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« Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 1) | Main | Rita Moreno turns 82 »
Wednesday
Dec112013

Yuletide cinema

Tim here. Two weeks from today is Christmas, which means you have a mere fourteen days left to cram in all the movies – some of them all-time masterpieces, some of them borderline-unwatachable dreck – that we’ve all agreed can only be viewed during a very brief window at the end of the year. One of the things that fascinates me most about this season is observing what traditions people haul out to celebrate, or how they pointedly don’t celebrate, and in that spirit, I’d like to offer up my own most treasured Christmas cinematic traditions. And because there’s nothing wrong with being a Grinch, I also have three suggestions of Christmas-set movies that have almost nothing to do with the holiday and can provide a seasonally-appropriate way to vent your disgust with the whole matter.

Christmas pageants, skeleton reindeer, sex orgies and more below the jump!

Traditional: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Film, TV special, close enough. There’s probably none of the animated shorts from the ‘60s that continue to dominate December TV programming more entrenched in the culture than this one, but holiday traditions aren’t about making bold, controversial choices. Between the primitive animation and rough audio, it’s as simple and unfussy as it gets, but the lack of polish makes the borderline-sappy messages feel better-earned and easier-digested than in a tonier production. Bonus points for Christopher Shea, voicing Linus, who has the best Bible-reading voice in the history of filmed entertainment; ultimate infinity bonus points for Vince Guaraldi’s groundbreaking jazz soundtrack.

Alternative: Die Hard

Just as firmly entrenched in the background of American pop culture, just as widely-copied, and just as quotable (surely, if there’s a grown-up equivalent to “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”, it’s “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho”). Despite its initial summertime release, and its importance in setting the rules for a quarter century of action movies, the Christmastime backdrop isn’t just for fun, either. The story of Bruce Willis’s John McClane is a quintessentially holiday-friendly one: reconnect with his wife and child, learn how to be a better family man and be more present and attentive. That he does this with bombs and German terrorists rather than a daffy apprentice angel is just about the only thing keeping this from being It’s a Wonderful Life.

Traditional: Miracle on 34th Street

Edmund Gwenn’s treacle-filled, kindly performance as possibly-insane Kris Kringle is certainly a love-it or hate-it proposition that I happen to love. He’s playing Santa Claus, there shouldn’t be room for complexity or grey shading. But even setting that aside, the film’s pleasures are pervasive, if almost uniformly kitschy. The snapshot of what the holiday shopping season used to look like in post-WWII New York City (or even before stores opened on Thanksgiving night, for that matter); Natalie Wood’s surprisingly complex performance as a doubt-ridden little girl who needs very badly to be convinced to have faith. Even the corniness of the “letters to Santa” climax in a courtroom, if you can give in and let the hokiness wash over you. That is, after all, the heart of the film’s fascistically cheery of the film’s message: “you probably know better than to believe this, but isn’t it nice to pretend that you do?” Which might be the single-best description of celebrating the holidays that I can think of.

Alternative: Eyes Wide Shut

For another exploration of how fantasy and desire play out in New York at Christmas, we can look to Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, which leaves much of its narrative just as ambiguously “real” as the identity of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. A movie that had to indulge in the weirdest kind of censorship to dodge an NC-17 might not be the first title you’d want to bring to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve dinner, but it’s certainly not an arbitrary choice to set the story at the holiday. The omnipresent, hollow trappings of Christmas are everywhere (supposedly, there’s a Christmas tree in every scene), adding a level of irony and sarcasm to a story about one man’s bottled-up emotions. In a film about the gap between authentic and artificial feelings, Christmas is used as a signifier of everything wrong and constipated about Polite Society.

Traditional AND Alternative: The Nightmare Before Christmas

So immovably entrenched in my annual celebrations – I missed watching it on December 24 last year, for the first time since the ‘90s, and felt like the whole month had been ruined – it always throws me when the film’s fans (urged by Disney’s obnoxious faux-Goth merchandising) regard it instead as a chiefly Halloween movie. It’s not not that, but it’s also not what the film is about best. It’s a story of second chances, finding something new to love about yourself and the place you live, and being happy with the people you share your life with. Quintessential Christmas themes, every one. Sure, the filtering of traditional Christmas iconography throw the artistic style of producer Tim Burton makes it all look weird and even a little perverse, but we could just as easily suggest that only helps to make the same iconography seem fresh and new. And it ends with a redemptive snowfall! What’s more Christmassy than that?

Your turn! Have any favorite Christmas or anti-Christmas movies? Share them in comments!

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Reader Comments (17)

Besides Die Hard, Gremlins (1984) has always been my favorite anti-Christmas movie. Phoebe Cates' story of her father breaking his neck going down the chimney as Santa always makes me feel warm inside. And roles for great character actors like Dick Miller and Frances Lee McCain are always welcome. Isn't Gizmo the cutest?

A traditional Christmas movie I love that no one else seems to know about is The Bishop's Wife (1947) starring Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young. Niven, as a minister, proves once again here that he's one of Hollywood's most underrated actors and Grant gives a perfect performance as an angel sent to give Niven guidance. It gets overshadowed by another 1947 Christmas movie but I'd say this one's far better. It even features some of the kids from It's a Wonderful Life including Zuzu Bailey! I'm not even religious but it still manages to make me happy. Kind of like other religious-y movies like It's a Wonderful Life and The Exorcist!

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

On Christmas Eve, my family always watches the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim, the best-ever version of the story.

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

The Family Stone. It gets me every single fucking time. How Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson didn't get more acclaim for this is beyond me.

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

-i can't stand WHITE CHRISTMAS, it's so mindnumbingly boring that by the time you get to the scene where Bing Crosby sings the all time yuletime classic, White Christmas, I'm already asleep.

- i always watch BATMAN RETURNS, HOME ALONE 1+2 (even though I'm waaay too fucking old to watch those two.). And I also watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles, not a christmas movie, but a thanksgiving movie. But it's so funny and moving, and if John Hughes had
had Steve Martin trying to make it home for Christmas instead of Thanksgiving (something we don't celebrate here in Europe), PTAA would no doubt have been a C classic.

Other movies that's not related to christmas but that I watch for the mood or snow. Downhill Racer, silly, right? Robert Redford racing down snowy mountains for two hours. But it works for me.
And Ozon's 8 Femmes, murder mystery in a snowed in cabin.
WHERE EAGLES DARE used to be a kind of christmas classic here in Denmark, because they aired it every christmas for many years. No mention of christmas, but it's got snow!
30 Days Of Night, really scary vampire movie... zero christmas, but lots of snow.

An actual Christmas movie is WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, starring Sandra Bullock. It's a really sweet rom-com christmas movie.

YOU*VE GOT MAIL: I much prefer this to Sleepless in Seattle.

And if you wanna go alternative: Slasher Christmas: Black Christmas; the 1974 version AND the 2006 remake.
P2: about a girl working late on Christmas Eve, and when she's finally ready to go home and celebrate, she can't, because a crazy guy won't let her. So the whole movie is him chasing after her in an underground garage, trying to rape her, kill her.
TURBULENCE; Ray Liotta, serial killer, is being transported by the feds on Christmas Eve, but naturally he breaks free and starts (spoiler alert) killing everybody on the plane.
Those four are actually pretty cool. But don't watch the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies, they're awful.

To end on a sweet note: FAMILY MAN with Nicolas Cage in top form... Cage is a scrooge kind of dude and he gets visited by Don Cheadle, the ghost of christmas past. The Don shows him what his life could've been if he had stayed with Tea Leoni, absolutely wonderful in the movie... sincerely moving.

That's it! No mas Christmas movies from me.

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Die Hard and Jingle All the Way. Every year, baby.

and THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL

because all things are improved by throwing Muppets at it

I think John Lennon said that, or someone else handsome and wise

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny

The first Bourne movie. The Christmas decorations are used to inject some startling red into the otherwise dull interiors of the CIA (plus emphasize the institutionalism of the place) and the Christmas tree and lights are used to signal that the latest refuge isn't as deserted as Bourne and Marie had hoped. Otherwise, its just a caper movie with excellent use of holiday decorations to bring interest to interiors and keep things from getting too mundane visually.

December 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I like a few of the movies already mentioned above so I'm not going to repeat.

THE POLAR EXPRESS and ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, it's that type of movie that makes me want to be a child again.

When I'm feeling romantic, I watch THE HOLIDAY. I know a lot of people hate that movie, but what are the odds that 4 of my favorite actors & actresses in the same movie? It's like a miracle, Santa Claus's present to me that year.

And now allow me to cheat and say THE NATIVITY STORY. The cinematography is so beautiful, and is it a sin to say Oscar Isaac is oh-so-hot as Joseph?

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPJ

I, too, LIVE for the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol. Every time I watch young Ebeneezer earnestly tell his sister, "But you must live forever, Fan!" I am instantly reduced to a blubbery mess.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I love Christmas movies, not too big on anti ones although I'm crazy for the original Die Hard. Every year I watch White Christmas, the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, Love Actually and Christmas in Connecticut, which really doesn't have much to do with the actual holiday aside from being set during the yuletide season, without fail. I also get a charge out of Holiday Inn, Holiday Affair and Miracle on 34th Street but don't necessarily watch them every year. I could never see It's a Wonderful Life again and it would be too soon. Not a bad film but just far too many viewings over the years.

I thought of one anti Christmas film that I enjoy but it's tough as hell to find anywhere. The ultra dark noir Christmas Holiday starring Deanna Durbin as a prostitute!! in a lowdown honky tonk and Gene Kelly as her murderous escaped con husband. Completely worth checking out if you can find it.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Nothing but slavish devotion to traditionalism in our house. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Fitzwilly" every year some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

"Little Women" - the one with Winona Ryder (which I still think is the best one) - for me. And in my family, it's kind of a tradition to watch "Fanny and Alexander" - at least the first part, which shows a joyous Christmas celebration with darker undertones/foreshadowing.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterprincesskaraoke

Christmas with the Plantagenets: The Lion in Winter

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrob

The Ref. One of my secret wishes is a sequel to this movie. I think it would be so much fun! Oh, and still, RIP Tony Scott.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Whoops, I meant Ted Demme.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I have to second and third the praises for Sim's version of Christmas Carol. He is brilliant in that part, and the film is an emotional ride. It's been a part of our family tradition since I was a kid.

My favorite, however, is The Belles of St. Mary's. Crosby and Bergman are a magical team.

I also love Come To the Stable...sniffle.

December 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

TRADITIONAL: Christmas in Connecticut, mostly for the antics with Barbara Stanwyck and "Felix".

ALTERNATIVE: Lethal Weapon, back when Mel Gibson was a good guy, albeit crazy, but still good.

December 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

We always watched A Christmas Story, Rudolph, A Christmas Carol, A Claymation Christmas, The little drummer boy, and a host of others.

December 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEsther

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