I don’t really celebrate Saturnalia or Solstice or any of the lesser-known winter holidays. I hang out with relatives and friends who do, so I don’t boycott seasonal happenings. But the winter holidays simply do not groove with me, the same way winter in general doesn’t. That’s why I live in Southern California. I’m one of the October People. Once October is done, I’d prefer we move rapidly to the new year. Add two months to early summer, cut out November and December, and it’s all good. But I don’t control axial tilt and the orbit of the Earth, so I’ll just have to take it.
I do like winter in one place, however, and that’s in the movies. Groundhog Day, The Great Silence, Runaway Train, and The Thing are winter movie favorites. And there are a few films I associate with the winter holidays, i.e. “Christmas” (you thought I wasn’t going to even use that word in this post, didn’t you?)
Admittedly, two are genuinely considered Christmas movies by the general population, not just me. And no, I didn’t put Die Hard on the list. That’s on everybody’s ironic Christmas movie list, but whenever I watch Die Hard, it’s during the summer. I considered including the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Santa Claus, but those are not so much movies as classic television episodes. Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on its own.
Okay, crowbars up …
#5 – In Bruges (2008)
The story of In Bruges has nothing to do with the holidays. It’s a crime drama/dark comedy about two Irish hitmen whose boss sends them to the continent to hide out in the Belgian town of Bruges after an assassination goes nastily wrong. The two hitmen have different reactions to Bruges, which is a popular tourist destination because of its well-preserved medieval architecture. Ken (Brendan Gleeson), finds the town charming and relaxing. Ray (Colin Farrell) thinks it’s oppressively boring and only wants to get drunk and find some girl to sleep with. Ray is cracking apart over having accidentally shot a child, and Ken finds out from his boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), that the real reason he’s in Bruges is to murder Ray.
It’s a fantastic story, Ralph Fiennes is hilarious as a foul-mouthed crime boss with a soft spot for the “fairy tale” location of Bruges, and there are numerous visual nods to Don’t Look Now (1973), one of my favorite films. I could even argue Christian allegorical themes about how Ray is simultaneously trapped in Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell as he struggles with the horror of his actions make a decent fit with moralizing Christmas stories.
But those aren’t the reasons I’ve made watching In Bruges a holiday tradition. It’s the movie’s setting of Christmas in a snowy medieval town filled with tourists that makes me feel warm toward it in spite of its violence. I’ve spent a few Decembers in Germany, and although I couldn’t deal with the cold, nothing is more festive than Old European Christmases. In Bruges lets me experience that—in the most Old World setting imaginable—without having to put on a coat. Hanging out in a festive Belgian pub on Christmas Eve? That’s great. Especially with Ralph Fiennes sitting at my elbow, dropping the F-bomb every other word as he tells me how wonderful the place is. “It’s a fairy-tale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairy-tale town not somebody’s f**king thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f**king fairy-tale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f**king thing, eh?”
#4 – Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)
I made this the subject of a holiday post at Black Gate two years ago, so I don’t have much more to add. Hammer movies are one of my great loves, but they belong to October. I needed to find a Hammer film I could put on for the winter holidays, and Rasputin the Mad Monk got nearest the mark, although it requires some stretching. As I said last year, “It’s Russia, it’s winter, there’s lots of red wine. Fine, call it a Hammer Christmas movie.”
I have little more justification for it than that. Russia in the winter makes me think of The Nutcracker, and since I don’t want to watch actual movie versions of The Nutcracker (apparently nobody does, according to the box office returns for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), I can instead watch this fictionalized story of Rasputin. As Hammer movies go, it’s a middling production, but Christopher Lee is so perfect as the mesmerizing manipulator who put a deep crack in the Russian nobility that it rises to the occasion. Drink lots of wassail with this one.
#3 – A Christmas Carol (1984)
I have a stern attitude about Christmas stories: the best one has already been written, it’s called A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and everybody else can move on because they aren’t going to beat that. I don’t 100% agree with my own piece of hyperbole (otherwise why put other movies on this list?), but one reason I have such low tolerance for most syrupy Christmas fare is because nobody will ever nail the sentiment and emotion as well as Dickens did in 1843. The story is also a wonderful piece of political criticism that holds up today (which is unfortunate). Whenever I hear yet another politician propose something awful regarding the poor and minorities, I immediately say, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”, Scrooge’s ice-cold rejoinder when told the poor are starving and freezing during Christmas.
There are roughly seventy billion movie and TV adaptations of A Christmas Carol, some good, many mediocre. This version, released theatrically in the UK and on television in the US, is my favorite. I fell in love with it on its original broadcast because of how closely it hews to Dickens and its visuals that bring mid-nineteenth London, gloomy and celebratory in equal measures, right into the living room. The cast is amazing: David Warner as Bob Cratchit! Frank Finlay as the Ghost of Bob Marley! Michael Gough as the charity solicitor! The guy who played Bib Fortuna as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!
And I’ve never loved a performance of Scrooge as much as George C. Scott’s. He brings a peculiar aggression and vitality to the legendary character that goes past the usual Scrooge stereotypes. The other phenomenal performance is Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who brings such feelings of joy to viewers while sparring flintily with Scott’s Scrooge. I love watching him lay into Scrooge about his “surplus population” comment, doing marvels with Dickens’s dialogue: “It may be, in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child!”
#2 – Home Alone (1990)
I saw Home Alone during its first-run with my whole immediate family, plus my grandmother and my uncle, and we all loved it, so it has a special glow to it. Plus, the paint cans slamming into Marv and Harry’s heads are damn hilarious. This is my ideal combination of goofy slapstick comedy and genuine holiday sentiment: pratfalls and Old Man Marley. It’s one of the few genuine “Classic Christmas Movies” that hits all the right buttons with me, so I never tire of watching it annually.
The score is also one of my favorite holiday albums. Because John Williams’s music is so connected to Spielberg and Star Wars, the magic he does in a comedy like Home Alone is often overlooked. But the music is fantastic, as funny and sweet as the film, and with the Tchaikovsky/Carol of the Bells seasonal touch that makes it unquestionably Christmas music. Williams wrote two original carols for the film, “Star of Bethlehem” and “Somewhere in My Memory,” and there among the few new Christmas songs of the last fifty years that feel as if they come from an earlier, sincerer era of holiday carols. (The album also has the Drifters’ version of “White Christmas,” Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” and Mel Tormé’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” That’s a party!)
#1 – Batman Returns (1992)
I’ve also written a full article about Batman Returns at Black Gate (it was last year’s post for this weekend) where I described it as “Charles Dickens, Edward Gorey, and F. W. Murnau getting into a three-way knife fight over the corpse of Clement Moore, and Fritz Lang filmed the whole thing and put it in theaters for a holiday release.” Succinct.
I have a bit more to say regarding what I’ve come to realize is my favorite winter holiday movie—without irony. The first time I told someone who asked me what my favorite Christmas movie was and I answered Batman Returns and realized I was utterly serious, it was a small personal revelation.
Bruce Wayne’s Christmas season is one many viewers can associate with. Sure, we’re not millionaires who dress up in Chiroptera costumes and explode felonious circus performers. But once we’re out of childhood, most of us know what it’s like to feel an emptiness and a heartache during the festivity of a season shrouded in almost perpetual night and regrets as the year closes.
I feel the most for Bruce Wayne in this of all the live-action Batman films. The cleansing that was supposed to have occurred after the events of the 1989 Batman—his parents’ killer brought to justice (dead), a new love-life, the respect of Gotham—have done nothing for Bruce Wayne. When we first see him, he’s brooding in his study. He’s not even out fighting crime. That’s … that’s bleakly, romantically wonderful and captures the dark side of the holiday where we feel lonelier than any other time of the year. Wayne’s relationship with Selina Kyle is the only romance in a Batman film that clicks: I so want these two sick souls to find a way together, take off their dangerous masks, and live happily together in a castle. There’s even the promise of kink in it—you won’t find that in a Hallmark movie! (You won’t find anything in a Hallmark movie, actually.)
Batman Returns is dipped deep in a Gothic Dickensian mood, and it permeates every frame. It’s hard to imagine this film originally was released in June, although that’s when I first saw it, since it’s impossible for me to separate it from winter in the city. It’s the song “Silver Bells” dropped into a minor key and played on a pipe organ—and that’s how I would much rather listen to “Silver Bells” than Bing Crosby’s croon.
Happy holidays, and please …