With the weather outside likely frightful, you might be looking for something delightful to fill some time in the occasionally great indoors this holiday season.
Staff Picks, a recurring roundup of favorites from the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly staff, is here to help fill that void.
This edition focuses on our favorite holiday-inspired media.
Movie / Holiday special
Jonson Kuhn: “Die Hard 2.” Maybe not the most traditional of Christmas movies, but as much as you can count on presents under the tree you can count on “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” to be played repeatedly throughout Christmas Day. While many of us may not be able to exactly relate to the challenges of stopping terrorists from dastardly schemes, we certainly all can relate to the feeling of trying to reach loved ones for special occasions, and at its heart that’s what this movie truly is about, just a guy trying to be with his loved ones for the holidays.
Mark Sabbatini: “Klaus.” “It’s a wasteland whose residents all hate each other, where violent feuds are the only form of social interaction, and where, if you were to stumble across kids building a snowman, they’d be pallid Addams-styled tots who’ve used carrots to stab the thing instead of giving him a nose.” That description by a reviewer of this 2019 Netflix special is meant to get readers into the Christmas spirit in much the way the Grinch did, although “it’s a kind of hell (he) could barely have envisioned for Whoville, and the town’s two main clans (the Krums and Ellingboes) like it that way.” It follows the misadventure of Jesper, a spoiled rich kid sent from the mainland by his dad to learn the family trade by going postal – in the literal sense as a mail carrier. His mission reads like an Age of Empires achievement: move 6,000 letters through the hapless local post office on an island in the most northernmost part of Norway (just a few hundred miles from the North Pole) in order to return home. Luckily in this town known as Smeerenburg there are a few “outsiders with good intentions.”
Clarise Larson: I am a major advocate for the OG 1964 “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” movie, mostly because I was named after Clarice, the love interest and later girlfriend of Rudolph, but also because it’s just simply exquisite in every way. There is action, romance, horror and self-discovery all jammed together in this stop-motion masterpiece. I also enjoy the 1999 instant classic “Olive, the Other Reindeer” because it makes me want to eat olives, which are yummy. If you’re looking for something more deep and introspective, I would recommend the 2007 Shrek holiday adaptation, “Shrek the Halls.”
Ben Hohenstatt: “Tangerine.” A movie shot on a trio of iPhones that follows the Christmas Eve exploits of two transgender sex workers and a cab driver in Los Angeles is decidedly my kind of Christmas movie. It’s vulgar, occasionally violent, often funny, intermittently poignant and always exciting. It’s an exceptionally well-made movie that explores particularly dysfunctional fictive kinship with the most wonderful time of the year as a backdrop. Director Sean Baker would go on to make the less-frenetic but even-more-acclaimed “The Florida Project” and “Red Rocket,” which also rule, but I strongly recommend this if you’d like to see a movie operating squarely at the intersection of Harmony Korine and the Safdie brothers with a holiday motif.
Sabbatini: “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Exchange that shows this is from the era when explosions and such involving puppets were OK: “Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?” “Nah, it’s all right. This is culture.” All of the Muppets get at least cameos to go Gonzo, with their hijinks elevated by Michael Cane’s perfectly deadpan Scrooge.
Kuhn: “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).” Based on the popular 1957 children’s book by the same name, it never quite feels like Christmas without watching this holiday classic at least once or twice. With its dated animation and Boris Karloff narration, I appreciate this TV special for its simplicity and heart…heart that grows three sizes with every viewing.
Hohenstatt: “Player’s Ball” by Outkast — or a version of it, at least —was first gifted to the world in November 1993 on the “LaFace Family Christmas” compilation album, which also includes TLC’s extremely ‘90s take on “Sleigh Ride.” While some sleigh bells and ho-ho-hos would be removed from the song by the time it made it to Outkast’s debut album several months later, either version of the song includes lyrics that reference hanging stockings and allude to “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” more than enough to qualify one of the best songs on the greatest-ever rap duo’s immaculate debut as a Christmas song. Also, while it’s not my favorite release from “Los Campesinos!,” it’s worth mentioning that the much-adored, sad-sack indie pop band put out “A Los Campesinos! Christmas” in 2014, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.
Larson: Alvin and the Chipmunks’ entire album “Holidays & Hits” is so bad it’s good. There’s nothin’ better than sitting around a warm fire, roasting chestnuts and drinking eggnog with your loved ones whilst listening to the album’s inescapable and excruciating holiday melodies crooned by three autotuned adults larping as chipmunks.
Sabbatini: Lynette Washington. “Long, Long Ago (A Jazz Celebration of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa). An obscure 1999 album by a vocalist whose singing is as broadly deep, husky, adventurous and full of soul as the holidays whose stories she narrates. Her accompanying acoustic quartet is first-rate all the way, with saxophonist Gerry Niewood in particular competing for the listener’s ear with a lyricism that compliments Washington in Velcro-like fashion. Nothing about this album is familiar, yet every one of the six songs provides more immediate gratification to someone who’s really listening than comfort food fare ever can. “Always Christmas” is a post-bop barn-burner, “Long, Long Ago” a ballad in need of an extinguisher and “Kwanzaa” an African- jazz hybrid that’ll get people to observe the holiday just so they can play this song.
Kuhn: “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” I have fond memories of singing this song with my older sister when we were kids and perhaps because of nostalgia it’s continued to be a holiday favorite well into adulthood. But nostalgia aside, I also happen to think it’s just a pretty good little tune guaranteed to get stuck inside your head at least for 24 hours.
Sabbatini: “Celtic Christmas Podcast.” Marc Gunn’s been doing a bunch of these every year since 2009 and they are mixed company holiday listening revelry nonpareil. Whether intoxicatingly upbeat and funny, or heart-achingly heartwarming, all of it is filled with true holiday cheer rather than the saccharine slog of mall and pop-tune clichés. Even his interludes and introductions/histories are a rare net plus by an extremely informed host for a music podcast.
Hohenstatt: “Comedy Bang! Bang!” I discovered this long-running, absurdist comedy podcast 12 years ago, when I was a college freshman and suddenly had many idle hours to fill and no budget for cable TV or video games — and apparently no desire to better myself by doing almost anything else with my free time. I’ve been listening and laughing ever since. I don’t keep as close of a tab on it as I used to, but I always check in for the super long (almost 2 ½ hours this year), super funny holiday spectaculars.
Book or short story
Kuhn: “The Dead” by James Joyce. I read this (not so) short story in college and aside from it having a Christmas theme tied into it, I’ve always loved this story for not only how well it’s written but also because of the message of seizing life and appreciating every moment and the people we’re fortunate enough to spend them with.
Sabbatini: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Dickens gets the nod because (the original – and ONLY the 1966 original) screen version of “The Grinch” outsours the book. Also, much like turning off “It’s A Wonderful Life” either when George Bailey jumps in the water or at the bridge afterward with his request to return to his old life unfulfilled, if closing the book on Scrooge after his funeral adds a whole new conversational depth to an otherwise marketing-contrived happy ending.
Hohenstatt: “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd If your favorite part of the oppressively ubiquitous “A Christmas Story” is the quippy narration, this is the holiday book for you. While you wouldn’t know it from the drastically different titles, this novel is the basis for Turner Broadcasting perpetuated “classic” and unlike the movie, which I’ve become completely numb to, it’s pretty funny. It’s 31 chapters of well-observed Midwest humor so gentle it makes Garrison Keillor look like mid-’80s Eddie Murphy.
Kuhn: “The Legend of Zelda”…all of them and any of them on any gaming system anytime and anywhere.
Sabbatini: “Dark Castle.” Sets a festival holiday tone by playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor during the title screen, followed by a jolly romp through the evil Black Knight’s cozy abode with its torture chambers, gargoyles and dragons. But hark – if you play on Dec. 25 the place is decorated for Christmas.
Hohenstatt: “Animal Crossing.” Events in this game series mirroring the time and date in real life was mind-blowing for me in 2001. A couple decades and sequels later, and the holiday feels off if I don’t try to forge a parasocial connection to some adorable video game animals.