by Peg Aloi
Maybe you have relatives or friends who simply love Christmas movies. It just gets them into the holiday mood, they say. They have their favorites and they foist them on you during holiday get togethers or at laid back cocktail parties. All you want to do is digest those seven mini-quiches you washed down with vodka-spiked eggnog, and yet you’re also having to endure It’s a Wonderful Life, or Miracle on 34th Street, or Love, Actually or Elf. Not that those aren’t all fun or wonderful movies (Jimmy Stewart weeping on the snowy bridge is my spirit animal), but come on. What else ya got?
Here’s a lovingly (and a bit naughtily) curated list for the arthouse snob in you, the one who likes their Santa with a soupçon of snark, a bit of mescaline on their mistletoe, or a dollop of laudanum in their hot toddy. Some of these films are lovely and light, some dark and deep (like those woods you’re stopping by on a snowy evening, with miles to go before you sleep, but be sure you’re wearing proper winter boots and always carry a flashlight).
There’s something for everyone here to enjoy those quiet moments of the Yuletide season when all you want to do is escape the insanity of social media or the droning of your dull relations.
1. Eyes Wide Shut. (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Tom Cruise is a doctor married to Nicole Kidman; the film opens with their attending a swanky holiday party, where Tom is asked by the host (the wonderful Sidney Pollack) to revive a young woman who’s OD’ed, while Nicole gets hit on by a suave dude old enough to be her dad. The story skirts around the minefield of infidelity and fantasies of illicit sex, and some Kubrick fans think it was a dud to end his career on. I find it haunting and gorgeous, and the main reason it is on this list is that every single scene setting, interior and exterior, contains Christmas lights and decorations. Plus the gorgeous Satanic ritual that happens in the middle. And all the arty nudity. Enjoy.
2. Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg, 2014)
Despite the title, this film is not happy, nor is it particularly Christmasy. I wasn’t a huge fan of Drinking Buddies (aside from a charming flirty scene between Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston) but Swanberg keeps getting better. Kendrick is terrific here as a manic pixie dream bitch who moves in with her brother (Mark Webber) and his wife (the excellent Melanie Lynskey) and their toddler (who is hilarious and returns in Digging for Fire and I love this kid and want to share him with the world) and causes mayhem. Low key character studies and realistic but punchy dialogue are Swanberg’s strong suit; this one resonates.
3. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
Okay, I don’t tend to be a big fan of action flicks, but when they’re as well done as this one, you can’t deny their entertainment value. Plus, this caper starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman (see, you don’t have to watch Love, Actually to have a Very Rickman Christmas) is full of sneaky and funny Yuletide symbols and jokes. It’s almost an arthouse film, given its clever, subtle Christmas vibe.
4. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
Samantha Morton is a shy grocery store clerk living in dreary Glasgow. The opening scene, lit with twinkling Christmas lights, shows her lying on the floor of her dingy flat, embracing the still body of her boyfriend who has recently committed suicide. Then things get weird. She disposes of his body, covers up his whereabouts and heads off on a drug-fuelled tropical vacation with her best friend. Ramsay’s films are superbly moody and quietly disturbing.
5. C. R. A. Z. Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2005)
Before his worldwide success with Dallas Buyer’s Club, this French-Canadian director won acclaim for this colorful, funny coming of age story about a gay boy who feels out of place in his conservative family; the film’s main milestones take place during the Christmas holidays.
6. Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015)
Winning kudos for this year’s The Florida Project, Baker burst on the indie scene two years ago with this accomplished debut shot entirely on an iPhone. It follows two transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve in Hollywood and their hilarious escapades tracking down a cheating pimp. The cinematography is gorgeous and the characters oddly endearing, despite their penchant for profanity (no, wait, they’re endearing BECAUSE of that).
7. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)
This Japanese historical drama about WWII stars David Bowie and is moving and beautiful. Now, I understand you may prefer Labyrinth as your go-to Christmas movie starring David Bowie, however, I say we all need to watch as many David Bowie movies as we possibly can, so there’s two places to start.
8. The City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierer Jenuet, Marc Caro, 1995)
A dreamy, gritty, surreal, futuristic dystopian story of scrappy cute kids in peril, set during the Christmas holidays in a land that might be France, with music by Angelo Badalementi, by the makers of Delicatessen and Amelie. You’re welcome.
9. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Award-winning and stunningly beautiful 1950s era love story, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The film is set during the winter holidays, and also features a subtle but thrilling red and green color palette adding a fascinating layer to this compelling story. The title, of course, is also holiday themed (the main character is named Carol); but the novel it is based upon is Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. Such a sumptuous viewing pleasure, I can hardly wait to watch this again this winter.
Peg Aloi is a freelance film & TV critic who also writes for The Arts Fuse, the Orlando Weekly, and Diabolique, among other places. Her blog The Witching Hour appeared on Patheos for several years. She is also a traditional singer, organic gardener, semi-professional baker and practicing witch.