There aren’t many actual holiday movies out this holiday season; Christmas Day instead brings a movie about old guys boxing and one where greedy mega-capitalists do drugs and bang hookers for three hours. Traditionalists will be happy that the three out this season are a little churchy: “Black Nativity” is a respectable, if not very faithful, rendition of the Langston Hughes staple; “The Christmas Candle” was produced by no less than Rick Santorum; and “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” actually features a War on Christmas subplot (plus Larry the Cable Guy).
But there always plenty of mostly secular classics to choose from, including one in which James Stewart tries to kill himself. But for the non-believers or even just Grinches among us, there’s also a fair amount of films that call into question the season, roll around in misery or simply cover it in blood. Here are nine:
‘Comfort and Joy’ (1984)
Christmas is around the corner and one night, while he contentedly reads a book, DJ Allan Bird (Bill Paterson) notices his live-in girlfriend (Eleanor David) is systematically grabbing things from the living room and putting them in a box. Asked what she’s doing, she reveals she’s leaving him, a decision she didn’t previously know how to bring up. Heartbroken and miserable, he decides to distract himself by getting involved in a ridiculously overheated war between rival ice cream truck companies. Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth is king of the very dry, deadpan comedy — he had big crossover hits with “Gregory’s Girl” and “Local Hero” — and he nails the feeling of being bottomlessly depressed during a season of mandatory cheer. (Note: This is not to be confused with a 2003 TV movie starring “Facts of Life”’s Nancy McKeon.)
There’s a fairly immense cottage industry of films just incidentally set during the holidays, which serve as more background but aren’t terribly commented upon. One would be Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic, where the awakening of one shy bureaucrat (Jonathan Pryce) is contrasted with the materialistic cheer of gift-giving in a futuristic England where the rich have gotten used to frequent terrorist bombings.
‘Die Hard’ (1988)/’Gremlins’ (1985)/’Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005)
There’s also a cottage industry of action/horror/thrillers with immense Christmas trees in the background and dead people in Santa Claus costumes. “Die Hard” features Bruce Willis battling Alan Rickman and posse on Christmas Eve, while “Gremlins” unleashes homicidal pranksters around the holidays. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer bring back the ‘80s in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” while noting the decided un-Christmas-ness of perpetually lovely Los Angeles in late December.
Annual holiday staples rarely come better than this nasty little number, in which a profane crook (Denis Leary) kidnaps a couple (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) who just happen to be on the verge of a nasty divorce. Leary tries to intervene with his Bill Hick-knockoff shtick, but eventually even he can’t compete with his captors’ near-Ingmar Bergman-esque pain, only with far more cussing.
‘’Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
Stanley Kubrick had Jack Nicholson unraveling over a long winter break in “The Shining.” Why not try it with Tom Cruise? After getting high with his wife (Nicole Kidman) results in her confessing that she’s lusted for others, Cruise heads out into the night for a series of adventures, leading to a tony masked orgy outside of NYC limits.
‘A Christmas Tale’ (2008)
French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin’s (“Kings and Queen”) contribution to the holidays is an epic of dysfunction, only with a family who’ve gotten used to not getting along and have reached some kind of brittle compromise. Mother (Catherine Deneuve) and eldest son (Mathieu Amalric) have openly despised eachother for so long that they can hang out and chuckle about it, even as he debates whether to give her a bone marrow so she won’t die. Fists fly, everyone drinks too much and there’s even some sex, but that’s how this family rolls.
‘White Reindeer’ (2013)
The latest addition to the anti-holiday film carousel, Zach Clark’s indie dramedy begins with Christmas fanatic Anna Margaret Hollyman coming home to find her husband lying on the ground, his head bludgeoned by robbers. No longer able to enjoy cartoon internet Christmas cards with dogs barking, she starts questioning the entire suburban persona she’s crafted over the years, especially once she befriends the stripper (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) her husband used to frequent. Happy holidays!
Also worth a rental: “Lethal Weapon,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “The Ice Harvest.”