According to the endless holiday tunes, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. The songs, the lights, and the gifts are enough to make one festive. However, between retail workers getting PTSD, the forced family gatherings with relatives you despise, and parents maxing out credit cards to fulfill their demon seed’s overlong wishlist, it can be Hell on Earth.
For those who have trouble getting into the holiday spirit, refusing to watch so much as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, I’ve compiled a list of alternate viewing options. A list of ten films that are set entirely or partially around Christmas while avoiding the holiday spirit. From the scary to the horny, these films are recommended viewings for anyone who’s a holiday Grinch. Without further ado, here’s the list and a bah humbug to you all.
10. Spencer (2021)
Pablo Larrain’s dramatization of Princess Diana’s life is less of a biopic and more a psychological chamber drama that happens to center on Diana. While Spencer does provide insight into the personal struggles Diana had, it also highlights the all-too-real horrors of spending the holidays with despicable in-laws. Diana’s feelings of desolation and seclusion are seamlessly portrayed by a never-better Kristen Stewart who earned her first Oscar nomination for her sublime performance.
9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s swan song is a labyrinthine telling of a marriage in shambles. After Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) is hit with the revelation from his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) who said she once contemplated an affair, he goes on a night-long odyssey that at one point leads him to an unusual masked orgy. Bewildering yet with a bewitching erotic spell, Eyes Wide Shut is the kind of exemplary visual exercise one can expect a Kubrick picture to be. Plus, along with Stoker and The Northman, it’s proof that Nicole Kidman is a master at showcase monologues.
8. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
With its buoyant sing-talking and bright colors, it’s easy to be absorbed by Jacques Demy’s Palme D’Or-winning masterpiece right off the bat. Its vivid aesthetic is inviting while masking the searing melancholia hidden within. Once Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) fall madly in love before being torn apart by war, we’re then left watching them reel from their separation. The pain of seeing the blissful couple parting ways is made all the more potent by the chemistry of the two leads. Catherine Deneuve, in particular, is luminous and heartrending in her star-making role.
7. Black Christmas (1974)
Before director Bob Clark made the definitive holiday classic A Christmas Story, he scared the living daylights out of us with Black Christmas. Set on a college campus during Christmas break, Black Christmas follows a group of sorority sisters being stalked and terrorized by a mysterious maniac. Its use of atmosphere and it being a commentary on women being antagonized for their autonomy in a less on-the-nose manner than the recent 2019 version both make it a purely chilling experience. (Warning: A good night’s sleep may be lost.)
6. The Green Knight (2021)
David Lowery’s take on the old Arthurian tale is an eye-catching visual feast. Thanks to its cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo and stunning effects that make this $15 million pic feel grander in scope, The Green Knight is a wonderfully hazy fever dream as well as a meditation on the nature of being a ruler and the Messiah complex that comes with it. Also, for those who want more horny holiday watching, this is certainly a viable option and not solely because Dev Patel is the main lead.
5. Batman Returns (1992)
Despite Batman being the title character, it feels like he takes a backseat to the villains this time around. In Tim Burton’s second and last outing in the Batman franchise, the Penguin (Danny DeVito) takes center stage as we follow his plot to overthrow Gotham City and see him as a figure of tyranny and, ultimately, tragedy. Then, of course, there’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s definitive take on Catwoman, the alluring anti-heroine caught in the middle of the Penguin’s battle with the Caped Crusader. Pfeiffer is equally sensual and devious in this wonderfully distinctive superhero-horror hybrid.
4. The Lion in Winter (1968)
Based on the play of the same name, The Lion in Winter depicts a special kind of holiday family bonding. Special as in the Royal British family secretly scheming and double-crossing each other to see who will be the new ruler of England, succeeding the family patriarch King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). You know, typical family stuff. In all seriousness, The Lion in Winter is a well-acted showcase with tense political intrigue. Watching real-life acting royalty Katharine Hepburn at the peak of her gifts in her Oscar-winning turn as the cunning Eleanor of Aquitaine is pure joy.
3. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Before The Fabelmans came another effective coming-of-age tale from Steven Spielberg. As it follows the story of real-life con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio in career-best form), it often finds him alone on Christmas time with Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI agent on his trail, always being his form of contact during that time of year. Also, without going further, it may be hard to listen to Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” the same way after seeing this movie. When you see it, you’ll find out why.
2. Black Narcissus (1947)
Black Narcissus is a work of striking visual beauty even as it captures such dire circumstances. When a group of nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr in her most iconic role) form a convent in the Himalayan mountains, the sickness, physical solitude, and the tension with villagers all take a serious toll on them. The sexual repression leaves its own mark as well. As Mr. Dean (David Farrar) aids the sisters on their mission, his charm and always unbuttoned shirt drive a wedge among them in this Oscar-winning psychodrama that’s as erotic and well-shot as it is disquieting.
1. Goodfellas (1990)
As the main mob crew gathers together for a Christmas party after their big Lufthansa heist, Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) gives a few members a bit of schooling. Despite being advised not to buy anything expensive to avoid attention, said members do just that, having the immediate instinct of “buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend.” But besides being a minor depiction of holiday greed, Goodfellas is an all-around masterpiece. From the performances to the cinematography to the needle drops, Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus is perfectly made.