This may be one of the hardest holiday seasons many Americans experience in our lifetimes, and I only say “may be” because there’s no way of knowing whether the ones ahead of us won’t be even worse as we face waves of evictions, the complete collapse of one political party into far-right fascist nuttery and millions of Americans suffering financial hardship. It is as if we’ve all just collectively forgotten every hard-learned lesson of the past century and a half. If having to plaster a stupid grin on your face for the family Christmas card on top of it all is the last straw for you, you’re in plentiful company.
Those of us who are being responsible are spending this holiday season at home, and many of us alone. Surely those who have worked thankless jobs over the years know the feeling. But especially this year, far too many are going to be doing this while coping with grief. If you are also of the opinion that it sucks right now and if the thought of burying your head in the snow with facile Hallmark movies is only going to make you feel worse, then I offer this humble list of melancholy holiday movies that acknowledge some of what you may be going through.
It starts with one look across a crowded department store between Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett). Therese lives alone and sees a boyfriend she doesn’t seem particularly interested in. If she has a family, we never see them. She has dreams of being a photographer, but she’s too unsure of herself to make a real move on them. The electricity between her and the older, richer woman is undeniable, and before long, one thing leads to another and they are driving cross-country during the holidays alone together.
Because the movie’s set in the 1950s, nobody can bear to even breathe aloud the true nature of their relationship. Even after they’ve been to one another’s homes and traveled together for a week, it’s still barely thinkable even to the two of them that they could express their simmering feelings physically. And, because it’s the 1950s, the whole world glowers and spies upon them, and even the slim hope of a happy ending is tempered by the knowledge that Carol essentially gives up custody of her daughter to her drunk asshole of a husband (Kyle Chandler) who has had her followed.
But at the very least, Carol will not, as she puts it “live against her grain” any longer. And when Therese approaches her in the last scene, willing to forgive and give it a shot again, she’s doing so as a woman who’s come into her own. May all of us who are being kept apart from a loved one find a way to so persevere.
We tend to think of lust as a flame—Dante envisioned it as a gale. But in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel, it is omnipresent, overpowering, gets all over everything and sends people careening and colliding with one another in unexpected ways. Fitting, then, that the film builds up to one night when an ice storm completely overpowers the little town in Connecticut where the movie is set. The long Thanksgiving weekend where Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) rides the train back home to his unhappy parents (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and rebellious younger sister (Christina Ricci) is happening as Richard Nixon’s crimes are coming to light. The Hoods, and their neighbors and friends the Carvers, live in the midst of a forest of trees utterly bare with the gray of winter. The movie follows Kline’s infidelity with Mrs. Carver (Sigourney Weaver) and the awkwardness and ineptitude with which both families—parents and children—navigate sexual mores in a time when all mores seem to be changing.
There’s a repeated shot of Kline ripping into an older model of ice tray, a close-up that shows the pristine surface of the ice shatter into jagged pieces, the contraption having failed to keep the individual cubes separate. Plenty of people go home every year to families that are a fucking mess, all while trying to figure themselves out. The Ice Storm manages to capture how disaffecting that can be while simultaneously being full of funny, weird and even sweet little character moments from a stellar cast.
Best known for his samurai flicks, director Kihachi Okamoto was reportedly reluctant to bring his talents to this weird sci-fi film, which features as many tertiary characters and locations as other big alien invasion movies like Independence Day. When a UFO is spotted on Earth, a strange affliction grips people seemingly at random: Their blood turns blue. Nobody knows why, and it doesn’t appear to come with any other physical or mental effects. Despite that, “blue bloods” soon become a persecuted and distrusted underclass, discriminated against by those in power. It all ends on the eponymous Christmas Day, as world leaders drop all pretense and gun down people in the street. It is a premise that could come straight out of an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Blue Christmas is an on-the-nose cautionary tale about the ease with which people can be othered and dehumanized, and being a Japanese film, it doesn’t relate to Christmas in exactly the same way others might. And yet this Christmas we are worried, terrified and exasperated by the rise of right-wing violence that has always been predicated on singling out some other group of people. This movie came out 40 years ago and was concerned with the inhumanity of 80 years ago—and we are still fighting against the same evil.
This hard-to-find Christmas movie is so ridiculously odd that it demands a good view while you’re zonked out on eggnog in isolation. Here’s the premise: A young boy, Pascal (Brook Fuller), receives a lethal dose of radiation while swimming at the beach when an airplane with a nuclear weapon crash-lands nearby. With the knowledge the kid has six months left to live, his father (William Holden) resolves to give him the absolute bestest Christmas of his life. This involves, at one point, stealing two wolves from the zoo and keeping them as pets. It all ends with young Pascal expiring beneath the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. There have been many panicky or ham-handed movies about nuclear fears, and many Christmas movies that grapple with loss or grief during the holidays. I’ve yet to hear of another that features any acts of lupine grand theft.
“I do well with families” is the mating call of many a serial monogamist. (I swear I am reformed.) The inherent assumption is that in-laws are impossible to deal with, a group of people who have their own rituals and language which you will never fully understand. And Christmas is a time when those traditions and other insularities make anyone else feel like an interloper. When Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet the family, she spends the entire trip with her foot lodged firmly in her mouth. All this plays out as matriarch Diane Keaton is waiting to tell everyone that she has a terminal illness and that this will likely be their last Christmas together as a family.
I dated a Meredith once, and it didn’t work out for a number of reasons. This family Christmas movie manages the feat of foregrounding that kind of discontent without making Meredith unsympathetic, or making the family out to be the villains. The ending would all be too tidy, if it weren’t for the fact Keaton doesn’t get to be at the next Christmas when all that dust has settled.
By virtue of its completely unexpected and unbelievably sad twist ending, Last Christmas is destined to go down as a classic what-the-hell sad holiday movie. Kate (Emilia Clarke) is in the midst of a prolonged Grinch phase a year after a particularly harrowing hospital experience. Adrift in an unstable living and working situation and stuck in a standoffish dynamic with her family, she strikes up a serendipitous romance with Tom (Henry Golding), who always seems to be able to pop up to give her just the help she needs.
It’s too good not to spoil: Just like the George Michael song, Tom literally gave Kate his heart last Christmas. She got a heart transplant, and his heart is the one that has been beating in her chest the entire movie. She has been romanced by the ghost of the flesh that has insinuated itself into her very body. Don’t think about it too long!
Clea DuVall’s family Christmas comedy is about the same fish-out-of-water feeling of being the interloper in another family’s holiday, with the added wrinkle that the reason Abby (Kristen Stewart) is having a rough time mingling with her live-in girlfriend’s family is that said girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), has simply not mentioned that the two are in a lesbian relationship. That she will be navigating this Christmas vacation pretending to be Harper’s straight friend has been sprung on Abby on the car ride over. She attempts to make the best of it, but Harper’s clueless family and former lovers keep muscling Abby aside.
DuVall puts in a good turn as writer/director, with a Christmas movie that’s not half bad. Of note is one scene, though, courtesy of Dan Levy’s character, a friend of Abby’s who tries to ride to her rescue when the situation has become impossible for her. In a pep talk out in the cold, they share their experiences with coming out to their families. It’s a short scene that doesn’t belabor itself, but it gives weight and context to the farce we’ve been witnessing.
My late father was a gay man, and the prospect of coming out was so unthinkable to him that he didn’t do it until after his mother died. Happiest Season unsurprisingly features a happy ending in which nobody’s feelings are hurt, everybody is together, and everything works out. That isn’t the reality for many, many people who bite the bullet and come out to their families. At the least, the movie tried to feature an earnest acknowledgment of those who fear their family won’t be as accepting.
Nicholas Cage’s career has had more ups and downs than a day at a New Jersey theme park, and The Family Man occupies a period in which he was one of the more bankable leading men in Hollywood. This strange holiday movie features a Capra-esque premise: Jack Campbell (Cage), a hard-charging Wall Street businessman who makes deals and shit, wakes up on Christmas morning to find himself in a completely different life, as if he’s been shunted into the same point in time along a timeline in which he married the one who got away 14 years ago (Tea Leoni, and why on Earth would you let her get away).
Cage responds to his impossible situation with a put-upon sarcasm at first, but there’s actual pathos in fights with Leoni over his dead-end job and the fact he can no longer afford a suit that actually flatters him. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by friends he doesn’t recognize and caring for a daughter who believes he’s an alien disguised as her father. The holidays are a time when family, finances, and a million other little obligations all seem to hit at once. For some, it inescapably leads to questions about whether we’ve made the right choices in life.
The reason this is a bizarrely sad holiday movie is that at the end of the movie, despite the fact Cage has totally reformed and come to love the simple life of a hardworking father in a middling, safe career, he is ripped from the timeline and deposited back into his dreary corporate existence. He spends the third reel figuring out how to salvage his lost relationship with Leoni, and we end on them sharing a late night coffee in the airport terminal one year before Americans could never, ever again get through security for a dramatic last-minute lover’s plea. It’s hopeful, but we’ve just seen the cozy life they’ve both lost—13 years of living and loving and having kids who have been erased from existence. It’s a lot for a feel-good Christmas movie.
The quintessential Christmas tale is also a harrowing ghost story, if you think about it. Ebenezer Scrooge sits perched upon the precipice of eternal torment, faced with a lifetime of inhumanity toward his fellow men. The story is so central to the English-speaking world’s understanding of Christmas that it’s been adapted about a million times. If you want to go back to the text itself, and really immerse yourself in the themes, consider the 1999 version, starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.
It’s hard to top Stewart’s devotion to the story, as he came to this made-for-TV version after more than a decade of performing it as a one-man show. Stewart brings the same gravitas to Dickens’ story as he does to every role, and it’s in service to a movie that’s much more faithful to the book than any other adaptation I’ve seen. Characters and scenes that are often excised from others remain here, and the cast is filled out with stellar British character actors like Dominic West, Ian McNeice, Saskia Reeves and Richard E. Grant, who all deliver dialogue right out of the book, in costume and on sets that are consciously accurate to the milieu of 1840s England. Most interesting, however, is Stewart’s interpretation of Scrooge’s tribulations, especially at the end.
Most other actors are content to portray Scrooge as effectively scared straight by the end of the story, but Stewart’s fearful bargaining is tempered with something else: The thought he has lost the last chance to actually do some good. When he awakens on Christmas morning to find himself whole and in a position to right things, it’s not just relief, but elation that he feels.
We are in a time of appalling want and suffering—miseries that would look all too familiar to Dickens 180 years ago. His story is about the triumph of charity in one miserly person’s heart, and Stewart wants you to know it.
Twitter was recently in one of its little conniptions over whether this, the ultimate American Christmas movie, is actually about affordable housing. Let me weigh in: Of course it is, you sillies! It’s the underlying message of the whole entire movie, just like the underlying message of A Christmas Carol is the need for charity.
Capra, an Italian immigrant, spent his career mythologizing the bright ideals of his adopted homeland and arguing for what he felt was a decency in the American character beneath all the rapacity and cynicism of crooked politicians and heartless corporations. George Bailey runs a credit union and is trying to figure out a housing collective for “the people who do most of the living and dying in this town.” It was a movie that came out as America was recovering from an economic depression and a war that reshaped the world. Those awful times fell hardest on people like Jimmy Stewart’s put-upon protagonist, who weathered the leanest years the world had seen in a century, all while the rich danced a cake-walk over their throats.
We are in a similar time now, and to those of us who do most of the living and dying, the villains look an awful lot like Potter and the heroes are making the same arguments as George Bailey.
This unbelievably dark movie casts Michael Keaton as the eponymous character, a musician whose actual name is Jack Frost. His musical career monopolizes his time, so much so that he misses his son’s (Joseph Cross) hockey game, and can’t even follow through on his apology move—a promised Christmas vacation—because of another musical engagement. He dies in a car crash before he can make up with his family, but a year later, returns in the form of a snowman when his son plays his old harmonica.
The movie follows the two as they try to make up for lost time. Eventually though, their time has to run out: A snowman can’t survive the summer. The movie ends as it must, with Jack accepting that he’s had all the time he’s been given and it’s time to slip back beyond the veil.
I had essentially no warning when my father died at 62. “He was young!” said one woman in shock as I furnished her with his birth date to settle up his affairs. The holidays are always a time when we feel the loss of loved ones. Millions of people all around the world, all at once, are feeling that.
Jackie and Luke (Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris) are divorced, and Luke’s girlfriend of a year, Isabel (Julia Roberts), is struggling to fill the role of a co-parent to their children Anna and Ben (Jena Malone and Liam Aiken). These three co-parents argue and squabble with one another over how to raise the kids, until Jackie discovers she’s got terminal cancer. Her sacrifice of her career to raise the children has, from her perspective, been entirely for another, younger woman’s benefit.
Every kind of shitty divorce-related behavior is on display in this one, and it’s borderline unbelievable that it could ever resolve in a place of reconciliation for everyone. Eventually, though, their shared love of the kids is enough for them to form some kind of bond, and for Jackie to reach a form of acceptance in time for the mixed family’s last Christmas together. Still enough to make you feel for the nonsense that kids in divorced households have gone through this past year in particular.
There’s a scene in Collateral Beauty where Will Smith rides a train with Helen Mirren, whom he may or may not believe is actually Death’s personification. She starts in on some philosophical reasoning for why we are made to die, but he interrupts her with a raw, fulminating monologue about how empty all the platitudes about our mortality sound to somebody in the throes of grief, quoting the great poets and songwriters for the purposes of spitting on their easy bromides. Smith is being gaslit by the friends who are running his company (Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Edward Norton), which is on the brink of disaster because, two years after his young daughter has died, he continues to wallow in grief, to the detriment of his work. In an attempt to wrest control of the company from him, they seek to prove him mentally incompetent after learning he’s been writing letters to Love, Death and Time, filled with recriminations. The trio hire actors (Mirren, Daisy Ridley and Jacob Lattimore) to portray these abstract concepts and act as if they are appearing before him to respond to his calling out.
The movie ends with Smith’s reconciliation with his grief, in a way that also brings epiphanies to his (conniving, totally villainous!!) friends just in time for Christmas. It’s a movie with an appalling premise played totally straight by an absolutely stellar cast, but that scene on the F Train, more than any other, will doubtless feel relatable to far too many people this holiday season.
When Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) loses his parents in a car crash as the holidays approach, his best friends Isaac and Chris (Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie) make a pact to spend every Christmas Eve with him. The tradition endures for the next 15 years as the young men party like wild men. But at some point, we’ve all got to grow up and move past our friends (and the romps we all have while we’re home for the holidays). With their own careers and families becoming too involving to keep the tradition up, Isaac and Chris are concerned about whether Ethan will be able to deal with them moving on. Their goal is to find a way into the exclusive Nutcracker Ball, which takes them on a farcical journey complicated by things like old lovers, the logistics of purchasing “The Weed of Christmas Present” from your old dealer (a perfectly deadpan Michael Shannon) and being high as a kite in church.
In a flashback to long ago, the friends show up at Ethan’s place with booze and weed and a simple offer to just get blitzed and play GoldenEye. He breaks down crying and they lift his spirits back up, just when he needs it most. The pandemic has stolen so much, and much of what we focus on are the large things: Loved ones, financial security, our faith in our country. But we’ve also been robbed of moments with our friends, and all the million little pleasures those moments bring us. For the childless single twentysomethings who don’t have families of their own, who have been isolating at home by themselves for a year, that theft may be the most enormous, in sheer lost hours if not in degree.
It would be impossible to leave this one off this list now while folks like me, who haven’t had a haircut or seen their mother in a year, watch many people just utterly ignore all warnings and act as if nothing at all is different.
The story of the charmed Smith family doesn’t merit too much spilled ink here: In turn-of-the-century St. Louis, Esther (Judy Garland) and her sisters are of marriageable age and worrying about which cute boys will ask for their hands. Conflict arrives when their father (Leon Ames) announces he’s accepted a major promotion that will move the family to New York. This doesn’t just put his children out of sorts. They go into full-on crying and garment-rending mode. Eventually he abandons that promotion and lets his family stay in St. Louis, and all their hopes come to fruition.
There are two ways to watch Meet Me in St. Louis this year, a major studio musical from Hollywood’s Golden Age that was actually directly referenced in The Family Stone. The first is with one eyebrow raised at Garland and her siblings’ out-of-proportion sadness and anger. If it doesn’t look familiar to you after this year in which half the country has responded to the pleas of public health workers and underpaid grocery store clerks with violence and screaming, then you just might be part of the problem. Moving cross country for a parent’s job sucks, but for goodness’ sake.
The other way to watch it is for the one musical number anybody really remembers: Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with a bottomless sadness. The America of 1944 was waiting at home, terrified for the children they had sent off to die in Europe and the Pacific, and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is really dedicated to them. It’s always been a paean to the longing we feel for those dear to us who can’t be near to us at a time when we’re all supposed to be together. Garland’s rendition of it feels especially apt this year, of all years.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter, read more at his blog, and donate to the Central Illinois Foodbank here.