Ah, the obligatory list of Christmas films, you’re thinking. Well, Santa Claus, presents for precocious kids, heartwarmingly comical family get-togethers…I’m not going there. In place of mischievous elves, angels getting their wings, or reindeer on the roof, I’m looking for films that use the holiday season as a backdrop, whose narratives just happen to occur over the annual season usually rife with confused sentimentality and consumer bloodlust that runs from Halloween to Epiphany.
For most of us, life does not pause mid-December — holidays are something that just happen to interrupt the regular cycle of our lives, whatever our situation, un-plumped by artifice. In addition to fellowship and reconnection with those closest to us, the season also provides a veil of introspection over top of the festivities that cannot – and should not – be Jingle-Belled away.
While I’m certainly not a proponent of “Xmas Blues” and the bone-crushing pressures that come with that, it is a time that should make us reflect – if only for one time each year – on our place within both our families and our communities, local and international, and on what is truly of value. We carry all of the encounters and actions that accumulate with us for a lifetime, so a small annual reminder to audit and take stock given our current circumstances is a gift that requires no gaudy paper or bows.
Here are five seasonally-set films that help enlighten:
The Dead John Huston (1987)
Two of director Huston’s last three (and best) films are faithful literary adaptations nestled in holiday settings – Canadian writer Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano takes place in late-30s Mexico on the Day of the Dead and Irish icon James Joyce’s The Dubliners, which closes with the short story, The Dead, which is set at a 1904 family gathering to celebrate Epiphany – that hangover-like holy day that follows the festive Christmas Season. Huston, himself, was dying at the time he made The Dead, and the Joycean philosophies about life, identity and death permeate the director’s most thoughtful and gentlest of films. When his wife, Gretta (Anjelica Huston), confesses to a true-love experience in her past that had a tragic end, a shocked Gabriel (Donal McCann) experiences a personal epiphany of his own – that we must live with the acceptance of all life offers, be it with passion, frustration or tenderness, because we, too, will eventually be only memories living on in other people’s lives. Huston subtlely blankets us, like snow, with Joyce’s affirmation that there is a difference between merely existing and living: “One by one, we’re all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” With his final brilliant film, Huston does precisely that, exploring deeply emotional and intellectual territory where the living and the dead intersect that he had never entered in his previous work.
Frozen River Courtney Hunt (2008)
Hunt’s first feature film is set shortly before Christmas on the Canadian/American border and deals with indigenous issues, economic hardship and the cross-border trafficking of illegal immigrants by driving across a frozen St. Lawrence River. Ray (brilliantly played by Melissa Leo) is trying to finance a new double-wide trailer to replace the one set afire by her son trying to unfreeze the water pipes with a blowtorch, and since the border has no guards between the reservations that straddle the border, she takes on a couple more smuggling jobs. Unfortunately, both jobs are fraught with danger and considerable tension, forcing Ray to re-evaluate her plan and bravely focus on the ultimate endgame. Although the film addresses some serious issues, it is far from bleak as Hunt injects considerable amounts of suspense and humor into this portrayal of forgotten lives oppressed within a harsh, sparse landscape. Frozen River came out of nowhere, won the Grand Jury Prize that year at Sundance, and went on to become a critical darling.
Joyeux Noël Christian Carion (2005)
Christmas in the middle of a war presents all sorts of mental and emotional challenges, and few were more challenging than World War I. Based on a true story where Crown Prince Wilhelm sent two opera singers to the front to entertain German troops, only to have both sides – German and Allied – lay down their arms, declare a temporary truce and sing, exchange gifts and play a bit of football – fraternization that enraged the powers that be on both sides. It’s an inspiring, trilingual film that concentrates on our need for brotherhood over the foolish games of domination perpetrated by blind nationalism. The six primary characters are solidly played by Guillaume Canet, Daniel Bruhl, Benno Furmann, Gary Lewis, Diane Kruger and Alex Ferns, and through their eyes, their stories and their interactions with each other, we get a vivid portrayal of a fluke occurrence of mutual respect and a moment of spontaneous peace – and the people who were punished for committing such an outrageous thing.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence Nagisa Oshima (1983)
Probably the only thing worse than being on the front lines at Christmastime would be to be locked away in a cross-culture POW camp. British officer Lt Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) and the recently imprisoned (and irkingly rebellious) New Zealander, Major Celliers (David Bowie) get under the skin of their captors – Sgt Hara (Takeshi) and his superior officer, Capt Yonoi (Ryuchi Sakamoto) – and, after the final straw concerning a stolen radio, are remanded for execution. What follows is a series of events that tumble like dominoes, beginning with a drunken Sgt Hara releasing the prisoners, wishing Lawrence a Merry Christmas, exposing the humanity of the captors and the determination of the prisoners. Oshima directs with dreamlike intensity, solidly endorsing the line in the film that we are all the “victims of men who think they are right.” The relationships between the four men are much more complex than what we normally get from war films and the Christmas theme – more of a greeting than a tradition in this case – represents what we are capable of when unrestricted. It’s a declaration of respect, which is as it should be. On another note, Ryuchi Sakamoto, who plays Capt Yonoi, is a composer and gave us, with his soundtrack here, one of the best film scores ever composed.
In Bruges Martin McDonagh ( 2008)
In a vein similar to that of Die Hard, McDonagh’s film relies on the Christmastime setting to complement the darkly comic situation of two Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) banished by their psychotic boss (Ralph Fiennes) to storybook-like Bruges after Ray (Farrell) severely bumbles a job. While Ken (Gleeson) is happy with the idea of staying in the quaint and festive city, Ray feels anywhere else – even death – would be a better fate. Perhaps the Christmas setting and overall perfection of Bruges summons some remorse and redemption within Ray for his tragic blunder? McDonagh’s dazzling and vivid screenplay shifts from hysterically funny to suspenseful and back again with the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast, and it’s no surprise that he’s the main perp behind this year’s outstanding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film hits the ground running from the start and never let’s up, always surprising but never loses its focus or edge. Consider this riff from Ray: “There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges!” A true Christmas cracker.
There’s my take on Christmas in the cinema. Don’t find them too heavy, because they aren’t – they are as bright and illuminating as the sun — or sacrilegious, because they are the direct opposite, life-affirming and introspective. Most of all…just find them.