Note: This is a revised edition of the article that originally appeared in December 2016 on the blog.
I may have some favourite classic Christmas movies, but, truth be told, I have always preferred more non-traditional films this time of year. So here are some alternatives. Some of them are not about the holidays at all, but they are more magical than most Christmas movies, even the best ones. Others might take place around the holiday season and have that hint of Christmas, but they don’t hinge on Santa coming down the chimney, finding the right gift or Ebenezer Scrooge, or learning the real meaning of the holiday. I am sure there will be other titles I will add to the list in time (and update this post accordingly), so if you have any favourite non-Christmas movie that you most enjoy watching in December, I would love to hear.
The Thin Man (1934)
The Thin Man is just the right kind of non-traditional Christmas movie for me. It has comedy and mystery and an irresistible, stylish couple, all wrapped in a festive atmosphere, as it takes place around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, without really being about the holidays. William Powell and Myrna Loy, as Nick and Nora Charles, are in perfect chemistry and very elegant – one of the film’s real secrets is its style, and this is the perfect time of year for a little Old Hollywood glamour. Besides, the carefree lifestyle, great sense of humour and eccentric relationship of the two are the right antidote to the usual sentimental Christmas movie. You might want to check out the entire The Thin Man series.
The Apartment (1960)
One of the finest satirical comedies, The Apartment is different from the formal plot of romantic comedies, old and new. It has subtlety and an adult sensibility, which is what makes the story so good and poignant and real. It is set around the holidays, but there is no family gathered around the festive table, just two lonely leading characters, played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, for whom this is a time as any other time of the year, but the fact that the story is set around the holidays adds a touch of melancholy to it all. Therein lies the beauty and strength of the movie – life comes with good and bad, you can’t have one without the other. This film hasn’t dated one bit.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
There is no movie I enjoy more than a noir or a good thriller, even for Christmas. Three Days of the Condor represents a landmark as one of the best political and conspiracy thrillers of its time. A tour de force from start to the open-to-interpretation end, the film happens to be set in a cold, wintry New York City, and there are even a couple of carols playing in a scene or two. As a side note, this is also one of the films men take their sartorial cues from, and Robert Redford’s simple, preppy, all-American clothes are indeed worth taking inspiration from. But the bottom line is this: this is a great film and that’s the only criteria you should use when picking a film to watch, this time or any other time of the year. And now that I’ve been watching movies less often than ever (hello, motherhood and no tv watching allowed in the house!), I believe even more so than before that this is the kind of film that offers its own cinematic respite.
Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)
There are angels hovering over Berlin and walk unnoticed among its citizens, seen only by other angels and occasionally by children. They listen to people’s thoughts and, at times, they take an active role of guardian angels assisting those in need, stirring feelings of comfort, hope and optimism in them. The human drama fascinates Damiel (Bruno Ganz), one of the angels, and he yearns to touch, taste, and feel, and experience the ephemeral moments of simple joys. Wandering around, he finds his own angel at the circus: Marion (Solveig Dommartin). She’s a trapeze artist and, for her, he takes a monumental decision. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is not a Christmas movie, but there is more magic in it than in any Christmas movie. As I was writing above, from all human beings, only children can see the angels – and there it is, the most beautiful, magical message.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut is probably the most unvonventional Christmas movie. Kubrick planted a Christmas tree in nearly every scene. This was intentional, of course, as the director’s attention to detail is well known. Come to think of it, the beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the Hartfords’ living room can easily evoke the kind of relationship they have, a beautiful appearance that has lost its roots. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrik paid particular attention to colours and lights, lamps, streetlights and Christmas lights to get a special look, a terrific exposure and depth. His last work is a visual masterpiece and a great film. Upon finishing the film, Kubrick told family members and close friends that this was the best work of his career (he died before the film’s release). “Kubrick’s film navigates the treacherous, gray area between waking life and dreams, between ‘reality’ and fantasy, between actions and desires, between fidelity and deception, between the conscious and the unconscious”, it is summed up in the book The Stanley Kubrick Archives.
Trading Places (1983)
Trading Places is a 1980s film, but it reminds me of classic comedies. It is very funny. It also manages to tell us something about human nature, without stopping being funny. Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd are just a perfect match. Plus, the film has the best idea of a New Year’s Eve party: it takes place on the train, making it probably the only kind of party I would like to attend on the night between the years. Not my favourite night, you’ve guessed, I usually just want to get it over with and move on – hence my take on the train setting.
Todd Haynes’ subtle and immaculately crafted Carol is a beautiful film. Not only visually, but as hugely accomplished cinema. Taking place around the holidays, dressed in a gleaming light, it makes the contrast between the appearances and the reality and inner-world of the characters so much more striking. This is far from the feel-good Christmas classic. And the kind of love story it depicts is rarely seen on screen these days. Reserved, full of quiet longing, it is more about telling glances than of repeated “I love you” told to each other – and it is very much real and passionate.
Force Majeure (2014)
A Swedish family travels to the Alps for a five-day skiing holiday and during a lunch at the resort’s rooftop restaurant, an avalanche turns everything upside down, after Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the mother, desperately tries to protect the two children, while Tomas (Yohannes Kuhnke), the father, grabs his cell phone and runs for his life. A great satire, reminding of Ingmar Bergman’s movies, about a family shaken to its core, with a beautifully written screenplay, beautiful cinematography capturing the alien nature of not only the ski slope, and excellent acting, including the two little children. The film (still my favourite from director Ruben Östlund, despite his winning the Palme d’Or this year with The Square) is a great character study and sometimes wickedly funny, without diminishing the permanent anxiety hovering over though, as if you are expecting another dramatic thing to happen any moment. Do try this if you, too, feel the need to give the roiling sentimentality of the usual Christmas movie a rest.
La belle et la bête (1946)
And finally, probably the best film to reflect the bittersweetness, longing and beauty of the end of the year is Jean Cocteau’s magical La belle et la bête. Never before has such a romantic fantasy been treated in such an artistic and poetic manner on screen. As a side note, the cinematographer was Henri Alekan, the same one who would film Wings of Desire mentioned a little earlier. There has been much talk about the screen adaptations of this classic fairy tale, especially about the latest feminist take on the story, and I was pretty clear about my point of view on a few occasions, so now I will just say this: if you are going to watch a Beauty and the Beast film, make it this one.
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photos: The Thin Man (MGM) / The Apartment (Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/United Artists) / Three Days of the Condor (Wildwood Enterprises, Dino De Laurentiis Company) / Wings of Desire (Road Movies Filmproduktion/Argo Films) / Eyes Wide Shut (Warner Brothers/Stanley Kubrick Productions) / Trading Places (Cinema Group Ventures/Paramont Pictures) / Carol (Weinstein Company/StudioCanal) / Force Majeure (Beofilm/Film Väst)/ La belle et la bête (DisCina)