In December, Enjoy a Faintly Holiday Film

By LILY HUDSON

Every Christmas movie is set during the holidays, but not every movie set during Christmas is a holiday film. The action movie Die Hard has the most popular reputation as a holiday-film-that’s-really-not, an antidote to saccharine annual standards, a Christmas movie for people who don’t actually like Christmas movies (Zack Handlen offered up the term “Christmas-adjacent”). Here is a not-too-festive selection of worthwhile films that serve up only a faint flavor of the holidays.

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HAVE A VERY DOUR HOLIDAY:

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) dir. Stanley Kubrick

You never get what you really want for Christmas. Kubrick’s final film forces open the fissures in a marriage between a couple for whom sex and love are no longer synonymous. Almost every scene is bathed in the radiance of a lit-up Christmas tree. Do they represent the crushing expectations of a domestic bliss that Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) can’t quite attain? Do they point wearily to the replacement of real sentimental feeling with empty material signifiers? Only Stanley knows for sure. They did, however, allow him to eschew studio lighting and shoot entirely with ambient light, a trick he favored since Barry Lyndon.

 

The Dead (1987) dir. John Huston

Another final film by a monumental director, The Dead is a meditation by then-elderly John Huston on mortality and the emotional reverberations that we leave in our wake. Adapted with scrupulous fidelity from James Joyce’s 1914 novella, it ruminates on regrets and lost loves amidst holiday festivities in turn-of-the-century Ireland. The restrained final monologue is a crowning achievement in Huston’s career. Slow-paced, gentle, literary and contemplative – consider it the anti-Die Hard.

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HAVE A VERY VIOLENT HOLIDAY:

Blast of Silence (1961) dir. Allen Baron

A swift kick in your holiday. While the decent people are all trimming their trees and going about their shopping, Frankie Bono is doing what he was born to do. Written, directed by and starring Allan Baron, this pulpy late-noirish thriller tracks an on-the-job hit man through the underbelly of early ‘60s New York. Short and sharp, with a ragged French New Wave aesthetic, it’s shot on a shoestring, but packs a lot of style: it careens from beatnik milieus to gangland fist fights, with a hard-boiled voice-over narration that’s a bit dated but still electrifying.

 

Eastern PromisesEastern Promises (2007) dir. David Cronenberg

Like Blast of Silence, Eastern Promises uses the cozy twinkle of Christmas lights as a foil for its gritty, brutal plotline. After exhaustively probing the icky genre known as ‘body horror’, David Cronenberg took a sharp left turn into noir-infused crime thrillers. This bone-chiller about the terrifying underworld of the Russian mafia marks his second collaboration with Viggo Mortensen, scrawled head to toe with Russian prison tattoos that testify to his crimes. Wincingly violent, it’s also surprisingly traditional from a cinematic point of view, with masterful pacing and a careful attention to craft.

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HAVE A VERY FOREIGN HOLIDAY:

20462046, (2004) dir. Wong Kar-Wai

A sort-of-sequel to In the Mood for Love, Wong’s 2046 unfolds a drama of romantic agony over successive Christmas Eves in 1960s Hong Kong, with a tinge of sci-fi just to keep things interesting (2046 is the number of a hotel room in the film, but it’s also a popular destination year for time travelers in the futuristic fantasy sequences). Like most of Wong’s features, 2046 has a liquid, non-linear narrative that’s either hypnotic or headache-inducing, depending on how you feel about European arthouse fodder like Last Year at Marienbad. But the ambiance is exquisite, with lush colors and lingering shots of elegant actresses like Zhang Ziyi glimmering in sequined cheongsam dresses, to the tune of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.”

 

irony of fateThe Irony of Fate (1976) dir. Elder Ryazanov

The Soviet answer to It’s a Wonderful Life!, this made-for-tv romantic comedy is a standard that’s forever linked with New Year’s Eve in Russia. Its screwball plot only makes sense in the Soviet era: the young hero drinks so much before boarding a plane that he doesn’t notice he’s on the wrong flight, and the featureless Eastern Bloc buildings all look so similar that he lets himself into a strange apartment (the fact that his key works in the door is another satirical swipe at Soviet urban sameness), where he surprises an attractive blonde. Romance and mischief ensue, with plenty of mistaken identities and musical interludes. It clocks in at 184 minutes, so make sure to pause midway through for vodka and caviar on toast.

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OR JUST HAVE FUN with these holiday tidbits:

The Christmas morning scene from Female Trouble (1974) dir. John Waters

It’s not a Christmas film, but it does have a very special Christmas sequence. John Waters, the pope of trash, chronicles the moral decline of Dawn Davenport (the divine Divine), spurred by a formative yuletide disappointment: she doesn’t get the cha cha heels she asked for. Because nice girls don’t wear cha cha heels!

 

“Christmas in Heaven” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) dir. Terry Gilliam

The British troupe’s last and most absurdist feature film, The Meaning of Life has its finale in a pastel-tinted cruise ship version of Heaven. In Heaven, just like in the Smokey Robinson song, it’s Christmas every day. “It’s Christmas in Heaven, there’s great films on TV, The Sound of Music twice an hour and Jaws I, II and III!”

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Lily Hudson is a writer living in Portland, OR

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