Paddy and I recently concluded that most modern Christmas movies tend to pummel you to death with Christmas cheer and Christmas spirit and Christmas themes in general. I suppose some people dig that sort of thing, but me, being the grinch that I am, I tend to sneer at it, especially if it's done poorly. When it's done well, as in, for example, Miracle on 34th Street, that's different - but few movies aspire to such heights. (Especially those featuring Kirk Cameron.)
I like movies that happen to take place during the holiday season, but aren't necessarily about the holiday season. I'm sure we can all cite movies like Die Hard, Home Alone, Lethal Weapon and Batman Returns as examples, but I thought I'd try and think of more recent ones, like within the last twenty years. So if you've had your fill of mistletoe and eggnog and caroling - and even though it's only ten days before Christmas, I'd imagine it's quite possible! - consider these recent movies as an alternative to sitting around watching Jimmy Stewart gush about Zuzu's petals for the millionth time:*
- The Ref. Hilariously dark comedy about a bickering married couple held up in their home by a criminal during Christmas Eve, featuring Denis Leary, a pre-Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey and the underrated Judy Davis. I remember playing this one a lot during the holiday season during my video store days, and looking back on it now, I'm genuinely surprised this wasn't a bigger hit. Leary was hot at the time, and this was made as a vehicle for him and his motormouth stand-up routine, but the back and forth between Spacey and Davis is wickedly sublime - credit to co-screenwriter Richard LaGravenese of The Fisher King fame - and foreshadows Spacey's Oscar-winning role in American Beauty. Judy Davis was moderately big in the 90s indie circuit, but never quite hit the heights like her fellow Australian Nicole Kidman. Still, her work in films like this, Children of the Revolution, Everyone Says I Love You, Husbands and Wives and Barton Fink is well worth seeking out.
- Frozen River. I still remember how blown away I was by this powerful drama set around Christmas time and Melissa Leo's towering performance in it. Two single mothers hard up for money join forces to engage in smuggling illegal immigrants over the Canadian border, across the titular river. I fully believed this story from start to finish, and the stark realism that Leo embodied was etched on every line of her face. This is the kind of role every thespian, and especially every actress, dreams of. (On a side note, the tragic disappearance and death of co-star Misty Upham was heartbreaking to hear about.)
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Speaking of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, who wrote that great sort-of-Christmas movie, also wrote and directed this great sort-of-Christmas movie, featuring Robert Downey Jr. (with whom he'd team up again in Iron Man 3) and Val Kilmer. It's a neo-noir film set in LA, with lots of the trademark Black brand of humor. I'd argue that RDJ's Hollywood renaissance began not with the first Iron Man movie, but here - another movie that should have done better at the box office than it did. Despite his troubled history, though, he's made mostly good choices with his roles, I think.
- In Bruges. Colin Farrell's always been kind of hit or miss for me, but I liked him in this crime comedy set in the titular Belgium city. He's a hitman who has to hide out in Bruges during the Christmas season when a hit goes wrong. Brendan Gleeson's in it too, so expect copious amounts of profanity laced with the humor. This is another one I discovered on video, and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.
- You've Got Mail. The Shop Around the Corner for the Internet age. Seems a bit dated now that bookstores in general, the corporate ones as well as the indies, are facing hard times, but it's Nora Ephron, and it's Tom & Meg, and you can't ask for much more when it comes to contemporary romantic comedy. Looks like Tom & Meg may team up for a fourth time, if only briefly.
Feel free to add your favorite sort-of-Christmas movies as well.
* - Yes, I know Christmas isn't the central theme of It's a Wonderful Life, but it has become the definitive de facto Christmas movie.