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Howard Anglin: The top 10 non-Christmassy Christmas movies

Commentary

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 has never fully moved on from its earlier 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 

3. Metropolitan 

4. The Dead 

5. Brazil 

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 gets his own gout, or whatever it is the French say, so I’ll refrain from further comment and instead provide my own definitive 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.

Metropolitan (1990)

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.”

Brazil (1985)

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. 

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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. 

Shawn Whatley: Three items on Canada’s Christmas wish list to fix our health care crisis

Commentary

Conservative leaders seem loath to mention health care in equal measure to journalists’ delight in raising it. John Ivison, a columnist at the National Post, took a stab at federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre last week: “You simply can’t aspire to be prime minister of Canada today and claim that health care has nothing to do with you.” 

Ivison has a point. Endless headlines about health care demand a political response: for example, overcrowding in children’s hospitals, federal-provincial funding battles, and emergency department closures, to name a few.

Some leaders love to dilate on health care. Last week, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP, threatened to withdraw support for his confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals. Singh demanded that the (federal) Liberals detail solutions for (provincial) health-care problems.

Ivison’s demand for details and Singh’s confidence to deliver, “When I’m prime minister,” rest on a shared assumption, a shared vision of how government should address health care. They assume health care is a factory to fix, and Singh knows just how to fix it. 

Faulty logic

Their approach contains three problems. First, health care is not a factory. It is one of the most complex sectors of our economy. One tweak by government—for example, introducing national licensure for physicians—could have vast, unforeseen effects. 

Visions of economic dials, levers, pipes, and pulleys have delighted central planners for decades. They are deceitful dreams, a feverish mirage. As Robert Heilbroner, erstwhile defender of socialism, famously admitted: the centrally planned economy was “the tragic failure of the twentieth century.”

The first problem misunderstands the nature of what we hope to fix; the second problem assumes we are smart enough to fix it. But if Singh became prime minister, his unstoppable confidence would meet the immovable fact of Hayek’s Knowledge Problem. Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel-winning economist, argued that economies cannot be controlled because there is too much to know. Especially in a service industry such as health care, individual needs, wants, and preferences determine performance. These inputs are internal to the patients themselves and the clinicians trying to care for them.

The third problem is the least obvious but most lethal. It assumes a purchaser can fix the provision of a product or service. Government pays for health care, ergo, government can fix health care. 

What is obvious nonsense for every other product or service—from coffee to construction—somehow seems reasonable for health care. Purchasers cannot fix provision. True, a purchaser can influence providers to change behaviour by demanding different products and services. But purchasers have no idea how to reorganize, retool, or redesign to deliver change itself. 

A Christmas wish list

Just as Conservative leaders are loath to talk about health care, the rest of us should be loath to offer advice. Politicians know politics; outsiders do not. 

Furthermore, Conservatives represent a vast coalition of ideas, especially on health care. Red Tories support welfare in general and Medicare in particular. Prairie populists, classical liberals, libertarians, and a dozen other flavours of Conservative form a salad of mixed feelings. It requires fancy stickhandling to get through all the policy preferences, not just the ones at “centre ice“. 

So, take this wish list in the innocence and earnestness of a child at Christmas.

  1. Show enthusiastic support for universal health insurance

Twenty-eight countries around the world have universal care. None of them have government monopolies like Canada. Universal just means everyone needs health insurance, in the same way that all cars on the road need to be insured.  

Medicare started as state-funded medical insurance but morphed into managed care. In fact, some argue we should stop thinking about “medical insurance” as insurance at all. Do not let that happen. As long as Canadians remain comfortable and familiar with medical insurance we have a tiny sliver of room for change. If insurance becomes verboten, change will be much more difficult.

  1. Fix health-care governance 

As The Hub published in April, “Medicare cannot change because it is locked in an iron triangle consisting of government, the medical profession, and public-sector unions.” And in another Hub article, it makes no sense to talk about policy, until we have fixed governance.

  1. Champion (local) innovation 

Like politics, all care is local. Care plans must be allowed to evolve based on the needs of particular patients in specific communities. Bold visions and national plans tend to deliver one-size-fits-all services, the antithesis of patient-centred care. Only government can create a regulatory environment that fosters growth, innovation, and expansion of care at the local level. 

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The crucial element is to allow hypothesis testing to happen, not do it yourself. This means you need to find a way to let clinicians fail as they struggle to innovate towards better care. Easier said than (politically) done.

In summary, all I want for Christmas is for politicians to tell us what they believe about health care, tell us what they think is the biggest problem, and show us what only they can do. Again, this is a childlike Christmas wish. But given all the other advice out there this Christmas, perhaps this offers something new.

Merry Christmas!