Just a few more days until Christmas, and if you’re like me, you love to fill your end-of-the-year vacation days with interesting, unusual, and alternative holiday-themed movies to get you in the festive mood. Here are some of the movies I like to experience at this time of year. You won’t find many of the old stalwarts here. Most of those movies—I’m thinking Christmas Story, or Miracle on 34th Street, or even the more contemporary Polar Express—are just too overexposed or ordinary for a strange person like me. So instead, let me present my favorite darker and more intriguing movies for this time of year. The first one, actually, does happen to be one of those old stalwarts. (Most of these movies are on Blu-ray.)
- It’s a Wonderful Life—Have you ever actually watched this film, actually considered it outside the Christmas lens? Even as a kid, when my parents curiously enjoyed watching this horror film every season, I could tell that it was a dark, brooding thing. Consumed by morbid thoughts of suicide, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man—initially filled with youthful enthusiasm—who succumbs to the sobering realities of life (pain, loss, failure) and finds that life isn’t so wonderful after all, so why keep living it? The structure of the film just happens to involve Christmas, but is this movie really brimming with Christmas spirit? Perhaps so, if you like your Christmas tinged with the dark and brooding and depressing.
- A Christmas Tale (Criterion)—If you like your Christmas movies slathered with family nostalgia—such as 2005’s The Family Stone—but you can do without the schmaltz and the easy emotional tugs, give this excellent French film a try. Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale is about the messy, troubled Vuillard family, which is reuniting at Christmas because the mother figure—played by Catherine Deneuve—has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease and needs one of her relatives to provide a bone-marrow transplant. The result is a Christmas reunion filled with fun, anger, hilarity, and bitterness that feels completely real, unpredictable, and almost novelistic. Desplechin’s playfulness with odd narrations and stylistic devices makes this one endlessly rewatchable.
- Eyes Wide Shut (Unrated Cut)—When you think of Stanley Kubrick’s erotic and haunting final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, you probably don’t think of Christmas, but actually this film is flooded with Christmas imagery. That imagery leads to one of the more interesting subtexts of Eyes Wide Shut, considering that its rather secular, even pagan surface subject matter—that of a man giving in to his animal carnalities in the face of certain revelations, and in a setting of dark ritualism—is wrapped up in a nice, Christmas-flavored bow. As Tom Cruise’s character descends further and further into his pagan netherworld (paganism being closer to the real origin of holiday celebrations than any religion), Kubrick is constantly reminding us how the rest of the world is celebrating.
- Trading Places—John Landis’ 1983 comedy classic Trading Places is a hilarious, downright Dickensian morality play that’s perfect for the season. Set in snowy Philadelphia during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, the movie is about a $1 bet between two wealthy men: Let’s see what role genetics and privilege play in success. Let’s replace successful stockbroker Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) with street crook Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and just see what happens. At this time of season, I always love watching poor, disgraced Winthorpe in his dirty Santa suit, in the gutter, at the absolute nadir of his existence, while Valentine lives it up, in his new life of privilege, at the company Christmas party.
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—I absolutely adore Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a wildly dark, comic thriller set during the Christmas season. This film’s sense of humor just completely jibes with my own. It’s filled with side-of-the-mouth humor, hilariously deadpan narration, and a complex plot rendered side-splitting by the way it’s told. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer play off each other magnificently. Plus, it’s got Michelle Monaghan in that Santa outfit.
- Scrooged—An essential ’80s “alternative” Christmas classic, Scrooged stars Bill Murray as a modern-day Scrooge. Quintessentially Murray, this character is an absolutely miserable sleazeball. He’s a selfish TV executive who forces his employees to work over the holidays. As punishment, his dead boss pays a visit, letting him know that he will be visited by three ghosts who show him Christmas past, present, and future. You know the ol’ Christmas Carol tale—itself as horrific as that of It’s a Wonderful Life—but what makes this movie great is the manic Murray mirth.
- Die Hard—That’s right, one of the most pulse-pounding action flicks ever is actually a Christmas movie! OK, it’s not what you’d call a traditional Christmas flick, but the setting is pure Christmas. The movie that introduced John McClane to the world and turned Bruce Willis from a TV star to a legitimate movie star is filled with holiday decorations and holiday music, giving a warm, nostalgic mood to a movie in which Willis kicks all kinds of bad-guy ass. And in the end, he gets the girl in a loving scene worthy of any of those boring, traditional Christmas movies.
- Gremlins—I saw this film many times during its first release in 1984—28 years ago! And I knew it would be a favorite, annual Christmas movie the moment Phoebe Cates begins her horrific soliloquy: “Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.” Suffice it to say, this is not a movie you want to show your young kids who still believe in Santa! A fabulous, wacky ’80s tale of greed and gore, Gremlins is a Christmas morality fable in fright-flick attire. Today, watching those evil gremlins in Santa suits just fills me with nostalgia—and maniacal laughter.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas—Tim Burton puts his wicked stamp on this wonderful stop-motion dark-pleasure fest—and even though it’s crammed with odd monsters and spooky villains, it manages, in the end, to root out the meaning of Christmas. It’s the tale of Jack Skellington, of Halloween Town, becoming enthralled by a glimpse of Christmas Town and demanding that his own town replicate that magic. But does he understand the magic? You can bet by the time his own frolic through the Christmas Eve sky ends, he will. The music in this film has become close to iconic; you might even want to buy the soundtrack CD!
- Bad(der) Santa—When Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa debuted in 2003, it instantly became my all-time favorite Christmas movie. Absolutely vulgar, it was eye-opening in its depravity. And I loved every minute. Billy Bob Thornton plays an insufferable, criminal jerk who, with his dwarf buddy Marcus, rips off area malls by dressing up as Santa (and sidekick elf), infiltrating the mall’s secure areas, and stealing the Christmas cash after the holiday shopping season is done. But everything changes when Willie encounters a troubled kid who believes in him. The scene with the nativity calendar will make you simultaneously guffaw and weep for this epic clash of depravity and innocence.
Have a great Christmas!
(This article originally appeared in Residential AV Presents: Connected Home. Read and comment on that article here.)