Call me a Scrooge, but the older I get, the less time I have for sappy Christmas movies this time of year. I blame the emergence of the Hallmark Channel and those relentless profit-seeking movie distributors for the glut of gag-inducing garbage on the airwaves today.
Some movies are worse than others, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” is at the top of my banned Christmas movie list. No disrespect to Mr. Capra or Mr. Stewart, but perhaps if George had followed his travel yearnings and got far away from Bedford Falls — and the seemingly incompetent people there — he wouldn’t have thought of suicide.
I can, in my coal-black heart, see why people embrace “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The idea of one good man standing up to a rich tyrant is satisfying, but for me, the best Christmas movies don’t focus on Christmas at all. They merely happen within the holiday time frame.
Move over, Frosty and Rudolph. Let’s take a look at some of the best alternatives out there to the traditional Christmas movie canon.
1. Life of Brian
Before there was “The Last Temptation of Christ” or “The DaVinci Code,” “Life of Brian” controversially poked fun at the New Testament, Romans, and everybody’s favorite high school foreign language, Latin. Best of all, Monty Python’s take on the life of the man mistaken for the Messiah can be part of your Christmas and Easter celebrations. (Take that, “Charlie Brown Christmas”!)
Why you should watch it: The supporting players steal the show here. From Terry Jones as Brian’s long-suffering mother to Michael Palin as a lisping Pontius Pilate, it’s a journey of side-splitting antics capped by a memorable crucifixion musical number. Blessed are the cheesemakers, indeed.
Why settle for a necktie when you can get your loved one a cute, cuddly monster for Christmas? “Gremlins” gives us a dark rendition of the gift that keeps on giving with a small-town backdrop that could have been taken directly from Bedford Falls.
Why you should watch it: Blending horror and twisted special effects with the most wonderful time of the year makes this Steven Spielberg-produced flick worth a look. “Gremlins” has its very own Mr. Potter rip-off in the form of Mrs. Deagle, who gets hers from some very special Christmas carolers.
3. Die Hard
When a New York City cop’s plan to wine and dine his wife on Christmas Eve goes up in smoke after her building is taken hostage by German terrorists, holly jolly mayhem ensues.
Why you should watch it: It’s easy to like this film for all the action, the battle of wills between Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, and the quotable dialogue (“Yippee ki yay …,” anyone?). For me, “Die Hard” wins for the best use of Reginald VelJohnson (a.k.a. Carl from “Family Matters”) as a cop who overcomes his fear of shooting a gun at the best possible moment.
Before he was trapped in the same day over and over again in “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray helped give Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” a much-needed facelift. Murray plays the president of a TV network who receives a reality check from the three ghosts on the night he produces the biggest TV special of his career.
Why you should watch it: Aside from top-notch performances from Murray, Carol Kane, and Bobcat Goldthwait, Scrooged features biting commentary on what passes as family-friendly programming during the holidays. No other yuletide romp features Santa and his elves packing heat or an S&M-loving Christmas fairy slapping the snot out of Bill Murray.
5. The Lion in Winter
Celebrating the holidays can be tough when you come from a dysfunctional family — especially when your father is the king of England and your mother is constantly scheming against him. Throw in the king’s hot mistress, his closeted gay son, and of course Christmas, and you’ve got “The Lion in Winter.”
Why you should watch it: Epic arguments make this stage-play-turned-movie a must-see. If you thought your parents going at it on Christmas was fun to watch, wait till you get a dose of Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine to Peter O’Toole’s King Henry II, squabbling over which favorite son gets to rule the realm. As Eleanor bemoans after a particularly brutal back-and-forth with Henry, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
6. Batman Returns
Tim Burton definitely has a thing for mixing Gothic characters with Christmas. He doesn’t disappoint with “Batman Returns,” which finds Batman contending with Catwoman, the Penguin, and pre-Captain Hook Christopher Walken. It could have easily been called “Batman saves Christmas.”
Why you should watch it: Two words: Michelle Pfeiffer. As the best Catwoman in Batman’s cinematic history, she’s quite a force to be reckoned with. Her after-hours joyride in a Wanamaker’s-esque department store perfectly sums up the madness we all experience as we go shopping for Christmas gifts.
7. Sleepless in Seattle
Another film that covers your viewing habits for two holidays (Christmas and Valentine’s Day), “Sleepless in Seattle” pairs Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a story about fate, romance, and call-in radio shows. It begins on Christmas Eve and culminates at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.
Why you should watch it: What makes “Sleepless” so fantastic is its willingness to admit its own cheesiness. The film takes shots at cinematic love stories, romance in the age of technology, and the crazy advice we give each other when we think we’ve found “the One.” Actress Rita Wilson’s gradual descent into blubbering devastation while explaining the premise of “An Affair to Remember” is an amazing scene to behold.
8. Star Wars: The Original Trilogy
The saga that gave us the greatest action figures and playsets known to man year after year under the Christmas tree doesn’t really require a special occasion to watch it. But it’s a heck of a lot better than the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”
Why you should watch it: There may be no Christmas trees or reindeer to be had in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but Christians will appreciate its cinematic interpretation of the Holy Trinity (Darth Vader as the father, Luke Skywalker as the son, and Obi-Wan Kenobi as the holy ghost), and no one can deny Christmas-lights vibe of the red-and-green lightsaber fight at the end of “Return of the Jedi.”
“Brazil” — bureaucratic mishaps, trippy fantasies, and extreme plastic surgery for Christmas
“Mixed Nuts” — Steve Martin tries to keep his suicide prevention hotline from being shuttered during the holidays
“The Long Kiss Goodnight” — an undercover agent with amnesia remembers her past just in time to trim the tree
When you boil it down to its barest elements, Christmas is really about the giddy, childlike feeling of joy we have when we open our eyes for the first time and realize what day is.
So, whether you achieve that feeling with “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or a coincidental Christmas favorite like “Die Hard,” grab some eggnog, don your ugliest Christmas sweater, and have at it with the people in your life.