MOVIE REVIEW- Holiday viewing: The good, the bad, the classic

Special to The Hook

Some see Christmas as a holiday, others as an industry. The latter group spend their summers recording Christmas albums, doing post-production on Christmas movies, or getting their Santa suits laundered to work "Christmas in July" promotions.

Retailers spend summers calculating how early they can start the "Christmas season." Now that they've broken the Halloween barrier, can Labor Day be far behind?

A few diehard traditionalists still wait until after Thanksgiving to put up decorations and sit the family down for a ritualistic viewing of a holiday classic they once enjoyed.

The newest film that can be considered a Christmas classic– and thus impervious to criticism; you either like it or you don't– is A Christmas Story (1984), which revisits old wives' tales about putting your eye out with a BB gun and getting it stuck to an icy pole. Home Alone is nearing classic status.

The others are mostly in black and white: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (the 1951 version with Alistair Sim), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Holiday Inn and its color remake, White Christmas.

In recent years, armed with special effects (you'll believe a reindeer can fly!) and spurred by greed, Hollywood has been putting out more and more intended perennials each year, most of them bloated overproductions that overwhelm with everything but wit and originality.

It's easy to fill a trash heap with Christmas movies, mostly recent, including this year's Fred Claus. Other musts to avoid (certainly not a comprehensive list) are:

Christmas with the Kranks - Based on John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, in 2004 it achieved the impossible task of making Surviving Christmas and Noel look good.

Deck the Halls - Rhymes with "dreck." Danny DeVito challenges Matthew Broderick for the title of "the Christmas Guy" in their small town by trying to make his decorations "visible from space."

Miracle on 34th Street - The 1994 remake proved more is less.

Mixed Nuts - Nora Ephron followed Sleepless in Seattle with this unpleasant pap about Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, and Madeline Kahn staffing a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas Eve. Who's George Bailey gonna call?

The Polar Express - Robert Zemeckis warmed up for Beowulf with this goopy spectacular in which "performance capture" enabled Tom Hanks to play most of the roles.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians - This low-budget tripe from 1964 lives on as a cult item because it features a 10-year-old Pia Zadora. Who, you ask? Perhaps it won't live on much longer.

The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause - The Santa Clause wasn't great, but it was successful enough to spawn two sequels. I reviewed "3" as "a steaming pile of recycled reindeer crap."

Santa Claus: The Movie - David Huddleston plays it straight in what's supposed to be the real legend of the holiday gift-giver.

Some of the better holiday movies (Pieces of April, Home for the Holidays) are about Thanksgiving; one of the most mediocre (Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights) is perhaps the sole Hanukah attraction.

Does anyone make good Christmas movies anymore? Finding five to recommend was harder than filling the above list with lumps of cinematic coal. Note that they're not all suitable for family viewing or guaranteed to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but real entertainment in the holiday genre is a rare gift.

Bad Santa - It's replaced Sling Blade as Billy Bob Thornton's signature role; he's been playing pale imitations of this wonderfully vile, foulmouthed thief character ever since.

Elf - Formulaic fun with Will Ferrell as an oversized, adopted elf who leaves Santa's workshop to search for his birth father (James Caan) in New York.

The Ice Harvest - A darkly comic guy movie that happens to take place on Christmas Eve, directed by Harold Ramis (who also made the best Groundhog Day movie) and starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

Joyeux Noël - A hopeful French film fictionalizes the unofficial temporary truces that took place on European battlefields in 1914, the first Christmas of WWI.

The Ref - I preferred Trapped in Paradise in 1994, but there's a devoted cult for this dark comedy that has Denis Leary kidnapping quarreling couple Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, then serving as their mediator on Christmas Eve.