Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Christmas DVDs explore evolving assessments of family

John DeFore

It must say something about the modern family, strained by the ease with which one generation can flee the previous one's hometown, that so many Christmas films center on family dysfunction.

The classics of yesteryear, like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol" (just out on Blu-ray from Paramount and VCI, respectively, the latter in a 1951 version starring Alastair Sim) drew their drama from a character's struggles with fate or his own dark soul.

But today's Yuletide cinema (like the new "Four Christmases," much too unpleasant to sell us on its "happy" ending) loves to start from the premise that the holiday, and especially the family reunions it occasions, is an annual affliction — until the story's end, of course, when everyone remembers why they love it.

At the extreme, newly reissued movies like "Silent Night Deadly Night" (Lionsgate) and "Gremlins" (Warner Bros.) transform Christmas into a literal horror show, but even a candy-coated lollipop of a film like "Elf" (New Line) centers on a protagonist whose biological father wants nothing to do with him.

The theme of familial dread, or at least awkwardness, plays out on the New Release shelf this month in films both good — "The Dead" (Lionsgate), John Huston's lovely final film — and bad — "Love Actually" (Universal), a stocking stuffed with romantic-comedy cliché by filmmaker Richard Curtis, who should get lumps of coal for wasting such a fine cast.

Warner Brothers has whipped up an "Ultimate Collector's Edition," similar to the tin-boxed, toy-stuffed one they made a while back for "A Christmas Story," for the Chevy Chase klutzfest "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (Warner). Maybe it will help you forget how far Chase has fallen; maybe not.

My favorite of the titles just hitting home video is probably the one least tied to the holiday. The French import "A Christmas Tale," coming Dec. 1 on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, takes the traditional family-reunion formula and sucks every drop of sap from it — to the point that the film's matriarch, played by Catherine Deneuve, is a woman who, even deep down, can't be said to care that much for her kids.

The film is long and a bit self-indulgent, but packs a novel's worth of mystery and mishap into its running time — kind of a less quirky, Gallic take on Wes Anderson's Tenenbaum saga. Most compelling is the Roman Polanski lookalike Mathieu Amalric, playing an utter jerk whose nastiness is so complicated, and even poignant, that he alone is reason to watch, especially as he grapples with the question of why one of his sisters has banished him from family gatherings.

Next to these guys, things don't look bad for the average nuclear family, even those that suffer a bit of friction when crammed into one room for Christmas dinner.