Recommends: Top 10 Alternative Christmas Films
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Are you tired of the usual Christmas line-up? Has The Muppets Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street turned you into a real Grinch? Do you wish Kevin McAlister got his just desserts in a little less festive a fashion?
If your answer to all of these is no, then I agree with you. I never get bored of any of it. But I do like to shake things up. Sometimes, a little bit of indirect alternative Christmas makes the mushy, sentimental classics all the more delicious. So today, the traditionalist in me buries itself away (occasionally popping it's head out to ask when it can come back up again - it's very needy) in order to reflect on my favourite alternative films to deck the halls this year. From around the world, some British classics and personal favourites I recommend you something a little tangier to go with your mince pies.
10. In Bruges (Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2008)
"A great day this turned out to be. I'm suicidal, me mate tries to kill me, me gun gets nicked and we're still in fucking Bruges"
To start off this list let's go with some dark British humour...and not the tasteless kind. Two hitmen, after an unsuccessful job, go to a festive, rather cold, Bruges to lay low. Both are haunted by the event and things worsen when one is instructed by their boss to kill the other. Where's the humour, you ask? In the brilliant script of course, the dynamic chemistry between Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as they reflect two different generations, men tied together by their job and somehow found a fondness for one another. It's witty and fast-paced whilst relishing it's stoic moments. Oh, and also packed full of quotable lines; some of the killers from the lips of veteran thespian and unexpectedly comedically blessed (under good direction and writing of course) Ralph Fiennes. In Bruges christmassy setting isn't all that makes it a great choice, it's moral heart is what makes it so re-watchable.
More not-really-but-kind-of British Christmas films: About a Boy (Weightz, 2002), Bridget Jones Diary (Maguire, 2001)
9. The League of Gentleman: Christmas Special (Dir. Steve Bendelack, 2000)
'"Oh, you are so kalt. You have goosesteps all over!"
Imma cheat a little bit here. You see, this entry is and always was a Christmas entry intended to accompany the TV show and therefore doesn't really count as a film. But it also kind of does. Running at an hour, that's not all that makes it filmic. The League of Gentleman have always been inspired by classic horror such as The Wickerman (Hardy, 1973), Nosferatu (Herzog & Murnau's) and the likes, spoofing it and homage-ing it well for comedies sake making it all the more memorable as the macabre Christmas specials ever to grace the BBC. The Reverend Bernice, far from into spirit of the season, is begrudgingly forced to listen to three tales from various troubled locals of Royston Vasey on a snowy winter night; stories filled with vampires, curses, murder and mystery. There's a story for all to enjoy, a brilliant addition series, it includes some fan favourites such as Herr Lipp at his punniest best and Dr Chinnery at his most tragic.
Further recommended Christmas Specials: Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted (1996), Supernatural: A Very Supernatural Christmas (2007) and Bottom: Holy (1992).
8. 2046 (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
"Maybe one day you'll escape your past."
This is a 'barely' kind of entry. It's also the first entry that has appeared on a previous list of mine (My Wong Kar-wai Films Ranked) but there is a reason. The touch of festivity comes in the form of the characters lonely trysts across time on various Christmas Eve's. Mr Chow writes his sci-fi novel whilst coming to terms with the loss of his one true love, bitter and twisted as time flies by. Christmas only adds to the melancholy, festive blues and sad-looking tinsel all included. It's the marvellous Wong kar-wai, so what you lose in Christmas joy you gain in cultured, hypnotic storytelling. And the gift of Tony Leung Chiu-wei.
Further recommends for just a touch of tinsel: American Psycho (Harron, 2000) and Carol (Haynes, 2015)
7. Black Christmas (Dir. Bob Clark, 1974)
"Oh, why don't you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it?"
An actual horror now. Better than it's 2006 and 2019 remakes/redos to the point that we are just going to forget about those atrocities. Screw it, Black Christmas is better than most slashers, predating many of the classics we know today, and still one of the creepiest films to date. A sorority house is plagued by obscene phone calls in the run up to Christmas however it is not long before the the caller becomes viscous. A girl in the neighbourhood is murdered and not long after one of the pledges goes missing and suddenly the phone calls become a lot more terrifying. The villain in this piece has to be one of the most unsettling killers, up there with Michael Myers and Freddie Krueger without the infamy. Although he is well-deserving. Strange voices, blood-curdling giggling, ragged breathing but no face to the sounds, he unsettles no other villain.
Recommended Seasonal Horror: Krampus (Dougherty, 2015), Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier, 1982), Dead of Night (1945)
6. Lethal Weapon (Dir. Richard Donner, 1987)
“I don't make things complicated. That's the way they get, all by themselves.”
Die Hard eat your heart out. Lethal Weapon is the bomb; the first and best in the trend of Buddy cop films that followed and led by the brilliant Danny Glover and charismatic Mel Gibson as Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs, it's the perfect kind of action I want to see at Christmas time. A young woman falls from an LA apartment block, an apparent suicide. When evidence eventually suggests otherwise, the two reluctantly paired cops - one a family man and the other a volatile, suicidal widower - discover a massive but dangerous drug-ring. It's got that eighties cool, it's got that Eric Clapton guitar melody and it's penned by the witty Shane Black... what's not to love? I watch it every year, sometimes twice a year, lapping up what is still my favourite police duo on screen. It's got a lot of soul, great performances (Gibson really brings it, a scene with Bugs Bunny on telly does not fail to break my heart) a wonderful sense of humour and carries some epic action set pieces. It's a violent miracle. (Oh, and one of the few films where I would consider it's sequel to be as good as it's predecessor)
Further Shane Black recommends: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013), The Nice Guys (2016)
5. Monty Python's Life of Brian (Dir. Terry Jones, 1979)
"Oh! It's blessed are the meek! I'm glad they're getting something, they had a hell of a time..."
No list would be complete without the story of Jesus, a holy epic exploring the life and death of the saviour himself... Well, call this list incomplete then because the Life of Brian is about Brian, not Jesus. Born on the same night and eventually mistaken as a messiah of some kind, Monty Python have explored the idea of a simple man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is my favourite comedy of all time by a team of writers I admire and look up to, skilled at blending history, surrealism and plain smart/dumb comedy to produce ridiculous, madcap comedies. But Life of Brian is their magnum opus. Even those claiming no interest in any of the Python's other work enjoy the genius of this film. Controversial upon it's original release (The Catholic church wanted to ban it without having actually seen the film), so very quotable and outrageous, it still carries an edge all these years on. A gut-achingly brilliant addition to the festive season even f it only really counts for that opening scene.
Christmas comedies without the season greetings: Trading Places (Landis, 1983) and Mean Girls (Waters, 2004) - I count it, a chunk of the plot takes place then and drives the story.
4. Tokyo Godfathers (Dir. Satoshi Kon, 2003)
"Hey, wait a minute. We're homeless bums, not action-movie heroes."
Another film I've talked about on this blog (Top 20 Anime Films) and a film that truly deserves the title of a festive classic. Family, kindness, selflessness, love and miracles all combine in this comedy drama in which three homeless people happen upon an abandoned baby during the holiday season. On the quest to unite it with it's mother, the three (AN alcoholic, and transvestite and teenage runaway) come to terms with their own ghosts of the past so that they can face a future they had lost hope in. Tokyo Godfathers is an adventure through Tokyo as they get themselves into al sorts of mischief but the film never loses it heart, remaining true to it's story of forgiveness. It's so much fun, incredibly touching and contains one of the best cast of characters in any Christmas film.
Japanese films with that good old-fashioned sense of Goodwill: Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952) and Scandal (Kurosawa, 1950)
3. Fanny and Alexander (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
"Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world."
Here's a real festive treat. One that will surely pass the time, with not a minute wasted. A classic in it's native Sweden, we should really try to integrate this beautiful film into our own seasonal line-up. This is Bergman's most autobiographical (and kind of not) film of his career and intended to be his last (it was not) Fanny and Alexander is a Swedish classic. A year in the life of a successful acting family in the early 20th century through the eyes of a child, this epic is also imbued with magical realist fantasy and fairy-tale nightmare. Mystical uncles, an enchanting puppet shop and evil step-fathers, Bergman is at his most fantastical, exploring the mind of the child dealing with the loss of loved ones and the separation of a once close family.
The cast includes legends and director favourites including Erland Josephson, Gunnar Björnstrand and Harriet Andersson but also succeeds in it's casting of the two titular roles in Bertil Guve and Pernilla Allwin. A true classic, it's available in two versions; it's theatrical release with a runtime of 188 mins or it's TV cut at an impressive 312 mins. Both a brilliant, beautifully shot, feat in cinema capturing sumptuous festive reds and greens and stark dour contrasts, it's also essential viewing for the child in us all.
Some genuinely original European offerings: City of Lost Children (Jeunet & Caro, 1995), Joyeax Noel (Carion, 2005)
2. Love & Peace (Dir. Sion Sono, 2015)
"Is this your missing piece?"
Sion Sono made Christmas film. And I only found out half way through. It's a cheeky, sneaky little entry but I loved it. The weirdest Christmas film on this list and the most low-key, I urge anyone into odd Japanese cinema that merges genres, sprinkles some Kaiju homage, magic and speaking toys along with a banging soundtrack, to seriously watch this film. For a director known for his brutal stories, violent and warped imagination, perverse offerings filled with nudity and blood, this is truly the most wholesome film Sono has ever made. Strange and cute it only made me love the filmmaker more.
Love & Peace follows failed Rockstar Ryoichi who now works as an office clerk, where he is bullied by his co-workers, and suffers from crippling anxiety. One day he buys a turtle from a vendor and , becoming instantly attached names it Pikadon, sharing all his hopes, desires and dreams with his new best friend. He sings to him and carries him everywhere he goes until one day at the office, Pikadon is discovered for which Ryoichi is ridiculed. In a moment of panic and shame, he flushes the turtle down the toilet... but this is just the beginning as Ryoichi's future begins to change for the better. As Pikadon waits in longing beneath the city, in the sewers where lost things go, it is clear their bond is one that can not be broken so easily.
Some recommends for something magical but indirect because I couldn't think of a single film like this one: The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe (Adamson, 2005) and Klaus (Pablos, 2019)
1. Edward Scissorhands (Dir. Tim Burton, 1990)
"Sometimes, you can still catch me dancing in it."
My number one. Also my Number one of all time. But on this list of alternative Christmas films, it is also my number one. Edward Scissorhands. This is still the best Burton ever produced, the most heart-breaking and powerful performance Johnny Depp has ever given and one of the most captivating, beautiful and touching fables in cinema. An old woman recounts the tale of the first snowfall in their sleepy neighbourhood to her granddaughter. This bedtime story unveils the life of Peg Boggs, a struggling Avon Lady who happens upon a mysterious gentlemen in the castle on the hill who goes by the name of Edward. He is kind and gentle but incomplete with scissors in the place of his hands. She brings him down to live with her family, at first with success and great interest; his talent and unique view of the world allow him to create beautiful sculptures. But exposure to the two-faced, shallow townsfolk eventually wears down their quirky harmony.
Ugh. After all these years it still strikes so raw. The music, the performances, the story! The iconic Ice Dance is breath-taking. The way Depp and Winona Ryder look at one another even more so! It's all absolutely enchanting. It's comedic elements balance so well with it's more serious components, carrying the light and darkness in perfect handfuls. A fairy-tale with a modern twist, Frankenstein if the villagers had let him in, Burton downplays much of his outlandish Gothicism to explore the horror of the oppressive pastel-perfect suburbia. It's a masterwork of the modern fable and a true example of the once enchanting, striking imagination of Burton. This is a story of kindness, of love and, most importantly, of snow.
For an awesome Gothic Christmas: The Nightmare Before Christmas (Selick, 1993), Batman Returns (Burton, 1992)
There you have it! Some festive picks. All of these are available on DVD and Blu-ray and I hope you find a new film to add to your festive line up!