Chris Hicks: Worthy list of Christmas movies

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 4:18 p.m. MST

Will Ferrell (left) stars as Buddy and Peter Billingsley stars as Elf Supervisor in New Line Cinema's family comedy, ELF.

Crown Media Networks Inc.

As is usual this time of year, we are being inundated with Christmas-themed movies of all stripes on television. What has been a bit unusual, however, is the crop of new pictures popping up — among them, one filmed in Utah.

Prolific local filmmaker Craig Clyde's "A Christmas Wish" has been airing on the Hallmark Channel but it's also now on DVD (eOne, 2011, $14.99).

Shot in and around Mapleton, the film stars Kristy Swanson in the story of a mother abandoned by her husband, which leaves her with two daughters, a stepson and feelings of desperation. So she hits the road to find work, landing in a rural area where "angels" in the form of new neighbors help her find her way.

Clyde has written a sweet script with some clever dialogue and his direction has elicited performances that are much better than is typical of TV movies. And it's especially nice to see veterans Edward Herrmann and Tess Harper, along with a bevy of familiar local actors (including the filmmaker's son K.C. Clyde).

He's also made good use of outdoor locations (and real snow!) to evoke a sense of community in a small-town environment.

And one more thing that makes "A Christmas Wish" stand out from the crowd is that it's not afraid to invoke the birth of Jesus or the power of prayer, which far too many holiday films shy away from these days.

Another newly released TV movie is "The Gathering" (Warner, 1977, $14.96), an Emmy-winning drama about an aging businessman (Edward Asner) who walked out on his family some years earlier.

Having learned he has only a short time to live, and with the help of his ex-wife (Maureen Stapleton), he attempts to gather his estranged adult children for one last Christmas together.

The story of a workaholic dad who has pushed his kids away has been done to death now — but in 1977 it wasn't such a worn-out plot. Asner and Stapleton are brilliant in their roles and the film is sentimental without being mawkish.

For me, it's just nice to be able to recommend a couple of movies that haven't worn out their Christmastime welcome.

As you might expect, I receive a lot of requests for Christmas-movie suggestions each year at this time — but in truth most people are aware of the usual suspects as they rotate on various TV channels and fill up online streaming sites.

You know the films I mean, those that are considered holiday classics: "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol"/"Scrooge" in all its myriad incarnations, "Miracle on 34th Street," "Holiday Inn" and its cousin "White Christmas," "The Bishop's Wife," "Babes in Toyland" (aka "March of the Wooden Soldiers," starring Laurel & Hardy) and quite a few others from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Along with such lower-tier charmers as "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "The Shop Around the Corner," "Holiday Affair," "O. Henry's Full House," etc.

And, of course, the more recent (if 28 years ago can be called "recent") "A Christmas Story."

During my two-decade tenure as the paper's film critic from the late 1970s through the late 1990s, I occasionally made foolish predictions that were way off. But it wasn't hard to see that "A Christmas Story" would resonate and, as I wrote in 1983, would "doubtless become a holiday regular."

There have been a lot of holiday hits in theaters since 1983 but most are on my "naughty" list. Call me Scrooge (or Grinch) but I'm not fond of most '80s, '90s and '00s Christmas pictures, many of which have been soaked in the rotten-eggnog of holiday cynicism, so that their smiley, make-it-right endings seem as artificial as movie snow.

That would include, in my opinion, the overrated "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Scrooged," "Jingle All the Way," "The Polar Express," the "Home Alone" films, the Jim Carrey versions of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Christmas Carol," and "The Santa Clause" trilogy, among others.

On the other hand, I was not immune to the charms of "Prancer," "You've Got Mail," "While You Were Sleeping," "Elf," the remake of "Miracle on 34th Street," "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and, yes, "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

All of the latter are on the "nice" list to watch again at our house this year.

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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