Holiday Movie Refresh: 20 Classics That Are Not ‘IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’
Every year at this time we start getting into the holiday spirit with some classic films. There are some movies that get a lot of play at this time of year – both because they’re movies that have long been in heavy rotation on television and because they’re really good. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A CHRISTMAS STORY, MIRACLE ON 34th STREET; All are fantastic and we will certainly never try to persuade anyone to knock these off the pine-scented pedestal of holiday classics, but there are some others that you may not have seen before, or may have seen but not considered in the context of holiday films. The holiday season is also not one of unalloyed joy for all of us, and that aspect is reflected in some of the films on this list.
We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites here. Not all of these are deep obscurities, but the best known films here are not necessarily thought of as holiday films, though they might have a seasonally appropriate setting.
Here is the list in Letterboxd form, click on the “Show Notes” button to see where each film is currently streaming.
From the classic Hollywood days we have THE THIN MAN (1934) which takes place over a Christmas vacation in New York, as wealthy sleuths Nick and Nora Charles get blitzed on Martinis, shoot the ornaments off the tree, and find time to solve a murder.
The great Barbara Stanwyck stars in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) as a Martha Stewart-like columnist who is an absolute mess in real life, but has to pull it together to stage a publicity-motivated Christmas welcome for a returning serviceman.
1949’s HOLIDAY AFFAIR, about a struggling single mother (Janet Leigh, phenomenal) juggling her obligations to her son and her financially secure boyfriend (Wendell Corey) as an attractive new fellow (Robert Mitchum) begins to turn her head.
In Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955) Jane Wyman plays a mother who has sacrificed everything for her children and finds the opportunity for a little happiness of her own in the strong arms of non-conformist Rock Hudson. Not a happy film, but a richly satisfying one, and one with Christmas scenes that are gorgeous and bitter at the same time.
1958’s BELL, BOOK & CANDLE stars Kim Novak as a lovely, cat-eyed beatnik witch who casts her spells on square Jimmy Stewart over the course of a snowy Greenwich Village Christmas week. A midcentury modern joy.
BLAST OF SILENCE (1961) also takes place in New York at Christmas, and also has a jazzy, beat feel, but here the tone is downright nihilistic. It is a dark, scuzzy independent film noir that gets as black as the dark night of the soul in its story of a conflicted hired killer named Frankie Bono.
John Ford’s DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) was not the great director’s last film, but it has the knock-down, drag out feel of an Irish vacation wake. Between all the brawling action and ill-advised romantic subplot, there’s a beautiful poetic story of a father and daughter reuniting and of racial prejudice being washed away by a tropical torrent of love and familial devotion. Ford is sneaky. Before you know it, he has you by the heart strings and won’t let go.
MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (1969), directed by Eric Rohmer, is set on Christmas Eve, and was in fact shot on Christmas Eve. It is a film of conversations and missed connections. If you have never spent a whole night drinking and talking about philosophy and love, this may not be the film for you, but if you have, the movies of Eric Rohmer are right up your alley.
SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1972), directed by the underrated Theodore Gershuny, should not be confused with the howlingly funny SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984). This tale of murder and madness on Long Island is genuinely atmospheric and terrifying. Though its cast is full of Warhol superstars, everyone plays it straight. Widely available in a really crappy looking transfer that oddly adds to its appeal.
FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982) is not a Christmas movie through-and-through but oh boy what a Christmas sequence it depicts. A large family gathers in a huge and beautifully decorated old house and every kind of Christmas treat is prepared. This film accomplished a kind of magical synesthesia – you will believe you can smell the pies and cakes. It’s a remarkable film through and through, but the Christmas scenes may linger with you the longest.
Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL (1985) is a pretty good candidate for the best Christmas-hater’s Christmas movie. Holiday cheer is deployed throughout as a distraction from the dystopian hell-scape, and, as such, pushes the anxiety and unpleasantness into the red (and green).
Don Bluth’s animated feature AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986) is the only Hanukkah film on this list. It begins with the Mousekowitz family (they are mice, you see) celebrating the holiday together in the old country. This allegory about the struggle of immigrants in America is shown through the eyes of mice who face many challenges, including the fact that the cat population was wildly underestimated. A massive hit, it spawned a number of sequels.
The French action-thriller DIAL CODE SANTA CLAUS (1989) looks a lot like HOME ALONE (1990) in that a boy protects his home from invasion. The big difference is that the kid in DIAL CODE SANTA CLAUS is a mechanical and computer genius who has set a trap to capture Santa Claus and “Santa” is a marauding lunatic. It’s extremely fast-paced, exciting and scary. We should note that it’s not for kids. We should also note that AFS will be screening this at the Rocket Drive-In on 12/10 and 11. More details here.
Whit Stillman’s 1990 film METROPOLITAN is also very much for the type of person who enjoys Rohmer’s MY NIGHT AT MAUDS. It is also a Christmas break movie, only this one is a period piece set in 1969 and it shows us a New Yorker fiction world of sophisticates as their heyday of high society draws to a close over the course of the holiday season.
THE DAY OF THE BEAST (1995) from the Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia is a howl. It is about the emergence of the antichrist in Barcelona and a search-and-destroy mission undertaken by three very unlikely partners – a fallen priest, a slick TV reporter and a metalhead – to neutralize the evil at Christmas-time. It is a slapstick comedy that seems to get faster and faster as everything goes wrong. Hysterical and underrated.
Stanley Kubrick’s last film EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) is now, after some initial turbulence, recognized as one of his major works. The events of the film, about a happily married couple facing a crisis of fidelity, take place against the backdrop of Christmas and New Year. It’s a film that gets deeper in its resonances with every viewing.
Arnaud Desplechin’s A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008) is an ensemble piece about a subject we’re surprised has not been covered more thoroughly in Christmas movies, the long-simmering resentments between family members that boil over at family gatherings. A movie like this is anchored by the gravity of its biggest star, and in this case that star is the great Catherine Deneuve.
WHITE REINDEER (2013), written and directed by Zach Clark, is also about the dark side of Christmas. The ludicrously dark side of the season that makes already difficult life circumstances almost unbearable. Here, thankfully, it is presented as a black comedy. Anna Margaret Hollyman plays the lead here, a young woman who copes with a hellish holiday using extreme means.
Sean Baker’s TANGERINE (2015) also finds unexpected comic buzz in the season. Without prior judgment on the part of the filmmaker, the viewer is thrust into the raw lives of a pair of marginalized trans women who go about their business on Christmas Eve. It feels realer than real, thanks to the performances and direction, and also thanks to the fact it was famously shot on iPhones. You won’t notice – at least not in any negative way.
CAROL (2015) has a dream pedigree, directed by Todd Haynes from an autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It is the story of an affair that sparks to life over the holidays and is suffused with the tragedy of the love that must not (yet) speak its name.