It’s a Wonderful List: The 10 most overlooked holiday movies
Holiday movie traditions vary — in my family, for whatever reason, we often watched “The Road Warrior” after opening gifts — but traditions change, and from time to time we all need to update and expand our roster of Christmas movie selections.
But how to pick a movie that isn’t the same old chestnut roasting on an open fire? And what is a Christmas movie, anyway? The definition has become more elastic in recent years.
And of course there are the full-on classics.
But if you’ve seen Jimmy Stewart grapple with that newel post one too many times, and you’re looking for a worthy holiday movie that perhaps you haven’t seen — something older or offbeat — here’s a handy list of 10 Christmas titles to consider this year.
‘Remember the Night’ (1940)
Derived from a Preston Sturges script, this rom-com stars Fred MacMurray as a district attorney who takes pity on a shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) and springs her from jail on Christmas Eve, leading to a road trip that takes them (through Pennsylvania) to Indiana and back. The movie was a hit in 1940, but because Sturges’ script was cut so severely, he decided to direct his own material in the future, which turned out to be gift for movie lovers. Alas, “Remember the Night” is not available for streaming, but it is on DVD and Blu-ray.
‘The Bishop’s Wife’ (1947)
What do you get when you beseech heaven for help? In 1947, you got Cary Grant, who answers the prayer of a bishop (David Niven) who needs funds for a new cathedral. Complications arise when Grant’s handsome angel catches the eye of the man’s neglected wife (Loretta Young). Penny Marshall remade the movie in 1996 as “The Preacher’s Wife” (YouTube, Amazon, iTunes) with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. For the film, Houston sang two Top 20 hits (“I Believe in You and Me” and “Step by Step”), and the accompanying gospel album sold six million copies. (“The Bishop’s Wife” is available on iTunes.)
‘The Holly and the Ivy’ (1952)
In this 1952 British film, a country parson (Ralph Richardson) with a reputation of caring more for his parishioners than his own family hosts his son (Denholm Elliott) and daughter (Margaret Leighton) for Christmas. The war has turned the clergyman’s son against religion, and his daughter harbors secrets she is sure will bring her father great shame. Understated and reserved, it comes by its holiday sentiment honestly. (Streaming on Kanopy.)
‘We’re No Angels’ (1955)
More than a decade after “Casablanca,” director Michael Curtiz and Humphrey Bogart teamed up again for this 1955 comedy, starring Bogie as an escaped convict who – along with fellow fugitives Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray – decides to help a befuddled shopkeeper (Leo G. Carroll) during the holidays, after they deem him to be even worse off than they are. (Streaming on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.)
‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955)
In this Douglas Sirk film, a widow’s (Jane Wyman) holiday love affair with a gardener (Rock Hudson) disrupts her class-conscious friends and family. It was loosely remade by Todd Haynes as a vehicle for Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in 2002 as “Far From Heaven.” (Not streaming.)
A young girl (Rebecca Harrell Tickell), coping with the loss of her mother and the escalating depression and alcoholism of her father (Sam Elliott), finds herself desperate to believe in something, and so she becomes convinced that a lost animal is really one of Santa’s reindeer. The film has a nice role for Cloris Leachman as a sympathetic neighbor who wants to help. (iTunes, Hulu and Vudu.)
Whit Stillman’s low-budget but tartly scripted debut provides a snapshot of Manhattan’s dying (and by now dead) debutante culture by looking in on college students from the Upper East Side (Carolyn Farina, Taylor Nichols, and Chris Eigeman) who are home for the holidays. (iTunes.)
Danny Boyle’s underrated Christmas movie is about a young boy (Alex Etel) who finds a suitcase full of stolen money, and consults (via his vivid imagination) with saints and other religious figures about the best use for the windfall, even as the hoodlums who stole the money draw close on the night of the Christmas pageant. (YouTube, Amazon Prime, Disney +, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu.)
‘The Nativity Story’ (2006)
A few years after “Thirteen” and a few years before “Twilight,” director Catherine Hardwicke made another movie about a complicated young woman in an interesting situation – pregnant Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who is joined by Joseph (Oscar Isaac) on the road to Bethlehem. Simple, earnest retelling of what today we might call an origin story. (YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes.)
Older viewers should be advised that this Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”) movie has absolutely nothing to do with the Johnny Mercer song of the same name. Rather, it’s the story of two transgender sex workers on Christmas Eve, and the misadventures they endure at the hands of customers and faithless boyfriends. Some movies end with Christmas miracles, some more forlornly in an all-night laundromat. (YouTube, Amazon Prime, Disney +, iTunes, Google Play, Hulu.)