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1994, Dir. Ted Demme.
93 min. Rated R.
Starring: Denis Leary, Kevin spacey, Judy Davis, Glynis Johns.

Review by Noel Wood

#10 on our list of the Best Christmas Movies Ever!

Well, I figured since the holidays are upon us, and I've really been short of time to see a lot of new movies, I figured I'd go through and review some of my favorite Christmas (Hannaukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, whatever you celebrate, stay off my back!) movies of all time. And rather than count them down all at one time, I figured I'd try something a little different. I'm gonna review them one at a time, and make you come back and check later if you want to find out what's next. Ah, you see, it's not only a chance for me to spread out my work, but it's also a ploy to keep you coming back for more. I'm so devious.

So anyway, my choice for #10 in the top ten Christmas movies of all time is THE REF. Now some of you may be asking what this movie is doing on a list like this. I mean, it does take place at Christmas and all, but it's not your typical peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men family favorite. Well, that's simply because I'm counting any movie that takes place at Christmastime, and where that season plays some role in the story, into my criteria for the best Christmas movies. Keep that in mind as you try to predict what my top ten will turn out like.

THE REF is a film designed primarily as a vehicle for smartassed comedian Denis Leary, who at the time of its release was riding high on a very successful comedy album, "No Cure for Cancer", and doing promo spots for MTV. However, what makes this film work is that Leary has a great cast and a decent script to work with. Rather than just sending him out there to do his schtick, they made a movie that his character could actually enhance. And with supporting actors like Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis to back him up, he helps make for an enjoyable little comedy.

Leary plays Gus, a thief who we catch at the beginning of the film attempting to steal some jewels from a mansion in a quiet little New England town. After triggering an alarm and sending himself into a series of pratfalls, he attempts to run from the police by hijacking a the Chasseurs, Lloyd (Spacey) and Caroline (Davis), on their way home from a marriage counseling session. Of course, it's Christmas Eve (THERE'S your relevance), and the family is all on their way over. And it's not just any family. Their son is a military-school miscreant, Lloyd's mother is a domineering politicker, and the rest of the family are all just a bunch of spoiled rotten brats of varying ages. But since the cops have set up a curfew while combing the town for Gus, he's stuck there, and is determined to have the evening carry on according to plans, even if he has to pose as the family's counselor and accompany them during their festivities. It also doesn't help that Gus's partner, Murray, whom Gus is relying on to get him a boat for his escape, is an old drunk with not a lot going on for him upstairs.

As a dark comedy, this film works very well. As a vehicle for the star, it hits the mark perfectly. As an ironic Merry-little-Christmas movie, it also works, thanks to a clever ending and a pretty darkly happy resolution. The comedy is spot-on, as Leary has proven in several films that he's got a gift for comic timing and just a natural charisma. Spacey and Davis are excellent as usual, and this was before Spacey made his big break in stuff like SE7EN and THE USUAL SUSPECTS. The rest of the family is rounded out by some nice little performances as well, including Christine Baranski as Lloyd's overbearing sister-in-law and Glynis Johns as Lloyd's brutally honest mother. There's a ton of memorable lines, and overall, it's just a fun little movie.

Now we've mentioned this before on this site, but this film suffers from the classic syndrome of being a good movie with a terrible name. It's unfortunate, because the title may have scared people off, just having no idea what the hell "THE REF" was referring to to begin with. Of course, they probably would have made some silly little Christmas pun instead, so maybe it's best that they stuck with the title.

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