The holiday season always brings a curious mix of movies to the big screen. With the Academy Awards just a few months away, studios often choose November and December to release their most anticipated movies. Designed to bait film reviewers and Oscar voters, these films wow with top-tier performances and serious, often epic plots. However, fluffy and family-friendly fare is also a hot commodity every winter, especially as Christmas approaches.
Holiday-themed movies don’t have a great track record with critics. From overly sentimental romances and dramatically dysfunctional families to unbelievable magic and miracles, tropes get recycled as nostalgia trumps original storytelling. Luckily, there are some exceptions to the rule. Films can be festive without getting corny or predictable, especially when they star talented actors. The following three films offer surprising examples of holiday movies worth watching and acting methods worth trying. From hilarious comic timing to heartbreaking grief, the actors in these seasonal ensembles deliver thoughtful and inspiring performances, and they just might turn your next family movie night into a learning opportunity.
Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in the early Victorian era, and while the novella has been in print ever since, it’s actually actors who deserve much of the credit for keeping Ebenezer Scrooge alive. Long before the first movie theater opened, casts took to the stage every winter to recreate this famous tale of Christmas-time redemption. Now you can choose from hundreds of different movies, plays, miniseries, and cartoons that retell the same story, all in slightly different ways. But one stands out for the cast’s acting methods alone: the late-’80s adaptation starring Bill Murray.
While Murray’s comedic range and signature physicality are on full display, it’s the supporting cast that really shines, and two scene-stealing ghosts in particular. David Johansen is brilliant as the taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past, whose maniacal laugh and cigar-worn voice suspend reality enough to let you empathize with Murray. Later, Carol Kane offers a series of sidesplitting reality checks as the tiny but feisty Ghost of Christmas Present. Of the entire cast, Kane packs the biggest punch — both literally and figuratively. Her acting methods bring two extremes together, proving that fairy wings and a singsong voice can be just as dangerous as muscles and weapons.
Joyeux Noël (2005)
It takes place on Christmas Eve, carries a message of peace, and has a title that translates into “Merry Christmas”. Still, few could fault this French-language drama for being a holiday movie cliché. Set in the first year of World War I, Joyeux Noël is the true story of European soldiers who decided to celebrate the holiday together instead of killing each other.
Naturally, the movie’s strength rests on the shoulders of its actors, who were perfectly cast to drive home the point of the film: that soldiers and civilians alike are human beings with value, and can’t be defined by their differences or their sins. Even on the frozen front lines of a bloody global war, the movie’s characters are full-fleshed individuals. Pay special attention to Diane Kruger as a Danish opera star and Dany Boon as the unexpectedly sensitive Private Ponchel.
Love Actually (2003)
This British holiday ensemble romance isn’t exactly famous for its originality, but if you’re looking for examples of great acting, sometimes it’s worthwhile to look past a cheesy premise or two (or eight). If anyone can make their characters look three-dimensional in an intertwined world of nativity plays, office parties, and unrequited love, it’s this star-studded cast.
Unsurprisingly, veterans Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson give two of the movie’s most believable performances, as a husband with a wandering eye and his savvy but fragile wife. Laura Linney is another bright spot in the film, switching gears effortlessly when her sweet but straightforward romance becomes a different kind of holiday love story altogether. Her heartbreaking final scene might be the saddest and most frustrating, but it’s also the most effective and poignant because she’s so raw and real.
Readers, what are your favorite holiday movies? Let us know in the comments!