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John Cusack and Connie Nielsen need no help from mistletoe in
John Cusack and Connie Nielsen need no help from mistletoe in "The Ice Harvest." (Chuck Hodes - Focus Features)

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By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006; 12:00 AM

"It's a Wonderful Life." "A Christmas Story." "Miracle on 34th Street."

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These are the traditional go-to movies for viewers who want to get in the holiday spirit. But what if you crave a diversion from George Bailey's usual trip past that wonderful old Building and Loan? Not to worry. Plenty of fine films, all of them available on DVD, feature holiday themes, settings and key scenes, but aren't necessarily considered "Christmas movies."

I've compiled a list of a dozen -- one for each of the 12 days of Christmas -- that will undoubtedly make your DVD viewing season bright. Best of all? None of them star Tim Allen or include the words "Jingle" and "All the Way" in their titles. As always, check out our DVD section for reviews and more ideas.

"The Shop Around the Corner" (1940): Six years before he made "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart starred in this timeless and charming romance set at a Budapest gift shop during the holiday season. Hollywood attempted to capture the same magic in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan remake "You've Got Mail," but to no avail. As feuding co-workers and unwitting pen pals, Stewart and Margaret Sullavan cannot be matched. Of course, no one in the movie seems remotely Hungarian, but you'll be so smitten you won't care.

"The Sure Thing" (1985): This Rob Reiner romance focuses on another love-hate relationship, this time between two college students forced to travel together during winter break. Reiner's directorial follow-up to "This is Spinal Tap" also marks John Cusack's first leading man role, and he couldn't be better. Manic, emotionally vulnerable and utterly relatable, Cusack's performance serves as a delightful rom-com warm-up for his later, legendary turn as Lloyd Dobler in "Say Anything." Also look out for a hilarious cameo by a showtune-singing Tim Robbins and a wild Christmas frat party hosted by a pre-"E.R." Anthony Edwards.

"The Ice Harvest (2005)": If you prefer your holiday comedies dark and disturbing but have already seen "Bad Santa" 15 times, this twisted tale is worth a look. Cusack (again) and Bad Santa himself, Billy Bob Thornton, star as a pair of sleazeballs attempting to nab money from the mob on Christmas Eve, but it's a convincingly wasted Oliver Platt who steals the show.

"Die Hard" (1988): Replace that ho-ho-ho with a yippee-ki-yay. "Die Hard" stands as the king of a relatively obscure genre: the Christmas action movie. In what might be the most disastrous holiday office party ever, terrorists assume control and take all the revelers hostage. But with John McClane (Bruce Willis) on the case, the terrorists don't stay in charge for long.

"Little Women" (1933, 1949 and 1994): You really can't go wrong with any version of Louisa May Alcott's cherished coming-of-age story, whether it's the Katherine Hepburn version ('33), the June Allyson take ('49) or even the Winona Ryder update. The classy 1994 movie may resonate most with young girls (and also features lovely performances by Claire Danes and a young Kirsten Dunst), but all three include crucial Christmas scenes and the warm embrace of female family bonding.

"About a Boy" (2002): Hugh Grant slips comfortably into the role of thirty-something slacker Will, a guy who lives comfortably off the royalties from his father's ubiquitous Christmas hit, "Santa's Super Sleigh." But something in his life is missing, as his often frustrating friendship with a young teen named Marcus soon reveals. Based on the Nick Hornby novel and co-starring Rachel Weisz and Toni Collette, "About a Boy" stands among the best romantic comedies of this decade and is one whose message -- that "no man is an island" -- certainly resonates during the holiday season.

"Citizen Kane" (1941): Frankly, there's never a wrong moment to watch what many consider the best film ever made. But the opening image of a shattering snow globe and Charles Foster Kane's fixation on a certain sled make the holiday season a perfect time to experience it again, or for the first time. The two-disc special edition DVD released in 2001 -- which includes an extensive documentary and commentaries by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and critic Roger Ebert -- only adds to the awe.

"Catch Me If You Can" (2002): The plot in this '60s-set Steven Spielberg caper -- released four years ago during the holiday season -- takes a new turn during a Christmas phone call between FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) and con artist Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio). You're calling me on Christmas, Hanratty triumphantly tells his target, because you have no one else to talk to. And that's when Hanratty realizes his elusive mystery man is actually a kid. Based on the true story of the real Frank Abagnale, "Catch Me" is a diverting and extremely well-acted lark, the perfect movie to watch after hanging some retro ornaments on the tree.

"Gremlins" (1984): Nothing says merry Christmas like watching a goblin explode in a microwave. Set during the holidays, Joe Dante's campy horror tale is more funny than frightful (though still inappropriate for most kids under 9 or 10). And after the scene where Frances Lee McCain discovers the little buggers have taken over her house, the song "Do You Hear What I Hear?" will take on a totally different meaning.

"The Simpsons" and "Six Feet Under": Practically every TV series whips out a holiday installment at some point. But only a few actually began their runs with Christmas episodes. "The Simpsons," for example, started 17 years ago -- no, that's not a typo -- with a Christmas special called "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire." The animation looks terribly primitive, but the use of the catch phrase "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" foreshadows the edginess to come. Find the episode on "The Simpsons: The Complete First Season" or "The Simpsons Christmas" DVD.
The pilot for the brilliant "Six Feet Under" takes an unsurprisingly macabre approach by introducing us to the Fisher family on Christmas Eve, just as the shattering news arrives that patriarch Nathaniel has been killed in a car accident. Watching episodes of "Six Feet Under" is a bit like eating Christmas cookies: You can't stop with just one. So indulge in the pilot and beyond on the first season DVD or the recently released "Six Feet Under: The Complete Series."

"Diner" (1982): This might be the finest guy-bonding movie ever made. It's certainly the only one in which Steve Guttenberg and Tim Daly wind up in jail after attempting to yank a half-naked, drunk Kevin Bacon out of the baby Jesus's crib in a church nativity scene. The conclusion, featuring a New Year's Eve wedding cast all in Baltimore Colts colors, is pretty top-notch, too. Here's a movie crying out for a quality special edition on DVD.

"When Harry Met Sally..." (1989): Yes, you've seen it 1,000 times. And yes, you know it unabashedly rips off Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." But you love it anyway, especially that sweet, climactic New Year's Eve scene at the end. No, Billy Crystal, we still don't know what "Auld Lang Syne" means. But we love hearing you try to explain it every time we watch this modern classic.

On DVD This Week: "The Devil Wears Prada," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" and more.

For more on new DVDs, visit washingtonpost.com's DVD section.


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