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Some people have standards. Others will watch anything that is tangentially related to Christmas.
As you will surely be shocked to be discover, I find myself firmly in the second category. It’s not all bad though: on occasion I’ll come across a yuletide gem that makes it all worthwhile. Found below are ten lesser-spotted seasonal flicks of interest. They might not necessarily make it into your regular festive viewing rotation, but perhaps you’ll end up feeling a little bit smug this year for having expanded your holiday horizons.
Without further ado, here are ten Christmas films, of varying quality, which you might add to your watchlist for the holidays.
1. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Is Rare Exports a kids’ movie? Is it decidedly not a kids’ movie? I’m not sure, and I don’t know if Rare Exports knows either. It’s the day before Christmas Eve in Northern Finland aka Lapland (and, presumably, everywhere else around the world) and the reindeer have mysteriously disappeared. A young boy sets out with his father and the men from the local village to find out what’s going on, which results in them kidnapping a mysterious old man who they believe might be behind it all. Maybe it’s better not to ask too many questions and just strap yourself in for a wild ride.
2. The Ref (1994)
This dark comedy may be a modern retelling of a 1910 short story in which a criminal (played by Denis Leary) kidnaps a feuding family after a burglary goes awry, but it has a decidedly early 90s feel to it, attempting as it does to ride the coattails of Home Alone’s success. It’s worth a look to see what studios were putting out, but maybe not hugely interesting in its own right: while it goes for the same zany humour as the McCallister classic the The Ref doesn’t do anywhere as near as good a job of juggling its various plot threads. The wet/sticky bandits demonstrated that you really need a partner to get the job done/fail in miserable but entertaining ways.
3. Await Further Instructions (2018)
This recent British horror is not particularly subtle about its subject matter, and is all the better for it. For starters, the family is so British that David Bradley is the grandad. Again there’s a bickering family, with a son who has brought his Indian girlfriend home. Unfortunately, his family aren’t particularly welcoming to those they view as immigrants. Anyone for Brexit? Waking up on Christmas day the family discover that they have inexplicably trapped within their own home and are given some mysterious instructions to follow. Will they find that indomitable British spirit and row in together for king and country? Will the patriarchal head of the family turn paranoid almost instantaneously? Probably the second.
4. Metropolitan (1990)
We get away from the bickering-family-at-Christmas trope this time to encounter bickering friends at Christmas. Metropolitan follows a group of young socialites in Manhattan during the debutante Christmas season. It’s a lot of dressed-up college aged kids who think their bullshit is deeply philosophical: think John Hughes crossed with Jane Austen. There’s a change in the air however: the film charts the last hurrah or perhaps last gasp of a (snobby) way of life, which is reflected in both the narrative and cinematography as the winter scenes of the early 80s preppy socialites’ New York make way for the more laid-back sunnier climes of the popular egalitarian late 80s.
5. The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
Back to bickering families at Christmas. The Holly and the Ivy follows an English clergyman and his grown-up children. Based on a play of the same name, years of frustration between father and children are unearthed during their annual Christmas gathering. While this black and white feature is unquestionably dated in a lot of its views, it might still touch a nerve in its portrayal of the messiness of family life: both the intergenerational strife and the challenges of balancing family commitment with personal goals. The Holly and the Ivy may not have any answers either, but what is the point of Christmas other than being confused about your family while eating turkey all day?
6. White Reindeer (2013)
Real estate agent Suzanne’s holiday plans takes a turn for the worse when her husband suddenly dies just before Christmas. It’s only then she discovers that he was having an affair with another woman. Deciding to meet this woman, the two form a bond in their grief. Depending on your view Suzanne’s life either spirals out of control or she starts to figure out more about herself as she begins to cut loose. White Reindeer isn’t exactly a typical Christmas movie: but then again lists like this one prove there isn’t really any such thing as a typical Christmas movie.
7. All Is Bright (2013)
Unable to find any work as an ex-con in Quebec and wishing to buy a Christmas gift for his daughter, Paul Giamatti’s Dennis breaks parole and goes to New York with Rene (Paul Rudd, making them The Two Pauls) to sell Christmas trees in this black comedy. All Is Bright explores just how tough it can be to make ends meet during the holiday season. Considering how bleak it gets at times it’s a real testament to how keen I am to rewatch it. If it helps, you could think of All Is Bright as a (very) loose Christmas adaptation of Ant Man.
8. Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)
Set in a mining town in rural Quebec in the 1940s, this French language film explores an agrarian and conservative way of life that would soon be a thing of the past. The film’s point of view character is a fifteen-year-old boy who works for his uncle and aunt at the town’s general store. On Christmas eve, he joins his uncle Antoine on a cross-country journey to deliver a coffin to a remote family after the tragic death of their son. With its social realist lens, Mon Oncle Antoine highlights the bleak and lonely existence that many people endure in the region, while also celebrating important moments of connection in the holiday season.
9. Santa’s Pocket Watch (1980)
This gorgeous short cartoon is the wonderful story of a small boy who sneaks into Santa’s sack and joins him on his journey back to the North Pole. It’s got a wonderfully cosy art style, extremely mischievous and greedy elves, and scenes of Santa patting young children’s heads where he does it just a little bit more violently than he should. And while it’s aimed at children, just like The Snowman or How The Grinch Stole Christmas, there is plenty of charm for all. Basically, Santa’s Pocket Watch is the Christmas cartoon you’ve always wanted to watch, whether you know it or not.
10. Better Watch Out (2017)
It looks like this twisted take on Home Alone is starting to get a much-deserved cult following after a disappointing opening back in 2017. Better Watch Out starts off well enough, as a smart, quippy little festive horror movie about a babysitter and her cheeky charge, and ultimately morphs into something much more formidable and intelligent. Not only is it an excellent genre film, using both the potentials and limitations of the home invasion narrative to create something rather innovative, it also brings a surprising amount of nuance to what have now become stock characters. Better Watch Out is now a staple of my Christmas horror watching and always manages to make me feel queasy.