These are not my favorite Christmas movies. They are my favorite movie recommendations. The distinction manifests in the fact that “It’s a Wonderful Life”, a very good movie, is not on the list. I get virtually no joy from recommending “It’s a Wonderful Life” because people are going to watch it anyway. It plays in an infinite loop on TV during this time of year and provides us all with reasonable cover to avoid awkward conversation at family gatherings. In contrast, I get a lot of pleasure from recommending the third movie on this list, and that movie is terrible.
Without further ado, in descending order…
# 5: Batman Returns
It is always a cold, dark night in Gotham city with snow drifting down majestically from a overcast sky. However, this night is special, because they are lighting the Christmas tree. Repeated failed attempts to light Gotham’s Christmas tree in their version of Rockefeller Center provide “Batman Returns” with its main through-lines. It’s somewhat of a frustrating movie.
The “villains” of Batman Returns are the Penguin and Catwoman. Oswald Cobblepot is abandoned by his parents at night, dumped into the sewer, and floated down the river in a basket like baby Moses. There are actually numerous biblical reference related to Penguin in this sort-of-a-Christmas-movie, which I’m not really qualified to elaborate on because I grew up sort of Jewish and never read the Bible seriously. In any case, the cradle hits a concrete barrier and Oswald is adopted by penguins who themselves were abandoned by a defunct zoo. In case you didn’t know, Oswald Cobblepot is the Penguin. The theme of villainy as a product of societal dysfunction is strong in “Batman Returns”, and the other villain, Catwoman, builds further upon it.
The origin of Catwoman provides an otherwise cartoonish villain with enough depth that you end up rooting for her. In fact, I think most of the audience is rooting for Catwoman, not Batman. Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfiefer) is a mild-mannered secretary perpetually disrespected by her employer, Max Wren (Christopher Walken). Wren is obviously the real villain of the film, a robber barren of public works building a trust fund for his spoiled jock of a son. He is the only character who chooses villainy with a cool head (the Penguin and Catwoman are clinically insane). After Selina accidentally blackmails Wren, he pushes her out a window in hopes of killing her. Unbeknownst to Wren, she survives the fall. She has nine lives, and this first rebirth is the origin of Catwoman. The fall represents her descent into madness and her rebirth is a cinematic depiction of the #MeToo movement, at least its darker and wilder side. Crazed and angry, but can you blame her? That’s by far my favorite scene of the movie, and I’d rather not ruin that scene for anybody who’s not seen “Batman Returns” by linking to a clip. However, just for a taste, here’s the scene which precedes it
# 4: Brazil
A sci-fi about a retro-futuristic dystopia with Christmas and conga music. There is only one word for such a concoction: Gilliamesque.
Like Gilliam himself, the film has a lot to say, and although much of it is style over substance, it is some style!
- Industrial air ducts installed in the center of fine dining institutions
- Monochromatic CRT monitors behind plastic magnifiers
A boy sits on Santa’s Claus’s lap.
Santa Clause: Ho ho ho. What would you like for Christmas little boy?
Boy: My own credit card.
Then Robert De Niro (a plumber) gets literally eaten by paperwork. Don’t worry employee DZ-015, “We’re all in it together”
# 3: Toys
Many people consider this to be a bad movie. I don’t, because I enjoyed watching it and so I personally find that it meets the primary criteria for getting my seal of approval. However, I can sympathize with the hate. “Toys” was made just after “Hook”, near the peak of the Robin Williams 90s mania, and he is peak obnoxious in this Barry Levinson film. There are other issues:
- The love interest is shallow
- For some reason, genes are like not a thing. How is LL Cool J playing the son of a white guy with a British accent?
- While we’re on this side-track, how is it possible to have a family where a single member has a British accent?
Okay fine, maybe it is a bad movie. However, I enjoyed watching it (this listicle is really making me question my taste). Good/bad aside. This movie is a visual feast, and unlike my recommendations so far, this movie is an actual bonafide Christmas movie. The movie begins and ends with a Christmas celebration, and the movie is an ode to a child-like approach to adulthood. Warning: do not take this movie seriously. You will be punished. The setting is a warped version of our own world with the aesthetic of Rene Magritte transposed onto the late 1980s.
In this fantasy world of infinite green pastures we find toy-maker Willie Wonka on his death bed. He hands over the controls of his toy factory to his brother, a decorated officer of the Military who never had the privilege of seeing action. The question naturally arises, why did this Willy Wonka guy not hand control over to his son? His son knows the business from top to bottom and actually loves toys. The question is answered immediately by the fact that his son is played by Robin Williams. Nuff said.
The general is now faced with the challenge of running a business in an industry which bores him. However, he gets an insane idea that could only be envisioned by one with a sick and demented nature. He imagines a future where military enlistment declines, and wars are fought with toy airplanes, armed with real weapons. Large complexes of young people, playing video games from the safety of middle America, while bombs go off in distant lands that they will never see… Okay, well in 1992 it sounded different.
# 2: A Christmas story
I apologize for the conventionality of this, but, I feel bad about that last one. I enjoyed “Toys”, but the odds are that most readers will not. Let me emphasize that: DO NOT WATCH TOYS. “A Christmas Story”, like “Toys”, is also actual bonafide Christmas movie. I thought everybody had seen this. However, after talking to some co-workers, it seems that the younguns don’t know this movie, so it made the cut.
Premise: The year is 1954, or 1947, or whatever, and it’s winter in Indiana where 9 year old Ralfi tries to convince his parents to get him a bb gun for Christmas. His parents don’t want to get him the gun because “he’ll shoot his eye out”. That’s the conflict and the movie is roughly 90 minutes. There is obviously no way I can sell this movie based on plot, so I’ll just quickly list a random sequence of things that appear in this movie
- triple dog dares
- Chinese food
- the ugliest lamp in the world
- bunny suit pajamas
- Santa’s boot in Ralfi’s face
For that last item, here is a clip.
# 1: Louie Season 3, episode 30,31,36-39
Technically this is not a movie, but it’s a feature-length stretch of video which would be indistinguishable from a movie if it weren’t split into episodes.1. I always thought of Louie C.K. as an odd-ball film maker who happened to do comedy. Perhaps that is wrong, and I know the man himself disagrees, but what does he know? I’ve had a soft spot for him as a film maker, growing up and seeing him host an independent short film program on public television in the late 90s. He made it look easy and legitimate to make a humorous low budget film with no coherent message, but clearly backed by something ethereal and absurd. In my opinion, these episodes of Louie are his best works. I’m hesitant to give any details since the best parts are surprises, but I will provide a Christmas related preview here. The first scene of episode 39 involves Louie staying up very late into the night preparing Christmas gifts for his daughters. He got a toy doll, but the doll is shoddily made, and the eyes fall out. He spends the night trying to fix it using various supplies around the house, melting crayons to make paint, etc. After numerous failures he starts to sob, but day breaks and ultimately he pulls it off. Then his daughters wake up to find their Christmas gifts. Their eyes light up and the little one says “Look what Santa got me!”
This string of episodes deals with loneliness, ambition, and death in a very original and modern way. If you’re somebody who obsesses over these things then please watch these episodes. It’s my #1 pick for a reason.
Do not misconstrue enjoying an artist’s work with condoning his/her actions in the world. ↩