Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What’s the best Christmas movie for people who hate Christmas movies?
Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse
If you want a movie that emulates the feeling of the holidays without being directly about them, look no further than Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” with the film’s first act taking place against the backdrop of the last days before Christmas. In establishing its characters and setting, everything from the winter weather, crowded department stores, and putting up Christmas trees is included with a delicate sense of detail that is simply haunting. It’s emblematic of how note-perfect and intimately precise the entire movie is, sublimely starting at a time of year rooted in high expectations and the feeling of possibility, and expanding out from there in the development of its central romance, evoking emotions somehow even greater and more sweeping than the enrapturing sense of time and place that draws us in from the opening frames.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
Robert Siodmak’s “Christmas Holiday,” from 1944, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, is the season for lonesome people with broken hearts to drown their sorrow and share their misery; it dispels patriotic pomp along with family sentiment. To get to the economic heart of the matter, there’s Jean-Luc Godard’s “Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero,” in which Eddie Constantine, gazing into department-store windows in newly unified Berlin, recites, in English and French, a snippet of a 1951 letter by Raymond Chandler that begins, “Well, Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again.”
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian, Slash Film
“Gremlins.” It’s been over 30 years and it’s still being debated whether it is an actual Christmas movie. But that has never been a question to me. The story takes place over the holidays and Gizmo even wears a Santa hat at one point. Anyway, because it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with the typical urges to be charitable and forgiving present in most classic Christmas movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if people consider that eyeroll-worthy, they will be completely safe with this). “Gremlins” is a Christmas movie filled with gore, suspense, a tepid romance, and a suburban mom putting an villainous creature in the blender. That *is* what the holidays are about — safeguarding your family from any ill will, including a gremlin. There’s something for everyone here.
Roxana Hadadi (@roxana_hadadi), Pajiba, Chesapeake Family magazine, Punch Drunk Critics
A family tradition for us is watching “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” neither of which seems particularly Christmas-y at first, but both films take place during the holiday season. The brutality-but-family duality of these films feels very in line with this time of year: The Corleones sometimes hate each other, but Christmas and New Year’s are a time for togetherness. Think of Michael rushing to his father’s bedside once he learns of the assassination attempt while out Christmas shopping with Kay, or of how he discovers Fredo’s betrayal during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cuba. If you’re a little cynical about this time of year, then the ultimate messages of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” about how power corrupts from inside of a family, may be the right choice for you!
Fran Hoepfner (@franhoepfner), Bright Wall/Dark Room
If you’re the type who hates Christmas movies but wants to watch a Christmas movie, might I suggest Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3”? Wait, Shane Black made an Iron Man movie, you might be asking? Yes, of course he did, in 2013, a forgotten year, and it’s a Christmas movie to boot. Maybe you skipped this one because there’s a “3” in the title, or because you don’t consider yourself a Marvel person, but “Iron Man 3” is one of the strongest installments in the series. It grapples like few other Marvel movies do with the trauma of being a superhero––as many of us find ourselves doing around Christmas––all the while maintaining Black’s light and smart and funny (but never too snarky) dialogue. Plus it features a notably great Ben Kinglsey performance.
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute
Well, if you really hate Christmas movies, you can hate all the holidays if you watch a movie I will eternally love, “Holiday Inn.” As a little girl, I dreamed about the beautiful white clapboard Connecticut inn, only open on holidays so Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire could get all their Broadway pals up to the country to put on a show. There’s the 4th of July and Washington’s birthday and Christmas, of course. And just to make it an official Christmas movie, this is the film that introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the world. Oh, and there’s a girl they fight over, too. Who could ask for anything more?
Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, Bonjour Paris
Paramount Home Entertainment
When “It’s a Wonderful Life” arrived in theaters in January of 1947, it bombed at the box office. Additionally, the film was never meant to be a Christmas movie. But thanks to a copyright lapse, it became one, as the film came to air yearly on Christmas Eve after it entered the public domain in the 1970s. The Capra-directed classic has elements of Christmas and a strong Christian bent, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the anti-Christmas movie in many ways. The basic human truths and themes found at the center of the film – family, gratitude, love, loss, sacrifice, loyalty, commitment – could be plopped into a blender and spit out into a script for a Halloween movie or a J.Lo rom-com or a kid’s animated movie, or, something else entirely. The film is not about an eccentric family and their zany, Christmas-crashing relatives (“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”), or the Terminator trying to buy a special toy for his son (“Jingle All the Way”), or an unhappy green Who who steals Christmas (“The Grinch”) – it’s the ultimate anti-Christmas movie because it’s not exactly a Christmas movie in the truest sense of the phrase. This is all to say that if you hate Christmas movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” will likely not offend your anti-Christmas movie sensibilities. It’s merely the story of a man who realizes – with sharp clarity and tearful gratitude – that he has, by all counts, a truly wonderful life.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
I think anyone who’s ever seen 1994’s “The Ref” would agree with me that it’s the correct answer. This acerbic comedy stars Kevin Spacey (sorry!) and Judy Davis as an unhappily married couple, and Denis Leary as the burglar who ends up playing marriage counselor after taking them hostage on Christmas Eve. Wicked dark humor is abundant in the picture, which makes no attempt to give you the warm-fuzzies that most Christmas movies do. Admittedly, no one wants to see a Kevin Spacey movie anymore, for very good reasons, but his abhorrent behavior doesn’t negate the film’s delightful cynicism.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s second feature, “Morvern Callar” (2002), tells the story of its titular protagonist, who wakes up on Christmas morning only to find out that her boyfriend has killed himself. He leaves her a note, plus a digital manuscript of his novel (dedicated to her) and a mix tape. Morvern’s response? Instead of alerting anyone to her boyfriend’s death, she cuts up the body and surreptitiously disposes of the parts, then removes his name from the book and submits it to publishers as her own work, all the while listening to the music he gave her (it’s a pretty awesome mix, after all). She then takes the money her boyfriend intended be used for his funeral to travel to Spain on holiday, instead. Eventually she receives an offer for the novel, collecting a hefty advance. Now that’s some Christmas spirit!
Ramsay takes this morbid, cynical tale and imbues it with the beauty of self-discovery, both through the gorgeous, evocative visuals and the powerful central performance from actress Samantha Morton. We might question Morvern’s initial response, but we eventually settle down, filling in the details of her backstory as we like, and watch her progression from depressed wallflower to fully actualized human being with great cinematic interest. And yes, there is that mix tape as a terrific soundtrack (which I highly recommend listening to), the one link Morvern keeps to her past, never completely able to jettison the memory of the man who abandoned her so brutally. Odd and mesmerizing in equal measure, “Morvern Caller” is the perfect Christmas movie for those who cannot stand the thought of the usual maudlin sentimentality that overwhelms the genre.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson, Medium.com
I imagine that most folks who hate Christmas movies have had their tolerance limits exceeded more than once, and maybe all the time, for absorbing the stereotypical bright and wholesome traits of the season. People can only handle so many happy ending tropes and silly predictable scoops of overly convenient narrative serendipity. For that crowd, they need a film that subverts those usual angles with a little sizzle to melt and muddy the fluffy cinematic snow. I can think of few commercial directors tonally darker than Tim Burton. Any twinkle in his films carries a sly blackheartedness that even the depressed can love. Give me his operatically inky “Batman Returns” and tangent Christmas movie. That sequel’s gawdy action, garish characters, kinky villainy, and bold heroics exceed the darkness of first film in delicious ways. The whole affair couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to any esteemed holiday classic or slushy Hallmark Channel mess.
Dewey Singleton (@mrsingleton), cc2konline.com, eatbreathewatch.com,insessionfilm.com
If you are flipping through the TV this holiday season and are sick and tired of feel-good movies which drone on about the Christmas spirit, let me direct your attention to a little movie known as “Die Hard”. There are no morals to learned or a need for the main character to be filled with cheer, just some good old wholesome moments of Bruce Willis jumping off of an exploding rooftop while Reginald Veljohnson looks perpetually bewildered. “A Miracle On 34th Street”??? No, how about a rescue at Nakatomi Plaza!
Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), The Chicago Reader, The Young Folks, Cultured Vultures
The more obvious answer is something like “Die Hard” or “Gremlins,” but I want to take this opportunity to stan for the 1983 TV movie “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” If you’re like me and grew up in a smaller town, chances are you have childhood memory of being coerced into taking part in a Christmas pageant, which usually meant you stood there and looked cute in a church while you and other kids acted out a story everyone knew by heart for the benefit of an audience of adults who were probably even more bored than you were. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is about this time-honored tradition, only instead of reliably adorable kids, Grace Bradley (Loretta Swift from “M*A*S*H”), who had already been somewhat roped into putting it on, has to deal with the six Herdman kids playing all the main roles. Dubbed “the worst kids in the history of the world,” by Grace’s daughter Beth (a very young Fairuza Balk), the movie’s narrator, the Herdmans are a bunch of rowdy, impoverished welfare kids who “steal, smoke cigars, talk dirty and hit little kids, and cuss their teachers.”
The Herdmans all decide get involved in the Christmas pageant, and both the pageant and even the Herdmans are better for it in unexpected ways. Small town concerns come hilariously alive, as do the all too familiar headaches that often accompany the holidays. And for a movie about a religious event, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is surprisingly short on moralizing. The Herdmans don’t magically transform from the worst kids in the world to the best, but they do absorb some of the holiday’s better messages, and even cause the other kids and adults to realize just how sanitized the story of Jesus has become. As Beth’s father points out, Mary and Joseph were basically refugees who were forced to travel to a new land far from the home they knew where they didn’t know anyone. With 80s nostalgia still at an all-time high, it’s interesting to watch a movie about that decade that’s actually from the period that also preaches compassion while refusing to downplay just how taxing those who need it most can be.
Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs) Screen Queens, Film Inquiry
The best Christmas movie for people who hate Christmas movies is “Hot Fuzz,” because it isn’t a Christmas movie. But it does have that 2-second micro scene in the opening montage where Simon Pegg’s cop character Nicholas Angel gets stabbed in the palm by a bloodthirsty Santa Claus (played by none other than Peter Jackson). And these days, I mean, the bare minimum for a movie to be considered a Christmas flick is like, some snow falling in the background during a vague and unmentioned winter month, or some non-denominational twinkling lights strung up for ambiance. So, as you can see, “Hot Fuzz” more than exceeds those requirements while delivering the best Christmas experience for those who don’t want one at all.