Our Favorite Not-Quite-Holiday-Movie Movies
Staff members share holiday viewing traditions that aren’t exactly what the Hallmark Channel had in mind.
Dec 17, 2020
Is there a “borderline” holiday movie you keep returning to during the holidays, one you probably won’t see repeated ad nauseam on basic cable? Perhaps something dark and utterly devoid of cheer. Maybe something with lots of guns and explosions, like Die Hard, which technically isn’t a Christmas movie, but is also kind of a Christmas movie. (Or is Die Hard technically a Christmas movie? Who’s to say?) Or is there a movie you love to watch during the post-Thanksgiving consumerism corridor that has nothing whatsoever to do with the “holiday season”?
We asked some of our colleagues: What’s your annual maybe-not-a-holiday film (or definitely not-a-holiday film), and why do you return to it year after year?
Female Trouble. 1974. Directed by John Waters
I grew up without Christmas. In the Soviet Union, the country of my birth, the holiday had been secularized and merged with New Year’s Eve—our presents were brought by Grandpa Frost and left under the New Year’s tree. For those of us unschooled in Yuletide cheer—or those simply allergic to its charms—there isn’t a more companionable holiday film than Female Trouble. Like Michael Corleone and Tony Montana, Baltimore hair hopper Dawn Davenport devotes her life to crime, and John Waters’s odyssey follows her from small-time juvenile delinquent to national notoriety and the electric chair. The most memorable scene takes place on Christmas morning: Dawn (played by Divine with her usual fire) and her parents are gathered around the twinkling tree when she unwraps a pair of flats instead of the black cha-cha heels she asked for. “Good girls don’t wear cha-cha heels,” her father explains sternly. In a volcanic fit of rage, Dawn demolishes the living room, crying “You’re not my parents! I hate you, I hate this house, and I hate Christmas!” and storms out of the split-level ranch into a life of infamy. The last shot would stir the most gingerbread-averse heart: Dawn’s mother lies pinned under the toppled tree, covered in tinsel, sobbing, “Not on Christmas!”
–Alex Halberstadt, Senior Writer, Creative Team
Scanty Claus. 2002. Directed by Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad’s Scanty Claus is the Yuletide melodrama for me. The 2002 seven-minute video features a wigged-out Conrad as Mrs. Claus, cursing Santa over her knitting for leaving her all alone and playing fast and loose with women all across the world. It’s campy, claustrophobic, so funny, and a little off the rails. (I remember seeing it at Anthology Film Archives on my birthday in one of the first years I lived in New York; it shared the bill with more canonical Conrad films, and yet it was unforgettable). Pairs well with George Kuchar’s Christmas videos, like Dingleberry Jingles and Holidaze, 1994, which combine hearty servings of melancholy and good cheer.
–Sophie Cavoulacos, Assistant Curator, Department of Film
Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (Three Wishes for Cinderella). 1973. Directed by Václav Vorlíček
This Czech-East German co-production (from the famed DEFA studio) entered my Christmas repertory 15 years ago when I first visited the parents of my now-husband in Cologne, Germany. They, like many of their countryfolk, tuned in annually for this damp, super-dubbed, literal Bohemia-chic retelling of the Cinderella fairytale every December. My Disneyfied sensibilities were outraged. Her “gowns” pop out of hazelnuts, there’s no “Bippty-Bobbity-Boo” fairy godmother, sensible shoes rule (what’s a glass slipper?) and nothing special happens at midnight. The muted browns and grays of the production design combined with the midwinter setting left me positively cold…at first. But once I saw the twinkle in everyone’s eyes I knew that the magic of the film was not on the screen I was watching, but in the memories the family was reliving together. Now the film has entered my holiday nostalgia catalog, and I actually kinda love it too. (And, well, let’s just say that a prince in tights works for me in any setting!)
–Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film
The Cotton Club. 1984. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Inspired by African American author James Haskins’s pictorial history of the legendary Harlem nightclub (1923–40), The Cotton Club is director Francis Ford Coppola’s third gangster film (after The Godfather parts I and II) and third musical (after Finian’s Rainbow and One from the Heart) rolled into one. Centered on white mob control of the Black entertainment business in the 1920s, the film dramatizes serious themes of race and ethnicity as it celebrates the triumphant accomplishments of a community of musical theater artists. Despite featuring a remarkably integrated cast of performers for its time, including Gregory and Maurice Hines, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee, Nicholas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Bob Hoskins, Charles “Honi” Coles, Gwen Verdon, James Remar, Woody Strode, Fred Gwynne, and Bill Cobbs, the film was marketed as a straight vehicle for leading man Richard Gere, underplaying its remarkable Black-cast song and dance sequences. Staged with remarkable period authenticity by choreographers Michael Smuin, George Faison, Claudia Asbury, Arthur Mitchell, and Henry LeTang, to standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, and Cab Calloway, in tandem with a lush dramatic score by James Bond composer John Barry, The Cotton Club bears comparison to the best of Broadway’s mid-century “concept musicals.” The moments when crime melodrama and musical merge on screen are cross-genre, cinematic highlights—which Coppola’s 20-minute-longer 2017 director’s cut significantly enhances. If holiday films are expected to leave us feeling joyous, The Cotton Club invariably does that for me.
–Ron Magliozzi, Curator, Department of Film
To Live and Die in L.A. 1985. Directed by William Friedkin
I first watched William Friedkin's 1985 crime film To Live and Die in L.A. when I was nine years old (don’t tell my parents!), and that’s a big reason why this film remains close to my heart—and an annual Christmas rewatch. Also, it’s a great movie peppered with cracking performances from Willem Dafoe, William Petersen, and John Turturro, and a soundtrack by Wang Chung. One wouldn’t call it a “holiday” film, but the action does take place in the December-January corridor, so it’s on the list! The plot follows driven Secret Service agent Richard Chance (Petersen) as he hunts master counterfeiter and all-around bad dude Rick Masters (Dafoe) for passing bad paper and murdering his partner. Friedkin is in top form here, coordinating a memorable “wrong-way” chase scene on an L.A. freeway, as well as a mesmerizing montage of Dafoe honing his craft in a secluded warehouse. Robert Downey Sr., Jack Hoar, and ’80s action-film mainstay Steve James all add flavor in supporting roles, and Robby Muller’s photography captures the shadowy allure of the film’s real-life locations. Plus, the cynical ending packs more wallop than a glass of spiked holiday punch.
–Sean Egan, Senior Producer, Department of Film
Remember the Night. 1940. Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Every Christmas my dad pulls a box of about 30 VHS tapes up from the basement, and every year my family groans and bickers over the same old options: Christmas in Connecticut (eh), The Bishop’s Wife (I suppose), four versions of A Christmas Carol (I prefer the ’38, he the ’84), all the way up to Bad Santa. But there’s one movie that we unimpeachably watch every year: Remember the Night. It doesn’t have a Christmasy title, and few people under a certain age bracket have it in their lexicon, but I’ll stand atop the tallest Midwestern hill to proclaim its wonders. Barbara Stanwyck is characteristically sublime as a jewel thief who gets busted in the Big Apple right before the holiday. At every juncture she expertly balances candor, sentiment, and wit. Fred MacMurray finds himself at the launching point of his career as a district attorney assigned to prosecute her (and was swapping billing with Stanwyck only four years later on Double Indemnity). Once he realizes that this small-time crook could end up alone in jail for Christmas, he invites her to come back to his family’s farm in Indiana. The rom-com road trip that ensues has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (MacMurray milking a cow, for instance), but it’s the film’s heart that seizes the show. Penned by the masterful Preston Sturges, the film spends a solid hour-and-a-half humanizing a criminal in the name of Christmas spirit; it does such a marvelous job that one might even be tempted to forgive its trite Hayes Code–mandated ending. Watch it with someone you care about; you’ll find it hard to believe it’s not more widely extolled. After all, Sturges himself surmised the picture had “quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz, and just enough schmutz to make it box office.”
–Carson Parish, Theater Manager, Department of Film
Trading Places. 1983. Directed by John Landis
The holiday season is a time for wrestling with complicated relationships and, often, the racism across the dinner table; and the flawed objects of our abiding love, the deeply problematic figures we return to year after year, aren’t always relatives. John Landis’s Trading Places is the hilarious uncle who demonstrates a nuanced view of privilege and poverty in America and a surprising grasp of the systemic links between capital and racism...but then you get a couple eggnogs in him and he starts telling racist jokes he learned in junior high. The film’s opening montage, which jumps between Philadelphia landmarks and emblems of tony society and the hidden-in-plain-sight realms of the have-nots (a “Merry Christmas” banner in the unemployment office, etc.), promises a trenchant, 1930s-style critique of American aristocracy. And the main plot, a nurture-over-nature switcheroo wherein a homeless Black conman (Eddie Murphy, in his breakout film role) almost effortlessly replaces a white, uptight commodities broker, has much to say about our very unequal opportunities. And yet...so much of this potential is squandered by an unforgivable episode of blackface and, perhaps worse, the film’s conclusion, in which our heroes overcome the evils of racial and class inequity in the most American way imaginable: by becoming wealthier than everyone else. I still love this movie, and I’ll probably continue to watch it every December, but hope I can see the cracks in
–Jason Persse, Editorial Manager, Creative Team
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