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News > Holiday Film Favorites – AFF Staff Picks

Holiday Film Favorites – AFF Staff Picks

As the office fills with sugar cookies, gingerbread men, and eggnog, all of us here at AFF have the holidays on the brain (and are counting down the days until the office closes on the 19th!). In staff meeting last week, a lively debate arose over the best holiday film. Check out each staff member’s pick below, a wide array of cinematic experiences, to be sure…


Erin Hallagan, Conference Director

‘Tis the season to reflect upon the culminations of the year.  As a deliberator of what-ifs, I unavoidably find myself wondering how different my path would have been had I made different decisions.  It never ceases to amaze me how drastic one simple choice can have such a ripple effect.  In excess, such reflections can be unnerving, but it is important to (as least annually) take a step back and embrace all that has come to pass.

The holiday season, for me, starts the day after Thanksgiving.  Yep.  I’m one of those people.  My Black Friday consists of rolling out the decorations and blasting Christmas music.  And finally, when the house is all-a-sparkle, the neighbors are angry, and my cider is hot (and, okay, spiked), I pop in my favorite holiday film, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Truly, there is no better way to get in the spirit.

You would think after years of watching this Capra classic, the charm would wear off.  Not so.  Somehow I always gain something from this perennial tradition, as the year has changed me and I can look on it with new perspectives.

This is the first year I’ve really paid notice to some of the graver themes in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  In the face of a struggling economy (anyone tired of hearing that one yet?), more and more people are learning the meaning of sacrifice.  The story of a man who gives up on his dreams only to continually contend with hardships is a familiar one.  Frank Capra’s post-war film intended to prolong his pledge to the American common-man, and its summation of how unfulfilled aspirations can actually lead to a deep appreciation for what you do have still stands true today.

The tale transcends time.  And beyond the grim elements of the film, it also embodies the prospect of hope and the power of reevaluation.  More imperatively, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE weighs in on the magnitude of cause and effect, and the worth of every decision.  Now you know why I spike my cider….

Though the film initially failed at the box office in the 1940s, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE finally received recognition after being released into the public domain thirty years later.  Now regarded as one of the top go-to holiday classics, its journey closely resembles that of George Bailey – a man who couldn’t seem to catch a break and eventually found peace and acceptance in the very place he resisted all along.

All it took was looking at things with a new perspective.


Bears Fonte, Director of Programming

GREMLINS. Possibly the worst Christmas presents ever, these cuddly little just-add-water insta-pets turn into miniature lizard-skinned killers when they snack after midnight.  One of the first produced scripts by Chris Columbus, Gremlins features a stellar cast of Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman, Judge Reinhold, and many recognizable faces from television and cinema.  But the true stars are the “little green men” who wreak havoc on the unsuspecting fuddy-duddies of snow-covered Kingston Falls.  Bordering on traumatic when I saw this film as a child, Director Joe Dante’s masterpiece now feels more comic than horrifying, such as a sabotaged snowplow, a bar full of smoking and card-playing creatures, or a movie theatre mob of monsters singing along to “Hi Ho Hi Ho It’s Off to Work We Go.”

The bleakest moment of the film is delivered by Phoebe Cates when she explains why she’s hated Christmas since she was nine (if you don’t remember, I won’t ruin it for you, it is a truly shocking moment that stuck with me for years).  The unsung highlight of the film is Jerry Goldsmith’s terrific score, one of his best; it gets more chaotic and frantic as the film spirals out of control, warping its playful theme through a variety of incarnations.  Of course, the whole film ends in a giant chase sequence through a holiday-themed department store and a cautionary message from a wise-old stereotypical Chinese-American.  The script is a clinic in set-ups and pay-offs, and astute viewers should watch for obscure references to Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s other films.  If you want a little fear with your Christmas cheer, Gremlins is one gift you shouldn’t wait to open until after midnight.


Taylor Cumbie, Marketing Director

Two Christmas movie standards exist in my household – my mom’s favorite and my dad’s favorite. And being an only child, I didn’t have the benefit of a crew of siblings to gang up and insist on HOME ALONE or A CHRISTMAS STORY every year, so my parents’ favorites became my favorites. My Dad’s choice was always IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. The most lasting result of watching this movie every Christmas for 18 years (plus the addition of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY to my repertoire) is my endless, undying devotion to Jimmy Stewart. Combine George Bailey — optimistic dreamer, hopeless romantic, compassionate, generous– with Macaulay Connor — That cutting wit! That poetic eloquence! That righteous arrogance! — and you’ve basically described my ideal male archetype.

My mother’s pick every year was WHITE CHRISTMAS. As a child, I drank it in like hot chocolate. The songs, the dancing, the costumes — I loved it all. I longed to move like Vera Ellen, to swing around in those beautiful dresses and tap my high-heeled foot at lightning speed. (Fun fact, apparently my Dad isn’t the only person who thought that Judy Haynes was played by Mitzi Gaynor, another Hollywood blonde known for her impossibly tiny waist.) As an adult, it’s now Rosemary Clooney, with a voice that could melt even the coldest heart, who I watch in admiration. Her performance of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is one of the most smoldering ballads in my cinematic experience.

Admittedly, the structure and plot of the film isn’t groundbreaking. But the film exhibits one of the most balanced and successful executions of the traditional musical theater structure of four principals — the lead, dramatic couple and a comedic supporting couple. Rosemary Clooney’s silky vocals and Bing Crosby’s trademark bass-baritone compliment each other perfectly and provide a consummate foil to Danny Kaye’s expert comedic timing and Vera Ellen’s show-stopping dance skills.

While so many Christmas experiences and traditions lose a little of their luster as one transitions from childhood to adulthood, WHITE CHRISTMAS still delights me as it did when I was a little girl. I find myself looking forward to watching it every year, and I’m especially excited that I have the opportunity to see it on 35mm at The Paramount Theatre this week in all its original, beautiful glory.


Linzy Beltran, Assistant to the Executive Director

Written by Randy Kornfield (EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS) and later rewritten by Chris Columbus (CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS) JINGLE ALL THE WAY is a Hollywood holiday masterpiece. With an every man for himself mentality watching this movie as a 6 year old, I learned that American kids had the ability to guilt their parents into getting them the hottest toy of the season and all you had to say was “whoever doesn’t [get it] is going to be a real loser” (direct quote from Jamie, the recipient of the Turbo Man doll). As a daughter of immigrants, this movie taught me true American values: commercialism, greed, pageantry and diversity.

So this Christmas forget the outdated lessons of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE! Pop in the DVD or VHS which features, Schwarzenegger in his prime, David Adkins (Sinbad), Rita Wilson (Mrs. Tom Hanks), Phil Hartman, Jim Belushi and a young Fred Armisen. But if you do it, do it right. I recommend getting the Family Fun Edition released in 2008, with over 5 minutes of extra footage!


Matt Dy, Screenplay Competition Director

LOVE ACTUALLY is quite the improbable movie.  Combine the insanity of the Christmas season and the delirium of love and you have a concoction that could either go down smooth like your fourth cup of eggnog or come back up.  Fortunate for me, I can hold my eggnog.  At first I was hesitant to give in to this sappy love song to Christmas in the UK but I love Richard Curtis’ work and Bridget Jones’ Diary so I decided to give this one a chance.  The Scrooge in me was eventually silenced as I suspended my disbelief of each improbable subplot and gave in to the sweetness of this film.  My favorite storyline involved a heartbroken Colin Firth and his Portuguese housemaid who fall in love and eventually learn each other’s language (rather quickly) to finally speak of their feelings.  While I tend to loathe the smugness of child actors, I also fell for the storyline involving Liam Neeson and his stepson with a bad case of young love for his schoolmate, a young Mariah Carey who can belt out “All I Want For Christmas”.  Yes, the kid would have been severely interrogated for running through airport security to find his young crush at the end of the film, but love does conquer all, right?  Many other things in the movie are so improbable but that is the nature of love.  It doesn’t always make sense and it doesn’t have to.  Just enjoy the ride.


Marcie Mayhorn, Office Manager

It’s Christmas time, which means everyone gets a free pass at standing on their soapbox and loudly proclaiming what their favorite Christmas movie is – ever.  Of all time.  Since they were kids.  The list goes on about what makes a true memorable classic in someone’s mind, and I of course am no different.

For me, the holiday film that will always ring true is Gillian Armstrong’s LITTLE WOMEN (1994).  Sure, this is 1 of 3 remakes of the film, and barely touched the Academy Awards when the time came.  It’s one that not many are too aware of, particularly if you are of the male gender.  But for me, this film is a resonating gem not only during the holidays, but year round as well.

I’m not sure how I got my hands on this film, but I suspect it was my grandparents – they were always recording movies for my sister and I that they thought we would enjoy.  I’m sure they thought it would be good for us to watch a movie about a group of sisters getting along and loving each other, as the film came out around the time that I understood what having a little sister really meant – a pretty big realization for a 7 year old.  But every day leading up to Christmas, we would religiously sit in silence and watch this film.  I remember adoring Jo (Winona Ryder) because she was loud and said what she felt, not to mention she was a pretty, curly-haired brunette, and I’m sure I wished I would look like her when I grew up.

But the older I got, the more I started to see the more sincere and true moments the film had to offer, such as the realization of leaving childhood and your family behind to cross the threshold into adulthood.  Upon re-watching it this past weekend, I also came to terms with why I think I have always adored this film: the leading lady is a struggling writer.  And not just any writer – a woman trying to succeed in a male-dominated business, who is hardly understood by her family, but knows there is a constant urge within her to write that she cannot ignore.  Sound like anyone you might have met at AFF?

But the one thing I think makes this is a true holiday film is faith – faith in your family, love, your dreams and, most importantly, yourself.  For Jo, the biggest leap of faith she had to take was with her writing, and the realization of writing what was most important to her which, in the end, was all of the memories she made with her sisters.  The more I write, the more I find that I am just like Jo, and that when it really comes down to it, the best stories are the ones that mean the most to you.

So this holiday season, I hope you get some writing done, and learn to appreciate and embrace those amazing gifts within you.  As Marmee (Susan Surandon) once told Jo: “You have so many extraordinary gifts; how can you expect to lead an ordinary life?”  Happy Holidays!


Patrick Pryor, Young Filmmakers Program Director

“When there is no more room in hell, the ELVES will walk the Earth!”

Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty, a down on his luck mall Santa, teams up with a harried teenage waitress to stop a horde of bloodthirsty elves engineered by Nazi goons. Along the way, our heroes grapple with overbearing mothers, persnickety professors, a neo-Nazi cult, and the savage power of the elves, themselves. “A little man.  Like a ninja only like a gremlin,” the elf maims and destroys to find a perfect mate on Christmas Eve and create a Fourth Reich of black magic super soldiers. With dialogue that sounds like it was written by a drug-addled alien who observed human life for five minutes, this film is a perfect pick for the Scroogely and holiday hardened.


Allison Frady, Development Director

What’s your favorite Christmas movie? For most people this is a tough question, cause how can you only have one? Not for me- my favorite Christmas movie is NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION.

For as long as I can remember, my family has enjoyed watching this movie together during the holidays and for the occasional summer Christmas fix. Years ago when ABC hosted a Sunday Night Movie, my parents taped it on their VCR. Ever since then we’ve popped in the VHS and laughed together as the Griswolds tried to make it through Christmas. Most of the situations were highly relatable in my own family Christmas- finding the perfect tree, the embarrassing dad in the mall, the crazy grandparents and uncle, dad’s temper, and just trying to make it through Christmas all together without killing each other. It felt like John Hughes was in on some of my own family get-togethers and based this film off of the general dysfunction that my family has during the holidays, that most families have during the holidays.

When I left home for college it was time for me to purchase my own copy of CHRISTMAS VACATION but this time it was on DVD! I was thrilled to not have to fast forward through the early 90’s TV commercials and skip through the parts where the tape had worn thin and the image fuzzes. When I watched it for the first time I was shocked at some of the language and “deleted scenes”  I’d never heard or seen thanks to ABC and the FCC regulations. It was like falling in love with your favorite movie all over again- relearning the lines correctly and adding in the snide remarks. It was a little pathetic I never made this realization before but when you start watching a movie when you’re still in elementary school, you believe everything you hear and see.

My favorite holiday movie once again made Christmas season, when my boyfriend and I shared our first Christmas together and we discovered that we both have a love for NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION. It was perfect and a sign that we are truly met to be together forever. Since then we’ll watch the movie twice a year (Summer and Winter) laughing and repeating all the lines as Clark, Ellen, Audrey, Rusty and Eddie try to have the quintessential perfect family Christmas. Only to realize there is no such thing and in the end family- whether good, bad or just plain crazy- will always be there for you.

A family tradition that started with repeating the lines at the dinner table and saying the Pledge of Allegiance during grace, a VHS tape and only 5 of us has grown to a Blu-Ray disk and 10 Frady Family Members gathered around to view our favorite Christmas movie- still repeating the lines and drinking Egg Nog out of moose glassware.


Sonia Onescu, Operations Manager

John Landis’ 1983 classic, TRADING PLACES takes you away from the overly idealistic Frank Capra inspired films we’ll think of this Christmas and straight to the socioeconomics of modern day Philadelphia. Set during the course of the traditional two-week holiday period, TRADING PLACES offers plenty of Christmas archetypes with it’s rags-to-riches and back again tale, hitting comedic highs and lows on the most significant days of the year; Christmas and New Years.

Landis, whose credits include THE BLUES BROTHERS, COMING TO AMERICA, and THREE AMIGOS, doesn’t disappoint, directing yet another ensemble made up of some of the most prolific Saturday Night Live powerhouses of the time, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Equally memorable is the feisty Jamie Lee Curtis, and the dynamic Duke & Duke brothers, played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy.

In addition, AFF’s repeat panelist and writer Herschel Weingrod along with Timothy Harris, provide Murphy and Aykroyd a script full of wit and timeless good-hearted comedy. Who can forget Dan Aykroyd dressed as Santa, crashing a Christmas Eve party, only to be left alone standing in the pouring rain eating raw salmon from his beard? If you’re looking for laughs this Christmas, TRADING PLACES will make you laugh until you cry.


Barbara Morgan, Executive Director

(With writing assistance and input from AFF intern extraordinaire, Coleman Tharpe)

What a great Holiday film! Doesn’t everyone need a tension reliever this time of year? What better than a film where something blows up every 20 minutes. The lighting design immediately puts the viewer in a festive frame of mind.  Scenes inside the office tower are lit with the blue hue of computer screens and give off an aura of nighttime around the fireplace and the tree. Whenever the camera moves outside to the police camp surrounding the building there is an array of colored sirens and Klieg lights which illuminate the night sky.

The Christmas party scene reminds us of each dreadful office party that we manage to find ourselves at each year. Who hasn’t wished they could pull off an explosion to exit the awkwardness? We are reminded quickly that some people have no Christmas spirit. And then enter the terrorists, to remind them what the holidays are all about. There is a bit of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in this story, Christmas past is driving John McClane to his Christmas future.

There is also a nostalgic beauty to DIE HARD that is akin with one of my other favorite holiday films, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. That is another film that makes one feel good about the movie family.  In both films, each father is charged with rebuilding the concept of the American family by rebuilding his own nuclear family. We want them to succeed and to win everything back because it reaffirms our faith in our own families around the holidays.

Ho Ho Ho!!!!!