5 Phenomenal Christmas Movie Santas

Christmas is here which means Christmas movies are everywhere. In the spirit of the season I thought it would be fun to look back at an older Phenomenal 5 that I originally published in 2013. One that focuses on a signature yuletide character. Of course I’m talking about Santa Claus. So today I’m revisiting five of the very best Santas from cinema. Now obviously with so many to consider I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But I have no trouble recognizing these five jolly old elves as nothing short of phenomenal.

#5 – Tim Allen (“The Santa Clause”)

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While I’m not a big fan of this series of movies as a whole, I do really enjoy the first film. “The Santa Clause” tells the story of a selfish father named Scott Calvin who through a nutty accident inherits the position as Santa Claus. Of course a lot of things come with that role – a big round belly, a snow-white beard, etc. Allen is great showing us his character’s transformation from a self-absorbed slug to a loving, caring father and ultimately Jolly Old Saint Nick.

#4 – Ed Asner (“Elf”)

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He’s certainly not the main draw in “Elf”, but Ed Asner’s performance as Santa Claus is a key ingredient to this movie’s success. Asner never winks at the camera. Instead he seems completely invested which accounts for some really funny moments. He not only looks the part but he carries himself just as you would imagine his character would. There are several good moments as he manages things at the North Pole but also when his sleigh crash lands in Central Park. Fun and fitting – that is how I would describe Asner’s portrayal.

#3 – Tom Hanks (“The Polar Express”)

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I know some people have problems with Robert Zemeckis’ motion-captured animated film “The Polar Express”. Not me. I’m a fan and it has become one of our holiday favorites. And while he doesn’t appear until the very end of the film, Tom Hanks is a wonderful Santa Claus. What makes him such a great Santa has a lot to do with the buildup. The film truly creates a larger than life, jaw-dropping perception of Santa and we the audience see him through the awe-struck eyes of those children. The animation is gorgeous and Hanks fits the picture perfectly.

#2 – Jeff Gillen (“A Christmas Story”)

CHRISTMAS STORY

How can a movie Santa Claus who only appears for 3 minutes of a film have such a prominent position on this list? Easy – when he gives us such a hilarious and utterly timeless scene. This is what Jeff Gillen does in the modern holiday classic “A Christmas Story”. His tired and grumpy department store Santa grows more and more irritable as he approaches the end of his Christmas Eve shift. Grumbling elves and Gillen’s bored and dismissive delivery doesn’t provide young Ralphie with the best experience, but it sure is a load of fun for us.

#1 – Edmund Gwenn (“Miracle on 34th Street”)

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Let’s be honest, who else could be number one? In my book Edmund Gwenn’s fabulous portrayal of Santa Claus is the perfect blueprint for how to play the character. Gwenn’s Oscar-winning performance still stands out today and from the first moment you see his Kris Kringle you can’t help but be drawn to him. He has the demeanor, the cheer, the charisma, the childlike exuberance. And with the exception of one old grump, he makes everyone around him happier and every circumstance better. Edmund Gwenn embodies the character to absolute perfection and he is unquestionably the best movie Santa Claus.

So what do you think of my list? Agree or disagree with my choices? Please take time to share your choices in the comments section below. And of course…Merry Christmas!

5 Phenomenal Movie Presidents

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It seems that the end of this exasperating election season is mercifully in sight. And as partisans delude themselves with grandeur, the rest of us brace for impact. In the meantime I thought it would be fun to slip away from the curdled political landscape and look at some of my favorite movie presidents. It goes without saying that the movies have used the office of the presidency in a myriad of fun ways and here are some of my favorites. In light of that I wouldn’t consider this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these five movie presidents are most certainly phenomenal.

#5 – President Benjamin Asher

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Ok don’t laugh, but this one is admittedly a guilty pleasure. Aaron Eckhart’s President Benjamin Asher was a key part of the corny but fun shoot-em-up “Olympus Has Fallen” and the best part of its forgettable sequel “London Has Fallen”. Eckhart ends up being a great fit, bringing what the role needs most – physicality and believability. And that’s saying something in movies where believability is more-or-less tossed out the window.

#4 – President Thomas J. Whitmore

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I mean President Whitmore from “Independence Day” has to be on the list right? I mean a leader who can give that kind of speech during a global alien invasion is pretty much a lock. Bill Pullman’s Whitmore not only says the right things but he puts his money where his mouth his, entering the fight against the invading alien forces and saving the earth as we know it. If that doesn’t earn his a second term nothing can.

#3 – President James Marshall

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This pick could have easily been #1 on my list. Harrison Ford became everyone’s president when “Air Force One” came out back in 1997. Ford is terrific as President Marshall – tough, determined, and not too fond of hijackers taking over his plane. Don’t believe me? Just ask Gary Oldman. There’s a vulnerability to Marshall but also a firm resolve to save his staff members at 35,000 feet. Who wouldn’t cast their ballot for a guy like that?

#2 – President Merkin Muffley

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I make no apologies for having President Merkin Muffley from “Dr. Strangelove” this high on my list. In fact he could’ve easily taken the top spot just for his hysterical phone call with Dimitri, his Russian counterpart. President Muffley is one of three parts Peter Sellers plays in this Stanley Kubrick classic and it’s easily my favorite. His sly mix of humor and sincerity really anchors this 1964 Cold War black comedy and watching his War Room jostling never gets old.

#1 – President Abraham Lincoln

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For a while I was tempted to limit my list to only fictional movie presidents. But during the entire time I was putting this thing together, I couldn’t quit thinking about what may be the preeminent portrayal of a president ever put on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a master class on bringing detail and utter commitment to a role. It’s stunning work from one of our greatest living actors.

And there is my list. What do you think? What would have made your list? Please let me hear from you in the comments section below.

5 Phenomenal Michael Keaton Movies

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Few actors have the wild-eyed charisma and off-beat charms possessed by screen vet Michael Keaton. His career took off in the early 1980’s, dried up in the late 1990’s, and got its second wind in 2014. I’ve always loved seeing Keaton on screen so what better actor to highlight in a new Phenomenal 5. Narrowing down his film roles to the five best was as tough as I expected, but those are the rules. So while I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, there’s no denying that these five Michael Keaton movies are nothing short of phenomenal.

#5 – “The Dream Team”

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Ok, so you could call this a more sentimental choice but I absolutely love “The Dream Team” flaws and all. It’s a 1989 comedy about four mental patients loose in New York City after their field trip to Yankee Stadium goes bad. Keaton is great as the snarky and mischievous self-appointed leader of the patients as they set out to save their doctor/chaperone from some crooked cops. “The Dream Team” wasn’t a huge hit, but it was a great showcase for Keaton’s explosive personality.

#4 – “Beetlejuice”

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If you could have seen the look on my children’s faces when I first told them about a movie called “Beetlejuice”. Tim Burton’s 1988 horror-comedy is just as wacky as its name suggests. And despite its fun and completely game cast, the film works so well because of Michael Keaton. This is one of those roles where you can’t imagine anyone else being able to pull it off. He’s utterly ridiculous, weirdly charming, and an absolute riot from the first moment he hits the screen.

#3 – “Spotlight”

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Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” was my #1 movie of 2015 and it still stands as a powerful reminder of the importance of free, unbiased journalism. Michael Keaton plays the leader of a small team of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe. The film follows the Spotlight team as they slowly uncover and ultimately blow the lid off of a massive wide-spread sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church. Keaton gives a perfectly calibrated dramatic turn as an editor fighting for his team’s right to publish their story regardless of the costs. A much different performance from the earlier two films on this list, but a pivotal one nonetheless.

#2 – “The Founder”

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Easily the most underrated role on the list and arguably the most underrated role in his entire filmography. Michael Keaton’s starring work in “The Founder” went largely unseen by audiences and apparently by awards voters, but it’s easily one of his best. The film tells the story of Ray Kroc and how he created the multi-billion dollar fast food juggernaut McDonald’s. It’s a meaty role for Keaton, blending his skills with straight drama and dry humor. Chances are you missed this one when it came out in 2016. It’s definitely worth catching up to it.

#1 – “Batman” 

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If for some reason you needed more evidence of Michael Keaton’s enormous range as an actor, I present to you 1989’s “Batman”. Yet another collaboration with Tim Burton that sees Keaton playing the Dark Knight before superhero movies were all the rage. I remember being a bit unsure about his casting, but that didn’t stop me from standing in line for over an hour anxiously awaiting an opening weekend viewing. And Keaton didn’t disappoint. “Batman” is very much a Tim Burton take on the Caped Crusader, but Keaton brings his own wit and charm. You never doubt him either as Bruce Wayne or the crime-fighting vigilante in a cape and a cowl. Jack Nicholson received most of the attention for his sparkling work as Joker, but Keaton proved to be crucial to the film’s massive success.

So those are my Michael Keaton movie picks. What say you? See something you agree or disagree with? Please let me know in the comments section below.

5 Phenomenal Movie Foot Chases

As an action movie fan I love a good chase regardless of the kind – motorcycle, car or even on foot. It may surprise you just how many great foot chases there have been in movie history. So I decided to give some love to five great movie foot chases. I left out a few that certainly deserve mention, but these five were musts. Now as usual, I wouldn’t dare call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 movie foot chases are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “Fast Five”

Vin Diesel star as Dominic Toretto in Universal Pictures' Fast Five.

The “Fast and Furious” series has made it’s reputation on fast rides and some ridiculously wild car chases. Who would have thought that one of the coolest scenes in 2011’s “Fast Five” would have been a foot chase? After meeting up at a safe house in Rio de Janeiro, Dom, Brian, and Mia find themselves boxed in by a crime lord’s armed thugs on one side and Special Agent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his team on the other. The three groups take off on a foot chase through the cramped, densely populated, hillside streets, running through tight alleys and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. It’s a high-octane edge-of-your-seat sequence.

#4 – “Point Break

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In what was one part free-spirited surfer movie and one part gritty heist film, “Point Break” was a popular action romp from director Kathryn Bigelow. As Keanu Reeves’ undercover FBI agent gets close to arresting Patrick Swayze’s surfer bank robber the latter takes off on foot. Utah chases him into a neighborhood, over fences, through backyards and living rooms, and finally down a ravine where Reeves hurts his knee and Swayze gets away. It a furious chase with tight, close quarter camera work and even a touch of subtle humor.

#3 – “The Bourne Ultimatum

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The third film of the Jason Bourne series featured the same intense, spy thriller action and around the world globetrotting that the series is known for. One of my favorite sequences is in Morocco. Bourne (Matt Damon) and his contact Nicky (Julia Stiles) is targeted by an asset sent to take them out. Nicky runs away, the assassin follows her, Bourne follows assassin. The three run through the crowded streets of Tangier and through a series of close, cramped houses before ending with the best fight scene of the entire series. It all comes together to make for one spectacular scene.

#2 – “Raising Arizona

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Leave it to Joel and Ethen Coen to give us not only one of the best foot chases in movie history but by far the funniest. In 1987’s “Raising Arizona” Nicholas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough gives in to his addiction and holds up a convenient store while his wife and kid are in the car outside. Once she realizes what he’s doing, she drives off leaving him behind. With the police arriving and the store clerk pulling out a .44 magnum that would make Dirty Harry proud, H.I. takes off on foot, lunatic cops and rabid dogs hot on his heels. Through suburban backyards, living rooms, and supermarkets. H.I. runs into an assortment of funny characters and hilarious obstacles. It’s hard to beat.

#1 – “Casino Royale”

It was director Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” from 2006 that officially made me a James Bond fan. Daniel Craig’s 007 brought a gritty more realistic Bond to the big screen. and I absolutely loved it. It doesn’t take long for the action to crank up in “Casino Royale”. We see Bond in Madagascar where he has tracked down a wanted bomb manufacturer. When his partner botches the apprehension, the suspect takes off on foot with 007 right behind him. I recently rewatched this scene preparing for this list and it still blows my mind. The chase takes the two to a high-rise construction site. They leap up scaffolding, run along steel girders, and fight on sky-high cranes. Then the chase takes them back to the ground, through the busy streets and finally to the Nabutu Embassy where it has an explosive ending. Even though it’s close to 10 minutes long, this chase keeps you glued to the screen. It’s beautifully shot, masterfully edited, and it serves as a wonderful introduction to this new era of Bond.

There you have it – my 5 Phenomenal Movie Foot Chases. See something I missed? Disagree with any of my choices? Please take time to share your favorite movie foot chase below.

5 Phenomenal Movies You May Never Want to Watch a Second Time

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Great movies come in all shapes and sizes. That’s a rather lame way of saying there are great movies from all genres. But great movies aren’t by necessity ones you watch over and over again. In fact some can be dark, disturbing, and difficult to sit through while still being truly wonderful films. Today’s Phenomenal 5 looks at five incredible movies you may never want to watch a second time. Now with so many to choose from I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these are truly phenomenal (even if you only see them once).

#5 – “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

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Mel Gibson’s passion project chronicling the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus polarized critics. Much of it came from Gibson’s unwillingness to compromise in depicting the graphically violent nature of Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion. The bloody brutality overwhelmed some and provided ammo for others looking for reasons to dismiss the film. But many were moved by the intensity of the realism despite it being excruciating to watch. And its impact and its message has stuck with a particular segment of cinema fans.

#4 – “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966)

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This 1966 classic from acclaimed French auteur Robert Bresson is as heart-crushing as it is brilliant. The movie follows a donkey named Balthazar who is passed from owner to owner, many of whom are cold, callous and abusive. Bresson’s movie is rich with symbolism but it’s the potency of his images that makes this such a difficult watch. The moments of compassion Balthazar experiences are few, but we cherish each one as a welcomed respite from the abject cruelty that defines most of his life. It all packs one massive emotional wallop.

#3 – “Funny Games” (1997)

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Michael Haneke has a reputation for pulling no punches in his movies. This sometimes makes for brutally uncomfortable yet deeply affecting cinema experiences. None of his movies personifies this more than “Funny Games”. In giving a stinging rebuke of violence in the media and our penchant for absorbing it, Haneke tells a story that is horrifying both narratively and visually. Many people were repulsed by the film and the graphic nature of its violence. I think it makes a powerful statement despite being one of the hardest films I’ve ever sat through.

#2 – “Amour” (2012)

AMOUR

It may surprise some that a movie titled “Love” would be so incredible difficult to watch. But Michael Haneke (yes, again) looks at love in its truest and rawest sense. “Amour” follows a loving elderly couple exquisitely played by legendary French stars Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The wife suffers a debilitating stroke and the husband is determined to care for her himself. By highlighting the daily routines, Haneke shows the deep commitment (aka the love) it takes to care for a ailing loved one. And as her condition worsens it becomes even harder to watch. Still, it so beautifully examines an element of true love that is rarely considered.

#1 – “Schindler’s List” (1993)

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Steven Spielberg is credited with so many great films but none are quite like his historical masterpiece “Schindler’s List”. Holocaust movies are important and (as their subject matter dictates) they are naturally tough to watch. “Schindler’s List” more so due to Spielberg’s earnest and passionate desire to show the Nazi atrocities without taking shortcuts. The intensity of the Jewish roundups, the inexplicable horrors of the concentration camps, the heart-wrenching emotions of all those victimized. It is all depicted in vivid detail. I love “Schindler’s List”, but it leaves a mark on me every time I watch it.

So those are my choices of great movies that you may never want to watch a second time. What do you think? What would have made your list? Let me know in the comments below.

5 Phenomenal Movie Train Scenes

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Trains. I mean who doesn’t like trains? Bullet trains, freight trains, model trains. How can you not like them? The movies have certainly had loads of fun with trains. For decades we’ve been give one great train scene after another. Today I’m looking at five of the very best to ever grace the big screen. Now obviously with so many to choose from (and there are TONS) I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. Still I have no problem calling these five movie train scenes absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “The Fugitive” (1993)

Fugitive

It pained me to leave movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Before Sunrise”, and “Spider-Man 2” off this list. That should tell you how much I love the explosive train derailment scene in the 1993 thriller “The Fugitive”. Wrongly accused Harrison Ford is trying to escape from a crashed prison bus laying across railroad tracks. A train barrels towards him and slams into the bus just as Ford flies out of the window. The train derailment that follows is absolutely stunning.

#4 – “Skyfall” (2012)

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There is no way to document all of the incredible over-the-top action scenes that have become staples of the James Bond franchise. And it just so happens there is one which is a perfect fit for this list. “Skyfall” opens with one of the coolest train scenes in movie history. 007 uses feet, fists, bullets and even a huge excavator as he fights a mercenary on top of a speeding train. Through tunnels and over a bridge, right up to its big splash finish.

#3 – “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

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Without a doubt the signature scene in Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible”comes at the very end. You know the one I’m talking about. Tom Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt atop a speeding bullet train on the heels of the mole (I won’t spoil who) who framed him for killing his team. Oh, and to make it even more electric, the mole plans to escape on a helicopter that’s tailing the train. I’ll leave it there but look it up if you haven’t seen it.

#2 – “The General” (1926)

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Exactly which train scene do you pick out of the many featured in Buster Keaton’s silent classic “The General”? I mulled over several of the film’s great scenes before ultimately settling on one of Keaton’s most iconic movie moments. Some have called it the most expensive shot in silent movie history. A Union Army train makes an ill-advised attempt to cross a burning wooden bridge but plunges into the river as the cavalry watches from the bank. The set piece was incredible then and still is today. 

#1 – “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

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The train robbery in Andrew Dominik’s brilliant “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is not only one of the best train sequences, but it’s one of my favorite scenes ever shot. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins is at his best in the buildup, capturing the dim glow from the bandits’ lanterns, the vibrations of the tracks, the headlight of the train penetrating the forest as it rounds a curve. And of course you get the robbery itself. Simply put, it is sublime filmmaking.

And those are my picks. There are so many great train scenes I hated to leave off. Now it’s your turn to help. Let me know what you think of my list and please share what would have made yours.