Ah, Christmas Day. A holiday that’s unlike any other, and depending on who you are and how you grew up; it’s one that comes with a plethora of meanings and feelings. The birth of Jesus Christ for the devout, an excuse for corporations to milk the last dime out of poor suckers for the cynics, and always a time when radios and stores are compelled to play horrendously catchy Christmas music. More than anything, however, it’s a holiday that always highlights the unity (or disunity) of family, and those who don’t get to spend the day with their loved ones feel their loneliness that much more. It’s a holiday that’s been depicted in movies more than perhaps any other sacred holiday out there (we did the math, and it’s more than Easter at least), whether in the foreground and in the film’s title, or just as a backdrop. Dramas, actions, comedies, romance, horror; all genres have crossed paths with Christmas at one point or another. Indeed, the “Christmas film” has turned into a sub-subgenre in its own right, and is an increasingly popular context for filmmakers.
From old classics “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” to the more modern classics “Gremlins” and “A Christmas Story,” the Christmas film has taken multiple shapes and forms throughout the years. Terry Gilliam used it to make his scathing statement on consumerism that much more potent in his brilliant “Brazil,” and even Stanley Kubrick set his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” during the holiday season and littered the film with Christmas trees to accentuate the blues and reds. There’s been campy horror (“Black Christmas”) and religious melodramas (“The Bishop’s Wife”), pitch-black comedies (“Bad Santa”) and ensemble romance (“Love Actually”). Ask anyone around you what his or her favorite Christmas film is, and you’re likely to get any of the above or some other classic (there are so many).
As genuine film obsessives, no Christmas Day can stop us talking about movies. So, we figured we’d talk about 10 movies that aren’t considered classic Christmas films, and are often forgotten during this time of year, yet all are set (at one point or another) during Christmastime. All are, in their own ways, fantastic, and deserving of remembrance. Each film represents a different shade of the holiday, yet the overwhelmingly common denominator is undeniable even when it’s not in the vanguard: family togetherness and a burning desire to not be alone.
So grab some leftover eggnog, and join us as we deck the Playlist halls with boughs of oft-forgotten Christmas movies.
“Fanny and Alexander” (1982)
If Christmas is a time your childhood memories most vividly appear before your mind’s eye, don’t forget “Fanny and Alexander.” Master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman had been preoccupied with religious and spiritual concepts since his earliest days as a screenwriter, because he himself grew up under extremely conservative Catholic house rules and guardians. Fitting, then, that the last feature film he’d direct would come full circle and take so much inspiration from his own childhood. Much of the film’s breadth and depth is lost in the theatrical cut, especially from that first part with the Ekdahl’s celebrating Christmas, before Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) are taken away to live with the tyrannical bishop Evdard (Jan Malmsjö). So, the version we’re specifically referring to here is the longer, TV version (available in a gorgeous Criterion transfer) with the running length of five glorious, melancholic, and infinitely immersive hours. Like most others on this list, “Fanny and Alexander” is far from being a typical Christmas film, yet its Christmas scenes, with the magnanimously decorated Ekdahl Christmas tree never too far from frame, the interiors highlighting the holiday spirit with a crispy warm red, and the atmosphere brimming with familial love (extending to the servants, who have Christmas dinner together with the family), are some of the homeliest put on screen. That it’s Bergman’s final bow to cinema, and such a personal one at that, adds to the ghostly aura the film vibrates with, and the film’s early Christmas scenes are flawlessly contrasted with the ominous events that follow. A reminder of how good things used to be when the family got together for Christmas.
“Blast of Silence” (1961)
If you’re not feeling particularly Christmas-y, and are up for watching a dark and cynical film set during the holiday season with none of its cheer, don’t forget Allen Baron’s “Blast of Silence.” We’ve reminded readers about this rarely uncovered pearl from the film noir canon in our Must See NYC Crime Movies feature (along with 19 others), but that was never stopping us from including it in this Christmas feature. For a lot of people out there, this holiday has morphed into a buzzing blur of horrendous jingles, stress-levels amped to the max, and a kind of alienation that reverberates all the stronger off of the surrounding joy one can’t connect with. If this describes your Christmas sentiments, Baron’s anti-compassionate noir about detached hitman Frankie Bono (played by Baron himself) who visits New York City during Christmastime on an assignment, is just the kind of gift you want in your stocking. The second-person voice over narration by Lionel Stander, verbalizing Bono’s thoughts in perfectly musky snarl, is indispensible company for those who like to separate themselves from the “suckers.” In some of the greatest Christmas-themed tracking shots ever filmed, Bono wanders the streets of a decorated NYC (including the city’s staple Rockefeller Christmas tree) while Stander articulates his nostalgic isolation: “remembering other Christmases, pushing your nose against the plate glass store windows till the cold of it made your head ache.” There’s poetry in that bleakness, and the whole thing makes for the most unlikely effective of combinations: a Christmas film noir.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
If you don’t really celebrate Christmas because it’s not in your culture, and your insides are a gamut of clashing emotions at this time of year, don’t forget Nagisa Oshima’s oddity “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” It foils two country’s rock stars against one another: David Bowie stars as Jack Celliers and electro-musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, in his acting debut, is Japanese captain Yonoi, who becomes obsessed with POW Celliers in a way that completely messes with his bushido code of honor. The spirit of this film is firmly rooted in the four-way culture clash that happens in the camp between Celliers, Yonoi, Lawrence (Tom Conti) and St. Hara (Takashi Kitano, in his first major film role) during the Christmas season, when all four men’s lives irredeemably change forever. The film’s most lighthearted scene comes wrapped in Christmas spirit: when the drunk Hara asks for Lawrence and Celliers to see him and declares that he’s Santa Claus before ordering the release of both men. He caps off the scene with his first words spoken in English: “Merry Christmas, Lawrence!” and Bowie’s reply, “bonkers,” might as well describe this entire film. As intelligent as it is entertaining and magnetic for its performances, direction, cinematography, and one of the most emotional and unique climaxes to a war film you’ll likely to see. Most memorable of all, however, is the sledgehammer of a final scene between Kitano and Conti culminating in that haunting freeze frame of Kitano’s Cheshire-cat grin bellowing out: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!” as Sakamato’s bravura score plunges in. While Christmas-set war films like “Stalag 17” and “A Midnight Clear” remain excellent in their own right, there’s something about this super-charged seasonal fracas of culture and emotion that is simply priceless. (So the Criterion price is more than reasonable).
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)
If Christmas is just an excuse to have some breezy fun with none of the usual religious or familial weight hanging over your shoulders, don’t forget “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” When it comes to Christmas action-comedies the immediate ones to spring to mind are the likes of “Die Hard” or “Batman Returns” even, while Shane Black’s directorial debut of the darkly-comic meta crime caper remains oft-forgotten among the hidden jewels of the Christmas movie sub-sub-genre. Of course, the film pays such little attention to the holiday itself (its Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it once), so if you can only recall its razor-sharp dialogue, the firecracker chemistry between Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan, or its many hilarious action moments, no one could blame you. But watch again, and you’ll see Christmas references sprinkled everywhere, including one wickedly psychedelic Hollywood Christmas party, and a bar where Harmony (Monaghan) and Harry (Downey Jr.) reunite all decked in red Christmas romance and dazzling holly. It turns out that Black loves to set his thrillers during Christmastime (remember “Lethal Weapon?”) and when asked about that in an interview, he explained it as “a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading” and a “touch of magic.” So there you have it, folks. Not every film set during the Christmas holidays has to be about friends, family or religion; it can just be a neat backdrop and a subtle reminder of the kind of fun people can have with it. Plus, it can never be a bad thing if it’s got Val Kilmer giving a season greeting we can all relate to; “Merry Christmas, I’m sorry I fucked you over.”
If all you want for Christmas is your parents’ understanding, don’t forget about Jean-Marc Vallée’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.” “Mon Oncle Antoine” is a Quebecois Christmas classic (so much so, it’s Criterion-approved), but we have a slightly bigger soft spot for Vallée’s heart-wrenchingly felt story about a boy born on Christmas Day. Zac Beaulieu (first Emile Vallée, then Marc-André Grondin) is born in 1960, on the same day as Jesus, something his devout Catholic mother doesn’t fail to drill into his head. The films spans over the 60s and 70s as Zac grows up into his mid-to-late 20s, desperately trying to live up to his father’s ideals of being a “man’s man” and his mom’s notions of his special gifts. Which is an increasing dilemma as the years roll by because what makes Zac special is his homosexuality, and he’s forced to live a lie in order to feel accepted in his homophobic surroundings. An atypical Christmas film (so, very much in sync with the vibe of this Christmas feature), Vallée uses Zac’s birthdays as a time stamp for his coming-of-age, presenting it as a joyous time for everyone in the family except Zac himself. “C.R.A.Z.Y.” can be analyzed as a contemporary fable of a modern-day Christ like figure, someone who sacrifices his true identity in order to appease his father, the only person with the power to resurrect him. More than just a chance to see the first film that propelled Jean-Marc Vallée towards Hollywood, where he currently directs the industry’s biggest A-listers, “C.R.A.Z.Y.” is a chance to watch one of the most unique contemporary Christmas stories of the century, boasting a wickedly cool soundtrack as a bonus.
“The Lion in Winter” (1968)
If you only get to see your whole family during the Christmas holidays, only to end up regretting it afterwards, don’t forget Anthony Harvey’s “The Lion in Winter.” Theatrical and grand, the film has such a nostalgically warm hue around its contours; it practically projects the castle’s man-sized fireplace right next to you. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) is locked away in her own tower, and let out “only for the holidays” by her husband and King, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) so that they and their three sons can show face at court. It’s really just an excuse, though, to spit soliloquized venom at each other and struggle for power. There’s something undeniably cozy in vicariously living through these two hours of endlessly quotable dialogue between such titans of acting. No writer working today can buy the kind of insults conjured up by James Goldman; “the human part of you is incomplete,” a son tells his mother, “three whiskered things I’ve disowned” a father calls his sons, and the most seasonally apt one of all from the King himself; “What shall we hang? The holly, or each other?” The choir, harmonizing in Latin on the soundtrack, beckons something celestial to come out from the heavens, but nothing can save these retched beings. War is hatched, a wedding forcibly attempted, secrets revealed, and in between the fiery explosions there’s always someone around to remind us that it’s Christmas. We even get to see what a 10th century Christmas tree looked like, as it’s framed in the background when Henry and Eleanor join hands and re-affirm that between their hatred of one another is a world of admiration.
“The Decalogue – Three” (1988)
If Christmas reminds fills you with a deep sadness or reminds you of a lost love, don’t forget the third chapter of “The Decalogue.” The medium of television has been stepping on film’s toes long before “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective,” and one of the most famous examples of a feature director turning to the small screen is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental mini-series “The Decalogue;” 10 short films each loosely representing one of the ten commandments. The third chapter connects with the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day, by keeping it holy” and the Christmas setting, inevitable given the project’s religious foundation, is a flawless milieu for the melancholic longing on display between taxicab driver Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski) and Ewa (Maria Pakulnis). He plays Santa Claus for his family, and attends midnight mass where – after three years – he sees and recognizes Ewa in the crowd. It’s a serendipitous moment that, aided by Zbigniew Preisner’s soulful compositions, shows how Kieslowski directs circles around most filmmakers (and if we’re brutally honest, most everyone on this list too). Janusz and Ewa’s search for her missing husband brings them into contact with various lost souls around the half deserted Warsaw, leaving room for Kieslowski to dazzle us with his framing, and use of colors by way of Christmas ornaments and gloomy snow. The final moments, and the twist that’s like an anchor for your already-sunken heart, turns a love story into one of the most moving Christmas reminders out there; what an awfully lonely holiday it is if you’ve got no one to share it with.
“My Night at Maud’s” (1969)
For those who like to spend their Christmas in a pensive sort of mood, don’t forget “My Night at Maud’s.” Eric Rohmer‘s sextet of films on morality gets its third volume in this conversation piece starring a French superstar Jean-Louis Trintignant as Jean-Louis and the bewitching Françoise Fabian as Maud. Solitude is the biggest connection these people have, and they bind through it while waxing over Blaise Pascal, religion, love, women, and the past. And it all begins like an intro to a moralist’s joke: “A Catholic and a Marxist walk into a bar during the Christmas holidays…” It never had a chance to be a typical Christmas film under Rohmer’s tutelage, who takes the religious aspect of the holiday to austere heights given Jean-Louis’ stern Catholicism. The priest’s sermon during midnight mass promotes a “New and profound joy…a living joy, a joy for today,” and we follow Jean-Louis as he subconsciously searches for this joy within himself through the various conversations he has with his old school chum Vidal (Antoine Vitez), the libertine Maude (Fabian), and his future wife Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault). The snow plays its part too; Jean-Louis’ colleagues comment on Protestants making such a big deal of Christmas that “they stay in doors and don’t even know if it’s snowing,” and it’s the snow that traps Jean-Louis at Maud’s place on Christmas Day. Vidal calls it “phony kid’s stuff,” and, peculiarly, the only time Rohmer focuses on a child is when Maud’s daughter interrupts the adults to see the Christmas tree lights one more time before bed. The Christmas backdrop, in these various ways, becomes a curious mélange of piety and candor, and a way for Rohmer to peel the various layers of his characters and ideas.
If you’ve ever spent Christmas vacation with friends instead of family, don’t forget “Metropolitan.” Especially if you happen to enjoy watching elitists connect over cha-cha-cha, and Charles Fourier. A close-knit group of Princeton students get together in the City during the Christmas holidays, including debutante Audrey (Carolyn Farina) and conceited snob Nick (Chris Eigman), when they meet Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) and invite him to join them during their various social outings. Underneath its posh exterior, “Metropolitan” thrives on the harmless innocence of hurt pride, disdainful gossip, and the “who likes whom” of the adolescent world. Whit Stillman based his sensational screenplay on the times he spent as a Harvard student during Christmas break in the 70s; basically going from gathering to gathering, debating and discussing various ideological topics on what it really means and feels like to be part of bourgeois society. Christmas is in the background, hardly every mentioned by any of the characters, yet the context is omnipresent through interior and exterior decorations (Stillman shot on location in Manhattan and Long Island), and the title cards. It’s in the latter that we get the film’s grandest Christmas statement: Audrey spends Christmas Eve pining for Tom while listening to mass, and then Christmas Day is completely skipped, only presented by a title card, followed by another: “December 26th: “Orgy” week begins.” As a reminder for what Christmas means (or doesn’t mean) to aloof debutants still searching for who they are and what social groups they belong to, “Metropolitan” is a beguilingly stimulating cinematic present wrapped in a kind of wit you hardly ever hear these days.
“A Christmas Tale” (2008)
Of course, if you’re just up for a modern classic Christmas story of an intoxicatingly dysfunctional family, don’t forget “A Christmas Tale.” Arnaud Desplechin has been making films about the plague of family (in some shape or form) since the early 90s, but never has it been so enjoyable, compelling, or inviting as this portrait of the Vuillards, a thoroughly fucked up bunch of people, each relative written and performed in such personable ways, it feels like you’re right there with them, enjoying Christmastime. Though, of course, “enjoying” comes with multiple meanings. This Christmas is an extra-special reunion since matriarch Junon (an inestimably regal Catherine Deneuve) has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant, which prompts the banished son and brother Henri (an entertainingly rabid Mathieu Amalric) to complete the full family reunion, which includes various siblings and partners, all combusting and clashing in a rigmarole of intellectual and emotional battles anyone with a family can relate to. In an interview, Desplechin concedes that he loosely structured the film’s ecstatic style and structure on the Advent calendar, used to count and anticipate Christmas as a day-to-day reveal of Bible versus and small trinkets for children. It may be a conclusively typical Christmas film to end our feature on, but the holiday spirit eventually found its way to us and we couldn’t resist. Containing bits and pieces of every film from this feature, being a favorite recent example of one unforgettable family’s Christmas reunion, and having the holiday spirit etched into the very fabric of its story and structure, “A Christmas Tale” is this feature’s perfect send-off.
Do share your thoughts below on what your favorite Christmas are, which films tend to be most forgotten or less talked about in your experience, but above all else: have yourselves a very Merry Christmas!