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Billy Bob’s Soused Santa Tops Humbug List: Peter Rainer

'White Christmas'
Artwork from the 1954 holiday classic "White Christmas," starring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen. The film is directed by Michael Curtiz. Source: 20th Century Fox via Bloomberg

With the possible exception of Bible-based movies, the Christmas genre is the most likely to suffer from reverence overload.

Treacle overload, too, wherein whiny kids turn cuddly, bleary adults become lovable codgers and -- after the usual obstacles are overcome and souls are saved, of course -- all’s right with the world. Cue snow.

I hasten to add that I’m as much a sucker for holiday cheer as the next guy. I just don’t like being strong-armed by it.

And in truth there have been memorable Christmas-themed movies, some orthodox, others not.

Two classics by master directors feature memorable Christmas parties. Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), set in turn of the 20th century Sweden, opens with a festive romp in which you can practically taste the sweetmeats. John Huston’s “The Dead” (1987), derived from the classic James Joyce story, holds within its swirling ensemble the gamut of human emotion. It captures like no other Christmas-themed film the dulcet melancholy of the occasion.

There are dozens of adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” on big screen and small; easily the best is the 1951 Alastair Sim version, in which Scrooge’s redemption is every bit as believable as his bile. Regrettably this film doesn’t get televised as often as it used to on Christmas Eve. Must we really settle for Bill Murray in “Scrooged”?

‘Miracle’ Man

For traditionalists, there’s “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), with ho-ho-ho-ing Edmund Gwenn as the real Kris Kringle, working in Macy’s, and Natalie Wood as the disbelieving child to whom he must prove himself. Accept no imitations.

The animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965) perfectly captures the sardonic wit and underlying sweetness of the “Peanuts” strip. And of course there’s Vince Guaraldi’s superb jazz-inflected score.

“A Christmas Story” (1983) has become such a perennial that it’s danger of fossilizing in the memory like that other holiday mainstay, “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946). But both movies miraculously still hold up.

Set in the 1940s, “A Christmas Story” is a send-up of holiday movies that has more heart than, with apologies to Irving Berlin, glucose-shock entries like “White Christmas” (1954). Young Ralphie’s scheme to secure for himself a Red Ryder BB gun is a boy’s Christmas fantasy come to rousing life.

Harrowing ‘Life’

Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” by contrast, achieves its fullblown yuletide uplift only after some of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed on a Hollywood backlot.

In his lowest moments, as he prepares to swan-dive off a local bridge, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey isn’t all that far removed from the deranged obsessive he later played in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” (Both Clifford Odets and Dorothy Parker had uncredited assists on the screenplay).

Of the umpteen “Nutcracker” adaptations, my favorite is the undeservedly neglected “Nutcracker: The Motion Picture” (1986), performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet with sets by Maurice Sendak and directed by the great Carroll Ballard (“The Black Stallion”).

“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as lonelyhearts in a Budapest novelty store, is my favorite Ernst Lubitsch movie and perhaps the most gently beautiful of all Christmasy films. “Meet Me In St. Louis” (1944), while not really a holiday movie, has Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

Crazy Muppets

Among the irreverent Christmas fare, “Gremlins” (1984) is the nuttiest and best: An anti-“E.T.” set in a Norman Rockwell town gone berserk. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) is sweetly sacrilegious, with Michael Caine hamming it up with Miss Piggy. “The Ref” (1993) has Denis Leary as a convict trapped inside a dysfunctional family Christmas presided over by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey. (Dysfunction has rarely been done better).

Maybe the best bah-humbug movie ever made is “Bad Santa” (2003), where Billy Bob Thornton at his most stubbly-grungy plays a boozehound safecracker who teams each Christmas with a 3-foot-tall African-American elf (Tony Cox) to loot the department store where they are currently employed. It even features a groupie who has a thing for guys dressed up as Santa.

And let’s not forget that Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone gets mowed down while buying Christmas apples in “The Godfather” (1972).

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and a Zinta Lundborg interview.

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