I should start by saying that I love Christmas movies. Holiday movies in general, really. I grew up with a regimented schedule of films in December that would include all of my family’s favorites, ultimately ending with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Alastair Sim’s A Christmas Carol (1951). That being said, you might not always want the jolly variety of holiday films. Maybe, like me, you want a break from that, and wouldn’t mind trading in some of the Santa-soaked films for something a little grimmer, or just different.
5) Catch Me if You Can (2002), dir. by Steven Spielberg
Spanning many years, the film details the long chase between real-life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) and detective Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). The most intimate moments of this film transpire on Christmas Eve. Frank always reaches out to Carl every Christmas Eve, and that seems to reveal more about Frank’s character than anything else in the movie. His extreme desire for family, connection, and understanding really seep through these moments. The above scene is one of the more touching moments, as Frank has escaped once again, but instead of running, he returns to his childhood home. He discovers his mother has remarried and had another child by peering through the window. It’s only then that he truly gives up and surrenders as cops swarm his house and he actually asks Carl to put him in the car to be taken away.
4) Brazil (1985), dir. by Terry Gilliam
Brazil might be the film on this list that is most distanced from the holiday, but its involvement of Christmas in the plot is fantastic. The story takes place in a weird dystopian future that only Terry Gilliam could imagine. At the heart of Brazil, though, lies a cynical and humorous critique on modern monotony and the relationships we have with technology, consumerism, and those around us. After opening the film with various hints of the holiday (like festive trees in sterile spaces) we see a husband being plucked from his family by The Ministry of Information just after his daughter expresses concern that Father Christmas won’t be able to come to their home because they don’t have a chimney.
3) Die Hard (1988), dir. by John McTiernan
Die Hard is definitely the most consistently mentioned movie when this topic comes up. I debated not even including it for that reason, and then I thought, “but Die Hard.” So here it is: everyone’s favorite non-Christmas Christmas movie. While the film itself contains only a few minutes of actual Christmas, that is meaningless to me. It’s set on Christmas Eve, and it’s a Christmas party that brings John McClane (Bruce Willis) to L.A. in the first place. I may get some flack for not slotting this in the number one spot, but what can I say? I live pretty dangerously.
2) Eyes Wide Shut (1999), dir. by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick did most things right. One thing in particular was switching this film’s holiday season to Christmas. The novella upon which the movie is based, written by Arthur Schnitzler, was originally set during Mardi Gras. Though I’m sure he would have made that incredible in its own way, it’s hard to imagine Eyes Wide Shut taking place during any other holiday than Christmas. The film is filled with neon Christmas lights, heavily decorated trees, and even holiday parties, but the holiday itself never directly mentioned. Rather, it subtly lingers throughout the film standing as a reminder that Will (Tom Cruise) is becoming increasingly more alienated from the idea of family, love, and happiness. Only Kubrick could make a film that is at once both a Christmas movie as well as a devastating meditation on sexual relations.
1) Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), dir. by Jacques Demy
Although this film is entirely sung operatically, it is by no means a typical musical. What starts out as a beautiful, blossoming love story quickly turns into a heartbreaking depiction of true love and profound loss. In the final scene the two reconnect after years of separation. Geneviève (the effortlessly stunning Catherine Deneuve) encounters Guy (Nino Castelneuovo) at his gas station on Christmas Eve. Her daughter (who Guy is actually the father of) waits in the car, as the two exchange awkward pleasantries with held back emotion. What they truly want to express to each other, though, is clear through their eyes. After declining to meet his estranged daughter, Guy watches as Geneviève leaves presumably forever. The camera pans back slowly, Guy’s family arrives and embraces him, and Geneviève drives away. The camera rests on the gas station as the music swells, the snow flurries, and we’re forced to reflect on heartache—both the characters’ and our own.
Honorable Mention: The ever-melancholic Edward Scissorhands (1990), dir. by Tim Burton
For anyone interested, a really informative article about this film was recently published>.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.