DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor—With the Christmas season comes watching Christmas movies. There’s plenty of classics in that subgenre (“Elf,” “Home Alone,” “Die Hard,” etc.) but some of my personal favorite Christmas-set movies are more unconventional, and with the giving season soon to be upon us, I thought it an ideal time to share them with all of you.
“Batman Returns” (1992)
Unrestrained after his first “Batman” was a monster hit, “Batman Returns” is much more so a Tim Burton film than a Batman film. In fact, “Returns” is one of the least accurate depictions of the title character and his mythos I’ve ever seen; now being the Batman fan that I am, you might expect this to bother me. But really, Tim Burton’s sophomore effort with the Caped Crusader is so good, I don’t even care about its failures as an adaptation. In fact, the distinctiveness of Burton’s vision is the source of the movie’s strength; you’d be hard pressed to find a comic book movie that feels so personal these days. Burton’s favored aesthetic of “demented Holiday gothic” fits like a glove, as do all the actors in their respective parts – Batman himself is clearly the part Burton is least interested in but Michael Keaton ensures the role can’t be called a weak link, even if he’s overshadowed by the likes of the Penguin (Danny DeVito in a role he was born to play and which he revels in with disgusting glee) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, who delivers a stunning, double-headed performance which did wonders for my sexual awakening).
“Black Christmas” (1974)
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1977) is easily (and deservedly) the most famous Holiday-themed slasher film, but for all that film did to ingrain Horror tropes into the cinema-going public’s consciousness, “Black Christmas” beat “Halloween” to the punch by three years. Directed by Bob Clark (who’d go on to make a much more traditional Holiday classic with “A Christmas Story”), “Black Christmas” features a group of sorority girls being stalked and murdered, one-by-one, by an unseen, unexplained killer. The film was very much ahead of its time upon initial release, from its storytelling (a killer embodying primal evil picking off young adults one-at-a-time until the Final Girl defeats them) which had yet to become conventions, to a decidedly pro-choice subplot involving the aforementioned Final Girl Jess (Olivia Hussey). If you’re looking to recapture the spookiness of Halloween this Holiday season, “Black Christmas” is for you (just make sure you’re watching the original, not either of the remakes).
Some of the best romances on film this century have been ones of queer love, from “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) to “Moonlight” (2016), from “Call Me By Your Name” (2017) to “Portrait Of A Lady Fire” (2019). All of the aforementioned are worth watching, but with Christmas season incoming, I’d recommend Todd Haynes’ “Carol” as a starting point. Set in 1952 New York, a soon-to-be-divorcee Carol (Cate Blanchett) and department store clerk/aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara) meet by chance and come to share “the most breathtaking of gifts.” Unfortunately, their love proves only so resilient to social stigma. Casting two of the best actresses working with material this dramatically rich guaranteed it was almost impossible to mess up, but “Carol” isn’t content to sail by on narrative alone. It’s undeniably a beautiful film in message and emotion, but it’s also a beautifully-made film, with the often ethereal colors, the green shadings in particular, leading to truly breathtaking images – indeed, when I first watched the movie, I paused it more than a few times just to look at the still frames.
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s last contribution to cinema was one of his greatest (no small achievement). When Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) hears his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) recount how she once contemplated cheating on him years ago, Bill embarks on an odyssey through New York City, looking for an excuse to cheat himself – his journey climaxes halfway through when he takes a peek into the nighttime proclivities of the city’s elite, then he spends the rest of the film trying, unsuccessfully, to decipher the meaning of what he witnessed. I’ll concede, the story as summarized probably doesn’t sound particularly interesting – it’s the atmosphere that makes “Eyes Wide Shut,” (a piano motif heard repeatedly throughout the film always sends a chill up my spine) and so it’s a film best experienced oneself.
“In Bruges” (2008)
For my money it’s never a bad time to watch “In Bruges,” but Christmas time is definitely the most seasonally appropriate. Two hitmen, rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) and veteran Brendan Gleeson (Brendan Gleeson), are sent to hide out in Belgian city Bruges by their boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) after a job goes bad. The set-up screams Tarantino, but the alternatively hilarious & heartbreaking “In Bruges” is a more soulfully introspective piece, not to mention the best film about Catholic guilt I’ve ever seen – both Ray & Ken are seeking redemption in their own way, and Bruges is a living purgatory for the both of them. I won’t say any more about the story because it’s best to go in blind (I still remember watching the movie on a whim in High School without knowing anything about it, and then being blown away), but what I will rave about is the impeccable casting. Trying to pigeonhole Colin Farrell’s range into pretty-boy movie star roles is one of Hollywood’s gravest sins, and his performance as Ray, restless irritability barely concealing guilt, proves it like no other. Gleeson gives a suitably warmer performance as the wise but weary Ken, while Fiennes as Harry, always red hot with rage, may be the most one-note of the three, but he’s also the most hilarious (“An uzi? I’m not from South Central Los fucking Angeles. I didn’t come here to shoot twenty black ten year olds in a fucking drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.”)