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5) Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
What a powerful pivotal moment. Hard-luck everyman George Bailey (James Stewart) is literally moments away from leaving Bedford Falls when he’s called into a meeting with the Bailey Building and Loan board of directors. Evil town despot Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is closing in on the lending institution when he makes the fatal error of referring to the BB&L customers as “rabble” and assailing the character of George’s recently deceased father. George’s seething response: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”
4) Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story (1983)
Even a nine-year-old kid has his limits. For most of this holiday classic, little Ralphie, played by Peter Billingsley, lives in mortal fear of the local bully named Scut Farkus (Zack Ward). After enduring a series of fifties-era kid hardships and the constant warning from his mother that he’ll “shoot his eye out” if he gets a new Red Ryder BB Gun, Ralphie loses it altogether and barrels head-on into a stunned Farkus and wails blows upon him until the kid cries for mercy. Ralphie only ceases his barrage when pulled off the bully by his mother.
3) Catherine O’Hara in Home Alone 2 (1992)
Any mother who has lost a child, if only for a second or two, can empathize with Catherine O’Hara in this sequel to the timeless holiday comedy. Her character of Kate McCallister has just landed in Florida with the sprawling McCallister clan – which numbers at least a dozen members – and the look on her face when she abruptly realizes that they’ve left the youngest child Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) behind (again) is one of sheer shock and panic. She shrieks one word – “Kevin!” – and faints dead away.
2) Emma Thompson in Love Actually (2003)
Not all holiday movie meltdowns have to be comical. In one of the best stories of this romantic-comedy anthology feature, Emma Thompson plays Karen, the dutiful wife of Harry (Alan Rickman). Karen stays home to raise the kids while Harry reaps the benefits of a top-drawer job at a London design agency (which includes the perks of a beautiful new secretary). Shortly before Christmas, Karen finds an expensive gift-wrapped necklace in her husband’s pocket and assumes it’s for her. On Christmas morning, Harry instead gives his wife a CD of a Joni Mitchell album – the necklace was for his secretary, also his new mistress. The inevitable breakdown comes with Karen listening to Mitchell’s mournful Both Sides Now in her bedroom while coming to the realization that her husband is a two-timing skunk.
1) Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Quite possibly the highest moment in Chevy Chase’s acting career, this meltdown comes late in the film when his beleaguered character of Clark Griswold finally receives a letter that he believes to be his holiday bonus. In typical boastful Griswold-ian manner, he informs all his family members that he plans to spend the bonus on a new swimming pool – then he discovers the envelope contains a year’s membership to the Jelly of the Month club. Clark snaps, downs a few quick cups of spiked eggnog and launches into a lengthy, profanity-laden tirade leaves everyone in the family with jaws dropped. And then he kicks the hell out of his outdoor Christmas display. (Warning: Offensive language in clip.)