Want some Christmas video around the house? Here are some last-minute suggestions

By Rich Heldenfels Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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A scene from "It's a Wonderful Life" starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.

With Christmas around the corner, this is your last chance to grab some holiday DVDs and Blu-rays to help pass the time, bring the laughs and draw out the tears.

Some choices should be obvious, starting with my big three of holiday movies: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Story (1983) and Love Actually (2003), all of which are available on DVD and Blu-ray. Life, with James Stewart, remains my all-time Christmas movie favorite — and one of the best movies of all time — although it has been strongly challenged in recent years by A Christmas Story, which like Life was discovered by television viewers after a so-so reception during its original box-office run. Both are worth seeing any time of year.

And in the last decade, Love Actually has climbed the popularity charts with its interlocking and charming stories, and an approach to Christmas that is decidedly R-rated. (Bargain hunters, note I am listing prices only for the newest releases; you may find special deals on the older ones.) And, if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln or The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman, you can see them both here as part of a marvelous cast that also includes Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney and the great, great Bill Nighy.

If you missed the telecasts, you can find A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD and Blu-ray, as well the TV version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

There are also various packages of Rankin/Bass holiday specials, including a couple of boxes called The Original Christmas Classics. One, on DVD and Blu-ray, has Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and Frosty Returns, while a DVD-only set includes those four productions as well as Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Cricket on the Hearth, Little Drummer Boy and a CD of holiday music.

This holiday season has also offered some new items for children, including Dreamworks Holiday Classics ($26.98 DVD, $35.98 Blu-ray/DVD combo), which makes a stocking-sized set of Merry Madagascar, Shrek the Halls, and Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury. There’s also Kung Fu Panda Holiday (Dreamworks, $15.98 DVD, $19.98 Blu-ray), the 25-minute production plus extras.

And 1992’s delightful The Muppet Christmas Carol, long available on DVD, came to Blu-ray this year in a 20th-anniversary set (Disney, $26.50) with extras and a digital copy.

Older but still enjoyable are two Robbie the Reindeer tales, Hooves of Fire and Legend of the Lost Tribe, available together on a DVD that Amazon.com was selling for $5 recently. The animated stories are funny both for adults (who will want to keep stopping the DVD to look at all the little visual jokes) and children. Look for a DVD that includes both the original voices from the British presentations and the American actors dubbed in for U.S. telecasts.

At the same time, though, adults may want some viewing besides Love Actually for after the little ones are in bed. One suggestion: Watch Love Actually again!

Or check out the 2003 comedy Bad Santa, with Billy Bob Thornton in excellent form as a miserable sort, and a tale that was R-rated in theaters and later released on video in an unrated version. DVD and Blu-ray options also include a director’s cut.

But as bad as Thornton’s Santa can be, he has nothing on the one in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a Finnish film that came to DVD and Blu-ray last year. It involves a boy, his father and the discovery of a long-buried Santa Claus who is far more committed to punishing the naughty than rewarding the nice. It’s a very smart little horror story, suspenseful more than gory — although there is blood, and a lot of harm to animals.

Adults more than children may be taken with The Dean Martin Christmas Show (Time Life, $12.99), the recently released DVD of a 1968 special with Martin, Bob Newhart, Dom DeLuise, Dennis Weaver, Bob Hope and the Golddiggers.

Now, that guest list alone has some of you recalling the heyday of the TV variety show — the garish sets, outlandish production numbers and the often terrible attempts at humor. This special has all those things, not to mention a very long segment of various celebrities telling individual children’s charities that Santa will bringing them something special. But even more than that, it has Martin himself, a cigarette almost always in hand, serenely indifferent to what passed for professionalism at the time. He jokes about cue cards. He studies his manicure mid-song. You can’t stop watching — and for years, people did watch.

With the fifth Die Hard movie coming in 2013, revisit the Christmas-set original, available in various DVD and Blu-ray packaging by itself or with the other three films to date. The original is, of course, ridiculous in its plotting and excessive in its action — and still I watch it often, and smile.

Consider Peege, director Randal Kleiser’s 28-minute student film about a family visiting an old, failing grandmother in a nursing home, The cast includes Bruce Davison, William Schallert and Jeanette Nolan, and the emotions so strong that it was added to the National Film Registry in 2007.

Have you not yet seen Bill Murray’s Scrooged (on DVD and Blu-ray)? Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (ditto)? How about Bing Crosby’s 1971 Christmas special, footage from which was used by Michael Buble for a Crosby “duet”? That’s in the DVD of Bing Crosby: The Television Specials: Volume Two: The Christmas Specials, along with Crosby’s last holiday show, in 1977.

Yes, the one with David Bowie. Peace on earth to you, too.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him — after New Year’s Day — at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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