EVERY YEAR around this time, news outlets produce their list of holiday films with plucky synopses on why they are wholesome and fun for family watching. No to be a Scrooge, but the movies listed are, well, predictable.
Still, these lists have become time-honored tradition, and while my wife and kids like such popular favorites as "Miracle on 34th Street" (the new version with Sir Richard Attenborough) or "It's a Wonderful Life," I prefer a different kind of holiday film.
The Christmas themes in my selections celebrate the season a bit more subtly - as just background noise, or offering an altogether different perspective on the yuletide. And so with that sense of giving that inspires us one and all, here they are.
Cast: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton.
Hands down the best film on how cold-blooded killers spend the season of joy.
Who doesn't feel nostalgia for those New York Christmas times of old when 1940s gangster Luca Brasi straps on his bulletproof vest and makes sure his gun is loaded while Bing Crosby croons "Have yourself a merry little Christmas"?
What parents like: The story of a family struggling to keep its fortune and power with whatever illicit means it has at its disposal, and the close relationships depicted by each of the characters.
OK, so Connie gets the hell beat out of her by her husband, Carlos, and Sonny, in turn, beats the hell out of his brother-in-law, and, in turn, Carlos sets him up for an assassination at a toll booth that leaves his body bullet-riddled, and one of the family's closest friends tries to knock off the patriarch, and, in turn, he gets bumped off. But, hey, they're still family.
What kids like: Guns and fast cars.
The Thin Man
Rated: No rating
Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Edward Brophy, Cesar Romero.
It's the Great Depression. Nick and Nora Charles, the wealthy private-dick duo, and their cute little wire-haired terrier, Asta, spend Christmas at the Normandie Hotel in New York.
On Christmas Eve, the Charleses get involved in a murder mystery in which the suspects include a family as dysfunctional as you get - the mother likes to wear tight leather-like gowns, her son entertains incestuous feelings for her while her new husband is practicing bigamy.
Then there's the murderer who cheerily wishes everyone a Merry Christmas. The wisecracking Nick and Nora are pretty wholesome, too. They're always drinking, and Nick seems to do his best work drunk. Still, laughs and chuckles abound as Nick uses the new pellet gun Nora gave him to pop balloons hanging from the tree.
What parents like: The witty, lively exchanges between Nick and Nora are priceless and have clearly contributed to the lexicon of American coupling. If you've never seen it, the plot will keep you guessing and the dinner-table climax is just to die for.
What kids like: Nothing. Oh, the dog, maybe, but they just don't appreciate good alcoholic humor like they did when I was growing up.
Cast: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitch Ryan.
The man who a few years ago made beatings and bloody torture a must-see Easter classic in "The Passion" reminds us how the shopping season can be murder, mayhem and suicidal in this holiday favorite about Christmas in the excess-ridden 1980s.
The opening scene of Gibson's suicidal cop, Martin Riggs, standing in a Christmas tree lot with a bad guy holding a gun to his head while he demands that the gunman kill him really captures the spirit of sacrifice in downtown L.A.
In this Christmas movie, the white stuff everyone is dreaming about isn't what kids like to ball up and throw, it's what adults like to put up their nose.
What parents like: The suicidal cop. He's a single guy who lost his wife in an accident, which is why he's suicidal, and gets adopted by his partner's family, which is pretty selfless. Most people wouldn't want a suicidal cop who carries a big gun with him all the time hanging around.
Still, there are plenty of heart-warming moments as everyone grows closer.
What kids like: Guns, fast cars, fast helicopters, fiery explosions. (Parental warning: The electric torture scene may be a little much for the wee ones, but if they've already seen "The Passion," as was every Christian child's duty in some religious communities, don't worry, you'll be paying for years of therapy, regardless.
Meet John Doe
Rated: No rating
Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, James Gleason.
Speaking of suicide, before he brought us "It's a Wonderful Life," Frank Capra offered us this treat about fascism, greed, ambition and power.
Stanwyck plays a newspaper columnist who makes up a letter from a "John Doe."
He threatens to jump off the top of city hall on Christmas Eve to protest the world's inequities. She starts a nationwide movement of John Doeism - people being friendly to one another - and Cooper willingly plays her dupe until he realizes the wealthy newspaper publisher with his paramilitary motorcycle troops is actually using the movement as a front for his power-hungry ambition to become president of the United States.
Can this plot put you in the holiday spirit any more? You bet! Cooper, exposed for the fraud he is, actually attempts to commit suicide to prove that, yes, he was a fraud, but now he's a believer, and he's going to jump off city hall to show everyone.
But in the snowy final scene, some still-true believers in the doe-eyed Doeism movement talk him off the ledge to show how democracy triumphs or Doeism triumphs or Barbara Stanwyck triumphs.
What parents like: The story of good against evil, big against small, fat against skinny - there's a little bit of fraud, greed and power-hungry ambition in all of us, and, once a year, we can count on a guy attempting suicide in a holiday movie to remind us about it.
What kids like: Nothing. They didn't like "The Thin Man," you think they're going to like this chestnut? It's all black and white to them.
Rated: No rating
Cast: William Holden, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves, Robert Strauss, Neville Brand.
Nothing brings home the meaning of Christmas more than war - and when you have a film about a World War II German POW camp filled with treachery, selfishness and death, what could better put you in the mood for a white Christmas?
The setting is a cold, muddy camp somewhere in Germany. Inside the barracks, the soldiers are decorating a sparse, makeshift tree with what little they have after beating the hell out of Billy Holden, who they think is the traitor who got two guys killed while attempting to escape.
Holden plays an out-for-himself POW who has it all in terms of cigarettes, food and wine, and keeps taking from his barrack mates who struggle to survive each day and have little to give. He's a self-centred bastard, but he's an American self-centered bastard, and, by the end of the movie, we're saluting him while humming "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again." Hurrah! Hurrah!
What parents like: Loads of entertaining fun trying to guess who the traitor is. When the prisoners do find out and kill him, you can't help wondering who's going to get the traitor's secret Santa present at the barracks Christmas party.
What kids like: Nothing. It's a war picture, but there's not enough war - explosions, battles, run-amok tanks - to keep the kids enthralled. *
Peter Durantine is a writer in Hummelstown, Pa.