Five Film Favorites: Christmas Movies of the Damned

Happiness is a TV set in Douglas Sirk's devastating "All That Heaven Allows".

The Christmas season is a boom time financially for Hollywood, and it’s also when moviegoers get that soggy glow in their eyes as they remember their holiday favorites. It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, The Shop Around the Corner… good movies, some great movies, and movies that celebrate the spirit of the season. Nothing wrong with that.

But we all know people who loathe the Christmas season, who see it more as a “time when the greedy, give a dime to the needy” (in Bob McDonough’s acerbic lines.) They don’t want to live in a world of diabetes-inducing candy canes, polyester-clad Santas, and music that bores into your brain like a worm in an apple. Me, I love the holidays, but I can’t ignore that they are also a time of great hypocrisy, of grotesque materialism, a season that is often cruel for the lonely.

So instead of a list of great Christmas movies that raise your spirits, here’s a list of cynical movies that examine the darker, twisted, brown-needled side of the tree.  There’s actually quite a few movies that take place on Xmas, like Die Hard, and movies that go directly against the spirit of the season, like the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. But for the movies below, Christmas is an integral and often ironic part of the plot, and that’s what makes the cut even more painful. Because for some of us, that’s a lot more fun than Jimmy Stewart thanking Bedford Falls.

5. Gremlins (1984, d: Joe Dante.) I can’t get away from the fact that this very mainstream movie, a big hit in 1984, is a great Christmas movie, in the absolute darkest sense. Perhaps it’s a bit of a cliche to include Gremlins here, since everyone knows it’s a rip on the holidays. So what? Just because Gremlins is the best doesn’t mean you leave it off the list. Look, the little beasts themselves are perfect, and I personally love how Dante twists even the cute gremlin, especially when that stinky critter reproduces. This one’s a barrel of fun, especially in this scene, aptly called “the worst Christmas story ever.” Enjoy.

4. The Proposition (2005, dir: John Hillcoat.) This is a brilliant and beautiful film, with a crack plot: Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), is the law and order of a small Australian town in the 19th century. At the movie’s opening, he and his men (and they’re a collection of some of the vilest soldiers imaginable), completely blow apart a brothel, killing virtually everyone inside except the two Burns brothers, Charlie (Guy Pierce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson), that they’re after. See, Arthur Burns, and a few of his brothers and mates, robbed, raped, and then murdered a family in the outback. But Arthur’s elusive, so after grabbing Charlie and Mikey, Captain Stanley makes this proposal: Charlie will leave by horse, armed, and go and kill his brother Arthur. If he doesn’t, Stanley will hang Mikey on Christmas Day.

Lovely. Nothing good can come of this deal, we know that. But the movie unfolds in shock ing and surprising ways, especially the violent clash on Christmas day. Filthy, gorgeous, and hard to watch, The Proposition could be the last great western, for it is surely that, but its brutality, and the fact that the deal of the title concludes on the holy day, make this a cynical holiday masterpiece.

3. Brazil (1985, dir: Terry Gilliam.) We played Brazil just recently at the Trylon microcinema here in Minneapolis, and I was stunned to discover that it took place over the holidays. Then I was equally stunned to realize how integral this fact is to Brazil’s labyrinthian plot. That’s one of the things I love so much about this complex film: unlike a lot of dystopias, or stories criticizing the impersonal state, Gilliam is not content to let simple human greed go to the wayside. Brazil, then, is as much a criticism of the rampant materialism that runs amok through any society, especially at Christmastide.

There’s a dynamite scene that was cut from the original, but available on the Criterion edition, where Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan) speaks to Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) who has been detained, and who can only see Helpmann through a hole in his restraining jacket. Helpmann is dressed as Santa Claus, trying to reassure Sam that everything’s all right, when we know damn well it is not.

I couldn’t find that scene, but this one with De Niro (in his last great role? Name another…) as the terrorist plumber is one of my favorites. Check out that awesome ring tone.

2. All That Heaven Allows (1955, dir: Douglas Sirk.) Boy, this a sad, fucked-up movie about the stifling life of a suburban 50s woman, and it’s amazing. Jane Wyman plays Cary Scott, a widow who is seeing her grown up children move out of her life, and is at a loss for what to do with herself. Then comes Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a gardner, much younger than Cary, who comes to admire, and then fall in love with her. But the conventions of this awful town practically scream that these two should not be together, never, ever, forget about it.

Ron doesn’t care–he’s a man who thinks the town can go to hell. But Cary is respectable, and has respectable children. It’s almost too much, but Sirk does a remarkable job at keeping all the tensions strung just tight enough to keep this plot in motion. In this devastating scene, Cary’s wretched children come home for Christmas, and give their Mom a TV set, a novelty at the time, and something to keep her company. “Turn that dial, and you have all the company you want, right there on the screen.” Sirk’s camera moves, and we see Wyman’s Cary, trapped in the set, the look on her face that of a woman who knows she’s on the verge of living damnation.

1. Roger and Me (1989, dir: Michael Moore.) This one’s my personal choice. I’ve seen this firsthand, good men and women watching their jobs and then their communities wither up and die. Christmas in Michigan, in Saginaw around where I grew up, in Lansing where I went to school, and in Detroit where I later lived and played, is a holiday that seems so edged with cruelty: bright lights on streetpoles in front of abandoned stores and buildings, people still rushing to Wal-Mart to buy shit they can’t afford, the whole mess writhing under the eternal cloudcover that is the Great Lakes State in December.

Roger and Me, though flawed with Moore’s excesses (as always), nonetheless captures Michigan, and by extension, America’s sickening relationship with Christmas, the fact that on one hand it’s meant to be a celebration of the human spirit, and on the other, business goes on, kicking families to the curbs, ignoring the plight of the blue collar worker, pretending the world is nothing more scary than the seasonal showing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This closing scene of the movie always gets me, the sheriff, as bewildered as anyone by the events that have brought him to the doorstep of a family he must toss to the street (from a home that probably hasn’t been lived in to this day, twenty-two years later), looking to the camera for help. Cut away to Roger Smith, who says about Christmas “for two weeks in the year, our whole environment is transformed.”

Well, it is and it isn’t. String up the lights all you want, but the factories are still closed, the homes still dark and empty. Everything I love about the holidays runs contrary to the reality that is Flint, that is Michigan’s auto industry.

In this state, which is not madness, but Michigan… (Phil Levine, from the poem “Rain Downriver”.)

Merry Christmas.

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One Response to Five Film Favorites: Christmas Movies of the Damned

  1. Gene says:

    You left out Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale”!

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