By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; 12:00 AM
Like sugar cookies, Christmas carols and all those gift cards that inevitably show up in our stockings, this annual list of unconventional holiday movies has become something of a yuletide tradition. Like the rundowns from 2006, 2007 and 2008, this year's installment provides 10 more alternatives to the usual "Christmas Story"/"It's a Wonderful Life"/"Elf" movie marathons that have become our national Christmas-cinema default setting. As always, each of the following selections takes place during the holiday season or includes at least one crucial yuletide scene, and all are available on DVD and/or Blu-ray. A few of the films on this year's list were suggested over the years by readers and for that, you have my humblest, holiday-season gratitude.
"Toy Story": If you live in a house with young children, what is Christmas Day, really, but a story about toys? (Or at least a story about mom and dad assembling toys.) Pixar's first picture -- and the one that introduced us to Woody and Buzz Lightyear, a Butch and Sundance for the digital-animation generation -- is still a delight almost 15 years since its debut. And the fact that it closes on Christmas morning, when young Andy, his family and his cadre of Mr. Potato Heads and Bo Peeps have settled cozily into a new house, makes it perfect family fare for the holiday season.
"The Apartment": Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning 1960 masterpiece about a Mr. Nice Guy (Jack Lemmon) who loans his apartment to philandering executives takes place during the holiday season, delivering scenes of boisterous office parties, a matter of Christmas Eve life-or-death for our leading lady (Shirley MacLaine) and a rewarding New Year's Eve epiphany. Almost five decades later, "The Apartment" remains a smart, insightful and thoroughly satisfying comedy with the courage to show us what so many modern yuletide romances don't: the aching loneliness brought on by the season of mistletoe kisses.
"Lethal Weapon": A gun battle on a Christmas tree lot. A guy who takes a bullet in the chest, and in his carton of egg nog. Mel Gibson in a mullet. If all of these things say Christmas to you, then this 1987 action smash -- which opens with a round of "Jingle Bell Rock" and, in a bit of additional seasonal trivia, features holiday songstress Darlene Love in the role of Danny Glover's wife -- will provide just the right fa-la-la jolt.
"Christmas in Connecticut": Barbara Stanwyck pretends to be a Martha Stewart -- a thoroughly domesticated wife and mother who cooks fabulous meals at her Connecticut farm -- when she's actually a Carrie Bradshaw: an independent writer living in a tiny Manhattan apartment and eating all her meals via take-out. That's the premise that sets the farcical wheels in motion in this 1945 classic about a magazine columnist attempting to host the most perfect Christmas ever for her stubborn editor and a war hero who immediately wins her heart. Sure, the plot developments are pretty preposterous, but it all goes down like elegantly prepared holiday comfort food.
"What Would Jesus Buy?": We all know that Christmas is far too commercial. I mean, Charlie Brown told us that years ago. Yet most of us continue to play the same put-that-reindeer-on-my-credit-card games every year, spending money on gifts that our loved ones don't really want or need. This 2007 documentary follows one man -- Bill Talen, aka the Reverend Billy -- who takes the members of his "Church of Stop Shopping" on the road during the holiday season in an effort to make us knock it off. Talen's tactics may be a little loony, but the issues he and this film raise about our overconsuming culture -- especially in light of the recession -- are more relevant than ever.
"Mean Girls": A candy cane-gram snub and an inappropriately provocative "Jingle Bell Rock" routine are what finally begin to break down the bonds between the vacuous, popular Plastics in this clever dissection of teen-girl power politics. A good choice for those who want to inject some high-school comedy into their holiday-viewing mix, or just want to remember a time when Lindsay Lohan was known for her talent instead of her celebrity trainwreck status.
"The Last Picture Show": In Peter Bogdanovich's black-and-white portrait of life in a small Texas town during the 1950s, a Christmas party practically seals the fates of the main characters. That's where it becomes clear that young Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) will embark on a long-term affair with an older woman (Cloris Leachman) and that it's only a matter of time until social-climbing Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) -- who ditches boyfriend Jeff Bridges to skinny dip at a rich kid's house -- ruptures a few hearts. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.
"Penny Serenade": If this 1941 weeper came out today, mommy bloggers would have a field day; at certain points, the movie commits such modern-parenting sins as showing a baby going to sleep on her stomach and implying that adoptive moms and dads aren't "real" parents. But the emotional story of two good people (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) desperate to raise their own family -- a narrative peppered with several crucial holiday-set scenes, including two particularly poignant Christmas pageants -- will bring contemporary audiences to tears despite the sometimes dated and heavy-handed script. It certainly doesn't hurt that Grant is at his most winning and vulnerable as a daddy who wants more than anything to hold on to his little girl.
"Frozen River": Melissa Leo deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination last year for her convincing portrayal of a single mom who transports illegal aliens over the Canadian border so she can afford to move herself and her two sons into a coveted double-wide trailer before the new year comes. Of course, things begin to come to a head on Christmas Eve, when her kids are left to their own devices and her work puts an infant's life in danger. One of 2008's most absorbing movies and one that few people saw, it deserves to be viewed, during this or any season.
"Cold Mountain": Jack White sings a warm holiday tune on a chilly, starry Christmas Eve night in this 2003 adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel, which, sadly, also stands as the last widely released directorial effort from Anthony Minghella, who died in 2008. Now that the hype about this film joining the ranks of Civil War epics like "Gone With the Wind" has faded, we can watch and enjoy "Cold Mountain" for what it is: a beautifully photographed, well-acted, heart-fluttering romance that's just perfect to snuggle up to after the presents have been opened and that bottle of red wine has been uncorked.
Discuss this year's list and other seasonal movie matters during an online discussion today at 2 p.m.; Festivus grievances are welcome. And if you're still shopping for presents, feel free to check out the DVD gift guide for last-minute ideas.