Selections from the Staff: Some Holiday Movies

Everyone with a TV has seen the traditional winter holiday fare: Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, and any one of a dozen versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. If you're not totally burned out on the subject, there are less-well-known films with Christmas (and other) themes that are worth seeking out. Here's a short list of recommendations from the staff that might round out your holiday viewing:

A Christmas Story (1985)---This delightful tale stars Peter Billingsly as Ralphie, a young boy who dreams of getting a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and encounters almost total opposition at every turn. Directed by Bob Clark, A Christmas Story poignantly portrays the world from a child's point of view in a way that few films attempt and even fewer achieve. (The Swedish film My Life as a Dog is a notable exception.) Fantasy and reality collide and impinge on each other as Ralphie tries hard to please all the adults in his life, endures the torments of his classmates, and manages to survive while hanging on to the fragments of his dignity.

Darren McGavin is excellent in his role as Ralphie's irritable father---perhaps his best performance ever. Based on a short story by Jean Shepherd, that great chronicler of modern life, A Christmas Story is both a wonderful piece of Americana and entertainment with universal appeal. It's a comedy guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. Turner Network Television and other broadcasters have run the film nonstop for holiday marathons, but its charms outlast the holidays. Now available on DVD.---BW

A Midnight Clear (1991)---This powerful, melancholy film came and went so quickly back in 1991 that almost no one noticed. An artistic triumph and a box-office disaster, this Keith Gordon vehicle is based on a supposedly true event from the first World War. Transposed to the Ardennes in France just prior to WWII's Battle of the Bulge, the story revolves around a ragtag group of intelligent, young, battle-weary American soldiers, their numbers severely reduced by casualties. They are assigned to occupy an empty, isolated house in the forest near enemy lines. On the way and at their outpost, they discover strange signs placed by a similar squad of Germans, who seek to meet with them privately.

A friendly snowball fight between the putative enemies leads to a private truce and a joint Christmas celebration in no-man's land. The Germans want to negotiate their own surrender, but to protect their families back in Germany, they must make it appear that they went down fighting. They agree to a staged fight, and from that moment the film takes an unexpected detour from which it never returns---examining the arbitrary nature of war and the brutal relationships between the young and the old who control them. The excellent cast features Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, and Ethan Hawke, all of whom were relatively unknown when the film was released. Hard to find but worth the effort; unfortunately, not yet available on DVD.---BW

Scandal (1989)---Sexual shenanigans at the top levels of government are stories as old as the human race. Thirty-four years before Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky, British Minister of War John Profumo met Mandy Rice-Davies. The ensuing scandal in 1963 wreaked havoc on the staid Conservative Party and threatened the entire British government. Bridget Fonda is devastating as Ms. Rice-Davies; John Hurt is despicably degenerate as the libertine osteopath Stephen Ward, who acts as procurer for many Conservatives; Ian McKellen is excellent as the Minister headed for a fall. Fine Young Cannibals lead vocalist Roland Gift has a cameo as pop singer Johnnie Edgecombe. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Alas, this one's on VHS tape only at present.---BW