Every year, basic cable and network television offer the same slate of holiday classics -- It's a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, plus innumerable TV-movie versions of the old standards, starring C-list sitcom actors. You know the drill. So why not try something a little different this year? Whether your tastes run to the traditional or the offbeat, there's no lack of Christmas programming available on home video.
Let's start by focusing on the traditional -- you know, the heart-warmers and tearjerkers designed to provoke that good old-fashioned holiday feeling. Fire up the DVD player and enjoy a not-quite-classic:
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Forget the slick remake with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, and go straight for the original -- a charming, funny little fantasy about a suave angel (Cary Grant) who sets about answering the prayers of a harried Episcopalian bishop (David Niven) who dreams of building an enormous cathedral. A little talky at times and occasionally saccharine, this is still a delight, with a sweet performance by Loretta Young as Niven's wife, who gets a new lease on life from her flirty-but-chaste relationship with Grant's angel. The picture earned five Oscar nominations, and is worth watching just for the charming ice-skating scene, beautifully shot by master cinematographer Gregg Toland.
The Angel Doll (2002)
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Jerry Bledsoe, this underseen gem was slated for theatrical release and then shelved, finally showing up on the Lifetime network in 2004. Set in the 1950s, it focuses on "Whitey" Black (Cody Newton), a 10-year-old boy in a small Southern town who desperately wants to locate a difficult-to-find doll for his polio-stricken sister. Despite what sounds like a hackneyed, downer premise, The Angel Doll is a rich, compelling picture, with the boys' journey to find the doll by Christmas bringing them into contact with people from every part of their community, illustrating the ties that bind us all, regardless of social strata. Keith Carradine is charming as the adult Jerry, and Diana Scarwid plays Whitey's alcoholic mom. Between losing its distributor and premiering as a Lifetime movie, The Angel Doll had some success on the festival circuit, winning the Best Picture Audience Award at the Asheville Film Festival, and the Best Dramatic Feature prize at the Southern Exposure Film Festival.
Three Godfathers (1948)
Right before Christmas, three bank robbers (John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., Pedro Armendariz) promise a dying woman that they'll care for her infant son. On the run from the law (as embodied by the great Ward Bond), the outlaws take off across the desert with the baby, headed for the town of New Jerusalem. One of several versions of the 1913 novel by Peter B. Kyne, Three Godfathers is perhaps director John Ford's most overlooked film, considered slight, sentimental, and suffering under the weight of all that religious symbolism. But it's still John Ford, with all of the gorgeous scenery, existential angst, and manly conflict that marks his best work. And it'll make you cry.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (2007)
Tom Berenger plays Toomey, a scary loner who lives in a cottage in the woods, where he crafts exquisite woodcarvings. Thomas (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) is a young boy whose father is killed in a war, and who loses the wooden nativity set that was his only connection to his dad. So when Thomas's mother (Joely Richardson) commissions Toomey to make a new nativity, the boy and the man form a bond ... well, you can see where it's headed. As predictable as it all is, it's still remarkably effective, largely due to Berenger's nuanced performance. It's based on the popular book by Susan Wojciechowski.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
If you haven't seen this version of the Dickens classic in a long time -- or ever -- you may only consider it for kitsch value. But this adaptation, directed by Brian Henson, is surprisingly faithful to the original text. Plus, Michael Caine turns in one of the very best, most sincere portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge on film, while never giving any indication that he's aware that his co-stars are puppets. It doesn't get much better than this.
Next up: Five great, less traditional Christmas movies to enjoy with your eggnog and pumpkin pie.
Dawn Taylor has gotten used to the coal in her stocking.