High-Def Digest’s Holiday Gift Guide 2009: The Essential Holiday Blu-rays

Posted Fri Dec 4, 2009 at 11:40 AM PST by

David Krauss is busy dreaming of a Blu Christmas, but he's taken some time to compile a list of the best holiday Blu-rays currently available.

By David Krauss

For some of us, they're a treasured tradition, like hot mulled cider or Christmas cookies, and we look forward to cuddling up with them each year. For others, who can't stomach the thick layer of sugar they often add to an already saccharine season, they're avoided like the plague. Yet however you view them, holiday movies are a mainstay of American culture, and have been since the dawn of talkies. And for better or worse, the genre's popularity shows no signs of waning.

Each November, a healthy crop of Christmas films march to the multiplex with high hopes of immortality (or at least box office success), but only a select few ever attain classic status. Most are miserable failures and succeed only in giving the holidays a bad name. (Remember that Matthew Broderick/Danny DeVito debacle, 'Deck the Halls'? I wish I didn't.) But those that nail the season's essence live forever, and evoke tender, familiar emotions we never tire of experiencing. Unfortunately, not all of our holiday favorites have made their way onto Blu-ray – it's a shame we can't yet see buh-buh-buh-Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" in high definition (next year, perhaps, Paramount?) – but there's enough diverse Blu-ray fare currently available to keep our players humming in the weeks leading up to Santa's arrival.

With so many holiday movies and so little time to watch them during this frenetic season, what follows is a list of essentials, a yuletide hall of fame that hopefully will have some appeal for every taste. So if you like your Christmas films classic and traditional or saucy and irreverent, here's the best of what Hollywood has to offer on Blu-ray, and here's hoping you can carve out a few hours to view one or two this year…

All-Time Classics: Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without 'It's a Wonderful Life,' and what a gift this Blu-ray edition is for classic movie fans. With an impeccable transfer that delights the eyes – before they well up with tears – and a marvelous story that no matter how many times we've seen it (and I've lost count myself) never fails to brighten our perspective, this beloved production deserves a fresh look this year. Ditto the definitive edition of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol.' Produced in England in 1951 and starring the best Ebenezer Scrooge ever, Alastair Sim, this faithful adaptation captures all the bitter angst, rueful melancholy, and unabashed joy of this holiday ghost story. Best of all, the spanking new transfer renders the previous DVD obsolete. Of course, no discussion of classic Christmas tales would be complete without a nod to the original 'Miracle on 34th Street.' It's impossible not to believe in Santa Claus after watching this charming, surprisingly 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.

Modern Classics: Christmas memories can both warm a nostalgic heart or chill us to the bone, and no movie better depicts both extremes than '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. 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. 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, 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 to be annoying.

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 two of my favorites were (and still are) 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' and 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.' This year, both perennial classics have been released on Blu-ray, and it's a treat to see them in such vibrant, crystal clear condition. For those who prefer more modern, innovative animated fare, be sure to check out Tim Burton's ghoulishly delightful 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' and Robert Zemeckis' magical The Polar Express, which is available in both flat and 3-D versions. It's never too early to get your kids addicted to high-def discs.

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 and, yes, even horror films. 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. So plop a few marshmallows in your hot chocolate, grab a comfy blanket, light that fire, and let the movies infuse you with seasonal spirit. Happy Holidays!!

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Tags: David Krauss, High-Def Retailing, Best of 2009, Holiday Guides 2009 (all tags)