By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 8:03 PM
Stock up on candy canes. Practice the polite smile you'll need when your mother-in-law gives you polka-dot leg warmers for the fifth year in a row. Then engage in another time-honored holiday tradition: Read this annual list of unconventional Christmas movies, all available on DVD or Blu-ray.
Each film is set during the holidays and/or contains at least one memorable seasonal scene. Every option, suggested in no particular order, is a viable alternative to the usual yuletide cinematic fare of the "It's a Wonderful Life"/"A Christmas Story"/"Elf" variety. And they're all far more useful than polka-dot leg warmers.
"L.A. Confidential" (R, 1997) Have yourself a film noir Christmas with this Academy Award-nominated cop drama, featuring a plot that kicks into high gear after "Bloody Christmas," an incident based on a real scandal in which L.A. police officers assaulted several suspects in custody. Need even more yuletide cheer? Oh, you'll find it when Russell Crowe throws Christmas decorations off a roof and beats up a guy accused of domestic abuse.
"Lady and the Tramp" (G, 1955) This animated favorite opens with a picturesque Christmas scene and an irresistible gift from a husband to his wife: a cuddly cocker spaniel named Lady. Lady eventually finds her Tramp, and the canine love story comes full circle, concluding with yet another Christmas scene that's joyous and full of precious puppies.
"Jarhead" (R, 2005) Didn't get enough of a semi-naked Jake Gyllenhaal in his recent "Love & Other Drugs"? Then check him out in this underrated look at the lives of Desert Storm soldiers, which features Gyllenhaal partying to the sounds of "O.P.P." while wearing nothing but a pair of Santa Claus hats - one on his head and the other more, um, strategically placed.
"Holiday" (Unrated, 1938) The same year Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant traded kooky quips in "Bringing Up Baby," they also starred in this charmer about a man (Grant) who falls for a wealthy woman (Doris Nolan) but finds himself drawn to the sister (Hepburn) who understands his need to take a sabbatical. The yuletide connection: News of the impending nuptials is initially shared during a Christmas Day church service, then formally announced during a splashy New Year's Eve party.
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (R, 2009): The story of a young woman who repeatedly gets pregnant and suffers from relentless abuse may not sound like the ideal film to watch while wrapping gifts. But there are undeniable rays of hope that ultimately shine through in this Oscar-winning picture, especially during a scene in which Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) gets taken in by her saintly schoolteacher (Paula Patton) and finally finds domestic peace at Christmas.
"Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway" (Unrated, 2009) You could watch the movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about AIDS and artistic integrity. But why do that when you can see the final performance at Broadway's Nederlander Theater, which captures all the Christmas-set action in high definition?
"Black Christmas" (R, 1974) Nine years before he gave us the BB-gun-coveting classic "A Christmas Story," the late Bob Clark directed this decidedly darker yuletide chiller about a murderer lurking within the decked halls of a sorority house. The hairstyles are definitely retro, as is the notion that the police and the phone company must join forces to trace the source of a phone call. But the suspenseful moments remain timelessly tense.
"A Christmas Tale" (Unrated, 2008) Family dysfunction always seems much more sophisticated when experienced by French people. And so it is in this absorbing look at a family gathering for the holidays, struggling with their mother's illness and trying to make peace with one another.
"Go" (R, 1999) The "Pulp Fiction" era spawned multiple movies with narratives that unfolded out of chronological order. This movie, whose plot pivots around a holiday season rave dubbed the Merry Xmas Superfest, distinguishes itself from the pack with a strong ensemble cast (Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes and Timothy Olyphant are among the principals) and compellingly hyperkinetic direction by Doug Liman.
"Steel Magnolias" (PG, 1989) If the season of giving puts you in the mood for something weepy, this quintessential chick flick should fill the bill. A good portion of this female-centric drama takes place during Christmas, including a cookie-baking scene in which Julia Roberts reveals her pregnancy to concerned mother Sally Field, and another at a Christmas party where Roberts tries to set up a cranky Shirley MacLaine with an old flame. Don't forget to ask Santa for extra Kleenex.