Movie critics aren’t so different from regular people. We, too, take this last month of the year as a time of reflection and return: to the places and the people that used to define us, and maybe still do—and the movies, as well.
I asked Brooklyn Magazine’s various contributing film writers to share their favorite “holiday movies.” By that I meant: the movies you really watch over the holidays. Some of the replies are seasonally themed favorites, and some, through some alchemy of subject matter and familiarity, just strike the right nerve—there’s no accounting for taste, and there’s no place like home.
I tend to associate The Royal Tenenbaums with the holidays; it’s about family, the surname in question basically means “Christmas tree,” it uses Charlie Brown Christmas music, and I spent a lot of my holiday break in 2001 going to see it with various groups of people, because it was quickly becoming one of my favorite movies ever. But over the years, I’ve expanded to include Wes Anderson movies in general as holiday favorites (even as their theatrical releases have moved out of the season). The Life Aquatic is a bit more acidic and perhaps less immediately identifiable than Tenenbaums, but I put that into the Christmas Day mix one year, and it worked just fine. On the other end, his underrated movie about a trio of brothers, The Darjeeling Limited, works well as a companion piece to Tenenbaums. And The Grand Budapest Hotel has snowy, decorative mise-en-scène, plus a ski chase—it can work just as well as a James Bond marathon on TNT! Maybe Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t work as well, but it just came out on Criterion Blu-ray, so at very least it makes a great holiday gift.
Around the time my preteenage self saw Luca Brasi mount his bulletproof vest to the crisp stirrings of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, I knew The Godfather was a movie about all the things The Holidays inflict on us: the arriving and departing of beloved extended relatives, the intra-sibling resentments that grow from minor scrapes into defining handicaps, the renewing (and/or abandoning) of the prior generation’s hard-won rituals, the silent comparisons one makes marking their inner holiday-day against the outside world’s. Inside Michael Corleone’s frigid reflections bookending Part II—about what could have been, but most definitely wasn’t—and the empty spaces of the family home, I found a perfect cap to each calendar year’s long return-trail of reality. And, hell: in Part III, a cash-in sequel requested at once by everybody and nobody, I even found a soothing analogy for the season’s wasteful, hyperventilating candelabra! No holiday cycle would be complete without at least a partial dip into the Corleone Saga (and not just because these damn movies get marathoned on American TV 24/7).
I have the arguably terrible predilection for spending holidays alone. Humbuggery? Maybe, but there are advantages aplenty in passing them thusly. Among them is a most obvious one: No bullshit debates about what movies to watch. For major holidays like those forthcoming, I tend to pick more or less recent features of epic length that I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing. That’s how I ended up watching The Turin Horse on Christmas a couple years ago, and it was a sublime experience that also, incidentally, changed forever what I think about eating steaming hot potatoes with only salt. That film rules, by the way. Insist on watching it with the whole family, then maybe they’ll banish you! If you want lighter fare and to avoid excommunication, go with one of my favorite of all great classics in the history of cinema: Summer Rental. John Candy, beaches, tan bodies, sailboats, regattas, huge familial humor, mild familial drama, and of course an unforgettable instance of surprise boobs. Everyone wins with such a selection, which is the essence of the holiday spirit (right?). So much easier for everyone to win when you’re by yourself, btw!
After enduring a house made of existential dread and Zuzu’s petals dropped on my head by Frank Capra, I’ll mosey on home and curl up in front of the crackling Technicolor of another classic film that the universe gave a second chance: The Wizard of Oz. It’s pure joy, even if it was a legendary nightmare to put together. In other words: the holiday season defined.
In the seriocomic sixth-season X-Files episode “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” it’s fitting that writer/director Chris Carter uses a recording (Bing Crosby’s) of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that includes the original lyrics Judy Garland sang in Meet Me in St. Louis, with its bleaker “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” instead of the later, cheerier rewrite “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” In such a cruel and unyielding world as the one Carter & co. essayed throughout the whole series, what else was Mulder and Scully doing but muddling through it all? Of course, they had each other to lean on, but such a position also left them perpetually isolated and alone—perfect subjects for the latest attempt by elderly ghost couple Maurice (Edward Asner) and Lyda (Lily Tomlin) to seduce another couple into enacting a suicidal lovers’ pact similar to their own. Thankfully, once again, Mulder and Scully’s faith in each other overcome the inner anxieties Maurice and Lyda ruthlessly try to exploit. In the end, not even Mulder and Scully’s angst is enough to overwhelm holiday cheer, as indicated by the child-like glee with which they are seen about to tear open their gifts to each other in the episode’s final shot. Sentimental, maybe—until you remember that, as with most of our two heroes’ small victories over the course of the series, it’s an all-too-temporary oasis from the paranoia that constantly threatened to consume them.
The Tafoya household had a few Christmas traditions while I was growing up. For many, many years we made a point of watching the Tim Allen film The Santa Clause, which holds up pretty well despite some garish special effects. But then my uncle Ben pointed out that Ronin takes place during Christmas and he’d made it his Christmas film. And when you think about it, who doesn’t want to celebrate good tidings by watching the greatest car chases of the 90s stacked on top of each other? John Frankenheimer’s finely tuned action thriller shows a pretty grim Christmas season in France, but it can’t be any more dark than listening to that one relative bring up Isis while everyone’s trying to eat dinner. Wouldn’t you rather shut them up by showing them Jean Reno and Robert De Niro shoot their way through beautiful Nice? Ronin is an unconventional choice, but it made sense in my house, with parents who were cinephiles like me, and sisters mostly pretty tolerant of our unusual ideas of a good time.
There has not been a single Christmas in my life not spent with my immediate family—mom, dad, two older brothers—and nobody else. Nonetheless, my mother decorates the house with three Christmas trees, one of which regularly leads onlookers to knock at the door with their compliments, as well as numerous wreaths and garlands, dozens of snowmen, and even a miniature Dickensian village, among countless other decorations. Perhaps for this reason, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander, which sets its exquisite first half at Christmastime, speaks so strongly to me. It has the most lavish and enviable Christmas party in cinema, and even though the film takes a grim turn, it is not above having a Christmas miracle serve as a course correction. No film captures the holiday’s glory—and the sadness of its ephemerality—or the spirit of true family so completely.
Last summer I worked on a film starring Michael Caine. Throughout the shoot crew members told Caine how much they loved him in The Italian Job, Hannah and Her Sisters, and The Dark Knight. I felt too silly to tell him my favorite film of his is also my family’s favorite holiday movie: The Muppet Christmas Carol. The film is surprisingly bittersweet, balancing Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat’s goofy hijinks with Caine’s somber turn as Scrooge. My brother, sister, and I know every song lyric—I used to listen to the soundtrack year-round.
The cheerful, playful epics of Werner Schroeter have recently entered my life like holiday presents. This late German director’s penultimate feature especially strikes me as an appropriately Christmassy work. The fragmented Deux stars Isabelle Huppert in her third Schroeter teaming, which the filmmaker wrote with her in mind. She plays the two roles of Maria and Magdalena, French twin sisters long abandoned by their demented, train station-laboring mother (Bulle Ogier) and separated from each other when small. The lonesome girls—torn apart too young to recall their twinning’s existence—subsequently grow up seeking solace with companions whose ranks include drag queen singers, younger beloveds of both genders, and an ambiguously sweet-or-malevolent pet fox. As their paths come close to reuniting in adulthood, images appear of a holiday tree containing infant male dolls that have been punctured and bloodied as though crucified, along with an occasional prominent cross. Schroeter offers an image of living for one’s sister (or brother) through the sacrifice that his film’s twins eventually make for each other. He fashions Christ’s act of dying for our sins into an offering of one’s own life as a gift.
I don’t love A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin’s neo-New Wave family reunion—Deneuve and Mastroianni, Amalric and Devos—because it captures the feeling of being with your loved ones around the holidays. It’s so much better, so much worse than that. The headiness of family history, and Desplechin’s typically chockablock cinephilic cinema, is compressed so radically—into a single long weekend of confessions, affairs, terminal illness, mental breakdowns, DJ sets, fairytale plays, photo albums, sneaky whisky stashes, and cigarettes, oh so many cigarettes—that characters can’t even express only one emotion at a time: they smile warmly as they salt old wounds, or laugh as a lover takes a punch. This isn’t family, but rather, as someone says, “myth.” It’s at once resonant for this most hectic, reflective time of year, and so much bigger, brighter, bolder than life—in other words, pure cinema.