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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ takes a back seat to the lighter side if Christmas

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 at 10:00 am

There’s no time like the holidays to take a break, sit back and pop in a DVD. Relaxing is often easier said than done this time of year, and sometimes a good movie is just the thing needed to bring the stress level down.

Everyone has a favorite holiday movie, a 90-minute escape that takes you back to a special place, rears up a childhood memory, puts a lump in your throat or simply makes you laugh out loud.

A lot of folks talk about the classics. But classics are relative.

Sure, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, is typically at the top of most lists. The story of George Bailey, an angel named Clarence and the happenings of Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve are touching, and the film has been a Christmas essential for years.

It was also nominated for five Oscars and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. It’s a movie that seemingly has an endless shelf life, which truly does make it a classic.

Still, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “White Christmas” didn’t crack my top 10. Perhaps that’s just a byproduct of our ever-changing culture — or perhaps my age — but the majority of my own holiday favorites were originally on the big screen in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And most are comedies.

I dusted off the DVD rack and made a list of my top-10 holiday must-sees.

10. A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, PG) — The story of Halloween Town leader Jack Skellington’s attempt to slip away to Christmas Town, where he can celebrate a different kind of holiday is the only animated movie on my list. Written and produced by Tim Burton — a master of the macabre — the tale follows Skellington as he attempts to spread the joy of Christmas. His lack of understanding, however, puts Santa in jeopardy and “creates a nightmare for good little boys and girls everywhere.”

9. The Santa Clause (1994, PG) — Try as he may, Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) has a hard time coming to grips with the reality that Santa just bought the farm after slipping off the roof. And when Calvin finds a note in Santa’s pocket and chooses to put on the red suit, he begins an extensive transformation into the merry ol’ elf himself.

By unwittingly accepting the role of Santa Clause, Calvin has to convince himself and his ex-wife that he’s the real deal, all while trying to please his young son Charlie.

8. Die Hard (1988, R) — It’s certainly not your typical Christmas movie, but Bruce Willis delivers as police officer John McClane in this action-packed thriller set at a Christmas party in a skyrise high above Los Angeles. Thwarting bad guys while trying to save his estranged wife, it’s hardly the Merry Christmas the NYPD officer expected when flying cross country to see his family.

7. Scrooged (1988, PG-13) — This is a slightly different take on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” with the movie’s main character, Frank Cross (Bill Murray), taking on the roll of Ebenezer Scrooge. Cross is a television executive lacking Christmas spirit. As with the Dickens’ classic, it takes the help of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future for him to make a change.

It will likely never be mistaken for a classic, but it’s worth a watch — at least once — nonetheless.

6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000, PG) — An updated, feature-length version of the animated 1966 cartoon classic, the Ron Howard-directed film gives a more in-depth look at the Grinch (Jim Carrey) and why he wants to spoil Christmas for everyone in Whoville.

Howard adds new characters, and some background to others, while staying true to the original — right down to the Grinch’s beleaguered companion, a faithful pooch forced to pull a larger-than-life sleigh filled with all the gifts in Whoville.

5. Home Alone (1990, PG) — A funny, but unlikely, Christmas adventure, or a must-see suburban survival guide for any pre-teen, “Home Alone” follows a weekend in the life of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old boy, who is mistakenly left behind when his family flies to Paris for Christmas.

After wishing his family would disappear, Kevin gets his wish, just not how he expected. And while Kevin’s mom desperately tries to make her way back home, the youngster finds fun — and trouble — all by himself. Kevin’s antics are a hit every Christmas. Plus it’s written and produced by John Hughes, which is never a bad thing.

4. Bad Santa (2003, R) — It’s a dark comedy about foul-mouthed conman Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) who dresses up as Santa each year in order to rob department stores. By the end of the movie, Willie begins to have a change of heart, and begins to show a fondness for a lonely boy in need of a father figure.

Even so, this one isn’t for the whole family. Due to some raunchy humor and Willie’s steady stream of profanity, you may want to keep this one on the shelf until the kids go to bed.

3. The Family Stone (2005, PG-13) — The laidback Stone family gathers in picturesque New England for the holidays, bringing together an ensemble cast (Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Dermot Mulroney and Sarah Jessica Parker among others) for what appears to be a typical Christmas get-together.

But things don’t always go as planned, and by movie’s end, it’s obvious that the Stone’s will need each other more than ever to keep their holiday tradition alive. The film has its fair share of laughs, crazy turns and finally a poignant moment or two — just like most large family gatherings.

2. A Christmas Story (1983, PG) — Oh Ralphie, “you’ll shoot your eye out!” That’s about all little Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsly) hears on his quest to get an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model BB rifle for Christmas. The trials and tribulations of a 9-year-old in 1941 northern Indiana come to surface in this holiday charmer that’s brimming with more than enough funny exploits to keep you laughing through New Year’s.

1. Christmas Vacation (1989) — Undeserving misery, a house full of in-laws and the distant cousin who wore out his welcome as he pulled into the driveway. Now that’s Christmas. If there’s a protagonist who brings on his own undue trouble more than Clark W. Griswald (Chevy Chase), he’s certainly a poor fellow indeed. As with most of Clark’s plans, his fun, old-fashioned family Christmas turns into a colossal disaster, with each one delivering memorable quotes to last all year. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving.

But improvisation, a lot of fortitude and a little dumb luck can go a long way, even during a “full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency.”

******** Here are some films worth watching that barely missed the top 10: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Gremlins (1984), White Christmas (1954), Elf (2003), The Polar Express (2004) and Scrooge (1970).