Alternative Christmas Movies

Would you rather Richard Attenborough’s Kris Kringle got jail time in Miracle on 34th Street or a blizzard covered Bing Crosby’s head as he sang White Christmas? Or maybe you’d love James Stewart’s bank manager to jump before Clarence the Angel persuades him his place in the world is important. If so here is an alternative list of Christmas movies.
The Thin Man (WS Van Dyke, 1934)


Set over Christmas Nick and Nora Charles are world class drinkers and married Private Eyes caught up in a murder mystery though whodunit is less important than the witty repartee between leads William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Blast of Silence (Allen Baron, 1961)

In this little-seen Noir masterpiece hitman Frankie ‘Baby Boy’ Bono returns to New York to kill a gangster. Frankie craves solitude and has no interest in other people. Yet when he arrives in his hometown to find carol singers in Central Station and the department stores decorated with lights. Frankie gets to thinking about his childhood in an orphanage. Then he meets a girl he used to know called Laurie (Molly McCarthy) and suddenly Frankie doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1963)

 Demy’s musical about young lovers Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Denueve) ends with an epilogue outside a petrol station at Christmas. Demy had the houses in Cherbourg painted in bright colours so they looked better than life. With added snow and Christmas decorations Demy directs one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema.

 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)

George Lazenby’s only appearance as James Bond is one of the best in the series. Bond goes undercover at Blofeld’s hideaway in the Alps. When his cover is blown 007 escapes on skis and hides out in a small town holding a winter fair.  Peter Hunt orchestrates a masterful sequence to the sound of composer John Barry’s song ‘Do You Know How Christmas Trees are Grown?’ Bond loses himself amongst the crowd and hides out by an ice rink. Looking troubled and afraid for once, the spy adjusts his collar against the cold and looks up to see his lover Tracy (Diana Rigg) standing in front of him.

 Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1982)

Oshima’s idiosyncratic war film about the culture clash between Japanese prison guards and their prisoners sees British officer Lawrence (Tom Conti) striking up a friendship with brutal guard Sgt Hara (Takeshi Kitano). The two meet again briefly after the war has ended. The film takes its title from the final line of dialogue spoken between them, a hugely affecting moment acted with tremendous subtlety by Kitano and Conti.

Trading Places (John Landis, 1983)

 City whiz-kid Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd) has it all; a fancy house, a pretty girl, and the world’s coolest butler (Denholm Elliot). That is until his bosses Randolph and Mortimer (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) decide to replace him with a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) for a bet.
At his lowest point Winthorpe gatecrashes the kind of party he would once have been invited to and hides food in his beard to consume on the bus home. Drunk and depressed he considers shooting himself in the head. Just a regular Christmas night out then.

Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

Deserves its place on the list for Kate (Phoebe Cates) anecdote about why she hates Christmas, as well as director Joe Dante letting his anarchic version loose on the kind of small town setting Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg likes to eulogise in his own movies.

Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)

Screenwriter Shane Black clearly likes Christmas, he set his other big action movie Die Hard (1988) during the festive period as well. Lethal Weapon sees Mad Mel Gibson taking on a mercenary cartel with the help of Danny Glover. Nothing says Merry Christmas quite like Gary Busey kicking down your front door and shooting your television.

Batman Returns (Tim Burton 1992)

 

Tim Burton’s underrated Batman Returns (1992) has the Caped Crusader falling for Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) on the rooftops of a snowy Gotham City. Lovely ending too.

Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2004)

 

Though it was marketed as an anti-Christmas movie Bad Santa follows the Scrooge-like formula usually found in Xmas movies. Store Santa Billy Bob Thornton starts out as a cynic, but by the end of the movie he has become a better person and made new friends. It remains wonderfully offensive though.
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Film is a Substitute for Life – Cinemania (Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak 2002)

Pauline Kael, the famed critic at the New Yorker from 1968-91 published a collection of her film writing under the title I Lost It At the Movies. No doubt the subjects of Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak documentary Cinemania share Kael’s sentiment. These five New Yorkers have let their love of film take over their lives, leading them to reject the normality of everyday existence. While Kael turned her movie-going into some of the best prose about film ever written, none of the five here have any aspirations beyond watching and being part of an aesthetic experience.

Jack sees at least one film a day, usually two or three and sometimes four or five. This does not mean he is sitting at home with a pizza watching an American Ninja movie marathon. Jack only watches films in theatre, despises television, knows the times of the New York subway system by heart and phones the projectionist beforehand to find out what the print is like. For Jack cinema is “better than sex, it’s better than love.”

Bill moved to New York to see a Fassbinder retrospective and has been there ever since. A lover of European cinema, Bill worships Godard and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Bill is educated, but has avoided having a career. He travels to cinemas with a kit-bag, containing a change of clothing, a box of pills for any potential ailments and his home-made peanut butter sandwiches. Bill says “Film is a substitute for life. Film is a form of living.”

Harvey is less discriminate; he will see anything and loves trashy movies like Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). At one point Jack chides him for having seen every Muppet movie ever made. If American Ninja 4: The Annihilation ever played in a New York cinema Harvey was probably in the audience. Harvey looks like John Landis and has a child-like quality, especially when he gleefully explains his tactics for sneaking into movies.

Eric is older than the others and feels the best films ever made are the comedies and musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Contemptuous of the art cinema Jack and Bill admire, Eric claims people only turned towards Ingmar Bergman films when American cinema became so poor. Unlike the others he can happily watch video tapes and his small apartment is filled with classics from back in the day.

Roberta is the only woman amongst the group; a little old lady whose small stature belies her ability to physically attack a hoity-toity cinema attendant should she foolishly tear up Roberta’s ticket instead of letting her keep it for her collection of stubs, brochures and memorabilia.

Jack is the most charismatic and illuminating interviewee. For him cinephelia is the point where you pay a price, where there’s pain involved. It leads to “a life in the margins,” separate from other people. All five lead similar lives surrounded by books and memorabilia. There are no lovers present, except onscreen. Bill would like some company though and has penned a dating advertisement to attract the kind of female who sadly for him only exists in the films of the Nouvelle Vague.

Harvey lives with his mum and there are hints at an unusual childhood, but Christlieb and Kijak have no interest in forcing their subjects to face reality. It is obvious they are dysfunctional and a little odd. Why make a big deal about it? If you are passionate about film you may recognise some of your own quirks in their behaviour. And it is hard to disagree with Jack when he bemoans the banality of everyday existence, a point he illustrates with an anecdote about the time he went to a café in Paris, expecting it to be like in a Godard film, but found he was simply sitting in a café in Paris. For him the beauty held within the frame of a film is simply not there in real life.