Hard to believe it now, but such Christmas movie staples as 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'A Christmas Story' were once forgotten film flops. It was only after years of obscurity, followed by endless replays on TV, that these two films became as much a holiday tradition as egg nog or massive credit card debt.
There are lots of Christmas movies out there that aren't beloved classics like 'A Miracle on 34th Street.' Maybe not every movie on the list deserves to become a holiday staple, but they're certainly worth checking out. And maybe some will become a seasonal favorite of yours.
Best Christmas Movies Ever
By the way, there's a movie playing now in the art-houses, slowly making its way across the country, called 'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale'. A Finnish import, it's a black comedy about an archaeological team that unearths the real Santa Claus (who's not too jolly about it) and tries to sell him to a multinational corporation. Will 'Rare Exports' join the saga of George Bailey's desperate hour or Ralphie and his BB gun on your holiday perennial list? Who knows, but it's another sign that there are hidden Christmas treasures out there. Read the list below, and tell us if there's an unknown Christmas movie you like that should have made the cut.
'Christmas in Connecticut' (1945). In her magazine column, Barbara Stanwyck poses as the perfect homemaker and housewife. In fact, she's not married and has never set foot in a kitchen, which becomes a problem when her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) invites himself and a contest-winning war hero over to her home for a traditional Christmas dinner. Her effort to keep up the deception makes up the bulk of this farce that's too seldom shown during the holidays.
'Christmas in July' (1940). One of three movies on this list scripted by the great Preston Sturges, who also directed. It's a short but sweet farce about a clerk (Dick Powell) who goes on a spending spree after his pals fake a telegram telling him he's won a coffee company's slogan contest. As the title suggests, it's a midsummer holiday miracle that gets him out of debt and reminds him that there's more to life than material possessions.
'A Christmas Tale' (2008) A squabbling family is forced to come together at Christmastime when it's revealed that the matriarch will die within months if she doesn't receive a bone marrow transplant. Yes, you've seen this sort of melodrama before, but not with Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch, or with the constant inventiveness of Arnaud Desplechin's direction and screenplay.
'Comfort and Joy' (1984). In this comedy by Scottish master of drollery Bill Forsyth ('Local Hero'), a Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) gets dumped by his girlfriend at Christmastime. Full of holiday blues, he mopes miserably until a chance accident gets him caught in a gang war between two rival ice cream truck companies. (There's a plot twist you don't see every day.) There are lots of movies where a lost sad sack rediscovers love and purpose during the holidays, but none as offbeat or drily funny as this one.
'Frozen River' (2008). Not many saw this indie movie when it was released two years ago, but it earned an Oscar nomination for star Melissa Leo. Playing a woman whose husband disappears along with the family savings a few days before Christmas, Leo stumbles across a dangerous but lucrative business opportunity, smuggling illegal aliens across the Canadian border via the iced-over waterway of the title. She develops an unlikely friendship with a similarly desperate Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) who becomes her partner in the scheme, and amid the plot's bleak events, the two learn some holiday lessons about friendship, loyalty, and family.
'Hi-Life' (1998). In Manhattan, Santa Claus is Jewish, hates kids, and gets beaten up for his troubles. Everyone else in this genial, shaggy-dog comedy, however, gets about what they deserve. The action centers around a tavern whose soft-touch bartender (Campbell Scott) makes the rounds hitting up friends for the money they owe him because his sister (Moira Kelly) claims an emergency. But actually, she's planning to give the money to her boyfriend (Eric Stoltz), a weaselly actor who hasn't told her he owes the whole sum to his bookie (Charles Durning). The characters (including several more only-in-New-York types) finally unite at the bar, where poetic justice is meted out and many cups of holiday cheer are knocked back.
'A Midnight Clear' (1992). Maybe this would have become a hit and a holiday staple if it hadn't been released in April. In a snow-covered forest in the last months of World War II, American soldiers find a group of German soldiers who are about ready to give up the fight. Recognizing their shared humanity, they all enjoy a brief Christmas celebration before the fighting inevitably resumes. For a few moments in this dreamlike, poignant drama, the armed men are reduced to being innocent, snowball-hurling children - not hard to believe, since they're played by some now-familiar stars when they were at the dawns of their careers and startlingly baby-faced, including Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon and (making his movie debut) Gary Sinise.
'A Midwinter's Tale' (1995). Shakespeare maven Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed this comedy (shot in wintry black-and-white) about a troupe struggling to mount a Christmastime production of 'Hamlet' in order to save a local church. Naturally, things go awry backstage, love blossoms, actors' egos get bruised, and more laughs abound than you'd imagine from a movie centered around a Shakespearean tragedy.
'The Miracle of Morgan's Creek' (1944). This may be the funniest movie in Preston Sturges' celebrated career, though it's nearly forgotten now by all but film buffs. Betty Hutton plays the unfortunately named Trudy Kockenlocker, who, after a wild night with the USO, discovers she's been impregnated by a soldier she can't remember (who has already shipped off). Eddie Bracken is the 4-F nebbish who loves Trudy and is willing to make an honest woman out of her. The whole farce climaxes in a truly improbable Christmas miracle that not only makes everything all right but also probably saved the risqué plot from the Production Code censors. Really, it's a wonder Sturges was able to get away with making this movie at the height of World War II; indeed, there's much about it that would raise eyebrows even today.
'R Xmas' (2001). 'Sopranos' veterans Drea de Matteo and Lillo Brancato play a upwardly mobile immigrant couple living two lives, one as parents of a girl performing in her private school's Christmas pageant, the other as drug dealers. The two lives collide when a kidnapper (Ice-T) lures the husband into a trap by cliaming to have a black-market toy, the popular but unavailable doll that the daughter wants for Christmas. It's up to the wife to ransom and rescue him. Indie auteur Abel Ferrara's film is both a realistic crime drama and an oddly touching holiday fable.
'The Ref' (1994). One way to get Denis Leary to go on a profane rant is to mention this Christmas satire, which flopped in part because Disney released it around St. Patrick's Day. Leary felt the movie deserved better handling, and he's right. He does some of his best work in this bracing satire, playing a burglar who takes as hostages a well-to-do suburban couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis), only to be stuck inthe middle of their epic family squabble on Christmas Eve. Beneath all the cynicism, there's a holiday lesson (which is: count your blessings), but if you're looking for miracles and sentiment, you should probably look elsewhere.
'Remember the Night' (1940). In another far-fetched farce from Preston Sturges, Fred MacMurray is a New York City assistant district attorney who takes pity on shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck, who's far from her home in Indiana. He brings her home for the holidays, and amid the warm family gathering, love blossoms. What's that going to mean when he has to prosecute her in court in a few days? Mitchell Leisen's direction keeps things light and frothy, and it's fun to see MacMurray and Stanwyck in very different roles from the murderous couple they would play a few years later in 'Double Indemnity.'
'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' (1964). Admit it: you want to see this for the title alone, right? Okay, this low-budget sci-fi saga, in which aliens kidnap Kris Kringle, is not very good, except in a 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' way, full of opportunities to howl and guffaw at its ineptitude. A quarter century ago, you could get a good laugh just by recognizing that one of the green-faced Martian tots is the young Pia Zadora, but nowadays, her brief adult career as a sultry starlet is as forgotten as her childhood role here.
'Blackadder's Christmas Carol' (1988). Okay, it's a made-for-TV special, not a movie, but it's so good, and so rarely shown, that we thought it merited a tip of the Santa cap. The four seasons of Rowan Atkinson's 'Black Adder' series presented sharp-tongued schemers of the Blackadder family throughout history, but in this Dickens parody, he plays the one nice, milquetoasty member of the family. Then the Christmas ghosts who are out to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge meet him and inadvertently inspire him to become as selfish and cruel as the rest of his relatives. If you've seen too many versions of Scrooge's conversion this season, here's your antidote.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.