Last year, our own Rachel Stewart wrote about her choices for unconventional films to watch during the holiday season. This year, I chose another eight titles which aren’t what you might call traditional holiday fare—but neither is Die Hard. Personally, I’ve always preferred Die Hard 2 as a Christmas movie seeing as how it actually features snow and an airport full of grumpy travellers. My choices were based on these criteria: they had to take place around Christmastime or incorporate the Christmas setting in them. So as much as I enjoy Home Alone and Christmas Vacation, I wanted to choose titles you won’t see on AMC 1000 times each season. And I wanted to choose titles Rachel hadn’t listed—except for one because it is too good to not have been included. I saved it for last though so enjoy these picks and seek them out this season.
The Ref (1994)
What a touch for comedy Ted Demme had. The only other comedy director to exhibit the same kind of pacing and wit at the time was Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny). It’s incredible when you look back at how in 1994, both directors had ensemble comedies released the same time (Lynn with Greedy and Demme with The Ref) and neither did much in the way of box-office, as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was packing in the seats that spring.
Greedy was forgotten but The Ref has developed a small following in recent years. Maybe it’s because of the terrific ensemble, the adult-minded script, the fact that Christine Baranski’s (in a supporting but very memorable role) star has risen in the years since or the fact that star Kevin Spacey earned two Oscars and had became a major movie star not long after this film came out. Or maybe it’s simply because this movie is just so damn funny.
Denis Leary plays jewel thief Gus who out of desperation, kidnaps a married unhappy couple, Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur (Judy Davis and Spacey) on Christmas Eve in order to elude capture by the police. With their bitter, unpleasant family coming to visit, Gus is now a part of the Christmas Eve dinner from Hell. These people make the Griswolds look well-adjusted. It isn’t long before Gus wonders if he’s better off turning himself in.
Writer Richard Lagravenese (The Fisher King) keeps the barbs flowing like the holiday wine and each actor shines like tinsel. Baranski is a standout if for no other reason then this. The movie was not a hit, even after a new ending was filmed two months before release, but this is what home video is for: seeking out gems from decades ago. That and finding something to occupy your time with while surrounded by relatives you hate.
1999 was such an amazing year for movies even its Pulp Fiction inspired movies were startlingly great. Go, written by John August and directed with energy to spare by Doug Liman, opened in the spring of 1999 amidst a slew of other teen movies (She’s all That, Never Been Kissed, 10 Things I Hate About You, Cruel Intentions) and maybe this one got lost in the mix, but for my cash, this one is the best of the bunch.
Taking place during Christmas week, Go tells three intersecting stories featuring a group of teens looking to get through the week. One group decides to become drug dealers to earn some cash at a holiday rave, another group heads to Vegas for much unhealthy fun, and the third winds up in a couple’s house selling Amway products in order to bust a drug deal (by the group from story one).
Maybe it was because Go wasn’t about horny teens, high-school crushes or Rachel Leigh Cook Julia Roberts-ing her way into the hearts of audiences (no hate, she was cute) and the only thing on its mind was fun. And boy, was this movie fun. The second segment, the Vegas road trip story involving bad food, hotel rooms on fire, a run-in with gangsters and a stolen Ferrari especially produces that goofy-smile-across-the-face feeling you get when you realize a movie is good.
As for the cast, every one of them had come to play and it’s such a trip to see them here: Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf, Jay Mohr, Desmond Askew, Taye Diggs, William Fichtner, Jane Karkowski and for the ladies, there’s a Breakfast Club-obsessed shirtless, ecstasy-dealing Timothy Olyphant wearing only a Santa hat.
Go is far from your typical Christmas movie but it’s a blast—though a word of advice: don’t watch this one with the family gathered around the TV. The bridesmaid/hotel sex scene just might make the evening dinner a tad awkward later on.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Before Angelina Jolie in Salt or Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, there was Geena Davis as “Charly” Baltimore in Renny Harlin’s exciting The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Davis (in an absolute dazzler of a performance) plays Samantha Caine, a happily-married mother and schoolteacher who’s so engaged in her community, she participates in the annual Santa festival and bakes all the treats. Samantha, who has no memory of her previous existence after a mysterious incident found her on a beach years ago with amnesia, gets into a car crash on the snowy road which then triggers memories and combat reflexes she wasn’t aware of. When an intruder makes his way to her home, those skills return as she crumbles him like a gingerbread man. Turns out the intruder (whose eye she put out in her previous “life”) saw her on the news coverage of the Santa parade and recognized her as “Charly”—a lethal, expert CIA assassin from years ago. With the aid of a local private detective (a splendid Samuel L. Jackson), “Charly” and the P.I. attempt to uncover the story behind her previous life to protect her new family.
From there the movie is filled with ice pursuits, escapes from exploding buildings, torture, highway chases and a shootout during a Santa parade where Charly swings on what else—a string of Christmas lights.
This marks the second Christmastime action spectacle from Harlin after Die Hard 2 and the second from writer Shane Black—the first of course being 1987’s smash Lethal Weapon (he would later write Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys which also took place at Christmas. Black explained why he was so enamoured of the season as a setting in a 2016 interview).
The movie was mild hit upon release but is not a holiday staple. It’s well worth seeking out and kudos to the marketing team who assembled the movie’s trailer where the first 40 seconds lulled viewers into believing this was a Julia Roberts type weepie—before unleashing all the fun.
Gremlins sprang from the mind of first-time writer Chris Columbus when he was a young New York film student living in a cruddy apartment where he imagined (or perhaps not) that mice were nibbling underneath his bedside every night. From there, he ran wild with the idea of creatures taking over a small idyllic town during the holidays.
Steven Spielberg sent the script to director Joe Dante who decided to add a comedic touch to the gory story (an early version of which had the mother’s head lopped off and rolling down the stairs). The script was also a commentary on the corruption of technology and suburban values. Bits of these elements remain in the movie (Rand Peltzer’s Bathroom Buddy and the smokeless ashtray which were both useless) but by and large, they were changed (at Spielberg’s insistence) and Gremlins became a twisted, nightmare version of E.T.
It’s also one of the best Christmas movies ever without it being a Christmas movie (the movie was filmed on the Universal Studios back-lot during the summer of 1983). The little town of Kingston Falls looks very Norman Rockwell-ian with its small shops and tree lots and the night scenes delivery that wintry stillness that feels authentic (though Mrs. Deagal’s expensive imported snowman always looked rather cheap to me but maybe she just got ripped off?) and this movie’s use of the classic “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Johnny Mathis (a Spielberg favourite) provides one of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Gremlins (along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) was the reason the PG-13 rating was created that year and the movie was a hit even while competing against Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop. The sequel in 1990 did not continue with the Christmas setting (like Die Hard did) as it wasn’t written by Chris Columbus. But it worked out as Columbus had another little holiday-themed movie appearing later that year which worked out quite well for him.
29th Street (1991)
Imagine if It’s a Wonderful Life was blended together with a dinner scene featuring the Soprano family (without the ample uses of four letter words) and you might have 29th Street, a genial comedy written and directed by George Gallo, who had previously written the excellent Midnight Run.
Anthony LaPaglia was at this time a young actor who stole the show in 1990’s flaccid Betsy’s Wedding and earned comparisons to a young Robert De Niro. And there is a little bit of De Niro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets in LaPaglia’s role here as an Italian-American goof-off, Frank Pesce, who seems to have a knack for finding good luck bestowed upon him all his life. That luck reaches his pinnacle when in 1976, Frank wins the first ever New York Lottery to the tune of six million dollars. The only problem there was that Frank gave the ticket to Leo Tucci, the local mob boss his father (Danny Aiello in his best post Do The Right Thing role) owed money to (look for The Sopranos’ Tony Sirico playing what else but one of Tucci’s mob thugs).
29th Street opened around the same time as Alan Parker’s wonderfully riotous The Commitments, another movie about small-town citizens with big dreams who later realize the fulfillment of those dreams can bring on more troubles than they’re worth. Still, there’s loads of entertainment value in here (even if this “true” story isn’t entirely true) and LaPaglia’s Christmas eve meltdown outside of a church is something I’m sure we all felt like doing at some point when the holidays can get to be just a little too much.
Toys is a Christmas release that died at the theatres, only the difference here is that this movie cost $50 million to make ($15 million more to promote) and didn’t even earn half that much back despite starring Robin Williams. The movie was a long-time dream project for director Barry Levinson, who was riding high on the success of Rain Man and Bugsy.
Kenneth Zevo, who runs Zevo Toys and near death, decides to leave the company to his Army General brother Leland (played by Michael Gambon, fresh from his role in the very, very adult The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) instead of to his son, Leslie (Williams) and his daughter Alsatia (Joan Cusack.) The General promptly takes command along with his soldier son, Patrick (LL Cool J in his acting debut) and right away clashes with Leslie over the direction of the company. The General wants to make more war toys while Leslie doesn’t. The two come to a head and Toys builds towards a battle between war toys and non-war toys.
The movie starts out with a Christmas concert fitted with a gigantic tree, kids running all over the place in snowmen and gingerbread outfits, fake falling snow, a choir led by Prince protege Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy and Lisa who contribute a song to the movie) and ends with another Christmas concert.
Toys was savaged by critics and audiences were not rushing to unwrap this gift at all though it was nominated for some Academy Awards—most notably its remarkable set design by the late Ferdinando Scarfiotti (Scarface, The Last Emperor). It’s an interesting movie for sure and worth a watch to see a pre-House of Cards Robin Wright as the love interest and the score by Hans Zimmer is memorable for his lovely “Alsatia’s Lullaby.” And whoa, that MTV sequence featuring Williams and Cusack just has to be seen to be believed.
Think your Christmas week is stressful with shopping and family and gift-wrapping and parties? Well, it’s nothing compared to the one Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid) is having in D.O.A.
As the holiday break is approaching, Professor Cornell is looking at spending his days off grading story assignments and signing divorce papers. To help ease his troubles, he spends an evening drinking at a local student bar with one of his students, Sydney (Meg Ryan), who has a small crush on him. The next day Dex discovers he’s been poisoned at some point during the night and has only 48 hours to live. Also, he’s now a murder suspect as his ex-wife was brutally murdered the previous day.
Christmas week in Texas is weird enough with the heat and no snow but being a murder suspect and victim during it certainly makes it weirder. I guess Dex had a feeling the week was going to be a strange one when the day before, he witnesses one of his prized students, Nick Lang (played by Twin Peaks: The Return’s Robert Knepper) jump to his death from the college roof.
D.O.A. is a remake of the classic 1948 thriller and features a decent cast including Quaid, Ryan, Charlotte Rampling and Daniel Stern. Keep in mind this was the late ’80s so instead of Christmas music, this movie has a pop/rock score that sounds more Billy Idol than Gene Autry.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut was on last year’s list but there was no way I could (or would) leave it off. Stanley Kubrick’s final film is a spellbinding masterwork that actually gets richer with each viewing. Seeing as how it takes place during the week leading up to Christmas, I always like to watch it in the middle of the night during the days right before Christmas. It’s almost as if I want to fully be a part of Kubrick’s imagination—and this movie was his imagination for many, many years.
I’m not sure if Kubrick was a fan of classic holiday movies but I consider Eyes Wide Shut my personal It’s a Wonderful Life (a movie I never really cared for anyway). My George Bailey is Dr. Bill Harford (an astounding Tom Cruise). Harford lives a dream life as opposed to sad-sack Bailey—he’s handsome, successful, has a sophisticated, stunningly luminous wife, Alice (a marvellous Nicole Kidman) yet has women throwing themselves at him wherever he goes, has an adorable little girl and respect from some very powerful individuals. Every day is Christmas for this guy. Yet during an argument with Alice, she tears his dream existence apart by confessing the harsh reality to him that she has had sexual fantasies involving other men.
When Bill answers a house call (an excuse to leave the apartment), he then wanders the streets of New York where he encounters a young sex worker named Domino (a divine Vinessa Shaw) who brings him up to her very small apartment. After a phone call from Alice, Bill leaves before anything sexual occurs and then meets up with an old friend in a jazz club who tells him about a very secret gathering happening—one Bill must attend. Bill’s night becomes a whole lot more incredible to say the least (discovering a ritualistic orgy in a country castle is probably not where he thought he’d find himself when he left his apartment earlier that night) and by the end of it, like George Bailey, he’s a changed man. By morning, he attempts to make sense of the previous twelve hours of his life only to find the next twelve even more bewildering. And there’s still Christmas shopping left to do!
Eyes Wide Shut confounded viewers upon release in July, 1999 but over the years (this year especially), there have been a number of articles written about its brilliance and boldness. At the time, much was made about Kidman’s (unsexy) sex scene with someone other than her (at-the-time) real-life husband and how Kubrick took a whopping 400 days to shoot this movie. Also, it was a nearly three hour leisurely placed adult drama competing against the 90 minute zip-zip-zip of American Pie. Not many people have written about American Pie this year but Eyes Wide Shut on the other hand, keeps on earning admires. When I saw Eyes in theatres on a hot Sunday afternoon a week after it opened, I knew it would live beyond that summer regardless of the box-office. I knew it would dazzle, perplex, hypnotize and fascinate viewers for years, and decades, to come. I’m glad to say I was right. It’s very Bill Harford of me.