Smile Politely

Not exactly Christmas movies

This is not a list of the Greatest Christmas Films of All Time. This must be distinctly understood. Well, this and the fact that Old Marley was dead. As dead as a door-nail. There is no percentage for me in trotting out my list of movies about the magic of Christmas and asserting that one has more merit than the other. I will not debate whether Alastair Sim was a better Ebenezer Scrooge than George C. Scott (although he was), nor will I debate the differences between the Mickey Mouse and Muppet versions of A Christmas Carol (though it was the Muppets by a mile). We all have our favorites. We all have our sentimental choices.

I personally can’t get through the holidays without watching at least three Scrooge adaptations (including the dated but brilliantly dark Scrooged, with Bill Murray), and if I can fit in a viewing of Miracle on 34th Street as well (the original, not that remake crap), then I’m a happy guy. Obviously It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, and not just in the Christmas canon. I mean, it’s a pretty baller move to take an overlong life story of heartbreaking selflessness, drop a pretty grim Twilight Zone episode in at the three-quarter mark, then make everybody cry about how great friends are to have. Holy crap, Capra; what are you trying to do to me? (Also, let’s just get this out of the way… When George punches the cop? That’s maybe the best punch in movie history, just ahead of Harvey Keitel cleaning Steve Buscemi’s clock in Reservoir Dogs.)

Clearly I could ramble on about this stuff all day and into the night. And I would, too, except that, no matter how much fun it is for me to pontificate on the virtues of Xmas flicks A, B, or C, it couldn’t possibly be more subjective. Maybe you sit down and watch Home Alone with the family (possibly as a warning to the hell Junior will face if he doesn’t start acting like more of a team player); maybe you curl up in the throaty growl of Thurl Ravenscroft singing about the Grinch. All commendable choices, and I respect your opinions, one and all.

What I’d like to do right now, though, is speak to those among us who could honestly give a shit. Don’t get me wrong: these folks acknowledge that Christmas is upon us. I mean, they’re not hermits. But maybe, just maybe on Christmas they wish they were. Maybe Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye leave them cold. Maybe just once (just once) they’d like to see Ralphie’s eye go flying across the back yard with a goddamn BB lodged in it.


What follows is a recommendation for alternative viewing. All films that take place during the Christmas season, but with a little less emphasis on the family and the presents and the wassail and maybe a little more time spent on sex or drugs or murder. And yes, I threw in a romantic comedy.

You could call this… What (Else) to Watch: Christmas Edition.


Trading Places

I believe I was eight or nine when I first saw this, much to my parents’ chagrin. And although, yes, I did pick up a few zippy phrases from that scamp Eddie Murphy (the “quart-a-blood technique?” Classic.), what struck me most was that the film took place at Christmas but wasn’t about Christmas itself. I didn’t know you could do that! For anybody who hasn’t seen the film in a while, it’s still damn funny, with a cast (including Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd) to die for. Still relevant, too. A little dated, naturally, but there have always been one-percenters.

Batman Returns

After Tim Burton cracked open the world’s piggy bank with his first Batman film, a sequel seemed like a no-lose proposition. And though the film certainly made a lot of cash, there was a collective “Whuh?” from the audience as Burton spun a bleak, pale, goth-y story set at Christmas. Personally, I think it was kind of great. We would go on to see quite a lot of that white-skinned, blue-tinted, snow-crusted thing from Burton, but this was a great amalgamation of the kitsch of the old TV show and the darker social commentary that would later come from Christopher Nolan. (And, as they prepare to reboot the Bat-franchise once again, it’s interesting to see how each director has put his brand on the character and the story.) Take another look, if only to see how Burton tells a story of corporate interest using Christmas for its own ends while delivering a major Hollywood franchise installment. Smart, that guy.

Lethal Weapon

Ah, Lethal Weapon. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t all think Mel Gibson was nuts. But respect must also be paid to a film that delivered on nearly every aspect of the mismatched partner cliché and managed to be a solid action film. Sure the sequels got dodgier and dodgier as the ratio of action to comedy slipped, but that first film had such a sleazy dark line running right down its center that, if it had stood alone, it would be remembered far more fondly (and seriously).  A suicidal hothead cop played by Gibson (seen at right, about to shoot some people) is partnered with a ready-to-retire veteran played by Danny Glover. Together they set out to investigate a suicide that ties the porn industry to ex-CIA assassins and a seriously blond Gary Busey. Oh, and it’s Christmas—a fact that is folded into the action so deftly that it seems organic rather than forced.

Die Hard/Die Hard 2

Speaking of action movies—It would be neglectful of me to omit the godfather of Christmas action films here. Obviously the original Die Hard movie has serious bona fides, what with its company Christmas party setting and frontloading of Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” but can we talk a minute about the sequel? Die Hard 2 takes place on a subsequent Christmas, officially making John and Holly McLane the unluckiest Christmas family since whoever couldn’t get into the inn OR the stable. Despite the fact that NYPD officer McLane has transferred to Los Angeles to be with his prosperous wife, the film takes place in an airport in D.C. This is all explained away up top (I think they’re visiting her parents), but ultimately, who cares? Bruce Willis (seen above left, about to shoot some people) is about to spend another Christmas shooting some people! Pass the fruitcake!

Oh, and on a side note: If anyone familiar with the film’s sparkling dialogue can explain to me how a metal detector could be set off by someone having shit in their brains, I’d appreciate it. (You can do better, McLane. For crying out loud, you’re the one who wrote, “Now I have a machine gun Ho-Ho-Ho” on a dead bad guy.)

Silent Night Deadly Night

I know, I know… Black Christmas (1974) is the ultimate holiday horror film. I’m sure you’re right. But for me, Silent Night Deadly Night was a rite of passage. Until this point (my freshman year in high school, I’m ashamed to say), I had been terrified of slasher films. Couldn’t go near them. For a guy my age, in my town, this was a detriment. I was a scaredy-cat. But this film, for some reason, spoke to me. (That might have come out wrong. I’ll probably edit that later.) This tale of a seriously troubled young man who endures unspeakable horrors as a child and grows up to be an axe-wielding killer in a Santa suit is not a good film. And the string of sequels that followed are even worse. (Or so I’ve heard…) But for those of you who think Christmas needs a little more gore… Here ya go. You’re welcome.

About a Boy

Hugh Grant has done pretty well with Christmas fare. Obviously there is Love Actually, which (despite being a little slapdash with the intercutting and character development) is a very enjoyable and often moving film. But that one, of course, is actually about the meaning of Christmas, and we’re not going to mess with that here. And then there is Bridget Jones’s Diary, which has a couple of notable Christmas elements (including reindeer jumpers and snowy kisses). Both good movies. The film that I keep coming back to, though, holiday after holiday, is About a Boy. Christmas plays a crucial role in this film as well, and there is something to the idea this film puts forth about choosing your family and celebrating however the hell you please that should be acknowledged. Whether you know the words to “Santa’s Super Sleigh” or not, this is a film worth watching. (And while you’re at it, read the book. One of my favorites.)


All right, dammit. Here’s your romantic comedy. I’m only including one, and I had to narrow it down. I could have gone with While You Were Sleeping, of course. Could have gone with Eyes Wide Shut. (That one’s supposed to be funny, right?) But I didn’t, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not because this film is brilliant, because it’s not. It relies on coincidence and luck and contrivance more than virtually any film I’ve ever seen. (Then again, I read the title, so what am I complaining about?) And it’s not because the characters are so lovable, either. In fact, they’re pretty self-centered and petty. The reason I like this movie comes down to chemistry. And although yes, John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale do have very lovely chemistry on screen, I’m referring mostly to the spark between John Cusack and Jeremy Piven. I know these two crazy kids have had their differences in the years since this film came out, but the scenes between these two then-best-friends crackle with life and timing. If you haven’t seen it, take a chance. It doesn’t suck. You won’t hate yourself.

Less Than Zero

Speaking of hating yourself, this will be part one of a two-film salute to Robert Downey Jr. We’ll call them the Before and After films. In this adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, which is so 80s it kind of hurts, we have a crew of school friends in L.A. whose lives have gone off the rails, thanks in part to the decadence and apathy of their drug-fueled adolescence. Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz (remember them?) do some tricky work as the screwed-up yuppie friends/caretakers of RDJ, whose character Julian spirals all the way down the rabbit hole. The film is a garish time capsule of pain and excess (Happy Holidays, guys!), but it is worth watching for two reasons: first, James Spader is fan-freaking-tastic as an amoral drug dealer named Rip; second, it’s kind of an affirmation to watch Downey play a character who so closely mirrored his own off-screen problems with the knowledge that he would come out the other side better, healthier, and basically on top of the world.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Speaking of RDJ, I saved the best for last. I did this partly because this film contains some elements of films previously mentioned in this column. First, it was written and directed by Shane Black, who wrote the first Lethal Weapon film; so this movie’s setting at Christmas in Los Angeles is a nice little callback to another wild action/comedy partner flick. Also, this film features an insanely charismatic couple. No, I’m not talking about Downey and Michelle Monaghan, although she does some nice work and can certainly wear a little Santa outfit. Nope, I’m talking about Downey and one Mr. Val Kilmer, both of whom appear to be having as much fun as their insurance bond will allow. Downey and Kilmer have a great way with insult banter, and the film beautifully allows each actor to revel in his personal strength. For Downey, this is being a stream-of-consciousness motormouth who is childish and yet somehow manly. For Kilmer, this means being three pages ahead in an entirely different movie. And it works. I’m unabashed in my love for this quirky little film, and I give it my highest personal recommendation as a non-Christmas Christmas movie. Guns, murder, drugs, boobs, peeing on corpses, testicular electroshock, more murder, and a lot of f-bombs. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.


Of course I realize I left out a ton of films set at Christmas, among them Gremlins, Brazil, In Bruges, Stalag 17, L.A. Confidential (sort of), and Purple Rain (just kidding). Please feel free to post a comment and alert me to any others I haven’t mentioned. I’m always on the lookout for movies that include holidays without being about them. I’m weird that way.

Happy holidays from the Arts Department here at SP, everybody.

Peace on earth, good will to all. And if anybody knows where Val Kilmer is now, give a shout. I worry about him.

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