What is a Christmas film? The heated debate around Die Hard’s inclusion proves the genre’s a broad church, and one that evolves with the times.
Trends come and go, but one book in particular (no, not the Bible) has indelibly shaped the genre. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge transforms from town crank to local philanthropist after learning ‘the meaning of Christmas’ via a trio of ghosts. It’s an endlessly adaptable character arc that forms the bedrock of many a yuletide flick, from The Bishop’s Wife (1947) to Elf (2003) and Arthur Christmas (2011).
By the turn of this century, the schmaltz had worn thin and the nuclear family beloved by 1940s filmmakers was seen as an outdated ideal. The focus moved to familial strife and stress, debauchery, cupidity and subversion, as well as a more nuanced reflection on the complexities inherent to the holidays. That’s not to say the nostalgia died: festive turkeys Love, Actually (2003) and The Holiday (2006) offer much manufactured sentimentality, while even some subversive offerings come with a Dickensian revelation in the run-up to the big day. Luckily, those who say ‘bah humbug’ to all that are increasingly well catered for.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and 8 Women (2002) are two strong entries in the festive murder mystery genre, while Inside (2007) stars Béatrice Dalle as an intruder-stalker who administers a C-section via a pair of scissors. The festive period heightens the isolation in many yuletide-set horrors, and what is Santa if not a home invader?
In a similarly cynical, but less gory vein, the aggressively misanthropic Bad Santa (2003) and Funny Pages (2022) break from Dickensian tradition via unsympathetic characters who learn absolutely nothing over the holiday period. Which, let’s be honest, is a much better reflection on reality, and comforting in its own lacklustre way. A bit like unwrapping socks on Christmas morning.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
In many ways, Morvern Callar is the least Christmassy film on this list (suicide, clubbing and sun-scorched Spain drive the plot forward), yet there’s something in Lynne Ramsay’s woozy yuletide-set film that channels something appropriately otherworldly and nostalgic.
Handheld cameras bring naturalism to this story of a young woman (Samantha Morton) who wakes to find her boyfriend dead by suicide on Christmas Day. He’s left her some gifts, some money and the manuscript to his first novel, which she sends off, claiming it as her own. She then holidays in Spain and disposes of his corpse without reporting the death. Is she a victim or a murderer? Are we watching a breakdown? Callar barely says a word throughout the film. Tacky hotels, leaden skies and Christmas lights on lifeless bodies mingle abruptly. Alternating between specificity and hazy half-details, this strange, fragmented world feels at once haunting and achingly familiar, like memories of childhood Christmases past.
Bad Santa (2003)
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Auteur of outcasts Terry Zwigoff sets his sights on the Christmas season in his mischievous tale of hard-drinking thief Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and his marginally more business-minded partner-in-crime, Marcus (Tony Cox). Together they form a Santa-and-elf duo who work the department stores by day, then rob them by night.
You’ll find more to this ostensibly crass comedy than meets the eye. There’s a Martin Parr-esque quality to Zwigoff’s half-loving, half-loathing view of American suburbia: with subtle humour (sitting alongside plentiful anal sex jokes), he focuses on the kitschy accoutrements of small-town capitalism. The decor, the adverts, the habits and neurosis soothed by makeup, plush toys and fast food bought with feverish abandon all play muse to his shrewd lens. Willie is irredeemably awful, yet there’s a twinkle of warmth in this tale of a man who, while not quite learning the spirit of Christmas, does let remorse permeate his coal-black heart.
Director: Wong Kar Wai
As a former British colony, Hong Kong celebrates Christmas with more enthusiasm than in other south-east Asian countries, but with fewer ties to religion (and Dickens). Perhaps because of this, Wong Kar Wai relegates it to the background. Smatterings of tinsel and Nat King Cole’s rich baritone pepper the film, but this is Christmas abstracted to luxurious fragments in a wider tale of missed connections and thwarted love.
Following on from Chow Mo-wan’s (Tony Leung) unconsummated affair with Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 spans four story arcs, each weaving in and around Christmas Eve. With a fetishist’s eye, Wong delights in the periphery. Soft rain falling under a streetlight, cigarette smoke gently curling skyward, and glittering jewellery on satin gloves all fill this elusive world of bittersweet glamour, where loneliness and yearning are impossibly lush, and of the kind that can only exist in the movies.
White Reindeer (2013)
Director: Zach Clark
When real-estate agent Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) comes home to find her husband murdered in the run-up to Christmas, things understandably look bleak for the big day. As she picks through the sundry details of their shared life, she discovers secrets – including her husband’s relationship with a sex worker, who she meets and ultimately befriends. A little optimistic? Perhaps, but this is a light film, despite its grim premise.
Director Zach Clark turns a blackly comic eye on the marginalia of death, from self-important vicars to self-involved friends, as well as the little events that trigger an outpouring of delayed grief. As Suzanne attempts to feel Christmassy via clubbing, internet shopping and sex parties, each one punctuated by a bout of vomiting (sorry, emetophobes: over half the films on this list contain a chunder – ‘tis the season for overindulgence), she discovers death creates a gulf between her and the things she once loved. But when one door closes another opens, or so the saying goes. There’s a glimmer of light in even the bleakest of winters.
Director: Sean Baker
For those who have neither economic security nor religious ties to the holiday, Christmas is often reduced to a bargaining chip: a plea for a better tip, emotional blackmail in the wake of a missed gift. When moments of tenderness arise in Tangerine, it’s usually in spite of the season, not because of it.
In Sean Baker’s revolutionary iPhone 5s-shot film, two best friends set off on a goose chase around LA on Christmas Eve. They are two trans sex workers, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), with very different goals, neither of which includes wrapping gifts. Baker’s camera-phone pokes into sunny LA’s seedier quarters, landing just on the right side of anthropological voyeurism. Disarming moments of kindness soften the no-frills content, including a shared crack pipe between love rivals and makeup touch-ups in a grubby club loo. In the end, the best gift comes in the form of a wig handed to a friend – it’s both a peace offering and the provision of dignity in a moment when those things have been stripped away.
Director: Todd Haynes
The story is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, which was inspired by the author’s encounter with a blonde woman wearing a mink coat while she worked the Bloomingdale’s toy counter in 1948. With characteristic poise, Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Carol, a soon-to-be divorced mother who loses custody of her daughter once proven ‘immoral’. The transgression? Having a love affair with another woman.
Rooney Mara plays Therese, the wide-eyed innocent seduced by the older, more affluent and self-assured Carol (a dynamic just skirting predatory). The latter becomes confidante and mentor-with-benefits to the younger woman as she learns about her sexuality. Director Todd Haynes sets this tale of forbidden desire against a seasonal backdrop, where the festivities bring swooningly romantic lights and snow flurries, while effectively heightening the loneliness and dislocating the two women from those enjoying the simple pleasures of the season.
Ordinary Love (2019)
Directors: Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn
Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008) usually pops up as the Christmas-and-cancer film du choix, but Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s quiet drama about a Belfast couple grappling with chemo over the holidays offers a sweetly poignant take on the theme, buoyed along by the star clout of Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville, who play married couple Tom and Joan.
It’s the tail end of the year, when discussions turn to decorations coming down. After finding a lump in her breast, Joan receives a cancer diagnosis. Immediately, their lives become a tableau of waiting rooms and hospitals, where flickering screens broadcasting trash TV dually provide comfort and draw attention to the tedium of treatment. In a season of rampant indulgence, it’s easy to lose sight of ‘what really matters’; illness tends to throw that into sharp perspective.
In the quiet moments, glazed stares from both remind us that no matter how tight the couple, sickness and loss are solo journeys. But there’s a fragile beauty in our attempts to offer a comforting hand.
The Green Knight (2021)
Director: David Lowery
The story begins on Christmas Day in King Arthur’s court. An enormous green knight (Ralph Ineson) approaches the head table and challenges Arthur (Sean Harris) to a game – a strike from his best man in exchange for a strike from the stranger, to be dealt on the same day the following year. Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) steps up and chops off the stranger’s head. The stranger pops it back on, bidding the young man adieu for now.
Director David Lowery does well bringing life to the enigmatic weirdness of the medieval manuscript, adding just a few extra-textural flourishes, while gently unpicking Gawain’s frustrated quest for glory. “You do this one thing, you return home a changed man? An honourable man? Just like that?” says The Lord (Joel Edgerton) to Gawain one evening over dinner, midway through the latter’s three-night stay on his way to a beheading. It’s Gawain’s belief – and an idea upheld by the chivalric code – that men are made in glorious, death-defying acts. Our green friend teaches him it’s not singular events that make the person but an accumulation of small deeds from one Christmas to the next.
The Eternal Daughter (2022)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Joanna Hogg’s love letter to yuletide ghost stories sees a mother and daughter (both played by Tilda Swinton) stay in an empty hotel in the run up to Christmas. Though partially inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘They’, there are strong nods to Jonathan Miller’s BBC adaption of M.R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), namely in the spooky potential of twin beds and the tussle between the supernatural versus the psychological.
Hogg creates an eerie world of echoes, with mirrors and windows providing visual fragmentation, while a doubled-up performance from Swinton heightens the uncanny chills. Small, sad confessions passed from mother to daughter create ripples that swell into overwhelming desolation as the latter attempts to align the person she knows with the woman in front of her. It’s a film about the insubstantiality of memory and the disorienting vertigo that comes with realising self-defining histories are not as you thought. The shock is swift and harsh, a little like missing a step in the dark.
The Holdovers (2023)
Director: Alexander Payne
Striking the balance between festive froth and downbeat realism, Alexander Payne’s latest channels the age-old Christmas problem: how do you survive the holidays when you’re holed up with someone you don’t like? Paul Giamatti is pitch-perfect as a curmudgeonly teacher with a boss-eye and bad BO placed in charge of looking after students left behind over the holidays – which, unhappily for him, includes one of the class ne’er-do wells. Both have their preconceived ideas about what the other is like, all of which are upended via a series of unhappy revelations.
It’s the first collaboration between Payne and Giamatti since Sideways (2004), and fans of the boozy buddy comedy will find much to enjoy here, with another odd-couple frenemy plot and the latter as a lovable grump, as well as that same undertow of melancholy beneath the laughs. Attention to period detail is exquisite – cinematographer Eigil Bryld (who worked on that other melancholic Christmas film, 2008’s In Bruges) incorporates handheld shots and lots of natural light for that free and naturalistic mid-century look.
- The Holdovers is in UK cinemas on 19 January 2024
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