This is a joint post with the fabulous, festive Jen Heart of Heartforms.
It’s probably a given most of you are streaming Love Actually this holiday season, even if you hate it. It’s Christmassy, it has swoon, it’s got Hugh fucking Grant. But after the credits roll, you’ve probably still got wrapping and card-writing and a craving to watch people kiss in the snow. These ten other holiday romances on Netflix Instant are all sweet, funny choices that pair well with hot cocoa. Plus you’ll see those stars from 90210 or Saved by the Bell aged over a decade and sporting earmuffs and holiday cheer.
12 Dates of Christmas
The movie begins with a dig at Nicholas Sparks, and one of the characters, in talking about the tragic death of his wife, says it was “no great Lifetime Channel tragedy.” Zing! This is not one of those Christmas movies. The movie-equivalent of a Christmas cheese ball, 12 Dates is sweet and tasty and nutty and a little bitter all at once. Kate (Amy Smart) is set up on a blind date with Miles (Zach Morris. I mean… Mark-Paul Gosselaar) for Christmas Eve. (Do people really go on blind dates on Christmas Eve?) The problem is she’s still hung up on her ex-boyfriend (Benjamin Ayres), whom she ditches Miles to see, and she’s kind of a jerk to a bunch of additional people along the way. No worries, though, because at midnight her day starts again with Amy waking up in a department store, after having been spritzed by some apparently magical perfume and fainting. She ends up reliving Christmas Eve twelve times and by the end has learned some important lessons. I’m a sucker for stories in the A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life vein: anything that shows you what a tool you’ve been and gives you a do-over until you get it right. It’s probably not hard to see why movies with these themes are so perfectly suited to Christmas, when we’re all supposed to have a little holly in our hearts.
All I Want for Christmas
Young boy Jesse (Jimmy Pinchak) sends a video into an “All I Want for Christmas” contest sponsored by a toy company looking for some good publicity. He asks for a husband for his widowed mother Sara (Gail O’Grady). The toy company sees bank, and Sara agrees to the dating competition reluctantly, in exchange for the exorbitant amount of money she needs to keep open their community center, named for her husband. However, after going on a series of dates, the toy mogul’s son (Greg Germann), who has been orchestrating the publicity stunt, begins to have feelings for her, and when they are caught kissing on camera, events begin to spin out of control. Meanwhile, their neighbor and good friend Ben (Robert Mailhouse) is basically already family to Sara and Jesse — and also he’s in love with Sara. Watching Greg Germann of Ally McBeal and Amanda Foreman of Felicity as Ben’s girlfriend (in a role that was too small!) was part of the treat of this sweet film. Who will win Sara’s heart in the end?
Within the first few minutes, we see Tory Bell (Francia Raisa), a Manhattan school teacher, crawl out a window, skitter along the ledge several stories up, and jump onto a moving vehicle to save a student she thinks is being abducted. Tory can do this without killing herself because, we soon learn, she’s a former bounty hunter. When a criminal she once put away gets out and threatens her, she has to travel back home to Jersey and work with her bounty hunter family (including an ex-boyfriend, Mikey “Muscles,” played by Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, who is a real-life WWE star) to re-capture him. Corny and silly and actually a lot of fun, Christmas Bounty is what happens when Tory and her New York hoity-toity boyfriend show up in Jersey. If you like Christmas, Jersey stereotypes, and wrestling, this is the holiday movie for you. Tory trying to get her less-than-classy family to not be themselves was laugh-out-loud funny. (Pinky-out drinking and British accents abound.) The scenes with Mikey are sweet, and the messages about being true to yourself and appreciating your family are touching. Plus, there’s a wacky dance sequence at the end credits. The family that bounty hunts together…
If you like your holiday movies with a dash of high school, look no further than Christmas
Crush. In this film, Georgia (Rachel Boston of Witches of East End) returns home and attends her high school reunion, hoping to reunite with her old flame, Craig. The problem is she’s boyfriendless and works as a fashion assistant, which is, apparently, somehow embarrassing to her and her father? (I had to double-check that this movie was made after the economy collapsed.) Meanwhile her old friend Oliver (Jonathan Bennett) is also back in town, and we know he’s really the guy for her because he’s better-looking than Craig, and also his shirt is untucked. Sometimes I don’t get the appeal of the friends-to-lovers plot–If two people secretly like each other so much, why aren’t they together already?–but it feels realistic here. And the two leads are so likeable: Georgia is the type of girl you want with you when you get a promotion or bad diagnosis; and Oliver is wry and funny, a refreshing change from the often too-earnest male lead, and his banter with Georgia is playful. There are some wooden characters and a couple musical numbers here (’tis the season), but there’s also a food fight montage and a sweet takeaway: find the one you can be goofy with.
Dear Santa is a sillier version of the more subdued All I Want for Christmas. Both movies feature children seeking spouses for their widowed parents and are set largely in community centers that are in honor of the departed spouses but are in danger of closing. Crystal (Amy Acker), a spoiled, rich, careless society girl, stumbles on a “Dear Santa” letter from a little girl looking for a new wife for her dad. When Crystal’s parents threaten to cut her off by Christmas if she doesn’t find some way of supporting herself, she decides to track down the girl and her father Derek (David Haydn-Jones) and fulfill the little girl’s wish. Amy Acker is winning in a warm if pretty ridiculous role. Crystal immediately inserts herself into Derek’s life, volunteering at the soup kitchen he vowed to his dying wife to keep open, teaching his daughter Olivia (Emma Duke) how to ice skate, and taking her shopping. Contrivances, cliches (gay soup kitchen cook dressed in pink chef’s hat and apron), and light gender stereotyping (fathers apparently are incapable of taking young daughters clothes shopping) abound in this holiday tale, but it remains cuddly and cute throughout. Crystal goes up against Derek’s awful girlfriend Jillian (Gina Holden) — we know she’s no good because her accessories are knockoffs — and in the process proves there’s more to her than “shopping and lattes.” Oh, and did I mention this was directed by Jason Priestly, late of 90210?
Desperately Seeking Santa
One of the frequent Christmas film plots is a variation on The Christmas Carol, showing the importance of love, family, and community over cold-hearted profits. Desperately Seeking Santa fits into this stocking. In it, Jen (Laura Vandervoort), an uptight-yet-likeable marketing exec, must come up with a way to increase her shopping mall’s profits to gain a promotion–and eventually save her stores. She creates the idea of a Sexy Santa contest to find a guy with “the sex appeal of Brad Pitt and spirit of Santa” (what?). Enter David (Nick Zano), a tough-yet-sensitive Bostonian who needs money to save his family’s pizzeria from corporate raiders–and who first meets Jen when she cuts in front of him in the coffee line and he calls her on it (this is a serious offense; I’m Team Everyone Else in Line). The sense of community is strong here, both around David’s family pizzeria and Jen’s shopping mall world, and adds to the fun and warmth of the film. Though it features a carousel kissing scene that gave me a bit of vertigo, the story is sweet and solid, the romance with swoon, and has increasing conflicts that made me wonder how it was all going to end happily. But, like Christmas, it all comes together.
If you like your roms heavy on the com, Holiday Engagement may be your flavor. Hillary (Bonnie Somerville), a former reporter, gets dumped by her “serious snag” lawyer fiancé and is faced with going home for Thanksgiving manless. Like Christmas Crush in its popular holiday theme, Holiday Engagement focuses on the pressures of holiday perfection: to return home with a man on your arm, not to mention a perfect job and life. So Hillary hires actor David (Jordan Bridges) to be her fake fiancé for the trip, after meeting him when he’s working as a giant cell phone mascot (which completely sold me on this gem, by the way. Mascots FTW!). The two return home, where much deception and hilarious awkwardness ensue as Hillary and David fall for each other for real. More sharp in its humor than others on this list, Holiday Engagement brings the laughs. It also has one of the more fun, relatable heroines and some tender moments between the leads and Hillary’s mother, Meredith (played by Shelley Long). Relationships are a family affair, after all, warts and all.
Holiday in Handcuffs
Melissa Joan Hart with a bad perm, Mario Lopez brought home for the holidays by gunpoint–if Holiday in Handcuffs doesn’t fit the definition of holiday rom-com classic, I don’t know what does. In terms of old skool star power, ridiculous plot, and S&M humor, it can’t be beat (see what I did there?). Much like Holiday Engagement, this one fits a trope popular to holiday films: bringing home a fake date to meet family expectations. Trudy (Hart), pressured by her family to have a “real job and serious boyfriend,” bombs a job interview and gets dumped by her guy right before Christmas. Throw in a bad hair day, and she becomes so desperate she kidnaps David (Lopez) by antique gunpoint, like one does. What follows is a series of hijinks, misunderstandings, gunshots, moments of truth, references to Reagonomics, chess, hockey, a mistletoe kiss, and Mario Lopez probably suffering from Stockholm Syndrome on his way to falling in love.
Bright and cheery as a gumdrop, The Mistle-tones is like Christmas on steroids, with bright colors, musical medleys and holiday puns throughout. At the beginning, one character is even described as “peppermint-barking up the wrong tree.” It’s all weirdly, completely delightful. Holly (Tia Mowry-Hardrict) dreams of joining the Snow Belles holiday performing group–a dream which is squashed when the evil group leader, Marci (Tori Spelling), rejects her. So Holly starts her own Christmas singing group, along with her hilarious and diverse cast of co-workers. Eventually she blackmails her uptight boss, Nick (Jonathan Patrick Moore), into joining when she discovers his secret talent for karaoke and pelvic thrusting. Nick helps the group improve while falling for Holly. Evil Tori Spelling, fun melodies, and a hot hero in a three-piece suit–if that doesn’t make you smile as much as I did, then you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. The film also features an unconventional ending and Reginald VelJohnson as Holly’s dad, who, for the record, is the man I’d like to have explain to me the true meaning of Christmas too.
Angela (Christina Milian) loves the idea of a perfect, traditional Christmas, while her loving-but-boundary-challenged family is more preoccupied with lounging around her apartment, setting her up with strangers, and making Christmas lasagna instead of goose for their deli. When a mysterious snowglobe arrives in the mail, Angela finds herself waking up inside, with its winter village and relentlessly cheery residents. The town has some funny quirks (dishes spring complete from the inn’s oven — no prep or cooking required) and since they are confined to a snowglobe, it’s no wonder they seem a little sheltered. The residents have never heard the story of the birth of Jesus — or any other stories. In the village, Angela meets sweet, naive, simple Douglas (Matt Keeslar), who is thrilled just to skate around the ice park, shovel snow all day, and exchange primary-colored mittens and earmuffs with everyone he meets. I get why Angela wants to keep escaping into the snowglobe for the perfect winter town, but the attraction to the doofusy Douglas, when the her cute neighbor Eddie (Josh Cooke) clearly has a thing for her, takes some suspension of disbelief. Hijinks ensue when Douglas follows Angela from the snowglobe back into her world. This sweet story understands why we may sometimes want to retreat into an idealized world but shows us that “perfect” may be something we didn’t realize we had all along.