There is no time a year quite so alienating for a Jewish person as Christmas time. Imagine everyone around you is looking forward to one special day in December, while you get the Americanized, consumerist consolation prize of “eight days of presents” that loses most of its luster once you’re past the age of 13.
And while we retreat to the cozy confines of a Regal Cinemas or an AMC movie theater on Christmas Day, enjoying short lines and matinee prices with our fellow chosen people (and goys in the know) before indulgent dinners at Chinese restaurants, we’re left to spend more than a month suffering with television’s unfair winter programming. Yes, we realize that Hanukkah’s only major offering to the holiday film market is Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, but would it kill a cable network to air a Woody Allen retrospective, or maybe one of his films for each night of Hanukkah? He’s got so many that you could go a few years before you’d even need to repeat one.
This surplus of Christmas movies is always of the heartwarming variety. All of them have “Christmas” or “Santa” or “holiday” or some other seasonal word in their title, or they riff off the name of an old Christmas song, or they make a clever play on words, like the commendable Santa Clause. Most of them concern some single parent being paired up with a new love (or their old one), because that’s the only present their child really wants that year. For every Scrooged, there’s a Fred Claus. For every A Christmas Story, you have a dozen Lifetime-friendly Christmas Towns.
But there are a handful of bearable Christmas films out there, and while Elf, Trading Places, and Gremlins may immediately come to mind, there are others that are less obvious, or that you may not realize are Christmas movies because the holiday isn’t critical to the plot.
Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is not directly a Christmas movie, despite scenes of church services and televised yule logs. It captures that aura of returning home on your first winter break from college, and like a much classier, less sexualized, 100-minute version of Gossip Girl, it follows middle class Tom as he falls in with a wealthy crowd of young partygoers (here, “party” is defined as fête, gala, or debutante ball). Metropolitan smartly showcases the holiday season as we all wish it could be — lavish gowns worn to grand parties, with thick coats to protect you from a New York City December — without a heartwarming subtext of any kind.
For a taste of a charming European winter, watch playwright Martin McDonagh’s first film, In Bruges. The twinkling lights of a Belgian town square will distract you from the guns and drugs and a very angry Ralph Fiennes. Hitman Colin Farrell (in what may be his most bearable role to date) hides out in Bruges with his partner, Mad-Eye Moody Brendan Gleeson, after a job goes wrong. In Bruges is a good film if you’re looking for some action in your holiday fare but have already seen Die Hard one too many times.
The dystopic wasteland of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil captures the suffocating alienation that many non-Christians and Christians alike feel during this special season, even though that’s probably a more specific goal than the director was going for. Amid the chore of exchanging mass-produced presents with co-workers and loved ones, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) tracks down his dream girl and gets tangled up in a mess he doesn’t belong in. The action kicks off after a father is wrenched from his family right before Christmas, when the seeming sound of sleigh bells is actually the police arriving to arrest him, and the movie only gets darker from there. It also proves just how dangerous holiday shopping can be.
And if you’d really just like to watch something with “Christmas” in the title, go with Black Christmas — the 1974 version and not the 2006 remake. In the slasher film, a faceless, contextless psycho terrorizes a sorority house, and nothing cures the humbugs quite like watching a sorostitute get murdered with a unicorn figurine.