The Greatest Gift
I think the worst question you can ask a critic is "What's your favorite movie?" There are way too many to pick from, and not everyone's criteria is the same. It comes down to what flick means the most to me, in which case I'd choose 1983's A Christmas Story in a heartbeat. More impressionable and culturally important films have been made, though not a one has duplicated the pure movie magic this one delivers time and again to yours truly. A Christmas Story never set out to become a classic, but its pitch-perfect take on nostalgic Americana earns it a place among cinema's most precious treasures.
Based on the musings of the great Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story takes place during one winter in the childhood of young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley). An adult Ralphie (voiced by Shepherd himself) narrates his pre-pubescent misadventures in trying to acquire the ultimate Christmas gift: a Red Ryder BB gun. Though countered at every turn with the classic "You'll shoot your eye out!" warning, Ralphie remains undeterred in his quest for the rifle. We also observe other aspects of Ralphie's life, from his old man (Darren McGavin) going nuts for a tacky lamp to his mother (Melinda Dillon) just getting his brother (Ian Petrella) to eat dinner. Through it all, we come to realize something even the Grinch knows, that Christmas is more about the memories we make than the presents we get.
The staying power of A Christmas Story can be attributed to its lack of an agenda. So many titles that harp about the yuletide spirit end up commercializing the holidays, but not this one. Though you could say there's a lesson to be learned, it's much too wily a film to let itself be caught stating the obvious. It even bucks a traditional narrative structure in favor of a more stream-of-consciousness approach. A Christmas Story is less a straight tome than a collection of snapshots from yesteryear. Not everyone will have experienced a childhood like Ralphie's, nor are the film's events improbably wacky. It's all about peering into the past and seeing how we acted as kids through a grown-up perspective. Some may deem Shepherd's constant narration intrusive, but the way he recounts youthful escapades with a verbose tongue instills the film with its signature style.
Rarely do movies get as much right as A Christmas Story does. Everything, everything is performed to perfection, from the homespun humor to those elements of fantasy that do enter the story. The film captures as skewed a vision of reality needed in order not to be dismissed as sentimental crud. Billingsley shines in one of the best child performances ever, if only because he's allowed to be a kid. Ralphie's no saint (his brushes with bullies and cursing make sure of that), but he's a likable lad; you enjoy watching him just being himself to the point that whether or not he gets the gun is moot. Similarly, Dillon and McGavin portray probably the most accurate parents in filmdom, lovingly drawn but never prone to fits of melodrama. The remaining players all contribute something to the film's offbeat mosaic, from Zack Ward as a feared tough kid and Jeff Gillen as one sourpuss of a Santa Claus.
In over eleven years of being a critic, A Christmas Story is one of the most difficult films I've ever had to review. For one, there's not much to say that others haven't at this point, but most of all, there isn't enough space to sum up how big a part of my life it's become. A Christmas Story brings a smile to my face and even a tear to my eye every time I see it. I can't imagine a better film to cherish as my personal favorite.
MY RATING: **** (out of ****)
(Released by MGM/UA Entertainment Company and rated "PG" by MPAA.)
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