Checkin’ ‘Em Twice (Christmas Edition): 10 Left-of-Center Christmas Movies

Screen shot 2013-12-20 at 1.31.04 PM

Mistletoe for Misanthropes, aka Christmas Flicks for the Cynics

The holiday season can be a tricky time for those of us who operate on the fringe of mainstream goodwill. I’m not saying we aren’t vulnerable to a sucker punch of sentimentality now and then, but sometimes the candy-coated, beribboned onslaught of “CHRISTMAS CHEER” can set one’s teeth on edge. If you’re a misanthrope, you sneer at the hyperbolic happy faces of the human cattle as they dash themselves and their bank accounts to pieces on the rocks of seasonal consumerism.

If you’re a cynic, you cackle at the gratitude and warmth of spirit the plebeians don like a Santa hat from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, only to doff it on January 2nd in favor of the blithe selfishness with which they comport themselves for 90% of the year. If you’re an atheist, the centuries of belief systems packed into a single, syncretized midwinter mishegas is enough to send you running to a proverbial cabin in the woods, off-grid and out of reach, even for the All-Father. If you’re disenfranchised by Christmas in some other way  — an orphan of choice or circumstance at a time of year when “family togetherness” is the byword; a believer whose seasonal tenets are invisible to the mainstream; or if you just hate eggnog and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — you greet December not with gaiety but with weariness and aggravation.

If you belong to any of those groups, the art that springs from Christmas can be problematic at best and onerous at worst. Natalie Wood believing in Santa Claus, a plethora of British luminaries finding that love actually is all around them, even the phantasmagoric reformation of Ebenezer Scrooge: These things say little to us naysayers, no matter our degree of militarism, about our experience of Christmas, i.e. our misgivings about it and its trappings.

Fear not, though. For the misanthrope, the cynic, the atheist, the solitary, and the anti-consumerist among us, there are some “Christmas” movies which encapsulate the spirit of the season while not shying away from its dark underbelly. For your consideration, a list of my 10 favorite “left of center” Christmas movies. Turns out that even something as seemingly uniform as holiday entertainment has shadowy aberrations tailor-made for the iconoclast.

Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s sequel to his own noir-ish, 1989 take on the Batman mythos — still, by this writer’s estimation, the finest Batman movie ever made — is self-consciously weirder than even the first movie, which itself is imbued by a zany darkness about that is part of its lasting charm. Returns is often underappreciated, its satirical side-eyes at politics, corporate greed, and sexism either lost on or unwelcome by many viewers. The same viewers are often puzzled by the Christmastime setting. What better balm, though, to soothe the holiday hater in you than by watching Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin fight it out across a tableau of big-city, big-money Christmas consumerism? I mean, Catwoman blows up a department store, for Crissakes. You can’t get much more pointed than that.

Gremlins (1984)

Stories about charming, small-town Christmases can be among the most nauseating, which is why screenwriter Chris Columbus’ choice to set his gleeful monster romp Gremlins against just such a small-town Christmas is so delightful for the holiday hate brigade. The titular gremlins, destructive and impishly malicious, overrun the town after our hero Zach Galligan fails to follow the proper care instructions for his exotic pet Mogwai, Gizmo. (Which is supposed to teach us…what? Be a responsible pet owner? Never adopt from a Chinese man’s backroom?) The gremlins leave the town’s festive décor and mood in ruins. And then, to cap it all off, the climactic battle with Spike, the most evil and intelligent of the gremlins, takes place in…a department store. I’m sensing a theme here.

A Christmas Story (1983)

A Christmas Story is an institution, part of almost everyone’s holiday-movie pantheon. Despite that, it’s hardly the saccharine tale one might expect. Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun lead to scathingly funny consequences that turn Christmas’ most ridiculous excesses into punchlines, from Christmas dinner (devoured by neighborhood bloodhounds) to gift-giving itself (the much-wished-for BB gun turns on Ralphie almost immediately, and who can forget the pink bunny pajamas?). The theatrical release poster comes with the tag line, “A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas.” Indeed.

Rare Exports (2010)

The mythology of Santa Claus — omnipresent, omnipotent, benevolent: in a sense, a New Testament God figure if there ever was one — is so deeply interlaced with Western holiday culture that the two are no longer easily teased apart from one another. What could be more subversive to the idea of Christmas, then, but a movie which recasts Santa as an ancient, ravenous monster? The “naughty” side of the Santa Claus mythos (most of it appropriated from Germanic/eastern European legends of Krampus) gets moved to the forefront in writer/director Jalmari Helander’s Finnish tale of suspense, where a father and son with a strained relationship face off against the true, demonic “Santa” and his army of terrifying elves. It sounds stupid on paper, but trust: It is not.

The Ref (1994)

If you’ve ever sat through a tense family dinner at Christmastime, the Christmas Eve dinner in The Ref will either make you cackle in recognition or cringe in sympathy (probably both). Crook Denis Leary holds bickering spouses Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis hostage while attempting to engineer his safe escape, necessitating some Blake Edwards-style posturing when the couple’s family arrives for the evening’s Christmas celebration. The vicious sparring of the married couple, along with the awkwardness of the family dinner and the blackly-comic threat of criminal violence hanging in the background, is enough to delight the Christmas cynic in all of us.

Scrooged (1988)

On the surface, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems perfect for the holiday hater. An unrepentant, exploitative miser? Scary and unsettling ghosts? The pain of the past dredged up anew? Of course, it’s all in service to a sunrise conversion of the soul that sends Ebenezer Scrooge scampering through the London snow, imbued by the Christmas spirit and so fully changed that one suspects brainwashing or bodysnatchers instead of remorse and a newfound mindfulness. A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times, and in countless configurations, but Scrooged accentuates the dark comedy of the tale rather than its syrupy outcome, and its timely indictment of the wealthy during the ‘80s boom makes it strangely apropos for our current cultural moment (Here’s looking at you, 1%). Highlight: Carol Kane as a physically-abusive Ghost of Christmas Present.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Tim Burton must be a hero to the Christmas cynic. Batman Returns (see above) and Edward Scissorhands both make sardonic use of Christmas, but his story for The Nightmare Before Christmas makes it’s entire plot about the holiday. Disaffected Halloween Town leader Jack Skellington suffers a kind of suburban malaise; seeking something beyond his rote, witching-hour existence, he stumbles upon Christmas Town, and, enraptured by its beauty and cheerfulness, schemes to steal Christmas for his own citizens. Jack eventually realizes his error and order is restored, but you don’t have to strain to read the film as a sly paean to the blackhearted for whom Christmas holds fascination but little lasting power.

Home Alone (1990)

Though it certainly ends on a cloying note, Home Alone’s premise and body don’t toe the Yuletide line. Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin is inadvertently left behind in the self-created stressful rush of his family’s holiday departure to Paris. Criminals Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern take contemptuous advantage of the seasonally-abandoned suburban homes. The movie is a comedy, but when you pull back from it, a home invasion thriller about an eight-year-old boy fighting off two burglars doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas cheer.” And the dysfunctional family dynamics that open the film, though they are neatly resolved in the end, paint (for the cynic) a much more accurate portrait of the resentment and pessimism that mark obligatory family gatherings than what you find in other, more rose-colored Christmas fare.

Black Christmas (1974)

If your mood is particularly black this holiday, what better way to feed it than Christmas-themed homicide? This proto-slasher flick — released the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and sometimes known by the alternate (and more hilarious) title of Silent Night, Deadly Night — subjects a pack of sorority girls to the depredations of a psychopath. Not as elegant or influential as its descendent, Halloween (also holiday-themed!), but then again, Halloween doesn’t feature a scene where neighborhood carolers drown out the sounds of a horrific murder.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

No “left-of-center Christmas movie” list would be complete without Christmas Vacation, in which Clark Griswold’s increasingly desperate attempts to engineer a “good, old-fashioned family Christmas” meet with similarly intensifying disaster. It’s all in good fun, but of the movies on this list, Christmas Vacation most blatantly takes the facile furor of Christmas and subjects it to a…well, a lampooning. The family, the food, the decorations: no element of the holidays is safe from Christmas Vacation’s skewer, and the Christmas cynic is left, at the credits, with a jaw sore from laughing and a smug satisfaction that she is not alone in her dislike of the season. Best paired with A Christmas Story for mocking all the Christmastime craziness of the rank and file.

Related Content

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide