Staff Picks: Festive Favourites

The Team here at A Fistful of Film wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday! We decided that to celebrate the festive season we would come together and select some of our favourite holiday classics. Ranging from the traditional classics, to the subversive Christmas horror subgenre, to family favourite comedies, and everything in between, our selection offers something to everyone to watch this season.

A Christmas Story (1983) By Jacob Calta

In all my years (admittedly not that many), few films I have seen bounce between being criminally underrated to in-your-face overexposed like Bob Clark’s seminal cult classic turned pop culture staple, A Christmas Story. It was bankrolled by MGM and boasted a production crew fit more for making Canadian slashers than Christmas films, with Clark using such collaborators as DP Reg Morris and composer Carl Zittrer (both Black Christmas alumni), as well as horror veteran Paul Zaza sharing scoring duties, and The Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin, cast as the father of young, Red Ryder-obsessed Ralphie Parker, famously played by Peter Billingsley. Yet, it has proved an enduring holiday yarn that began life as a quiet cult favorite before exploding into the mainstream thanks to cable reruns in North America, securing a place in the Library of Congress to boot. So, is it worth repealing all the praise foisted upon it by the mainstream, or is there still some magic to this time-honored flick?

To put it simply, if you strip away the obnoxious, kitsch culture surrounding it, A Christmas Story is exactly what it says on the can in the best way. I do not think I have ever beheld a film that quite captured the emotional state of being a child at Christmas in an average household. All the festive atmosphere and moments of unfettered joy are maintained, yet all the hard times, childish mistakes, and genuine turmoil are kept as well. We see the Parkers for what they are: a typical, if slightly offbeat, American family. The father and mother, while they both have their quirks, are ultimately loving parents at heart, Ralphie is your average American boy with all the strengths and weaknesses therein, and Randy is your average kid brother; sometimes a pain, but you are still contractually obligated to love him. The friends seem all-too familiar, the bullies seem all-too familiar, and the grownups seem all-too familiar. It feels like a perfect nostalgia film in that regard.

It also helps that the comedic stylings of Jean Shepard (the narrator, cowriter, and author of the semi-autobiographical source material) and Bob Clark fit like a hand in a glove. It is that perfect blend of witty writing and relaxed storytelling that you just get wrapped up in it. It is like hearing a story told by a relative of yours, with Shepard being that relative. I also liken it to the same reason for A Charlie Brown Christmas’s enduring success; its focus is not on telling a story directly about Christmas, but more about the experiences of children around this time of year, revealing something about Christmastime that we are not always aware of. While the Peanuts gang are a uniquely precocious bunch thanks to Charles Schultz’s sense of humor, the 1965 classic teaches us to pull back from the commercialism, presents, and material obsessions, and instead focus on the beauty of this time of year and why we celebrate it as opposed to how. A Christmas Story, while not as surprisingly philosophical as A Charlie Brown Christmas, creates a special, relatable time capsule that spins us a tale of a young boy and some of his experiences around the holidays, captivating in its simplicity and sincerity. That is what makes it such a beloved film. While it ultimately is hurt by its own over-commercialization in recent years, A Christmas Story still has the magic of the holidays coursing through it from start to finish.

Gremlins (1984) By Amos Lamb

While the concept of Christmas themed horror films can be traced back earlier than Joe Dante’s Gremlins, the influence and charm that’s on show in Gremlins is, in my opinion, unparalleled. Both intensely violent and wonderfully quaint, the film manages to ride the fine line between festive family favourite and a cult classic for horror heads, without alienating either audience.

In fact one of the greatest strengths of the film, and specifically Chris Columbus’s screenplay, is how it slowly degrades from a zany, heartwarming christmas film into this macabre off-the-walls horror comedy. One of the most harrowing moments of the entire film is when Phoebe Cates’s character reveals that the reason she doesn’t like Christmas is because her father died after trying to climb down the chimney in a Santa costume; it’s one of my favourite moments in the film and a monologue that left a lasting impression on me since my first watch, and it also serves as a brilliant subversion of the “humbug turn holiday lover” trope that highlights that many people have trauma relating to Christmas, especially as Zach Galligan’s Billy has spent the majority of the film trying to find out the reason and change her mind. This is a level of nuance that is largely absent from Holiday films, and it adds an interesting layer of realism into an otherwise goofy film.

If you’re a lover of horror films and a festive fiend like myself, Gremlins is the perfect film for the holiday, while not as chilling as Black Christmas or as violent as Silent Night, Deadly Night, Gremlins is just a ton of fun. From the malfunctioning inventions of Billy’s Father, to the adorable puppet of Gizmo, to the puerile nature of even the most malicious of the mogwai, the film is such a joy to watch. Even if you don’t come out of Gremlins loving it as much as I do, I’d be shocked to hear that Gizmo didn’t win your heart or that you didn’t crack a smile as the evil Gremlins watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While there may be better Christmas horror films out there, there’s nothing that hits the spot like Gremlins.

Trading Places (1983) By David Alkhed

Capitalism and Christmas are two things that go hand in hand. In fact you could argue the season is any capitalist’s idea of heaven. People slave, hustle and walk over corpses to get their hands on the right toys, presents, turkeys etc. Same kinda goes for New Year’s Eve, but let’s focus on the Christmas angle. Christmas is a time of greed and wealth, but what if one were to shake that world upside down, or rather, trade places with the poor and struggling so they can get theirs back. That is the basic premise behind John Landis’s 1983 classic Trading Places.

With a refreshing and intelligent screenplay from Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod and featuring a fantastic lineup of talent from Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott and Hollywood legends Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, Trading Places updates the screwball comedy formula of the 1930s and 40s to the era of Reaganomics of the 1980s, and could in some way serve as a reflection of its time. The rich people in this film are wonderfully despicable, with Ameche and Bellamy clearly having a lot of fun playing the villainous, greedy and racist Duke brothers. They are completely selfish and indifferent to others and care exclusively about making a profit, so once they (without giving too much away) get their comeuppance, it’s incredibly satisfying to see. And it’s also satisfying to see the poor people get their back as well, not just because they deserve it but because they feel much more like genuine real people you can relate to. They’re not perfect by any means but that makes the whole film even better.

Trading Places is funny, witty, all-around entertaining and a holiday classic for a very good reason.

Black Christmas (1974) By Saoirse Selway

Festive horror has become somewhat of a tradition. Juxtaposing the festivities of the season with the abject horrors of life, this strain of films that for the ne plus ultra of anti-christmas films often help you feel more festive than the insipid Hallmark vomit that can be regularly found on terrestrial television. Black Christmas itself uses the frosty location, the strength and bonds of friendship, and the fact that we all go away for Christmas as sources of terror. 

Black Christmas is a proto-slasher from Bob Clark about a rampaging murderer hiding in a sorority house, picking them off one by one as they slowly disperse from the holidays. Featuring perfect and charming performances from cult icons Margo Kidder and John Saxon, the way this film depicts the insidious creeping of dread and horror buried within established society. 

The best thing about this film though is the way it marries sleek horror style with rich, grounded characters. The murders themselves are framed by post-Argento sheen including a couple of historic kills involving suffocation with a plastic bag and a stabbing with a glass sculpture, but the way each character is grounded and realised in their own ways gives the stylish murder the threat they carry. Whether it’s Margot Kidder’s struggles with alcoholism while doing charitable work, or other’s struggles with stalkers or abortions, you feel for these girls, and most importantly, there is a thematic throughline of societal misoginy that drives the film forwards, and daringly implicates the true origin of the killer depending on your reading. 

The calls are coming from inside the house, and the house is gender. 

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) By Amos Lamb

While every year film fans rejoice at the opportunity to argue about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, another unconventional holiday film that often rears its head in those debates is Stanley Kubrick’s final film; Eyes Wide Shut. A divisive film amongst Kubrick’s filmography, it tells the story of Tom Cruise’s Bill Hartford who embarks on a journey of sexual curiosity and introspective reflection after feeling emasculated by his Wife. 

While not a conventional Christmas film by any means, Kubrick purposely changes the setting of the original story to Christmas for a multitude of reasons. The image of Christmas carries with it many different symbolic meanings, on one hand it can be seen as a symbol of rejuvenation, the birth of Christ indicating the absolving of humanities sins, in this sense Bill’s journey can be seen as an absolving of his marital sins, as well as his wife’s sins as well. But the Christmas setting also represents a darker side of the holiday, the hyper-consumerist interpretation of the holiday. Whether it is the crowded toy stores with rows and rows filled to the brim with toys and games, or the mask shop where the owner is happy to pimp out his daughter for a price, to the secret society that runs the orgy that Bill ends up at, the idea of the corrupting power of money is ever present. 

Now, would I argue that you should round up the family this Christmas and chuck on Eyes Wide Shut? No probably not, but what I would say is that Eyes Wide Shut shouldn’t be disregarded in the canon of Christmas films just by its dark and nihilistic nature. It utilises the fantasy feeling that the Christmas setting creates, especially through the use of Christmas lights which plays into the idea of the narrative as a twisted and distorted fantasy. Kubrick is unflinching in this film, combining the wonder and joy of Christmas with the sleazy and taboo exploration of sex and corruption, creates one of the most interesting holiday films and, in my opinion, a Christmas classic.

Lady in the Lake (1947) By Jacob Calta

While certainly not a conventional Christmas film, there is something particularly unique about Robert Montgomery’s 1947 directorial debut Lady in the Lake. Many in fact.

This landmark film noir marked what can safely be termed the first-person picture. A half-century before The Blair Witch Project and the found footage tidal wave it ushered in, Montgomery (and the audience) step into the role of pulp icon and private eye Phillip Marlowe, who finds himself launched down another rabbit hole of twists and turns as what seems to be a basic missing person’s case turns out to be something so much more, and so deadly.

What Montgomery achieved was such a singular work in the hallowed halls of the all-American genre. He guides us along, into conversations, loaded with classic, smart-ass exchanges, we gaze upon clues, and we can piece things together in a different way from most mysteries. But what does all that have to do with Christmas? The answer: the atmosphere.

The holiday is the backdrop to the narrative, and Montgomery emphasizes this not just through charming set decoration, the way it is worked into the dialogue, and a charming title sequence written on Christmas cards, but through David Snell’s original score. In lieu of the full-blooded orchestral romanticism that was Hollywood convention by that point, Snell crafts a choral score comprised of strictly syllables rather than words. The result is a chilling, ghostly, yet occasionally warm supplement to the strange goings-on of the story. It also keeps in the spirit of the holiday, as Christmas is a time of choirs singing songs. Be they traditional tunes heard on the radio, or a good old-fashioned bout of caroling, the choir is an essential staple of the musical landscape of Christmas, and to use a choir in such a haunting way makes it of the holiday, yet not bound to it. It also anticipates the similarly chilling use of choral music in the classic 1974 slasher Black Christmas. In the end, it proves a most compelling, creative, clever, if convoluted, Christmas flick that might spice up your holiday viewing.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) By David Alkhed

Maybe it’s something of a stretch to include this as part of a staff pick’s for Christmas movie recommendations as seemingly the only obvious connection the film has to the holiday is in the title and a few mentions of the holiday by name throughout it. But if Christmas is a holiday about showing love and compassion, then Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film certainly applies. It is a film about unrequited love, both brotherly and sexually, between Japanese and British in a Japanese POW camp at the height of WWII. In this camp we find two relationships, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) and Major Celliers (David Bowie). Yonoi is drawn to Major Celliers, and why wouldn’t he be? Bowie had one of the most captivating faces to look at, it’s a river of emotions and a stroke of casting genius on Oshima’s part. But Yonoi’s fascination and attraction to Celliers is never made explicit and is left to our imagination. Is it love? Is it curiosity? Is it remorse? The second relationship is more explicitly about camradire between the titular Major Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), and shows how even in the darkest of times, the deepest of enemies can form friendships that cannot be explained in words. As Major Lawrence says in the film’s final scene: “You are the victim of men who think they are right… Just as one day you and captain Yonoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is of course that nobody is right…” Sakamoto also composed the score for the film, with the electronic new wave score working beautifully in stark contrast to the period setting, in particular the main theme which I understand has become a Christmas classic in the UK and Japan. With all those things considered: it’s themes of love [both brotherly and romantic], the main theme becoming a classic of the holiday and being set around Christmas, I think it’s fair to call Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence a Christmas film.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) By Saoirse Selway

Beginning with the caption “in memory of Jim Henson”, this standalone Muppets picture directed by son of Jim Brian is a wonderful ode to all the work his father did, through the central conceit of having all the muppets as characters who are playing the roles of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens it feels as much as ode to the joy his father bought multiple generations as much as Dickens himself, the idea of The Muppets butting a kind of ‘put it on here in the barn’ type show like this brings them more to life as characters and creatures in their own right than they ever had been before. That being said, at the centre of it is Michael Caine, iconic as Ebenezer Scrooge, who, as Michael Caine would if asked to act with The Muppets’ version of A Christmas Carol by The Muppets themselves, plays every moment perfectly straight, interacting with Beaker with as much gravitas and weight as a thesp doing King Lear. He carries Scrooge’s journey from misery arsehole to repentant friend to all men everywhere with a deft touch, from joyously but only slightly dancing with The Ghost of Christmas Present to the abject horror at the torment of The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, he carries it. There’s also the fact that the film is made with absolute sincerity, there is not a shred of irony or insincerity in sight, even in the fourth wall breaks. When it wants to be scary, it is committed to being scary, when it’s charming it is that, and when it’s a musical, (which it is), boy does it bring the tunes. 

Today, or even when it was published, this story could be argued to have an explicitly socialist message, (the original Christmas Carol was published 5 years before The Communist Manifesto), with it’s message of essentially, giving to the poor and not hoarding wealth, consistent pleas to the plight of the working man in London which directly inspired Marx’s writing, and the sharp edge of subversiveness hasn’t dulled. Scrooge’s words, even centuries later could comfortably fit in the mouth of prominent British Conservative politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and they are explicitly framed as evil, and I’d challenge any audience not to go along with it. It defines this perspective, that it argues for, as the spirit of Christmas, and maybe it’s most radical message is that we should keep it all the year round. 

Merry Christmas everyone. 

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