Christmas time can be frustrating for those looking for good films. If you live in a big city, you might be able to see some award-worthy films like Phantom Thread or The Post, but those options won’t be available for most folks for a few more weeks. A Christmas Story is great, but chances are you’ve seen it a zillion times and the endless reruns on TV aren’t helping anyone.
This is the point where some random dude (or a right-wing douche bag) mentions that, you know, Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie because it takes place at Christmas time. It’s become a perennial talking point for nerdy guys who like to get in the holiday spirit. But for anyone not in the mood for reruns of Frosty the Snowman or ’80s action films, here are some alternate Christmas films.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin
The best part of Christmas for some is also the worst part for others: family. Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Story astutely delves into the inescapable and maddening grasp of family. French film royalty Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the steely matriarch of a large family. In advance of the holiday get together, she announces that she has leukemia and little time to live, unless she finds a bone marrow donor. The only problem: her children hate her. Funny, delightful, and sad, with excellent performances from Mathieu Amalric as the alcoholic problems child and Emmanuelle Devos as his gracefully Jewish girlfriend.
Stream: FilmStruck | Hulu
Rent: Amazon | iTunes
Criterion also has an excellent Blu-ray/DVD edition.
Happy Christmas (2014)
Dir. Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg signaled his creative maturation with the one-two punch of Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. The two films were his first to use established stars, and they added a bit of polish to his usual style, while still allowing for the organic improvisation he favors. Anna Kendrick plays Jenny, the wayward sister of Jeff (Swanberg), who comes to live with him, his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their two-year-old son. Jenny doesn’t fit in at all with the domestic life they’ve set up for themselves, but her presence reminds Kelly of forgotten ambitions and abandoned dreams. Lest that sounds like a downer, Swanberg revels in a sense of reinvention and the possibility of setting new courses. It also benefits from Kendrick and Lynskey’s effortless chemistry.
Rent: Amazon | iTunes | Vudu | Google Play
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Dir. Woody Allen
Even Woody Allen’s best films have a certain sourness that pervades their characters—perhaps some of Allen’s famous self-loathing creeping into them. But Hannah and Her Sisters is rare for him in how much warmth it radiates. The movie uses the seasons at chapter markers (it works equally well as a Thanksgiving film), and its trio of sisters are torn apart by circumstance and conflict before reuniting afresh at the end of the year. Mia Farrow plays the eponymous Hannah, whose husband (Michael Kaine) is infatuated with one of her sisters (Barbara Hershey). Allen is at his least obnoxious as Hannah’s ex-husband, who winds up on the world’s worst date with her other sister (Diane Wiest). Kaine and Wiest received Academy Awards for supporting performances, as well as Allen for his screenplay. Max von Sydow, an uncredited Sam Waterston, and the late Carrie Fisher are great in small roles.
Stream: Fandor (for a limited time)
Rent: Amazon | iTunes
Black Christmas (1974)
Dir. Bob Clark
If a nice glob of green bean casserole isn’t enough to assuage your homicidal impulses, Black Christmas is the film for you. Although virtually unnoticed when it was first released, this Canadian horror film is an influential early slasher flick that predates better known works like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). Fun fact: it’s one of Steve Martin’s favorite films.
Rent: iTunes | Google Play
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Dir. Frank Capra
I’m cheating here, because there’s no Christmas film quite as traditional as It’s a Wonderful Life. But it’s yearly television ubiquity has had an unfortunate effect on a lot of younger viewers—they’ve never seen it. Either because it seemed too old-fashioned, or because of the pesky commercials, the holiday classic has been eschewed by plenty of viewers. But if you haven’t seen the film, make this the year you do it in full, and without commercial interruptions. Director Frank Capra was at the top of his game in 1946, and George Bailey’s story of sacrifice and self-doubt is leavened with the perfect amount of humor. The film’s relative failure at the time cratered Capra’s career, so this remains the unintentional summit of his oeuvre.
Purchase: Amazon | iTunes | Vudu | Google Play