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The Reelist: Holiday Nightmares

For all the holiday haters out there, this edition of the Reelist features films which remind us that no matter how grueling the season to be merry might seem, there's always someone out there who's got it worse.

Let's face it—the holidays aren't all stockings, sleigh bells, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. In fact, they can often be nightmares of drained bank accounts, overcrowded flights, and interrogations by family members you'd just as soon not see for another decade or two. No wonder so many people are so inclined to stick their heads in the sand—er, snow—and wait for the New Year. This edition of the Reelist is for all the holiday haters out there, offered as a reminder that no matter how rough your holiday season, there's always someone out there who's got it worse.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Dir. John Hughes, 1987
Businessman Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. But when his plane ticket is demoted from first class to coach, he's stuck next to garrulous shower-curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy). Then, when the flight is rerouted through Wichita due to bad weather, Neal and Del form an unlikely partnership, trying to make it home by any means of transportation possible—including a refrigerator truck. With unforgettable sequences like a near-miss going the wrong way late at night on the highway, and the most memorable "pillow talk" ever committed to celluloid ("Where's your hand? "Between two pillows." "Those aren't pillows!"), this comedy of errors became one of the best-loved films of the '80s, and both Martin and Candy said it was their favorite performance.

12 More

Home for the Holidays
Dir. Jodie Foster, 1995

Black Christmas
Dir. Bob Clark, 1974

Home Alone
Dir. Chris Columbus, 1990

Hannah and Her Sisters
Dir. Woody Allen, 1986

Jack Frost
Dir. Troy Miller, 1998

The Ice Storm
Dir. Ang Lee, 1997

House of Yes
Dir. Mark Waters, 1997

Unaccompanied Minors
Dir. Paul Feig, 2006

Grumpy Old Men
Dir. Donald Petrie, 1993

Dir. Kim Chapiron, 2006

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Dir. Bill Melendez, 1965

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Dir. Chuck Jones and Ben Washam, 1966 This classic animated version of the famous Dr. Seuss story, narrated by Boris Karloff, originally aired on television in 1966, and has been a holiday favorite ever since. The grumpy, bitter old Grinch lives on a mountain above Whoville with his dog Max; envious of the holiday cheer in Whoville and annoyed by the Whos' noisy Christmas festivities, he disguises himself as Santa Claus and sets off down the mountain to steal all the Whos' presents and decorations in an attempt to prevent Christmas from coming. Ron Howard remade the story as an unremarkable effects- and prosthetics-driven live-action spectacle in 2000, starring Jim Carrey as a fairly alarming Grinch.

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Dir. Charles E. Sellier, Jr., 1984
Silent Night, Deadly Night epitomizes the Santa slasher genre that peaked in the 80s (which also saw such releases as Santa Claws, Christmas Evil, and Black Christmas). Charles Sellier's deranged classic follows a young boy sent off to an orphanage after his parents are murdered by a thief in a Santa suit. Years later, he snaps when his boss forces him to wear a Santa suit, subsequently embarking on a massive killing spree. The film was banned by PTA members and parents who didn't want their kids to get the idea that killer Santas were real. But it spawned four sequels, and a remake is slated for release on Christmas Day 2008.

Die Hard

Dir. John McTiernan, 1988
In the first (and still the best) Die Hard, NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads to Los Angeles for a Christmas reunion with his estranged wife. They go to her company holiday party on the 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza, only to see it seized by a group of international terrorists, led by the infamous Hans Gruber (a deliciously malevolent Alan Rickman in his feature debut), as part of a plan to steal $600 million from the company safe. Fearing nothing—except heights—McClane launches a one-man campaign to stop the terrorists and save the hostages. One of the best action films of all time thanks to its mix of humor and drama, Die Hard launched the careers of both Willis and Rickman, and spawned three popular sequels. Yippee-ki-yay, motherf***er.

It's a Wonderful Life

Dir. Frank Capra, 1946 Since it's considered one of the great feel-good stories, people forget how harrowing It's a Wonderful Life actually is. George Bailey (James Stewart in one of his most memorable roles) has spent his entire life sacrificing his big dreams for the good of his hometown and company, only to find himself on the verge of ruin one Christmas Eve, thanks to a diabolical millionaire seeking to take over the city. Despondent, George is considering suicide when the clumsy but lovable guardian angel Clarence comes to earth to show him how truly horrible things would have been without him. Though it's now a holiday tradition, the film performed poorly upon release, finishing 26th in box office revenues for 1947, just ahead of another Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street.

Trading Places

Dir. John Landis, 1978
Featuring one of Dan Ackroyd's best performances (if only for his brief appearance as a grimy, inebriated Saint Nick eating a salmon hidden in his beard), John Landis' hit comedy stars Ackroyd as yuppie Louis Winthorpe III and Eddie Murphy as homeless hustler Billy Ray Valentine. When Winthorpe's millionaire bosses, the Duke brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), take opposite sides on the nature-versus-nurture debate (ah, the culture wars), they strike a $1 wager to see what happens when the idea is put into practice, arranging for Billy Ray to take Winthorpe's job while throwing Winthorpe out, just in time for Christmas. But when Billy Ray uncovers the bet, he teams up with Winthorpe, Winthorpe's butler, and hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) to plot a hilarious revenge. Keep an eye out for a cameos by Frank Oz and comedian Al Franken (yep, the one now running for Senate in Minnesota).

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Dir. Tim Burton, 1993
Bored with being the Pumpkin King in Halloweentown, Jack Skellington sets out one day to clear his mind and stumbles upon a circle of trees that each lead to a different holiday town. He falls into the Christmas tree, arriving in Christmastown where the glitter and good cheer delight him. He decides that he wants to bring Christmas to everyone, but, not entirely understanding how it works, he persuades the citizens of Halloweentown to kidnap Santa and celebrate in the only way he knows how—with snakes and shrunken heads. Written and produced by Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas was the biggest stop-motion undertaking to date, and took more than three years to finish. It was re-released theatrically both in 2006 and 2007 in Disney Digital 3-D.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989
In the third National Lampoon's Vacation movie, Chevy Chase goes to outrageous lengths to prepare an old-fashioned family Christmas for all the relatives. Chock-full of outrageous sight gags—including an electrocuted cat, a blinding outdoor light display, and a missing Christmas bonus—the film outrated even the first network telecast of It's a Wonderful Life when it was shown in 1994, five years after its release; since then, NBC has traditionally aired it every December.


Dir. Richard Donner, 1988
Richard Donner's darkly comic adaptation of A Christmas Carol is one of literally dozens of film and television remakes, reimaginings, and retellings of the classic Dickens Christmas novella. Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a cynical, selfish TV executive who overworks his assistant and has alienated his true love, all in the name of his fast-climbing career. When he decides to produce a live adaptation of A Christmas Carol—forcing his employees to work through Christmas Eve—his life inexplicably begins to mirror the story, with the ghost of his mentor coming to see him first, followed by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

The Ref

Dir. Ted Demme, 1994
Ted Demme's black comedy stars Denis Leary as Gus, a petty cat burglar who gets more than he bargains for. Abandoned by his partner in the middle of a heist, he is forced to take a dysfunctional couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage on Christmas Eve. Their bickering never stops, even at gunpoint, and Gus' only way out is to become the peacemaker and resolve their differences—while simultaneously managing the police, the couple's blackmailing son, and one extremely irate grandmother.


Dir. Joe Dante, 1984
When erstwhile inventor Rand Peltzer purchases a pet "Mogwai" in Chinatown as a Christmas present for his son Billy, it comes with a very precise warning: "Don't expose him to bright light. Don't ever get him wet. And don't ever, ever feed him after midnight." When Rand returns to his small-town home, his gift is an instant hit and is dubbed "Gizmo." But when Billy accidentally spills water on the lovable creature, it starts multiplying—and his offspring aren't nearly as cute or even-tempered... and they're also hungry. In no time at all, the gremlins have invaded Kingston Falls, and it's up to Billy, his parents, and his girlfriend Kate to contain the destruction. Look out for cameos by Steven Spielberg, Chuck Jones, George Lucas, and Dick Miller.

A Christmas Story

Dir. Bob Clark, 1983
It's 1939, Christmas is coming, and there's only one thing on Ralphie's Christmas list: A Red Rider carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle, with a compass and "this thing which tells time." Everyone, including the department store Santa Claus, insists he'll shoot an eye out with it, but that just makes him want it more. However, school bullies, an unpleasant encounter with a frozen flagpole, and a dropped F-bomb make this an impossible dream. Still, sometimes Christmas wishes do come true. Another frequent holiday TV broadcast, the film's popularity prompted TNT to begin running 24-hour Christmas marathon of the film; TBS has since taken over the tradition, which will happen for the 11th year this Christmas.


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