I’m guessing that you, just like most of us, have always had seasonal favorites when it comes to movies that attempt to address and evoke the spirit of Christmas. Like most from my generation, when I was a kid I learned the pleasures of perennial anticipation of Christmastime as interpreted by TV through a series of holiday specials, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and even musical variety hours where the likes of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams and Dean Martin et al would sit around sets elaborately designed to represent the ideal Christmas-decorated living room, drinking “wassail” (I’m sure that’s what was in those cups) and crooning classics of the season alongside a dazzling array of guests. (We knew we were moving into a new world of holiday cheer when David Bowie joined Bing Crosby for a Christmas duet of “Peace on Earth” and “The Little Drummer Boy” on a Christmas special in 1977.)
TV was always a dominant window onto Christmas for kids my age, and so it was when it came time to discovering, absorbing and then engraining into perennial ritual some of the Christmas–themed movies of the classic Hollywood era. I’d wager that most of us got our introduction to pictures like It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife and Christmas in Connecticut via network broadcasts or, even more likely, reliable appearances as filler on local weekend afternoon TV schedules. And for many those movies became as much a part of the annual celebration of the holiday as decorating the tree, or attending Christmas Eve church services, or pretending not to notice the Salvation Army guy clanging away outside the local supermarket.
But there are those who are always looking for additions to the Christmas canon, or simply alternatives to the usual green-and-red-lit movie fare. Maybe you’ve toured Bedford Falls with Jimmy Stewart once too often. Perhaps you’ve had one too many merry little Christmases in the company of Judy Garland and Margaret O’Sullivan. It just could be that you’re looking for something beyond watching Bruce Willis load a dead, Santa cap-clad terrorist into an elevator to deliver a very special holiday message. And maybe your particular need cannot be filled by heading to the Redbox for Krampus or Jingle All the Way or any of the apparently thousands of sentimental, often-Hallmark-produced paeans to the presumed ideal of the season. (If something like Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas is what you’re looking for, you might be well advised to go pick that one up and stop reading this article right now.)
Over the last decade or so I’ve cultivated a few new perennial favorites, some of which are actually relatively “new,” a few of which are demonstrably “old,” a couple featuring only isolated segments that call up unusual manifestations of Christmas fear and alienation, and all of which speak to my own particular wants and desires when it comes to conjuring up a little anticipatory Christmas atmosphere in the age of the 65-inch flat screen. These, then, are five of my essential Christmas classics, movies without which Christmas just wouldn’t seem as rich and rewarding and somehow reassuring. What Grinch would deny a garland-and-tinsel-encrusted movie fiend such moments of delight?
Black Christmas (1974) Director Bob Clark’s elegantly eerie, crudely effective shocker was one of the two seminal Christmas-themed shockfests (the other one is mentioned here a bit further down the page) that, when I saw them in a theater in the early ‘70s, highlighted for the first time for me the rich possibility of terror and suspense that was if not inherent, then only slightly papered over during the usual seasonal celebration. Predating John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years, Black Christmas, along with Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971), to which the initial Friday the 13th movies owe a great debt, laid out the POV-laden template for holiday-themed slashing that is still referenced by a host of forward-thinking, backward-glancing filmmakers. Here the Christmas stockings are hung by the chimney with care, along with the housekeeper and sundry other unfortunates of a sorority house besieged by an obscene phone caller who has more on his dirty mind than just getting his ornaments off. Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Andrea Martin, John Saxon and a glorious foul-mouthed Margot Kidder head up a cast of Canadians whose indulgence of seasonal carolers is interrupted by a real killer performance, and director Clark stuffs his stocking with appearances by familiar faces like Lynne Griffin (Strange Brew, Curtains), Doug McGrath (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and Cronenberg vets Art Hindle (The Brood) and Les Carlson (Videodrome) too. The movie leaves a genuinely wintry, icy chill in the air, one you take with you when the lights come up.
A Christmas Tale (2008) More than just a spiking of the usual Hollywood holiday nog, Arnaud Desplechin’s family drama provides a welcome corrective to movies like The Family Stone and the usual sentimental shenanigans of the cinematic season while proving that facile narrative manipulations aren’t required to create a challenging and emotionally resonant experience. Abel and Junon (Jean-Paul Rousillon, Catherine Deneuve) head the turbulent Vuillards, a cultured French family still collectively reeling after the death of a child 30 years earlier, which gathers together over Christmas when Junon reveals that she has a degenerative cancer and is looking for a match within the family for a bone marrow transplant. Unlike The Family Stone, which also centers on the revelation of cancer devastating the body of its materfamilias, Desplechin undermines sentimental traps by revealing the disease right away and making the individual dramas within the group feel like painful ripples originating from the children’s relationship with their loving but matter-of-fact mother. Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the disaffected middle child who may be the only suitable bone marrow donor, has a refreshingly acerbic relationship with Junon—they openly acknowledge their disregard for each other while never betraying a wary mutual devotion. He has been banished from the family by his older sister, Elizabeth, a successful yet recessive playwright (Anne Consigny) who has a protective relationship with her own emotionally disturbed son, also a possible donor. And there is a tricky, beautifully choreographed interplay between Ivan, the youngest Vuillard (Melvil Poupaud), married to the lovely Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), and Simon (Laurent Capelluto), Ivan’s cousin, a painter who has been obsessed with Sylvia since they were all young. On paper these relationships might sound as prone to cliché as those in The Family Stone. But the magic of Desplechin’s film is in how the writer-director deftly avoids histrionics while never stinting on substantive and immediate drama, demonstrating how something likened to a Christmas spirit might reasonably extend to the everyday. All the actors are grand in ways that perfectly suit the material and Desplechin’s perspective on it, but special awe must be held for Deneuve, who convinces us of the wry detachment which informs her matronly concern and control without ever making an actorly show of it. She’s perfectly magnificent.
Remember the Night (1940) Easily the most “traditional” movie on this short list, Mitchell Leisen’s splendid comedy-drama, from a script by Preston Sturges (the last one he would write before embarking on his own career as a brilliant director of his own material), sends shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck and her courtroom prosecutor, Fred MacMurray, on a Christmas road trip to visit relatives, hers and his. When Stanwyck’s return home proves a devastating fulfillment of her worst suspicions of maternal disregard, MacMurray decides to bring her home to meet his own family, where a more resonant and meaningful holiday lays waiting. The movie beautifully balances Sturges’ peerless wit with Leisen’s talent for finding the undercurrent of pain beneath the familial pull, and part of the movie’s enduring appeal for me is not only in its evocation of a small-town Christmas experience, whether or not any such thing ever really existed anywhere than in our memories, but also in the gentle reminders woven within the story of how the joy of the Christmas holiday inevitably must give way, with melancholy, to a return to the everyday and the unavoidable responsibilities which come with it. For me Remember the Night has eclipsed the more celebrated It’s a Wonderful Life, and certainly the more atmospheric but considerably more synthetic pleasures of Stanwyck’s other generally beloved holiday entry, Christmas in Connecticut, as the quintessential Hollywood movie about the spirit of Christmas.
Tales from the Crypt (1972) Obviously not a Christmas movie, this horror anthology based on stories from the infamous EC comics series nonetheless sports one smashing holiday-themed segment, “All Through the House,” in which a murderous spouse (Joan Collins) gets her comeuppance when she crosses paths with a homicidal Santa recently escaped from a nearby mental institution. Robert Zemeckis remade this for the inaugural episode of the ‘90s HBO series (also titled Tales from the Crypt), but when seeking out this tale it’s best to insist on the original. Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…
Tommy (1975) Pete Townshend’s rock opera, as interpreted by cinematic loose cannon nonpareil Ken Russell (Lisztomania, The Music Lovers), features one segment early on in which the titular deaf, dumb and blind boy experiences—or rather remains outside of the experience of-- a typically loud, ebullient child-oriented Christmas morning celebration. His mother and her lover (Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed) rail against Tommy’s psychological absence, the traumatic result of seeing them murder his real father, and despair, with varying levels of sincerity and anger, over the spiritual vacuum within which the boy seems trapped: “Tommy doesn’t know what day it is/He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is/How can he be saved/From the eternal grave?” It’s a resonant song within the structure of the movie’s narrative, but it also stands in for the easily accessible emotional and spiritual alienation that for some is part and parcel of the holiday season.
A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011) If you’re in the mood for an irreverent comic deconstruction of the various excesses and indulgences of the Christmas season, it’s hard to imagine how you could do any better than this near-brilliant third installment in the popular Harold and Kumar series, in which our heroes (John Cho, Kal Penn), distanced from each other by time, money and the encroaching responsibilities of actual adulthood, find themselves thrown back together (reluctantly at first, of course) in a desperate search throughout Manhattan for the perfect Christmas tree. Along the way they encounter a murderous Russian mobster, Jesus, Santa and, of course, their personal bête noire, Neil Patrick Harris, again playing himself in a fearless act of character self-immolation that ranks right up there with Jennifer Tilly’s “Jennifer Tilly” in Seed of Chucky and outdoes even his appearances in the previous two Harold and Kumar movies. Oh, yeah, our heroes also inadvertently introduce a toddler to the Wu-Tang Clan and the pleasures of pot and cocaine (this is not your father’s or your mother’s Christmas movie, duh) and end up being chased by a giant rampaging Claymation snowman. Outrageous to the hilt, the movie encompasses the relentless cheer, the mania, the materialism, the sentiment and, of course, the gleeful immolation of everything good and sane and delightful that Christmas stands for. And somehow it never fails to get me in the Christmas spirit because, for all its relentless irreverence, it manages to also sincerely embrace that spirit, however folded, spindled or otherwise mutilated it may have become since the sorts of Christmases celebrated in movies like Remember the Night. If you can somehow see this movie in 3D, please do— along with Piranha 3D it uses stereoptic technology to greater, and certainly funnier ends that just about any movie of the modern 3D era. But even flat A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas is still a raunchy, red-nosed, not to mention red-eyed riot, and around our house it’s a new Christmas classic too.