Five Essential Nontraditional Holiday Films (Other Than Die Hard)
While a terrorist attack at a holiday office party doesn't exactly fit the mold of what you'd expect to find on the Hallmark Channel, Die Hard is still a film that most people prefer to watch during the holidays to get into the spirit. Frosty or Rudolph aren't exactly present, nor is the everlasting search for the meaning of Christmas, but the thriller still unfolds on the night of Christmas Eve.
Beneath the bullets and bloodshed of Die Hard lies the story of a New York cop who hopes to reconnect with his estranged wife as she finds success in her career out in California. The narrative isn't traditional, but the spirit of the season can still be found beneath its brash exterior.
Don't get me wrong, I love It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, The Grinch and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation just as much as the next guy. They're all in my yearly rotation as the weather becomes more frigid and the sun sets as early as 5:00PM.
However, if you're feeling the need to shake things up and watch a film not commonly in the conversation as one to throw on during the holiday season, the five outlined below are excellent places to start.
My Night at Maud's (1969)
Director: Éric Rohmer
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault
Platform: Criterion Channel
In addition to the time of year this story is set, My Night at Maud's has a very fundamental component centered around the narrative that fits the mold of many holiday films: religion. Our protagonist Jean-Louis is a devout Catholic, who battles temptation during an overnight stay on a cold winter's night with Maud - a recent divorcee. The conversations are compelling, and centered around the philosophical ideals of Pascal. The topics are thought-provoking, heavy in their subject matter but light-hearted in their delivery, giving the two an instant connection as if they'd known each other an eternity. The holiday parallels are subtle, but the romance-driven plot is enough to warm the hearts of any viewer.
Trading Places (1983)
Director: John Landis
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis
Platform: Sling TV
Despite the film being nearly 40 years old, the motif of income inequality is just as relevant today in Trading Places. It's the classic nature verses nurture debate. Are people a victim of circumstance, or are they able to overcome their obstacles by a change of environment? In this scenario, we have the successful commodities broker Louis Winthorpe (played by Dan Akroyd) and the poor street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (played by Eddie Murphy) have their situations unknowingly switched by the doings of two wealthy brothers at Duke & Duke Commodity Brokers who test the theory for themselves as a bet. This story unfolds over the holidays, and even has a very memorable scene surrounding the office Christmas party. The image of the Santa that crashes this party certainly isn't anything you'd find on Lifetime, and will have you gagging at the thought of shaved deli meat.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman
Platform: Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video
Piggybacking on the idea of corporate greed, The Hudsucker Proxy is another fantastic nontraditional option for the holidays. A naïve business graduate Norville Barnes goes from a humble mail clerk to the president of Hudsucker Industries, all set up by design by the top executives in hopes that the stock of the company would plummet, giving the executives the opportunity to buy controlling interest of the company. The plot is essentially a pseudo origin story for the hula hoop, which ends up being released to the public around the holidays. It's a wacky and absurd tale, and is comprised of the Coen brothers' quintessential dark humor. The Hudsucker Proxy wasn't exactly on the level of No Country for Old Men at the box office, only grossing 3 million. However, the film is still praiseworthy for its offbeat humor of corporate America.
The Apartment (1960)
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
Platform: Available to rent on Apple TV
With the plot centered around C.C. Baxter, who agrees to lend out his apartment to the executives at his work for them to take their mistresses, I'll admit that it's hard to find a whole lot of Christmas in that synopsis. The parallels between the holidays can be found in the timing rather than the message, as the story for The Apartment unfolds between November and New Year's Eve. Therefore, the Christmas imagery is present as Baxter and the rest of New York prepare for the holidays. While Baxter's intentions for lending out his apartment was to climb the corporate ladder, one could argue that he was feeling a bit of the generous holiday spirit as well. This romantic-fueled farce has a lot of truth and sincerity beneath its exaggerated exterior, and is much more heartwarming than the shallow summary makes it seem.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond
Platform: Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video
One of the first scenes in this film is centered around a wholesome family spending time around their Christmas tree... as a government SWAT team infiltrates the house and wrecks utter havoc on the innocent family over a clerical error. The Christmas imagery is ever-present throughout Brazil, but not everyone is fully into the holiday spirit. Our protagonist Sam Lowry even has a "Christmas-free-zone" in his apartment. One could argue that the recurring dream Lowry has gives off a small sense of hope for our protagonist, which is a common theme around the holidays. However, as a whole, Brazil isn't exactly warm and cozy. It's a dystopian comedy that displays the hypocrisies of bureaucracy that's both hilarious and terrifying. The film initially flopped in the US when it was released, but has since aged like a fine wine and has been regarded as a cult classic by film buffs, and is still widely overlooked in the conversation of holiday films.