As we’re reaching the “twelve days of Christmas,” holiday films are inescapable. Most of the classics are well-known and comfortingly familiar, even if their sensibility hasn’t aged with the times: Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and so on. However, there are plenty of more postmodern and twisted holiday movies available that are perhaps more fitting for a holiday season at the end of a tumultuous year with no particular hope for a great upswing on the horizon. And of course, because of their Christmas themes, many of them maintain a sense of hope while still offering a chance to ponder and reflect upon this cultural moment. Here are some great films for rounding out your countdown to the holiday season that also serve as appropriate preludes to the quickly coming new year.
Brazil. Terry Gilliam’s answer to 1984, complete with a futuristic bureaucracy and totalitarian nightmare, might not be instantly recognizable as a Christmas film. But the visuals of the Christmas season carry on throughout the dystopian vision, and the combination is striking and dismal all at the same time. The film is only growing more relevant with age, as its commentary on government might even be too realistic for comfortable holiday viewing.
Anything by Tim Burton. Burton has made several contributions to the holiday canon, including the well-known Nightmare Before Christmas, but there are many of his films that are perfect for viewers with a more Addams Family approach to the holidays. Edward Scissorhands, with its ultimately dim view on the outsider’s changes within suburban society, remains a powerful “Christmas” tale. Also, forget the new Batman movies—back when Tim Burton had the reins of the Batman film franchise, there was enough camp for any holiday.
The Hogfather. Terry Pratchett’s novels are a perfect combination of fantasy and satire, and while the few film adaptations that have been made are imperfect, they keep the same wit flowing. The Hogfather is Discworld’s answer to Santa Claus, and he shares the stage with a perfectly sardonic Death in this holiday tale of assassination and wizardry. The Hogfather is on streaming Netflix, so it’s an easy way to bring some British humor into the season.
Die Hard. If the spirit of Christmas puts you in the mood for explosions, you can’t do much better than the first films of the Die Hard series, which combined the occasional Christmas humor with a lot of straight-up action. Who can resist the line “Now I have a machine gun—ho ho ho”? The films have aged surprisingly well, given their focus on “terrorism.”
The Family Stone. The Christmas season is, for better or for worse, a time for family. And while The Family Stone, with Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame, may appear at first glance to be yet another holiday romantic comedy it succeeds most strongly as an honest portrayal of family. The harrowing political discourse around the dinner table is perfectly in tune with the same discussions that you might find yourself in this season despite your best efforts.
Lethal Weapon. Over the years, Mel Gibson has perhaps revealed some similarities to his psychopathic but charming cop character in Lethal Weapon. This first film in the buddy cop franchise is both a Christmas movie and a reminder of the ongoing “war” on drugs, which has perhaps been overshadowed by the more outright conflicts of our last year.
Trading Places. ‘Tis the season of Occupy Wall Street and general unrest. Trading Places is far from recent, but it’s still a Christmas movie that celebrates the potential redistribution of wealth and the thwarting of those who would manipulate the market for their own immense gains. Of course, it also idolizes the lifestyle that ill-gotten money can get you, so perhaps it isn’t quite a “Robin Hood” worthy switch.
Bad Santa. There is perhaps no more perfect depiction of the mall Santa profession than this film—the absolute antithesis of the Santa hero in Miracle on 34th Street. This is perhaps one of the least kid-friendly Christmas movies out there, and an absolute send-up of any romanticism that might yet accompany the season. For maximum impact, turn it off a few minutes before the end—this same strategy holds true for Hollywood endings year round.
Scrooged. A Christmas Carol has been adapted by everyone from The Muppets to Jim Carrey, usually with dreadful results. Bill Murray does the character far more justice as a ratings-hungry TV executive, and the wicked sense of humor that pervades Scrooged is accompanied by some decent meditations on the very idea of Christmas movies and specials. The ending, unfortunately, is in true Christmas Carol tradition—so for best results, you might need to turn it off before the requisite “Tiny Tim” speech.
Christmas TV Episodes. While holiday films get all the attention, the season has inspired a number of great TV episodes. Of these, the South Park episodes, with their maniacal twists, are some of the most iconic. But there are other greats among shows throughout the years, including The X-Files “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” which is strangely romantic for a story about murder-suicide. Thankfully, most tv specials manage to avoid raising the specter of The Star Wars Christmas Special, but on the other hand many of them are far too cheerful and traditional.