The Two Popes: Netflix’s final big prestige play of the season features two giants of contemporary acting, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as (respectively) conservative Pope Benedict and liberal future Pope Francis. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay uses their colliding ascensions to the position as the framework for a vibrant, thoughtful debate on the place and future of the church, while director Fernando Meirelles adroitly balances the heaviness of material with a lightness of tone (most of the good gags serve to remind us that, Pope or not, these men are flesh and bone). Hopkins is wonderful as ever (“The trouble he gets into,” he chuckles, while unwinding with his favorite canine crime show), but Pryce is a revelation, summoning the simultaneous impulses of duty, desire, hesitancy, and regret.
A Very Murray Christmas: Director Sofia Coppola and her Lost in Translation star Bill Murray re-teamed for this one-of-a-kind riff on the old holiday variety specials, in which Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra or whoever would gather a cast of their famous friends, sing a few carols, do a couple of sketches, and call it a night. Murray and Coppola’ s riff is, unsurprisingly, a bit more complicated than that, sending up the conventions of such phony showbiz affairs while indulging in bit of seasonal melancholy (and, yes, cheer).
White Christmas: But if you’re gonna watch a Christmas movie, y’know, watch a Christmas movie. This 1954 musical comedy romance from director Michael Curtiz (who also helmed a pretty good little movie called Casablanca) jumps off of the title tune, which star Bing Crosby first sang in Holiday Inn, to tell the story of two Army-buddy entertainers doing a Christmas week gig at their old commanding officer’s resort, and falling in love, and getting into trouble, etc. Look, nobody watches White Christmas for the plot; queue it up for Crosby and Kaye’s chemistry, the unforgettable “Sisters” number by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and the general good vibes.
The Long Kiss Goodnight: Action writer/director Shane Black has a bit of a calling card: he loves setting his movies during the Christmas season, going back to his first big hit, Lethal Weapon. This 1996 amnesia action thriller starring Geena Davis (then the wife of director Renny Harlin) and Samuel L. Jackson is, true to form, chock full of Yuletide, with little touches like a Christmas light-ed action scene and a holiday parade that leads directly to Davis accidently blowing her cover.
It’s a Wonderful Life : No holiday season is complete without revisiting Frank Capra’s 1947 classic — albeit one that doesn’t even mention the holiday until somewhere near the 100-minute mark. And maybe that’s part of its appeal; it’s not just a feature-length sleigh-bell ring, but an emotionally complicated chronicle of life, family, and sacrifice. And thus, it manages to grow with the passing years, as the viewer’s own experiences render those of its protagonists even more resonant. (Plus, one never gets tired of giggling at its FBI file.)
Bad Santa: A rude, crude, uproarious bit of bitter-tasting holiday backwash from director Terry Zwigoff. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie T. Stoke (a decidedly W.C. Fieldsian name for the kind of role Fields could have played, had he been born 60 years later), a horny, unshaven, unshowered, piss-drunk (and piss-pantsed) department store Santa, and Thornton plays him as if perpetually in the clutches of a particularly wicked hangover. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s script almost seems designed to offend, with scenes of a hammered Santa beating the shit out of papier-mâché animals, urinating on himself in the Santa chair, and sodomizing a clerk in the dressing room. Acid-tongued and wickedly funny, Bad Santa has rightfully become an anti-holiday classic.
Iron Man 3: After The Long Kiss Goodnight, Black went on a long hiatus before roaring back with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, unsurprisingly set during the Christmas season (and featuring Michelle Monaghan as Santa’s sexiest helper). When that movie helped put Robert Downey Jr. back on the map, and Downey repaid the favor by suggesting Black write and direct the third Iron Man movie, his enthusiasts chuckled that he was finally doing a movie he couldn’t set at Christmas. Joke was on us; Iron Man 3 is indeed another Christmas flick, with a dispute over holiday gifts providing a fine running joke for Tony and Pepper’s relationship.
The Nightmare Before Christmas: This 1993 stop-action family horror/comedy is too often listed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a proprietary credit handing altogether too much authorship to Burton — he’s credited as producer and story writer, but the picture is undeniably the work of director Henry Selick, who would go on to make James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. Here, he concocts a cheerfully dark and endlessly hummable hybrid of Halloween and Christmas movie, and one that plays equally well at either end of the holiday season.
Saint: Dick Maas’s Dutch horror/comedy (also known as Sint) opens with St. Nicholas and his goons on horseback, terrorizing a village which then raises their pitchforks and burns him alive. So yeah, right away, not your average Christmas movie. Maas carries off his tale of a murderous Santa with much greater success than his American counterparts because his film (unlike the Silent Nights) has got a forceful and wicked sense of humor; the filmmaker has clearly ingested copious amounts of American horror movies, and regurgitates them with a wink and nudge. It’s not the most festive movie, but it’s a lot of fun.
The Ref: “You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.” Not many Christmas-themed movies would trot out dialogue like that, but not many Christmas-themed movies are as audacious as Ted Demme’s terrific 1994 comedy. Released by Touchstone in March of that year (nice scheduling!), the film was promoted primarily as a vehicle for Denis Leary and his angry-smoker persona. The few who saw it in that initial run were surprised to discover a smart, well-written (by Fisher Kingscribe Richard LaGravenese), insightful look at a dysfunctional family and a crumbling marriage — a kind of Christmas with George and Martha.
The Ice Harvest: Billy Bob Thornton, the patron saint of anti-Christmas movies, returns to our list with this 2005 caper film, which includes such tidings of comfort and joy as “Only morons are nice on Christmas” and “Christmas Eve. Ho ho fucking ho!” It’s the tale of a lawyer (John Cusack) and a businessman (Thornton) who team to rip off a mob boss on Christmas Eve; double-crosses, dead bodies, and holiday drinking ensue. Though promoted as a comedy (which you’d expect from its director, Groundhog Day’s Harold Ramis), The Ice Harvest has a surprisingly dark, almost noir streak to it, and has very little time in its tight 92 minutes for holiday pleasantries.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Comedy franchises seldom peak in their third installment, but that’s exactly what happened in 1989, when the Griswold family (contrary to the title) stayed home for the holidays for funniest film in the series. The comic set pieces are priceless, the supporting cast is aces (including the very young Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis), and Chevy Chase is at the top of his game — particularly in his immortal “Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?” rant.
Trading Places: Not a Christmas movie per se, but with one very memorable Christmas sequence: Dan Aykroyd’s fallen businessman, who could give Bad Santa’s Willie Stokes a run for his money in both the drunkenness and body odor department, dons a Santa suit to sneak into his former employer’s Christmas party and plant drugs in the desk of his replacement. It goes, well, poorly, but Aykroyd does manage to make it out of the bash with a full side of salmon, which he then consumes on a city bus. Happy holidays!
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2: The original 1984 Silent Night, Deadly Night is perhaps the most controversial of all Christmas-themed films. Piggybacking off the idea of slasher movies for every occasion, director Charles Sellier crafted the low-budget tale of young Billy, whose parents are brutally murdered by a man in a Santa suit. Years later, while working at a toy store, Billy is forced to fill in as the store Santa — and donning the red suit sends him on a killing spree (complete with his own catchphrase: “Naughty!”). It’s a really terrible movie, and its tasteful Christmastime release led to widespread protests and condemnation — for both the film and its TV spots, which highlighted the axe-wielding Santa. Though it out-grossed the original Nightmare on Elm Street (released the same day) in its opening weekend, distributor Tri-Star pulled the film’s ads less than a week into its run, and yanked the film from theaters after two weeks. When it was re-released the following spring, the controversy was the centerpiece of the ad campaign, and the film ultimately turned a tidy profit — leading to four sequels. Why, then, do we recommend the first of those sequels over the original? Two reasons. First, because Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 features so much footage from the first film (nearly a third of the running time, according to an accounting at BMD) that it’s like you’re getting a two-for-one by skipping the original. And second, because Part 2 includes the scene above.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus: MST3K only did two full-on Christmas episodes in its original run, but boy, were the both of ‘em beauts. This season six episode spotlights the inexplicable 1959 Mexican family holiday movie Santa Claus, in which St. Nick and the devil (a red bastard named “Pitch”) battle for the soul of a sad little girl named Lupita. It’s the worst kind of pandering kiddie trash, but Mike and the ‘bots make a real meal out of it.
Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: But the better known of MST’s Christmas flicks is, not incidentally, one of the worst movies ever made: the screeching 1964 family movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a film so cloying and awful that it was not only riffed by Joel and the ‘bots on the Satellite of Love, but two more times by Joel’s spin-off project Cinematic Titanic and Mike’s Rifftrax. Wait, you might think. Is any movie so bad that you can make fun of it in three different ways? Yes, friends. This one is.