Caught in the Yuletide: More Alternative Christmas Films

By: Daniel Reynolds

You had to know, after my appearance on the Global Morning Show this past week (seriously, check it out here), that there are more unconventional, bizarre and/or alternative Christmas movies to recommend. On the show I kept it pretty brief, documenting Die Hard’s famous Yuletide touches, resurrecting The Ref, offering up the classic The Shop Around the Corner, making a case for Children of Men and enjoying the stately (if overly stiff) drama of Joyeux Noel. I had to keep in mind, of course, that you can only talk about so many violent, sexual and expletive-filled movies on morning television. So, for our rather unceremonious 100th entry on the Same Page, I thought I’d run through some more Christmas films that buck tradition:

For a Very Sexually Tense Christmas – Eyes Wide Shut

Christmas!

Christmas!

The last film of Stanley Kubrick, that ever reclusive cinematic mastermind, unreels the supremely compelling (albeit weird) story of one man’s (played by Tom Cruise) odyssey through New York. However, unlike other all night NY trips, the film owes a lot of its surreal feel to the surfeit of Christmas lighting on display. As many will attest, nothing in a Kubrick movie is there by accident, so his choice to set the movie during the holiday season is clearly a deliberate act to foster this brightly saturated, dream-like aura. And oh, what a dream. Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford goes through opulent parties (that feature a shirtless Sydney Pollack, RIP), tends to the deathbed of one of his patients, gets caught up in various come-ons from various women of the night and finds himself, at the film’s, ahem, climax at a nightmarish orgy in a castle- (or dungeon-) like mansion that eventually tosses him back into the streets of NYC a changed man. Sure, the film also tumbles along a thematic thread of wanton hunger, desire and consumption, you know, those staples of the holiday season, but still, Christmas lights!

For a Very Merry F-ing Christmas – In Bruges

A holy time.

A holy time.

Set around Christmas time in a fairytale (f-ing) town, In Bruges is one of my favourites, and one film that has been sadly lost in the mainstream’s collective memory. The film tells the tale of two hitmen (Colin Farrell an Brendan Gleeson) hiding out in the titular Belgian town after a job gone wrong. As it is the season, there is the faint tinge of Christmas to all the proceedings, as the villagers enjoy the festive decorations, evergreen trees abound, and there is even a saintly pregnant woman named Marie (eh, close enough). Sadly, the film came out at the tail end of Colin Farrell’s descent into Hollywood purgatory with a marketing campaign that had no idea what to do with a surprisingly thoughtful, touching, sometimes even sweet movie that also had some headbashingly brutal violence (and Ralph Fiennes almost literally gnawing apart the furniture). Is it a drama? A comedy? A crime caper? It is just a worthwhile film.

For an Even More Crass Christmas – Bad Santa

A time for giving.

A time for giving.

I’ll admit that I’m not entirely in love with this movie, but as far as recent crime based Christmas capers go, Bad Santa has to get a mention. Now, I could talk about the late, great performances from John Ritter and Bernie Mac, or the special kind of insane sexuality that Lauren Graham brings (Hi Lorelai!), and then of course there is that wonderfully dumb kid (Brett Kelly). But, really, at the film’s centre, in a role that maybe only a handful of actors could convincingly play, is good ol’Billy Bob Thorton playing Willie, the official bad Santa. Like the aforementioned movie The Ref, Bad Santa gives us a character who is despicable, cynical and mean, and yet we like him anyway. That the movie has a happy ending the includes a hail of bullets, screaming children and a broken down man in a Santa suit really just about sums up the pros and cons of the whole project.

For a Halloween-ish Christmas – The Nightmare Before Christmas

A time to appreciate vibrant decorations.

A time to appreciate vibrant decorations.

My clearest memory of this film is seeing the trailer on TV (this is pre-internet, of course) and having no idea what this movie was supposed to be. To my young eyes, it seemed like the most abominable combination of horror and cheer. I could not figure it out, which naturally drove my curiosity through the chimney. In 2012, where every animated movie has to have some gleefully anarchistic sense of cultural mix, the Nightmare Before Christmas almost seems quaint, but there was a time when it felt daring. The credit these days for the film tends to all go to Tim Burton (y’know, the guy with his name above the title) but I’m going to toss the praise on Henry Selick (he of James and the Giant Peach and Coraline). While undoubtedly mixing Halloween with Christmas, and creating one of the most memorable misunderstood Christmas heroes since the Grinch in Jack Skellington, feels naturally like a Burton-ish idea, it took a guy like Selick to visually create and sustain the awesomely hodgepodge claymation style that drives the film. That Danny Elfman is on hand to imbue Skellington with that wonderful singing voice of his is an added Christmas bonus.

For a Classic, Short Yet Bursting with Good Cheer Christmas – Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Do all that and perhaps you're heart will grow three sizes.

Embrace the season and perhaps your heart will grow three sizes.

I don’t know how the negotiations worked out, who said what to whom, how much money was paid, or whatever other stipulations there were; but I do know that getting Boris “Frankenstein” Karloff to narrate your deliciously dour Christmas cartoon is a damn good idea. Now I realize that this film – it is actually a TV special from 1966 – isn’t offensive in any real way, it doesn’t have a lot of violence (except for the various slings and arrows suffered by that dog), or any real adult content, but after turning this Christmas movie question over and over in my head, I realized I had to include it somewhere. At only 26 minutes long, How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains as one of the best summaries of the holiday spirit, the art and effortless majesty of Dr. Seuss (and Chuck Jones) and it always effortlessly inflates my heart (three sizes too big?) in time for the Christmas season.

If you haven’t already seen it, set aside some time over the next few weeks and enjoy.

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