Here’s a selection of ‘festive’ films to sneak off and watch when you cannot face watching Home Alone with the family for the seventh time
Christmas comes but once a year, paving the way for 12 months of planning what films to watch on your laptop when it’s too cold to go outside. For some reason, the holiday season is associated with families gathering around the TV to watch garbage like the Queen’s speech, a festive murder in EastEnders, or something with The Muppets in the title. But why do standards suddenly skydive when there’s a gauche plastic tree blocking sunlight from entering the living room? To see you through the season, here’s a fine selection of festive indie films ensuring you can have yourself a very arthouse Christmas.
EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Nearly every room in Eyes Wide Shut has a Christmas tree, and the few that don’t are hosting an orgy. The decorations establish an ironic innocence: Tom Cruise wanders around after dark, sniffing around for a one-night stand, but all he stumbles upon is an endless array of tinsel and tacky lights.
Or perhaps it’s Kubrick, the perfectionist, contrasting a religious holiday with the occult rituals of a sex-mad cult. Either way, it’s intentional, given the source novel has no Christmas elements at all. Could be worse: in Full Metal Jacket, 25 December is spent receiving a lecture on how “God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see”.
8 FEMMES (François Ozon, 2002)
Christmas tends to evoke family sing-alongs and homicidal urges (over Monopoly games), which is lavishly reflected in Ozon’s comic LGBT murder-mystery musical – a whodunit and a whosungit, if you will. As the title suggest, there are eight women, each locked up in a snowed-in household on Christmas Day. So who stabbed the father to death during the night?
High on artifice and low on subtlety, 8 femmes exaggerates its absurd clues and soapy twists. An example of a red herring: if Isabelle Huppert’s character went to the toilet five times overnight, does that count as five murder opportunities?
METROPOLITAN (Whit Stillman, 1990)
“Manhattan, Christmas Vacation, not so long ago” notes the opening text of Metropolitan, a lo-fi comedy that bristles with warm wit amidst cold weather. For Tom Townsend, an awkward freshman, the yuletide period involves a two-week circus of debutante parties and mandatory socialising. Soon, he’s happily sucked into the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, his new, eloquent BFFs – but afterwards, to his dismay, the group disbands faster than the decorations.
Stillman doesn’t hide the script’s autobiographical aspects; just as The Last Days of Disco pays tribute to 70s clubbing, Metropolitan is earnest in its nostalgia for one particularly timeless Christmas memory.
A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
With its festive decorations, multiple plot strands and all-star French cast, Desplechin’s modestly titled A Christmas Tale may sound like a Roubaix-set version of Love Actually – but rest assured, it boasts the typical class and wit of a Desplechin drama, stuffing its rapid-fire dialogue into a sprawling 150 minutes.
A tempestuous family and their partners (including Mathieu Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni) reunite for the holidays, only to learn the mother, played by Catherine Deneuve, has leukaemia and needs a liver transplant. What follows is an intricate melodrama, full of flashbacks and bed-hopping twists, all unfolding in one intense household.
TANGERINE (Sean Baker, 2015)
“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.” If Tangerine doesn’t look like a typical Christmas comedy, it’s due to its setting of Los Angeles – a city where it never snows and filled with residents more likely to call it awards season than winter. So two trans sex workers celebrate the holiday in their own chaotic style. Alexandra bares her heart with an un-merry cover of Doris Day’s “Toyland”, Sin Dee plots revenge on a blonde fish, and their pimp scoffs down a few “Christmas donuts”. In this wickedly funny fairytale, Tinseltown finally lives up to its festive name.
LOVE AND PEACE (Sion Sono, 2015)
Given Sion Sono’s career-long preoccupation with sex fetishes and shocking violence, the title Love and Peace at first sounds ironic. But it’s actually an obscenity-free Christmas fantasy, albeit a warped one about punk rock, abandoned toys and a giant, singing sea creature.
In Tokyo’s sewers, Santa is a borderline alcoholic; too pissed to deliver gifts, he transforms a flushed turtle into a Godzilla-sized stadium headliner – and the pet becomes a monster hit. Highly inventive and unpredictable, it ranks among the Japanese auteur’s most WTF projects. At the very least, it’s more suitable for family viewing than Virgin Psychics and Love Exposure.
BRAZIL (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
It is Brazil, not The Nightmare Before Christmas, that best espouses the inherent creepiness of Santa breaking and entering into houses. When a quaint family expect a slightly overweight, bearded man to drop in with presents, they instead receive a barrage of security troops who drill a hole through the ceiling. (The first guy is what you’d call a rebel without a Claus.) Regardless of whether citizens have been good or bad, there’s no stopping the system.
For all we know, the Kafkaesque universe of Brazil is permanently in Christmas mode – as a punishment for endorsing capitalism, perhaps. Just look at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it banner that reads: “CONSUMERS FOR CHRIST”.
FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
For the first hour of Bergman’s 188-minute epic, he delves into the richness of childhood: Fanny and Alexander, two young siblings, dash around a warm, ornate house on Christmas Day, creating blissful memories to last them through the tragedy that follows.
With Alexander gazing into his bedroom’s puppet theatre, it’s clear why Wes Anderson cites Bergman as a major influence – except here, the characters are real human begins with real emotions. Note that Bergman preferred the five-hour version produced for TV; its opening 90 minutes (the festive portion) are strictly pillow fights, candlelit stories and magic realism.
WHITE REINDEER (Zach Clark, 2013)
Whether it’s through a poorly chosen gift or a drunken revelation, the truth tends to come out around holiday season. For Anna Margaret Hollyman, it’s a tad too much. Following her husband’s murder, she explores his internet history and uncovers the secret sexual pastimes he hid from her.
And so begins a yuletide journey in which she visits his old haunts, snorts coke and dips a toe into an orgy, all in order to be part of the life she never knew he had. Mixing melancholy, cheap crackers and unfulfilled sexual desire, it’s a lonely, lonely way to barely survive the traumatic ordeal that is Christmas.
A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS (Sofia Coppola, 2015)
How exactly does Bill Murray spend Christmas? Not watching Scrooged, that’s for sure. Let’s assume it’s like his Netflix special: hanging out with celebs (Miley Cyrus, Michael Cera etc), dining on meals prepared by the band Phoenix, and covering a catchy, unreleased Beach Boys tune.
Coppola previously masterminded Murray’s karaoke showstopper in Lost in Translation, and here she pairs him up with Jenny Lewis, Chris Rock and, in a Rushmore reunion, Jason Schwartzman. Pretty fun for an idea that probably originated from a pun.