Here at the Hotel I have a different approach to Christmas. Sure, there are the classics. It’s A Wonderful Life, Die Hard, Gremlins etc, etc. But a tradition of sorts has also appeared of going back to the least Christmassy of yuletide films. Essentially, if you’re not one to deck the halls with whatever but still like to theme your viewing, then here’s a guide to the least festive films set at Christmas to tide you through ’til January.
Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
Yes, really. Psycho is set at Christmas… well, nearly. Beginning on 11th of December and spanning a fair few days, Hitchcock’s classic horror is the perfect lead in to the festive period if you’re doing your damnedest to avoid sentimentality and sleigh bells. Nothing like a sweltering Arizona winter and a cross-dressing schizophrenic murderer to get you in the mood for all that turkey. Sometimes it’s nice to get away for the holidays. Why not book a room as Bates Motel? As a bonus the film’s terrific, but you should already know that. You’ve seen it… right?
Eyes Wide Shut (1999. Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick’s final film sees Tom Cruise embarking on a stroppy sexual odyssey in New York after his wife, Nicole Kidman, bruises his ego by admitting to adulterous thoughts. There are pretty Christmas trees everywhere, and the film even ends with a spot of Christmas shopping. Cruise also manages to get a last-minute costume for a fancy dress party… of sorts. How festive! (Sarcasm aside, I’ve found Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 reminiscent of Christmas ever since)
Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)
Ridley Scott’s not-quite prequel to Alien has plenty of holiday cheer. There’s Idris Elba (above) putting up the tree, while Michael Fassbender’s psychobot David-8 is all about giving people presents, even if they’re the worst gifts they could possibly imagine. The film’s plot roves all over the place, and dodges giving answers at its finale, instead paving the way for the sequel (now in production). But there are plenty of laughs to be had (or faces to be palmed) watching Charlize Theron make poor decisions on how to dodge a giant rolling spaceship. Nevertheless, it’s a fun ride, and it’s gorgeous to look at throughout.
The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
That fine old tradition the office Christmas party is given plenty of good cheer in Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy drama. But then elevator lady Shirley Maclaine gets greedy with the sleeping pills after being used by office bigwig Fred MacMurray. Fortunately Jack Lemmon’s around to bring her to her senses. A lot of people check themselves out around Christmas, and Wilder’s actually wonderful film is a timely reminder of that. Fear not, it’ll warm your cockles by the end.
The Lion In Winter (1968, Anthony Harvey)
What Christmas would be complete without a great big family argument? In Anthony Harvey’s utterly superb adaptation of James Goldman’s play, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his temporarily paroled wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) go toe-to-toe battling over which of their power-hungry children will be next in line. Looking for some holiday viewing once you’re done contending with noisy children and cracker jokes? This tops another Eastenders seasonal special any day.
Black Christmas (1974, Bob Clark)
Now we really are getting in the spirit! See, it’s even in the title. Joking aside, this is a superior holiday slasher, prefiguring Halloween by about four years. A sorority house is terrorised by a murderous intruder, and while that set up has now been done so many times as to have seemingly lost any potency (thanks for that, the 80’s), Bob Clark’s yuletide iteration still packs a mean punch. While we’re on the subject of 70’s horror with a festive twist, 1972’s Tales From The Crypt anthology features a great segment in which Joan Collins is menaced by an evil Santa Claus.
The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)
Tenuous? Maybe. But William Friedkin’s gritty cop thriller sticks in the mind for a number of chase sequences, not least of which is the foot chase at the top of the movie in which Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is dressed as Santa Claus, You don’t need many reasons to revisit The French Connection. Use this one as an excuse.
Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012, Bill Condon)
About 9 hours into the popular vampire saga there’s a little break to celebrate Christmas, so you can shoehorn this into your seasonal viewing schedule, if you so wish. Of course, it’s the last part in a long and rambling story, so you’ll have a lot of homework to do to make any sense of the movie at large. In fact, even if you do watch the other four movies just to get to this one and this scene, there’s no guarantee you’ll make any real sense of what’s happening, even less so if you’re looking for the point in your endeavour. Trust me, you don’t want to watch all of Twilight in one sitting. Let’s just pretend this isn’t on the list then.
The Hayao Miyazaki Collection (The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Laputa Castle In The Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, The Wind Rises) (1979 – 2014, Hayao Miyazaki)
Moving away from flimsy Christmas references, nothing makes this season as tolerable as a tour of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks. UK television channel BBC One had the bright idea a few years back to broadcast one of these every morning over the Christmas period; a welcome respite from the other crass alternatives clogging up the holiday listings. Why not take this up as annual tradition? If you haven’t seen all of them you’re in for a real treat. If you have you shouldn’t need convincing.
Are you dreaming of a White Christmas? We’re so rarely gifted one. Here, though, are a selection of snowy features that’ll help you feel cosy by the fireside this December even if there are blue skies outside. They’re not remotely Christmassy. Depending on your outlook, that may well make them the perfect antidote to the season. Wrap yourself in a blanket and spend some time with these movies:
Edward Scissorhands (1990, Tim Burton)
What better way to start than with this modern fairy tale? Winona Ryder recounts the story of what makes the snow fall. The answer is satisfyingly romantic and the story frightfully entertaining. It’s also a welcome reminder of how wonderful Tim Burton films used to be, while Johnny Depp’s restrained performance is note-perfect. No wonder this is such a favourite for so many people. Watch it again now.
The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
Wait until after dark and put this classic horror on. Marooned in the frozen North, paranoia runs wild as an alien life form that can assume the appearance of any living creature starts chewing its way through a bunch of isolated researchers. The finest of the John Carpenter / Kurt Russell collaborations, this nail-biter still hasn’t lost its edge. You’ll get chills and not just from the cold.
The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
The snow drifts, claustrophobia and paranoia pile just as high in Kubrick’s seminal horror masterpiece, so spend another winter with the Torrance family at The Overlook Hotel. It’ll make you grateful that, no matter how strained your own family relationships might be over Christmas, at least this isn’t happening to you.
Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)
If we’re talking snowbound entertainment, then the Coen brothers’ Fargo is an essential stop on our tour. Minnesota is blanketed in the stuff for this superior comedy crime thriller, which recently spawned an equally frosty television spin-off. Both are worth your attention, though the film particularly remains peerless. Watch these last few movies in succession and you’re bound to feel the cosy onset of the elements, even if the roads and skies are clear.
And while we’re with the Coens, there’s one more of their features that you can round off the holiday season with…
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994, Joel Coen)
If you’re staying in this New Year, then cap it all off with this one. Largely dismissed on release, The Hudsucker Proxy has aged surprisingly well, and is now generally regarded as one of the (admittedly many) greats in the Coen brothers’ canon. The screwball comedy and rat-a-tat dialogue may be a little much for some, but Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh take to it with gusto, while Sam Raimi’s fingerprints are all over this one (he takes a co-writer credit).
A more than suitable way to send off the year and welcome in a new one.