Not everyone is the biggest fan of retail-focused Christmas holiday crap that goes on from the time it’s Halloween.
But there are some movies out there that can make you feel not-so alone in a world of egg nog and cheesy music around every corner.
Christmas is all about tradition, and I know I’m not alone in my less-than-zealous enthusiasm for this particular holiday.
All in all, I realize why I hate Christmas so much. It’s not me. It’s you. Or rather, all of you. Other people, I mean.
Everyone else places this HUGE emphasis on Christmas, putting all this pressure on themselves and everyone else to buy just the right gifts and just the right amount of gifts and spend just enough money that they bring themselves to the brink of bankruptcy by the end of February before digging out of it. And feeling like they need to be especially “happy” at this time of year, and then if they’re not, taking it the f**k out on everyone around them so no one else is too F**king happy either. Oh yeah, boy, I just love F**KING Christmas.
But at least I know I’m not alone. A small group of us have decided that Christmas is YOUR problem, not ours. I don’t care what I get for Christmas, if anything, and after years of soul-searching, I learned how not to care whether you like what you got either.
Christmas for me is another nice food holiday (I do the seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the big-ass piece of delicious beef on Christmas Day), just one where other people are yelling and screaming about who’s going where and what time we’re eating, yada yada yada. In the meantime, for those kindred spirits out there who are just waiting for the Christmas Evil to pass, sort of like a wave of zombies straggling through your street, unaware that you and your delicious brains are safely hidden in that third house with the steel reinforced doors, knowing that when it is over, you will be the same, and everyone else will be more miserable than when they started.
While you’re waiting for that to happen, here’s a list of some movies you’ll probably enjoy. I assume you don’t need a “traditional Christmas” list to tell you to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, Elf and Love Actually at Christmas, or if you do, that you can readily find one. This list is for people who don’t mind seeing a film that knocks the whole season down a few pegs. Spend the 12 days of Christmas going through this list and the holidays will be over before you know it and life can get back to normal.
The Family Man
The best way to think of The Family Man is that it’s the bizzarro It’s A Wonderful Life. Nicolas Cage plays Jack Campbell, a Wall Street Investment Banker with a lot more in common with Old Man Potter than George Bailey. He’s in the midst of putting together a huge deal and, naturally, expects everyone in his office to work on Christmas. Along comes Cash (Don Cheadle), who is apparently Clarence the Angel’s much more cynical cousin, who tells Campbell he needs to see how his life could have been different if he had made different choices.
Suddenly, Cage is married to his college sweetheart (Tea Leoni) and has children. He lives in the New Jersey suburbs instead of the Upper East Side, he works at his father-in-law’s auto parts store instead of on Wall Street, he has a best buddy (Jeremy Piven) instead of underlings, and he’s captain of the bowling team. He’s resistant at first, after all, he didn’t ask for this, Cash just decided to screw with a rich guy for Christmas. Eventually, of course, he realizes that his life is actually much better this way – although he does take a detour back to the dark side when he tries to get his old Wall Street job back.
Just when Campbell has accepted his new reality, Cash shows up again and lets him know time’s up. He has to go back to being an isolated millionaire. Campbell hates the idea, but he doesn’t know how to stop it from happening. In a truly excellent scene, Cage is shown trying to force himself to stay awake while he looks at his children sleeping in their beds, knowing that if he dozes off, he will wake up and they will be gone.
And that’s what happens. Cash sends him back to his old life – the children get erased from existence. Very festive. Cash really is a bit of a bastard. He leaves Campbell miserable and missing the life he never had and leaving him trying to reclaim it in some way. That’s the real allure of this picture – it tells you that if you’re a self-absorbed rich douchebag, that’s all you’ll ever be. It’s A Christmas Carol where Bob Cratchet slams the door in Scrooge’s face and leaves him to spend the holidays with Jacob Marley.
Christmas-y themes: Greed, Cute Children Getting Erased From Existence & New Jersey.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (original version)
I know what you’re thinking. How is this beloved Christmas classic for people who hate Christmas? Well I think Dr. Seuss had you all fooled. Think about it. Why does the Grinch hate Christmas? Not because he’s a bad guy. He hates the commercialism of it. He doesn’t believe the Christmas spirit is real. He thinks the Whos are all a bunch of phony baloneys who really just want to gorge themselves on roast beast and open presents. And when the Whos prove him wrong, he changes his mind. So what was Dr. Seuss really saying? I ask you to consider this: suppose the Grinch had pulled his little stunt at Central Park West instead of Whoville. I suspect instead of joyful singing on Christmas morning he’d have heard a lot of angry swearing and police sirens.
Dr. Seuss isn’t one of the Whos you see, he’s the Grinch. He’s imagining a world in this story where fictional beings don’t care about the presents or the food or the money, they just love Christmas and are perfectly willing to sing Christmas carols, even if some prick went and stole all their stuff. But that’s just it. They’re fictional. How the Grinch stole Christmas is a lament about the real absence of Whos in the real world and how the commercialization of Christmas is turning decent-enough folks like me and the Grinch into grinches.
Go ahead, convince yourself I’m wrong and the hero of this story is Cindy Lou Who. Then go take a walk through any mall around December 20 or so (I’d recommend you go shopping on Black Friday, but the lawyers tell me I could be liable when some crazed citizen of Whoville sprays you with pepper spray and kicks you in the balls so they can get the last copy of Fifty Shades of Gray). Poor Grinch. Turns out he was right in the first place.
Christmas-y themes: Burglary, Animal Cruelty & Boris Karloff.
The Ref is not only one of the funniest Christmas movies ever made, it is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen period, and I still laugh out loud despite numerous viewings. The Ref tells the story of Gus (Denis Leary), a b&e man who runs afoul of an elaborate home security system in a prosperous New England town and suddenly finds himself trapped as the local police close off the escape routes. Desperate for a place to hide, he kidnaps Lloyd & Caroline Chasseur, a married couple (Kevin Spacey & Judy Davis) and holes up in their home. Problem is, it’s Christmas Eve, so the Chasseurs are expecting company.
What ensues is a riotous dysfunctional family black comedy, with Gus trapped in the middle. Leary is at his angry, ranting best, but even his edgy swagger gets consumed by bravura performances from Spacey and Davis as the marrieds who hate each other so much they’d rather have Gus shoot them than let the other party get the last word. There are some outstanding supporting performances here as well, including the always-terrific Christine Baranski as the cheery sister-in-law who, through clenched teeth, just wants everyone to have a merry Christmas, and especially Glynnis Johns, as Lloyd’s dragon-lady-from-hell mother.
While the family dysfunction is clearly the star of the show in this picture, there are many digging references to the hypocrisy of modern-day small-town (i.e. wealthy suburban) life, the inherent phoniness of holiday family get-togethers and the lies everyone tells themselves and others. This is NOT a good movie to watch with a group of people. Ultimately, someone will recognize themselves and get pretty pissed off.
Christmas-y themes: Burglary, dysfunctional family, drunk-ass Santa, infidelity & blackmail.
When it was released back in the ‘80s, Gremlins was billed as a sort of family-friendly picture. PG rated, and those mischievous gremlins causing all those problems, what could be more fun? In reality, the gremlins were nasty little beasts, and this was actually a pretty nifty teen-fright flick. I can’t imagine, in any case, someone taking an 8 year old to this movie thinking the gremlins would be cute and feeling like they made a good decision.
The story is straightforward enough: Billy Peltzer (Zach Gilligan) gets a Christmas present from his dad (Hoyt Axton). It’s a magwai, a rare cuddly, fluffy, creature that comes with a number of warnings: don’t get it wet, don’t expose it to bright light, don’t feed it after midnight. Being a responsible teenager, Billy breaks all three rules in about 20 minutes, and soon, there are lots of magwais, and it turns out that once you feed them, they turn rotten.
The remainder of the film is far less family or teen comedy than it is horror film, and the gremlins, despite being diminutive, are quite vicious. Eventually Billy kills them all by exposing them to an extremely bright light.
Gremlins features one of the darkest of dark comedy speeches ever by ‘80s goddess Phoebe Cates, who explains why she hates the holiday. Depending on your temperament, this scene will either strike you as horribly inappropriate for a PG film or uproariously funny (take a guess which way I lean on this).
Gremlins doesn’t get the same respect other ‘80s films do, and I’m not sure why. It has Cates, and ‘80s perennial Corey Feldman too – it was even written by Chris Columbus, who would go on to direct the first two Harry Potter films, yet Gremlins remains noticeably absent from movie rerun heaven. Look, I get why an ‘80s classic like The Breakfast Club gets so much play on TV, but I don’t get why this fun ‘80s teen scare flick has been buried when silly crap like Fast Times At Ridgemont High gets saluted like its comic genius. Gremlins is a fun film to watch with a group at the holidays if you’re not in the mood for a typical uplifting story but still want something yuletide to view.
Christmas-y themes: ‘80s Asian stereotype, dead Santa dad, mass gremlin-genocide.
The Poseidon Adventure
Released back in 1972, The Poseidon Adventure was the first great disaster movie featuring an all-star cast. It was copied a number of times in the ‘70s (The Towering Inferno, Earthquake), but never quite duplicated. Every big budget disaster movie since (Apocalypse, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) owes a nod to The Poseidon Adventure, which for my money remains the best of the genre ever made.
The Poseidon Adventure follows a determined group of survivors who try to escape from a cruise ship that has capsized after being hit by a tidal wave. They are led by an angry minister (Gene Hackman) and include a cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his hooker turned straight wife (Stella Stevens), an elderly jewish couple (Jack Albertson & Shelley Winters), a couple of inexplicably unaccompanied children (Eric Shea & Susan Oliver – hey Nancy Drew!) and a nerdy bachelor (Red Buttons – wait, THAT Red Buttons? Yeah him) and some girl he just met (Carol Lynley). Did I mention it was an all-star cast? Leslie Nielsen bites it early on as the Captain and Roddy McDowell falls down a shaft after an explosion.
Every time someone dies, Hackman’s angry preacher gets a little angrier (at God) until finally, when their path to freedom is blocked by an open steam vent, Hackman perilously leaps to the valve and shuts it, sacrificing himself for the group, all the while shouting at God that they’re going to make it no matter what obstacles He puts in their way. In the hands of a truly great actor like Hackman, this speech is dramatic and moving, but I swear I would pay about $1000 to see a shot for shot remake of this film with Nicolas Cage as the reverend. I think I might die laughing.
The Poseidon Adventure also features other novelties: Christmas trees in the ship’s ballroom are used as ladders to escape up to the next level, marking the only time in a movie that Christmas trees actually do anything, I believe. There are some big-budget explosion scenes and lots and lots of water. Stella Stevens’ character also spends most of the movie tormenting Shelley Winters for being fat, before Winters drowns and Stevens falls into a lake of fire.
I may have overromantic memories of how entertaining this picture was in the theater – it was one of the first “grown up” movies I ever saw on the big screen, but in subsequent viewings it really has held up, although the ‘70s dating is obvious. Nevertheless, you have to love a movie that kills off 70% of its all-star cast and gives Christmas Trees a new utility.
Christmas-y themes: Mass death by drowning, death by crush injury, fat lady drowning, death by burn injuries, Ernest Borgnine’s ugly face, dead hooker.
This romcom from 2008 was supposed to be another relationship movie with Vince Vaughn (this time with Reese Witherspoon as his lady love), but it turns out it’s an impressively cynical indictment of the holidays and having to spend time with people you don’t like (otherwise known as “your family” or “your girlfriend’s family”).
A commitment-phobic couple (Vaughn, Witherspoon) make up a story that gets them out of having to spend time with their families at Christmas, planning to go to Hawaii instead. Something goes wrong, however, and then they’re forced to attend every single family gathering. Since both of their parents are divorced, this means four little trips through Christmas hell.
While the familial relationships in Four Christmases are more outlandish and cartoonish than the devastatingly realistic skewering they took in The Ref, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some genuine laughs here. Other than Legally Blonde, which I abhorred with every fibre of my being, Reese Witherspoon has never failed to impress me in any role, comedic or dramatic, and she’s hilarious here, especially when she’s forced to confront her fear of children’s inflatable bouncy houses. Vince Vaughn plays the same wise-cracking character he plays in all these movies – it’s a better fit here than in most. There are also some real gems among the family members, in particular Jon Favreau and Katy Mixon as Vaughn’s trailer-trashy brother and sister-in-law, Kristen Chenowith as Witherspoon’s passive aggressive sister (a role against type, and played with gleeful delight by the talented Chenowith, who far too often gets typecast as a silly little girl) and Mary Steenburgen as a hyperkinetic religious fanatic.
Where The Ref is best viewed alone or with one other person (preferably that sibling or cousin who “gets” how dysfunctional your family is), Four Christmases is perfectly acceptable group viewing, as the characters are mostly too over-the-top to hit home with anyone, or as a Christmas Eve date movie (if you’re both tired of watching the much better but also more stereotypically festive Love Actually).
Christmas-y themes: Overblown Christmas play, woman attacking children in a bouncy house, sickeningly happy ending.
I happened to rediscover this James Cameron sci fi treasure from back in 1989 recently and just had to include it. Before he made lengthy preachy crap like Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron had a knack for producing interesting fun sci fi like The Terminator and this film.
The Abyss takes place on a deep sea underwater oil rig. They get cut off from the surface and are trapped with limited resources. And there are aliens about. At first, we only see little alien probes which look sort of like those old light-up balls you had as a kid and it made me wonder if James Cameron possibly had one of those as a kid. Later, when we see the full aliens, they look like Christmas ornaments, or maybe something you might make on a Light Brite and it made me wonder if maybe James Cameron had one of those as a kid as well. But I digress.
The Abyss spends about 40 minutes on its set up and then delivers a nonstop 100 minutes of suspense and action. It’s no easy trick to put an audience on the edge of their seats for that long (your butt tends to fall asleep), but this film does it. Ed Harris is the leader of the oil rig crew, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is his estranged wife who is also the rig’s designer. Michael Biehn is terrific as a navy seal who suffers from pressure sickness that makes his hands shake and his eyes bug out and makes him so paranoid he cuts himself with a bowie knife to calm himself down. A major theme of The Abyss is that being trapped anywhere, much less a thousand feet underwater, with Michael Biehn is bad. Being trapped with psychotic Michael Biehn is really bad.
It might sound like I’m being critical of this picture, but trust me, I’m not. The underwater scenes in The Abyss are handled deftly, and unlike 90% of the horror movies I see, despite playing out in dim light, you never have trouble following the action. There’s plenty of nifty sci fi conventions here, and unlike Avatar, which mercilessly beats you over the head with its oversimplified environmental message from beginning to end, The Abyss offers almost no explanations at all, until the very end, when it seems like Cameron remembers that sci fi has to have a moral, so he adds one in about nuclear proliferation. Thankfully, The Abyss doesn’t preoccupy itself with this and instead concentrates on being a 100% entertaining film with few if any slow spots. And aliens that look like Christmas ornaments. Don’t forget them.
Christmas-y themes: Drowning, nuclear weapons, coming back from the dead, death by deep sea pressure implosion, guy in a coma, Christmas ornament-worthy aliens and alien water-tentacles.
I saved the best for last. Bad Santa is filthy, warped, perverted and gross. It’s also about 1000 times funnier than The Hangover. It is easily the funniest movie I have seen in a decade.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a self-loathing alcoholic safe-cracker who travels to malls at Christmastime with his partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox). They get gigs as a mall Santa and his elf (Marcus is a little person, which adds authenticity), then rob the place blind on Christmas Eve and head to the islands until next year.
Thornton’s Willie is an unhinged, chaotic mess. Somehow, this guy hit rock bottom 10 years ago and went downhill from there. He winds up befriending a perverted barmaid (Lauren Graham) and an overweight, emotionally immature, hot mess of a kid (played just to the borderline of believability by Brett Kelly). But early on, the plot of Bad Santa takes a backseat to a whole host of absolutely ingenious comedic performances and a series of scenes so increasingly funny that to this day the film brings tears to my eyes from laughing so hard. Thornton is pitch perfect as Willie, delivering lines like “I beat the shit out of some kids today. For the first time, I feel good about myself” with deadpan believability. Cox, in the role of a lifetime, is a foul-mouthed, evil, napoleonic dictator, propping Willie up for the sole purpose of cashing in on his talents. The scene of Marcus berating Willie in the mall cafeteria (“Your soul is garbage!”) is a standout. Bernie Mac is also terrific as the mall security chief who catches on to the duo’s plan, and the negotiation scene in the bar, where Mac’s only line is “half” is a high point.
Bad Santa capitalizes on every squirmy, uncomfortable piece of humor you could possibly squeeze out of exposing characters like this to children, then squeezes some more. If by some chance you have never seen the extended uncut version of this film on DVD, by all means, get it and watch it right now. My personal favorite Christmas movie ever.
Christmas-y themes: Alcoholism, theft, murder, security chief with foot fetish, barmaid with Santa fetish, Santa with big butt fetish, Santa cursing out kids, Santa beating the shit out of 12 year olds, Santa losing control of his bladder in a drunken stupor, pudgy kid kicking a midget in the balls, midget punching pudgy kid in the balls, Santa punching midget in the balls and midget kicking Santa in the balls.
Have a Merry Christmas and good viewing to all!