As far as subgenres go, Christmas movies are an unkillable beast. Virtually anything can be a Christmas movie or more importantly a movie that takes place at Christmas. Every category under the sun is up for grabs under the banner too. Surprisingly, there’s no rhyme or reason, as to what succeeds and what fails, though. It doesn’t even matter how many films of this sort are designated “box office bombs”, as every year, come November and December, a new batch enters the grinder. There’s no use fighting it, as there’s no way to stop it, so you might as well give in and find something you like.
What’s just as synonymous as Christmas movies? Well, lists about Christmas movies, of course. Yet instead of another smattering of Black Christmas (it’s great, watch it) or Batman Returns (also great, also watch), we wanted to focus on more recent fare. A batch of films from the last decade that belong in your yearly rotation. As this list is only 5 films deep, there’s sure to be an omission here. At the same time, there’s sure to be at least one choice here, that’s likely to become a new classic, to you.
Honorable Mention: Dial Code Santa Claus
If you’re going to go through all the trouble to include an “honorable mention” on a list like this, it’s got to be something really special. It also has to be a film that gets included due to some weird technicality. And boy does Dial Code Santa Claus ever have one of those. A French film, from 1989, that didn’t get it’s US premiere, until 2018 at the Fantastic Fest film festival. The following year it had a week long engagement at a handful of theaters, before getting a stunning UHD release via Vinegar Syndrome, as well as being dropped on Shudder. All that should tell you that this film, almost lost to American shores for decades, isn’t one to sleep on.
As for the film itself, Dial Code Santa Claus is essentially the Home Alone of your nightmares, you didn’t know you needed. Thomas (Alain Lalanne) is the kind of kid most kids wish to be. Obsessed with action films. Has decked out his secluded mansion he with booby traps, hidden passage ways and all manner of high-tech surprises. He’s also just at that age where the reality of Santa may be wearing thin. On Christmas eve, his toy magnate mother has to work late, leaving Thomas alone with his partially blind and diabetic grandfather Papy (Louis Ducreux). As luck should have it, this kid is about to have the night of his life, as a deranged mall Santa is about to teach Thomas the true meaning of Christmas. Even if it kills them both.
There’s not true way to sum up the insanity of this film, rather than just showing the film in front of someone’s face. Packed wall to wall with humor, montages, as well as a share of thrills, it truly has it all. The gusto and moxie with which Dial Code Santa Claus operates, is infectious. Likely leaving you a bewildered and cackling mess, by the time it ends. There’s blood, carnage, crazy technical camera wizardry and lots and lots of child endangerment. To beat some it up, just listen to the haunting and cursed “Merry Christmas” by Bonnie Tyler, which was written for the film. For all those willing to give this flick a chance, it’s sure to become a yearly staple. You’re welcome. Also, sorry, for any psychological scarring that may be endured. It gets darker than you’re expecting.
A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
There’s something about anthologies that match perfectly with the holiday season. Maybe it’s the bite-sized morsels that can cover a wide range of topics. Maybe it’s the ability to shift genres at the drop of a hat. Whatever the secret combination may be, A Christmas Horror Story dives head-first into a number of small stories and leaves a surprising amount of good cheer and shudders. Weak parts crop up here and there, never fully sinking the ship. Come for the gratuitous indulgence by the film’s “lead”, stay for the decimation of what feels like dozens and dozens of elves.
For the most part the film centers on the sleep haven of Bailey Downs. A small mountain town where most everyone knows each other and the Radio DJ (William Shatner). As Christmas draws near, citizens of the town are wrapped up in several unfortunate events. There’s your typical high schoolers in the bowels of a haunted building who get more than they bargained for. A couple who being something less than cherub-like back from the woods with them. An ungrateful family who learns about how greed consumes the wicked. Along with the stand out piece, that sees Santa Claus (George Buza) attempting to survive the darkest night imaginable. It’s a hodgepodge of Christmas tales, woven together into a devilishly delectable yuletide treat.
As with any anthology, some parts rate higher than others. The quality does dip, but the variety on hand helps keep things moving. Then there’s the fact that, as opposed to letting one chapter play out in its entirety, they flip back and forth, between the stories. While that’s not a new invention, the use helps keep viewers invested, even in the lesser bits. It’s the infectious spirit with which Brett Sullivan, Steve Hoban and Grant direct the film, that helps elevate it among so much other fodder out there. When it connects, this film hits hard. Mixing the kinds of moments that audiences react to, with a few surprisingly effective beats. A Christmas Horror Story isn’t just a successful anthology film, its a solid horror Christmas film that goes down smoothly as a glass of eggnog.
The Nice Guys
When you say the name “Shane Black” 2 things come to mind. Number 1 is dialogue, obviously. Black’s was with words and the banter between his characters is always worth the price of admission. That interplay can make a mediocre story or workman-like directing, more than tolerable, simply by wanting to hear these people talk to one another. Even if it leads to death (and there’s always death in these pictures). The second thing that comes to mind, with his movies is Christmas. Almost every title he’s worked on has centered on the holiday. From Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to The Last Boy Scout and Lethal Weapon, he’s a found a way to make the holiday his own. To that point The Nice Guy is purely and unmistakably Shane Black. Taking everything the writer and director has in his arsenal and bumping it up to 11.
In the late 70’s a low-rent private dick and an enforcer team-up to solve the case of a missing woman and end up knee-deep in a big conspiracy. You know, typical Jonny Gossamer type stuff (to mix up out Shane Black movie references). Tough guys are talkative. The “heroes” more so. Everything exists in a grey moral area and manages to win over the audience at the same time. What starts out low-stakes, slowly morphs into a giant sprawling tale, with all of Los Angeles as the backdrop. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) make for fantastic guppies in a massive pond. As far as buddy-comedies go, the two instantly connect, suggesting that a series of films following this pair would be a wonderful thing. Not that any of us would be so lucky.
The Nice Guys may also be the best Shane Black directed film, as it feels like everything is clicking. Crowe & Gosling make a formidable and hilarious pair. The period trappings are great, from the costumes to hairstyles to set decorations, everything screams period and gives the whole thing a lived-in feel. It might not be as overtly “Christmas” as some of his other films, yet that never detracts from the experience. Should you need to go that route, a double feature of this and Iron Man 3 (also directed by Black) should do the trick.
Todd Haynes gives you a lush and sumptuous love story about self-determined women partially set at Christmas time and you dare leave it off list like this? Why that would be as loathsome as the Academy Awards nominating Carol for everything but director and picture. Simply put, this is a film that is likely to destroy you or push your emotions, on a regular basis. Making it a film that truly embraces the Christmas season.
In New York City, during the early 50’s, a young photography student, Therese (Rooney Mara) enters into an affair with an older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchette). The women navigate the struggles of their own lives, but can’t deny the pull they have on each other. One tries to navigate the job market. The other is dealing with a contentious divorce. It’s a relatively simple film that’s executed flawlessly and naturally. Though that 50’s backdrop may seem like slight window dressing, Haynes uses it to clash the ideals held in “high esteem” at the time and two people simply trying to follow their truth.
There’s a very good chance that Carol may be Haynes’ crowning achievement. Of course, saying that is practically asking for the universe to prove you wrong. In this case, that would be ok, as more Haynes is always welcome. Here though, he’s in rare form. Crafting a sumptuous, powerful and moving motion picture, that’s just as stunning to look at, as it will hit you on an emotional level. A large majority of that heavy lifting is done by Mara and Blanchette. These women destroy every scene they’re in, regardless if it’s through dialogue or mere glances. Their delicate dance and strength, in a period that wanted to swallow anyone who wasn’t of the “norm”, borders on revelatory.
Compared to the other movies on this list, Carol almost feels like it doesn’t belong. Again, this is largely due to how Haynes puts the film together. It’s out of place, out of time, but without a doubt a great film. How it was ever snubbed for a best Oscar nomination (while being nominated in 6 other categories) boggles the mind. For those who require a more “classical” feeling to their offerings, this will do you just right.
As with any list, there has to be at least one big budgeted outlier. In this case, it just happens to be one of the most mean spirited holiday films imaginable. A tale of losing sight of what the holidays mean and how they can bring everyone together. While also featuring demonic gingerbread men. In short, Micheal Dougherty conjures up the same magic for Krampus that he used that made Trick r’ Treat such a great time. Instead of telling several creatures tales, he focuses on one large family ensuring the kind of Christmas that will be seared into their brains, until the end of times. Light and happy, this film is not.
Krampus is your proto-typical “family bickers and bad things occur” kind of fare. Only difference is, instead of existential or familial strife being the name of the game here, it’s a massive demon-like entity that has to be dealt with. As family gathers for the holidays, Max (Emjay Anthony) is worried he may be outgrowing the spirit of the day. As well as questioning his belief in Santa. His mom (Toni Collette) and Dad (Adam Scott) are to wrapped up in decorating and work to care. Uncle (David Koechner) and Aunt (Alison Tollman), can’t keep their kids from haranguing Max, left and right. With his back against the wall and ready to throw everything out the window, Max invites the worst Christmas guest imaginable: Krampus.
Besides all the holiday trapping and Krampus mythos, the film does something else better than most movies of the last decade, stretches the PG-13 rating as far as it can go. Dougherty creates some truly nightmarish images, here. The kind that will stick with you, while also keeping the humor paced well. That levity makes the proceedings easy to get through. It’s not just Krampus that poses a threat. There’s also his merry band of terrifying moppets. Juggling comedy and horror along with crafting an original take isn’t an easy job. Which speaks volumes of what Dougherty is able to pull off with screenwriters Todd Casey and Zach Shields. It might be a little rough around the edges or a bit meaner than most are expecting, yet that just adds to the charm of Krampus. Some jankiness and weirdness just helps keep the season bright.
Anna And The Apocalypse
If Anna And The Apocalypse isn’t the #1 overall on your list, that’s likely because you haven’t seen the film yet. Best described as High School Musical meets Shaun of the Dead the film has something for virtually everyone. Songs, bloodshed, colorful characters, Hollywood dragging, Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), double entendres, the end of the world, dance breaks and most of all heart. Those that try to capture what makes this so special, are prone to hyperbole. Partially due to there being no other way to express how much fun this film is.
Anna (Ella Hunt) is your typical high schooler in Little Haven. The kind that plans to take a year off schoo, in exchange for traveling the world, but then a zombie apocalypse rears its ugly head, ruining everything. A truly timely and relatable tale. Much like all modern zombie films, this one focuses on a group of survivors, as they attempt to do whatever then can, to fight back against the encroaching and expanding horde. Can she, her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) and pals Chris (Christopher Leveaux) & Lisa (Marli Siu) make it out alright? Then, there’s the singing. Lots and lots of singing. In fact, the singing rivals the amount of blood that splashed across the screen.
The nicest thing about this choice is availability. Got a Blu-ray player? Boom you can buy it. Love VOD? Rent it tonight? Have every streaming platform? It’s on both Hulu and Amazon Prime. Maybe that seems like something that would be lower on reasons to check a film out. Yet, Anna and the Apocalypse is infectious and joyous. The If you haven’t seen the film yet, there’s almost no reason not to put it in your holiday rotation. Like immediately. You’ll thanks us, once you’re finished.
That’s our list. Sure with only 5 slots there’s a bunch that may be overlooked. But that’s the beauty of Christmas movies. There’s always a new one to find and champion. The selections above are just the tip of the iceberg. Should you choose any of them, you’re going to have a good time. Find something you love from the above, pass it on to someone else. Spread some joy each holiday season and start a new tradition or two. There’s no way to go wrong. Unless of course you’re a grinch. To be honest though, that’s another list, for another time.