Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Winter and Spring 2021 in Anime: Making It Out of Junior Year in One Piece

Winter and Spring 2021 in Anime: Making It Out of Junior Year in One Piece

Warning: The following post may/will contain spoilers of various anime series and a movie. If you don't want to know what happens in any of the properties I'm talking about here, it's best if you join me once you've watched the first few episodes of each or the entire thing. But then again, if you want to take that warning with a grain of salt, feel free to stay put.

With that said:

Second semester this year was another that challenged me. It could be because I'm going to be a senior next year (which I can't believe) and my English classes are getting harder, but I found earlier times to studying given my schedule difficult. With grocery store runs, work in the afternoon, and homework I didn't want to save for after 8:00 p.m. unless absolutely necessary (papers), I had to juggle. Luckily, I was able to figure it out thanks to a new day-by-day schedule recommended by my academic advisor (which is awesome), dry goods pickup, and re-watching Haikyuu: To The Top's first cour as school started up. I may not be at Cour 2 yet, but crossing my fingers this summer's the time I dive into it. TBH, I wouldn't mind looking at the first cour for a third time. It stuck out that much in my mind.

Although I didn't watch a lot of anime again this semester, I was able to have an eventful winter break and finally watch (and finish) a couple of things I was meaning to get to. In today's post, I'll be covering five shows I've seen since late December of last year to early May of this year. I'll also be recapping one movie I watched I'm going to appreciate for the rest of my life. It was definitely a highlight out of everything I've seen in the last four months, but that's for another day.

Without further ado, let's get started:

Hypnosis Mic

Samatoki? My favorite character? Wow, I'm so surprised. JK. If you've been following my blog for a while now, you should know I'm a sucker for moody characters who remind me of Ryoko Hakubi from Tenchi Muyo. It has to link together somehow.

I first heard about Hypnosis Mic from a user in the animated Top Model community I'm a part of. One of the contestants in his Anime's Next Top Model Idol Syndrome season is Rio Mason Busujima, a member of Mad Trigger Crew. The franchise had been running for a year at that point, so I didn't know how big it was until I noticed a fanartist who drew Uta Pri and Final Fantasy XV doujins make the shift to MTC doujinshi with power bottom Jyuto Iruma. I got a full introduction to the characters through their Mob Division doujin where an older man and his clones banged every single character.

Fast forward about a year later when Hypnosis Mic added not just one but two new groups to the mix that immediately appealed to me; Dotsuitare Hompo and Bad Ass Temple. Dog_yasiki got to drawing and writing, and their pixiv and poipiku updates made me very excited. I didn't know a power bottom Kuko Harai would be so visually appealing.

Jumping past the R18 art, it's a no brainer why I would watch this series. Music franchises have always appealed to me as an anime fan, even if most of them have been idol-based. I hadn't listened to J-rap prior to watching Hypnosis Mic, but I was excited to see what this franchise did with it. When the first PV dropped prior to its COVID-19 production delay, I was impressed from a production standpoint. A-1 Pictures looked like it was going to funnel plenty of money into this, and Minako Shiba (RIP)'s character designs were vibrant and suited the groups perfectly. It only made sense to start off the year with this.

What Hypnosis Mic's anime adaptation does best is not give any fucks. You can tell the adaptation team genuinely had a lot of fun coming up with scenarios the four groups would wind up in, especially given how they're organized. The Buster Bros are three brothers, Mad Trigger Crew contains men associated with crime or the military, those in the art and the entertainment industry are in Fling Posse, whereas medical and office workers make up Materno. Hypnosis Mic does a great job fleshing out its characters that viewers who aren't familiar with the franchise understand who they are. Although they prance around in their archetypes, it's rare for a show like this to give their characters more to do than just look pretty.

While I like all the four core groups for what they bring to the franchise, I wasn't as drawn to Materno's music until the stadium rap battle took place. It's likely because Ryuichi Kijima's delivery as Hifumi wasn't for me, but I also resonated more with the other material. That includes anime exclusive group Secret Aliens, which the writers built up throughout the show, prepped a backstory for, and gave a mic to a woman not in the government. I lived for that.

The animation and score also excel. There aren't as many off-model shots I'm used to seeing in modern A-1 productions, and the insert song sequences are colorful and fun. Under better direction and if prepped ahead of time to the point where still frames don't pop up, their shows can look close to the budget of Sword Art Online's recent seasons. Producer R.O.N. incorporates multiple music styles in a way that works for the score, making it compelling and the perfect backdrop for a show like this. I also enjoyed the voice acting and continuing to hear seiyuu I'm unfamiliar with and new sides of seiyuu I'm familiar with.

The sexist premise aside (although I do love the idea of ruling women deciding men are garbage and having them duke it out in rap battles), the first half does get repetitive despite the fun. The show jumps back and forth between each group as they navigate through a mystery or sticky situation. With the promise of more to come, it can get stale, especially if you want the stadium rap battle that's been teased to start after a lot of build-up. I also think the show could have resolved more of its subplots, especially revolving J-rap supergroup Dirty Dawg's breakup. This group had the four leaders of the four groups, two pairs having grudges toward the other person. These weren't solved, which was frustrating. I also wanted to know how Samatoki's younger sister ended up working for the government, but that might be something I look at the mobile game for.

Hypnosis Mic was a fun show. Even with its shortfalls, it was still enjoyable as hell, and I'm happy to have gotten a peak into what makes this franchise special for so many fans. I don't know if another season will get greenlit, seeing as there's the potential for plenty of ground to cover with the two new groups, but you never know. B-Project's getting a Season 3, after all. If not, at least we got a Rei Amayado cameo and homoerotic imagery!


Tokyo Mew Mew

The irony is not lost on me that a Trump supporter who thinks Tokyo Mew Mew has the greatest love story of all time posted this series in its entirety on YouTube. While the main romance here is decent (if you purge the cat bell necklace out of your mind), there are stronger examples elsewhere. In my case, Snow White with the Red Hair > Tokyo Mew Mew.

Another magical girl staple from my childhood, I was drawn to Tokyo Mew Mew when I first saw the manga at my local library. I read a bit of the sequel, Tokyo Mew Mew à La Mode, but don't really remember it outside of the new Mew Mew warrior, Mew Berry. This series gained traction in the US thanks to licensing company 4Kids, who not only put the show through Americanization but changed the title to Mew Mew Power. They only aired the first 23 episodes in the States (despite dubbing the first 26), losing the license after this, leaving the show in limbo. That's where it still is today.

Nostalgia is always at the back of my mind when it comes to picking out shows to watch. So when I was watching Sailor Moon, I thought it'd be nice to crack into this, like with the former, for the first time. I wanted to know more beyond the transformations, the iconic opening (which I didn't know was iconic until I sang a fully memorized TV cut about three weeks after finishing it), and brief snippets of the characters. When I got halfway through the show, I took a break to watch Hypnosis Mic, then the three Ruby Herring movies, before going back to this. I finished the second half in eight days.

It did take me a bit to get into Tokyo Mew Mew. At first, I was annoyed at Ichigo getting shat on by the people around her, but once the rest of the Mew Mews were introduced and the overarching story got underway, the anime got better. I liked how the plot skirted away from the traditional monster of the week I'm used to elsewhere. This gave us more time to develop the characters, even if the core group wasn't as compelling as the supporting cast. They did get their time to shine in individual episodes, though. I enjoyed glimpses into their backstories the 4Kids localization didn't get to or changed altogether (Lettuce sticks out like a sore thumb). My favorite has and always will be Zakuro. She fits a different character archetype than Minako but is just as much of a badass.

Getting more in depth with the aliens was something I wasn't expecting. Shows targeted to kids usually paint their villains as one-dimensional with little substance, but Tokyo Mew Mew gives its villains motivation and vulnerability. It doesn't excuse Quiche's sexual harassment towards Ichigo throughout the show, but I understood why the trio (led by Deep Blue) fought against the Mew Mews. Why should humans protect the environment when they've done nothing but disrespect it? It builds up to a sweet part of the ending that shows how the villains have changed. Rather than remain static, they become fleshed-out characters fans were (and still are) drawn to. 4Kids didn't make them as nuanced.

You can also tell how this work would go on to influence Bleach. Directed by Nobuyuki Abe with Masashi Sogo leading the writing team, not to mention being animated by the same studio, Pierrot, there's plenty of fun action sequences with magical girl cues I've picked up over the years. The crossover doesn't stop with some of the staff; the lead five seiyuu are all in Bleach. It was fun to see how Abe has grown as a director from this show, especially with better production budgets and a darker style. Tokyo Mew Mew does suffer from off animation at various points, becoming distracting during bigger battles. However, the character designs looked good, and the Mew Mew's color palette became vibrant when they transformed.

Takayuki Negishi's score matches the show's energy, with plenty of cheerful and high energy pieces, emotional ones saved for the right moments. The voice acting is also great for this show. It was fun to see where some seiyuu would go after this point, and I gained appreciation for Saki Nakajima as Ichigo. Since I only heard her voice in Bleach before this, I enjoyed getting to see her play a bumbling teen who experiences her first love, heartbreak, and responsibilities in protecting the Earth.

Despite some of its problems, Tokyo Mew Mew still made an impact on me, not only in how it influenced the magical girl genre, but how it built over time to help me understand the villains and become a stronger thematic story. I didn't know if I would finish it following Episode 4. However, I did, and I'm happy for that. I'm curious to see what the reboot has in store, especially if, like Sailor Moon Crystal, it follows the manga's storyline more closely. Both have a lot to offer, which I'll not only cover later when I talk about the end of Sailor Moon's first season, but in a future post I brought up at the end of last year.


The Given Movie

I was waiting for this movie to be released stateside. Delayed thanks to the pandemic, the Given movie didn't show in Japanese theaters until August 2020, with Crunchyroll dropping it on their site six months later. Akihiko and Haruki's romantic development got teased in the show. The fanbase on tumblr were becoming weeping messes over Chapter 20. While I did like Mafuyu and Ritsuka as a couple, my curiosity was shifting like the narrative towards the couple that could form. There were promised complications, angst, and light that Given has always managed to peak through its darker undertones.

The challenge was to find the perfect time to watch it after finding out it was up for users who didn't have to pay. Fitting an hour long movie with ads between homework assignments on a weekend didn't pan out. Mondays were out automatically because my schedule was packed. Fast forward to a radio show shift on a Thursday night where I was drained after focusing on the Joss Whedon adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing for half the day. I had a test the upcoming Monday, and noticing I only had time to study after 7:00 p.m., I decided to look over the discussion sheets in the booth, walk back to my dorm, shower, grab the gluten-free blueberry muffin I had nabbed from the cafeteria earlier in the week, and watch this movie.

It's a decision I don't regret. If my love for this franchise wasn't evident when I talked about the show, it's coming out in droves here. By turning the focus onto Akihito and Haruki, we're able to understand more of who they are as people (I'm sensing a pattern here). Haruki's self-esteem and what he felt his worth was to the band crushed me. As someone who's dealt with (and to be honest, still does) doubting their place in something important to them, I got behind it immediately. Akihito and Ugetsu's abusive relationship continued to be examined, and we got to know more about their history. Although I still haven't read the manga, I appreciate how Natsuki Kizu and Yuniko Ayana didn't paint either one as the ultimate villain. Both had their own fault in not wanting the relationship to end, even if it went past the point of love to emotional and physical abuse. Seeing both of them move on in their own ways (at first, not in healthy ones whatsoever) was the best thing for them. They needed to get out before they suffered even more.

An argument between Akihito and Ugetsu happens to be the precursor to the climatic moment between the former and Haruki. It's one of the most emotionally wrought moments of the show, not only because it's where their feelings for each other come clawing out, but Akihito takes advantage of Haruki's. I blacked out what I read on tumblr a year before I saw the movie, so I was sitting in front of my TV, freaking out about whether The Scene I'd watched or read countless times in yaoi would happen again.

Thankfully, it doesn't. Akihito stops before it goes too far, but it temporarily damages their friendship. It's an ugly and uncomfortable scene to sit through, especially to sexual assault and rape victims. But what's important is that the adaptation doesn't frame it as romantic. It's such a stark contrast and handled so beautifully. I think it's going to spoil future BL that has early rape to serve as a grandiose climax but brushes it aside as the two leads fall in love. It's not a plot device in Given. It's not ignored later in Given. Rather, it makes Akihito disgusted at letting his resentment towards Ugetsu out and hurts Haruki to the point where he has a friend cut his hair short. Eventually, when the two live together, these feelings are worked through, leading to a sweet pay-off and romantic confession that made me (and my brother, who was watching this passively) squeal.

Yuniko Ayana frames this movie around Akihto and Haruki exclusively. Although there are some scenes with Mafuyu and Ritsuka, looking online made me aware of cut content some manga readers were upset was missing. I didn't mind it. Getting to read the manga will probably make me appreciate the arc more, but from an adaptation standpoint, zeroing in paid off.

Lerche's animation continues to look incredible in one of their best works to date (I'll reference another one later). The movie's colorful, rich, and continues to use its settings to their upmost potential (the cherry blossom petals!!). Michiru's score taps into uglier emotion this time around and is once again to be a treat. The voice acting also continues to be strong. Not to mention, the insert song composed for this film? Beautiful. There's so much to love here, and I can't wait to explore it more in the manga at some point this summer. Given continues to be a force in the BL market, and considering its shadier competition, I couldn't be happier. It deserves it.


Fantastic Detective Labyrinth

I was first introduced to this show at Anime Iowa in 2014. With my brother, I attended the Right Stuf panel, where they showed off openings for a list of their recently licensed/released titles. One of the spokespeople stated, "If you like Black Butler, you'll like this show." Being up Black Butler's ass at that point, I took her word for it and then promptly forgot this existed until I found it on Crunchyroll this past year. Fantastic Detective Labyrinth looked like a fun niche show with a little action, a little drama, and a little mystery. The first episode looked promising when I watched it in Anime Club, so after the first half of last semester wrapped up, I decided to give this a shot. Welcome to the Ballroom looked like it needed more of my energy, anyways.

Although Fantastic Detective Labyrinth looked promising, it didn't turn out that way. The start was fairly cute, as we were introduced to Mayuki's world and the people in it. I liked the episodic mysteries that reminded me of Crown Media's and Scooby-Doo. With some obvious clues and fun detectives, they were enjoyable to crack, especially if Mayuki's new friends were involved. There was great build-up to a couple reveals down the line. I wanted to keep going to get more information. Who was this mysterious man in a dark room? How serious was this power Mayuki held?

The music by Kei Haneoka perfectly fit the show's aesthetic, tapping into the comedic and dramatic moments better than the show's writing did. I always felt uneasy when this one piece played with snapping snares, spelling doom whenever something bad was happening. The voice cast was also filled with seiyuu I've known from years of watching anime. Everyone fit their roles, even the one who I didn't know as well, Nana Inoue. Kota and Rakuta had my favorite voices because whoever cast Marina Inoue and Romi Park as twins deserves a raise. This show was at the start or in the middle of their peaks, so again, I got to see where they were at this time (2007-2008) and how they've grown since.

This is were my praise for this show ends. After a few episodes, I was immediately confused over who this show's demographic was. It seemed lighthearted enough for younger audiences, but combined with the sex comedy (which was inappropriate and never funny, especially if it extended to Hatsumi and Sanae's sexual obsession with Mayuki), it could skew older. The men looked nice for 2007, so there's a demographic for that, but the show also wanted to emphasize Sanae's boobs a couple times, and there's also a demographic for that. Imagine my surprise when I found out the manga was published in a shonen magazine that primarily printed romantic comedies. Romantic. Comedies. Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is not a romantic comedy.

The character writing was also poor. Supporting characters went in and out of the show for episodes at a time and were put back in like nothing happened. Characters I thought were important were gone, even though their appearances in an arc or two should have been vital. Traits were brought in then dropped (including the random moment where Maya stated she was going to marry Mayuki, which got a "What the fuck?" out of me). Sanae did nothing at the Hyuga mansion except be one of Seiran's Aya, which I thought was strange. Shien's role in the show was badly constructed and needed to be re-worked. And even though we got background on the Shimono family, I still didn't care for Seiran because his only defining character trait was wanting to protect Mayuki.

You know it's never a good sign when you want to root for the villains instead of the heroes, especially when they seem more compelling and have more depth to them. Although I do wish I got more with this villain:

Byakko deserved better. The anime did hint at her backstory and why she worked under Seiju, but it never tells us what her name before Byakko was, and she decides to die with Seiju because undying loyalty to the end. It made some of her inner conflict not worth the effort.

The first half was serviceable in its cases despite the problems, but the second half is where Fantastic Detective Labyrinth fell apart. I finally got information about the world and plot points dropped early on in the series, but much of it was through info-dumps or in ways that didn't benefit how the show started or the darker direction it seemed to be going. After Shien is introduced, the show takes a abrupt comedic pivot that was out of place and unnecessary. I've talked about tone shifts within episodes a couple of times in the past, but Fantastic Detective Labyrinth went on a tone shift for three episodes. The pivot back isn't even smooth since the show still makes weird comedic jokes that failed to make this 21 year-old viewer crack a smile.

It's a shame, too, because outside of her magical girl and shonen work, I haven't found a show I've liked with Natsuko Takahashi at the helm. She's not a bad writer, but there's something about the properties she works on or the source material itself that doesn't benefit her in the final product. The last 12 episodes were very frustrating to sit through, and though I saw one of the familial twists coming (and got annoyed that I forgot about it, resulting in me throwing a plastic cup), I couldn't bring myself to care. A death is presented as being tragic, and I actually didn't mind that this character died. I even told Shien to fuck off at one point. I feel like the series abandoned what made it fun in the first place, deciding to explore its background and lore in a way that wasn't fulfilling.

Like with Zombie-Loan, the show also didn't have the best budget by 2007 standards. The fight chorography is static, and characters frequently go off-model. While there were some moments that had nice lighting or were framed well, it wasn't enough to elevate some of the weaker parts here. I feel like from what I've heard, this is something Studio Deen often struggles with, but I have hope their other productions look a little better.

I can't say I'd recommend this. Fantastic Detective Labyrinth may have had overarching issues that weren't going to get me to revisit it in the future, but the second half destroys any momentum it had going for it. Even though I love exploring shows that aren't talked about a lot now or highlights from a specific genre, I'm hoping there's still better out there. I'll be on the hunt.


Woodpecker Detective's Office

When I added this to my anime streaming Google Doc, I had no clue when I was going to watch it. The only information I knew going into Woodpecker Detective's Office was that it was based off a novel, Linden Films was producing it, and Taku Kishimoto, my favorite anime screenwriter solely because of his work for Haikyuu, was leading scriptwriting. The anime was also set during the Meiji area, and its characters were fictional depictions of authors who lived during that time period. With some names I recognized from Bungo Stray Dogs, I was curious to see how their portrayals compared and to learn more about Japanese poetry and historical mysteries in the process. Though I had longer shows lined up (like Welcome to the Ballroom), I wanted something shorter after getting invested in Fantastic Detective Labyrinth for a month and a half. So, with List Randomizer on hand, I put this and three other shows through it, and lo and behold, Woodpecker Detective's Office was #1.

This was a lot of fun. Although Ken Ii's original novel only covered one case (which I believe if the cover is any indication was in Episode 4), the anime expands on Ishikawa and Kindaichi's work as their friendship is tested and mysteries lead closer to one culprit who ties several together. Woodpecker Detective's Office succeeds where Fantastic Detective Labyrinth didn't by having the mysteries be a consistent part of the show. Each case was engrossing (although I didn't expect the show to get as violent at points) and weren't as cut-and-dry as I initially thought. Some were important to characters' story arcs, others tied themes together beautifully, and one twist threw me for a loop and reminded me of patterns I've seen elsewhere (thank you Rebecca Silverman for the term "outsize presence"). They were all well-executed and investing, which any great mystery should be.

Woodpecker Detective's Office also teeters the line between comedic and dramatic more effectively. There were moments I chuckled at and seriously paid attention to. We get to see Ishikawa's health decline as the show continues, make decisions that Kindaichi refuses to get behind, and how one case causes his outlook (and character design) to shift. Today, their friendship wouldn't be a thing. There are times where Ishikawa uses Kindaichi's weaknesses to his advantage, even letting him go to prison for a murder that wasn't actually a murder. However, they keep coming back to each other, which made me understand more why people still continue to remain partners, either platonically or romantically. One person doesn't want to betray the other's loyalty or trust, and as such, they'd rather it go on.

The anime's supporting cast is also strong, although they aren't used as frequently as I would have liked. Granted, an ensemble piece this show is not, but I did like Sakutaro Hagiwara being soft-spoken, Isamu Yoshii being a smartass (and got a significant role in the Episode 6 case), and Taro Hirai (the real name of author Ranpo Edogawa) being way too clever for his own good. I found it weird that even though the side characters pop up a lot, they weren't utilized in the way I expected. 

While I could go on and on about Given's art style, Linden Films also paid a plentiful penny here. The production is incredibly artistic, with fantastic lighting, breathtaking weather, and neat frames all around that hearken to the show's time period. I was surprised to find out the lead director worked on Hanebado prior to Woodpecker Detective's Office. Although I've only seen four episodes of that show for my school's Anime Club (and don't plan on watching the rest because the coach gave me a bad first impression), it has a different artistic style and tone. The characters also look great and are well-adapted from Kaoru Saki's original designs (which a viewer will find in the end cards). It's just a beautiful production across the board and doesn't rely on it.

The score and voice acting are also excellent here. Kuniyuki Takahashi and Ryuuichi Takada from MONACA compose pieces that perfectly fit the show's atmosphere and amplify the action. For voice acting, seeing Takahiro Sakurai not cast as the suave man was surprising to me. Rather, his role as the often meek Kyosuke harkens back to roles he played in the previous decade. The rest of the cast plays their roles well, even going out of their depth to play types they don't usually get to. Shintaro Asanuma and Makoto Furukawa are two that immediately come to mind, but I also heard a new voice: Yukiya Hayashi. For his first role, he did a good job embracing Ryunosuke Akutagawa's cryptic poetry and mysterious appearances. 

At the end of the day, this anime surprised me. It was the perfect accompaniment after a semester of Hallmark mystery movie premieres and working through my anxiety towards Lifetime thrillers. It had me on the edge of my seat, wanting to digest every single moment. Despite some minor problems, Woodpecker Detective's Office had an intriguing story with awesome production values and lead character arcs to boot. If you're into Japanese history, mystery, or a show you can bring out the popcorn for, this anime's for you.

P.S. I unrealistically hope Crown Media and A&E/companies that filter through them use the cases in here to inspire their writers. There's a lot of material that could be modernized effectively.


Sailor Moon: Season 1

When I published my Fall 2020 update post, Luke and I had 13 episodes to watch. Although we wanted to finish the show before we went back to school for second semester, we ended up having 7, which by the end of the semester, led to 3. Luckily, we finished it recently, and I'm proud of that. It may have taken roughly eight and a half months, but Sailor Moon ended up being well worth the wait.

To circle back to my last update post again, I referenced how Sailor Moon has plenty of charm in it despite the elements that didn't age well from a critical standpoint. Part of it's because it was my gateway anime, but it feels rewarding to see Usagi mature throughout the season. It paid off in the season's ending where she has to face Queen Beryl on her own. Seeing the other Sailor Senshi's deaths for the first time beyond clips or the DiC cuts proved how devoted they were to protecting their leader, even if it cost them their lives at the DD Girls' hands. We see Usagi/Sailor Moon at her lowest point before she gets up, stronger than before. It's only going to go up from here after their memories are restored.

I still enjoyed the expanded world and characters of this adaptation considering the start of Crystal. I still enjoyed the bright animation and OST courtesy of Takanori Arisawa. And the Viz Media dub showcased its best performances in the final episodes and had a fantastic adaptive script to boot. I can't wait to dig into the rest of the show for the first time at some point. Although I would love to jump right into R, our brains need the break. Watching a show for close to a year is tough work, you know.


That's going to do it for me! I hope you all have a great start to your summers, enjoy the weather solo or with friends and family, continue to respect COVID guidelines even as vaccines become widely available and rules are revised, and take time to learn something new about the world. Stay tuned for more this summer.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Hallmark Christmas 2020: In Review


Hallmark Christmas 2020: In Review

Warning: The following list may/will contain spoilers for the Hallmark Christmas movies I watched in 2020. If you wish to stay clear of what happens in these movies, please exit the tab and join me once you've watched them. Or, you know, you can take that warning with a grain of salt and still read on anyway. Whatever floats your boat.

With that said:

2020 was the year I really got into Hallmark. If 2018 was an omen and 2019 was me getting acquainted, 2020 was a deep dive into Hallmark Hell Heaven Hell, to Heaven, and Back Again. Since we're still in the middle of a pandemic, it only seemed right. Compared to the 64 movies I watched in 2019, I saw 30 more in 2020. While Crown Media's mystery franchises paved the way for this hobby, I ran out of 2015 and beyond content to sink my teeth into. Therefore, I watched more traditional romance movies, binged all four seasons of Chesapeake Shores within three months, and took in 42 Christmas movies, helped not only by Christmas movie marathons at the start of quarantine but also by watching 25 of the 40 new Countdown to Christmas and Miracles of Christmas premieres. When the call for Hallmark Christmas Season sounds, you don't ignore it. I heeded that call, too, considering I got to watch all the Hallmark Channel Christmas premieres I initially wanted to watch.

In today's post, I'm going to rank these 25 movies from favorite to least favorite (a far cry from the 10 I covered on my college's radio station) and give my brief thoughts on each one. There are five more I'd like to watch from this batch, but since I didn't get to watch them before New Year's Day, they will be covered once Christmas in July ends (yes, that's a thing beyond playlists). I'll also include either my favorite moments from each movie, or my favorite comments made by either me or my brother, Luke. Get ready for a fun ride!

Five Stars

The Christmas House

This movie isn't only at the top of my list because it's groundbreaking for Hallmark. What The Christmas House also does well is show a family that isn't all smiles and glitter. Something about Phylis considering separating from her husband really resonated with me. Maybe it was timely foreshadowing for my mom deciding it'd be best if she and my dad lived separately, but it also shows a crack in the married parents dynamic Crown Media prides itself on having in most of their Christmas movies (if the other parent isn't dead).

Robert Buckley is also an incredibly charismatic actor. Regardless if he helped develop this movie based on elements from his own childhood, I could tell he really immersed himself in Mike Mitchell to the point where he became him. Beyond that, the gay subplot that gets a fraction of screen time (with a gay kiss), a romance that doesn't hinge on misunderstandings or a big conflict, and a movie all about embracing lost childhood nostalgia made The Christmas House a worthwhile watch. This is where Crown Media can go. Here's hoping the Karens who boycott holiday movies like this don't change that.

Favorite Moment: During the scene below where Mike daydreams about Andi during a meeting for his show, and Luke went, "Just thinking about...~her~."

Chateau Christmas

Chateau Christmas is the perfect example of a traditional Hallmark movie without the dramatic angst. Starring everyone's favorite gay Hallmark lead, Luke Macfarlane, and 2012 Radio Rebel mean girl, Merritt Patterson, this movie had me swimming in Christmas cuteness for the two hours it was on. Margot and Jackson's rekindling relationship is something I think most viewers will root for. Nicole Baxter and S.W. Sessions make their chemistry blossom, and when it comes time to decide if they can put the past behind them, it's in one of the most realistic ways. I also enjoyed the subplot where a classical music quartet (now a trio) get to perform once again for the Chateau's annual Christmas concert. It adds a sentimental touch I didn't expect this movie to have. Plus, there were more BIPOC actors than normal, which is always a good thing. Next Christmas can't come soon enough!

Favorite Moment: "Really all we have is you, me, and this cookie, and it's going to be gone soon."- Adam Johnston

A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado

When I feel like my smile's going to make my face split in two, I know I've stumbled onto a good Hallmark movie. It helps when Rochelle Aytes and Mark Taylor look like they're having a lot of fun. Erin and Kevin don't start off on the right foot, but you get to see their chemistry build in a way that's natural and not trying to push them together. There's earlier conflict and an earlier than expected first kiss, for starters. Even though the "Kevin feels he and his daughter are being taken advantage of" subplot isn't as compelling the second time, it leads to a satisfying conclusion where he finally faces his feelings and makes a decision I didn't expect. 

A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado also had a well-done subplot where we believe Erin's new co-worker, Neil, has a crush on her. However, when he takes Erin out for dinner, he reveals he's gay. Considering Samantha Herman had a (not so (at least to me)) subtle gay side romance in Love Under the Olive Tree, it isn't too surprising. I heard rumors from the concerned Karens, got to see it for myself, and was not disappointed in the least. The subtle way Herman had sparks brew between Neil and Mitch, Kevin's friend and co-worker, which led to them holding hands at the end? Beautiful.

Favorite Moment: When Luke and I booed as Carrie Underwood's cover of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" played. Nothing against Carrie Underwood, but did the music team really have to go with the whitest artist for their Black talent?

Christmas by Starlight

Their first movie post quarantine was the precursor for how well Kimberley Sustad and Paul Campbell work as a duo. This time, though, they helped develop Christmas by Starlight's story, and the fun Campbell had with the script can't be denied. This movie has some of the best back and forth banter I've ever seen from Hallmark, period. Sustad and Campbell continue to be one of Hallmark's Dream Teams, with plenty of great moments where their characters have time to shine. I wanted to see these two make things work, even if all hope seemed to be lost. Will goes through a great arc where we see he isn't a giant man-child, and I found it funny when Annie kept on making friends with the people Will was trying to get on board. There were plenty of great moments that made me want to re-watch it about two weeks after I initially saw it. It's a fun comedy that has a great romance and the perfect resolution. Let's not forget that Lyle had a husband!

Favorite Moment: "I thought you said casual." - Annie Park

"Yeah, I meant nice casual, not Bingo Night at the Legion." - William Holt

On the 12th Date of Christmas

It's been a few months since the leads were dropped, but I'm still shocked Mallory Jansen, who was in the first season of Young & Hungry as Josh's girlfriend (before he and Gabi get together), is actually in a Hallmark movie. She does well next to Tyler Hynes, a Hallmark movie veteran, even though her Australian accent slips through numerous times. Both actors are supported by a charismatic and funny script, which takes them to several spots of "Chicago" and sneaks in some great Midwest references that Autumn Dreams couldn't five years earlier. I think it helped that one of the script writers (from what I could find) was born in Nebraska. Clear Lake's also actually a town in Iowa.

What I also really liked is that On the 12th Date of Christmas doesn't really bank on the promotion Jennifer or Aiden is hoping to get. Rather, it focuses on Jennifer finding her voice and becoming more confident in herself, especially with someone she isn't used to working with, and the two working together in order to produce the best scavenger hunt their company's ever seen. Jansen and Hynes share some great chemistry, too. I rooted for them the whole way through, even if Aiden's introverted tendencies almost got in the way. I was so entertained by watching this movie the first time, I had to watch it again with my brother when we threw a Christmas movie marathon one weekend (the same weekend I re-watched Christmas by Starlight). I don't regret it.

Favorite Moment: "You know, if this doesn't work out, I'd have to go back to being an Iowa Hawkeye...which also isn't a real bird."- Jennifer Holloway

The Angel Tree

I'm a sucker for Jill Wagner's Hallmark movies. Part of it's because I think she's a great actress in them, but since Mystery 101 made a significant impact on me, I knew I had to see more stuff with her in it. It just might not be Christmas in Evergreen. Sorry to that series' fans.

Written by Teresa Kale (who worked on Disney Channel's Girl Meets World, and you can tell she wrote for Disney based on the script), and based on a middle grade book by Daphne Benedis-Grab, The Angel Tree is a holiday mystery movie where Rebecca strives to find out who the mysterious wish-granting figure (who goes by the name of Angel) is in her hometown for a big article with the help/hindrance of her childhood friend and his nephew (who's more involved). Kale did a good job balancing this plot with a focus on family, helping others in need, and Rebecca and Matthew questioning the feelings between them. I think she also did her best in tweaking this movie for Hallmark standards. In the book, four kids take on finding out who Angel is. In the movie, it's two. Hallmark policy states there needs to be a main romance between two (hopefully) consenting adults. It's only natural.

What helped elevate The Angel Tree was the romantic conflict showing up earlier than anticipated. It's not the anchor of the last act of the movie; rather, it revolves around the identity of Angel and whether Rebecca will keep it to herself or share it with the world. This helped keep the angst to a tolerable level and not blow things out of proportion, which is something Hallmark has been prone to do. Who Angel is may or may not be something you expect (I expected some aspects, but not others), but at the end of the day, the mystery and the growing sparks between Rebecca and Matthew will keep you intrigued.

P.S.: I had my first alcoholic beverage (spiked eggnog) with this movie since I'm 21 now. It was nice, although the recipe called for too much rum. Luke put a dash in the next night rather than the two cups, and it was better.

Favorite Moment: When Rebecca walked into a tree when trying to eavesdrop on Matthew's phone call during the first segment. It gave me a Haruka accidentally eavesdropping on Ranmaru's phone call in Season 3 Episode 7 of Uta Pri and stepping on a stick flashback.

Christmas with the Darlings

Although this lacked some sizzle compared to the movies that ranked higher, Christmas with the Darlings was still enjoyable. The writer for this movie, Tracy Andreen, penned my favorite Hallmark Christmas movie of 2019, Picture a Perfect Christmas, so I'm happy to see she delivered with this movie as well. 

There were a few things that made Christmas with the Darlings as comforting as a blanket. The romance and the romantic conflict took a back seat to the Darlington kids. Following the death of their parents, they're used to constant change in their lives, and understand their uncle looking after them is only temporary. It's easy to empathize with them, and as Jessica and Max continue to look after them, a connection brews. Max may be a laidback, goofy man, but he does care about people other than himself. Christmas with the Darlings moved at a good pace and kept me entertained as I inhaled takeout. It's one of those holiday movies that could go either way but charmed me enough that I want to come back to it.

Favorite Moment: Luke and I chanting, "GAY WOMEN! GAY WOMEN!" when Zoe, Jessica's friend, got together with Kate, a local baker.

Four Stars

The Christmas Ring

If there's one thing The Christmas Ring made me want to do, it was make peppermint Whoopie pies. When I'll do that? I have no clue. But I enjoyed how Kendra's hunt for the story behind a mysterious ring played out, with the help of the owners' grandson, Michael. Although they didn't start off on the best foot, their romance blossoms in a sweet way, helped by Nazneen Contractor and David Alpay's performances. Contractor, in particular, made Kendra so endearing, it was tough not to dislike her. From familiar faces like Kazumi Evans, Colleen Wheeler, and Milo Shandel, solid writing, and a nice small town backdrop (thank you, Ladner, British Columbia), The Christmas Ring has plenty to give for devoted and non Hallmark fans. The only reason why this isn't higher is the lack of depth for a couple side characters.

Favorite Moment: Getting to see a nonbinary actor (Sam Quinn) on screen for the first time in a Hallmark movie.

Jingle Bell Bride

For the first Christmas movie of the season, Crown Media knocked it out of the park. While I do think there were stronger films that came out after this (*points up*), this set a great tone for the next two months. I mean, c'mon. A lead interracial romance? 2019 Hallmark would never.

Julie Gonzalo and Ronnie Rowe Jr. have such natural chemistry that shines through in the script. Although Marcy Holland's mystery movie writing has been shaky in the past, her Christmas movie writing is solid, and that applies to Jingle Bell Bride, too. I never stopped smiling when this aired. There was never a dull moment, also helped by the great supporting cast and the strings Matt pulls to get Jessica back to New York on time for the important wedding she's planning. I'm also happy Gonzalo got to play her first Latine role on Hallmark after playing white characters throughout her Hallmark career. All in all, there was plenty to root for in Jingle Bell Bride. I'm ready for future runs with this.

Favorite Moment: Luke making fun of Rebecca, Jessica's scheming white savior co-worker, whenever she showed up on screen.

Deliver by Christmas

Both channels starting their holiday programming blocks with interracial romances? Crown Media, you shouldn't have. Despite some really clunky exposition at the beginning of the movie (which isn't anything new for Hallmark; some writers do a better job with it), Deliver by Christmas was another movie that put a smile on my face. This premise of two strangers being connected through phone calls without putting together the puzzle in real life could have been fumbled, but Mike Mariano keeps it engaging with fun conversations, cute moments, and burning chemistry that never goes down. I liked both romantic leads (kudos to Alvina August for finally being contracted for a lead role she deserved a couple years ago), the acting was great throughout, and even though hope seemed lost at a couple points, everything worked out in the end. It's a Hallmark movie. It can't not, right?

P.S. Build-a-Bear Workshop's production company worked on this movie, so be prepared: There are a couple of obligatory stuffed bear shots and a plot point that involves a recorded message in a bear.

Favorite Moment: Luke making fun of Molly when she goes into having this fantasy of her and Josh being together when it seems like he's dating Jessica.

Unlocking Christmas

Compared to other viewers, I think I liked this film more. This was the last new Christmas movie I watched, so I figure some people would expect the "Christmas magic" to fade by this point. But instead, I found a sweet romance carried by two Hallmark veterans (who have acted together before) and a script from Joey Elkins and Blake Silver that had plenty of playful banter, which helped move Unlocking Christmas along to its dreamy end. It clicked more than Elkins and Silver's past two projects (although they technically revised the script for one). Kate and Kevin's growing feelings for each other do take the front seat to the scavenger hunt the two go on. It wasn't a big deal, since I liked both subplots, but I think some felt it made this movie too "by-the-numbers."

Unlocking Christmas also has a pretty trite misunderstanding that could have been resolved sooner had the two leads talked about it as it happened. It wasn't annoying but did also give me the "by-the-numbers" vibes I mentioned earlier. That being said, this movie still managed to surprise me. There were some touching moments, the best friends to both leads were fantastic, and the scavenger hunt definitely unlocked new feelings (get it?) for Kate and Kevin, to each other and in their personal lives. It was a great sendoff for the season.

Favorite Moment: The hospital still having the directional arrow stickers on the floor.

USS Christmas

Although I don't think this was writer Andrea Canning's first Christmas movie script (I'll talk about it later), this was the first non-mystery or thriller movie of her career that aired. Part of that could be because Crown Media gave her the chance to write one, but I'm also wondering if she needed a change of scenery. At the beginning of the movie, Maddie makes a comment about only writing crime stories at the Norfolk and how she doesn't want to be defined by that. Could this be subliminal messaging, or could this be me thinking too much? Who can say?

Regardless, this was pretty charming. I think the romantic development between Maddie and Billy was well done here. Billy's definitely a mini Grinch, but spending more time with Maddie as she investigates an old love story on a Tiger Cruise opens him up. Maddie's hesitant about letting Billy in because her mom married a service member who was away for most of her childhood (and died during one of those times). Yet as the old love story opens up some hope in her heart (I thought it was going to end tragically, TBH), she realizes she can take a chance on him. Love is born. Boom. End of movie.

Did USS Christmas accurately depict military life? Not exactly. Did Barbara Niven (who played Maddie's mom) mostly just exist like her character (the aunt) in the Crossword Mysteries? Yes. But the good here outweighs some of the missteps. Jen Lilley and Trevor Donovan worked well together, there were some great one-liners, and jumping to this from a meh holiday movie was the right decision.

Favorite Moment: When they show the fighter jets "take off," and they switch to blurry stock footage that looks at least thirty years older than the footage shot for the movie.

Christmas in Vienna

You know that feeling when you watch so many Christmas movies, one almost gets away from you? That's Christmas in Vienna for me. In the grand sweep of movies I watched in December, this fell to the back of my brain. It could also be because I watched this the day I found out a friend of mine from school got a positive COVID test (and I later found out she got it), so I had that on my mind at times.

Regardless, this movie was filmed on location prior to the pandemic and used it well. There was a lot of stunning scenery Maclain Nelson was able to get on film, and a lot of lively locations the location scouts were able to film in. It's like Crown Media is tempting you to travel to these cities when they film beyond Canada and the US. Cue me watching Forever in My Heart after my May Term to Ireland got pulled and being like, "Damn! Hopefully I'll be able to go at some point." Sarah Drew and Brennan Elliott worked well together (even if I didn't fully gel with Drew's acting), and the side characters also gave earnest performances. The conflict is definitely more of a slow burn, which puts it lower on this list, but the payoff is perfect, and the ending is traditional Hallmark in every sense of the word. It's cheesy, pretty, and entertaining. I wouldn't mind seeing this again. 

Favorite Moment: Jess and Mark have two very awkward conversations before the former finds out the latter is her best friend's cousin, who she's heard plenty about.

Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater

Before this, I tried watching a couple titles with Ashley Williams (Love on a Limb and Holiday Hearts, respectively) and ended up DNFing them after the first segment. There's something about Ashley Williams's overly perky delivery and bad writing that don't work for me. Thankfully, Nina Weinman has a better handle on all the plot structures I've come to know from Hallmark, so this ended up being more tolerable than Williams's past joints. The book it was based off of by British author Debbie Johnson could have helped, too, but a holiday movie fan account I follow mentioned this adaptation doesn't follow the book that closely.

Teamed up with Niall Matter, Candace Cameron Bure's new love interest in the Aurora Teagarden series, Williams portrays Maggie O'Donnell, a single mother who might not have to be by herself this holiday season when she accidentally injures Lucas Cavelli, an architect, by walking out of a tree lot with a Christmas tree at the wrong moment. From there, a friendship develops through volunteer work, an ugly Christmas sweater party, and decorating. The usual Hallmark holiday beats? Of course. But what makes this rank above other movies is its charming script. I've liked Weinman's handle on romantic development in the past, and Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater is no exception. Maggie and Lucas grow with their feelings towards each other, and it's helped by Williams and Matter's natural chemistry. Their characters have great banter, compliment each other well, and the misunderstanding wasn't as angsty as I would have expected. I was high-key thinking the characters were going to scream at each other, but nope.

There are other great moments from this movie, like Matthew MacCaull as Lucas's best friend, Lisa MacFadden getting a much needed push in a stronger supporting role as Maggie's best friend, an interracial side couple (!!!), and Ellie Harvie as an army commander that Maggie and Lucas run after when they first meet her. It was adorable, fun, and a great way to ease anxiety on a Wednesday afternoon.

Favorite Moment: When Lucas talked about watching a bad holiday movie and said that he might as well finish it because he was twenty-four minutes in. "What's an hour more?" Nina Weinman's power, everyone.

Cranberry Christmas

Cranberry Christmas is kind of different for Hallmark. Rather than showing a couple come together during the "most magical time of the year," this movie depicts a couple who's growing apart. Dawn and Gabe Hughes have begun to live separately as their lifestyle brand, Cranberry Lane, takes off. While they pretend to be the same bright, smiling duo that they started the company with, both want different things. As such, their marriage has become strained. Can it be reexamined when they're paired together to plan a COVID friendly Christmas festival that ends up on TV personality Pamela Frank's show? Or will it crumble?

This is the first movie I've seen Nikki Deloach in that hasn't been a flop. She's not a bad actress, but her movies I've seen either suffer from trite writing or a slow moving plot. While this movie does take a while to get going, it hits its stride during the second half. We get to see Dawn and Gabe apologize to each other, reflect on what went wrong, and even go in depth about Dawn's sister (Lauren) and Pamela's own familial losses. It's a nice touch which shows that these characters are human. They're not caricatures who're defined by one trope; they're multi-faceted people. It's a dramatic sentiment the Miracles of Christmas movies come close to getting at, but Cranberry Christmas is the one where it's succeeded the most.

I did think Dawn and Gabe's separation was depicted strangely; Nikki Deloach and Benjamin Ayres were not acting like these two characters were apart for three months. But aside from that, this was a good holiday movie that held my attention and was emotionally cathartic. It also helped that I pumped out the second half of an essay revision during the commercial breaks. 

Favorite Moment: When Gabe officially proposed to Dawn with a cranberry ring. Cheesy? Yes. Romantic? Yes.

Three and a Half Stars

Holly and Ivy

Janel Parrish was so good here, and this is coming from someone who's only seen her in To All the Boys I've Loved Before and a bit of the Bratz live action movie. She makes Melody immediately likeable, from her immediate bond with Nina and her daughters (names dropped in the title of the movie), paving her own way on the library field with a bookmobile, and starting a relationship with contractor Adam, who is just as wonderfully played by Jeremy Jordan. Jaime Pachino shifts away from the usual romantic angst to focus on Melody's goal to refurbish a house so Holly and Ivy can live in it if Nina passes away from lymphoma. It's a good conflict, even if at times the movie feels busy. 

What I'm taking away from this is that even if Melody and Nina's friendship seems too magical, an instant connection could make all the difference in someone's life. Holly and Ivy leans into Hallmark Movies and Mysteries' dramatic programming just enough so I felt emotionally connected. Sometimes that can be hard to do when you're watching a movie on Christmas Day. Not gonna lie, I was expecting to shed a few tears.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Holly and Ivy (and eventually, Melody) performed a dance Nina choreographed.

Christmas She Wrote

The only reason why I think this is Andrea Canning's first holiday move script is because she came up with the concept with Lynn Keller, her co-writer for the first two Ruby Herring mystery movies and three Lifetime thriller movies. Another fun fact: Andrea Canning revealed on the Hallmarkies podcast that this movie wasn't initially supposed to be filmed for the 2020 Countdown to Christmas season. Crown Media was saving it for the following year, but after a last minute cut, they decided to give the green light, film in BC, and immediately look for actors who were available. It might explain why Danica McKeller and Dylan Neal lack some romantic chemistry, even if Canning tries her best to make you want to root for Kayleigh and Tripp's growing connection. It was never going to work for me.

Regardless, I enjoyed the fuck out of this movie (no more censoring cuss words!). Andrew Francis, the voice of Shining Armor in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, plays Kayleigh's Gay Best Friend, Stephen, and is the best part of the entire thing. His romantic subplot with Ben, an old high school acquaintance, made Luke and me swoon. With great dialogue, great moments, and a great sense of humor, it makes me want a main gay Hallmark movie really bad. The side gay in 2020? Amazing.

Andres Canning's writing also flows well here. It does run into a couple more hurdles than USS Christmas, especially when Kayleigh and Tripp seem to be a little too flirty after verbal swordfighting during their first meeting, but I do appreciate how it didn't check the boxes of what Canning frequently follows when writing for Ruby Herring or N. B. Thrilling Films. It was easy to follow, and I didn't get confused about any of the subplots.

The love triangle is also laughable in the best possible way. Dan (ironically played by Dan Payne in what I believe to be intentional casting (the MatchMaker Mystery franchise's second movie says hello)) comes across as incredibly horny and incredibly desperate; there's no chance Kayleigh will actually pick him. I'd watch this movie again, but make sure you hand me a hard lemonade and some food. This will make an amazing drunk watch.

Favorite Moment: When Danica McKellar (as Kayleigh) said "Do you work here now? The NERVE!!" while aggressively wiping down a window display.

Five Star Christmas

If you have a low secondhand embarrassment tolerance, this isn't the movie for you. However, if Slam Dunk's first episode was enough to make me wince and pray Sakuragi wouldn't keep embarrassing himself, I figured I would be fine. I was. Five Star Christmas is incredibly entertaining from the hoops Lucy has to juggle in order to help her dad and the roles her family play in order to impress who they believe to be an influential travel critic. This critic is someone else, which is easy to guess (and is spoiled in the description for this movie despite not being revealed until more than halfway in), but I thought it was fun to see these characters be kept up for as long as possible and to see the youngest sister use hers to realize her true calling: culinary school. As a budding foodie who's starting to make his own meals, that was pretty cute.

This movie also has a couple of surprising pivots, from casting, to a side romance, and even a character taking an on-screen pregnancy test (!). It did bite off a little more than it could chew by focusing on the entire family. I think if the story focused on Lucy or had given more time for the other familial subplots, this would have been stronger. Regardless, Five Star Christmas was a fun watch. When it re-airs and I'm staying at a B&B, you bet your ass I'm watching it.

Favorite Moment: When Victor Webster (as Jake) sang Elvis Presley's version of "Blue Christmas" bad on purpose and Bethany Joy Lenz (as Lucy) joined in.

Three Stars

A Godwink Christmas: Second Chance, First Love

I'm not into anything that feels like it's pressuring me to think a certain way, which is why I haven't watched the prior Godwink movies (also not a big fan of their synopses). However, I was ready to forego that rule when I saw Brooke D'Orsay was going to be the female lead. Caitlin Cooke from 6teen? I was shocked in 2019; I still am now. The good news: The movies she's been in have been great so far.

The bad news: I couldn't say the same about Sam Page. The two movies I've tried to watch with him in them made his characters so unlikeable, I gave up after the first segments. Here, though, Pat's charming. I thought him re-connecting with high school sweetheart Margie (I'm aware this is based off a true story, but that name in 2020 is so outdated) made for a compelling watch, and it was nice to see more BIPOC actors in supporting roles than have the cast be mostly white. Considering my expectations for the third Godwink movie were low, I'm happy to say it was charming enough for me not to DNF it.

There was some annoying angst between the two leads, especially as they worry about potentially relocating for work, but other than that, this movie was pretty standard Hallmark holiday fare. I wouldn't be opposed to putting this on in the background while I work on something.

Favorite Moment: The fact that Lois's house was the Mystery 101 house (!). It's likely in Abbotsford, British Columbia, considering IMDb users added a couple of locations in that town, but it's weird to see it decked out in Christmas decorations given its simplistic décor when owned by Graham Winslow.

Swept Up by Christmas

I wish my brain didn't make the jump to this one awful-sounding thriller movie Lindy Booth was in whenever I think about her. She's made more of a name for herself in cute family movies like this, which was the last to film for the overall holiday block and directed by former Incendo Media director, Philippe Gagnon. Also a company which produces thrillers, Incendo Media seems to be shifting to romantic comedies. But we're not talking about film companies today.

Out of the movies I'm discussing, Swept Up by Christmas is the blandest of the bunch, but that doesn't make it awful. Hilary Galanoy and Elizabeth Hackett (who some of you may know from a couple Netflix rom-coms) forgo some of the awkward dialogue at the beginning of their previous Hallmark endeavor, and frequent Hallmark writer Nicole Baxter helps beef up the script as Gwen and Reed go from enemies to lovers during an estate cleanup. It's a sweet romance that's nice, if safe. Frankly, I was more invested in side characters Mike (played by para-athlete Josh Cassidy; thank goodness the casting department got someone in a wheelchair) and Vanessa's growing relationship, which I'm bummed the movie didn't show enough of.

Another place where I need to give this props for was its set design. Every place in this movie was appropriately decked out for Christmas, and there were some pretty decorations, regardless if they were being sold for the estate sale or not. The house that was the Hawthrone estate was gorgeous! There were also some great story beats about the importance of family in your life, and in Alan's case, it made him a better person. This may not be the first 2020 holiday movie I come back to or the most engrossing, but it's serviceable for Hallmark fans who've had their share of the gauntlet.

Favorite Moment: Holly Gauthier-Frankel, who played Flora in the Cinélume Winx Club dub, showing up as Alan's estranged daughter. When I found out it was her, I screamed.

Christmas Tree Lane

It was a bit of a struggle to find the best time to watch this movie. When Crown Media decided to shift the Miracles of Christmas premiere times to 9:00 p.m. CT rather than 8:00, I wasn't planning on staying up until 11:00 to watch a Christmas movie. I live by one Hallmark movie a week during the school year now, but I don't want it to impact my sleep schedule that much. So I watched it at 3:00 p.m. on Drag Race Season 13 reveal day.

Christmas Tree Lane was another movie I thought wouldn't go well, but it ended up being decent. Alicia Witt and Andrew Walker are typically good in their Hallmark movies, even if Witt was off in my eyes for much of this one. Meg and Nate's romance was good, even when the former found out the latter worked for the company that was supposed to redevelop Christmas Tree Lane (which happened earlier than I expected). It could have gotten resolved faster had it not been for Michael J. Murray's writing of Regina, Nate's ex. I feel like her only role in the movie was to show up to make us worry for the worst. She didn't have much going on outside of that.

Witt's original song was nice, the supporting cast was nice (if you don't count Regina), and the movie is another perfect representation of Hallmark holiday content. It's not the most exciting, but it should hold your interest enough to want to finish it. It also begins with a Meghan Trainor Christmas song that Crown Media licensed before its official release!

Favorite Moment: The scene where Alicia Witt had to cry, and she didn't shed a single fake/real tear.

Cross Country Christmas

Random fun fact: This movie got delayed by a week and a day so Love, Lights, Hanukkah! could premiere during Hanukkah as opposed to two days after.

I feel like it was about time Greyston Holt got to be the main romantic interest in a Hallmark movie. He was in a couple UP TV, Lifetime, and Reel One movies and was Abby's secondary love interest in Chesapeake Shore's forth season, so it only makes sense. Rachael Leigh Cook's done this a couple times before, and the two of them manage to work well together in a comedy of errors about two high school classmates desperate to get home for the holidays. It started off rough, with too much exposition and some unflattering shot choices, but Chesapeake Shores writer Kristen Hansen evens it out as Lina and Max go from plane, to train, and even dog grooming truck as they work through their conflicts with themselves and with each other.

Was Cross Country Christmas the best movie to cap off a holiday movie weekend? Not quite. But the journey was worth the sweet ending, even with some turbulence. I'd put this on again if I was in the mood for it.

Favorite Moment: When Rachael Leigh Cook (as Lina) said "that's crazy" five times in two minutes.

A Little Christmas Charm

This movie would have been better if Greg wasn't such a creep in the first segment. He tracks Holly's business down after they run into each other outside a restaurant and immediately suggests they work together. Do you want to be kicked in the balls, Greg? Because that's what's coming if you continue to come on too strong. I'm not pointing fingers at Christine Conradt or William Penick here considering their past Crown Media projects. It's likely something carried over from Melissa Hill's book called The Charm Bracelet, although the background for that's different than the adaptation.

Once Greg began to respect Holly not just because he liked her, this movie was tolerable. Holly's quest to find a charm bracelet's owner has a couple of fun stops on the way (including the West Coast Railway Heritage Park), Ashley Greene and Brendan Penny have great chemistry and play their parts well, the romantic conflict isn't too trite, and a couple of my favorite Hallmark Side Actors from My Childhood were in it, too. Britt Irvin was on the cast sheet, but Tegan Moss, too? Jackie Lind, you're spoiling me.

Outside of the couple having a bad start, The Christmas Ring happens to have a similar plot and is executed so much better. I'd point you to that before I'd point you to this. I even watched the 2013 movie The Christmas Ornament during the commercial breaks, and I thought that was more investing despite its melodrama. While A Little Christmas Charm isn't bad, how Greg was written pretty much soured half of this movie by default. When I watch it again, I'm breezing past the first segment and putting the rest on as background noise.

Favorite Moment: The meet cute minus Greg trying to hit on Holly.

Two and a Half Stars

If I Only Had Christmas

Candance Cameron Bure's Hallmark acting is not for me. I feel like she's always so enthusiastic to the point where it gets annoying and easy to mock. Unfortunately, this comes out in full force here for a Wizard of Oz retelling whose plot is a mess up until the halfway point. It's an entertaining mess, especially with the references, but the second half taps into why I enjoy Hallmark movies so much. They're a good brain break, and you don't need to think too seriously during them. I also liked Darcy bonding with If I Only Had Christmas's entourage, with two actors I've enjoyed and another with a musical theater background. They worked well together, and I liked how the "bad traits" were replicated in these characters. The twist regarding the Emerald Educational Trust's head is painfully obvious, but since this is Hallmark, I'm not going to give this movie any flack for that. It's pure campy froth that may not be the best of this year's catalog, but it's still fine enough to the point where I wouldn't mind watching it again. Just know I'm not doing it sober.

Favorite Moment: When Darcy asked for a pinot grigio and I quoted Joslyn Fox as Teresa Giudice right after: "Can I get a pinot grigio?"

Good Morning Christmas

It's tragic that the movie I was looking forward to the most purely because it was fanfic fodder and Alison Sweeney and Marc Blucas were the romantic leads (again) ended up at the bottom of my list. It is what it is, though, so I'm not too upset by it. For her first Hallmark movie in a decade, Riley Weston did a good job subverting a couple tropes Crown Media writers love to use. One I think back on the most is Brian having a girlfriend at the start of the movie, a gender swap from the female leads having boyfriends. However, she does also pull the story in predictable directions that make this movie weaker. The misunderstanding with Christy telling Melissa Brian was moving on from Bright and Merry to a reality show? It didn't need to happen the way it did, especially when Brian turned down the offer (and broke up with her) two minutes later. She was fine with it, too. Odd.

The subplots also aren't integrated well into the main plot, feeling undercooked and under-constructed whenever we jump back to them. Lexie, a waitress, gains more confidence with developing her own recipes with Melissa's help. Tyler, a man working under the talk show's producer, Jennifer (played by the one and only Princess Celestia, Nicole Oliver), is barely there. Even the romantic rival for Brian, James, feels like he only exists for competition. They're all clutter getting in the way of the romance, which doesn't burn nearly as bright since Melissa shits on Brian for the first half hour. Not even fun Mistletoe activities can bump this above If I Only Had Christmas. At least I liked bits of that movie more, even though I had no idea where the plot was going.

That being said, I'll watch anything Hallmark Alison Sweeney's in, and she and Marc Blucas work just as well as they did in The Irresistible Blueberry Farm, one of my favorite "so bad, it's good" Hallmark movies. Even though those Days of our Lives tears came out during the ending, I can tell she's gotten more comfortable working with Crown Media. Speaking of the ending, it's a glorious spectacle one needs to witness at least once in their life. It's the kind of over-the-top drama that revels in its nonsense, and Weston milks it for every second. Despite being in the range where I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again, I'd give Good Morning Christmas another chance just because of its leads and the ending alone. 

Favorite Moment: When Kate, Melissa's sister, screamed, "Do it, Mel. Tell him right now!" It's what all of us were thinking, honestly.

The only movie I didn't finish out of the ones I watched was The Christmas Doctor. The Dobrofsky husband and wife duo are usually hit or miss, and the movie felt bland despite having promised emotional catharsis for Zoey. Sorry, Holly Robison Peete. I'll see you for the new Morning Show Mystery, though.

We're at the end, folks! Thanks for joining me on this wild ride, and have a happy belated holiday season. I'll be going over the five movies I'd still like to watch in July. In the meantime, please continue to be safe. Just because people are starting to get vaccinated doesn't mean you need to ditch your masks in public places.