Sometimes you need to give the classics a break. After you’ve given “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 42nd Street” a re-watch for the 100th time, take a chance on a new indie Christmas film. From award-winning romances to bloody foreign horror, these are the alternative holiday movies you need to watch this season.
Joe Swanberg crafts a low-key holiday charmer with “Happy Christmas,” in which he stars opposite fellow indie favorites Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey. Kendrick plays an irresponsible twenty-something named Jenny who moves in with her older brother and his wife and their two-year-old son around the holidays. Jenny’s arrival causes subtle rifts in the couple’s relationship, and Swanberg’s gift as a writer-director is making every cliché feel well-earned.
Liquor, lies, and lust make “The Ice Harvest” a very singular kind of Christmas comedy-thriller. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play a lawyer and a strip club owner who team up on Christmas Eve to steal some money from the local mob. The heist proves successful, but the aftermath of the job is where the two risk getting a lump of coal.
American audiences who love Jean-Marc Vallée’s work on “Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and HBO’s Emmy-winning “Big Little Lies” should definitely make time for his French-language film “C.R.A.Z.Y.” The coming-of-age movie tells the story of a young gay man growing up in a conservative family. The main character was born on Christmas, and the film is inventively told by jumping through time and checking in on him during Christmases in different years.
Zach Clark’s “White Reindeer” starts as a chronicle of grief but eventually grows into a small story of moving friendship. Anna Margaret Hollyman shines as a woman whose husband is murdered right before the holiday. When she finds out he had been cheating on her with a stripper, the widower tracks the woman down and a different kind of friendship is born.
“Inside” is a Christmas miracle for gore lovers. The French horror film from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo is so utterly terrifying and graphically violent that it’s even unbearable for those who consider themselves true horror movie lovers. The story is set on Christmas Eve as a mysterious stranger invades the home of a young pregnant woman and attempts to steal her unborn baby.
“Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch!” Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot “Tangerine” is one of the most exhilarating buddy Christmas comedies ever made. You may not expect the story of two transgender sex workers on a madcap hunt through Hollywood to find a cheating pimp on Christmas Eve to be a perfect holiday film, but the heart at the center of “Tangerine” is so strong and universal that it’s impossible to deny.
You have probably seen the big family Christmas movie one hundred times before. You know the drill: A family with a bunch of strained relationships and secrets all end up under one roof for the holiday and all hell breaks loose. But French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin is too smart and empathetic to make “A Christmas Tale” feel like countless other big family Christmas movies. With help from a cast that includes Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve, Arnaud delivers a dysfunctional Christmas classic.
There are few better Christmas film images than the sight of Rooney Mara in a Santa Claus hat. Todd Haynes’ “Carol” weaves such an intense romantic spell that it’s really the only film you need to watch during the holiday season. Credit Mara and Cate Blanchett’s blossoming chemistry and Haynes’ ability to turn the butterflies of first love into cinematic art.
Kentucker Audley gives a soulful performance in Charles Poekel’s slice-of-life Christmas drama. Audley plays a heartbroken Christmas tree salesman who’s brought back from rock bottom when he meets a mysterious woman (Hannah Gross). The film tells an emotional story as grand as “It’s A Wonderful Life” but on the scale of a micro-budget indie. It’s a small miracle indeed.
The Finnish dark fantasy film “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” is the perfect holiday movie for the genre lover in your life. It takes a lot to pull off a movie in which the origins of Santa Clause include a reindeer slaughterhouse and a zombified Saint Nick, but “Rare Exports” pulls it off in ways both ingenious and terrifying.
“Krisha” is technically cheating since the events of the movie take place on Thanksgiving, not Christmas, but it’s still a new indie holiday classic. Trey Edward Shults’ knockout debut stars his real-life aunt Krisha Fairchild as an estranged woman who joins her family for the first time in many years for a holiday gathering from hell. Krisha’s spiral over the edge of a nervous breakdown is a visceral thing to behold.