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The AFI Top 100 Films: It’s a Wonderful Life (#11)

Entertainment 150It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (screenplay) and Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

Part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such an indelible movie is its inextricable tie to Christmas and the mood we all wish to be in during that holiday. We want to see the best in mankind, we want to believe that a community can come together to take care of one of its own when they’re in trouble, we want to believe that things turn out all right in the end. It’s a Wonderful Life indulges that desire in spades, giving us a bittersweet fable of small-town, picture-postcard America that’s at turns heartbreaking and life-affirming. It’s quite an interesting film, actually, when you think about it beyond its sentimentality.

James Stewart is George Bailey, a young man from the small town of Bedford Falls with a dream of traveling around the world. His family serves a vital function of the community; allowing the working poor to receive loans to start businesses and buy homes for themselves. Their nemesis is an old Wall St. type named Henry Potter (Barrymore), an exploitative slum lord who represents the ideal of the free market, I suppose. The only thing that stands in the way of his complete capitalist tyranny is the little Bailey Building and Loan Association.

George’s father has a stroke right when his brother graduates high school, which means he’s the only one who can run it — his brother isn’t ready and his father and uncle are both unfit now. He puts off his dream to sort out the mess, and his brother goes to college instead. When his brother returns, it’s with an enormous job offer that George knows he can’t turn down. He kills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls for the betterment of his brother, taking on the burden of running the Building and Loan by himself.

The pressure from Potter intensifies, especially after the market crash of 1929. George gives up more and more of his life, sacrificing the nest egg he had squirreled away for his honeymoon to prevent a run on the association. Meanwhile, his brother enlists during World War II, becomes a fighter pilot ace, travels the world and comes home to a hero’s welcome. On the day of the parade, George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces $8,000 of the bank’s money. Without that deposit, the Building and Loan is sunk and Potter wins.

Distraught, George berates his children and one of their teachers, yells at his wife, crashes his car and nearly commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Here is the part of the story everyone knows — his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to show him a dystopian Bedford Falls where he had never been born to show him the difference he’s made in people’s lives. Filled with joy at knowing the effect of his good works, George races through the streets of Bedford Falls towards his home, just in time for a Christmas miracle of the community’s own making. It really is one of the finest, most touching endings in cinematic history. I’m not ashamed to admit it makes me cry, every time.

What makes the ending so effective is what makes the rest of the movie so interesting and surprisingly complex. A lot of people ding this movie for its sentimentality, claiming that it gives easy answers that wouldn’t quite fly in the real world, and I disagree. What makes George Bailey such an extraordinary hero isn’t just that he tries so hard to do the right thing — it’s that sometimes he actually fails to. He’s not a saint; it’s clear that he resents his family and his community because of the choices he feels he has to make, and he doesn’t take care to find an outlet for it. The final straw simply uncovers what was already there — a man who feels trapped by responsibilities that may or may not be his, by the burden of being the difference between people’s happiness and their oppression.

It’s completely understandable that George would feel this way; he’s regularly sacrificed his happiness for other people, and he never seems to get a break. The rest of the community shows their appreciation at times, but they’re also just people — subject to mob mentality, panic and petty thoughts. Most people don’t have the emotional fortitude that Bailey possesses, and it’s rather difficult to be fair-minded about people you’ve stuck out your neck for but end up taking the easy way far too often.

This is the problem of the idealist; the world really doesn’t mold itself to your ideals all that often. And that disappointment can lead to a sort of desperation, the attachment that something good must come of your beliefs and deeds. As that disappointment continues, it poisons into resentment.

What It’s a Wonderful Life does is remind us that we do make a difference with our actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. If we put goodness out into the world, it really does help. Life in Bedford Falls isn’t perfect, especially for George; his Building and Loan may be saved by the end of the movie, but it’s still stressed. He still has unfulfilled dreams that he’ll likely never be able to return to. He’s still surrounded by people who are prone to panic, small-mindedness and failing their own ideals. Nothing’s changed but his perception, and a newfound appreciation for the things that have gone right.

Capra has become known for his “perfect” Americana pieces, but I think this movie doesn’t quite get its due because of it. It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the worth of the transformative mindset, what happens when we let go of the expectation that good things will happen to us because we do good things. Karmic feedback rarely takes the form that we’re looking for, and success can take on a wide variety of definitions. George struggles, but he succeeds because his community does; they never would have been able to help him when he needed it most without his life lived helping them.

What makes me so enamored with that lesson is the idea that a life well-lived matters in ways we never see, but it also cautions us to take care of our own desires. Or at least, how we deal with them when they’re unfulfilled. We must pay attention to ourselves every once in a while if we’re to continue living our ideals.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie. For those of us who are community-minded, it’s a gem that justifies our beliefs and reminds us of the worth of the individual. There’s a lot going on underneath the candy-coated exterior of Bedford Falls, but isn’t that always the way of a small town?

 

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The 12 Films of Christmas

Entertainment 150My family was one of those “alternative Christian” families who didn’t celebrate Christmas when I was growing up. So when other kids were going to church or caroling or opening presents, we didn’t really do anything besides watch stupid Hallmark Christmas movies and wonder what all the fuss was about. Even though I’m decidedly not Christian now, I LOVE Christmas. The trees, the presents, the lights, the carols, the peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Everything. I know that most of what we do during this season of the Winter Solstice doesn’t have too much to do with the birth of Christ, but that’s fine. It gives the season a sort of consistency across faiths, which makes the season EVEN BETTER.

Since I’ve begun celebrating the season, I’ve been slowly and steadily amassing a good collection of Christmas movies — old standards, new classics and offbeat movies that give one a well-rounded sense of the holidays. I’d love to hold a sort of film festival at the burrow at some point, have a few friends over every night to see one of these, but I don’t think that will happen this year. Instead, here’s my preliminary list of twelve movies that should be watched every holiday season.

Standards
These are movies (or cartoons in this case) that uphold the spirit of Christmas quite well. They’ve been around for long enough to be the go-to Christmas movies for an entire generation (or two) of people. While you might say these movies are overplayed, there’s a reason we see them all over the place around this time of year.

It’s a Wonderful Life
This is quite possibly the best Christmas movie ever. George Bailey, after doing his best to preserve the community of Bedford Falls, becomes despondent over what seems to be an insurmountable difficulty. Down comes Clarence the angel to show him what the town would have been like had he never existed, and the rest is Christmas magic. The very end, where the good townsfolk come together to get George out of his jam, is just one of the most touching and joyous scenes committed to film.

Miracle on 34th Street
I have to admit I’ve never seen this (cue outrage!), but even I know it belongs on this list. A man claiming to be Santa Claus is institutionalized until a lawyer takes his case to court, arguing that he really is St. Nicholas. Kris wants to advance the true spirit of Christmas over commercialism, and that’s a theme more relevant than ever these days.

A Christmas Story
Based on the memoirs of Jean Shephard, A Christmas Story follows young Ralphie through a rather eventful holiday in the American suburbs of the 1960s. Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun, and has to endure all kinds of humiliation and bullying for it. The reputation of the movie has only grown since it’s been on heavy rotation at TBS, but it’s also really, really good.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol/Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
These technically aren’t movies, but they’re the cartoons I remember always watching when I was a kid. One is a Disneyfied adaptation of the classic Dickens story, and the other is one of the most weirdly existential Christmas fables I’ve ever seen. Both are great when you’re young, but the layers reveal themselves as you watch them year after year.

New Classics
These movies haven’t been around as long as the old standards, but they’re lovely movies just the same. Their modern sensibilities means they come at the Christmas spirit from slightly left-of-center, and that makes these movies a bit weirder, sweeter and relatable.

Love Actually
This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, and it really doesn’t have that much to do with Christmas. It’s more of a framing device than anything, but this movie celebrates love in its many and varied forms, as well as the silly, heartbreaking things we do for it. It’s very much a romantic comedy, but an incredibly solid one. There’s something for everyone here, and it leaves you filled with joy and compassion.

Arthur Christmas
This is a very new movie, but it’s one of the best animated Christmas movies to come out in a long time. Arthur is the youngest brother in the Kringle family, and oddly enough still the one most excited about Christmas. Father Kris is about to give up his title to his eldest son, who wants to make the whole affair a technological marvel. When one kid’s present gets missed, Arthur has to deliver it the old-fashioned way. The movie is weird and sweet and funny, and incredibly earnest. A great family film.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
This movie has so many memorable moments it’s really hard to fit them all in here. The Griswold family lighting ceremony, Clark’s meltdown when he’s stiffed for his bonus by the company, the incredibly dysfunctional extended family — it all perfectly illustrates and exaggerates all the frustrations of the holiday. It’s also hilarious, easily the best of the Vacation movies.

Scrooged
I’ve seen a few versions of “A Christmas Carol”, and this is one of the most memorable. Bill Murray is at his snarky best as an executive for a TV network who casually wreaks havoc on the lives of his underlings. It’s a fairly solid update that works because of inventive effects, whip-smart writing, and a great supporting cast.

Offbeat
These are Christmas movies that generally don’t feel like Christmas movies, but are great fun regardless. Perfect for when you want to keep the season in mind without being too direct about it.

Die Hard
“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.” Die Hard comes from a time when blockbuster action movies could be released in December, and it’s a perfect high-rise disaster movie. Bruce Willis is Everyman John McClane, a NY police officer who comes to LA to reconcile with his wife. During her company Christmas party, the building is taken over by terrorists. The following battle of wills makes for incredibly entertaining stuff.

Bad Santa
Billy Bob Thornton plays the worst mall Santa ever; it’s actually a cover to get into the mall, disable its security system on Christmas eve and loot the place. One year, he gets entangled in a relationship with a bartender and her naive son, which forces him to put just a little more effort into the role than usual. This is a wonderful black comedy, and the bitterness that Thornton brings to the movie makes it that much sweeter in its deliciously tart way.

Jingle All The Way
I’m pretty sure this is the movie I’m going to get the most trouble for, but you know what? It’s actually good. Arnold Schwartzenegger stars as a workaholic dad who tries to make up for his lack of presence with an over-abundance of presents. In order to get the last Turbo-Man toy for his son, he has to fight Sinbad tooth and nail. This sounds like it should fail horribly, but somehow it works. It’s weird and silly, and the supporting cast really shines through.

Edward Scissorhands
See, The Nightmare Before Christmas would be the Tim Burton movie most would go for, but that always struck me as more of a Halloween film. This feels more true to the Christmas tone; the title character is a strange loner with scissors for hand and an uncommon gift for the topiary arts. It has the typical flourishes of a Burton film but it’s also really beautiful. Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder have such great chemistry here.

So, that’s my idea of twelve movies to watch for the season. I’d LOVE to hear feedback from the rest of you. Are there any movies that I’ve unforgivably left out? Any other movies you’d consider a modern classic? What about more movies that aren’t Christmas movies? Gremlins immediately comes to mind…

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Movies

 

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