It began on The Washington Post’s Web site back in 2006 with a rundown of 10 seasonal movies often overlooked in the flurry of repeat “Elf” and “Miracle on 34th Street” airings. The requirements for making the cut: Each film had to be set during the holiday season or contain at least one key Christmas scene.
That list begat another in 2007, and one more each year that followed. The 2011 model is the sixth. This time around, I am offering seven selections. (Had to cut back a tad; Chaney’s still got holiday shopping to do.)
As varied as they are in terms of time period, tone and abundance of Christmas cheer, each one takes its audience to a place that differs significantly from Bedford Falls and Ron Howard’s version of Whoville. Peruse this year’s list, check out the ones from years past (see below) and feel free to post a comment suggesting a favorite unconventional holiday movie of your own. As these many lists suggest, the options are plentiful.
Naughty children who get stashed away in sacks. Dead reindeer. Naked old men who willingly do Santa’s evil bidding. These are not exactly the standard tropes of the upbeat Christmas movie. But they all come into play in this 2010 Finnish film, which features striking cinematography and a genuinely chilling premise: What would happen if a young boy realized that Santa Claus was actually malevolent, preserved in ice and suddenly excavated from his underground hiding place just in time for Christmas?
Paul Newman earned the final Academy Award nomination of his career — and Jessica Tandy turned in what would be the final performance of hers — in this detailed character study of a North Bath, N.Y., ne’er-do-well (Newman) finding his way back into the lives of his estranged son and grandson. The narrative takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year’s; that the 1994 film was actually shot in New York’s Hudson Valley only makes all that small-town frost more believable.
“Tenth Avenue Angel”
This 1948 weeper, which airs on Turner Classic Movies during the wee hours of Christmas morning, stars a young Angela Lansbury and an even younger Margaret O’Brien as a girl whose faith is so shaken that she’s not even sure she believes in Christmas anymore. It hardly counts as a spoiler to let you know that, yes, that little roller-skating skeptic will eventually find a way to believe. As cornball as this movie often is, O’Brien — who also co-starred in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and just might be the best cryer in child star history — may still have you reaching for the tissue box.
If you need an excuse to revist the beginning of the end of the “Harry Potter” series, the Christmas Eve scene provides one. In one of the more poignant moments in the entire series, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson) return to the boy wizard’s home town of Godric’s Hollow on Dec. 24 and visit the graves of his parents. The falling snowflakes and tears in Harry’s eyes may make you a bit misty . . . at least for a few moments, until the action ramps up again and our hero find himself battling Nagini, Voldemort’s snake.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”
In yet another fantasy film based on an enormously popular children’s book series — and one released during the 2005 holiday season — the Pevensie children first discover the snowy wonderland that is Narnia. Initially, it seems there is never Christmas there. But when the power of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) begins to weaken, along comes Father Christmas (James Cosmo of “Game of Thrones”) bearing gifts and letting Lucy, Peter and Susan know their presence is ushering in change for the good. (Side note: Maybe it’s just me, but the talking wolves in ‘‘Narnia” seem much less ridiculous than the ones in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1.”)
Reason not to watch Whit Stillman’s 1990 indie portrait of upper crust Manhattan college students winding their way through a series of winter break dances and debutante balls: Everyone in it is so insufferably pretentious and blind to the problems of others that they make the characters in most Woody Allen films seem remarkably non-neurotic and self-aware. (At one point one characteractually says: “It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate.”) Reasons to watch it: Its droll tone doesn’t condone that pretentious self-centeredness so much as subtly comment on it. Stillman’s directorial style has influenced many, most notably Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. And the notion that all these hoity-toity preppies would eventually succumb to what one dubs “downward social mobility” seems oddly prescient with 20/20 hinsight.
“Far From Heaven”
Todd Haynes’s jewel-tone-saturated tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk is filled with intentional melodrama. But it also boasts a lead performance by Julianne Moore, who — as the 1950s housewife of a closeted gay man and a woman falling for an African-American — is genuinely moving even while wading through all those era-specific tropes. “Far From Heaven” also has a wink-wink sense of humor about itself, as displayed during the “Ozzie and Harriet”-esque Christmas scene in which Dennis Quaid (who plays Moore’s husband) jokes about taking a New Year’s Eve trip to Miami, where “everything is pink.” Ah, quality time with the dysfunctional family. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?