6 of the very best alternative Christmas movies
Because everyone has a little bit of Grinch in them…
Be honest, how many Christmas movies really stand up to the annual rewatch test? You’ve got Elf, Love Actually and The Holiday as the big presents under the theatrical tree — after you’ve unwrapped those, you’re left with the cinematic equivalent of satsumas and itchy socks from auntie Doris. But if you fancy adding a bit of abstract tinsel into your festive film rotation, these are our suggestions for the best Christmas movies that aren’t actually Christmas movies. And we’re not including Die Hard, because that is a proper Christmas movie.
Christmas films tend to follow one of a collection of pretty formulaic plot structures — Santa duties are suddenly thrust onto an unsuspecting and unlikely recipient; a lifelong humbug enthusiast softens after finally feeling the true magic of Christmas; a stressful Christmas pushes a couple/individual/group to breaking point, only to be revived from the brink by the aforementioned Yuletide woo-woo. Less common, however, are comedies about assassins hiding out in quaint, admittedly dull, Christmas market-festooned Belgian cities, impatiently waiting for their next wet work contract. Which is exactly what this Martin McDonagh masterclass in theatrical farce is. And whilst it’s unlikely to flush much Xmas cheer down your existential chimney, it is a very, very good movie with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes all putting in ho-ho-honestly brilliant performances.
The Family Man
The Christmas element of this movie is essentially window dressing for what is a Dickensian de-Scroogeing of a Wall Street banker, via a ‘this is what you could have won’ glimpse at an alternate life. The one he would be living if he’d only chosen love over greed. Yes, it’s sentimental, absolutely predictable, and occasionally silly, but it’s heartfelt, enjoys some great lead performances from Tea Leoni and old Santa Nick (Cage), and ends in a teasingly unresolved way that perfectly parallels post-Chrimbo-pre-NYE interim ennuis.
Essentially a lesson on the perils of not reading your Ts and Cs thoroughly. But make it festive. A travelling salesman buys a mysterious cuddly creature from the Pennsylvanian equivalent of DragonMart, as a last-minute panic-purchase Christmas gift for his son. The acquisition comes with a few easy to follow ownership rules, but ones if not followed will result in dire consequences. After his owners accidentally and still somehow systematically break the pet care protocols one by one, the cuddly protagonist Gizmo inadvertently sires a litter of carnage-mongering, very unChristmas-spirited (can we say) lizard babies (?). The town is swept by a one-species, Gremlin crimewave, punctuated by incidents ranging in severity from minor mischief to wilful murder. There is a way to defeat them, but it was laid out in those pesky terms and conditions that seem to have gone unheeded.
This is probably the closest thing to an actual Christmas movie in our round-up. It’s a 1988 black comedy and shameless Bill Murray vehicle that essentially amounts to a modern (albeit 34 year old modern) reimagining of A Christmas Carol. Murray plays Frank Cross, a gleefully cruel and miserly TV exec — who’s sacrificed a shot at true love for a Santa’s sack sized salary package. After swapping out the seasonal cash bonuses he promised to his staff for vanity towel sets, Cross is visited by a series of three apparations who all attempt to show him the error of his avaricious ways. As a bonus bit of meta narrativising, the events are set against a backdrop of Murray’s character overseeing a television production of the Dickins novella that the film is itself parodying.
The Harry Potter series
Each entry in this branch of the Wizarding World saga, usually covers a full academic year of ‘I dunno, that Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher looks a bit dodgy mate’. That means we’re often voyeurs for Harry’s orphan Christmas (same Potter, same), frequently spent alone or with scant company hanging out in and around the Gryffindor common room. It’s not all bad news though, Dumbledore buys the best presents and it beats Boxing Day dinner with the Dursleys. Imagine how aggressive those games of Monopoly would get.
Originally slated to star Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, this comedy sees a wealthy commodity broker switch fortunes with a lowly street hustler, in order to test a hypothesis on the validity of class structure. That makes it sound noble. It isn’t. It’s a calculated, subterfuge-laden switcheroo that threatens to irrevocably ruin the lives of two, probably unfair to say innocent but on balance ostensibly good, men — all over what amounts to a dispute on eugenics. “What’s all this got to do with Christmas then?”, the choral line of carol singers in our head cheer. Again, the festive setting is mainly a decorative element in the movie — but it does end up being an essential part of a concluding plot mechanism. And we’ll stop there, unless you’ve been bad this year in which case you’re getting nothing but spoilers in your stocking.