By Tom Hall
For most people, tradition is an inviolate principle of the holiday season—and movies are no exception. Although American multiplexes swell each autumn with a new batch of holiday-themed films, home is where the heart is; with annual marathons of classic films broadcast into our living rooms, movies like It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story are as important a part of the fabric of the season as the taste of an unwavering family recipe or a box of decorations passed down from generation to generation, each trinket in its well-earned place upon the mantle.
Of course, that’s the story we tell ourselves as we imagine the comforts of this time of year. But as the days begin to darken and family, parties, crowds and expenses draw ever closer, a sense of disquiet settles in. The holidays are coming, ready or not.
Our society romanticizes this season all out of proportion—and nothing perpetuates our personal myth-making more than the movies. As much as we love the solace of our memories and fantasies, perhaps it’s time to embrace reality with a new tradition; holiday films that capture the truth about our collective anxiety. Here are a few movie recommendations for coping with the real spirit of the season.
A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël) (2008)
The Vuillard family convene at their family home in Roubaix, France, for Christmas, but their reunion comes with some bad news: matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is very ill and needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her motley brood. When Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the troubled pariah of the clan, returns unexpectedly, Christmas and family spin into wild, imaginative dysfunction. A Christmas Tale is Arnaud Desplechin’s tragicomic tale of family and festivities, tragedy and comedy. The Vuillard family wear their hearts on their sleeves, a refreshing alternative to the forced civility of the typical family Christmas.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is the story of the titular siblings and their efforts to escape the tyranny of their abusive stepfather. The definitive 312-minute version of the film (originally made for television and now widely available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection) begins with one of the most elegant holiday sequences ever recorded to film. Once the narrative gets rolling, the film blossoms into a magical tale of interfaith humanism, but Bergman knows better than to leave it at that; the finale is a haunting reminder that family trauma is always just a memory away.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
There is something about this grand, stagey brand of comedy and performance that doesn’t quite hold up, but there is also a hilarious familiarity in William Keighly’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, which stars Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan. Set in a small Ohio town during the Christmas season, the film tells the story of Sheridan Whiteside (Montey Wooley) an arrogant, big-city radio personality who slips and falls outside the home of the courteous Stanley family, who take him in to heal his wounds. Whiteside reveals himself to be the worst possible houseguest, a condescending braggart who encourages the entire Stanley clan to leave their normal lives behind and follow their dreams. There is no finer depiction of the guest who wouldn’t leave—the film is a perfect example of the power the holidays have to disrupt our otherwise carefully organized lives.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
The movies have a long, troubling tradition of Christmas-themed horror, each film distinguished by its inability to frighten; there is something about the holiday spirit that resists the ugly tropes of brutality and violence. Finnish director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is the exception to this rule, a rare example of a film that takes the good feeling of Christmas and turns it on its head. The film is a truly troubling story of a Golem-like Santa figure, the antithesis of the jolly old elf of legend. While it does provide some truly anxious moments, it also captures the dark side of the holidays in a unique (and often hilarious) way.
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