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I'm Still Waiting for the Great Canadian Christmas Movie

12/13/2013 11:52 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

With Christmas comes the inevitable flood of Christmas movies. They range from beloved classics to TV movies knocked out with all the finesse of an assembly line.

And as a guy who writes and ruminates about Canadian film and TV, every year I ask where is -- or will there be? -- a "great" Canadian Christmas movie?

The irony is that Canadian filmmakers churn out an insane amount of Christmas movies, like the cinematic equivalent of elves toiling away in a North Pole workshop. Go over to the Internet Movie Database and probably half the TV movies made in the last decade with "Christmas" in the title are some sort of Canadian co-production.

The lion's share aren't really that good. Mind you, Christmas movies don't really have to be "good" -- not in the way regular movies are expected to be. A lot of Christmas movies you watch with one eye while wrapping presents, or while decorating the tree, enjoying the slurpy sentimentality, the obligatory carol-themed soundtrack, and then never watch again -- or even think about.

It also depends on what you are looking for in a Christmas movie. A comedy? A sentimental tearjerker? A magical fantasy? Something for the kids? The family? Or for the adults to watch with a glass of spiked eggnog? Something that celebrates the Christmas "spirit"? Or something that spoofs it? There are the classics, with different versions having their devotees (but, really, Alastair Sim's A Christmas Carol -- in black and white, of course -- and the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street are the tops of their respective remakes) yet equally modern efforts can be staples: the definitely adult comedy-drama, Love, Actually, or the insanely wacky Just Friends. I have family who make the first two Die Hard movies a part of their Christmas repertoire (both movies set during Christmas).

For some reason I tend to feel Christmas is a good time to revisit Sherlock Holmes, in one incarnation or another.

Yet despite the plethora of Canadian-made Christmas movies sprinkling the Yuletide floor like pine needles, the "Great Canadian Christmas" movie still seems to be that one item Santa never gets around to delivering. And I mean that on two fronts -- both a great "Christmas" movie, and a Christmas movie that is unapologetically "Canadian."

A lot of Canadian-made Christmas movies, like so much else in Canadian film and TV, conceal their Canadian origins. Though there has been change over the years. A decade or two back, it was almost obligatory that Canadian movies would reserve the principal roles for American actors. Yet in recent years some of these TV movies will see Canadians in leading parts.

But the on-screen setting is rarely acknowledged to be Canadian -- some movies even with titles like An American Christmas Carol and Mistletoe Over Manhattan. The movie The Christmas Choir was inspired by a real-life Canadian choir, but avoided anything on-screen that would reveal the story took place in Canada.

Part of the reason I think about this Platonic Ideal of a great Canadian Christmas movie -- aside from just gist for a seasonal blog post -- is I like to imagine a checklist of things that need to be accomplished for the Canadian industry. Y'know, identifying the "great Canadian" movies in certain genres (which might make a topic for another post).

There have been agreeable, even good Canadian-made Christmas movies. I seem to recall liking The Man Who Saved Christmas, starring American actor Jason Alexander as real life American toy maker A.C. Gilbert, and Silent Night, with American actress Linda Hamilton as a German woman who brokers a temporary Christmas truce between some American and German soldiers during WW II. Both are of the slightly more "high brow" branch of the Christmas tree. While, as I say, there are a kazillion schmaltzy TV movies that might strike your fancy if you're in a forgiving mood.

There have been other efforts over the years, going as far back as 1965's La Vie Heureseuse de Leopold Z to the well regarded CBC TV movie Small Gifts (about a poor couple struggling against life's obstacles -- a recurring theme in Canadian Christmas movies). Must Be Santa was an OK variation on the Tim Allen movie The Santa Clause (supposedly the script pre-dated that Hollywood movie). Christmas movies sometimes tie into existing TV franchises, with Happy Christmas, Mrs. King (a Road to Avonlea Christmas) and A Heartland Christmas.

Canada's first stab at a "big" Christmas movie (well, excepting Black Christmas, of course!) was arguably One Magic Christmas -- with lots of spectacle and magic and stuff. Unfortunately I recall it as kind of dreary and mean-spirited. And with a couple of Americans to headline, and avoiding admitting it was Canadian, it also fails to quite score as a "Canadian" Christmas movie.

Another movie that often gets referred to as "Canadian" is A Christmas Story -- admittedly, the one time I saw it it didn't do much for me, and I'm still not really sure how Canadian it was, other than being shot in Canada by American ex-pat director Bob Clark (who made a few Canadian movies in his career).

A movie that I regard with a certain affection was the subdued-but-atmospheric The Ghosts of Dickens' Past, which was one of those ubiquitous Christmas Carol-inspired variations, but here applied to author Charles Dickens himself (well played by Christopher Heyerdahl). I haven't seen it rerun in a few years but I recall thinking it was pretty good.

I mentioned having a personal fondness for Sherlock Holmes as a December visitation -- whether reading an old story, watching a movie, or listening to a radio play. In that sense, the Canadian-made Holmes movie, The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire, is an enjoyable pastiche (though the Christmas-time setting is only incidental).

But arguably Canada's best contribution to holiday cinema was the hour-long TV special, A Child's Christmas in Wales, dramatizing Dylan Thomas' famous ode. It's charming and atmospheric, anchored by U.K. actor Denholm Elliott's warm, nuanced narration, and I've re-watched it on more than a few Decembers. But, of course, it's not exactly a definitively "Canadian" Christmas program.

Everyone will have a different definition of what makes a great Christmas movie. Maybe some of the movies I've blithely dismissed are part of your holiday viewing rituals, or there are others I've neglected to mention at all. Feel free to use the comments section to suggest any Canadian-made Christmas movies you feel are worth seeking out.

But for me, I'm still waiting for that Christmas movie that is both Canadian -- and great.

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