Every city has a season in which it shines.
You’ve got Paris in the springtime and St. Petersburg, Russia during the “white nights” of summer when the sun never quite sets. My oldest daughter was going to Machu Picchu once, and stopped in Cuzco, Peru. She said everyone there told her that February really was the best time to be in Cuzco. Of course, she also said there were approximately 2 million feral dogs happily trotting around the streets of Cuzco, so when wouldn’t be a good time to be in Cuzco? Because who doesn’t love dogs?
There is no city quite like New York City, however, at Christmastime. I don’t know what it is, but somehow New York from the week of Thanksgiving until Christmas Day seems, well, uh… nice? Yes, nice. That’s the best word to describe New York at Christmas. It’s actually nice. Something about the lights and the colder air and the fact that many New Yorkers will be leaving for winter vacations soon in Florida seems to perk everyone up.
Here are my favorite holiday movies set in New York. You’ve probably seen all of them, but I’m sure it’s been too long since you’ve seen them last, so go right ahead and watch them all over again.
When my oldest son was 14, he was in a soccer tournament in San Diego for the Thanksgiving weekend, and this movie had just come out. Each evening, after the games and dinner, I would ask him what he wanted to do. “Let’s go see Elf,” he said. Which we, of course, did. Three nights in a row. It’s the perfect holiday movie set in New York. It’s Will Ferrell at his best. And... let me check something. Yup, it turns out I am still in love with Zooey Deschanel.
This movie is a classic example of the critics vs. audience dynamic that erupts every once in awhile. When the film came out, it was relentlessly bashed by critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes has the film rated at 27% positive with critics, but 97% with audiences. Both are right. It’s not that good a movie (sorry, John Hughes, who wrote it), but if you’re telling me you are going to fire up your DVD player and watch Macaulay Culkin spend Christmas alone at the Plaza Hotel in New York, I’m coming over. I’ll bring the Rice Krispie Bars, a thermos of hot cocoa, and a lovely cheese pizza. Just leave me a spot on the couch.
Here’s a romantic comedy you might not know, but definitely should be on your Christmas viewing list. This movie has virtually every movie studio executive’s tropes about what should be in a romantic comedy: the “meet-cute,” the break-up, the time apart, the ticking clock at the end, and, most importantly, John Cusack. I have a theory that he was in every romantic comedy Hollywood made between 1983 and last week. Yet, despite all that, I am still a sucker for this movie about two people meeting randomly in New York at Christmas and then reuniting—possibly—several years later because that’s what fate wanted—possibly. Kate Beckinsale is just adorable in this movie.
I spent 12 years as a television writer, so it is always interesting to see Bill Murray’s portrayal of Frank Cross, the vain, petty and mean-spirited television executive who makes his staff work on Christmas. People have asked me if Murray’s character is an accurate rendition of what TV executives are like. “Of course not,” I always say. “Frank Cross is redeemed in the end.” This is a tremendously funny retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with a great cast that also includes Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane (in a very funny turn as a somewhat violent pixie), and Robert Mitchum. Yes, Robert Mitchum. Great script by Mitch Glazer and National Lampoon veteran Michael O’Donoghue.
I believe legislation is pending — or should be — making it a legal requirement that everyone watch the following between Thanksgiving and December 24th: A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Chuck Jones animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. And the adorable little girl playing Susan Walker? That’s Natalie Wood.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.