But I hate the endless commercialization of Christmas. Immediately after Thanksgiving, our culture seemingly resets itself to some Norman Rockwell idea of 1955. All the music resets to pre-rock standards, everything on prime-time TV is at least 45 years old, we’re deluged with countless advertisements about shopping deals, and worst of all, there’s no escaping any of it.
The worst part of it all is how the constant repeats of our past is meant to create new emotional experiences for the next generation. And everyone automatically assumes that their child’s reaction will be the same as their reaction.
To combat this, many people have attempted to find “alternative” Christmas movies. These are films that are set at Christmas but don’t emphasize the traditional holiday spirit. Instead, they use it to explore darker themes about society and help explain why our myopic vision of Christmas is wrong.
I’ve tried to identify the best “alternative” Christmas movies out there. These are movies that are set or were released near Christmas and include cynical themes about the season. It’s impossible to present a straight-forward Christmas movie to a modern audience, so these films are trying to cater to a new audience that has no patience for Burl Ives.
Brazil – Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece has so many layers that it can be discussed as a part of any genre. But the film takes place at Christmas and there are several moments centered around Christmas traditions.
Brazil is, at its core, a satire of the distracted 1980s mentality. People, especially in America, had retreated to a more boring lifestyle where they didn’t have to face the world around them. They retreated into consumerism and be sold rubbish. Any attempts to break the mold would result in punishment.
Christmas is the best representation of this trend. Anyone who rejects its commercialist ideals is ironically considered a scrooge. Anyone who points out that a child sitting on Santa’s lap and asking for “my own credit card,” as happens in the film, is a sign of societal decay is just not celebrating the holiday properly.
Sam Lowery, on his surface, wants a boring lifestyle. But he dreams of being some vague hero who gets the girl. He seems to ignore each societal tradition – in one scene, he even refuses to give the date, thus failing to acknowledge Christmas is close – and is punished with a visit from the man who controls his torture. This man is even dressed as Santa Claus to comfort Sam but ends up being far more frightening than he intended.
Brazil is the most obvious alternative Christmas movie on this list, if only because it shows people engaged in the traditional yuletide activities. Yet the Christmas setting is inseparable from the film’s ideas of rebellion. Sam’s dreams of breaking the system seem even more poignant when set against the backdrop of an armed battalion singing “The First Noel.” Ultimately, people who want to rebel during Christmas are doomed, which may be the most important message of the holidays.
Eyes Wide Shut – Like every other Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut has been endlessly debated and people think it’s a code that must be cracked in order to be appreciated. What could the cult orgy sequence possibly mean? And what was the central mystery surrounding the death of the young woman who took part in it?
Kubrick was always more interested in the mystery than in the resolution. His films specialized in examining people who were not able to understand what was happening to them. That’s certainly the case with Bill Harford, a man who discovers that his wife may just have sexual feelings about other men. This leads him to a nighttime odyssey where he’s constantly overwhelmed by what he sees, be it an HIV prostitute who tries to solicit him to an upper-class party featuring masks and a weird religious ceremony.
But what does any of this have to do with Christmas? The movie does take place at Christmas and the final scene takes place in a mall as the Harfords go Christmas shopping. Obviously, there’s a reason Kubrick wanted to set this sexually explicit drama at during the self-proclaimed most wonderful time of the year.
Once again, Kubrick wanted to subvert expectations by showing us something new against a familiar setting. Very few people can relate to Harford’s night time odyssey. But everyone can relate to familial tensions at Christmas. Harford is looking for something familiar as he goes through the upper-class Christmas party ceremonies at the start of the film. But he’s blind to the reality around him, which is far dirtier than he could have imagined. It speaks to the child-like idea of Christmas, where good thoughts and deeds are rewarded while bad thoughts and impulses are punished.
Of course, that’s not how reality works. Harford has adulterous thoughts and ultimately learns nothing from his curiosity. Yet everyone else he meets in his nighttime odyssey commits worse actions and emerge unscathed. How can that be possible during the holidays?
The answer is because that’s how it works in real life. And the film ends on a positive note. Bill realizes that his salvation can only be found in his family. I suppose that’s sort of a positive Christmas message.
L.A. Confidential – Yes, I’m aware only the opening scene takes place at Christmas. But that opening is so good and underlines many cynical themes about Christmas and the buttoned-up post war conformity of the United States.
For those who don’t remember, the film starts with an office party for the L.A. police. As they imbibe alcohol, suspects in a police beating are brought in. The officers take it upon themselves to dole out some extrajudicial punishment, which is captured by newspaper photographers at the scene.
What does this have to do with the cynicism in Christmas? Part of it has to do with aging white people trying to control the culture no matter how much time passes. All the cops participating in the melee are white and the suspects are Hispanic. It also shows how the Christmas setting does not offer any promised peace on earth. Yet people are still shocked by the violence and the “Bloody Christmas” headline that appears the next day.
The point is that no should have been shocked then and we shouldn’t be shocked now when we hear about how the world doesn’t pause for Christmas.
The opening scene also underlines the main mystery of L.A. Confidential, which involves an enormous plot for police to take over organized crime in the city. What looks glossy and beautiful on the surface contains some dark violence and betrayal. Not even the people society trusts to uphold the citizens’ rights aren’t to be trusted.
But, as the opening scene shows, we copy annual Christmas traditions because that peaceful exterior provides people some ability to ignore the rot around them. Only when that façade is broken, as happens at the beginning of L.A. Confidential, do people start asking questions.
Mars Attacks! – It’s impossible to discuss alternative Christmas movies without discussing Tim Burton. If he’s not the director who invented the genre, he’s the man who popularized it by taking German expressionist trappings and adding them to the Christmas. But the films people usually think of – Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas – have already been discussed to death.
Instead, I’d like to look at the underrated satire Mars Attacks! While it doesn’t take place at Christmas (when it takes place is open for debate) – the film was originally released in December and it includes the same sort of themes that Burton included in his Christmas movies.
Burton’s take on Christmas is that we as a culture have built up an aesthetic that would seem weird at any other time of year. It can be beautiful, like the ice dance scene in Scissorhands. But it’s mostly about a culture that sends itself backwards and barely takes notice of any of its surroundings. How can we possibly deal with sadistic Martians that want to destroy the Earth? We’re too distracted building casinos, listening to Tom Jones music, wearing outdated clothing in a serious way, and electing a government that exists to generate positive poll ratings.
It makes the destruction of the planet that much funnier, which is the point. Like Dr. Strangelove, this film follows a culture that cannot process any flaws. It’s like watching a Black Friday crowd destroy each other. We may sit back and laugh, but we’ve lost the ability to examine why people are doing it in the first place. And the fact that so many of the characters seem excited for the Martians’ arrival on Earth mirrors the excitement the public has at Christmas. We must ignore everything that makes us feel bad and assume that everyone around us has the best intentions. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t stop spinning just because it’s Christmas.
Also, when a Martian kills someone, their skeletons end up as red or green. It’s obvious that the Martians wanted to spread a little holiday cheer to the doomed earthlings.
Metropolitan – Whit Stillman is a filmmaker who even people like Aaron Sorkin and Woody Allen find pretentious. Yet his films are incredibly captivating and his insight of popular culture, even if it’s limited to the popular culture of people who can afford to buy 1,000 square feet in Manhattan, is undeniable.
Metropolitan was Stillman’s first feature film and took four years to write. Stillman was one of the upper-class characters depicted in the film and was thus qualified to help us understand why people who attend debutante balls deserve sympathy and understanding.
The film is explicitly set at Christmas as rich young people meet and talk about random things. One of them doesn’t come from money and he’s constantly thinking up ways to fake wealth and impress people with his material possessions. Already we’re getting commentaries on the holiday season. How many times have we gone into debt in order to impress people with presents?
The characters also have a level of tragedy in them. As they go to hopelessly outdated “coming-out” parties, everyone seems to insist on copying their grandparents like we do every year at Christmas. They seem to realize that society has moved on from their obsessions. One character is even a titled nobleman. When was the last time that was going to impress everyone who wasn’t already in high society? The characters also endlessly discuss 19th century socialist thinkers at a time when socialism was on a global downward spiral. Everything about these characters is quaint and ignores what’s happening in the world around them.
Again, does any of that sound familiar?
These individuals are spending their Christmas holidays essentially trying to repeat what their grandparents did. Turn on the holiday station and tell me that we’re not doing the same thing.
The film doesn’t exactly end on a hopeful note. Despite everyone having come together, they’re ending in the same way they began – going back to Manhattan to repeat the façade they’ve developed around themselves. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I see people taking down Christmas decorations. The show is over and instead of hope, we’ve not received anything from the experience.
Ronin – This movie served as the last great film that legendary director John Frankenheimer made in his lifetime. It was released after the disastrous The Island of Doctor Moreau and unfortunately followed up with Reindeer Games. It’s a thrilling heist film with car chases.
Strangely, the film also takes place at Christmas. Yet this almost becomes almost irrelevant. Only a few jokes are made about Christmas and there’s only one scene with Christmas carolers. Outside of an ice-skating show, there’s really nothing in the film that evokes winter.
So why set it at Christmas? Like every other film on this list, that had to be a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers.
I believe that, like LA Confidential, Ronin is set at Christmas to acknowledge that criminals still exist even as we talk about being naughty or nice. Also, the figure skater is killed by a sniper in the middle of her show. Violence destroys what’s supposed to be a happy Christmas moment.
And there are jokes about the characters all “working” on Christmas day. This throwaway line says a lot about societal expectations at the holidays. No one, even criminals, wants to engage in their usual activity. It should be a day for everyone to just relax and enjoy time with their loved ones. Not get involved in shootings with the Russian mob.