So, the festive season is officially upon us. U.K. shopping centres are all playing the same jolly-but-also-intensely-misanthropic-and-grumpy mix tape they run every year, the supermarkets are trying to out-schmaltz each other with their ads, and festive jumpers are springing up all over the country like cheerful, pun-laden woolen triffids.
This all means one thing: the time for festive movies is at hand! And I’m not talking the never-ending stream of “It Happened One Christmas Eve” Lifetime movies, fun as they are. Oh no, this is the good stuff. The odd stuff. The stuff where things get weird. And sometimes, on occasion, explode.
A McClane Family Christmas
So let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Yes, Die Hard absolutely counts—it’s set at Christmas, Alan Rickman gets thrown off something, there’s a cuddly toy, it’s all good. Die Hard is deservedly viewed as one of the definitive modern western action movies and if you’ve never seen it, check it out, it’s great fun.
That’s largely because this is one of the movies where Bruce Willis most definitely shows up for work. He perfects his hard-bitten luckless blue-collar badass routine right out of the gate and carries the movie on his increasingly world-weary shoulders. Plus, director John McTiernan continues his relatively brief but glorious run of action movies here, delivering a film in which every punch feels like it lands and every action sequence plays as being just barely on the edge of control. It’s crammed full of grace notes that pay off again and again, whether its Gruber’s ever-darkening mood, John’s supernatural ability to annoy people, or Argyle waiting in the parking garage with his limo. Gruber’s immaculately designed plan may go sideways but the movie never ever does, and remains the gold standard for crunchy, visceral, and inventive physical action. Watch this and Die Hard With a Vengeance and ignore every other sequel. Or better still, why not screen a “Things go super sideways in a skyscraper” quadruple bill featuring Die Hard, Dredd, The Raid, and Attack the Block?
Friends, Booze, Karaoke, and Ugly Sweaters
The Night Before is, undoubtedly, the only movie on this list that features a tripping Seth Rogen yelling abuse at an unborn baby over the phone, then apologising. If that’s a deal breaker, skip this one. If it isn’t, buckle up.
The Night Before stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ethan, whose parents were killed in an accident on Christmas Eve ten years previously. Ever since then, his best friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every Christmas making sure that he’s okay on the anniversary. But Isaac is about to be a dad, Chris’ NFL career is taking off, and Ethan? Ethan is still just Ethan.
Jonathan Levine directs a script he co-wrote with Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and Evan Goldberg, and the result feels a lot like an early Kevin Smith movie crossed with It’s A Wonderful Life. The film has definitely never met a bad joke it didn’t like and there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit here that’s not so much picked as harvested, fermented, and downed in one.
But underneath all that lies something clever and sweet and surprisingly impressive. Mackie in particular is great as an athlete caught between the need to succeed and the need to be himself in a plot that grounds the movie and helps to balance its more outlandish sequences. Likewise, Levitt cleverly subverts his own on-screen persona to create a charming, confident young man who is also deeply broken and unable to face that, or look himself in the eyes. Even Rogen works outside the box, and his scenes with Jillian Bell, who plays his wife, are especially great.
That rock-solid emotional core is orbited by great supporting turns from Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, and Mindy Kaling, not to mention some truly epic jumpers and the best Run DMC karaoke scene in cinema history. The Night Before is not for everyone, but it’s weirdly sweet and strange in a way nothing else on this list is.
Obnoxious Cousins and Killer Clown Dolls
Released the same year (2015), Krampus, directed by Michael Dougherty (also responsible for the Halloween anthology Trick ’r Treat) is the most overtly horrific title on this list. It stars Emjay Anthony as Max Engel, a kid whose family comes to stay for Christmas, bringing all manner of familial sniping and mean-spiritedness with them. Humiliated by his cousins, Max tears up his letter to Santa, and in doing so attracts the attention of something terrible…
Much like Dougherty’s earlier movie, Krampus has flown under the radar and it’s hard to see why. Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner are the marquee names here and are all in good form. Better still, Anthony is great as Max and anchors the film’s increasingly deranged second half.
The deeply maniacal second hour or so features a Gremlins-esque war between the Engel family and a brigade of living toys and festive icons. It’s wonderfully grim, zero-punches-pulled stuff, and leads the film to a high point that it either recovers gracefully from or plummets away from in the final seconds, depending on the viewer. Regardless, it’s a worthy piece of holiday viewing that will ensure you never look at gingerbread the same way again. Double bill it with Gremlins if you can, they go together brilliantly.
There are plenty more oddball holiday movies, of course. The original Gremlins is fantastic all on its own; It’s a Wonderful Life is still an all-time classic. The deeply eccentric Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death even fits the bill. But if you want some festive viewing that’s a little off-kilter, then one of these will hit the mark for you, I’m sure. So, sharpen those candy canes, light the eggnog-scented cocktails, and fire up the Run DMC—let’s get festive.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.