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!