At this time of year, you likely see the same things as me. There are special holiday screenings of Home Alone (and, indeed, a remake now available on Disney+) and gifs of Will Ferrell dressed as an oversized elf screaming about Santa. There’s many an ad campaign utilising the recognisable (but incredibly creepy) note card scene in Love, Actually and many many many images of Jim Carrey as The Grinch exercising “self-care” appearing on all forms of social media. These movies are debated about, not in terms of their quality, but in terms of when it’s acceptable to begin watching them. How early is too early to put on The Polar Express and be creeped out by its animation? Is it too soon for Dickens’ classic tale as retold by Muppets?
This time of year lends itself to these types of movies and, as you can probably tell, I don’t like most of them. I could spend the next few hundred words explaining why but, well, what’s the point? There’s nothing less cool than taking time out of your day to talk about why you don’t like something (unless that something is harmful or dangerous). Instead, it seems a better use of my time (and yours) for me to talk about the films I do watch around this time of year, albeit not ritualistically. Instead, I watch these movies some years and, then, maybe I won’t the next. So this is what might be called “My Alternative Christmas (Film) List.”
If you’re partial to something loving at Christmas, something that feels nice and isn’t concerned with all the terrible things happening out there, I’d suggest Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film The Little Shop Around the Corner. It follows two department store workers during the run-up to Christmas who dislike each other by day but, without realising, correspond via love letters at night after the answering of a “lonely hearts” ad in the newspaper. The film, based on a Hungarian play, inspired the likes of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail and has all the makings of a classic romantic comedy: two bickering central lovers, played by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, who explore how thin the line between love and hate really is.
If this sounds too twee, then love with a more cynical edge is offered in Billy Wilder’s 1960 masterpiece The Apartment. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, is a down-on-his-luck office worker in New York City who lets his bosses use his apartment as a place to take their mistresses. One of them is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who operates the lift in Baxter’s building, a young woman who wants love but looks in all the wrong places. Her affair with her married boss leads her to some dark places and to the apartment over Christmas but, this time, with Baxter. Like When Harry Met Sally (another film you could maybe watch around this time of year because, well, why not?), it sets its finale on New Year’s Eve and offers a classic “running through the city to be with the one you love” scene.
There is, however, room for something darker at Christmas. It can’t all be cheerful, can it? The darkness could be found in John Houston’s 1987 film, The Dead. Houston’s last film stars his daughter, Anjelica Houston, in an adaption of James Joyce’s short story set during a Christmas party. The movie, like the story, concerns itself with those who aren’t present at this time of year, who haunt the edges of our lives and who we can’t forget. As the party progresses, the discussion moves to politics and the disputes taking hold of Ireland at the turn of the century, the nature of religion in Irish society. It captures, quite perfectly, how this time of year can, for some, feel quite melancholy.
Even darker, maybe, is Tim Burton’s 1992 film, Batman Returns. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman is everything you might ask for; standing in a skin-tight PVC catsuit, stitched together herself, in front of a neon sign that reads “Hell Here”. Her performance, perhaps one of the greatest ever given in a superhero movie, is majestic. It’s equally terrifying and heart-breaking as Pfeiffer moves from the timid and sad Selina Kyle to the confident and revenge-seeking, whip-toting anti-hero. If Pfeiffer isn’t enough to tempt you (and, if so, what’s wrong with you?), then the film also offers killer Christmas clowns, attempted murder, political corruption, and penguins strapped to rockets. This film completely sells itself.
If, instead, you want something totally different, you might enjoy Sean Baker’s 2015 film, Tangerine. Over the space of a single Christmas Eve, Trans Sex Workers Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, respectively) go in search of the pimp who has been cheating on Sin-Dee with cisgender women. The movie, shot entirely on iPhones, is a chaotic and wild tale of friendship set in the less glamorous parts of Hollywood. Both Rodriguez and Taylor give excellent performances that are both deeply rooted and vibrant.
While it may be very different tonally, Todd Haynes’ beautifully distant Carol is another queer favourite. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol examines queer desire in there 1950s with Cate Blanchett starring as the titular character and womaniser. When she meets Therese (Rooney Mara) and falls in love, the connection brings complications. Be prepared for Blanchett in fur coats as a light dusting of snow falls across upstate New York, and sensual sex scenes in motel rooms. It is also one of the few queer romances set in the past with a happy ending. What’s more Christmassy than that?
Underrated is one of those words that, when applied to film and TV, is rarely accurate. It’s often used to mean: “Hey, I like this film, and it isn’t talked about every day, all the time, ergo it’s not being appreciated”. However, I’m going to make a case for two Christmas films that are underrated. The first is Die Hard.
Okay, okay! I know! I just said “underrated” is misused and then named one of the most famous action movies of all time, but hear me out. Die Hard does not deserve the debate around whether it’s a Christmas film or not; it categorically is. It should be up there. It should be number one. The setting is a Christmas party, there are Christmas-themed jokes abound, and it ends with John McClane (Bruce Willis) riding off into the sunset as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” plays over the credits. Come on?! How is this different from a child creating sadistic traps for two burglars? It isn’t. Die Hard is underrated as a Christmas film because its status is constantly questioned. It’s darker in tone, obviously, and it’s aimed at adults rather than families (which seems to be some unwritten rule that any canonically Christmas film must be watchable by kids. I don’t have time to get into how fucked up that is!). Listen, if I want to spend my time off work watching a sweaty Bruce Willis be all macho in a tank top then that is my right. Moreover, I assert, it should be everyone’s right! Viva La Vie Die Hard! Long live a sweaty Bruce Willis!
I’ll step off my horny soapbox now and point towards another underrated Christmas film: The Family Stone. Not only is the cast stacked (Sarah Jessica Parker, Rachel McAdams, Clare Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, AND Diane Keaton), but it is also far more willing to engage with just how annoying the holiday season can be. As Parker’s uptight Meredith goes, for the first time, to spend Christmas with her fiancé’s family, we see all the awkward slip-ups, passive aggression, and slanging matches in the kitchen. This, surely, is what Christmas is like for most people. I refuse to believe it is as harmonious as supermarket adverts suggest. Let’s face it: Christmas is annoying. Sure, it’s fun and can be good, but it’s never without a hitch. Let’s just embrace this fact and allow The Family Stone to be our beacon. And, if you will allow me – in the spirit of Christmas – to step onto my horny soapbox once more: DERMOT MULRONEY IN A TURTLE NECK! HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!
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