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Holiday film genre has hidden, offbeat gems

Fri., Dec. 13, 2013

‘It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Miracle on 34th Street.” “Holiday Inn.” “A Christmas Story.” “Elf.” Turn on your TV at any point during the holiday season and any of these movies are bound to show up at some point. As great as they may be, you start to crave a little more variety every time an angel gets its wings or Natalie Wood tugs on Kris Kringle’s beard.

Christmas is as much about tradition as anything else, which is why we tend to watch the same movies every year. But for anyone looking for something a bit different, here are eight cinematic offerings that might help you put together a more offbeat Christmas film festival. These films may have tinseled trees, guys in big red suits and snow as far as the eye can see, but they’re certainly not traditional and, with the exception of a couple, are best enjoyed after the little ones go to bed.

“Santa Claus” (1959) and “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964): Although these holiday oddities are available in their original, unaltered versions, the best way to see them is with the assistance of the cult TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which featured both films on two separate episodes in the early ’90s. “Santa Claus” is a Mexican production that pits Santa against one of Satan’s minions, who is sent to brainwash the world’s children into committing petty crimes. As for “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” – it’s exactly what it sounds like, a sci-fi cheapie with the worst special effects this side of “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always watch the unaltered versions and shout your commentary back at the screen.

• “ The Silent Partner” (1978) and “The Ice Harvest” (2005): Here are two overlooked Christmas capers that deserve more acclaim than they receive. “The Silent Partner” stars Elliott Gould as a bank teller who stumbles into a robbery plot involving a thief (Christopher Plummer) who conducts a heist while disguised as Santa. Harold Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest,” which was released to mediocre box office receipts and middling reviews, stars John Cusack as a mob lawyer who, in between buying gifts for his kids, steals a couple million bucks from his boss on Christmas Eve. Not for the faint of heart, these are dark, twisted, often bloody comedies with tightly constructed thriller plots, closer in tone to the Coen brothers than Frank Capra.

• “ The War of the Roses” (1989) and “The Ref” (1994): And speaking of dark, these two films are among the blackest comedies ever to use Christmas as a backdrop. In Danny DeVito’s delightfully off-kilter “The War of the Roses,” Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner play a husband and wife who, after years in a loveless marriage, have built up so much resentment toward one another that they’ve resorted to attempted murder. The couple at the center of “The Ref,” played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, is also subjected to an extreme form of counseling when a burglar (Denis Leary) breaks into their Connecticut home and ends up taking them hostage (though, considering they’re the most bitter, argumentative people imaginable, he may as well be the one at gunpoint). If you’ve overdosed on holiday cheer, or if your house is filled with one too many relatives, these movies might serve as a much-needed antidote.

“Trading Places” (1983) and “Bad Santa” (2003): Two more Christmas-set comedies, these ones reveling in particularly bad manners: John Landis’ broad social satire “Trading Places” and Terry Zwigoff’s foul-mouthed caper “Bad Santa.” The first stars Dan Aykroyd as a privileged stock market genius with a promising future who, the victim of a devious experiment of nature versus nurture, is driven to poverty and replaced by a fast-talking homeless man (Eddie Murphy, in his second film role). Like Preston Sturges by way of National Lampoon, it still holds up, in no part due to Murphy’s magnetic charm. The latter is as obscene as it is oddly endearing, the story of a conman (Billy Bob Thornton) and his plan to knock over a shopping mall while posing as a department store Santa. It’d make a sailor blush, but it’s disarmingly sweet in its own twisted way.

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