Ah, Yuletide! The burgeoning darkness, the bitter cold, the twinkling lights, the existential angst. Whether you participate in holiday rituals for spiritual reasons, because you crave nostalgia, out of familial duty, or just because you need a break, already and a reason to celebrate something—anything—there’s no denying our cultural attachment to making this time of year special or festive or at least indulgent. This is our second year in the full throes of a global pandemic which shows no sign of abating. Instead of anticipating parties and family gatherings, we’re weighing whether to cancel them. Our normal holiday guilt (related to finances or family or whatever) is this year edged out by a sense that the truly generous and kind thing to do might be to avoid our fellow humans altogether, yet again. (Well, apart from bringing a plate of cookies or some nice wool mittens with a friendly card to your lonely elderly neighbor. Please continue to do that.)
But spending Christmas alone isn’t that bad. Many of us have shiny ornaments in our pockets that let us stay in touch with our loved ones. If your idea of indulgence is fancy snacks and watching a lot of films, well then, a very merry winter solstice to you, my seasonal soulmates! There are indeed some bad Christmas films out there, and some lovely classics that we may not be in the mood to watch yet again (you can have your Love, Actually and your White Christmas but don’t touch my It’s a Wonderful Life or my A Charlie Brown Christmas).
Then again, there are plenty of films set during the Yuletide season that aren’t particularly festive, and some of them are downright dark. If you’re not quite feeling the magic this year, or you want to immerse yourself in the season but also quell your stress and fear by watching stuff that is the antithesis of holly jolly (yes, psychologists agree watching horror actually does alleviate stress for a lot of people), consider these gems, all of them eminently watchable and many of them visually stunning. In beauty, there is truth, and vice versa. Hallelujah, pass the cookies.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This was Stanley Kubrick’s final film, and one of his most controversial, partly because he cast an actual married couple (Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise) as a husband and wife experiencing turmoil in their marriage. It’s set during the Christmas season and begins with Kidman dressing for an opulent party in a mansion bedazzled with golden chandeliers. Another party (an occult orgy, to be more accurate) takes place in another mansion, full of nude women in high heels and men dressed like they’re attending an opera. Every scene and physical set in this film contains sparkling Christmas lights, a clever visual conceit that makes it a holiday must-see even if its plot is a far cry from Rudolph.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Tomas Alfredson’s sumptuous 1970s-era spy thriller, adapted from the John le Carré novel, features a stellar British cast (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke) and a glossy mise-en-scène. Awkward Christmas parties with government spies in attendance anchor the timeline that moves backward and forward in time. Dreamy photography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk), a fabulous score by Alberto Iglesias (All About My Mother), costumes by Jacqueline Durran (Little Women), and with plenty of espionage and career-weary ennui peppering the plot, this film is both subtle and spectacular.
Who better than Terry Gilliam to create a dystopian comedy that makes a futuristic post-industrial Orwellian society look like a Dickensian hellscape? No one better, that’s who! Jonathan Pryce is a lonely civil servant whose unwanted promotion gives him access to the horrific underworld of London’s cruel bureaucracy, and a way to escape its increasingly terrifying environment. The terrific cast includes Ian Holm, Robert DeNiro, Michael Palin and Katherine Helmond. Set during Christmas week, the film abounds with ironic Yuletide cheer and absurdly-folksy holiday customs. The pervading political party slogan, “We’re all in it together!” may feel especially pertinent this season…
Morvern Callar (2002)
Lynne Ramsay’s tale of a shiftless young woman named Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) begins with her lying next to her boyfriend’s dead body in the glow of a small Christmas tree. His name is the same as the lead character in Ramsay’s 1999 drama Ratcatcher, set in Glasgow in the mid-1970s, and his suicide hints at a sad sequel to that harrowing film. Yet Morvern finds a way to seize pleasure and adventure in the midst of tragedy. The visuals and soundscapes of this film are hypnotic and haunting.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Originally made for Swedish TV as a longer series, this is perhaps Ingmar Bergman’s most magical and emotionally resonant film. Set in 1907, an enormous family gathering on Christmas Eve, in the wake of family tragedy and grief, unfolds into an unexpectedly beautiful scene, helped along by the childlike perspective of the title characters. It boasts lovely cinematography, humor and drama, brimming with nostalgia. Just what the director ordered.
The City of Lost Children (1995)
This visually mind-blowing French film by Jeunet and Caro (Delicatessen, Amélie) is a rather harrowing, dystopian (but ultimately uplifting) film with a Christmas theme. With its post-apocalyptic urban setting, a raggedy band of evil Santas in dirty red suits, and a veritable army of street urchins who only want to enjoy Christmas, this film has plenty of absurdity, horror, adventure and pathos. It is also hilariously funny at times, and features a great cameo by Ron Perlman.
Trading Places (1983)
This dark yet hilarious comedy has a “Prince and the Pauper” vibe with Dan Aykroyd as a wealthy jerk forced to switch places with a homeless man played by Eddie Murphy. Aykroyd drunk in a dirty Santa suit perfectly captures the seedy irony at the heart of this commercial holiday. Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy play sociopathic Wall Street bluebloods who toy with these men as an experiment in nature versus nurture. The film feels dated at times but its central message still rings loud as bells at vespers.
A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)
This odd little black and white British film directed by Kenneth Branagh (its title in the UK is In the Bleak Midwinter) centers around a small village’s attempts to put on a low-budget production of Hamlet in place of its traditional Christmas pageant. Quirky, sad and very funny, it has much for fans of British cinema and TV to love in its eclectic casting: Adrien Scarborough (Killing Eve), Joan Collins, AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha, Celia Imrie (Calendar Girls) and a hilarious John Sessions trying his best to play Gertrude.
Todd Haynes’ bittersweet love story, impeccably adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, is a rich, glorious paean to New York in the 1950s. Beginning in a pastel candyland department store, Rooney Mara plays a shopgirl who wants to be a photographer and is swept off her feet by a glamorous older woman (Cate Blanchett). From there, the film takes the viewer on a romantic odyssey, complete with a subtle red and green palette throughout, and an evocative soundtrack with only one (cleverly-placed) Christmas song. If you don’t have the flames of a Yuletide fire to warm your frozen heart or loins, this film will do nicely.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
One of the finest and most underappreciated animated Christmas specials of the 1960s, and maybe of all time, features Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island’s Thurston Howell III) voicing the beloved eccentric character Mister Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge in what has become my very favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol. This version has wonderfully singable songs, too, some of them silly, some sad and lovely. Watch this one with the kids, maybe? Or alone, or with your dog. Razzleberry dressing for all!
Ordinary People (1980)
Robert Redford’s directorial debut is an intimate, intense family drama adapted from Judith Guest’s acclaimed novel. Mary Tyler Moore (in a rare non-comedic role) is stunning as a woman whose grief over her eldest son’s accidental death haunts her daily existence. Donald Sutherland is her kind but brooding husband, and Timothy Hutton, in a blistering breakout role, is their troubled younger son who tries his best to hold the family together. Christmas with these folks is brutal. But this film is moving, cathartic and redemptive.
Peg Aloi is a freelance film and TV critic, media studies scholar and nature worshipper based in New York state.
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