Holiday films are often very popular because of what they have to offer: an escape from the monotony of regular life that leads us to uplifting conclusions. However, Christmas films do not always adhere to these banal generalities, and some of them provide brilliant alternatives to the oversaturated ocean of clichés.
Some of the films listed below, like Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers, try to use the genre as a launching platform for their consequential investigations of pernicious social conditions. “It is true that I was inspired by 1948’s 3 Godfathers starring John Wayne, and I also took the title from that film as well,” said Kon, “But at the same time, I noticed the increased number of homeless people in Tokyo, and that was the reason I wanted to focus on them this time as the main characters.
“As I am an animation writer/creator, I wanted to send my message to viewers throughout this feature, to make them feel relieved from their troubles, worries, and discontentment from everyday life by using the ‘homeless’ characters who are a socially disadvantaged people that are living their lives vitally and lively with warm and kind hearts.”
We have collated an eclectic list, with works from acclaimed filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder who used their films to question the assumptions of the genre. Although subversive in nature, the films perfectly qualify for Christmas viewing.
The 10 best alternative Christmas films:
Gremlins (Joe Dante – 1984)
One of the finest comedy horror films of all time, Gremlins is often called an “anti-Christmas” film because of its unique symbolism. A satirical take on the excesses of consumerism, Joe Dante managed to create a hilarious and morbid film which takes the conventions of the genre and subjects them to devilish anarchy.
“It’s the movie I’m going to be remembered for,” Dante admitted. “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow the headline is going to be ‘Gremlins Director Hit By Bus’. I’ll never do something that’ll outlast that in terms of the public image of who I am – which is fine with me.
“It’s strange that it’s outlasted so many other pictures that were much more prestigious at the time. It expresses my personality too, which is the one thing that’s the most difficult to get across in an expensive film.”
Batman Returns (Tim Burton – 1992)
Although the sequel to Burton’s iconic 1989 film was criticised at the time of its release, Batman Returns is a wonderful film to return to. Set during Christmas season, time has proven that Burton’s bizarre romp, full of memorable characters like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Danny DeVito’s Penguin and the fun antagonist played by Christopher Walken, will always remain a unique addition to the saturated corpus of superhero films.
“At the time with the first Batman, you’d never heard the word franchise. On the second one, you started to hear that word,” the director said. “On the second one, we started to get comments from McDonald’s like, ‘What’s all that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth?’ So, people were just starting to think of these films in terms of marketing. That’s the new world order.”
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick – 1999)
Starring Tom Cruise as Dr. William Harford, Eyes Wide Shut is a mesmerising cinematic dream which follows Harford as he embarks on bizarre psychosexual adventures after he finds out that his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) had thought about indulging in an extra-marital affair. He is forced to confront his own mortality and to change his reductive views of sexuality as he is carried forward by the hallucinogenic Christmas lights until he ends up at an orgy.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1928 novel Dream Story, Kubrick transposed the story from 1900s Vienna to 1990s New York and changed the Mardi Gras setting to Christmas. Critics have debated for years over this artistic choice, wondering whether the festive period had been chosen because it is a symbol of rejuvenation or whether it is a critique of how materialism has replaced the inherent spirituality of Christmas.
Kubrick’s final contribution to the world of cinema is not a conventional Christmas film by any means. With its recurring insistence on human depravity, Eyes Wide Shut is more of a philosophical inquiry about the inevitable corruption of idealist pretensions. It challenges our voyeuristic expectations and questions the validity of the season’s spiritual cheer which is completely based on materialistic obsessions.
Die Hard (John McTiernan – 1988)
The status of Die Hard as a Christmas film has been contentious but the director himself has admitted that public perception has turned it into one. Die Hard is probably the greatest action film which is set during Christmas, starring Bruce Willis as the iconic detective John McClane who fights back against a terrorist takeover.
“Die Hard was a terrorist movie, and it was about these horrible leftist terrorists who come in to … the Valhalla of capitalism,” McTiernan said. “And it was really about the stern face of authority stepping in to put things right again.”
“We hadn’t intended it to be a Christmas movie, but the joy that came from it is what turned it in to a Christmas movie,” he added. “My hope at Christmas this year is that you will all remember that authoritarians are low-status, angry men who have gone to rich people and said, ‘If you give us power, we will make sure nobody takes your stuff.'”
Black Christmas (Bob Clark – 1974)
Often seen as a precursor to the slasher genre, Bob Clark’s 1974 follows a group of sorority girls who are hunted and killed by a psychopath during Christmas. Based on urban legends as well as real events, this cult classic’s influence on the genre can hardly be overstated.
“[Black Christmas has a] lot of truth and conviction in it”, said Clark, “I think we were the first movie to get away from beach-blanket bikini treatment of college people – our college people acted like college adults. I think it’s just a good chiller and a very well acted film. It just caught on. At the tribute, we had like 400 people that they had to turn away and do a second screening for! – Turns out, it’s a lot of people’s favourite film.”
Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon – 2003)
Incisive social commentary presented through Satoshi Kon’s trademark bizarre animation, Tokyo Godfathers is a story about three homeless people who find a newborn baby on Christmas Eve and try their best to find its home. The film explores the concept of a new kind of family during Christmas, criticising the extremely fragmented condition of modern Japanese society.
“When films are made and the divide between dreams and reality is blurred, the story can become overtly theatrical. With Tokyo Godfathers, we intentionally made the story simple and focused on exposing the background of the characters more,” the director explained.
“I knew that if I made the main characters homeless people, the question of whether there was a message for society (or not) behind the work… These are people who have been ‘discarded’ from society; the homeless, the runaway girl. In Japanese society, civil rights that the people have are few in number. I wanted to examine how someone separated from mainstream society would once again rejuvenate society.”
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón – 2006)
This beautiful sci-fi thriller imagines a dystopian world where humans have been rendered infertile, signifying the inevitable collapse of human civilisation. In a world where death is the only constant, Children of Men focuses on the birth of a child after almost two decades of nobody being born. It is a retelling of the nativity story, framed within the context of authoritarianism and violence.
“The film is about hope, but I don’t think you can impose a sense of hope. It’s like democracy, you cannot impose democracy,” Cuarón said. “The sense of hope is something you cannot impose, it is something that is so personal. You can impose it in a Hollywood, hypocritical, manipulative movie in which you create your hopeful ending and everybody feels so pretty.”
Go (Doug Liman – 1999)
Doug Liman’s 1999 crime comedy toys with the famous Rashomon effect in a funny way, presenting a drug deal gone wrong during Christmas season through multiple viewpoints. Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Go received widespread critical acclaim and is now identified as an extremely enjoyable work of the genre.
“I had a charmed youth in that I did a lot of crazy things and no one ever got hurt,” Liman says. “I had this belief that you have a get-out-of-jail-free card when you’re 18. And I recognise there’s a lot of white privilege connected to that get-out-of-jail-free card now that I wasn’t as sensitive to at the time because I only knew my own experience. What I saw in Go was a story that was celebrating: Do crazy shit while you’re young. You can get away with it when you’re young.”
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander – 2010)
An absurdist take on the Christmas genre, Rare Exports throws an alternative interpretation of the lovable myth of Santa Claus at us. The film follows a young boy who discovers an evil Santa Claus, someone who might be responsible for the disappearance of local children and the killing of reindeers.
Helander elaborated, “The evil Santa comes from the mythology of this folklore. We actually have this, something like 100 years ago, we have this very scary Santa character. And the idea was originally from…I saw some pictures of this evil Santa with horns.
“It’s actually funny that the word for Santa Claus in Finland is Joulupukki, and if you translate that directly into English it’s ‘Christmas Goat’…. There are a lot of interesting stories in many European countries about Santa Claus. The original legends are quite scary, it’s interesting.”
The Apartment (Billy Wilder – 1960)
One of the crowning jewels of Wilder’s brilliant filmography, The Apartment questions how modernity has affected the nature of interpersonal relationships. Set during Christmas, it features the story of an insurance clerk who aims to land a promotion by letting his senior coworkers use his apartment to cheat on their spouses.
Considered to not only be one of the greatest Christmas films but one of the most influential films ever made, The Apartment caused controversy because of its subject but still won major accolades. Both a critical and commercial success, the film won five Academy Awards (out of ten nominations) including a win for Best Picture.