At The Movies: Yuletide spirit comes in all forms on film

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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.

When it comes to holiday movies, there are the classics like “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn” that have become ingrained in our memories for their timeless depiction of a winter wonderland, as have “Ben-Hur” and “King of Kings” for their showing of the Nativity.

There are plenty more on the list of favorite viewing on or around Dec. 25, but some films having to do with the topic have fallen by the wayside.

But, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth watching, especially for fans of the many subgenres of Christmas movies.

“What If…?”

Easily the most remembered of this kind is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which George Bailey gets his life perspective straightened out on Christmas Eve with a little help from above. But, looking at an alternate reality isn’t exclusive to just the one film.

“Trading Places” — Financial purebred Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and lowly con man Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) have nothing in common in their wheelings and dealings. That is, until Louis’s bosses (Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche) decide to settle a wager by having them switch lives at Christmastime.

One of the best movies for both its leading men, this grand comedy offers a satirical look at how people of different races and classes can expect to be treated by society, even if strings are being pulled by eccentric business moguls.

On top of that, we’ve got a gorilla and Jamie Lee Curtis as a hooker with a heart of gold. Who could ask for a better gift?

“The Family Man” — After a peculiar experience with a mysterious man (Don Cheadle) on Christmas Eve night, Wall Street workaholic Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) wakes up the next morning to something even weirder.

His ex-girlfriend (Téa Leoni) is suddenly his wife, they have two kids and live in the New Jersey suburbs. Jack comes to understand that he is suddenly living the life he might have had with some different choices.

And, it just may be better than his old life of being wealthy and alone.

Almost the complete opposite of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” this goes back to the basics of Frank Capra’s masterpiece, showing that family and friends will always trump money and status. Director Brett Ratner shows he can direct a warmhearted movie just as well as one of nonstop action. Likewise, Cage may not be Jimmy Stewart, but as he warms up to the idea of being a middle-class dad, he gets just about as close as any modern actor could.

Cutesy Christmas

If there’s ever a time for fluff, it’s the holidays, whether it’s the fond remembrances of seeking the perfect present in “A Christmas Story” or the oversized smile of Will Ferrell in “Elf.” Still, there are plenty more in this category.

“While You Were Sleeping” — Working on Christmas morning is a bad start to the day for morose Chicago girl Lucy (Sandra Bullock), but when she saves a man (Peter Gallagher) from being hit by a train, things may be looking up. When the now comatose hunk is taken to the hospital, Lucy is mistaken for his fiancée and forms an immediate bond with his family.

Things get stickier when she starts to fall for his brother (Bill Pullman)

Bullock’s trademark role as the hard-luck woman who finds happiness shines here as one of her finest moments. As one of the reigning queens of the romantic comedy realm, it’s easy to sympathize with the actress as this particular lonely woman, who is in need of someone with whom to celebrate the holidays after already having lost both her parents.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — California college student Jake (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) has always done pretty much whatever he wants, including skipping out on spending Christmas with his family in New York. This year, his father (Gary Cole) has a deal to make with him — if he’s home in time for Christmas dinner, he will be the proud owner of a collector’s item Porsche.

The new motivation sets the wheels in motion as Jake changes his plans, but the scheming of a rival (Adam LaVorgna) makes things much more difficult, eventually leaving Jake stranded in the desert in a Santa suit with no money or identification.

This Disney picture from the days in which JTT could do no wrong isn’t one of the most fondly remembered from the studio, with the selfish main character taking time to warm up to. But, as he makes his way across the country any way he can, his travels teach him that thinking of others first is its own reward.

Sappy, yes, but it’s allowed this time of year.

A holiday under bad circumstances

In “Die Hard,” a simple office Christmas party turned into an enormous hostage situation complete with terrorists, explosions and Bruce Willis’ bloodied feet. Not all holidays turn out to have such intense circumstances, but as cinema shows us, they can get pretty bad …

“The Ref” — Connecticut couple Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis) are on the brink of divorce and always at each other’s throats. When they are carjacked by a temperamental thief (Denis Leary) looking to lie low after a burglary gone bad on Christmas Eve, it would seem that things couldn’t get any worse for any of them.

How wrong they all are.

It’s hard to know who to pity in this black comedy; the people who are being tied up with bungee cords at gunpoint or the guy who has to listen to their never-ending, insanity-inducing ongoing squabble. Add in a troublemaking son (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) home from military school, a battle axe mother (Glynis Johns) and nit-picking in-laws (Christine Baranski, Adam LeFevre) and you’ve got yourself one unpleasant cocktail of family dysfunction.

If you thought your holiday dinners turned out badly, try having everyone wear St. Lucia wreaths on their heads while a man who smells like cat urine is ready to kill you.

“Frozen River” — A mother (Melissa Leo) in upstate New York who’s struggling severely to raise her two sons (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly) and provide them with a decent Christmas finds herself overwhelmed by misfortune when her useless husband leaves with all her money. Her only option to get by is to undertake an illegal operation with a Native American woman (Misty Upham) by smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada across the St. Lawrence

River.

Leo’s bravura, tough-as-nails performance heightens an already compelling story of people who have almost nothing and still have to fight to preserve that. “A house divided” gets a whole new meaning with this clan, the members of which only have the purchase of a double-wide mobile home to look forward to for Christmas.

Even haters can become believers

The “change of heart” has been a staple of Christmas tales since Charles Dickens penned “A Christmas Carol” with only “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” coming close to matching it in terms of the reformation of former misanthropes.

These days, it would seem people need such a moral more than ever, with more and more folks emulating Billy Bob Thornton’s character in “Bad Santa” before he cleans up his act.

“Trapped in Paradise” — Bill (Nicolas Cage) has enough on his plate at Christmastime without having to worry about anyone else, but now he has to keep his newly released convict brothers Dave and Alvin (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey) from reverting to their old ways. Naturally, that’s exactly what they do when a road trip to Paradise, Pa., turns into a bank robbery.

Though the heist goes off smoothly, getting out of town is a different story entirely.

If you’ve ever seen the Bill Murray movie “Quick Change,” you know how things are going to go here: a perfect crime with an escape that never comes to fruition. As the three siblings try to leave by car, bus or horse-drawn carriage, they continue to run into small town residents who insist on helping them out and thusly putting a crimp in their plans.

Though it doesn’t use its comic trio to the best of their abilities, this holiday account is still worthwhile because of all the goodwill and glad tidings put forth by the people of Paradise.

“Four Christmases” — Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon) have always hated Christmas, each growing up in broken homes and putting up with a lot from their families. Their annual tradition of avoiding the festivities entirely falls flat when their flight to the tropics is grounded and they have no excuses to not visit each of their four parents (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight) in the course of one day.

You can learn about the person you’re dating when you suddenly have to spend time with the people they’ve spent your whole relationship trying to hide, such as Brad’s bruiser brothers (Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw), Kate’s man-hungry aunts (Carol Kane, Colleen Camp) or any of their horribly embarrassing folks.

The couple in question never really learn a lesson other than the fact that they should tolerate these people at least one day a year, but hey, whatever works.

Merriment in wartime

The holidays aren’t too happy for those brave souls risking their lives, and no, I’m not talking about those battling against the Mouse King in “The Nutcracker.” Still, even in the worst environment, all you need is a little push from your comrades to make the most of an otherwise difficult Christmas.

“Stalag 17” — In 1944, the American prisoners of war in Barracks 4 of Stalag 17 have had to make do with their lot in life, waiting for the Allies to turn the tide of World War II and liberate them from the Nazis. As Christmas approaches, things get tougher than ever, as they suspect one soldier (William Holden) in their midst of passing along information to the enemy.

One of the best from director and co-writer Billy Wilder — whose relatives were victims of concentration camps — it functions not only as a memorable war movie but also an excellent comedy, with plentiful laughs by Richard Strauss and Harvey Lembeck, who starred in the original stage production on Broadway.

Holden also snagged a Best Actor Oscar for his role as cool-as-a-cucumber trader of sundry items, JJ Sefton.

It can be a nice holiday even in such conditions if you get as creative as these captives do —ogling the inhabitants of the neighboring women’s camp, decorating a meager tree with dogtags, fantasizing about Betty Grable or employing the use of ping-pong balls donated by the Red Cross for some rather unorthodox purposes.

“Joyeux Noël” — In 1914, men on both sides of the Great War have had a miserable experience in the trenches, and an uneventful Christmas looks to offer no relief for those separated from their families.

However, on a battlefield in Belgium on Christmas Eve, the commanding officers of French, British and German troops decide to convene and call a temporary truce, encouraging their men to celebrate what little they have collectively.

It matters not if you’re German or French, Jewish or Christian. On Dec. 25, everyone truly is equal and has no reason to hate anyone else.

The narrative follows a full scope of characters, such as a French lieutenant (Guillaume Canet) who’s missed the birth of his son, a German opera star turned fighter (Benno Fürmann) contemplating desertion with his Danish singing partner and lover (Diane Krüger), and a young Scottish soldier (Steven Robertson) angrily mourning the death of his brother (Robin Laing) despite consolation from his priest (Gary Lewis), who is also conflicted about being involved in a war effort.

This inspiring true story of the men who took time out to be decent to each other just by sitting through a church mass together, sharing a drink or engaging in a soccer game also includes a bittersweet element as they all receive swift punishment from their superiors for consorting with opposing forces. Still, whether you express it in the title French phrase, the German “Frohe Weihnachten” or the more familiar “Merry Christmas,” it’s a sentiment that transcends any one language.

Wouldn’t you say?

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