Choosing a favorite Christmas movie can feel like a real Battle Royale situation. Some people are willing to die on the hill of their favorite holiday films. To be clear, I do respect these “holiday classics” and their loyal defenders; but one Christmas movie underdog stands above the rest in this fight. “Last Holiday” has entered the proverbial ring, and she’s taking no prisoners.
THE GROUND RULES
Before the battle begins, we have to establish a baseline for what’s considered a “Christmas” movie.
First: The film must center around the holiday season. The movie timeline should focus on the days leading up to Christmas, the holiday itself, or the brief window between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Any period before is bordering on a “Thanksgiving” movie and anything after is just… winter themed? Yikes. I want to see holiday decorations, people!
Second: Hi-jinks are a necessity. Holiday movies are full of hi-jinks, quirky mishaps, and significant misunderstandings. Princesses must be switched, houses must be booby-trapped, and angels must face considerable tasks to get their wings.
Third: The soundtrack must feature at least one Holiday-themed song. At minimum, there should be delicate, festive piano music throughout the film. While I will agree that this is a loose parameter for establishing what a holiday movie is and isn’t, the soundtrack is still crucial. Have you ever watched a good Christmas movie that didn’t also sound like Christmas?
Finally, the movie has to teach viewers a lesson of morality. A holiday movie without morals lacks heart. Imagine if Scrooge didn’t learn to care or if the Grinch never discovered the value of community. “Die Hard” would’ve been real bleak if Bruce Willis never learned how important it was to fight for one’s family. No heart = no movie.
“Last Holiday” hit theaters back in 2006 from director Wayne Wang, whose credits also include “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Maid in Manhattan.” The masterpiece is based on a 1950s film of the same name, and stars Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Timothy Hutton, Alicia Witt, Gérard Depardieu and a pre-”Breaking Bad” Giancarlo Esposito.
Georgia Byrd (Latifah) is a sales clerk at Kragen Department Store in Louisiana, but it’s clear right from the jump – every day is pretty much the same for her. She works in the cookware department at the store, observes her crush, Sean Williams (LL Cool J), from afar, and then returns home. She goes to church every Sunday, dresses plainly, and speaks softly.
There are brief moments where we see sparks of the real Georgia shine. She “puts her foot” in her cooking and executes elaborate dishes. She cares for her neighbor. She buys things from Sean that she doesn’t need, just to have a chance to talk to him. Finally, she saves pictures of the places she’d like to visit and the food she wants to cook in her “Possibilities” scrapbook.
Georgia secretly wishes for her dreams to come true without ever acting on them. By a twist of fate, just as things start to turn in her favor, a workplace accident lands her in the hospital for a CAT-scan.
The results of the scan deliver Georgia a devastating diagnosis: she has only weeks left to live. Her insurance won’t cover the cost of a life-saving procedure, and the operation is too expensive for Georgia to cover herself. She finds that the holidays are no longer important; her job isn’t a priority, her plans are obsolete, and even her feelings toward Sean are set aside.
Georgia liquidates her assets and vows to blow all of her money. She flies to Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic and finally starts tackling some of the dreams in her “Possibilities” book. She lands at the Grandhotel Pupp, a place you can visit for real, and her entire world flips upside down. She winds up in the center of a social circle filled with politicians, wealthy businessmen and prying hotel staff.
Movie watchers lay witness to Georgia completely rediscovering her life. She confronts liars, cheaters and capitalism-loving drones head-on. She faces her fears and literally takes flight on several occasions. In a deeply satisfying moment, we watch as she orders everything off one of her hero’s menus, with no ingredient substitutions. She treats herself to high-end fashion and blesses us with a fabulous makeover montage, too. She speaks truthfully, embraces everything and even saves some lives in the process.
Guests and staff at the hotel twist themselves into knots trying to figure out who this mysterious force of a woman may be, while at the same time, Georgia grips onto her life, before it can completely pass through her fingers.
THE CHRISTMAS MOVIE KNOCKOUT
Wang and Latifah take the classic “bucket list” trope and turn it into something refreshing. They deliver instant justice and karma for these characters. The duo also allow space and forgiveness for the characters willing to learn and grow. We see the value behind everyone, including the villains.
We root for Georgia, encouraging her to say what everyone wishes to say, eat what we wish to eat and do the things we may be too scared to do. The storyline is earnest, heartwarming and important. We see the beauty and fun of a Black woman embracing the power and joy in her life. We watch her take agency and encourage those around her to take agency in their own lives too. Her honesty and mere existence make everyone around her better.
“Last Holiday” has a bit of something for everyone: action, romance and comedy are all jammed into just two hours of movie. Beyond the rom-com, though, it’s still a “Christmas” movie at its core.
Georgia takes off for Karlovy Vary on December 25th, satisfying our timeline requirement.
Hi-jinks make up a majority of the film; the entire plot hinges on a major misunderstanding. We also witness out-of-control snowboarding, a trek across a snow-covered mountain, and a villain willing to humiliate himself to unlock Georgia’s secretive past.
The movie soundtrack is where things start to get hazy; while it is fantastic – Smokey Robinson himself is featured in the movie – it’s noticeably free of traditional Christmas music. That is, until the big New Year’s Eve climax when the band at the Grandhotel Pupp gives a rousing performance of Auld Lang Syne. By Spotify’s standards, that is a “holiday” song. Check.
Lastly, moral lessons are clear throughout the movie. The filmmaker does an excellent job of delivering these virtuous lessons. At no point are we lectured about the importance of living one’s life fully. Instead, viewers find that they can relate to Georgia’s experience and wisdom, and agree that life is meant to be lived well.
One of the penultimate lessons of the movie is delivered by Georgia, to Georgia. She speaks to herself in the mirror, making a promise that has always squarely hit my heart.
“Next time, we’ll do things different. We’ll laugh more. We’ll love more. We’ll see the world. We just won’t be so afraid.”
It’s corny, but it works. Amid a shocking diagnosis and her derailed life, Georgia finally steps out of the box she’s built around herself. She doesn’t give up. Her gratitude never waivers and, eventually, she learns to find joy beyond her fears.
If that isn’t a damn good Christmas lesson, then I don’t know what is.
If you’ve never seen “Last Holiday,” stream it tonight. If you have seen it, but it’s been a while, put it on. While this movie may not have been included in Inside The Film Room’s Holiday Movie Madness Bracket (negligent), it’s still a contender in my book.
“Last Holiday” will bring you comforting joy, in a holiday season where joy is sorely needed.