2020 Holiday Movie Challenge Part 1

George Michael didn’t live to see this, but unfortunately we did.

This post was sponsored by Overthinking It’s 2020 holiday fundraiser for The Actor’s Fund. Thanks to all who donated. We hope these pieces on seasonal entertainments remind us all that this is a season that gives, over and over and over.

U.S.S. Christmas (2020)

By Peter Fenzel

If you’ve lingered around the Redbox like I have, you’re familiar with the punchy title bait-and-switch. Some white-knuckle B-movie, clinging to its sliver of your attention, digs in with a madcap title. “How could this movie really be about that?” you marvel. Sharks, robots, meteors, the promises for absurd spectacle dance like sugar plums in your head. So you try it. And always, it is mostly just talking.

Such is U.S.S. Christmas. To quote the movie it wants you to think it is imitating: It’s writing a check its butt can’t cash.

Oh it starts out promising. The intro sequence is straight out of Top Gun, with fighter planes leaping off the deck of an aircraft carrier. And by the time the big city career woman has met her tall drink of white wine, he arrives at Mach 3 with missiles locked.

His call sign? “Grinch.” His character development? “The way I see it, ships were for combat, not Christmas.” His defense mechanism? “I love it all. The adrenaline. The rush. I don’t think there’s anything I’m afraid of.”

Her response, from the woman he’s destined to open up to emotionally and kiss exactly once? “Not even Christmas?” At moments, it’s ham-tastic.

But halfway through, U.S.S. Christmas drops altitude from gloriously stupid to earnestly competent, and the world is worse for it.

The many fans of the 2004 Disney movie about naval family life and 9/11, Tiger Cruise (starring Bill Pullman and Hayden Panatierre), should be familiar with the premise. To give families time together to get to better know their loved ones and their lifestyles at sea, the U.S. Navy holds “Tiger Cruises” where families get to ride the ship, do activities together, etc. And our big-city serious journalist goes on one with her sister.

She grew up a navy brat, you see, but has driven the military out of her life, because of the loss of her father in combat. The U.S. Navy stands in for the small town or the country inn she has left for bigger things. As always, the career woman has to rediscover the part of herself she left behind so she can forge a romantic bond with a tall man.

U.S.S. Christmas dangles hope for a nonstop flurry of yuletide exces, all grumbled and grunted at by our spit-and-polish mantagonist, Instead, it mulls itself into a heartfelt meditation on the greater questions of military life.

Can a military relationship end happily? Can military families survive the strains of service? Our big city reporter and square-jawed chunk-o-Navy explore the question together, following a trail of scattered memorabilia and public records. A couple who met and fell in love on a Tiger Cruise right before the Vietnam War vanish from every listing. Did he die? Did they make it? It turns out, spoilers, they stayed together even while one of them spent seven years in one of Ho Chi Minh’s prison camps.

It’s around this time that I realized Hallmark Christmas movies are about grief. How can you look at a life lived, with all its pain, and all its loss, and say you would have done it all over again? And yearn for those younger than you to make the most of their chance to do just that?

I guess these are questions worth asking, and I suppose Christmas might occasion that introspection, but I would have appreciated a red-nosed F-18 cutting through the fog to ensure the tactical delivery of Christmas cheer. Or candle-holding carol singers lining the runway to guide a wayward pilot safely home. Or “I feel the need, the need, for Christmas!” There’s not even any mistletoe on the ship. At least someone could unwrap a volleyball.

You know, since it’s called U.S.S. Christmas.

But that’s a negatory, Sleigh Rider.

Magic: ☆☆☆☆☆

This movie is in open warfare with the magic implicit in its title.

Family: ★★★★☆

It’s specific to military families, but it’s the main focus.

Romance: ★☆☆☆☆

These people mostly just seemed bored and wanted to be bored alongside another bored person. Which I guess sounds a bit sweet. But the romantic energy gets shut down a lot.

Dogfights: ☆☆☆☆☆

In a movie about fighter pilots, there are zero scenes inside a fighter jet.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020)

By Matthew Belinkie

Back in 2018, The Christmas Chronicles managed to reinvigorate the staid figure of good old St. Nick with two innovations. The first was casting Kurt Russell as Santa. He’s an actor known for his confident tough guy swagger but also his ability to inject everything with a touch of playful humor (think of his recent turn as a wisecracking spymaster in the Fast and Furious series). His Santa was pure magic, from the way he steered his sleigh through the sky like a fighter pilot, to the way he crooned his way through a musical number wearing Blues Brothers sunglasses, to the quieter moments where he gave the children some gentle advice with a twinkle in his eye.

The second innovation was probably inevitable but it took Netflix’s bottomless pockets to make it happen. Instead of using tiny actors or even Lord of the Rings-style forced perspective, the elves were entirely CGI creatures and they were absolutely adorable. Imagine a combination of Minions and Smurfs, each with its own brightly-colored cold weather attire. They even invented a fake Scandanavian language for them to speak.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 gives us more of what worked. Kurt Russell is joined onscreen by his longterm partner Goldie Hawn as Mrs. Claus, and they’re both clearly having a ball. Whereas the first movie kept Santa out and about in the real world, here the action is mostly in the North Pole and we get plenty of elf hijinks, including a dance party featuring “Who Let the Dogs Out?” They even give Santa another blues showstopper, this time dueting with legendary diva Darlene Love. The sequel also gets a director upgrade to none other than Chris Columbus, who will forever be a Christmas legend for directing Home Alone 30 years ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the main character, a spunky tween who is upset her widowed mother is getting remarried to Tyrese (also from the Fast and Furious series!), or the bad guy, a rogue elf named Belsnickel who is looking to steal Santa’s magic to set up his own toymaking operation in the South Pole. All you really need to know is that at one point, Santa faces down a massive CGI beast and growls, “Bad move, Yule Cat,” and then proceeds to grab it by the tail, spin it around like the Tazmanian Devil, and yeet it into the sky. Everyone in my house has been saying, “Bad move, Yule Cat,” for weeks now and I, for one, have no intention of stopping.

Magic: ★★★★★

This is a movie where Santa is sent back in time and the way he repairs the time machine involves making everyone in Boston’s Logan Airport burst into an original song.

Family: ★★★☆☆

On the one hand, the main character’s family is largely absent while she’s whisked away on a Christmas adventure. On the other hand she learns a valuable lesson about not being such a selfish brat all the time.

Romance: ★☆☆☆☆

The tween protagonists make this a nonstarter but I’m giving it one star for the obvious chemistry between Kurt and Goldie.

Fun New Zealand Accent: ★★★☆☆

The pudgy kid from Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Deadpool 2 is the bad guy!

Last Christmas (2019)

currently on HBO Max
By Mark Lee

Last Christmas got a proper theatrical release in 2019 and features an A-list cast and crew (starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding; directed by Paul Feige), so it doesn’t really fit the definition of “bad holiday movie” the way that most of these other entries do. And yet, this movie has such an outrageous and crazy plot twist that it more than earned its place in this pantheon of artistic achievement.

Spoilers ahead…

Nice trailer, right? A holiday rom-com inspired by the music of George Michael with two likable, telegenic leads, set in London, that most Christmasy of metropoles. So far so good. The movie starts as you would expect it: troubled young woman meets handsome young man, and romance quickly ensues. But a little too quickly and too easily. We learn very little about the guy—he doesn’t have a cell phone, and maybe he volunteers at this homeless shelter? And yet, when the woman shows up to look for him, he’s not there. Hm. Meanwhile we learn lots about the woman: her family immigrated to the UK from the former Yugoslavia; she’s the survivor of a heart transplant; and after years of selfish, self-destructive living, she’s finally turning her life around and being generous to others.

That last fact sets up the crucial reveal, which is…I swear I am not making this up, although it is just beyond preposterous…OK fine here it is.

Her romantic interest was DEAD ALL ALONG. He died LAST CHRISTMAS. When, unbeknownst to her, he LITERALLY GAVE HER HIS HEART as an organ donor.

And that inspiration to turn her life around? It came from her organ donor/imagined love interest.


And that’s not all. Did you notice that this is basically what happens when you read the lyrics of the song “Last Christmas” literally?

“Last Christmas…you gave me your heart.”


While watching the movie, after this reveal, I said to my wife, “I can’t decide if I love it or hate it.” A few days later, I think I love it. It’s not executed particularly well, but it was a bold, ridiculous choice. Perhaps more importantly, it’s in keeping with a series of repeated jokes made at the expense of the titular song. Emilia Clarke’s character works at a Christmas tchotchke shop, and many of the tacky items they sell play tinny, equally tacky renditions of “Last Christmas.” The suggestion is that the George Michael classic is constantly being butchered and misinterpreted by those who want to strip it of its melancholy nature and turn it into a feel-good holiday banger.

So after constructing an implausible story from a comically literal reading of the lyrics, what does this movie do?

Turn “Last Christmas” into a feel-good holiday banger as its musical finale, complete with brass, a swinging rhythm section, and a crowd-pleasing sing-along.

I’m convinced that someone behind the making of this movie set out to misconstrue the song “Last Christmas” as deeply and weirdly as possible, while dressing it all up as a heartfelt tribute to the music of George Michael. Maybe that someone was director Paul Feige. Or perhaps it was screenwriter Byrony Kimmings, an avant-garde performance artist whose credits include a long roster of very, very weird stuff. Or maybe it was no one at all, but if this person exists, I hope they’re satisfied with the insane fact that there’s a movie where someone LITERALLY GAVE HIS HEART AWAY LAST CHRISTMAS.


Magic: ★★★☆☆

Was it all a mental episode? That’s one way to interpret it, but I choose to believe in a supernatural connection forged by, uh, organ transplant.

Family: ★★★★☆

Amidst all of this, the movie finds time for a subplot involving Emilia Clarke’s older sister, who’s a lesbian but hasn’t come out to her family. Of course, by the end, the girlfriend comes over for dinner. Dead boyfriend is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this movie!

Romance: ★★☆☆☆

We see the two leads kiss–that’s as far as they go in this movie. Did it actually happen? In her mind, it did, so that counts for something.

Life-saving power of organ donation: ★★★★★

In all seriousness, you should sign up to be an organ donor if you haven’t already.

A California Christmas

By Matthew Wrather

I am not entirely sure how this movie ended up in the Netflix carousel of holiday movies, which is where I came across it one winter’s night, doom-scrolling through all the thumbnail posters (an activity I think I spend more doing than actually watching Netflix). Despite being in the title, Christmas has nothing at all to do with the story. It should be called Uneven Romantic Comedy Set in Late December for Marketing Reasons.

Screenwriter and co-producer Lauren Swickard stars as Callie, a down-to-earth young woman who lives on the farm left to her by her late father. (She survived the car crash that killed him, along with her fiancé. Dad was driving but was distracted by some pretty Christmas lights. Ok, Christmas has one thing to do with the story. But I swear that’s it.) She’s up to her overalls in debt; her mother is refusing cancer treatment but has still run up six figure medical bills; she is raising her younger sister; she works nights as a bartender at a dive in town.

Despite being in the middle of California wine country, this is inexplicably a dairy farm, and for reasons passing understanding a San Francisco-based real estate firm wants to buy it and turn it into a shipping facility of some kind. Real estate executive and charming playboy Joseph is dispatched by his boss (who is also his disapproving, domineering, withholding mother) to buy the property from Callie with a Spartan ultimatum: come home with this contract or upon it. Oh and the deadline happens to be Christmas but nobody cares.

As it happens, Joseph has the foresight to dress casual, and shows up on the very day a farmhand was meant to start work. He quickly realizes that a high-falutin’ city slicker would be welcomed with a shotgun, and assumes the farmhand’s identity despite knowing nothing about working on a farm (he learns everything you’d need to know via montage, within a notional span of about 72 hours). One thing leads to another, Callie and Joseph fall in love, he learns the value of an honest days’ work, mom shows up wondering what’s taking her son so long and reveals his lies, everything is sad for about two minutes, Joseph stands up to his mother which in a shocking twist earns her respect, and Callie saves the farm when she discovers that the small plot of grape vines her late father planted to make wine as a hobby produce the most exquisite vintages. It’s a Christmas miracle [It’s not. —Ed.], and the last thing we see is an aerial shot of a vineyard which bears no resemblance to the landscape or even the climatological zone of the farm.

One of the fun things with a movie like this is calling out the beats as they happen. “He will fix the chicken coop!” “She will be discovered at the kitchen table poring over bills!” Predictability is not bad as long as the film delivers on its promises satisfactorily. Here, though, all the beats are rote; people say exactly what they mean and speak about the most painful traumas as though analyzing them abstractly, but have very little insight into their own motivations, the dynamics of their families, or the real world. The actors playing the love interests are a married couple, and they are good looking enough, but fall short of the spontaneity required by actual charm. The charm is provided by the supporting cast, including the film’s producer as Joseph’s chauffeur, who tutors the actual farmhand in wine appreciation. Apparently this is enough warrant a sequel in 2021.

I guess the film teaches some valuable lessons about land use?

Magic: ✩✩✩✩✩

The most unrealistic thing is that a real estate executive can ignore his email for a week.

Family: ★★★✩✩

Isn’t it great how a cancer diagnosis can bring the kids together?

Romance: ★★★★✩

“You’ve been lying about who you are!” “Until I met you, I didn’t know who I am!”

Live Birth of a Baby Cow: ★★★★★

Away in a manger, though more like a shed, / Our modern-day Joseph pulls out a cow’s head.

One Comment on “2020 Holiday Movie Challenge Part 1”

  1. John C Member #

    I haven’t seen many of the Holiday(TM) rom-coms, but reading these reviews brings into focus how opinionated they all seem to be about employment. Specifically, white-collar work isn’t worth doing, and white collar workers can’t be loved unless they renounce their slacks-wearing ways. But it’s also weird, because a lack of ability in white-collar work is usually why the lead’s family is struggling at their salt-of-the-Earth small business, hence the obligatory montages of a confused but conventionally attractive person poring over paperwork.

    Also, I haven’t considered HBO Max to be worth the price tag, but Last Christmas is coming closer to tempting me than anything else has, because that sounds like a movie that 100% knows what it wants to be and who it wants as its audience…


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