While I’m not a person who usually goes in for holiday sentimentality or the like, Christmas tends to soften this author’s heart, along with the shattering reality that twenty kids in Connecticut won’t get to enjoy it this year. There’s a lot of meaningless bullshit that goes down on this twisted planet we all share, yet every once in a while, every black fucking moon, something so God-awful goes down that as human beings, as meaning-makers, we can’t help but to cling to the nearest person who’ll let us, and try to make sense of things. Holidays have always helped with this, for they give people an excuse to get together and share the company of those most familiar to them, and to consider, with just a gathering and a meal, how lucky they truly are. Today’s list celebrated those movies which did honorable justice to a truly noble tradition, the Christmas dinner, and ranked the films and their respective scenes based on the good they did for the characters involved. When they’re operating at peak efficiency, when they’re doing the best they can for the participants, Christmas dinners serve to bridge whatever gaps might have developed between people to bring them together on common ground, if only long enough to share a meal. Today’s list honors that sacred tradition, and gives credit to those movies with sense enough to slow things down, and share a Christmas meal with their audiences.
Now, some of the gatherings listed today might not have had especially auspicious beginnings, yet sometimes fireworks are needed to illuminate the path; thus, just because a few sparks flew during the course of a meal, this didn’t necessarily preclude it from mention. At the end of the day, or meal, rather, if the main characters were better off as a result of a well-timed Christmas dinner, then the 10rant gave it a serious look, and perhaps even a spot. So, on this Christmas Eve, let’s all take a moment to celebrate one of the more pleasing cinematic traditions out there, to arbitrarily rank movie scenes that involved Christmas dinners so that we may better appreciate the ones some of us will have today and tomorrow. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a whole lot to wade through when considering choices for today’s ranking, as most films seem content to dance around the more active components of the holiday rather than slow down to focus on a stationary meal. There were a few honorable mentions to consider, however, and they included Go, Eastern Promises, Less Than Zero, Four Christmases, and A Midnight Clear. Anyway, in all seriousness, Merry Christmas to you all; here’s hoping that this list will bring you some small amount of cheer on the eve of a holiday meant to accomplish just that.
Although your author would have liked to rank this one a little higher, for he considers it a modern holiday classic, let’s be honest: this dinner could have gone a hell of a lot better. In Christmas Vacation, durable “Clark Griswold” (Chevy Chase) once again attempted to give his family the perfect holiday, yet instead of a road trip, or a European adventure, the reliable patriarch tried to pull off the perfect family Christmas. To this end, Clark saw to the tree, the outdoor lights, the in-law accommodations, and even the sledding. Yet in one area, one crucial arena, Clark dropped the ball. The Griswold’s Christmas dinner was left in the hands of “Catherine” (Miriam Flynn), wife to family black sheep “Eddie” (Randy Quaid), whose presence and persistent mooching had nearly scuttled the holiday long before the all-important meal.
Despite the fact that Catherine had utterly destroyed the turkey, Clark and the family sat together and consumed what may very well have been cinema’s worst holiday meal of all time (list to follow…maybe). It’d be nice to say that this comedic mishap brought the Griswold clan closer, that the experience allowed a disparate family a unifying moment to draw them all together, yet it wasn’t to be. No. Clark’s beloved tree was defiled, his dinner ruined, and to add insult to injury, his company bonus dreams were dashed. Some eggnog and a SWAT team later, and Clark was in some seriously deep shit: troubles that were all miraculously resolved at the last minute via some old fashioned Christmas generosity. Thus, all’s well that ends well, and what may have started as a foul holiday harbinger in a deflated, dried-out turkey, evolved into one of the best holidays the Griswolds ever had. Mazel Tov!
So, in Cast Away you had “Chuck” (Tom Hanks), a career-driven FedEx bigwig who took occasional breaks from his globe-trotting for God and company to spend time with his girlfriend, “Kelly” (Helen Hunt). After a quick trip to Moscow at the beginning of the picture, Chuck found himself home for the holidays, with Kelly’s family for Christmas dinner. It was pretty much your classic, simple, magnificent American Christmas dinner, what with the gathering of what looked like the majority of Kelly’s extended family (parents, cousins, uncles) who all spent their time around the dinner table discussing inane family gossip (primarily, why Chuck hadn’t made an honest woman out of Kelly). For those who knew what was coming, the dinner was an eerie tease, for it involved most of the things Chuck would soon be without (companionship, comfort, food, etc). Indeed, during the dinner, Chuck’s pager went off and he was forced to make a hasty exit so that he could see to some emergency popping off halfway around the world. This mission was the one that led to Chuck’s marooning on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where he spent something like half a decade living alone, and off the mercy of the land and sea.
A resourceful, resilient, and clever guy, Chuck made good use of these traits to carve out something resembling an existence for himself on the lonely island. It was tough going at first, however, for Chuck had quite a few obstacles to overcome, and nothing but a friggin’ volleyball to encourage him through the ordeal. Well, that’s not true. Chuck also had the memory of a life taken horribly for granted, one he left callously behind so that he could run off to solve some obscure problem that really didn’t mean a good goddamned thing. Resolved to return home one day to his beloved Kelly, to make things right, Chuck held on as best he could, and eventually found strength enough to make a committed break for civilization. It must have been a hard thing to sit on, however: that lost Christmas dinner. Though the film never showed Chuck voicing the thought, one has to figure that he kicked himself many a time for leaving the comforts of a family dinner, and family, for a (quite literal) life alone on an island.
The story of the Gold Medal winning, Commie-ass-kicking 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Miracle was more than just an underdog sports flick. At its core, the film was about a man juggling his professional career along with his personal life, and the demons of a past not easily shaken. This man was Herb Brooks, the coach of the Olympic squad who understood that talent was just a piece of the puzzle of success. What Herb (Kurt Russell) understood was that championship teams were just that: teams. Herb’s biggest international competition, the Soviets, were repeated Gold Medal winners because their players had been practicing and competing together for years, something that allowed them to skate circles around opponents who had been playing together for just a handful of weeks or months. That, and those Commie fucks could skate like the wind, and all day, too! To beat the Russians, Herb understood that he’d have to utterly break the will of his team, to reduce them to psychological ruin, then build them up again with nothing but each other to rely upon.
Conveniently enough, Herb’s methods in accomplishing this involved seemingly endless practice sessions and an almost dictatorial commitment to conditioning drills (a wonderful two-birds-with-one-stone scenario). Even though Herb had less than a year to do it, he turned his disparate collection of amateur college rivals into an elite Olympic squad, one that was poised to shock an unsuspecting world when they gathered at the team doctor’s house for a festive Christmas dinner just weeks before the games. When the film came into the scene, it appeared as if the meal had mostly been eaten, and was sputtering out a bit; the boys were still gathered around the table, half-eaten turkey in full view, yet presents were getting distributed, most notably to the two coaches. It was a nice scene, and a well-timed one for the picture, as the rigors of a brutal training schedule had finally subsided long enough for the team to share a peaceful moment of joy and cheer, one where the hard-nosed coach could let his guard down a bit, and allow his boys an evening to laugh. Tough bastard though he may have been, Herb clearly knew how to build a rock-solid team, an effort that required a lot of knocks, peppered here and there with a few well-earned smiles. Herb’s dinner accomplished just that, too, and for that, it earned a slot today.
A long, sadistic, seemingly unending carnival of pain, Home Alone is the kind of movie that gets kids into trouble. Indeed, a lot of people point their fingers at films like Rambo, or The Terminator as the harbingers of a new era of adolescent violence whilst overlooking such obvious inspirational fare like what might be found in Home Alone. The story of an eight year old sociopath (Macaulay Culkin’s “Kevin”) who was accidentally left behind when his family left for a Parisian vacation, this movie should have gotten a hell of a lot more flak than it did when originally released in 1990. Indeed, you couldn’t get away with this shit nowadays, for a movie that showcases, nay, encourages kids NOT to call the cops when stranded and in trouble isn’t one getting green-lit by the studios in 2012 or 2013. And while Kevin’s decision to go it alone, and wage a homemade war against two violent thieves attempting to break into his family’s house was certainly amusing in a masochistic, pain-craving sort of way, considering this film’s target audience, the example set by the main character was a dangerous one.
Near the end of the film, once Kevin learned the plans of robbers “Harry” and “Marv,” the kid didn’t take refuge with an adult, nor did he notify the authorities (he only did this later on, after he’d worked the burglars into a murderous frenzy), no: he got his toys out and started setting up an elaborate, mostly inter-dependent series of traps. To be fair, some of these set-ups were hardcore in an extreme, permanent sort of way (the blowtorch and foot-nail come to mind), yet any con worth their salt would have simply brushed past this crap, gutted the kid, and set the house on fire with the corpse inside. Wait a minute…what were we talking about, again? Oh yeah, Christmas dinners. Kevin appeared to have made himself a damn fine one right before all the climactic mayhem started popping off, yet because of all the elaborate planning and trap arrangements, the kid didn’t get so much as a bite of his awesome mac & cheese feast. Still, Kevin clearly understood the importance of going through the classic motions of the holiday, which included a well-placed, finely crafted Christmas dinner. For keeping his priorities straight, even as an eight year old, Kevin and Home Alone snuck in at #7.
While the 10rant doesn’t usually heap praise on made-for-T.V. movies, the 1984 George C. Scott helmed version of A Christmas Carol was a special case. Widely regarded as the most faithful and thoughtfully produced adaptation of Dickens’ classic novella, Scott’s version practically jumped off the screen. This was due in large part to Scott’s performance as the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge, a man so ruthlessly cheap and miserly that his name has subsequently become synonymous with such behavior throughout the Western world. The story is familiar to most by now, for on Christmas Eve, Scrooge was visited first by his former (deceased) business partner, and then by three ghosts representing Scrooge’s past, present, and future. As the evening progressed, Scrooge was confronted with snippets of his life that showed the kind and gentle man he once was (LONG ago), along with brief (invisible) visits into the lives of his contemporaries, whose existences were hardly better for having known the man. When traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge came upon two different dinners, one at his nephew’s (an invitation Scrooge had declined), and the other at his employee Cratchit’s house.
In each instance, Scrooge got a long, hard look at a family enjoying the simple pleasures of a holiday meal. When looking in on the Cratchit’s feast, Scrooge was struck by the meager size of the bird the family was meant to enjoy, yet was even more floored by the warmth, optimism, and generosity displayed by the impoverished clan. Later in the film, after seeing his future and the consequences of his cold, dispassionate lifestyle, Scrooge did the only sensible thing to his mind: he bought Cratchit the biggest damn bird he could find, and went to his nephew’s for a long-overdue family feast. And while the Christmas Eve dinners that Scrooge looked in on didn’t have much of an impact on those in attendance (at least in the physical realm), they certainly played a part in reforming a cold hearted son of a bitch on some other spiritual level. For that, it got a well-deserved nod.
Donnie Brasco seems to have been largely forgotten in the ‘Sopranos’ shuffle of the last decade, for when most people look back on mafia representations in popular fiction during the late-90’s and early-00’s, James Gandolfini and David Chase’s show is what usually comes to mind. Yet director Mike Newell made one hell of a mob movie in 1997, one that had almost as much emotional and dramatic punch in two hours as the Sopranos had with more than ten times that number. Donnie Brasco was based on a book written by former F.B.I. agent Joseph Pistone, who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in the late 1970’s. In the film, Johnny Depp played Pistone, a.k.a. “Donnie Brasco,” a cover identity he and the Bureau had developed to get Joe on the inside. Although Joe successfully worked his way into a low-level “associate” role, the mob quickly began taking over every facet of his life, including the one he tried to live off-hours with his wife and kids. Pulled in two different directions, towards a biological family that needed him, and another mob family that kept drawing him deeper and deeper into their circle, Joe found himself at a crossroads early on in the picture, during Christmas.
Even though Joe had every intention of going home to see his real family after meeting up with his mob contact, “Lefty” (Al Pacino), Joe/Donnie had no choice but to stay for dinner after realizing that his orphan cover-story left him without an excuse to leave. Although Joe’s wife gave him hell for this, the dinner did serve to bring Joe/Donnie and Lefty closer together after the pair shared a heartfelt Christmas dinner. During the meal Lefty informed Joe that he’d been vouched for, and that the fate of the two were thus tied together going forward, something that served to complicate matters for Joe later on in the film, when he and the audience realized that the end of Joe’s undercover operation likely meant the end of Lefty altogether. Still, the dinner between the two men was a poignant scene, for it showed how Lefty, a seasoned mob hit man, still had warmth enough in his heart to open up his home to a lonely friend on Christmas. For this act of generosity, and because the dinner had such lasting implications for both men, Donnie Brasco and its Christmas dinner slid in at #5.
Huge, lavish banquet halls filled with drunken aristocrats, flaming punch bowls, and legions of servants: yeah, this is how it should be done. A massive movie, both in scope and length, Fanny & Alexander was the professional culmination of a life’s work for director Ingmar Bergman, who poured a healthy chunk of himself into this offering. The tale of a Swedish family during the early 20th century, Fanny & Alexander told its story through the eyes of its two title characters, who were children throughout most of the picture. Things started out well for them, as the Christmas celebration early in the picture showed that this wasn’t just some ordinary family, but one tied into some fairly affluent circles. Naturally, skilled virtuoso that he was, Bergman used this opening Christmas dinner vignette to color in the different family dynamics and relationships, a feat he effortlessly accomplished whilst giving his audience nothing short of a visual feast.
Although the film unfolded into a difficult but ultimately redemptive tale about love, duty, and family, it began auspiciously, as if to give the audience a peek at the better times its characters would soon long for. Truly, the tough years endured by Fanny, Alexander, and their mother “Emilie” (Ewa Froling) during their oppressive life under the authoritarian “Bishop Vergerus” (Jan Malmsko) made the opening Christmas dinner vignette all the more poignant. One of the few non-American offerings in today’s ranking, the Christmas dinner scene early in Fanny & Alexander also showcased what another culture, during a different age, did with the holiday, and truth be told, it looked a hell of a lot more fun than your run-of-the-mill 21st century family feedbag festival. Indeed, much like the dinner scene in this next film, the nontraditional aspects of the moment are what made the gathering in Fanny & Alexander so special…
A surprisingly hard-nosed comedy right out of the meaty portion of Eisenhower’s tranquil 1950’s, We’re No Angels did a lot of interesting things. For one, it cast Humphrey Bogart in a sinister role, that of an escaped convict, and spent most of its run-time showing off the man’s grifting skills. Though not a con man by trade, Bogart’s “Joseph” knew his way around a good scam, and had talents enough to exploit a fantastic one when it fell into his lap. Recently escaped from the pen, Joseph and his cohorts started the film on the run, and were in a small town just a snowball’s throw away from French Canada, eyeing escape on a nearby boat, when they came upon the family store of the Ducotels. This family ran a small general store that operated primarily on credit, something Joseph and his convict friends immediately took advantage of, along with a leaky roof they offered to fix in exchange for a little cover for the night. Up to this point, the cons’ time on the run had gone beautifully, for they not only got loose, but they stayed that way long enough to get themselves ready for the final push to freedom (by far the hardest part of any escape).
Yet a funny thing happened to Joseph and his crew: they got soft. With the Ducotel family only a short while, and the escapees were nursing three melted hearts, something that led to them putting their scamming skills towards halfway honorable ends. Though they were still scamming, and cooking books, Joseph and his crew WERE helping the Ducotel family by putting the little general store in the black for the first time in its existence. And while it’s true that the convicts stole most of the items for the feast, Joseph and his crew followed this good work up by cooking a generous Christmas dinner for their hosts, a meal that broke down whatever grizzled resolve the escapees had left in them. After the meal things got a bit sticky, what with the arrival of the general store’s owners fresh in from Paris, yet a timely viper attack took care of a majority of the problems, leaving only the final slipping of the noose by Joseph and the boys. The dinner clearly had an effect on the men, however, for at the last minute, all three cons decided to turn themselves in to the authorities. They’d felt the warmth a caring Christmas dinner could provide, and seemed forever changed as a result: if that’s not powerful eating, this author doesn’t know what is!
Commonly overlooked when popular holiday offerings are bandied about during film discussions, The Ref isn’t a film deserving of such treatment, for it seamlessly blended humor, drama, and suspense whilst still maintaining a realistic tone throughout. The movie was one of the first to give comedian Denis Leary any serious screen time, and it was amply rewarded for this leap of faith. Leary starred as “Gus,” a small-time burglar who got caught in some hot water on Christmas Eve, something that forced him to take a few hostages to navigate his way to freedom. Gus kidnapped a husband and wife, Kevin Spacey’s “Lloyd” and Judy Davis’ “Caroline,” who just so happened to be the most catty, petty, unhappy couple on the planet. Gus didn’t just have this hassle, either, but the added burden of an impending visit from Lloyd and Caroline’s son, along with a gaggle of family members that were expected for dinner. In need of some time to facilitate his getaway, Gus did the only sensible thing he could think of: he went ahead with the planned dinner.
Yet what might have been a tense, anxiety-ridden scene involving an armed assailant and innocent family members actually turned into a forum where Lloyd and Caroline could be honest with each other for the first time in decades. So as to keep things from escalating further once the guests arrived, Gus pretended to be Lloyd and Caroline’s marriage counselor, which worked pretty damn well, both in its deceptive aims, and as a means to get the unhappy couple to open up to each other. Because she was (understandably) preoccupied with the armed gunman in her home, Caroline was able to speak her mind about her catty mother-in-law, and the effects Lloyd’s career had on their marriage. Likewise, Lloyd was able to open up about his disappointments, and the dreams he and Caroline once shared when they were just a couple broke kids sharing a joint. Although the dinner didn’t end particularly well for the guests (especially the mother-in-law), Lloyd and Caroline came out the other side changed for the better, and (and with a new respect for Gus that encouraged the couple to help the crook escape). The route to this destination may have been a little roundabout, yet a dinner on Christmas Eve served as the spark to get Lloyd and Caroline to their destination, and for that, The Ref landed in the runner-up spot, one behind…
There aren’t a lot of movies out there that can lay claim to the level of holiday nostalgia this film kicked up, for A Christmas Story spoke to a vanilla, all-too-relatable childhood that millions of Americans could/can identify with. Although it was set in the late-30’s/early-40’s, themes of pre-teen peer-pressure, desperate Christmas longing, and stern but loving parents translated easily across generational lines, and told a story familiar enough to American viewers that it could have been taken directly out of their collective pasts with only a few small variations. Who among us didn’t grow up with a foul-mouthed father, a neighborhood bully, troublesome friends, and an unquenchable lust for a very particular, specific Christmas gift? Truly, the holiday season “Ralphie” (Peter Billingsley) endured during the course of this picture was one that could have belonged to any child in this country, something that made the traditional Christmas dinner at the end of the film all the more touching and heartwarming.
Technically speaking, based on the guidelines posted up top during the introduction, the Christmas dinner from The Ref might have carried a bit more weight, for A Christmas Story ended just as Ralphie’s family sat down to eat, which left the audience little but speculation when considering how that feast played out for those in attendance. Yet there was something precious about that moment, for Ralphie’s family obviously understood the importance of the meal. Their own turkey ruined by the dogs of the Bumpuses, Ralphie’s family spent the evening in an empty Chinese restaurant, where they enjoyed a dinner together, as a family. It didn’t matter that the feast they’d prepared was ruined, that they were forced out of their home, or that the restaurant maître d’ had a duck’s head in his pocket: they were together, happy, and sharing a meal, and that’s what meant the most. And while many people might have taken the sudden turn of events that day as a sign that their holiday was ruined, Ralphie’s family soldiered on, and made a memory that wouldn’t easily be forgotten like so many interchangeable turkey dinners. This is what a Christmas dinner is all about, and if only because it had such a lasting influence on this author (if not the actual characters), it got the highest honor this day.