The meaning of Christmas is something that we all kind of intuit, but it’s also something that Christmas movies have a very hard time agreeing upon. A Christmas Carol and its many reiterations celebrate the holiday’s potential for personal redemption; Miracle on 34th Street and Elf think Christmas is a time to believe; A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas set out to save the holiday from its worst consumer impulses; and Love Actually somehow found the courage to assert that “Christmas is the time to tell the truth.” And then of course you also have your Lethal Weapons and your Die Hards—the movies that decorate themselves with holly and ivy but otherwise remain rooted in their given genres. But if you’re looking to think outside the Christmas box and find some truly alternative Christmas classics, then you need to look beyond America, and you need to go dark.
That’s where this list lives, on streets filled with rotting Christmas trees and dirty snow. These movies burrow into the more melancholy spirit of the holiday. They take Christmas seriously—as should we all. Come with me then, on a journey through the looking glass, to a place beyond Die Hard, to the cold, hard north of the soul. (Films presented in chronological order.)
Make Way for Tomorrow, by Leo McCarey (1937)
Orson Welles on Make Way for tomorrow (via Peter Bogdanovich in the clip above): “OH MY GOD. THAT’S THE SADDEST MOVIE EVER MADE. IT WOULD MAKE A STONE CRY.” PS: He loved it.
And that’s a better summary than I can write, so I’ll leave it there.
The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder (1960)
The Apartment began with a very simple, even humble idea. Billy Wilder wondered what the backstory might be for a certain rendezvous point in David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The fact that Wilder was able to draw so much out of such a small question is yet another testament to his creative genius, but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that The Apartment, like Brief Encounter, deals in hard truths about human relationships. The hardest truth in this case being: we often want things that are bad for us—and we often can’t get those things anyway. A movie that contains any amount of truth, hard or not, is worth celebrating, but this is much more than that. It’s also got perhaps the greatest office party of the 60s, the greatest Christmas bar scene of all time, and the saddest happy ending you are ever likely to see.
Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack (1975)
You’ll be able to read my long-form defense of Sydney Pollack’s classic 70s spy thriller over at Slate later this month, but the quick-hitter version goes like this: it stars Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway when they were young, it uses Christmas carols to emphasize Redford’s isolation after all his closest friends are killed; and Faye Dunaway refers to herself as a “spy-fucker” at one point. It’s super fun, it’s weirdly profound, and it’s got Christmas in New York up the wazoo, including even some Christmas in Brooklyn Heights.
Scrooged, directed by Richard Donner (1988)
This may come as a surprise, since there is almost nothing less alt-Christmassy than an adaptation of the foundational Christmas text, but I think Scrooged’s (which, I now see, is a literally unpronounceable word) strangeness—its almost alien nature—really does set it apart, and make its cynicism seem touching, even as we wonder what the hell all these celebrities (?) are doing here. Bill Murray now seems possessed of the hipster zeitgeist in a way that no one else is, but man, it’s worth remembering how unusual his whole vibe was before it became so familiar. And although his performance here is deeply, um, uneven, I think he hits upon something that even Charles Dickens failed to grasp: that the best Scrooge is the Scrooge that seems the most volatile, the least scrupulous, the least grounded. If we can’t trust him, we can’t rest easily in his redemption, which makes it all the more powerful when it eventually arrives.
To put that another way: this is some 80s shit right here. A very white Christmas, if you know what I mean; with a lot of snow, if you know what I mean; and also a lot of mania, if you know what I mean (I mean cocaine just cocaine cocaine cocaine good god what do I have to do spell it out for you cocaine—see-oh-see-eh-ay-enn-ee—jesus christ fuck off I’m done where’s the bathroom). Ghosts of Christmas past indeed.
Batman Returns, directed by Tim Burton (1992)
It’s worth remembering that there was once a time when Tim Burton was more than a kooky lifestyle blog. He was also an exciting young director once upon a time. And he did some good Batman. Catwoman’s origin story is fresh to death, and the Penguin’s plot is more penguin-y than March of the Penguins, Mr. Popper’s Penguin’s, and Happy Feet (both 1 and 2) combined. Also, important question: how many of Hollywood’s top producers are literal penguins, because that is a lot of green lights. In the end, this movie operates as the filmic equivalent of the fifth avenue holiday display that you can’t quite shake. So take that as a compliment or a criticism, as you will.
The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee (1997)
Christmas doesn’t actually feature in The Ice Storm, but v. dysfunctional families in cold weather climates do, and if that’s not Christmas, then I don’t know what is. Also, Ang Lee is, for me, the great director of family dramas, and this is perhaps his masterpiece. Is it a depressing movie? Yes. Does a child die? Spoiler alert, yes indeed one does, and if that operates as an actual spoiler then perhaps you should read up on foreshadowing. But this movie is rewarding in the same way that a trip home is rewarding: darkly, viscerally, really. (The Rick Moody source novel is also excellent.)
8 Women, directed by Francois Ozon (2002)
This movie makes me think that I would spend a lot of money if there were such a thing as a Christmas-haunted house: a snowed-in countryside mansion, say, housing eight different women with eight different motives for killing a single dead man. That’s the plot of 8 Women, such as it is, but this is a movie that’s more about place than it is about plot. Recriminations fly thick and fast in overcrowded homes (even when delivered via song-monologues, as they are here), but even so, that’s the kind of Christmas that I want to have: cold, cloistered, and cruel.
The Office Christmas special, directed by Stephen Merchant & Ricky Gervais (2003)
I get that Ricky Gervais can be a bit hard to take, but I also believe that if The Office Christmas special isn’t in your Christmas movie rotation, your Netflix and chill rotation, and your rom-com rotation, that you are missing out. The scene above is both the emotional climax and the artistic high point of the series, and it showcases the show’s perhaps least obvious attribute: its direction. The Office is drab by design, of course, but it’s also just drab—just really, really drab, and it’s often easy to forget about the direction, after noting that it’s done in a mockumentary style. But when Dawn comes back in, in the background, it’s shot so realistically, so understatedly, that for once we actually doubt what we are almost always guaranteed to get on TV: a happy ending.
Dans Paris, directed by Christophe Honore (2006)
It’s Franny and Zooey meets A Charlie Brown Christmas, but also in France. This is, in other words, everything. It also has the best Christmas soundtrack since A Charlie Brown Christmas. And although it takes a while to figure out exactly what this film is all about (because it’s up to a lot), once you do start to finally vibe with it, I promise that you will vibe hard.
And if you don’t, well, go kick a football, Charlie Brown.
A Christmas Tale, directed by Arnaud Desplechin (2008)
More from France, home of the dysfunctionalist and melancholiest Christmas families. This is family dysfunction at an epic scale though, with an extensive extended family, a hard-to-chart mess of financial and emotional entanglements, and life or death stakes played out over nearly three hours of airtime. It’s a lot. But Desplechin fills every moment with enough implied backstory, stray glances, and subtle foreshadowing, to make the entire movie feel full to bursting. It’s a feast, and it all plays out in a home that’s as endlessly marvelous as the home in The Royal Tenenbaums. I may not want to live there, but there are few more pleasant places to visit.
Rare Exports, directed by Jalmari Helander (2010)
The Krampus myth is something that America has really slept on. Luckily, Finland is Krampus-woke-AF. I mean, just look at this anti-Claus!
And this movie gets at something else that I think we tend to overlook here: the extent to which Christmas is specifically a children’s holiday, and the extent to which children live not just in wonder but also in fear. Santa Claus is a weird, anomalous demi-god, and to take him at face value as a sincere gift-giver is to forget the way children tend to think about things. It forgets that kids also just wonder: what the fuck is the deal with this old milk-and-cookie muncher. And this movie posits a thoroughly alternative response.
Things to Come, directed by Mia Hansen-Love (2016)
This is maybe the most undercover Christmas movie of all-time, and also, if you ask me, the best movie of 2016—and yes, I am asking me, and yes, I can confirm that that is what I think, definitely. (But I haven’t seen Moonlight yet.) The Christmas on offer here slips into screen really only in the film’s last scene, and just as a tree that wobbles in and out of the frame; but as in Three Days of the Condor, that glimpse of celebration, community, and joy, only serves to underline the utter desolation that awaits us all in the end.
We may all die alone, but in the meantime, may we all nog together. Merry Christmas everybody.