It’s December again, and while the holidays are the perfect time to gather the family around the set for another viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, maybe you’re in the mood to create a new and different movie-watching tradition. If you haven’t already picked up my film guide Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas, here’s a sampling of some terrific titles that might have passed under your radar that you should check out while you’re in an egg-noggy mood:
Lassie: Even if you think yourself immune to the charms of this boy-and-his-dog classic, have a hanky or two ready for this beautiful 2005 remake. Lassie features some heavy hitters (including Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton, Peter Dinklage and John Lynch), but the movie belongs to young Jonathan Mason, whose incredibly expressive face is essential to this tale of a poor young boy whose beloved dog is taken away from him, prompting the dog to travel back across the British Isles to come home to him just in time for Christmas.
Some Girls: Barely released by a faltering MGM in the late 1980s, this charming romantic comedy has garnered a cult following on DVD, particularly among fans of its two lead actors. American college student Michael (Patrick Dempsey) travels to Quebec to spend Christmas with girlfriend Gaby (Jennifer Connelly). Upon his arrival, she informs him she no longer loves him, but that’s just the first of many shocks to the system Michael gets from this house full of women. Eccentric, sexy, and gorgeous, this is one of those rare films where “Christmas movie” and “date movie” cross paths.
Remember the Night: Unavailable on DVD until recently, this little-remembered holiday dramedy is finding a whole new audience. Fred MacMurray stars as a New York district attorney who’s trying to wrap up his caseload so he can go home for Christmas; through a series of misunderstandings, he winds up giving shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck a lift that results in her spending the holidays with the lawyer and his family, which gives her the opportunity to blossom into the woman she might have been. If you’ve seen Double Indemnity, it’s odd to see Stanwyck and MacMurray play nice folks, but this Preston Sturges–scripted romance perfectly balances wit and sentiment.
Santa Claus (1959): That rare Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie that’s just as much fun to watch without the wisecracking robots, this nutty Mexican kiddie flick from the director of Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy plays like A Child’s First Dada Fever Dream. It’s Christmas Eve, and St. Nick prepares to leave his castle in the clouds to bring toys to the world’s children — but Satan wants to stop him! Can Merlin the Magician help Santa defeat the minions of hell? Will poor little Lupita get her doll? Watch the new Blu-Ray release of this cult classic to find out.
La Bûche: Apparently, feeling pressure to make Christmas perfect isn’t strictly an American thing — this hilarious French import follows three sisters who are all feeling overwhelmed by the season. Emmanuelle Béart plays an uptight housewife trying to make everything perfect for her family’s holiday feast (despite the fact that her husband is cheating on her) while Charlotte Gainsbourg’s chain-smoking art broker claims that the titular Yule Log cake makes her want to puke. One of the great dysfunctional-family holiday comedies, this is an ideal Christmas movie for people who can’t stand Christmas (although they aren’t the only ones who will love it).
The Store: A Christmas documentary? Sure, why not. Legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, Public Housing) takes his camera into the flagship Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas for the hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, capturing everything from salesladies doing smiling and button-pushing exercises to a random shopper so caught up in the holiday spirit that he starts belting out carols. And since this was shot in 1982, the hair and fashion choices make Dynasty look dialed-down.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue: A millionaire (Charles Ruggles) boards up his Fifth Avenue mansion every year to winter in Virginia, never knowing that a homeless man (Victor Moore) always moves in during his absence. But this year, a whole bunch of boarders make their way into the house, including the rich guy’s daughter (Gale Storm), who pretends to be poor when she falls for the veteran (future Hazel star Don DeFore) whose apartment building was demolished by the millionaire. Enjoyable both as a romantic farce and as a tribute to collectivism, Fifth Avenue is a lovely, oddball Christmas movie that’s found new life on TCM in recent years.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: Shane Black is about to direct Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 3, but the two first worked together in this brilliantly funny and exciting Christmas-themed action flick that somehow didn’t spark with audiences during its 2005 theatrical run. Downey plays a New York petty thief who dashes into an audition while eluding the cops; he’s so hyped-up and intense that he gets the role of a detective in a new movie. The producers fly him to L.A. to study under real-life gumshoe Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), and the two find themselves in the thick of a conspiracy, all narrated by Downey with pulp-novel bravado. A total blast — and nobody rocks a Santa’s-helper miniskirt like Michelle Monaghan.
The Silent Partner: Christopher Plummer has a good shot at winning his first Oscar this year for playing a sweet senior citizen who explores his gay side in Beginners, a role that’s a complete opposite to the evil criminal he plays in this twisted heist movie written by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Plummer has a scheme to rob a local bank while dressed as Santa, but bank teller Elliot Gould is two steps ahead, pocketing the money himself while making it look like the loot was stolen by Santa Von Trapp. The cold-blooded crook and the nerdy bank employee play an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse in this smart and chilling thriller.
We’re No Angels: After making the beloved White Christmas, director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) returned to the holiday well with this tale of three escaped criminals from Devil’s Island whose plans to flee are thwarted when they get caught up in the lives of a kindly shopkeeper and his family. As played by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray, this trio of convicts convincingly goes from bloodthirsty desperadoes to good-natured guardian angels, and their comic patter is eminently quotable. Probably one of the few feel-good movies you’ll ever see that prominently feature a poisonous snake among the principal characters.