At the end of the year, the airwaves and theaters are flooded with films that give us all a picture of what the holiday season is supposed to look like, with sentiment, uplift, and happy moral teachings galore. But navigating “the most wonderful time of the year” can be overwhelming, especially for those who aren’t feeling the spirit. Fortunately, as with all things, the movies present a clear, accurate vision of the world, giving us a faultless template for how to live our lives. Thus, The A.V. Club has assembled an overview of important movie-based guidelines for navigating the treacherous waters of the holiday season.
New Year’s Eve (2011)
Story: The hours leading up to the ball-drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve becomes a time of ridiculous fantasy wish-fulfillment, as a teenager longs for her first kiss at midnight, a rock star tries to win his ex back, a bland dreamer hopes to re-encounter the mystery girl he met and lost last New Year’s, and much, much more.
Barriers to holiday cheer: One character is dying of cancer, and might not live to see the ball drop at midnight one last time! (Of course he will.) Another character hates New Year’s with a passion, and could not possibly be given a reason to enjoy the season! (Of course he will.) Misunderstandings and parental interference might keep that teenager from getting that kiss! (Of course they won’t.)
Practical, universal lessons: The turning of the year is an excellent time to bury old grudges, apologize for past mistakes, and make fresh starts. It’s entirely symbolic, no different from any other day, really, but any excuse that lets people mend fences or gives them the momentary confidence to try something new or make positive changes in their lives is a worthy one.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: The turning of the year is a super-special magical time when ludicrous coincidence and choking sentimentality will make all dreams, no matter how unlikely or clichéd, come true. Also, New York City animal shelters are apparently open at 11 p.m. on December 31, and that’s a great time to drop in and adopt a cute puppy with no planning or notice.
Story: Pressed for the perfect Christmas gift for his kid (Zach Galligan, playing somewhere between age 11 and 28), Hoyt Axton heads to the same hookah-smoky Orientalized knickknack shop that later sells Uncle Frank the Lament Configuration in Hellraiser. There, Axton picks up a Mogwai—an impossibly cute, cuddly critter that looks like a crossbreed between a teddy bear and a degu. The perfect gift! Or is it? (It isn’t.)
Barriers to holiday cheer: Just as there wouldn’t be much of a play if Hamlet had up and killed Claudius the second ghost-dad showed up to gripe, Gremlins wouldn’t be much of a movie if Galligan’s wide-eyed manboy just opened his present and wrote a thank-you note. Not so fast. Instead, there are like a billion rules he has to observe if he doesn’t want cute, cuddly Gizmo to mutate into a bunch of nasty, cigar-smoking, prank-pulling, murderous gremlins. Which, of course, happens. (After all, the film is called Gremlins. Not Merry Christmas, Kid, Here’s A Mogwai.) Also, Polly Holliday plays a wealthy shrew who’s actively trying to ruin Christmas.
Practical, universal lessons: Look, we all want to break the bank getting a loved one the perfect gift. But sometimes something crazy and esoteric can just end up being an obligation and a pain. Sometimes, you’re better off just going for the 12-pack of tube socks, the scented candle, or the $20 Red Lobster gift card.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t get water on your Mogwai. Keep your Mogwai out of bright light. And never feed your Mogwai after midnight.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Story: British secret agent James Bond (George Lazenby) sets out for the Swiss Alps to foil the machinations of his arch-enemy Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who plans to threaten the nations of the world with biological terrorism unless they agree to recognize his standing as the Count de Bleauchamp. In the course of his adventures, Bond meets and marries Diana Rigg.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Lazenby scuttles Savalas’ plans, but Savalas exacts revenge by murdering Rigg after the wedding.
Practical, universal lessons: If you have to be away from home and working during the holidays, be sure to set some time aside for yourself. Enjoy some sightseeing, have a romance, go bobsledding.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: It doesn’t matter how many puppies Savalas threatens to strangle during halftime at the Super Bowl, we the people of the nations of the world ain’t calling him no “Count de Bleauchamp.” Also, if you have reason to think someone would like to celebrate your marriage by decorating the dashboard of your wedding vehicle with your brains, invest in a hard-top. And if you land that dream job, enjoy it while it lasts, but don’t spend your whole paycheck in one place. That last one’s just for you, Lazenby.
Love, Actually (2003)
Story: As Christmas approaches, a group of diverse yet interconnected characters find and lose love in modern-day England.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Let’s start with a recently deceased wife. Then throw in an alluring secretary who tempts a married man, a man in love with his best friend’s new bride, an unrequited crush on a coworker simmer, a language barrier that prevents someone from expressing his true feelings, and a rakishly horny prime minster.
Practical, universal lessons: It’s simultaneously the most wonderful and terrible time of the year. The emotions of the seasons can bring out the best in us, but can also reveal hidden depths of sadness covered up during the other 11 months. Still, even when things are down, a core group of friends and family are waiting in the wings to pick up those who fall down.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: When it comes to gifts, always opt for jewelry for the wife and a CD for your coworker, not the other way around. All American girls are model-hot and ready to party with anyone with an English accent. Success doesn’t mean getting a No. 1 hit record, it means watching pornography with your manager.
The Hebrew Hammer (2003)
Story: In this Semitic send-up of classic blaxploitation films, Adam Goldberg is the titular “certified, circumcised dick” out to prevent Santa’s evil son, Damian (Andy Dick, naturally), from sabotaging Hanukkah forever. Along the way, he unites good-doers of all faiths behind the cause, and schtups Judy Greer.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Dick is hoping to preserve December for Christian ritual while exposing the Hammer as resolutely anti-Christmas. But Hammer also has to contend with and rally solidarity from the Mario Van Peebles-led Kwanzaa Liberation Front (or, hilariously, KLF).
Practical, universal lessons: The holiday season has become a frantic gauntlet of crudely marketed one-upsmanship, rather than a time to respect and celebrate our differences. Also, Jewish men are not ineffectual momma’s boys with small penises. They’re just momma’s boys.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you want to drag Christmas’ good name through the mud, casting Andy Dick as its iconic ambassador is a good start. Beyond that, aping the tired sight gags of cult-genre pics isn’t particularly funny, but finding excuses for Goldberg to seduce Greer by whispering, “I wanna get a good-paying, stable job” and shouting, “Shabbat shalom, motherfuckers!” before slaughtering neo-Nazis is guaranteed good times for the whole family.
Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)
Story: Precocious preteen Macaulay Culkin learns the true value of family after being separated from his massive clan during two consecutive Christmases. In the first film, he’s left behind in the Chicago suburbs while his relatives take off for France; in the second, he’s stranded in The Big Apple after a confounding trip to O’Hare International Airport.
Barriers to holiday cheer: On Culkin’s naughty list: Late-onset separation anxiety, nosy grocery clerks, pizza-delivery boys, hotel employees, a cousin’s spastic bladder, an uncle and an older brother who both wish Culkin dead, and, oh yeah, a pair of bungling burglars who threaten multiple times to actually murder him.
Practical, universal lessons: Be it ever so filled with dicks, there’s no place like home for the holidays…
Narrow, film-specific lessons: …and the sanctity of that home—whether it’s a mini-mansion, a room at The Plaza Hotel (“New York’s most exciting hotel experience”), or an aunt and uncle’s under-renovation vacation condo—must be defended by any means necessary. Improvised blowtorches, selected dialogue from old mob movies, gravity—anything you can dream up can be used as a weapon in the battle to save Christmas. Also, all this drama could be avoided by investing in a battery-powered alarm clock.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Story: Believing he’s about to be arrested for fraud he didn’t commit, and convinced he’ll be worth more to his family dead than alive, Jimmy Stewart decides to kill himself. An angel stops him, and then things get a little trippy.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Well, there’s the whole attempted-suicide thing. Plus, Stewart spends most of the movie frustrated and railing against being trapped in his hometown, which isn’t really Christmas-y.
Practical, universal lessons: Leading a good life is its own reward. It’s possible to have a huge impact on people without ever being famous or rich. Also, the destinies we want aren’t always the destinies we get, but there’s no shame in that.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you want to jump off a bridge, first make sure there are no angels watching. If you don’t marry your sweetheart, she could become a (gasp) librarian. And God keeps detailed notes on everyone.
Bad Santa (2003)
Story: Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox are a pair of crooks with a specific M.O.: every December, they get work at a mall playing Santa and Santa’s favorite elf, then use their store access to rob the place blind come Christmas Eve. But Thornton is a severely depressed drunk who hits on anything that moves, and this might be the year he finally goes to pieces.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Thornton is every parent’s worst nightmare: caustic, slovenly, perpetually wasted, and constantly on the prowl. Plus, one of the movie’s most refreshing qualities is its unsparing honesty about just how fucking miserable the holidays can be.
Practical, universal lessons: Being a loser means there’s no place to go but up. Sometimes, fighting dirty is the only thing bullies understand. Christmas basically blows.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re planning on hitting the bar, wear a Santa costume; some ladies have Santa fetishes, and you can probably do something with that. Drink a lot—it may not be healthy in the long term, but it’ll help you not give a crap either way.
Story: A greedy, selfish television executive gets the Dickens treatment when he’s visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, who try to make him change his ways.
Barriers to holiday cheer: As the exec destined to experience the titular assault, Bill Murray is rich, well-dressed, and refreshingly honest about his contempt for the season, so who says he needs changing? Besides, he works in TV programming, so he may not even have a soul to save.
Practical, universal lessons: It’s never too late to reignite old flames. Even snarky assholes were nice guys once. Bitter sarcasm is often just a way for a wounded soul to protect itself. And no matter how hard you push them away, the people who really care about you can be won back if you’re just willing to try.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t make Carol Kane angry. Also, if you’re going to have a nervous breakdown in which you make a rambling, spontaneous plea for sanity and compassion to a cruel, uncaring world, make sure to do it on live television, because the ratings will be huge. (See also: Network.)
Mixed Nuts (1994)
Story: It’s always a little dour around the suicide-prevention hotline Lifesavers, but people’s depression kicks in big-time around the holidays, so when company supervisor Steve Martin gets the adding-insult-to-injury news that the firm is on the verge of being kicked out of its office, it makes for a less-than-merry Christmas Eve.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Aside from concerns of eviction and the perpetual reminder that people particularly enjoy offing themselves during the holiday season, there’s also the looming concern that the dreaded Seaside Strangler could strike at any moment.
Practical, universal lessons: There’s no need to be depressed at Christmas, because some semblance of a happy ending is always just around the corner. Unless you’re dead.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Christmas trees are good for hiding corpses, trucks containing large loads of mixed nuts can kill you, and, perhaps most importantly, a film can have a cast which includes Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Robert Klein, Rob Reiner, Adam Sandler, Parker Posey, Jon Stewart, and Steven Wright, and still manage to not be funny.
Christmas With The Kranks (2004)
Story: When the Kranks (Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen) learn that their daughter (Julie Gonzalo) is going to be in Peru with the Peace Corps on Christmas, the couple decides to blow off its usual celebration of the holiday and go on a cruise. But when Gonzalo changes her plans, the Kranks have to scramble to rediscover their Christmas spirit in time for her return.
Barriers to holiday cheer: By attempting to secure some quality time between husband and wife in their daughter’s absence, the Kranks anger their neighbors (led by Dan Aykroyd), who deem that a couple that decides to bypass Christmas is worse than, like, Satan-worshipping Communists or something.
Practical, universal lessons: The holidays are a time for family, but if they can’t all be together, make the most of whatever family is there. Also, the horrors of peer pressure and the perceived obligation to conform to societal norms aren’t just traumas of adolescence; they will also prove inescapable throughout adulthood.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Beware Christmas-obsessed individuals, as they may indulge in a certain amount of moral flexibility amid inflicting their belief system upon their neighbors.
200 Cigarettes (1999)
Story: It’s New Year’s Eve 1981. Martha Plimpton is throwing a huge bash, but is terrified that none of her friends will show. Prior to the party, the friends make their way through New York City, fighting, falling in love, and getting lost.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Plimpton panics when it seems like nobody will come to her party. Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffman are in apparent physical danger as they get lost in Alphabet City. Humorless feminist Janeane Garofalo discovers her ex-boyfriend Paul Rudd having sex with Courtney Love in a bathroom stall. Being alone at midnight on New Year’s Eve in general is a clear indicator of imminent doom.
Practical, universal lessons: If you and your best friend are both single and getalong great, you’re probably meant to be together, especially if it’s New Year’s Eve. If you hate parties, don’t throw one. New Year’s Eve in New York City is a pain in the ass in general.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t despair that your party will be a wash and drink so much that you miss it, because your idol Elvis Costello might show up. Don’t despair if your ex-boyfriend sleeps with Courtney Love, because you might get to sleep with Costello himself. Also, smoking is cool.
Die Hard (1988)
Story: New York cop Bruce Willis, half hard-boiled and half hard-pressed, arrives in L.A. just in time for the Christmas party at the high-rise office of his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). Christmas cheer is put on a back burner when a dozen terrorists storm the Nakatomi Plaza office complex, demanding 640 million of your American dollars. Willis escapes into the vents to dismantle an entire terrorist organization and save Christmas.
Barriers to holiday cheer: The terrorist plot attempts to curdle everyone’s eggnog. The background marital strife between Willis and Bedelia raises the stakes, especially with smarmy, coked-up Nakatomi exec Hart Bochner making moves on Willis’ wife, when he isn’t trying to negotiate with the terrorists. Also, Willis ditched his shoes, so he has to tread around an under-construction office building barefoot. (Cue Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass.”)
Practical, universal lessons: The arrival of Alan Rickman and his team of terrorists may be a headache, but it’s also a perfect excuse to excuse yourself from a boring, hoity-toity holiday party. So if you wind up held prisoner by bland inter-office conversation this holiday season, just pull a Bruce Willis and escape into the vents.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Even if some stranger you meet tells you that shedding your shoes is a good way to beat jetlag, leave them on, because you never know. Also, saving an entire building full of innocents this holiday season is a good way to trick your wife into thinking you’re worthwhile again. And choose your catchphrase wisely—if it takes, you’re going to have to say it again and again in an unending string of sequels of diminishing quality.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Story: Tim Robbins’ plucky college grad arrives in an unfeeling New York City in the late ’50s to find work, only to land a bottom-rung job as a mail clerk at Hudsucker Industries. After the company’s president chucks himself out a window, scheming second-in-command Paul Newman promotes greenhorn incompetent Robbins as a way of deflating the company’s stock so Newman can snatch it up. As if via a Christmas miracle, Robbins’ simple invention, the hula hoop (“You know, for kids!”) becomes a hit, and Robbins ends up in way over his head.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Obliviously ending up smack in the center of a complex boardroom conspiracy is a bit of a downer. Especially if you’re being manipulated by a snoopy journalist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) pretending to be from your hometown. Eventually, a string of revelations leads Robbins, like his predecessor, to chuck himself out of a window at Hudsucker Industries. Suicide by self-defenestration generally isn’t synonymous with a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t act like an asshole at holiday parties. You could alienate yourself from upper management. Oh and don’t get drunk at a beatnik bar. You could alienate yourself from the beatniks.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re going to dive to your death off a building, make sure you do it on New Year’s Eve, when magic can make everything right again. Who says Frank Capraism is dead? Not Joel and Ethan Coen! (Well, not Joel and Ethan Coen circa 1994, anyway.)
The Thin Man (1934)
Story: Retired detective Nick Charles (William Powell), his rich, beautiful wife Nora (Myrna Loy), and their rockin’ dog Asta hit the Big Apple for a holiday getaway and end up helping solve a murder case.
Barriers to holiday cheer: New York City homicide detectives are a brazenly incompetent lot, and if someone didn’t catch their murderers for them, there’d be no one left alive in the city by Easter. Reporters get up in Powell and Loy’s faces, braying questions when they’re trying to enjoy themselves, then making up newspaper stories about them. Then angry bedroom-invading gangsters get involved. On top of everything else, having people on their holiday guest list bumped off willy-nilly makes it hard to craft a workable seating chart.
Practical, universal lessons: Everyday hassles don’t always just vanish during the holidays, but it’s still a time to have fun and catch up with family and friends, including anyone you’ve arrested in the past and managed to stay on good terms with.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Even if people are getting killed left and right, that doesn’t absolve you of your sacred duty to throw the most kick-ass holiday party in Manhattan.
The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Story: At a small shop in Hungary, star salesman James Stewart discovers that new hire Margaret Sullavan, who thoroughly detests him, and who seems like such a snooty prig in person, is actually the wonderful woman with whom he’s been carrying on a lonely-hearts correspondence. Things come to a head on the store’s busiest day of the year, Christmas Eve.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Boss Frank Morgan becomes so certain that Stewart is cuckolding him that he fires him, then attempts suicide rather than live with the shame when he discovers how wrong he was. Rescued from himself, he puts Stewart in charge of the store, which further alienates Sullavan, because she still thinks Stewart is just a bossy office poopy-head instead of her letter-writing sweetie-bear.
Practical, universal lessons: Christmas can be a stressful time, but stress lets people learn who their real friends are. It’s a time for taking chances and having faith in people, and appreciating that the families people build at work may trump the ones they have at home.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’ve been trading hot love letters under an assumed name with someone who hates you, Christmas Eve is the one night of the year when you can reveal yourself and hope that the stalky-head-games aspect of your romance will be overlooked, and you’ll be seen as the beneficiary of a magical coincidence.
Frozen River (2008)
Story: Single mother Melissa Leo is in dire financial straits, so she begins ferrying illegal immigrants across the Canadian border, driving them over the frozen St. Lawrence River in the dead of winter.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Leo’s scumbag husband ran off with her savings, leaving her in a cramped trailer with her two sons. Her big dream is simply to make enough money to invest in a double-wide. Her illegal activities might make that possible, but they also mean she gets to spend less time with her boys, who, left to their own devices, help out in such ways as burning a hole in the side of their home while trying to unfreeze a water pipe.
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when trying to make some extra scratch as the holidays approach. That said, don’t switch your brain off entirely.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Try to be aware that the title of the movie you’re in might have symbolic implications. Seriously, “frozen river”? Does that sound like something you can keep driving over from now ’til the end of time without something going wrong?
The Family Stone (2005)
Story: A humongous, blithely liberal New England family gathers for one last Christmas—they don’t know it yet, but in the best holiday treacle tradition, one of them is dying—and Dermot Mulroney has invited fiancée—and, gasp, Republican—Sarah Jessica Parker up to meet the ol’ fam. When that goes disastrously, Parker calls in sister Claire Danes for relief.
Barriers to holiday cheer: America’s red-state/blue-state divide, primarily. But there’s also the fact that nobody in this family seems to know how to pick the right romantic partner. Parker can’t get anything right, and she often seems ported in from an extraterrestrial news report titled “WHY DO THE HU-MANS LOVE?” And again, one of them is dying.
Practical, universal lessons: Any strife can be overcome with the perfect gift. Nobody really wants to talk about politics at Christmas, so don’t.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Try not to treat your deaf, gay, interracial brother and brother-in-law as if they’re ticking off boxes on a diversity bingo card. Sometimes you’re just with the wrong brother, and it’s best to let your hair down and switch it all up. Conversely, sometimes you’re just with the wrong sister, and it’s best to make that switch as well. Oh, and if you have to have a rebellious, occasionally bitchy younger sister, why not hire Rachel McAdams?
Remember The Night (1940)/Susan Slept Here (1954)
Story: In the underseen should-be classic Remember The Night, written by Preston Sturges, attorney Fred MacMurray brings accused shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck—whose trial he will be prosecuting—home for the holidays. In Susan Slept Here, screenwriter Dick Powell receives the greatest gift of all: juvenile delinquent Debbie Reynolds.
Barriers to holiday cheer: The whole “Stanwyck is going to prison when the two get back to the city” thing in Remember The Night doesn’t help anyone’s mood, particularly when MacMurray—spoiler alert, but come on—starts falling for her. For some reason, Powell’s fiancée in Susan Slept Here doesn’t really seem on board with taking in a beautiful juvenile delinquent on Christmas Eve, nor does she much like it when Reynolds decides Powell should be her husband instead, for pretty much no reason other than because this is a Frank Tashlin confection.
Practical, universal lessons: When choosing romantic partners, sometimes it’s best to open up your heart to people you wouldn’t otherwise consider, especially at Christmas, when it’s easy to feel a little lonely. Though if those people are teenagers, you might want to keep that out of the public eye.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Do not sleep with (and/or fall for) the fugitive you brought home for Christmas. It will only complicate your case against her. Do not fall for (and/or sleep with) the teenage juvenile delinquent you’re harboring, because there’s just no way to make that sound good in celebrity-magazine puff-pieces written about you.
The Santa Clause (1994)
Story: Divorced dad Tim Allen finds has to finish up Santa Claus’ toy-distribution route after he causes the big guy to accidentally fall off a roof. By donning the suit, Scott trips the Santa Clause, which causes him to transform into the new Santa, complete with white beard and jelly belly.
Barriers to holiday cheer: Allen’s ex-wife and psychiatrist husband want to tell his son (Eric Lloyd) that Santa isn’t real. Allen goes into denial about the whole Clause thing and the physical changes happening to him. And his ex is so convinced he’s losing his marbles that she petitions for full custody of Lloyd, the only believer in the family.
Practical, universal lessons: Hope and belief are wonderful things, especially around the holidays. Also, the kids are always the biggest victims of divorce, so do all you can to keep things harmonious, even when you’re splitting up and trying to figure out custody.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Psychiatrists sometimes need to get the sticks out of their asses and just let kids be kids. Also, never kill Santa, even accidentally, and if you do, don’t try to cover it up.