We all know about A Christmas Story and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street - they're Christmas classics for a reason. But what about some lesser known Christmas movies?
Ones where perhaps Christmas isn't the star of the show, but the holiday season still adds a huge amount of depth to the proceedings, whether it be sentiment or cynicism. Here are five essential Christmas movies that aren't about schmaltz and cliché, but about all the really weighty emotions that come at Christmas time, and what Christmas represents to us at various points in our lives.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It's difficult to believe that Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life was a commercial bust (at least when compared to Capra's other blockbusters) when it first came out. It is a perfect crystallisation of the director's talent for finding poetic angles for just about anything, and the one that the director called his own personal favourite. It's a Wonderful Life is a simple story of a great man, but one who isn't rich or famous or even that talented. The film is a celebration of the unquestionable goodness of George Bailey, a man well known among the inhabitants of a small fictional town called Bedford Falls, who finds himself one Christmas Eve in such a predicament that he is considering suicide. Through flashback, two angels discuss George's life leading up to that moment, until the bumbling angel Clarence Odbody reveals himself to George and intervenes by showing him what Bedford Falls would be like without him. It's a Wonderful Life is romantic and sentimental, but not soppy, full of real, gripping emotion. The film's life-affirming ending, notably given a nod in The Simpsons, is the perfect representation of what Christmas is all about - joy, gratitude and unconditional love.
The Apartment (1960)
Apologies to Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, but Billy Wilder was the greatest American (via Austria) filmmaker who ever lived. In 1960 he was coming off of the success of Some Like it Hot, possibly one of the funniest movies ever, and it was reasonable to expect that The Apartment would be another hilarious, sexy comedy, especially considering that it stars Jack Lemmon, one half of Some Like it Hot's cross-dressing duo. The Apartment, though, while it features some funny moments, and a deliciously absurd plot where C. C. "Bud" Baxter's (Jack Lemmon) apartment is used by the executives at his work to carry on illicit affairs, is another breed of movie. It's smart and full of pathos, with Shirley MacLaine giving a wonderfully moving performance as Fran the elevator operator. Fran is lonely, tired of being tossed around by men, and has nobody with whom she can share Christmas. While the films seems grim at first, its incredible ending re-affirms the joy and love of the Christmas season. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it.
Black Christmas (1974)
Despite pre-dating it by three years, Bob Clark's Yuletide slasher film did not peak in popularity until after John Carpenter's instant classic Halloween. The holiday-themed horror flick even starts with a similar sequence to Halloween, shot from the killer's point-of-view, as he breaks in through an upstairs window in order to terrorise a house full of sorority girls over Christmas break. Nothing is sacred when there are knife-wielding maniacs running around, not even Christmas; at the start of the film, one of the characters coins the term "Yule-ish," which sounds an awful lot like "ghoulish." You know this film means business when it contrasts one of the most vulgar phone calls ever heard (coming from inside the house!) with a choral recording of ”Joy to the World," immediately before all hell breaks loose for the unfortunate young women. Not only is Black Christmas seriously tense and genuinely frightening, but it's actually surprisingly funny and smartly subversive too. Add Black Christmas to your holiday viewing list if you're in the mood for a fun antidote to all that overbearing joy.
Terry Gilliam's masterpiece is dystopian science-fiction that just happens to be set at Christmas. Of course, a filmmaker like Mr. Gilliam would never do anything for no reason, and it becomes clear in the film's first minute just how the movie feels about Christmas. By blowing up a set of display TVs that are flanked by glittering Christmas ornaments, Brazil immediately puts us on edge, and the effect becomes increasingly sinister as the bizarre and threatening goings-on of the 1984-inpsired narrative are perpetually wreathed in Christmas cheer. It is a movie about falsehoods, and this is reflected in the cynicism with which it looks at Christmas; everything is fake and cheerful out of obligation. In fact, just about everything that happens in the film is out of obligation - not to any sense of community and togetherness, but to the oppressive state and their miles of bureaucratic red tape. Ultimately, Brazil is a very pessimistic film, and one that has remained relevant over time. Perhaps not to everyone's taste, but there are definitely some that will agree with the chilly outlook that Brazil has on the holiday season.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
After the sentimentality of It's a Wonderful Life and The Apartment, as well as the more subversive themes of Black Christmas and Brazil, French director Arnaud Desplechin's masterpiece is a perfect way to end this list. It is a distinctly modern update of the many Christmas tales that are so often centred on the coming-together of a family. The wry and honest drama centres around the Vuillard family, whose dysfunction reaches new height when the family matriarch (played beautifully by the iconic Catherine Deneuve) reveals that she has leukaemia (just like the son that she and her husband lost many years ago) and has little time left to live. This immediately sets the bickering between siblings in motion, and the film uses this as a jumping-off point to explore the complexity of familial love at a time of year when it is expected to be unconditional. A Christmas Tale is not the light-hearted romp suggested by its title, but nor is that title some kind of hyper-ironic way of telling a hopelessly grim tale. The film finds a middle-ground, and, while playful and creative in a way that is so distinctive of French cinema, it is much more realistic for it. The film reminds us that families may not always get along when they have to, but to love someone is far more complicated than that.