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The Shining

The Writer’s Room: Unconventional Christmas Movies

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I think it’s about time we retire the whole “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” argument. Not only because at this point it’s widely regarded as a holiday classic, but also because there are so many other movies we could make this argument with. Is The Apartment a Christmas movie? What about Brazil or LA Confidential? Or, if you really wanted to ruin your holiday season, Mysterious Skin? The way I see it, if a certain movie makes you think of Christmas, then that’s the time to watch it. If not, you can always watch Die Hard in August. Here at the Frida, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite not-quite-Christmas movies. So, if you’re looking for something else to watch this year, maybe check out one of these.


Dani Shi, Blogger

The Thing

The Thing (1982):

How does one define the outsider? The intruder, an organism that infects others. Can we justify violence against outsiders when confronted by forced close-up montages of ominous bloody dripping, those blasted Norwegians, and in a fleshy mass that is clearly not a dog, if dogs could make it through voodoo scares and the ice-cold chill of such isolated subterranean blue? 

“It could have imitated a million life forms on a million planets […] it needs to be alone and in close proximity to a life form” are posed as reasons for why “we’ve got to go and burn the rest of them,” the team’s aggrieved, hostile reactions revealed as what they are when removed from the immediacy of panic on the dance floor. The attraction of manly pyrotechnics conveniently covers up which Duderator has the unenviable task of cleaning up “that thing [that] wanted to be us.” When the question of who to trust arises, an appeal to a higher order is necessitated – even if dripping in the main-guy ironic detachment David Foster Wallace points out is so characteristic of the age of advertising. Can this computerized game of chess truly be won against a strange, duplicitous image that represents our reflection in a funhouse mirror – an identity uncannily recognizable, yet always so imminently foreign, and as thus, according to the explorers’ very sensical line of reasoning, threatening beyond words? By the way, where are all the women in this polar vortex, and what is the significance of Childs being the only sane one?

Open-ended moments of discursive philosophical inquiry are couched alongside one-liners such as “Somebody in this camp ain’t who he appears to be,” all wonderful ideas to pose to the AI: “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it’s truly me?” A question for the ages, indeed, bookended by the vaguely unsettling idea that “It rips through your clothes when it takes you over.” If nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired, then has the grotesque horror of the Thing won after all? 


Charlotte Brungardt, Blogger

The Holdovers

The Holdovers (2023):

“I find the world to be a bitter and complicated place. And it seems to feel the same way about me. You and I have that in common, I think.” 

The Holdovers marks a triumphant return to form for Alexander Payne and a long-awaited starring role for the inimitable Paul Giamatti. The film explores the various emotional paradoxes of the holiday season through its three lead characters, who find themselves stuck together at a New England boarding school over the winter break. Though Giamatti is the undeniable star of the piece, The Holdovers skillfully balances its three intersecting character arcs, giving ample screentime to Da’Vine Joy Randolph, in a Best Actress-worthy performance, and newcomer Dominic Sessa.

For the unwilling inhabitants of Barton Academy, winter is both isolating and utterly freeing. Isolating because the three are sequestered away in a cold, empty boarding school but free from the expectations and unwanted company of peers and family alike. The sparse Christmas festivities available to them offer brief comforts that are soon undercut by reminders of their various, troubled pasts. The film deals in gravity and levity in nearly equal measure, all while revealing new information at an engaging tempo.  

Payne seems determined to refute the old adage “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The Holdovers’ warm, grainy cinematography, leisurely pace, and faithful recreation of the period make it feel more like a rediscovery from the early 1970s than a new release. Though the film is ultimately hopeful, its biting humor and frank depiction of personal tragedies keep it from attaining the saccharine, overwhelming optimism of other feel-good holiday fare. As a result, it provides excellent alternative programming for the mildly disillusioned celebrator of Christmas who is looking to warm their heart without becoming sick to their stomach. While it is, first and foremost, a character study triptych couched in a dramedy, The Holdovers seems destined to become a staple of the season.


Penny Folger, Blogger

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999):

There are certain alternative Christmas films that have infiltrated greater Christmas filmgoing culture until they’re embraced by the mainstream and become a holiday tradition for all. (Like Nirvana crossing over from alternative rock radio and into the mainstream, if anyone can remember that far back?) Die Hard is one such “Christmas film” that seems to have made this crossover.

While not exactly fun for the whole family (just what was Leelee Sobieski doing in that closet with those two middle-aged Asian gentlemen?) Eyes Wide Shut lives on the cusp of this phenomenon: becoming a holiday tradition at least amongst hip Southern California filmgoing audiences, where it can often be found screening at this time of year.

Yes, there are Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Christmas decorations lingering in the background of nearly every shot to remind us of the holiday that is silently looming. Yet simultaneously, Tom Cruise follows the privileged pull of his own erotic temptations – which lie seemingly around every corner – while every woman he meets (weirdly, all with the exact same measurements) seem to throw themselves at him. 

My much older sister once walked unknowingly into the famous mansion orgy scene because I had the film playing while wrapping presents and had stepped out for a minute. I returned to find her face had gone ashen. Blindsided, she said something like, “I said to myself, ‘What is this strange movie?! Oh…it’s Tom Cruise.’” Her bewilderment represents why this film, outside of hip circles, may remain in the alternative Christmas category forever.

The Apartment (1960):

This film is one of my favorites, with or without the holiday. Billy Wilder had an incredible career: from the broad comedy of Some Like it Hot to the dark cynicism of Ace in the Hole. The Apartment lies somewhere in between. The fact that TCM is showing it on Christmas morning underlines its embrace as a Christmas film by the greater culture, but I still feel it deserves to be highlighted here.

I feel like it encapsulates the holidays the way many people actually experience them: as emotionally loaded. I love that events are unfolding that might be emotionally tumultuous, and it just happens to be Christmas. Romantic relationships that are less than ideal are arguably a universal experience, and Wilder has tapped into that here. I love the imperfect characters in this movie; they are all deeply emotionally flawed, just like life.

Says Jack Lemmon’s Baxter, in a particularly poignant, revealing moment, about Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik’s makeup mirror, “The mirror…it’s broken.” She responds, “Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.”

But I am not one who looks to movies for mindless escapism. I prefer reflections of reality and the truth, where we see in the end that everyone is human.

I love it when Baxter’s neighbor’s wife, who’s been falsely led to believe Baxter is a player, asks him with an air of contempt, “You wouldn’t happen to have such a thing as a napkin would you?” I feel like deeper emotional struggles are the side of the holidays we don’t see represented as much in Christmas films, but in reality, the holidays are a rough time for many, so it’s nevertheless true. Perhaps as true as snow on Christmas; while not always a constant, the threat is forever looming.


Anthony McKelroy, Blogger

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999):

So much of Christmas cinema is traditionally predicated on snowy scenes in wintry wonderlands, often underscoring the warm embrace of mankind during the coldest time of the year. Released on Christmas Day, 1999, Anthony Minghella’s ornamental The Talented Mr. Ripley is decidedly not this type of movie but is a no less essential portrait of alternative yuletide decadence. Shopping sprees, nights at the opera, petty grudges, and the inescapable fact of family.

The first mention of Christmas comes almost an hour into the film during a scene on a sun-soaked yacht. It’s October in Italy, and after swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Dickie Greenleaf invites his new friend, the titular Tom Ripley, to go skiing with him for Christmas. Christmas as vacation, as getaway. Tom is on a bit of a vacation himself. Dickie’s father is paying Tom to find Dickie and convince him to return home, but with daily trips to the beach and nightly jazz performances, Dickie has little reason to abandon his post-grad permanent vacation. 

Watching the film’s stunning on location photography, it becomes a getaway of its own when battling the winter blues of December. The vibrant architecture of an ancient city is matched only by the colorful costuming, histories within every piece of production design. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a Christmas movie because, like the holiday, it is about things. The thingness of things and how they thing – how they imply a story, an identity. A car when you can’t drive, a class ring, a record collection, an ice box, a sailboat named Bird. It’s about the buying power of 1000 American dollars in this new postwar landscape. The promise of things in this brave new century. You could be anything, with the right thing. Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody. And what’s more Christmassy than that?


John Marsaglia, Blogger

Anna And The Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017):

Raise your hand if you’ve ever sung or danced your way through a zombie apocalypse.

Anyone?

While not an all too likely scenario, Anna and the Apocalypse provides willing viewers with this exact premise, one which serves as the foundation for a toe-tapping and easily re-watchable holiday singalong made for everyone. Well, maybe not everyone.

Set in a small Scottish village, our titular character, Anna, is a routine high school student dealing with the complexities of navigating the world as a soon-to-be adult. Plagued with the banalities of home life, past relationships, and looming college decisions, Anna is just like you and me, except that Anna is plagued with, well, a literal plague, as the townspeople and everyone else around the world slowly become victim to a zombie outbreak. Unaware of the biohazard at play, Anna and friends sing and dance their way through life, until the threat reaches personal levels. Together, Anna and a slew of friends wield their weapons of choice to take down any and all who stand between them and a traditional holiday break.

A Christmas movie at its core, Anna and the Apocalypse provides an omnipresent bleakness that is masked by several showstopping numbers and choreographed sequences that divert the expectations of both Christmas and zombie films. As the story unfolds, the reality of impending doom becomes clear, as Anna and friends can’t seem to find a solution to many of their personal and environmental problems. 

The original score and soundtrack standout as a beacon of light in an otherwise gloomy situation for Anna. Gore, drama, and humor wait at every corner, but when it’s all set to a catchy tune, we tend to forget that at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending. 


Liam Kilby, Blogger

Tangerine

Tangerine (2015):

What do you do on Christmas Eve? Maybe visit family you only see every holiday season, maybe open presents early or listen to some holiday songs. Maybe your Christmas Eve looks like finding your cheating boyfriend after you get out of a short jail sentence. The latter is part of the story of Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker. Tangerine follows both Alexandra and Sin-Dee, who are trans women of color living in LA. The beauty of this film comes in the honesty in its portrayal of both Alexandra and Sin-Dee. Tangerine being shot solely on three iPhone 5S’s added to its popularity upon release but also gave the ability for a more intimate portrayal of their lives to be illustrated. Baker, through his melodramatic and realist filmmaking, created a reflective trans narrative that works through the complexity of trans identity. One that is carried through by the creative force and performances of Taylor and Rodriguez.

This is 100% a Christmas movie – it takes place on Christmas Eve! – one that does not take the term lightly and follows the afternoon and night of two women’s lives through a non-traditional Christmas journey. Christmas does not always follow a special formula; in fact, the cliches we all know and love are just the dominant traditions. To see beyond these codes is to give way to new ones where home is defined through community and community through the home one makes. In a moment of peace through the difficult journey on Christmas Eve, Alexandra gets to sing to a bar with Sin-Dee in the audience. It is a moment reminiscent of a holiday night, the joy felt redefined through the special moment of Alexandra lost in her singing and Sin-Dee lost in the voice of her family.


Jen Schildge, Blogger

The Shining

The Shining (1980):

Family, possible ghost spirits, snow. The Shining is a story that takes place during the winter, and not all winter movies are Christmas movies, but I add this one in the list of non-traditional films to watch over the holiday. It’s maybe the coziest of winter movies, so cozy that the characters can’t bring themselves to leave.

While The Shining is darker than the typical festivities, it shows a family working together to survive a harsh winter. It just so happens one member of the family goes a little stir-crazy. They get torn apart with isolation, which plays out as a psychological horror madness. Jack Torrance is hired as a caretaker for an old, cabin-like hotel, the Overlook Hotel. When the hotel closes for the winter, Jack and his family get to live there while he performs maintenance duties. Then, like any family stuck in a cabin together, things start to get a little eerie.

The story is like a twist on the other Christmas comedies where Dad gets annoyed with his kids or his wife, a classic plot in the cheesy movies is annoyed kids or parents. Maddening families. This winter thrill is just a little more unsettling than visiting that one uncle who is just a little too into politics… Or is it?

Another statement about this movie is the costumes. Every outfit is so perfect for the time, with a mix of knit sweaters. The looks are layered with hints of green and red. The mix of bright yellow, red, and blue play with the movie’s dull brown and tan sets. 

There are subtle stretches that I’m putting together, here. Maybe I’m just trying to get you, the reader, to watch The Shining in the winter. But there is no denying that there are easy connections made with family, wardrobe, and setting that tie this movie to the holidays.

So, instead of the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, show the family some other terror this season. Maybe that uncle won’t seem so bad; at least your family isn’t in this cabin. 


Finn Sullivan, Blogger

Fargo

Fargo (1996):

The Coens have worked with nearly every genre (I can’t really think of a Coen Brothers horror movie, unless you count Barton Fink, and now that I think about it, we should be counting Barton Fink). Their blend of dark comedy and crime drama worked at its best in, well, Blood Simple (yeah, I said it) but perhaps most notably in Fargo. Though it has nothing to do with Christmas in terms of plot, it has a lot of snow in it. So much snow that it’s perhaps the ideal winter movie, and I probably wouldn’t have a problem watching it every December.

Fargo centers on a car salesman (William H. Macy), the two criminals he hires to kidnap his wife for ransom money (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), and the pregnant police chief investigating their eventual triple homicide (played by Frances McDormand in her best non-Almost Famous role). It’s a simple but memorable premise that showcases its cast and crew at their very best (see: Macy, Buscemi, McDormand, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography).

The famously untrue “true story” makes for one of the best indie films of the ’90s. It’s a fun time, but Macy plays his character with such desperation that it’s almost hard to not feel a little bad for him, juxtaposing McDormand’s portrayal of the confident Marge Gunderson. Buscemi and Stormare add a fun dynamic to the movie, and a certain scene involving a woodchipper has become so iconic to the point where you can actually see the woodchipper itself in Fargo, North Dakota.

It’s not quite a perfect movie, or not to me, at least. A subplot involving an old classmate of Marge’s doesn’t seem to really go anywhere, and something about the ending is just a tad underwhelming. But few directors can balance tone quite as well as the Coens, and Fargo is one of their many career peaks.

So what if it’s the least Christmassy movie on this list? Someone gets cut up and then thrown into a woodchipper. Yah, I betcha you can’t think of a better movie to watch this Christmas.


Reggie Peralta, Blog Editor

Carol

Carol (2015):

Having just rewatched Carol here at The Frida, I feel confident in calling it essential Christmas viewing. The fact that the holiday itself is secondary to the relationship between the two leads is irrelevant: the image of Therese (Rooney Mara) staring across the department store at Carol (Cate Blanchett) has become something of an ironic and iconic emblem of the season, and rightfully so. The silent, wistful yearning that Mara conveys with her wide, soulful eyes (and all while wearing a Santa hat no less) evokes the bittersweet feelings that we sometimes forget come with Christmastime, and with it, the end of the year.

We see these mixed emotions in Therese and Carol’s relationship, from the lows like a tearful Therese crying alone on the subway after Carol orders her to leave her home and the highs like the two silently gazing into each other’s eyes over dinner before Carol finally confesses “I love you”. We also hear it in Carter Burwell’s affecting score, with its halting piano chords and swirling strings calling to mind the emotionally enigmatic music of Philip Glass. It may lack the subversive mischief of, say, How The Grinch Stole Christmas or Jingle All the Way, but as entertaining as the madcap mugging of Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger are, they don’t say as much about the holidays as a simple stare from Mara does.


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