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The Award-Worthy Talent Hidden in 7 Crappy TV Christmas Movies

By  · Published on December 5th, 2014

Entertainment One

There was once a time when Christmas movies were about Claymation heroes fighting abominable villains, visits by ghosts and angels, and young dreams for a Red Ryder B.B. Gun. Now these classics share the stage with hordes of super-basic, super-saccharine fare with the simplicity of a greeting card (and not surprisingly, often produced by the channel of a greeting card company).

Instead of worlds full of Santas and mystical powers, these are basic escapist fantasies where life can be fixed in the blink of an eye – where soulmates can be found near and far, where prison sentences can be avoided by finding love, and kindness will get you everything you’ve ever hoped for. These movies are embraced by some and mocked by others, as their simplistic storylines are flooded with little subtlety and cast with actors who are often firmly out of the spotlight.

But there’s more talent in these films than a quick glimpse suggests. There are no shortage of C-list names attached to these films – of which there are more than you’d ever realize – but it’s surprising to see just how many talents have moonlighted in Christmas fantasy. The only thing kookier than the storylines these movies boast are the talents that often bring them to life.

Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris last directed the 2012 flick The Real St. Nick. Wallace Shawn has appeared in Karroll’s Christmas and Christmas at Cartwright’s. Summer Glau filled time between Alphas and Arrow with Help for the Holidays. These names are just the tip of the iceberg that includes Oscar and Emmy winners and nominees, actors from critically acclaimed work and epic action films, and talents before, during, or after their prime. Though the stories are often slight, the talent is sometimes anything but.

A Season for Miracles

The ’90s film is an exercise in epic, “anything is possible” wish-fulfillment – the spectacular things one might wish for if they closed their eyes and imagined magic fixing all of their myriad problems. It’s also populated by an impressive number of award-winning actresses. Carla Gugino plays the sister of a drug addict (Laura Dern) who runs off with her niece (Mae Whitman) and nephew when her sister overdoses and CPS (Kathy Baker) comes to take the children.

The family seems doomed; they’re broke and homeless, and the police are after them. But then an angel pops up (Patty Duke) and guides them to a small town where kindness fixes almost every problem. And then their past confronts their possible future, none other than Lynn Redgrave pops up to hear the case and save the day.

A Grandpa for Christmas

Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine stars in the story of a showbiz man estranged from his family until his daughter is in a serious accident and he must care for the granddaughter he didn’t know existed.

A Grandpa for Christmas is more than an inoffensive tale of a family reuniting. Borgnine, who also appeared in The Wishing Well, earned his last major award nomination for his performance. It was a straight-forward, feel-good affair, one whose strength rested in the fact that Borgnine played an actor among actors, and thus, spent most of his time with the likes of Katherine Helmond (Brazil), Jamie Farr (MASH), and Richard Libertini (Fletch).

12 Men of Christmas

The same year Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth won an Emmy for her work as Olive Snook in Pushing Daisies, she got to star in her very own sappy Christmas movie helmed by prolific TV director Arlene Sanford. 12 Men of Christmas saw Chenoweth play a powerful Manhattan publicist who heads to Montana when her fiancé cheats on her with her boss and upends her career.

The small-town folks (including future Veep star Anna Chlumsky) are clueless about fundraising, and Chenoweth arrives to usher them out of bake sales and into the goldmine that is sexy calendars full of half-naked men. The movie is stereotypes and counterpoints on parade as Chenoweth is tasked with being the classic feminine heroine looking for love and terrible with directions, and the no-nonsense businesswoman determined to show how tough she is. Josh Hopkins plays her love interest, and though a happy ending is predetermined, their love never includes Penny Can.

Finding Mrs. Claus

Some films try to replicate iconic Christmas stories, and others try to replicate popular Hollywood films by squeezing them through a holiday frame. Riffing on Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino’s Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Sorvino plays an unhappy and ready-for-adventure Mrs. Claus. Fed up with her inattentive husband, she heads to the city of sin, gets herself a sweet, younger body and parties. Santa chases after her, and Christmas is on the brink of ruin.

The film kicked off a modest slate of television work for the actress, but things might be turning around now, as Sorvino has almost ten new feature projects on the pike.

Dear Santa

Dear Santa is a bit of a cheat, since its biggest names are Jason Priestley as director, and Amy Acker as star, but the sappy Christmas romance manages to rise above its clichés on Acker’s talented and oft-underutilized shoulders. Acker plays a rich party girl about to be cut off when she discovers a Dear Santa letter asking Kris Kringle for a pretty woman the girl’s dad can fall in love with.

Channeling a bit of her breakout role as Fred in Angel, Acker’s Crystal is flighty, but far from cruel. As soon as she is immersed in a world not full of her aloof parents and superficial friends, she’s the warm caregiver destined for happiness. There is no big revelation, no intense switch of character – just a woman who finds love by being a good person while delighting in everything Christmas.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

This year brought something entirely atypical: a feature film with a short release that zipped immediately to television channels to warm (or cool?) the Christmas cycle, one that embraced the basic feel-good simplicity of a holiday film, but with strange black humor and Robin Williams in one of his final roles.

Joel McHale stars as a dad who must pack up his picture-perfect family (with wife Lauren Graham) and head to his messed-up family for the holidays, only to realize he left his son’s gift at home and must race to get it, lest the kid’s delusions of Santa be shattered. The string of weirdness extends from Oliver Platt’s drunk and homeless Santa to Candice Bergen’s enabling grandma, and though the typically saccharine elements are replaced with crudeness, everything still seems to wrap up into a happy ending.

On the Second Day of Christmas

Before he was the Hulk, before he was the man of all indie movies, Mark Ruffalo was a do-gooder store security personnel trying to stop shoplifters during the holidays. When a con-woman (Mary Stuart Masterson) and her niece steal a rich customer’s wallet on Christmas Eve, they’re shown “kindness” by the store official: Ruffalo’s Bert will watch them over the holiday, and they won’t be arrested until after.

Bert’s reluctance quickly turns to love as he learns to trust and fall in love with the con in just one day. It’s a completely nonsensical scenario that is saved from complete absurdity because it allows Ruffalo and Masterson the chance to bicker with each other.

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