The New Christmas Classics

While the shiny and the new play a key role in our celebration of Christmas, the Yuletide season also marks one of the rare occasions in which the old and the traditional get a moment in the spotlight. If you hear Andy Williams on a Top 40 radio station, or you see NBC devoting three hours to a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movie from 1946, you know it’s Christmastime.

But while “It’s a Wonderful Life” remains, for many of us, one of the go-to December viewing experiences, it’s not fair to say that Christmas movies ain’t what they used to be. Granted, it’s hard to find time for new movies when you’ve already budgeted TV time to George Bailey (and Ralphie and Ebenezer Scrooge), but if you’re willing to change up your viewing habits a bit, you’ll be surprised at the terrific selections that the last decade has to offer.

A good Christmas cry

If you enjoy reaching for the Kleenex when the citizens of Bedford Falls save the day, or when Natalie Wood professes her belief in Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street,” you’ll enjoy some lovely sobbing with “Lassie,” the 2005 British adaptation of the popular canine classic. Praised by critics and underappreciated by US audiences at the time of its release, this charming family movie seems to slowly be finding an audience on DVD. And while the cast includes heavy hitters like Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton, and “Boardwalk Empire”’s Kelly Macdonald, the movie belongs to young Jonathan Mason, whose devotion to his beloved pet makes this lovely tear-jerker one of the great boy-and-his-dog stories of all time. (Seriously, if Lassie’s heroic return home at Christmastime leaves you dry-eyed, see an ophthalmologist.)

[name here] saves Christmas

If you’re a fan of movies about young, wide-eyed innocents who rescue the Christmas holiday through pure childlike devotion and belief, check out 2003’s “Elf,” which gave Will Ferrell one of his greatest roles ever as Buddy, who’s been raised among the elves in Santa’s workshop all his life even though he’s really a human being. (Ferrell’s height becomes a great sight gag as he towers over his brethren.) Ferrell, writer David Berenbaum, and director Jon Favreau manage a breathtaking balancing act by making “Elf” sweet but never sappy, smart without being cynical, and hilarious without being mean. And by the end of the film, Buddy really does save Christmas – just ask Santa (played wonderfully here by Ed Asner).

Something to watch with the children

Even if your idea of a Christmas movie is “Bad Santa,” you might still want to have a film for all ages handy in case you need to entertain your friends’ (or your own) fidgety children. And if the kids already know “A Christmas Story” and “Home Alone” on a frame-by-frame basis, why not introduce them to Danny Boyle’s “Millions” (2004)? Yes, the same Danny Boyle who made “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later” and “James Franco Cuts Off His Arm” – but really, this one’s great for kids. Two young brothers, dealing with life after the loss of their mother, come upon a bag of money that’s been tossed out of a train; one of the boys wants to spend it all, while the other – who spends his days talking to the saints and asking about the whereabouts of his late mum – has more charitable plans. But they’ve got to do something with it by New Year’s, when Britain changes from the pound to the Euro. “Millions” is sweet and sad and darkly funny and reminds us of everything we like to hear at Christmastime about the power of family without pounding us over the head with it.

Holiday shoot-em-ups

Households where the Christmas movie ritual tends to favor “Die Hard” over “The Bells of St. Mary’s” should consider loading “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005) into their chamber. Written and directed by the seemingly holiday-obsessed Shane Black (who also wrote the Christmas-set action epics “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight”), this witty whodunit stars Robert Downey, Jr. as a New York petty thief who eludes police by running into a movie audition – he’s so manic and hyped-up, he gets the role. The studio sends him to L.A. to prep for the part by tailing a gay private detective known as Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), and of course the two immediately get tied up in murder, conspiracy, and other decidedly non-festive goings-on. Black uses tinsel, lights, and other holiday trimmings to make Los Angeles look even more artificial than usual, and the patter between Downey, Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan (as a would-be actress who’s connected to the crimes) crackles with Sturges-esque snap.

Readers: What’s your favorite holiday movie of the last ten years?

Alonso Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas” and the DVD Editor of

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