Full Court Miracle

Pictured: Richard T. Jones, David Sazant, Alex D. Linz, Jase Blankfort and Eric Knudson in “Full Court Miracle.”

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As the holiday season moves along, the usual Christmas cheer has been muted by dreary weather, the persistent onslaught of Covid 19, and post-election tensions. What better way to ward off the blues than entering the magical world of movie make-believe.

Not all seasonal films are jovial affairs, but most evoke a sense of hope and comfort that are the ideal hallmarks of yuletide. I am sure that most of you are familiar with most iconic Christmas films such as Miracle on 34th Street, featuring a spunky young Natalie Wood, It’s A Wonderful Life, a Jimmy Stewart classic, and the delightful Home Alone with McCauley Caulkin warding off a bungling band of home invaders while his family vacations without him.

But there are many more pleasing and memorable holiday films that warrant an (or another viewing) to nudge us along toward jollity. Here is a list of eight, with abbreviated descriptions, including movies celebrating Hannukah, to enliven the season.

A Christmas Carol (1951)

While there are as many as ten film versions of Dickens’ immortal classic, and most are available, this version from 1951, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, is arguably the best. Alastair Sim plays Ebeneezer Scrooge, the tight-fisted curmudgeon who wants nothing to do with the spirit of love and giving that go with the season.

Mervyn Johns is wonderful as his long-suffering clerk, the impoverished but valiant Bob Crachit, father to a band of six children, (among them the plucky Tiny Tim). But when he is visited by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, something transformative happens to the old kill-joy Scrooge: he transitions from skinflint to benefactor. This adaptation is especially strong for probing the personal history behind Scrooge’s meanness so that we understand that his alteration is true redemption.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)

This heart-warming romantic comedy, set during the Christmas season, stars a luminous Sandra Bullock as Lucy Moderatz, a lonely young woman who works the toll-booth at a Chicago commuter train station. Lucy is enamored of a preppy lawyer, Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher), who rides the train daily as she fantasizes over him.

When Peter is mugged unconscious at the station, Lucy accompanies him to the hospital, and ends up being mistaken by his family as his fiancée. She is embraced by the family and persists in the pretense, even while Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman) senses something is off. Of course, while Peter languishes in a coma, Lucy falls in love with Jack—and then Peter wakes up.

The complex sham is, of course, delightfully resolved. Both Bullock and Pullman made signal steps in the advancement of their career with this film, and Gallagher is charming even from a hospital bed. Jon Turteltaub directs with a deft and light-hearted touch.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

As with A Christmas Carol, this beloved Christmas story has been filmed a number of times. My favorite is the animated 1964 rendering which tells the age-old story of a misfit longing to be accepted. Rudolph’s bright red proboscis has made him a laughing stock among fellow reindeers.

Also dismissed by his own family, Rudolph runs away, coming into a series of lively adventures and befriended by a set of wily characters. Ultimately, Rudolph lands at Santa’s village, where a Christmas Eve blizzard threatens to thwart Santa’s journey to deliver gifts to the world’s children. All seems lost until Santa sees Rudolph’s glowing nose through the fog. Rudolph is commissioned to lead Santa’s flyers through the storm, and returns a hero.

This one is for anyone who has ever wondered if dreams come true, especially for outcasts. I hasten to add that though the story has a happy ending, the film is hardly saccharine: Rudolph’s trials among a number of characters, some benevolent and some devious, are demanding, even dangerous.

Full Court Miracle (2003)

While Christmas is just around the corner, the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah, commemorating the Jews’ revolt against their Syrian oppressors and rededication of the Temple in old Jerusalem, has just ended. There are relatively few films centered around Hanukkah, but one is Miracle, a Disney production based on the true story of African American collegiate basketball great Lamont Carr, who becomes the unlikely coach of a Philadelphia Hebrew school hoops team.

Undergoing a slump at Hanukkah time, the Lions players, led by 14-year old Alex Schlotsky (Alex Linz), are desperate to find a coach to help them defeat their rivals, the Warriors. The pairing of Carr (Richard T. Jones), who has lost his chance to play in the NBA due to a knee injury, and the scrappy but ungainly boys from the Yeshiva, is charmed.

Initially the players struggle with Carr’s demanding coaching style, but eventually they grow into skilled hoopsters. When Carr gets a brief professional reprieve — an offer of a 10-day pro contract with the Philadelphia 76ers — the Lions players must carry on without their coach as the big tournament looms. There is much more to the story — personal hardships of both Carr and Alex are dramatized for example. The implicit parallel between the Lions team and the Maccabees from the Hanukkah story who vanquish their enemies, sits at the heart of the film. This one may be hard to find, but it is a delight, not only for holiday celebrants, but for basketball lovers.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)

Every year, fabulously wealthy but miserly Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) vacates his sumptuous NYC home to go south for the holidays, and, unbeknownst to him, wily hobo Aloyisous McKeever (Victor Moore) moves into the empty mansion.

Since it’s Christmas, McKeever invites his vagrant cronies to join him there to live it up. But this year, Michael’s adult daughter returns home to the now occupied house, and to complicate things, O’Connor himself shows up to find his domain already inhabited. O’Connor decides to disguise himself as the new butler, thus gaining entry to his domicile to figure out what is going on. He keeps his identity a secret as the lovable tramps teach him a lesson about generosity and kindness. Clever and charming!

Just Friends (2006)

Christmas season seems to generate plentiful rom-coms—the best ever being the immortal Sleepless in Seattle—but this agreeable romance has its merits, beginning with a winsome cast. Ryan Reynolds plays Chris Brander, now an attractive, high-powered record company CEO in Los Angeles who dates musical starlet Samantha James (a fabulous, as always, Anna Faris).

But Chris was not always so desirable. He was overweight and a bit nerdy, and his high-school life was scarred by his hopeless love for his best friend, Jamie (Amy Smart).

Jamie loved him as a “friend” but rebuffed his amorous advances, causing Chris to leave for a new life in L.A. When an airplane malfunction forces Chris, with the vacuous Samantha on his arm, to make a safety stop in his old stomping grounds, Jamie and Chris meet again for the first time in 10 years. Naturally, the sparks are still there for Chris, but obstacles impede a courtship, including the clingy Samantha and another former high school geek Dusty (Chris Klein) who, like Brander, has transformed into a successful paramedic. In Christmas movies, love usually triumphs.

Bad Santa (2003)

Not every holiday film is a display of human kindness. In Band Santa, Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie T. Stokes, an alcoholic con man and misanthrope, who perpetrates a number of bunco games with his partner, Marcus (an elf-sized Tony Cox). At Christmas, the two pretend to be a shopping mall Santa and his helper who use their access to the mall’s stores to burglarize them at night.

Their gig works well until Willie’s drinking threatens to undermine their enterprise, as they have attracted the suspicions of a mall security guard. When the pair meets a child who has his own issues as a misfit, Willie, ever the cynic, befriends the boy, who against all odds begins to break down Willie’s choleric ways.

Though the film’s characters are, for most of its narrative time, unsavory, it is after all the season of good will; the cast relishes its comedic wallow into unseemly behavior as much as its eventual deliverance. Thornton is, as expected, marvelous as the ornery protagonist.

Elf (2003)

Superstar Will Ferrell is at his most goofy lovability in this comedy classic that pays homage to the endearing traditions of Santa Claus. Ferrell plays Buddy, who as an infant had managed to crawl into Santa’s bag and be transported to the North Pole where he is adopted by Santa’s elves and is raised as one.

When Buddy comes to understand his human biology, he is driven to seek out his parentage and return to his NYC roots. He finds his father, one Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a callous businessman in pursuit of the almighty dollar who has no idea he had sired a son. In the city, Buddy, dressed as an elf and wholly naïve about appropriate human behaviors (he spreads maple syrup on pizza, tries to “play” with Walter, gets drunk on whiskey thinking it’s punch, and generally makes a fool of himself).

Buddy knows that Santa is real, but when he makes a scene after deducing that the Gimbel’s Department Store Santa is a phony, all hell breaks loose. A sequence of complications ensues, but as you might surmise, Buddy’s innocence moves Walter, who is transformed into the father he never knew he was. A beloved movie that sustains greatly due to the comic genius of Will Ferrell.

Liahna Armstrong is a retired professor of English and Film Studies at Central Washington University.

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