There are two kinds of Christmas movies: movies about Christmas qua Christmas—the Christian feast celebrated on the 25th of December—and movies that happen to take place at Christmas. Only the former are, strictly speaking, Christmas movies, but what fun would life be if we always spoke strictly?
If you want to insist that a movie cannot be a true Christmas movie if its central theme is about something other than redemption through divine intervention, that’s fine. I’ll even concede that you have the better of the argument, as long as you promise to go away and enjoy the warm seasonal glow of sanctimonious rectitude alone and leave the rest of us to enjoy a more eclectic selection of holiday movies.
My list of the top 10 non-Christmassy Christmas movies is inspired by Jeet Heer. Unless you waste a lot of time on Twitter, or are one of the few remaining readers of The Nation—a venerable New York magazine that once dabbled in Stalinist apologetics and now reads like the splenetic propaganda organ of a particularly-paranoid progressive cult—you are unlikely to have encountered Mr. Heer. If not, imagine Cliff Clavin … if he’d spent too many years marinating in the cultural studies department at Canada’s loopiest grad school, York University.
To give Heer his due, he is a gifted writer, albeit one with a special talent for self-parodic contrarianism. Case in point, two years ago, he tweeted the following list of the five best Christmas movies:
1. Fanny and Alexander
2. Eyes Wide Shut
4. The Dead
It’s such a preposterous list, so self-consciously over-the-top in its pompous provocation, that one can only applaud the conceit. And the funniest part is, he’s not wrong. Well, perhaps Eyes Wide Shut is a stretch, but Heer seems to have a thing for the movie. In the last four years, he’s tweeted more than a dozen times about it being either Kubrick’s best movie, which is absurd, or the best Christmas movie, which is both absurd and unnecessarily revealing.
But everyone has his own gout, or whatever it is the French say, so I’ll refrain from passing further comment and just provide a correction in the form of my own contrarian-but-correct top 10 list. You won’t find much recent Hollywood fare, and you definitely won’t find Richard Curtis’s smarmy creep-fest, Love Actually, so inexplicably beloved by people who wouldn’t recognise love, actually, if Socrates dropped by dressed as Cupid and read them the Symposium underscored by the overture to Tristan und Isolde.
Instead, these are the movies to watch after the mandatory viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Scrooge (the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, still the best of all Christmas movies), while there is still sherry in the decanter and dishes or guests to avoid. Here they are, in no particular order, beginning with the ones Heer got right:
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
A five-hour epic about an unhappy home life in early 1900s Uppsala might sound like a bit of a slog, and it is, but it is also one of the most beautiful movies ever shot, and the first hour, which shows the family in happier times, captures a postcard-perfect Swedish Christmas celebration, including snowy streets, a nativity play, real candles flickering on the tree, and a Christmas party from an age when adults still dressed like grown-ups.
Imagine if Fitzgerald wrote a John Hughes movie. Whit Stillman’s debut follows a group of college-age UHBs (“urban haute bourgeoisie”) as they navigate the Manhattan Christmas party season at the fag end of the 1980s. Stillman (drawing on personal experience) is probably too sympathetic to a decadent class out of time in a world undergoing revolutionary change beyond the ballrooms of the Plaza and the Pierre and their parents’ Upper East Side parlours. Then again, the cultural elite that has replaced them is coarser and uglier in every way.
The Dead (1987)
The dying John Huston directed his daughter Angelica Huston, who is luminous as the female lead, in this adaptation of James Joyce’s story of the same name—to my mind the greatest of short stories. Mostly faithful to the original text, the movie captures cinematically the melancholy of Joyce’s meditation on love and marriage, ending with his sublime lyrical description of snow falling “all over Ireland.”
Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece gets better with each passing year as it feels less premonitory and more like prophecy. The futuristic world in which ordinary lives are smothered (sometimes literally) by technology and bureaucracy, subject to constant surveillance by a government marked equally by incompetence and corruption, and sustained by recycled entertainment and the grotesque surgical pursuit of perpetual youth doesn’t look so fantastical in 2022. A work of unique genius: Orwell as translated by Monty Python.
The Thin Man (1934)
Finally, something lighter. A champagne cocktail of a movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age. A detective caper featuring the wittiest, prettiest couple trading top-shelf banter as they chase the titular villain around New York, dog in tow, sustained by a cataract of cocktails (someone once counted how many Nick drinks in the movie: 21). This pre-Hays Code gem is, alas, almost impossible to find today (the last time I saw it was projected on the brick wall of a Washington DC bar), but it’s worth the effort.
Trading Places (1983)
Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis. What more do I need to say? Oh, and it’s directed by John Landis at the height of his zany powers. A topsy-turvy morality tale whose ending gives us a taste of the justice that Wall Street’s titans deserved after the Global Financial Crisis, but never got.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
And you think you have a dysfunctional family for the holidays. It’s Christmas 1183 and Henry II (Peter O’Toole) must decide which of his three flawed sons will inherit the kingdoms of England and Aquitaine. His decision is complicated by his waspish wife, Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn, who shared the Oscar for Best Actress), a plotting King of France (Timothy Dalton), and the King of France’s half-sister, who has been promised to whichever son will inherit the throne and also happens to be Henry’s mistress. As the overlooked son, Geoffrey, says, “Ah, Christmas, warm and rosy time, the wine steams, the Yule log roars, and we’re the fat that’s in the fire.”
In Bruges (2008)
A mordant, talkative, and blood-soaked gangster movie set in Bruges, the picturesque limbo for two Irish hired guns waiting for their fate to be decided by a viciously smarmy English crime boss. If it doesn’t sound like Christmas fare, that’s probably because you are the normal, well-adjusted sort. For the rest of us, it’s a profound, and at times profoundly funny, reflection on the pitiless logic of vengeance and the possibility of redemption.
Das Boot (1981)
The alternating tension and tedium of a German U-Boat mission on the eve of Christmas 1941 is unrelenting and exhausting. Shot with fanatical devotion to detail in an authentic reproduction of the cramped corridors of a World War II submarine, it may be a stretch to call it a Christmas movie, but it is one of the very best war movies, and one of the best movies, period, of the last fifty years.
Die Hard (1988)
I was tempted to leave it off and include Lethal Weapon (a better movie) instead, just to see how many people cancelled their subscriptions in protest. But in the end I couldn’t leave out a movie that includes the late Alan Rickman (whose best Christmas-related line was delivered in another movie) AND Reginald VelJohnson.
In the words of John McClane and Tiny Tim, Merry Christmas and Yippee-ki-yay, everyone.