Christmas trees are going up, the mince pies are being eaten and the ever-darkening nights offer a space for the most eccentric of film sub-genres: the Christmas film. Every year in newspapers, web blogs and around dinner tables the question of the best Christmas film is raised. The classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Love Actually (2003) are rewatched with vigour, but it’s the lost, more obscure Christmas flicks that can just as easily satisfy your Yuletide desires and perhaps become one of your new favourites.
Emma Morton, a researcher in Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies has chosen ten of her favourite alternative Christmas films to add something a little different to your already, if unintentionally, alternative Christmas. Her list includes thrillers, horrors, comedies, fantasy, independents and big budgets all set at Christmas time and all are available from the well-known subscription or rental streaming sites (or through other sources).
The Christmas film often rotates around a white heteronormative family, but Tangerine offers us a modern reinterpretation of this Christmas convention. Tangerine gives us a brief glimpse of the day Sin-Dee Rella is released from prison, which happens to be Christmas Eve. The film then follows two transgender women as they seek revenge from a cheating boyfriend and ultimately invoke the true meaning of Christmas – giving your friend your wig to wear because hers has been doused with urine. At its heart, it is still a film about family and human kindness. Tangerine was famously shot only with an iPhone 5s, this gives us a colour drenched social-realist film that cinematically represents these characters without making them victims of their environment.
Millions is perhaps the best Christmas film you’ve never heard of. Directed by Danny Boyle two years after 28 Days Later (2002), Millions couldn’t be further away from a zombie apocalypse. Centring on a seven-year-old boy, Damian (played by Alex Etel in his debut role), who finds a bag of money just days before the UK currency is switched to Euros. The film begins with Damian’s relocation to Widnes after the death of his mother, and this could have steered the film into the realm of British social realism, but amid the hardship, the film brims with magic. Not only from the bright colours and slick aesthetic we would expect from a Danny Boyle film, but also by blurring the boundaries between Damian’s interior and exterior worlds. Above all else, the film manages to discuss the perils of consumerism, the importance of family (in whatever form), while leaving us pondering over the question of the human experience.
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006)
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather is TV film adaptation shown in two parts which closely follows the plot of Pratchett’s novel Hogfather, part of the Discworld book series. In the film, as in the novel, the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus) has gone missing, and Death is forced to take this place. The beauty of this film is that you become fully immersed in Pratchett’s world, both through the wonderfully realised CGI and in the killer jokes. As a PG, this is will definitely become a festive family favourite.
The Ref (1994)
A black comedy starring Denis Leary in which a Christmas kidnap goes horribly wrong. The Ref invokes the feelings and mayhem of a family Christmas: the claustrophobia of being with the same relatives trapped inside a house for days, the arguments that never end, and the consternation of hosting ungrateful people. The Ref was hindered in its release with an unfathomable title and a terrible trailer that belies its sharp dialogue and complex characters. As a Christmas film, this is definitely for adults only, the unpicking of Christmas clichés makes it the most honest Christmas film on this list.
Better Off Dead (1985)
This is the first of the John Cusack Christmas films on this list and is one of his finest performances. Better Off Dead is a comedy that captures the pain and heartbreak of Christmas alone. What elevates this film is the sheer craziness that surrounds a typical teen comedy-drama. It’s bizarre and ludicrous without detracting from its dramatic foundation. The surreal nature of this film has turned it into a cult classic and deserves to be watched every Christmas Eve.
Christmas, Again (2014)
Devoid of festive cheer, Christmas, Again, has a delicate melancholy to it that breaks our hearts. It perfectly captures the sadness of how many people feel during the Christmas season. This is a tender portrait of a young Christmas tree salesman working nights in New York after a breakup. Shot on 16-millimetre film the grainy film stock gives the film a winter aesthetic that dilutes the bawdy Christmas colours we expect from a festive film.
Friday After Next (2002)
The third of Ice Cube’s Friday series, Friday After Next takes place on Christmas Eve after Craig and Day-Day (played by Ice Cube and Mike Epps) are robbed of their Christmas presents by a fake Father Christmas. Friday After Next gives us Christmas in the ‘hood’, and while not as slick as the original Friday, Mike Epps is outstanding in his comic delivery. As with all of the Friday films, this film once again demonstrates that black lives are more than the stereotype of drugs and violence – the Friday series finds humour in the everyday lives of regular black people, and that’s what makes Friday After Next such a great Christmas film.
Mixed Nuts (1994)
This film is jam-packed with stars, all led by the comic genius of Steve Martin. The film bombed at the box office on its release. As a dark comedy, it punches high and gives the audience observational comedy and selfish characters that had more in common with Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-) than anything that was on the big screen in the 1990s. However, the Christmas spirit convention does endure with a final Christmas miracle. As Steve Martin reminds us, ‘in every pothole, there is hope’.
The Ice Harvest (2005)
The second of the John Cusack films of the list, The Ice Harvest has the best Christmas line ‘only morons are nice on Christmas’ in any of this sub-genre. The Ice Harvest skirts the edges of a neo-noir, offering plenty of nods to 1940s noir films like Double Indemnity (1944). This is the most anti-Christmas film on the list and is a happy antidote to the Christmas schmaltz – perhaps this one is best left for Boxing Day as a way to rid yourself of Christmas excesses.
Black Christmas (1974)
An alternative Christmas film list wouldn’t be completed without a Christmas horror, and the best one remains the Canadian slasher film Black Christmas. A ground-breaking film that has been recognised as a major influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Be warned there is a 2019 remake, stick to the original if you want to be truly scared. Unlike the slasher films to come, Black Christmas does not sexualise violence or is explicitly gory; the horror lies in the mystery and suspense of the plot and the well-executed point-of-view camera shots.
14 December 2020
Emma Morton is a PhD researcher in Film and Television Studies. Her research centres on the very prolific but often marginalised presence of women in early Italian cinema.
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