion really shows through in the way the film is staged and constructed. Jokes aren't just written into the script, they're expanded on through carefully planned shot transitions and edits, through re-uses of camera work in unexpected ways, and other directorial tricks. And that's just in reference to the main film itself, let alone its fantasy sequences where Bob Clark gets to pull out his reverence for old school serial filmmaking.
The film is a ubiquitous force, almost to its own detriment. I believe that the 24 hour marathon they run of A Christmas Story is a double-edged sword for the film. On one hand, it's most people's introduction to the film, and the film's vignette based structure is great for the marathon style. You can walk out of the room after a vignette wraps up, come back a few hours later, and pick up right where you left off. On the other hand though, its oversaturated the film to the point that I've seen backlash against its status as a classic.
I don't know what else to say about a stone-cold classic like A Christmas Story. It's a wonderful period piece that's impeccably made on every level that a film can be made. Funny, sweet, and just mean enough to cling to something like reality, A Christmas Story is my favorite Christmas film of all time.