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M.J. Daugherty Written by M.J. Daugherty
Dec. 15, 2005 | 12:07 AM

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by M.J. Daugherty

Well, here we are - another holiday season already upon us.  Can’t you feel the magic in the air?  Somewhere, hypothetical chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost is nipping at our collective noses, and everywhere you go, you find nothing but peace on earth and good will toward all - just as long as you don’t mind fighting the crowds at the shopping mall?or a continuously looped soundtrack of cheesy holiday classics?or try to figure out why your stinkin’ Christmas tree lights don’t work.  On second thought, can we just skip the whole holiday thing this year?   

If the endless holiday cheer is starting to make you want to shout “bah humbug!” join the club.  The chaos of the holidays can make even the most merry and bright of us a little crabby at times.  When you reach your saturation point, you can either do as I once did and use your family’s snow-covered village miniatures in a diorama tribute to Ethan Frome, or you can take a break from the world and watch a movie.  So in an effort to spread a little cheer of my own, I present ten saccharine free holiday movies guaranteed to win over even the biggest Scrooge. 


This independent gem from the UK is probably one of the most non-traditional holiday movies you’ll ever see.  Directed by Danny Boyle - yes, that Danny Boyle, the one who also brought us Trainspotting and Shallow Grave - the film revolves around two brothers who discover a bag full of stolen money.  The elder boy, a budding financial genius, plans to keep it and spend it for their own gain, but the younger brother, a lonely kid who is obsessed with the lives of saints, decides to put it use helping the poor.  Unfortunately, his altruism causes more trouble than it solves.  There are no easy answers to the questions raised by this refreshingly intelligent and visually imaginative film.  Wow - a holiday movie that actually makes you think.   

THE DEAD (1987)

Another holiday movie that isn’t really about the holidays, John Huston’s beautiful final film has enough repressed emotion and subtext to make Harold Pinter look like a chatterbox.  It’s a Wonderful Life it ain’t.  Based on James Joyce’s story, the ensemble movie takes place during a Christmas Eve party in turn of the century Dublin, and features a group of troubled characters who have built a family with one another.  The center of the story is a writer played by the late (and hugely underrated) Donal McCann.  In the course of the evening, he comes to realize that he is far less significant than he thought he was, both to the larger world and in the life of his own wife, played by Anjelica Huston, who finally reveals how deeply she continues to grieve for her dead first love.  Sorrow, regret, and suppressed emotion - how’s that for holiday cheer? 


If James Joyce isn’t your idea of holiday entertainment, this movie is the antidote.    Okay, maybe it means I’m a sap, but I love Richard Curtis.  His movies make me happy, and Love, Actually makes me happiest of all.  Like the title suggests, this impressively cast ensemble piece explores the nature of love and relationships, following several converging stories set around the holidays.  What makes this film work, though, is that it goes beyond the adorably quirky romantic comedy plots we’ve come to expect from Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary), and takes a long hard look at the difficulties that come with loving another person.  If Emma Thompson and Laura Linney don’t break your heart with their work in this movie, you are made of stone and there is no hope for you. 


Yes, I know it’s a musical starring Judy Garland. Hear me out.  There isn’t nearly as much icky sweetness to this movie as some people think there is.  Beneath all the singing and dancing is the story of a loving but dysfunctional family - dysfunctional being the operative word.  Even the “adorable” little sister is an antisocial terror in need of some serious therapy.  Moreover, this film features one of the most genuinely heart-wrenching takes on the holidays you’re likely to find.  If you think you know the words to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” think again.  In the context of the story, with the original lyrics, the song becomes a deeply ironic juxtaposition, and sneaks up on you with the sort of emotionally brutal scene most people don’t expect to find in this kind of movie.  If you feel like wallowing in the holiday blues, this is the ultimate experience.


To say that this modern adaptation of Dickens’ classic tale takes the material to comedic new heights would be putting it mildly.  Try deranged instead.  Bill Murray stars as (what else?) a caustic curmudgeon, this time a high-powered TV network executive overseeing a big budget live production of A Christmas Carol, and who is (duh) visited by a bunch of wacky ghosts who try to make him see the error of his ways.  The filmmakers approach the material with all the glee of a hyperactive child tearing into a pile of presents.  It’s over-the-top, puerile, and about as subtle as a sledgehammer, yet I can’t help but love this crazy movie. 

THE REF (1994)

“You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”  Yes, friends, that is a direct quote from this festival of schadenfreude about a Christmas Eve from hell with the ultimate dysfunctional American family.  Denis Leary plays a bumbling burglar who stumbles across a bickering couple played by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey.  When he takes them hostage, he gets more than he bargained for, and he is forced to intercede in their crumbling marriage, their relationship with their hoodlum teenage son, and Christmas Eve dinner with their extended family just to protect his own sanity.  It’s bitter and cynical, yet absolutely refreshing at the same time. 

BAD SANTA (2003)

The makers of this film are definitely on Santa’s naughty list.  This twisted comedy turns inappropriate holiday humor into an art form.  Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox play a pair of con men with a unique M.O. - they dress as Santa and an elf and to rob shopping malls.  Yet, the costumes are where the similarities stop.  Thorton’s character is an irredeemably foul-mouthed, raunchy, angry, pathetic excuse for a human being.  Of course, this being a holiday movie, he crosses paths with an equally pathetic and emotionally needy little boy who eventually teaches him the true meaning of Christmas, but don’t let that part fool you.  This film is really a glorious, take-no-prisoners “F U” to the holiday spirit on behalf of everyone who has ever taken a cynical view of the season.     

GEMLINS (1984)

I bet you forgot that this movie takes place at the holidays, didn’t you?  I bet you even forgot all about that little “The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas” monologue too.  This is one goes out to everyone who takes a subversive delight in watching horror movies at the holidays (you know who you are).  They may look cute and cuddly, but remember, “don’t ever get them wet and don’t feed them after midnight,” or they’ll turn into destructive little monsters?sort of like children after too many candy canes.  Of course, for true coinsures of holiday horror, nothing beats the classics: Black Christmas (1974), You Better Watch Out (1980), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. 


Yet another entry from the category of twisted takes on the holidays, but finally one that can be enjoyed by the whole family.  Tim Burton turns his bizarre imagination loose in this surreal stop-motion movie in which the leader of Halloweentown decides to kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas.  To borrow a phrase from another Burton film, “strange and unusual” doesn’t even begin to sum it up.  This movie is a must-see for anyone with a dark sense of humor who’s sick to death of the cutesy worlds of most animated holiday movies. 


Say it with me - “You’ll shoot your eye out!”  You know it.  You love it.  It’s a classic.  Probably no other holiday movie sums up the experience of being a kid as well as this little comedy about Ralphie and his quest for the ultimate Christmas present (“an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200 shot range model air rifle.”)  It’s the perfect holiday movie for the Baby Boomer and post Baby Boomer generations, balancing the ironic and often juvenile sense of humor of Jean Shepherd’s short stories with a kindhearted approach, reminding even the grouchiest of us that the holidays really are special, if a bit maddening at times. 

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