Best of not-2015

Digging this out of the dusty drafts folder to finish and post now, when last year feels so very far away: the best movies I saw in 2015 that weren’t released in 2015.

Honorable mention: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

I think about Lorene Scafaria’s movie so often. Just give it a chance.

10. Adam’s Rib (1949)

Much like how my love for Charles Dickens’s prose and storytelling makes me read maybe one of his novels every couple of years so I can postpone ever being done with them (and I know he was kind of an a-hole; don’t @ me), so have I spaced out catching up on all of the glorious K.Hepburn’s most famous films, even as her glowing visage graces my phone screen and gives me strength every day. And then when I really need it, there she is spouting feminism and breathing fire and making everyone on screen with her seem worthy, even though they’re totally not (sorry, Judy Holliday, luv u 2). She rules, George Cukor rules, this movie rules.

9. The Thin Blue Line (1988) / Into the Abyss (2011)

Obviously the appetite for true crime documentaries took the U.S. by storm in 2015, and I was not immune — I will tell you why I think Adnan did it, or encourage you to go back to watch The Staircase and then let me tell you about the crazy online theory I actually believe. But crime stories can be and should be more important than just providing the voyeuristic thrill of dissecting the possibility of one person’s guilt. Thankfully we have Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and other non-fiction writers and documentarians who approach the landscape of our criminal justice system and our assumptions about it in less sensational ways.

8. Nightcrawler (2014)

Speaking of our collective voyeurism and obsession with crime… Dan Gilroy’s twisted story combined with Jake Gyllenhaal’s BONKERS CREEPY performance created something seriously entrancing to me. Louis Bloom is that character who’s so repulsive you can’t actually look away, as we watch his confidence and hubris grow as he moves from merely exploiting crime scenes for the photos he can sell to actually manipulating the scenes and the people he’s selling the photos to. Gilroy has had an established screenwriting career, but I was surprised to see this was the first film he directed. He needs to do more; I will watch without hesitation.

7. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

God, what a bleak, heartbreaking, gorgeous maze of tragedy. It’s all right there in that word sympathy, even though this film opens Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy.” Everyone in this movie does the wrong thing for a desperate or ill-informed reason, and it all begins because of a system that leaves people dying because they can’t afford the medical care that will save their lives. Someday maybe we will live in a world where that doesn’t need to be a common theme.

6. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Ah, the glorious feeling when people have been pestering you to watch a movie and then it totally lives up to expectations! It happened to me with this film, and I promptly paid it forward by harassing someone else to watch it, too. A convoluted set of writing credits often gives me pause (even when Christopher McQuarrie is in the mix), but director Doug Liman (undersung for how many solid-to-great films he’s made) brings it all together here by hitting the right tone of actual fun — not just random quips — on top of the Save the World plot. Please let Tom Cruise continue to be used smartly as a jackass, and please let Emily Blunt become a true action star, please please please. (Bond. Jane Bond?)

5. The Accused (1988)

This is the first in a trio of list entries that represent movies from the ’80s one can’t watch today without desperately wishing that in the last thirty years we’d made a bit more social progress on the issues at hand. Here the issue is rape, and specifically society’s tendency to blame or discredit a victim who doesn’t meet exacting yet arbitrary standards of “innocence” and “trustworthiness.” As hard as it is to watch — particularly when writer Tom Topor and director Jonathan Kaplan finally show us the full horror of what happened in the bar, nearly at the end of the film — Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance remains a marvel.

4. The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Joe Morton is a living treasure who’s been mostly known to me for rants on Scandal and the immortal line from Speed “It’s finished on the goddamn map!” John Sayles has been a glaring blindspot for me on the list of important indie filmmakers of the 1980s. I’m glad I started remedying that with this clever, funny, and sad film, where The Brother, a mute alien on the run from those who would enslave him, slowly comes to realize what his outward appearance as a black man means in this new world. Joe Morton’s beautiful silent performance will hold up until the end of time. I wish the social commentary didn’t have to.

3. A Dry White Season (1989)

When I saw this affecting and successful film about the fight against apartheid in South Africa, done on this kind of scale, I was angry for two reasons: obviously, that the same kind of injustices illustrated here by apartheid continue to replicate themselves around the world relentlessly. And also, that someone who was able to stage and tell this story so beautifully hasn’t had every opportunity and dollar thrown at her to keep making films of this magnitude. Euzhan Palcy should be a much more widely known name.

2. Force Majeure (2014)

What do you do when suddenly faced with a situation that illuminates a weakness, a fault you never knew or admitted you had, or one you never knew your partner had? Something that changes your whole perspective? Ruben Östlund explores that here when a wealthy Swedish couple’s view of themselves shatters after Dad’s instinct in perceived danger — in this case, an avalanche that turns out not to be one — is to run away from Mom and kids and save himself. The aftermath is uncomfortable, fascinating, darkly funny, and darkly honest about how we’re all really selfish hypocrites in the end.

1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Okay, because there are so many director’s cuts and such of this film, to be clear: I saw the 1998 Collector’s Edition, and I saw it at with a beautiful crowd at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in a haze of pot smoke filling the unusually chilly and misty Los Angeles night, and it was wonderful. Spielberg is Spielberg, after all. (See, I can criticize how he doesn’t make movies about women AND still love him. Nuance, internet bros. The world contains it.)

The archives:

2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008

TOP FIFTEEN OBJECTIVELY BEST GAME OF THRONES SCENES*

15. Episode 3.3: The complete politics of the Small Council demonstrated through chair placement.

14. Episode 1.9: Ned Stark loses his head.

13. Episode 2.5: Brienne of Tarth pledges herself to serve Lady Catelyn.

12. Episode 1.5: Robert and Cersei get real discussing how fucked up their marriage has been.

11. Episode 4.2: Joffrey’s dying breaths.

10. Episode 3.6: The Wall cracks.

9. Episode 4.8: Oberyn Martell vs. The Mountain.

8. Episode 4.8: Sansa tells “the truth” about what sent Lysa Arryn through the Moon Door.

7. Episode 1.6: Khal Drogo awards Viserys Targaryen his “golden crown.”

6. Episode 4.1: The Hound and Arya make a good team for a pub massacre, and she gets her sword back.

5. Episode 3.4: Daenerys unleashes dragon fire on the douche who’s selling her the Unsullied.

4. Episode 2.9: Cersei gets drunk and speaks her mind to Sansa while they’re taking shelter during the seige.

3. Episode 2.10: Khal Drogo and Daenerys “reunite” in the House of the Undying.

2. Episode 3.4: Lord Varys tells Tyrion how he was cut and reveals what’s in that crate.

1. Episode 3.5: Jaime tells Brienne the real story of why he killed the Mad King.

(Before you can say “You forgot the Red Wedding”: No, I didn’t. It’s okay.)

And the top five worst bits:

5. Any Stannis scenes in which Melisandre is not present and we therefore have to endure his scowly face for no reason.

4. Shae’s descent from sassy mystery woman to insane jealous girlfriend to shockingly clueless revenge-seeker. What a wasted character.

3. Liberation of slaves glory ruined by deeply problematic White Savior imagery (who the hell signed off that chanting/lifting of Dany in episode 3.10??).

2. Cersei and Jaime’s nothing reunion (they just STARE at each other and then it cuts away!!!) followed by That Scene next to Joffrey’s body. Never ruin a great incest story by making it too rapey. This is basically the first rule of writing.

1. Literally anything to do with Theon getting tortured. I mean. Why.

HAPPY GAME OF THRONES DAY!

*This is just, like, my opinion, man.

Best of not-2014

It’s that time again! The best movies I saw in 2014, that weren’t released in 2014.

10. Short Term 12 (2013)

Feel like having, like, a lot of sad feelings? Watch a movie about foster kids! And if you think the kids have it bad, JUST WAIT until you hear about the staff at the group home and THEIR issues!

That makes this movie sound more depressing than it is, but the emotions are definitely intense. A tremendous lead performance from Brie Larson, some terrific supporting teen actors, and a small dose of humor keep Destin Daniel Cretton’s film from veering too hard into Movie-of-the-Week territory. It’s just bare, honest drama.

9. One Way Passage (1932)

Kay Francis! William Powell! A doomed love lived out in coattails and sparkling gowns! God I love these early ’30s romances, packing so much passion and pain into an hour’s worth of crackling scenes and then leaving us with a swell of the music and an aching heart. On a trans-Pacific crossing, he’s a criminal being taken for execution who’s conned his way into a few final days of freedom on the boat, and she’s a lady of means whose terminal illness could snatch her beautiful breath away at any moment. Neither knows the other’s secret, only that their love must end when the ship reaches dock. Oh, the Fates, how they toy with us!

8. Enough Said (2013)

While I appreciate her voice out there in the world, I’ve never really “gotten” Nicole Holofcener. I’ve dutifully seen all of her features, but fallen into the camp of feeling like there was too much shallow, privileged ennui mixed in for me to really empathize with the characters. However, the influence of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, great James Gandolfini strongly pushes me into the pro camp for her latest film, which captures a more specific and only-in-the-movies dilemma than Holofcener usually goes for: divorced Eva might really like divorced Albert, except she’s just made friends with Albert’s ex-wife, who has a lot of stories….

This is a smart story with a slightly difficult woman at its center (I love me some difficult women), with great, loose performances, funny and romantic. I’d say don’t call it a rom-com, except I’m not one of those people who gets down on rom-coms, so yeah: it’s a fucking good rom-com. Deal with it.

7. Bombshell (1933)

“Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair. Your mouth is like a gardenia open to the sun.” Gotta love a comedy about a talented, feisty woman whose biggest problems are the dumb men surrounding her. The wonderful Jean Harlow — who seems like she was born with a reaction shot on her face — plays a screwball version of a movie star not so unlike herself, who’s dealing with a bunch of freeloaders while trying to figure out what’s missing in her life.

In its own way, Bombshell has a feminist streak, with Lola Burns taking no shame in seeking her own path to “have it all” — she makes a decision to adopt a baby, a plan that springs forth with only the briefest consideration that maybe she could marry a man and do it the old-fashioned way. And just as the good themes seem they might be undermined in that “the previously rejected love interest shows her what’s best for herself (and it’s him)” kind of way, the farce twists back on itself yet again. So much fun.

6. You’re Next (2011)

Many a horror fan evangelized about this film when it played the festival circuit in 2011, but I was part of the problem in not making it a hit when it finally had a wide release two years later. Not seeing it on the big screen is my loss, but I’ve joined the evangelizing since catching the movie on Netflix. What a joy to see a full-on, twisted slasher movie, brimming with shocking and gross and occasionally hilarious deaths, but without having to grimace and ignore any blatant sexism or soul-killing objectification of women. The film’s heroine should join the ranks of great final girls, and aspiring young males with movie cameras and buckets of blood should look to director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett’s example as one to live up to.

5. Middle of Nowhere (2012)

Ava DuVernay is, I sincerely hope, on her way to a Best Director nomination for her achievements with 2014’s Selma. She’s also somewhat insultingly being included on various “filmmakers to watch” lists, as if those of us in the know haven’t already been watching her since she ***won fucking Sundance*** with her second feature film, the quieter, but still devastating, drama Middle of Nowhere. (Or even before that, because of the lovely, light-filled I Will Follow.) I didn’t get to see the film until it was finally shown on the BET last year, because even with that win, wide theatrical distribution never came. Funny, that.

Not only is DuVernay excellent at capturing the small moments that build to a moment of stark choice, making everything seem tense with possibility yet inevitable, but she’s starting to build a small stable of signature actors, as well — something male directors like the Coen brothers or Wes Anderson get praised for, yet women directors rarely get a chance to do. As she has with David Oyelowo and Omari Hardwick, here’s hoping she soon crafts another role for Emayatzy Corinealdi, whose work here as a woman devoted to her husband in prison but questioning her choices is so beautiful.

4. Purple Rain (1984)

If I had seen Purple Rain while, for example, curled up in sweatpants with a glass of Chuck on a Wednesday night, I would have enjoyed it, but it may not have been so high on this list. But I saw it under the absolute best circumstances for a first viewing: at an outdoor summer showing at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, with hundreds of other picnic-drunk Angelenos, swaying and singing and holding up lighters and soaking in the night together under Prince’s spell. The magic may never be underestimated, nor recaptured.

Ever the feminist killjoy, I must of course also acknowledge how this film is not exactly un-problematic in its commentary on domestic violence. Despite this, the general spectacle of music and emotion and costumes and sex remains electric, even as we shake our heads at things we hope no filmmaker would get away with thirty years later.

3. A Hijacking (2012)

If I had to pick a country besides the United States that’s making my favorite movies today, it would probably be Denmark. As an example, their version of a film about a cargo ship being hijacked by Somali pirates is just, well, insanely better than ours. (No offense, Captain Phillips.) Tobias Lindholm builds a story with excruciating patience, brilliant structure, and heartbreaking performances. A Hijacking was so great that I didn’t want it to end, even though watching it was kind of killing me. IT’S ON NETFLIX WATCH THIS MOVIE OMG.

2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Oh, I had a damn fine time finally watching this movie. Why didn’t anyone tell me how witty and fun it is? Yes, it deals with a serious subject, but I’d always assumed it was a sort of domestic counterpoint to the same year’s other major Sidney Poitier film, the fantastic but heeeaaavy In the Heat of the Night. Not so. And yes, of course the racial discussion here is dated, but the scenes are so carefully crafted for the time that watching them remains a pleasure. I can even forgive the film ending its series of delightful conversations between diverse characters with a lengthy monologue from an old white guy, because Spencer Tracy deserved that moment in his final performance (which, due to illness, everyone knew during filming would be his last).

1. An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Every fucking male filmmaker out there who seems to think he can’t make art out of the lives of women needs to take a fucking look at what fucking Paul Mazursky did in nineteen-fucking-seventy-eight and be ashamed of themselves. Fuck.

Jill Clayburgh was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Erica, an Upper East Side woman figuring out what the rest of her life might look like after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Though we see her re-enter the dating scene, this isn’t really about finding a new love; though she questions how to proceed in her professional life, when she’s only been working part-time in a gallery, this isn’t really about money. As Erica’s conversations with her friends and therapist and lover show, it’s just about her. Her as a complete, independent, important person, no matter what happens. Imagine that.

The archives:

2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentle Readers

My dearest readers, this is it. Tonight’s the night Christian parents across the world will lie to their offspring about a stranger breaking into their homes to leave merchandise provided by large corporations, and soon Christmas will be over. Which means we’ve also reached the final chapter of our Hallmark journey. And so, without further ado… The Christmas Parade.

AnnaLynne McCord is Hayley, a correspondent on a New York City morning show. Hayley isn’t too into the Christmas spirit, but she is concerned about the upcoming break so that she and her longtime fiancé, high-powered investment dude Jason, can finally squeeze in some time to plan their wedding. Imagine her humiliation, then, when she’s stunned on air by a scoop about the new fling of a rising starlet: AND IT’S JASON. That conveniently inconveniently timed cad!

Fleeing to the country in her Mini Cooper, Hayley gets distracted by multiple calls/texts from Jason and runs her car into a fence. (Women drivers, am I right?) The cranky old man who owns said fence wants to call the police, even though she offers to immediately pay for the damage. Taking her offer of a blank check as a bribe, he reveals that he’s the local judge, and tells her to show up in his chambers tomorrow.

Thank god there’s a hot good Samaritan on hand for this disaster. He calls a tow truck for her, and she tries to check into the nearest hotel and make the best of it. But, being the Christmas season, there’s no room at the inn, and she’s directed to the one vacancy in town at a bed & breakfast. You know they’re not like city folk there, because they have a GRAMOPHONE.

Then comes the second convenient man-related shocker of the day: the good Samaritan runs the B & B! His name is Beck. I don’t know why. Also THERE’S NO WI-FI OR TV! (Hayley actually seems really chill about this, so I don’t even know why we’re establishing this country bumpkin vs. city girl dynamic. But we’ll get back to that.)

Hayley’s producer is pissed at her, and wants her back in the city for their big Christmas special. It’s not so great, then, when the cranky judge sentences her to 25 hours of community service before court closes for the year (in five days!) for using a cell while driving. She protests and maintains her innocence — those were INCOMING texts!!! — but when he threatens a jury trial, she agrees to do the time.

Her service hours can be fulfilled by helping Beck build a parade float with some kids at the local community center. (I guess there are no actual unfortunate people in Connecticut.) Hayley becomes interested in Beck’s story about how the center was started by a philanthropist ten years ago, but is going to be sold by the city council if he and the kids can’t raise $15,000 by the new year for their own down payment. And wouldn’t you know, they can get exactly that much if they win top prize for their parade float. (Fifteen fucking grand?? Shit, let me join that contest! I’ll let someone ride on my damn back for all of December for that much money.)

Thanks to the court clerk’s Twitter account, Hayley’s story ends up on “ZMT” (which is NOT TMZ, Hallmark’s lawyers assure me.) Now knowing where she is, Jason shows up to plead forgiveness. But she kicks him to the curb. Get out of here, city boy! Hayley’s busy discovering Beck’s secret painting studio and how he gave up a scholarship to the Sorbonne to care for this dying father!

Christmas Parade

Hayley, too, has secrets to share, like why she isn’t a fan of Christmas. She recounts a sad childhood memory of being made fun of for a second-hand bike after she’d begged her mom to get her a new one, how crushed her mom was about it, and how guilty she felt for not realizing her family couldn’t really afford gifts that year. That’s why she’s pissed that Christmas is about “making people want things that they can’t afford.” This is your spoiled city girl, movie? You’re not doing it right.

Saintly Hayley also turns down the mayor’s skeezy offer to reduce her service hours if she mentions local businesses in her broadcast, instead turning to Beck’s mother Wendy, who works for the local paper, to do an interview with her so she can take the narrative of her situation into her own hands. Of course what Wendy really wants is to help Hayley rediscover the Christmas spirit! She insists that Christmas is about looooooove. And is there anyone Hayley might find herself loving these days? Maybe someone she’s had a PAINT FIGHT with recently???

Complications with the Parade Float Insta-Cash Plan arise when the mayor tells Beck that someone else made an offer for the property, and Beck should just give up. But the offer comes from Hyperion Enterprises — Jason’s company! So Hayley rushes back to NYC to beg him to stop the sale if he actually loves her. Though he dismisses the situation as “another one of her little human interest stories,” he also says he’ll figure out how to drop the deal.

Beck is ecstatic over the dropped bid, but the merrymaking is short-lived, since the mayor soon calls and says another investment group stepped in. The city is determined to turn the building into commercial space, the kids are sad, etc etc. But Beck makes a big speech about trying to win the parade anyway. Shit, I’m sure y’all can think of something to do with fifteen grand even if the center closes. Keep the money and hold your meetings at someone’s barn!

Community service hours finished and back in the city prepping for the Christmas special she’s hosting, Hayley’s struck with an idea in the middle of a meeting. Include the parade in the special!! Surely then the mayor will see how important this is to the community. She convinces the suits to change the theme to “From Manhattan to Main Street” and get in touch with the little people this year. What a gal.

Meanwhile, following his “good deed,” Jason is still trying to get Hayley back. He wants her to go on a Christmas trip on a Dubai billionaire’s yacht with him (sounds pretty good to me), but then she sees a call on his phone and figures out that the “new company” that stepped in to buy the community center is a subsidiary of Hyperion, and Jason’s been lying all along. HIT THE ROAD AGAIN, JACK. And take your yacht with you! (sob)

When the night of the parade finally arrives, Hayley ends up having to step in and play Mrs. Clause, with Beck as Santa, of course. Aren’t they adorable? Then, as soon as she goes on live TV and talks about the community center, offers for donations start to pour in from all over the country! (I thought this was a local show, but whatever.) They thwart the mayor, who’s been in cahoots with Jason and planning to rig the parade anyway, by setting up a Kickstarter and raising $264,000 in like an hour. I shit you not. I’m not sure if Hallmark’s lawyers checked with Kickstarter about setting up this unrealistic expectation.

Then Hayley and Beck kiss in their Clause outfits. She’s got that spirit back, y’all! Goodnight!

Okay, so here’s the thing about any level of rom-com… even though you know they’re going to get together in the end, the fun part is the conflict on the road there. Sooooooo notice anything missing with The Christmas Parade? Besides a single moment when he has to tell her the B & B has no wi-fi, Hayley and Beck are 100% on the same page the whole time. It’s super tame even for Hallmark, but otherwise, a perfectly serviceable bit of holiday nonsense.

Let me segue and take a brief moment to sum up a separate issue I’ve touched on throughout this series of posts. Usually Hallmark at least makes a small acknowledgement that not everyone in North America is a white Christian. Yes, a few of this year’s main characters have a black pal who perpetually exists next to the phone, someone they can call to commiserate about their romantic life. But last year, the season kicked off with Snow Bride, a film based around half-Taiwanese actress Katrina Law, and the year before included the (quite enjoyable) Joey Lawrence vehicle Hitched for the Holidays, in which his Christian, Italian-American character falls for a Jewish girl, and the cultural differences, while used for comedy, aren’t at all framed as the actual obstacle keeping their romance from blooming. These are very, very minor whiffs toward diversity, yet Hallmark couldn’t even handle that much this year. Disappointing.

Perhaps my critique of Hallmark’s heteronormative whiteness (combined with my scathing critique of A Cookie Cutter Christmas) has burned this bridge forever, but I still hope someday I get to pitch some ideas to them. (Or they can just read the ones I’ve already posted on my Twitter account…) I think these light, cheesy romances can be really good when done right, and I would write one of those scripts with nothing but gratitude and joy.

Final scorecard:

*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 4/12 films
*male lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 2/12
*female lead gets fired: 4/12
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 3/12
*romantic ice skating scene: 3/12
*romantic tree decorating scene: 7/12
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 5/12
*dead parents: 7/12

We like, we like to party.

I have tried, in my day, to be a person who throws great parties. The idea appeals to my nature as someone who is social but not spontaneous, an organizer at heart. But the expectations rarely meet the reality, do they? People arrive late and leave early and don’t appreciate your carefully curated playlist and would rather drink beer than the special themed cocktails you purchased specific liquor to make. Then, as time passes, we graduate to just meeting friends for a glass of wine and being home and in sweats by 9pm. Still, there’s a part of me that thinks back and wishes I’d had a little more success throwing Totally Major Parties. (Is it because I never had drugs? Should’ve had some drugs.)

At least my expectations never rose to those of Jennie (Torrey DeVitto, known to me as Spencer’s sister Melissa on Pretty Little Liars), who states multiple times over the course of The Best Christmas Party Ever that parties can be life-changing. She’s dedicated herself to party planning, sure that the path of her own life was changed at a Christmas party when she was seven years old, when she asked Santa for a job for her father. Santa was really the owner of the toy store Tyrell’s, and so began a great career for her now-deceased dad, and a lifelong friendship with old Mr. Tyrell, who throws a huge party that’s open to the public every year.

Jennie expects to take over the party planning company she works for when her boss, Petra, retires. It’s a rude awakening when Petra announces that her nephew Nick (the deeply cute Steve Lund) is coming to work for her, in order to someday inherit the company. Nick, an aspiring actor, has zero experience in planning anything, but charms everyone in sight — except Jennie, of course. She wants the ornaments and tinsel and lights put on the tree in the right order, and she doesn’t want pigs in a blanket at a classy party. Jennie is, in other words, uptight.

But Jennie is also beautiful and confident and clever, which makes Nick crave her approval. And he doesn’t like it much when a suave client named Todd, who works for the company that’s just purchased Tyrell’s, asks Jennie out on a date. Nick does his best to win Jennie over, but keeps making missteps, like inadvertently embarrassing her by asking her to tell a joke in front of a group, and taking over business meetings with his spontaneous ideas. And why should Jennie like him, really, when he’s swooping in to take over her company because of nepotism??

But Nick is relentless, and starts to win Jennie over by buying her a “truce hot dog” and discussing their lives. He teases her about being single because she can’t have fun, but she says it’s really because she compares guys to her amazing dad. In turn, Nick confesses that he’s a jokester/actor because it helped him make friends when moving around as a military brat, and it’s hard for him to let his guard down. They’ve totes bonded. But Jennie still has that date with Todd…

Bad news for Nick. Todd actually seems like a good dude, AND he and Jennie can commiserate over losing opportunities to nepotism (his bro took over their family biz because their dad thought he needed it more and Todd could handle life on his own). Plus, he gains points by taking her to a restaurant at the top of a skyscraper so that they can see the other buildings first light up for the Christmas season. COMPETITION.

On the night of a big Christmas-in-Hawaii themed party, Nick continues catching Jennie’s eye by doing things like being cute, badly playing the ukelele, and making small children like him. Plus, the party goes so great that they finally being to realize how Nick’s crazy ideas and Jennie’s attention to detail complement each other. Jennie wishes she could be more captivating with clients like Nick is! Nick wishes he could act natural around others like he can with Jennie! Could a match in love AND business be brewing?

thegreatestchristmaspartyever-0725

Cue a hot hula girl interrupting the big moment. Nick hired his pretty actress friend Kim to work the party, and they have plans to hang out after. Which is just fine, because won’t Jennie be seeing Todd, anyway? Isn’t that the sort of guy she wants?

Maybe not so much after all. Todd has a lot of ideas about the annual Tyrell’s Toys Christmas party since his company is taking over, and none of them fit with the traditional all-for-the-kids vision. It’s more like a VIP, caviar/hot waitresses/Lamborghinis-as-sleighs vision. You know, CHRISTMAS. Now Nick, he loves Jennie’s idea for a Nutcracker theme, but he also knows it isn’t what the clients want. They argue, and when Jennie realizes she’s been unreasonable and tries to offer up another truce hot dog, they’re interrupted once again by that blasted Kim. And this time Kim and Nick are going ICE SKATING. The romantic skating scene is for the protagonist, you meddling minx!!!!

Over a sad mug o’ nog, Jennie’s friend Natalie reminds her that Jennie should HATE Nick anyway because HE’S STEALING HER JOB. She has a good point, but then again Jennie is doing a pretty good job of sabotaging herself. Todd gets so frustrated over Jennie’s insistence with adhering to tradition with the Tyrell’s party that he ends up having to fire her — supposedly on his boss’s behalf — but still wants to date her. He gives her a gift he found in the company archives, a photo of her as a kid at that oh-so-important party. It’s actually totally sweet. DAMMIT, TODD.

Back at the ranch, Nick finds out he got a part on a soap opera that he auditioned for a while ago, but he can’t even be happy about it because he’s so focused on helping Jennie. He even pleads with Todd to hire her back, to no avail. Meanwhile, Jennie goes to talk to ol’ Mr. Tyrell about these pesky new owners of his store and how they’re not honoring his handshake deal about keeping the party as-is for the community. They all decide to go forward with throwing the party themselves… but will Nick take the part and have to leave on Christmas Eve? He’s ready to stay, until roses arrive for Jennie from Todd, and she seems for a moment to consider giving the guy another chance. It’s because she thinks you’re dating the hula girl, you idiot! And wouldn’t you know, his agent calls right at that moment — and he agrees to head to LA. (Nobody tell the makers of this film that daytime soaps are based in NYC anyway.)

As the group rallies to make the party happen (without telling Petra they’re going behind a former client’s back…), Kim confesses to Jennie how Nick fought for her with Todd. Hula Girl knows what’s up. But romance will have to wait, because Petra just found out about what they’re doing, when lawyers showed up to warn her about violating a non-compete clause. Jennie readies herself for a lecture and maybe a firing, but then Petra gets wise on her ass. She looks up “party” in the dictionary — repeat, SHE LOOKS UP “PARTY” IN THE DICTIONARY — “a social event, a gathering of people.” In other words, you’re not alone, I’m here for you, bitch! She’s only mad to have been kept in the dark, and tells them to go full speed ahead, because she’s got lawyers, too. Yay, old rich white lady!!

On the morning of the party, Nick must depart. He and Jennie share one last hot dog, and then it’s off to the airport. While there, he opens her gift to him — a vintage clock radio, in reference to how he once said he feels like a clock radio because he always has to be “on.” That doesn’t actually make that much sense as a gift when you think about it (he DOESN’T like being like a clock radio, Jennie), but sure enough it sends Nick running back to the party, ready to declare his love.

But is the party about to implode?? Todd and his boss have shown up after seeing a piece on the local news; will they try to shut it down? Shit, son, this is Christmas. One look at the happy kids and the boss man is converted, actually blaming Todd for trying to stop the party in the first place. (Poor Todd.)

And then! Nick bursts in and confesses his feelings to Jennie. Their kiss is eeeeeaaaaaasily the hottest Hallmark kiss so far this season. (Poor Todd times two.) AND IN FRONT OF THE CHILDREN. Jennie and Nick are gonna bone down so hard tonight. And Christmas is saved and all that. The end.

The Best Christmas Party Ever is on the high end of this year’s Hallmark crop. The plot is cheesy in a fun, not overly-serious way, the characters quickly gain layers beyond the first characterizations of “uptight girl” and “fun-loving guy,” and the actors have actual sexy chemistry. “If you think It’s A Wonderful Life rates a 10, Best Christmas Party Ever is at least a 20″ says a crazy person on IMDb! How can you argue with that? It’s the penultimate entry in this year’s line-up, but will Hallmark end on a high note? Stay tuned for our season finale.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 4/11 films
*male lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 2/11
*female lead gets fired: 4/11
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 3/11
*romantic ice skating scene: 3/11
*romantic tree decorating scene: 7/11
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 5/11
*dead parents: 6/11

Another Christmas Angel? Inconceivable.

Gather ’round, children. Closer, closer. I have a little bit of bad news, and then some very good news. First, I have to tell you: Santa isn’t real. I know, I know. It’s tough to face the truth. But there’s something else, something even better, that IS real.

FEMINISM IS REAL, BITCHES!!!

And that’s why, since Santa is a completely fictional construct, there ain’t no reason that Santa can’t be a woman. (Miss me with that Mrs. Claus bullshit. Do you even know her maiden name? DIDN’T THINK SO.)

In Christmas at Cartwright’s, single mom Nicky (growing Hallmark staple Alicia Witt) loses her job before Christmas when the dress shop she works at closes. She’s determined to stay positive and find a new position with the holiday hiring upswing, but nothing has worked out so far. She’s dodging her landlady, explaining to her daughter Becky’s teacher why she can’t afford a reading tutor, and certainly not putting any effort into dating, though Becky is determined that a love match is just as important as a job match to make her mom’s life great again.

One evening, Nicky and Becky are walking home when they find an odd sort of silver coin on the ground, one with an image of an angel on it. Becky is sure this will be good luck, and indeed, Nicky soon finds that her neighbor and friend Liz has a tip about a job at Cartwright’s, an upscale department store. She goes to the interview with high hopes.

While waiting for the interview, Nicky starts chatting with a cute manager named Bill who finds her dropped resume (get it together, girl). This turns out to be bad, though, because the lady exec conducting the interview, Fiona, clearly has a crush on Bill, and thus develops immediate, utter contempt for Nicky (everyone knows only whores chat). That good luck from the coin seems to have run out already.

Or has it???

While trying to leave the store, some sort of elevator malfunction dumps Nicky on an Employees Only floor. As she tries to find the way out, she stumbles on a room full of Santa costumes and gets locked in. She hears a voice outside, asking her if she’s put on the suit yet. The kids are waiting! And by the way, being store Santa is a really great job that comes with all sorts of benefits!

Who is that voice outside the room? That elfish man who bears a strong resemblance to the angel on that silver coin? IT’S MOTHERFUKKIN WALLACE SHAWN.

Literally the only way I could have been happy about a third “angel helping on the ground” film in this year’s line-up is by having that angel be Wallace Shawn. Well played, Hallmark. Well played.

Nicky makes a snap decision to go with this weird situation, pitching her voice low and slapping on the beard before anyone can see her. Soon her slim, “new, modern, healthy-looking Santa,” as Harry the Christmas Consultant slash Angel describes her, is a huge hit with the kids, especially since, with Harry’s winking help, Santa seems to be almost psychic about what the kids want. Peg, the store’s longtime Head Santa’s Helper, is beyond happy with this new guy who takes the job so seriously. But Bitchy Lady Exec Fiona is livid to have had her pick for Santa replaced, and also deeply suspicious about the new hire, who’s gaining popularity while failing to push expensive gifts on the kids and parents. She demands a background check on this man Nicky Talbot.

Meanwhile, in her non-Santa guise, Nicky keeps running into Cute Manager Bill. In the coffee shop, in the tree lot, in the elevator: he’s everywhere. And a much better prospect than the sad single dads determined Becky gathers to introduce to her mom at her school’s Open House. They finally make a dinner date, and all seems to be working out beautifully. Except, of course, the fact that she still has to hide her job from him.

christmasatcartwrights-1154

This becomes an issue on the date, when he confides in her about a past fiancée who cheated on him, and how it’s made him value honesty. Uh oh. Panicked over the fact that she’s lying to him about her vague “holiday” job, she pretends that a call from Liz is a huge emergency and flees. Liz’s advice for a sad and guilty Nicky is to just make it through the next week until Christmas and then try again to go out with the dude. Ah, logical.

BUT there’s still that pesky matter of Fiona. Harry has angel-ed away the background check several times, but this is only causing her ire to grow. And when Harry gets called away on some other angel business, the shit hits the fan. A store security guard catches Nicky in the Santa dressing room and assumes she’s stealing, dragging her to Fiona for some reason. She recognizes the name “Nicky Talbot” from the background check, revealing the Santa lie to everyone (including a disappointed Cute Bill), and fires her, vaguely citing bad publicity for the store.

Nicky’s very upset about the situation, but then Liz, a former publicist, gets her story of being fired for being a woman — despite being the most popular Santa the store’s ever had! — on the local news. Getting a story of injustice on the local news is, of course, the only thing it takes to right a wrong. (Hey feminists, have we tried this in real life?? So easy!!!)

Back at work, Nicky apologizes to Bill for lying. His response is that he’s not so much mad that she kept the truth from him, but that he wishes she’d given him a chance, and not assumed he would equate cheating in a relationship with a mother desperately trying to take care of her child. Ouch, Bill. Ouch.

Meanwhile, the big boss Mr. Cartwright is pissed that Fiona fired Nicky, so he fires her. Nicky tells him about Harry helping her, but — SHOCKING — he’s never heard of the guy. She finally puts two and two together, and soon discovers that Becky was way ahead of her the whole time. She recognized her mom in the Santa outfit when she went to the store (thank god; only a true idiot wouldn’t know their own mother just because of a fake beard) and had a secret talk about it with Harry. She knew he was an angel all along. So she may be a bad reader, but she ain’t dumb. (Oh and she’s also been getting extra reading lessons from her teacher at recess as a Christmas gift to her mom. HEARTWARMING.) Mr. Cartwright offers Nicky Fiona’s old job as Head of Special Events, and all seems right with the world.

Except she hasn’t gotten her man yet!!!

Luckily, Peg has gone above and beyond in her Santa’s Helper duties once again. She convinces Bill to give Nicky another chance, and he stops by Nicky’s place that night, having come to his senses about how awesome a lady Santa is. (You know you guys are gonna have some fun with that suit, come on.) They kiss, everyone gathers by the tree, and Wallace Shawn creeps outside the window, admiring his handiwork.

This silly but well-done movie was a much-needed tonic after the last dreadful movie featuring an angel. (Sidenote, is Christmas the only time angels can help people? Are they on vacay the other eleven months of the year? I don’t think there are this many angels running around when it’s Valentine’s time on Hallmark.) And bonus fun fact! The screenwriter, Margaret Oberman, was one of the few women writers on Saturday Night Live in the ’80s, and she also co-wrote Troop Beverly Hills! TROOP BEVERLY HILLS, people! Bow down, bow down.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 4/10 films
*female lead gets fired: 3/10
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 3/10
*romantic ice skating scene: 3/10
*romantic tree decorating scene: 7/10
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 4/10
*dead parents: 5/10

A low bar for the definition of “miracle.”

The plots of many wonderful films essentially serve as answers to a what-if question. What if a misanthropic weatherman was forced to live a single day over and over again? What if dinosaurs could be brought back from extinction and observed by humans? What if our toys had lives of their own?

A question no one should have ever asked themselves is this: what if the love child of Jerry Lewis and Forrest Gump had to fake being a professor in order to stalk a student into fixing everything wrong with her life? BY CHRISTMAS?!?!?!

Such is the world created in Debbie Macomber’s Mr. Miracle, in which Rob Morrow plays “Harry Mills,” the alter ego of an angel on his first assignment, looking to get his wings. Yes, this is the second Hallmark film of the season using the angel’s-big-assignment premise, although I will not be so forgiving of this one as I was of the oddly sweet Angels & Ornaments. Though I haven’t been mentioning the directors of these productions, I now see that this was a grave mistake. Carl Bessai, if that is your real name: did you really look at what Rob Morrow was doing and sign off on that? Are you daft, sir? Or maybe despondent about the state of your career, such that you simply shrugged and said “Okay, what does it matter anyway, let’s break early for lunch”? There has to be an explanation other than thinking that was good. There has to be.

Alright. Okay. So. Harry the dim-witted but big-gesturing angel sets out to believably walk around in the world as if he’s ever seen a cup or a chair before, teach an English class at a local community college, and help Addie, a dyslexic young woman dealing with her father’s death, who has already dropped out of college once, learn to love herself enough in order to start putting her life back together and follow her dream of working in medicine like her father did. He has an older, wiser angel named Celeste to help him; she has very pretty red hair and I wonder why the movie can’t be about her. There is also an angel who is a dog, named Tommy. Tommy’s owner never seems to wonder where Tommy is when he’s off meeting with Harry and Celeste.

The angels’ plan has several elements:

*have Harry’s class read A Christmas Carol, so that Addie can start thinking about how someone’s past needn’t dictate their future;
*remind Addie how much she loves helping people by manipulating her into caring for her hated neighbor after said neighbor is in a ski accident (whether the angels actually cause that accident remains unclear);
*have Harry move into a house on Addie’s block and hang around a lot like a jolly creeper until Christmas magic happens.

Let me get to the one thing that makes this movie watchable, and that is the hated neighbor, Erich. Erich was Addie’s classmate all through childhood and high school, and he embodies every hot boy-next-door from every TV show in the ’90s. His hair flows in blond waves that would make Zack Morris’s toes curl with envy. He calls her “Adelaide,” which she hates, but we know that means he likes her. He has a witchy girlfriend who went to high school with them, but he’s so ready to grow up and move on. If only a girl like Addie could see him as the adult he’s grown into instead of the shallow popular kid he used to be…

Just take a look at Erich's waves.

Just take a look at Erich’s waves.

I’m gonna have to jump ahead here and just say that it all works out. Addie comes to terms with her father’s death, finishes her class, and decides to keep going with school, and she and Erich share a single, painfully chaste kiss. I cannot go into more detail than this because it all involves Rob Morrow mugging it up as if in an attempt to prove that he totally could have handled the lead role in I Am Sam back in the day. I love you, dear readers, but not enough to relive that.

Perhaps it is also the “Debbie Macomber” label that made this movie such a disappointment for me, as usually it can be relied upon. For example, 2009’s Debbie Macomber’s Mrs. Miracle, featuring Doris Roberts as a nanny who helps young widower James Van Der Beek deal with his six-year-old twins and his healing, maybe-ready-for-love-again heart. Now there’s a movie worth your time. Sadly, I must be more wary in the future. Thanks a lot for that lesson, Harry.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/9 films
*female lead gets fired: 2/9
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 3/9
*romantic ice skating scene: 3/9
*romantic tree decorating scene: 7/9
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 4/9
*dead parents: 5/9


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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