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Ten holiday alternatives to 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Uh-oh, it's the holidays.

You know what that means. The annual viewing of "It's a Wonderful Life." Maybe a drive-by sighting of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And, whether it be via school play, a cable station or Blu-ray, the inevitable encounter with "A Christmas Carol."

Come on, people, why not stretch a little this year? There are plenty of other movies set during the holidays waiting to be watched, and not all of them come sugar-coated. In fact, some are splendidly acidic. For your consideration, here's a list of 10 films set during the holidays that may spike your punch a bit:

"Lethal Weapon" (R) True, most Christmas films don't have suicide as a recurring theme. But then most Christmas films don't end with Mel Gibson and Gary Busey Kung Fu-ing one another either. If you can put aside any feelings about Gibson's later exploits, this remains an essential mismatched cops adventure.

"A Midnight Clear" (R) When you think of the holidays, you don't necessarily think of war. But this well-made film about a group of American soldiers attempting to bond with Nazis ready to surrender toward the end of World War II serves as a reminder that whatever time of year, there are inevitably troops on a battlefield. And dig the then-young cast: Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Frank Whaley ...

"Gremlins" (PG) Lest we all forget, the pet mogwai who spawned an army of little monsters was given as a Christmas gift. In director Joe Dante's horror-comic classic, all the holiday glitter serves as sparkling, colorful background to the mad little critters.

"Love Actually" (R) Director Richard Curtis' sprawling look at love during the holidays features a top-notch cast — Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley and the wonderful Bill Nighy — running along criss-crossing storylines. Yes, it's cheeky and sentimental, but it's the holidays.

"The Ref" (R) Denis Leary is a cat burglar in over his head when he takes a wildly dysfunctional family hostage on Christmas Eve. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis play a deliciously poisonous married couple.

"Bad Santa" (R ) True, it's almost too obvious. But Billy Bob Thornton's turn as a mean-talking con man who poses as a Santa to rob department stores takes on a twisted sweetness when he befriends a bullied kid. With Lauren Graham and Bernie Mac.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (R) Writer-director Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon") loves to set action films during the holidays and, even though this complex caper about a petty thief (Robert Downey Jr.) and a gay detective (Val Kilmer) has little to do with the season, you do get to see Michelle Monaghan dressed as a sexy elf.

"Iron Man 3" (PG-13) Again, Shane Black writing and directing; again Robert Downey Jr. starring. The adventure has little to do with the holidays, but, as always, they offer colorful background. Folks must have liked it — its worldwide box office of $1.2 billion was the sixth biggest of all time.

"Die Hard" (R) It made Bruce Willis a star, it spawned countless imitators, the sequels keep coming and it all revolved around a corporate holiday party. "Die Hard 2," by the way, also takes place during the holidays. There's something about the contrast between Santa and terrorists.

"Elf" (PG) Aw, of course, we had to land on a light note. Will Ferrell is wonderful as an overgrown elf who leaves the North Pole to try and fit into the real world. Things don't quite work out, but the bubbly charm of this film is intoxicating.