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  • High-Def Digest's Guide to The Essential Holiday Blu-rays 2014

    Posted Tue Nov 18, 2014 at 11:00 AM PST by
    Rudolph Blu-ray

    Like so many years before, David Krauss is dreaming of a Blu Christmas. Here are your newest Blu-ray options for the season, along with a rundown of all the old favorites!

    As Charlie Brown and his friends love to sing, "Christmastime is here," and that means it's time for High-Def Digest's 6th annual holiday movie wrap-up, a go-to listing of what's new, what's essential, and what to avoid when it comes to yuletide viewing. Whatever your taste, be it romantic or irreverent, there's a disc that will infuse you with that warm, fuzzy holiday feeling. So mull that cider (or wine), cuddle up under your favorite Christmas blanket, and add some serious Blu to the reds and greens that color your season!

    New Classic Releases:  Among the plethora of new classic Blu-ray releases cluttering the holiday landscape this year, one title indisputably tops the list: 'Holiday Inn,' the ebullient Irving Berlin musical that introduced audiences to what would become an iconic seasonal anthem, 'White Christmas.' Bing Crosby, of course, is on hand to croon it, teaming with dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire in the clever story of a nightclub performer who opens an inn that's open only on holidays. Romantic entanglements, snappy dialogue, and high-spirited numbers abound, making this tuneful film a festive bit of fun that can be viewed on almost any holiday (but it's best at Christmas). Also debuting on Blu-ray at long last is the 1938 version of Charles Dickens' oft-filmed yuletide tale, 'A Christmas Carol,' starring Reginald Owen as the irascible Scrooge. Though it pales when compared to the 1951 British adaptation starring Alastair Sim (see below), this sincere, reverent take does the story proud, despite some key omissions (it runs a mere 69 minutes), and features a winning performance from Gene Lockhart, who just might be the quintessential Bob Cratchit. A bit less transformative, but just as beguiling, the 1945 romantic comedy 'Christmas in Connecticut' makes its Blu-ray bow and boasts an effervescent portrayal by Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart-like domestic diva and media darling whose publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) ropes her into hosting a heroic war vet (Dennis Morgan) at her Connecticut farm for the holidays. The trouble is Stanwyck's image is a complete fabrication (she can't even boil water!), so she's forced to concoct an elaborate ruse to maintain the masquerade and keep her job...but she may lose her sanity in the process! A nice mix of screwball antics and cozy tenderness make this an irresistible romp that's enlivened by a strong supporting cast and a hefty dose of holiday cheer. Stanwyck also stars in another holiday classic that's new to Blu-ray this year, 'Remember the Night.' Four years before they would steam up the screen in 'Double Indemnity,' Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray teamed up for the first time in this gentle romantic comedy written by the esteemed Preston Sturges. Stanwyck plays a jailed shoplifter who's given a holiday furlough by the assistant D.A. (MacMurray) who's prosecuting her, but she's thrown for a loop when he invites her to spend Christmas with him and his family, inciting plenty of complications. Complications also clutter Frank Capra's last film, 'Pocketful of Miracles,' starring Bette Davis, Glenn Ford, Hope Lange, and Peter Falk. A remake of his 1933 classic, 'Lady for a Day,' this madcap Damon Runyon farce chronicles the efforts of a band of Broadway gangsters to turn aged bag lady Apple Annie (Davis) into a society matron over the Christmas holidays, so she can impress the family of her daughter's fiancé, a Spanish prince! Though a bit tedious at times, this charming fairy tale nicely mixes laughter and tears, and is another fine example of what is often called "Capra-corn."

    New Family Releases: What would the holidays be without a yuletide-themed tale from Disney? This year, the House of Mouse once again comes through, at last releasing the beloved 'Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas' and its follow-up, 'Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas,' in a Blu-ray double pack. Both films feature Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, and a host of their friends in a collection of funny, inspiring, and memorable short animated adventures that will surely engender smiles, teach valuable lessons, and warm the cockles of everyone's heart. The Muppets are now part of the Disney family, too, and though their new Blu-ray holiday release isn't nearly as delightful as the marvelously inventive 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' (see below), the cut-rate, made-for-television 'It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie' (a more apt title would have been 'The Muppet It's a Wonderful Life') has its share of hilarious moments, as Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the Muppet gang try to mount a Christmas spectacular while battling their mean-spirited landlord (Joan Cusack) who's determined to shut down their theater. All the nastiness sends Kermit sprialing into despair, which prompts an intervention by guardian angel Daniel (David Arquette), who helps the forlorn frog realize just what a revered reptile he is. Also on the Blu-ray docket this year, 'Jingle All the Way 2,' starring none other than Larry the Cable Guy, recycles the basic plot element of the original 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy about a harried dad fighting tooth and nail to nab the season's elusive, must-have Christmas toy. Take away the Austrian accent and add some redneck humor, and you've pretty much pegged this pointless sequel.

    All-Time Classics: British actor Alastair Sim enhanced many fine pictures over the years, but the role for which he will be forever remembered is Ebenezer Scrooge, and the classic 1951 edition of 'A Christmas Carol' remains arguably the most faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens' immortal tale. Sim's portrayal - by turns sullen, dour, defiant, wounded, and joyously giddy – lends Scrooge more dimension than the role often receives, and the film's marvelous Victorian atmosphere and authentic performances make it a perennial favorite. (Other versions of 'A Christmas Carol' available on Blu-ray include Disney's 2009 blockbuster 3D interpretation starring chameleon Jim Carrey [available in both 3D and 2D versions] and an acclaimed 1984 television adaptation featuring the esteemed George C. Scott as the cantankerous Scrooge.) Another undeniable treasure worthy of all the praise and affection heaped upon it is - of course - Frank Capra's iconic 'It's A Wonderful Life.' Endlessly copied but never equaled, the story of hard-working George Bailey (James Stewart) and how a guardian angel saves him from suicide and makes him appreciate his truly wonderful life remains one of the most inspirational and emotionally affecting yuletide tales ever produced in Hollywood. And no matter how many times we've seen it - and believe me, we've seen it many, many times - it never gets old. Not far behind those two giants is the 1954 favorite, 'White Christmas,' a spritely Irving Berlin musical starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney. With high-spirited numbers galore, along with two renditions of the iconic title song, this breezy tale of romance and friendship ranks right up there with Hollywood's best holiday fare. And this year, Paramount has released a 60th anniversary edition that features several new extras, along with a 12-track audio CD packed with holiday music by Crosby, Kaye, and Clooney. Another great musical is 'Scrooge,' a buoyantly tuneful 1970 adaptation of Dickens' yuletide yarn. Starring the versatile and always impressive Albert Finney (who was just 34 years old when he tackled the miserly curmudgeon), this captivating film remains surprisingly faithful to the original novel, contains a host of memorable songs by Leslie Bricusse, and features a gallery of top British actors (Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, and Kenneth More among them) in key roles. The high quality video and audio transfers make this "spirited" film come alive even more, filling us with plenty of Christmas cheer. Though only about a third of Vincente Minnelli's classic Americana musical, 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' takes place at Christmas, the cheer quotient of this classic musical is pretty high, too, making this year-in-the-life chronicle of a typical American family circa 1904 one of the most beloved and endearing holiday movies of all time. (It covers Halloween, too!) First and foremost, it contains one of Judy Garland's finest performances, as well as a number of instantly recognizable tunes, including 'The Trolley Song,' 'The Boy Next Door,' and of course, 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,' which was written expressly for this film and performed with exceptional beauty and grace by Garland. Another perennial favorite is the original 'Miracle on 34th Street,' which features a wondrous, Oscar-winning performance from Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle and top-notch work from nine-year-old Natalie Wood as arguably the most precocious child in cinema history. It's impossible not to believe in Santa Claus after watching this charming yet incisive comedy that gently reinforces the season's true meaning. Though the video quality isn't a huge upgrade from DVD, it's good enough to stuff this little beauty in your holiday stocking. (The 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson, is also available on Blu-ray, but who would ever want to see that?) A bit lesser known but equally engaging, 'The Bells of St. Mary's,' a follow-up to 'Going My Way,' finds Bing Crosby reprising his Oscar-winning role as Father O'Malley, the even-tempered priest who this time locks horns with the no-nonsense Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) over the future of a parochial school. Nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, this inspirational yarn has been a holiday favorite for decades.

    Modern Classics: If you like your Dickens a bit on the irreverent side, yet still earnest and heartwarming, then you and the kids will love 'The Muppet Christmas Carol.' Kermit and the gang pay homage to the classic tale in a surprisingly faithful adaptation that mixes humor and emotion with an array of top-notch Paul Williams songs and a generous helping of Muppet lunacy. Michael Caine makes a marvelous Scrooge, and Brian Henson's slick direction turns this family musical into a very delightful package. Also from Disney, 'The Santa Clause' trilogy, featuring the original 'The Santa Clause,' its saccharine sequel, 'The Santa Clause 2,' and the insufferable 'The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,' can be purchased in one package or in separate volumes. The clever first film is by far the best, filled with whimsy and wonder, but the sequel scores some points, too, as it charts the newly crowned Santa's search for a suitable mate. The third film adds Martin Short to the mix as a mischievous Jack Frost, but his icy presence freezes the franchise. If you like your annual helping of 'A Christmas Carol' a little more on the comedic side, you'll be happy with Richard Donner's 'Scrooged,' featuring Bill Murray as the Ebenezer-esque Frank Cross. With an updated take on the classic yarn that strikes a more relatable chord, and fine supporting work from such stalwarts as John Forsythe, Robert Mitchum, Karen Allen, and Alfre Woodard, this light-hearted comedy merges laughs with wonderful warmth and a bit of edgy bite, and will ultimately charm even the crustiest Christmas killjoy. Upgraded video and audio make this one a keeper. Sometimes age alone transforms a run-of-the-mill movie into a classic, and that seems to be the unfortunate fate that's befallen 1985's clunky, elephantine Kris Kringle biopic, 'Santa Claus: The Movie.' I remember loathing this bloated behemoth when it was first released, and haven't mustered the courage to see it since. Fonder (or at least more realistic) Christmas memories are explored in the nostalgic 'A Christmas Story,' the darkly comic 1983 adaptation of humorist Jean Shepherd's fictional memoir. Who among us can't identify with nine-year-old Ralphie and his dogged pursuit  of his dream toy? With both wide-eyed wonder and a mischievous twinkle, this fan favorite deliciously skewers the season. (Yet however much you revere 'A Christmas Story,' make sure you steer clear of its misguided sequel, 'A Christmas Story 2,' which takes place five years down the road and finds Ralphie eyeing a new car instead of an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.) And if you can't identify with Ralphie, then surely you've fantasized at least fleetingly about making your parents and/or siblings disappear, like Kevin McCallister does in 'Home Alone.' C'mon, admit it. Cute-as-a-button Macaulay Culkin battles bungling house burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern after his family leaves on a Parisian vacation without him, learning a lot about independence and the meaning of Christmas in the process. Deftly juggling uproarious slapstick with honest sentiment, this John Hughes production makes us laugh and cry and appreciate the simple pleasures that make this holiday special. 'Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,' the change-the-location-but-keep-the-story-the-same sequel is also available on Blu-ray, and both films can be purchased in a handy, low-priced two-pack. And speaking of Christmas vacations – or should I say "stay-cations" - no yuletide celebration is as wacky or wacked out as the one Chevy Chase and family experience in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.' Running a close second, though, would have to be Buddy the Elf's Big Apple odyssey in Jon Favreau's surprisingly sweet, festive, and hilarious Christmas comedy, 'Elf.' As the orphan child raised at the North Pole and now on a quest to find his real family, Will Ferrell captures the essence of wide-eyed innocence, while James Caan makes a fine foil as his crusty, Scrooge-like dad.

    Romantic Comedies: Christmas is certainly one of the most romantic times of the year, and two films blanket us with that warm, fuzzy feeling only a good love story can provide. 'Love, Actually' takes a mosaic approach as it chronicles the exhilaration and heartache of several couples as they navigate love's treacherous minefield. The all-star cast includes Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, and Keira Knightley, and though I'll never forgive Alan for what he does to Emma (and will never be able to listen to Joni Mitchell again without thinking about it), it's impossible not to embrace this well-crafted film. I also really like 'The Holiday' (sssshhh! Don't tell anyone!), Nancy Meyers' chick flick supreme about two lonely women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who trade houses at Christmas and find unexpected love with Jude Law and Jack Black. (I won't spoil who hooks up with whom.) It's a bit predictable and trite, but also strangely irresistible, especially if you've got the tree lit and a roaring fire in the fireplace. It's also one of the few movies in which I don't find Diaz unbearable. 'The Bishop's Wife,' starring Cary Grant as a guardian angel intent on helping a harried minister (David Niven) and his concerned spouse (Loretta Young) deal with professional pressures and heal their marriage, is a charming, whimsical tale distinguished by its fine script and the chemistry of its cast. Last year, a video authoring error forced Warner Home Video to remove the title from circulation, but the delightful comedy-drama is back on the market this season, which is good news indeed.

    Romance lovers who like their Christmas movies filled with inspiring messages might want to check out 'The Christmas Candle,' which marks the film debut of British singer Susan Boyle in this tale of miracles, enduring traditions, and modernization in an English country village in 1890, as well as 'The Christmas Shoes' and its sequel, 'The Christmas Blessing,' two TV movies that emphasize the power of love, faith, and family in the face of disillusionment and despair. Rob Lowe and Kimberly Williams-Paisley star in the first film about a young boy determined to make his mother's final Christmas special, and Neil Patrick Harris plays the grown-up version of that boy in the sequel, grappling with issues from his past and strained familial relationships. 'The Most Wonderful Time of the Year' also falls into this category, with a more whimsical spin, as a harried single mother (Brooke Burns) and cynical son find the true meaning of the season, thanks to jovial Uncle Ralph (Henry Winkler) and the hunky stranger (Warren Christie) he brings home for the holidays. Also for Winkler fans (and xenophobes), there's 'An American Christmas Carol,' which tells the same tale as the Dickens classic without the hoity-toity accents. I'm sure Henry Winkler makes a good Scrooge (renamed Benedict Slade here) in this 1979 TV movie, and shifting the setting to Depression-era New Hampshire adds an interesting twist, but if you crave a retelling of the inspired and inspiring holiday story, there are plenty of better options.

    Family squabbling is as much a part of Christmas as candy canes and tinsel, and Ed Burns' latest directorial effort, 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,' chronicles one clan's attempt to find common ground. This intimate family drama will surely wring a few tears as it reminds us what matters most every day of the year. On the other hand, if you like your family Christmas movies on the crazier side, check out the 2004 Ben Affleck vehicle, 'Surviving Christmas,' in which the affable Affleck plays a lonely millionaire who hires a family to spend the holidays with him. James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, and Christina Applegate also star in this ultimately uplifting comedy that's not as bad as its reputation.

    Animated Fare: When I was a kid, one of the few things that could help speed the interminable wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the steady stream of children's holiday specials that flooded the network airwaves, and now almost all my favorites are now available on Blu-ray! Leading the charge are such perennially delightful programs as 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' (let Linus tell your family "what Christmas is all about") and 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' as well as a must-have box set called 'The Original Christmas Classics.' And classics they are! 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (narrated by Burl Ives), 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' (narrated by Fred Astaire), and 'Frosty the Snowman' and 'Frosty Returns' are all included. (This year, 'Rudolph' is also available on its own in a special 50th anniversary edition that features several new supplements.) Also high on the animated list is another top-notch entry, 'The Year Without a Santa Claus,' boasting the talents of Mickey Rooney and Shirley Booth as the beleaguered Mr. and Mrs. Claus, as well as one of the lesser titles in the Rankin/Bass catalogue, 1974's ''Twas the Night Before Christmas,' which was inspired by Clement Moore's immortal poem and deals with the timeworn premise of doubting Santa's existence. Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, and George Gobel are among the stars who lend their voices to this charming tale. For Disney fans, 'Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas,' the direct-to-video companion to the acclaimed original, takes place while Belle is still a prisoner in the Beast's castle, and finds the lovely heroine on a mission to celebrate Christmas with festive cheer, much to the chagrin of her hairy and humbug captor. Though a far cry from its parent film, both artistically and thematically, 'The Enchanted Christmas' may not be 100% enchanting, but it provides enough tuneful warmth to satisfy audiences of all ages. Then again, what would Disney be without Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh? 'Mickey's Christmas Carol: 30th Anniversary Special Edition,' a truncated, yet lively and heartwarming animated telling of the Dickens classic, debuted on Blu-ray last year, as did 'Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year,' in which the Hundred Acre Wood gang make some New Year's resolutions to appease a Scrooge-like Rabbit. There's even a cartoon adaptation of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' starring the myopic Mr. Magoo – 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.' For those who prefer more innovative animated fare, check out Tim Burton's ghoulishly delightful 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (in either 2D or 3D) and Robert Zemeckis' magical 'The Polar Express,' which is available in both 2D and 3D versions. The charming 'Arthur Christmas – 3D,' which puts a fresh spin on the age-old Santa story and features the voice talents of such esteemed actors as James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, and Bill Nighy, is still on the shelf this year, along with 'Kung Fu Panda Holiday,' 'Christmas with the Chipmunks,' 'Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection,' including both the original 'Prep & Landing' and the 'Naughty vs. Nice' sequel, and 'Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury.'

    Quirky Christmas: Viewers with more offbeat taste may find these curios interesting… 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,' the 1964 cult classic about the abduction of Santa to the Red Planet, arrives at last on Blu-ray in a newly restored edition from Kino, while 'Santa Claus' is a 1959 Spanish language film from Mexico that checks in at #54 on IMDb's list of Bottom 100 Films (as rated by site users) and charts St. Nick's battle with the devil Pitch, who's determined to – you guessed it – ruin Christmas. Tyler Perry's indefatigable character Madea is also on a mission to save the holiday when family strife and secrets threaten to sabotage it in 'A Madea Christmas: The Play,' while a homosexual college student (Keith Jordan) crawls back into the closet to survive the holidays with his conservative parents (Derek Long and Kelly Keaton) until his boyfriend (Adamo Ruggiero) unexpectedly shows up in the warm-hearted comedy 'Make the Yuletide Gay.'

    Turkeys: We all love turkey around the holidays, except when it comes to movies, and there are a couple of rancid offerings that will only serve to sour us on the season. Despite a strong cast that includes Oscar-winners Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight, make sure you keep away from 'Four Christmases,' a tiresome slapstick comedy about a selfish couple (Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) who visit a quartet of quirky, annoying, even frightening relatives when their balmy Christmas plans get canceled. Equally wretched is 'Deck the Halls,' a tiresome, completely unfunny chronicle of neighbors (Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito) trying to outdo and ultimately sabotage the other's massive holiday light displays. Thankfully, 'Christmas with the Kranks' hasn't yet found a Blu-ray release, and if studio executives are smart, it never will.

    Dozens of other holiday Blu-rays are available to brighten (or darken) this Christmas, from traditional Yule log presentations and concerts to irreverent black comedies ('Bad Santa'), action flicks (I always enjoy giving the original 'Die Hard' a spin over the holidays) and, yes, even horror films. This year, what many call the genre's best entry, Lewis Jackson's 'Christmas Evil,' about a disillusioned toy-maker who gives those on the naughty list exactly what they deserve, comes to Blu-ray, complementing such stalwart tites as 'Silent Night,' a remake of the 1984 slasher flick 'Silent Night, Deadly Night,' which chronicles the deadly rampage of a psycho axe murderer disguised as Santa; 'Silent Night, Zombie Night,' which focuses on the efforts of an L.A.P.D. officer to stem the raging tide of the walking dead in the wake of a virus that ravages Los Angeles a week before Christmas; and, of course, the always entertaining 'Gremlins,' a cute-on-the-surface tale about cuddly, furry creatures who eventually go amok. Speaking of 'Gremlins,' just in time for the holidays, a new 30th anniversary edition of Joe Dante's classic will be released, featuring a host of new supplements.

    But for those who desire a well-balanced, family-friendly selection that plays well from year to year, you can't go wrong with any of the above choices (well, maybe with the exception of 'Santa Claus: The Movie,' 'Four Christmases,' and 'Deck the Halls'). So plop a few marshmallows in your hot chocolate, grab a comfy blanket, light that fire, and let these movies infuse you with seasonal spirit. Happy Holidays!! Oh, and if youre still doing your holiday shopping, please check out High-Def Digest's Holiday Gift Guide 2014!

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