When it comes to movies or television shows about the Christmas season, sappiness and treacle are usually the order of the day.
Still, there are a few holiday offerings – well-loved or barely recognized, adoring or ambivalent – that are worth renting or adding to one’s Netflix queue as December nears.
The Oracle suggests five movies and television specials to watch at home during the winter holidays.
If you want a seasonal classic:
“It’s a Wonderful Life”
Often considered the ultimate Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become such a common pop culture reference that many haven’t cared to watch the actual movie.
In the film, troubled businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) believes he has misplaced $8,000, which was actually stolen on Christmas Eve by the town’s malevolent banker Mr. Potter.
As Mr. Potter puts out an arrest warrant on Bailey for bank fraud, George contemplates suicide before his guardian angel Clarence shows him what life would be like without him.
The film is actually more emotionally complex than its feel-good, Frank Capra reputation might suggest. It earns its status of a winter season staple because of its warm finale and famous lines like “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”
Or watch: “Remember the Night”
If you want a different genre of Christmas movie:
“Gremlins” centers on an unusual Christmas gift when teenager Billy (Zach Gilligan) receives a benevolent, furry creature called a Mogwai that eventually multiplies and spawns evil reptilian Gremlins.
The monsters eventually tear loose in a tale that recalls other funny, scary and inventive ’80s blockbusters produced by Steven Spielberg – imagine “Poltergeist” set in the yuletide season.
The film certainly channels the holidays with snow-covered suburbs and caroling standards like Johnny Mathis’ “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Those less concerned with the holiday season can still enjoy the film’s sardonic humor and Billy’s love interest Kate’s pitch-black monologue about her father’s unfortunate fate one past Christmas.
Or watch: “Black Christmas”
If you want an antidote to the holiday spirit:
“The Ice Harvest”
Of course, not every student revels in the winter holidays’ annual arrival, and 2005’s under-the-radar noir “The Ice Harvest” shares that sensibility.
The story concerns Wichita lawyer Charlie (John Cusack) and partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) as they plot their escape after stealing $2 million from a local mobster on Christmas Eve.
“The Ice Harvest” evokes traditional wintertime themes through the evening’s ice storms and Christmas morning’s concluding moments. Yet, the characters all act far more naughty than nice, with Vic even saying, “Only morons are nice on Christmas.”
The usually genial comedy director Harold Ramis helms this wry comedy, whose sour surroundings could prove to be a worthy alternative to the sentimentality of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Or watch: “Bad Santa”
If you want a piece of classic holiday animation:
“A Charlie Brown Christmas”
Nearly 45 years after its initial release, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” still airs to millions of viewers and has become a holiday tradition for some families.
This CBS television special follows Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip characters as Charlie Brown tends to a tiny Christmas tree and tries to uncover the true meaning of the increasingly commercialized holiday.
Though television executives initially protested the cartoon and its Vince Guaraldi Trio jazz soundtrack, it is now the longest running animated television special and tracks like “Christmas Time is Here” are now holiday standards.
Even viewers who don’t agree with Schulz’s ultimately religious message can appreciate the animation’s elegant simplicity and the story’s endearing goodwill.
Or watch: “The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Marge Be Not Proud”
If you want a new holiday television special:
“A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All”
Mock newsman Stephen Colbert parodies the past holiday specials of celebrities like Bing Crosby in “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All.”
In the hour-long, 2008 special, a turtleneck sweater-clad Colbert welcomes a stream of musical guest stars into his log cabin set.
Many of the eight original songs – whether it’s John Legend’s raunchy ode “Nutmeg” or Toby Keith’s hilariously jingoistic “Have I Got A Present for You” – match the sarcastic humor of Colbert’s Comedy Central television show, “The Colbert Report.”
However, the closing duet between Colbert and Elvis Costello called “There are Much Worse Things to Believe In” mounts a shockingly earnest defense for cherishing Christmas traditions.
Or watch: “The Office Christmas Special”