By Peg Aloi
Where do you go once you’ve watched the classic Xmas films? Some suggestions.
Hey, it’s the holidays! Time off from work, a break from school, and once your chores and responsibilities are done and you’re brain dead from the stimulation, or maybe just feeling a bit anxious or depressed (hey, it’s the holidays!), you need a bit of a break. I personally enjoy tuning into to some TV and movies because there’s usually plenty to get caught up on. It’s also a fun way to avoid talking to your family! (just kidding, well, maybe not — interpret as befits your situation).
But where do you go after you’ve watched the classics (It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, Home Alone, Die Hard, etc.)? God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, there are plenty of unusual choices await you. Some of them are set during Christmas, some feature Christmas activities or celebration, and some of them feel distinctly anti-Christmas.
Here are my suggestions for holiday viewing off the beaten track.
First up, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina winter solstice special was a treat. There’s an evil Santa, a witch who lives in the woods that liked to steal other peoples’ children, a solstice ball, and the usual angst following an adolescent break up (Sabrina and Harvey), plus a séance. There’s some gorgeous traditional holiday décor, too, mostly in the Spellman house, as well as the department store where Suzie works as an elf. Mostly this is just a nice-pick-me up for those who can’t wait until April for the new season. That Season Two trailer looks spectacular, and things seem to be getting smokier and sexier for Sabrina and her witchy compatriots.
There are literally hundreds of holiday episodes of TV shows, and these can be fun to revisit. The Office has at least a dozen holiday episodes (celebrating Diwali, in one instance), as does The Simpsons, Charmed, King of the Hill, and others. It’s not exactly a well kept secret that you can find a lot of vintage TV on Youtube, but also try Tubitiv.com (plenty of movies there, too).
And now on to some film favorites; be warned, some of these are a bit dark.
Fanny and Alexander (1982). This is perhaps Ingmar Bergman’s most magical and pleasing film. It features a cheerful Christmas holiday celebration seen through the eyes of the children in the title. Lovely cinematography — full of humor and wit, Swedish style.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2012). Stunning period piece about British spies and secret agents with an terrific cast. There’s an impressively creepy office Christmas party. A smart, compelling, well-acted, and gorgeously shot example of British cinema, spy flick variety.
Brazil (1985). Terry Gilliam’s brilliant dystopian story is set during the Christmas holidays, appropriate because its satire targets a not-too-futuristic society where everything is commercialized and humanity is sorely lacking. The movie stars Jonathan Pryce, Michael Palin, and Katharine Helmond, with a great cameo by Robert De Niro Full of amusing moments, but ultimately this parable is dark and disturbing.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). I love the tacky Christmas outfits the lovers wear when they first meet (and, predictably, initially hate each other). Christmas is a crappy time to be dateless, and that’s Bridget’s problem. She so desperately wants a man. But she learns to love herself along the way. This one has Hugh Grant AND Colin Firth.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). One of the finest and most under-appreciated animated Christmas specials of the ’60s. Jim Backus voices the beloved character Mister Magoo, who in this go around is Ebenezer Scrooge. This brilliant cartoon has delightfully singable songs, too. Razzleberry dressing for all! This is my favorite of all the animated holiday specials.
Morvern Callar (2002). Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay is known for some very dark films (including this year’s hit You Were Never Really Here), and this is no exception. Samantha Morton stars as a young woman of few words named Morvern Callar; she discovers her boyfriend has committed suicide beneath their Christmas tree. He’s left her instructions on what to do with his recently-finished novel. What she does next is what drives this haunting and visually gorgeous film. The soundtrack, a mix tape Morvern’s boyfriend made for her, is also memorable.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Stanley Kubrick’s last and possibly most controversial film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married at the time) as a couple whose marriage in on the rocks. It is during the Christmas season in Manhattan; every scene contains a brightly lit Christmas tree. It’s a metaphor — but for what? Anyway there are plenty of gorgeous visuals. There’s also an absolutely stunning (and notorious) sequence featuring a sex slave party that includes intimations of a cult-like pagan ritual.
A Midwinter’s Tale (1995). This odd little black and white British film directed by Kenneth Branagh (its UK title is In The Bleak Midwinter, the name of a traditional song) revolves around a small village’s Christmas pageant and the kooky cast of characters involved. It’s drily funny, subtle, and ultimately very moving.
Ordinary People (1980). Christmas was made for dysfunctional families, really. This film is brutal to watch but superb performances from Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore make it worthwhile. The holiday scenes are particularly touching — a family broken by grief tries to make peace.
Happy Christmas (2014). Despite the title, this film is neither particularly happy nor particularly Christmasy. I wasn’t a huge fan of the film Drinking Buddies, but Joe Swanberg keeps getting better. Anna Kendrick is terrific as a manic pixie dream bitch who moves in with her brother (Mark Webber) and his wife (the excellent Melanie Lynskey) and their toddler (who is charming and hilarious and returns in Swanberg’s follow-up Digging for Fire). Low-key character studies and realistic, punchy dialogue are Swanberg’s strong suit. This one resonates with gritty pathos.
C.R.A.Z.Y (2005) Before his worldwide success with Dallas Buyer’s Club, French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée won acclaim for this colorful, very funny coming-of-age story about a gay boy who feels out of place in his conservative family. The film’s major plot points take place during the Christmas holidays.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.