Andy Bockelman: Both offbeat, mainstream films help make Xmas merry

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

Everybody celebrates the holiday season with their own traditions. And, no matter what your plans are, you’ll likely wind up watching some yuletide film selections, whether it’s inescapable favorites like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Home Alone” and “A Christmas Story” or hard-to-find, so-bad-it’s-good features such as “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”

But, as with any genre, Christmas-themed movies have their own subsets and branches for multiple tastes. So, whether your favorite thing about the holiday is the fellowship, the generosity or guzzling gallons of eggnog, you can probably find something to your liking from the following list, arranged by categories.

• Dysfunctional family

No matter how unbearable your family may be, Hollywood can always find a way to make you feel better about being stuck around your relatives by showing clans who can still come together even after nearly killing one another.

“The Family Stone”

Tightly wound New York businesswoman Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) has mastered the boardroom, but that’s nothing compared to meeting her boyfriend Everett’s (Dermot Mulroney) family at his parents’ (Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson) Connecticut home during their Christmastime get-together. And, the harder she tries to make a good impression, the worse she comes off looking, making for a more and more strained holiday for everyone.

Crafted as a female-centric spin on “Meet the Parents,” this comedy-drama comes off downright mean at times as Meredith inadvertently clashes constantly with everyone in the household, particularly Keaton as Everett’s strong-willed mother and Rachel McAdams as his very judgmental younger sister.

The stress of the holidays is always compounded with the intrusion of an outsider, but even with all the bitterness of the situation, there comes a point when the tension finally shifts into an agreeable catharsis.

Just like every other family’s Christmas. Well, almost.

“Nothing Like the Holidays”

The members of a Puerto Rican-American family converge on their parents’ (Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Peña) house in the Chicago suburbs at Christmas. Reconnecting after a considerable amount of time of separation are siblings Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), a recently discharged Marine trying to decide where to go in life; Mauricio (John Leguizamo), a successful but stressed corporate raider; and Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a fledgling actress.

Though they all have their own individual problems, their folks have saved the worst for last, when they drop the bomb that they are nearing divorce.

A fine instance of grown children coming to blows with their parents over how to live their lives when neither generation is in any position to talk, the story touches on cultural mores of the Hispanic community while still making the family’s scenario relatable.

Genuinely funny and touching, this slipped under the radar upon its initial release despite a cast that really makes everything pop, including Debra Messing as Mauricio’s wife, Melonie Diaz as Jesse’s ex-girlfriend and Jay Hernandez and Luis Guzmán as a pair of rabble-rousing family friends.

• Lovey-dovey

Ladies, if your man is using his vacation days from work, that means he has no excuse to not relax watch some of your favorite holiday-themed chick flicks, so grab some spare garlands off the tree and tie him down.

“The Holiday”

After a particularly bad breakup, movie editor Amanda (Cameron Diaz) arranges to take a vacation by switching houses with Iris (Kate Winslet), a low-level British newspaper editor who has had her own recent heartbreak. But, although the pair both ship off for their new destinations specifically to avoid getting involved with any men, love is in store as Amanda falls for Iris’s single brother Graham (Jude Law) and Iris, in turn, becomes close with film composer Miles (Jack Black).

Although more a movie that happens to be set at Christmas rather than a full-fledged Christmas movie, this romantic comedy provides a quaint contrast of two very different women and how they become acclimated to each other’s lifestyles, as workaholic Amanda learns to slow her life while staying at Iris’s cozy country cottage and timid Iris becomes emboldened living in Amanda’s L.A. mansion.

A pair of great performances from the women in question is almost matched by Law and Black as their respective suitors, as well as Edward Burns and Rufus Sewell as Amanda and Iris’s exes, both philanderers. Nonagenarian Eli Wallach — in his seventh decade of acting — nearly steals the show as a retired screenwriter whom Iris befriends.

“Love Actually”

It’s Christmastime across the world, and London is no exception from the mirth, merriment and romance that comes with the most wonderful time of the year. Britons of all ages are experiencing different kinds of love from the newly elected prime minister (Hugh Grant) with a staff of fawning females to a schoolboy (Thomas Sangster) who has recently lost his mother.

Featuring the talents of countless British actors, including Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson and plenty more, the story is one of the better examples of an ensemble cast in recent years. With a narrative that connects no fewer than 20 major characters, we get a good array of stories about love, not all of which are romantic nor have a neat, happy ending.

The best of the bunch has to be Bill Nighy as an aging rocker who can’t stomach his own holiday single, which provides the longer title “love actually is all around.”

To sweeten the pot, this may be your only chance to see Billy Bob Thornton playing the President of the United States, though my next selection may be the actor’s definitive Christmas role.

• Redemption

If the annual viewing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” has taught us anything, it’s that even someone whose soul is “an appalling dump-heap” can turn his life around come Dec. 25. Although, for some people, it takes much longer than the time allotted to a Chuck Jones cartoon.

“Bad Santa”

Lowlife con artist Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) and his partner in crime Marcus (Tony Cox) make their living traveling around the country, posing as a mall Santa and his elf, then robbing every shopping center blind on Christmas Eve. But, this Noel is a little different, as Willie meets a helpless kid (Brent Kelly) who takes to him despite his many, many, many faults.

Thornton is hilarious as the absolutely last person a sensible parent would ever want around their kids — a fall-down drunk with a filthy mouth and a libido that knows no shame. Undoubtedly, this is one feature you won’t let your kids view until they’re 18 and maybe not even then.

But, even though this is one of the darkest and initially most off-putting holiday comedies ever made, we see some semblance of goodness in this scoundrel as he tries to be a father figure to a truly pathetic youngster, though beating his bullies to a bloody pulp probably doesn’t set the best example.

Keep your eyes peeled for the talking walnut!

“Scrooged”

On Christmas Eve, the same night that he’s airing a live performance of “A Christmas Carol,” TV executive Frank Cross (Bill Murray) has his own paranormal experience when the ghost of his deceased boss (John Forsythe) warns him to change his ways. Naturally, he doesn’t listen, leading to a rundown of his whole life, including how he’s brushed off his younger brother (John Murray), mistreated his assistant (Alfre Woodard) and ruined his relationship with the only woman (Karen Allen) he’s ever loved.

One of dozens of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic gets a mighty boost from the power of not one, not two, but all four of the Murray brothers.

Bill, of course, receives the lion’s share of attention as a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, in fact, the worst kind — a yuppie. But, even he can’t contend with a Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) who appears as a hacking New York cabbie and a Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) who, unlike most fairies, is partial to headbutts.

A handful of intentionally tacky cameos from personalities like Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, Lee Majors and Mary Lou Retton also spice things up, making this one of the more lively albeit edgy versions of Dickens’ story.

• Through chaos comes peace

There comes a point for everybody when all the holiday bedlam brings them to the point of screaming their lungs out. But, before you commit yourself to the booby hatch for a temporary stay until after New Year’s Day, just realize that you’re not the only one.

“Mixed Nuts”

The staff (Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, Madeline Khan) of a suicide prevention hotline finds themselves surprisingly unneeded on Christmas Eve, with hardly any incoming calls from people looking for guidance during the holidays. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own problems to deal with, as an onslaught of people begin convening in their office, each weirder than the next.

Written and directed by “Sleepless in Seattle” filmmaker Nora Ephron, this is hardly a high point in the careers of any of its stars, but all in all, it’s pretty watchable in terms of getting a few laughs out of holiday hijinks, with Juliette Lewis as a pregnant and temperamental clothes vendor, Anthony LaPaglia as her idiot boyfriend and Liev Schreiber as a lonely cross-dresser whose family doesn’t understand him/her.

Fun fact: This was Adam Sandler’s last film before his career took off with “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” His original song, “Grape Jelly,” played on a ukulele as he attempts to woo Wilson’s character, went on to be eclipsed by a little ditty called “The Chanukah Song,” which in turn, inspired perhaps the only movie ever made about the Festival of Lights, the animated “Eight Crazy Nights.”

But, you don’t want to watch that. Ever.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”

With visions of sugarplums and who knows what else dancing in his head, Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) works to create the ultimate family Christmas. But, as with every Griswold vacation, things don’t always turn out the way he plans, to say the least, whether it’s irritating relatives (John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts), cheerless neighbors (Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) or a sexy saleswoman (Nicolette Scorsese) threatening to put a damper on Clark’s holly jolly holiday.

With a light display that sucks up enough juice to power a small city, a turkey dinner that not even a goat could keep down and a Christmas tree that still has its own tenant, everything that can go wrong does in this laugh-a-minute testament to every disastrous family holiday outing that’s ever occurred, all the knowing that things will work out in the end.

But, even when you think that you have one up on the Griswolds’ calamity-prone lifestyle, remember — there’s only one Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid). Raise your hand if you’ve had a backwater hick empty out a chemical toilet into the sewer next to your house while half-naked.

• “Thank God we’re all alive!”

If material like “The Santa Clause” and “Elf” are too cutesy for you, then perhaps you’d prefer an action-packed Xmas, one in which the main characters have to fight to survive against ever-decreasing odds. After all, what better present is there than living to see Boxing Day?

“Gremlins”

Average, all-American teen Billy (Zach Galligan) has just received an unusual early Christmas present: a Mogwai. However, the furry, big-eared, sweet-natured little creature named Gizmo (voice of Howie Mandel) has a few rules attached with ownership — keep it out of sunlight, don’t get it wet and don’t feed it after midnight. A mishap results in his new pet multiplying, though the offspring are much more rambunctious than Gizmo. And, with the breaking of one rule comes another and soon Billy’s town is overrun with vicious, destructive monsters.

An oddly successful blend of horror and comedy set around the holidays, the story reminds us just how badly certain Christmas gifts can go awry, even the ones that don’t need batteries. Though their work hardly results to a feel-good family movie, the team of director Joe Dante, executive producer Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Chris Columbus get away with a lot thanks to their puppet star, who’s so cuddly and cute, it’s almost unbearable.

Still, with a string of bloody deaths both human and gremlin and Billy’s girlfriend’s (Phoebe Cates) depressing reasoning for why she hates Christmas, it’s little wonder this helped push the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating.

“Die Hard”

While visiting his estranged family in Los Angeles, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) jumps into action when his wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) company Christmas party is taken over by terrorists seeking a big payday within the skyscraper. With minimal resources, McClane seeks to take out their ringleader (Alan Rickman) while communicating with the rest of the boys in blue on the ground.

Besides being regarded as one of the best action movies of all time, people often forget that the “Die Hard” series started with a Christmas element, with “Die Hard 2” following suit, though the next two movies changed it to a setting outside of December.

Still, McClane is the kind of hero that you’d want to root for any time of year, especially when he’s facing off against such a memorable villain as Hans Gruber, one of Rickman’s best roles.

Ho ho ho? Try yippee-ki-yay!

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