Christmas arrives on Tuesday and between the shopping and the eating and gifting most folks will be turning to entertainment to pass the days away. It’s very likely that local television will be mainlining the staples of this season in Guyana: “Home Alone” (1 through 4), “Jingle All the Way” and “Elf”, among others. But, for those viewers that have had their fill of the same Christmas content week after week, season after season, I’m putting forward a list of alternative viewing for families over the holiday season. These are some less appreciated Christmas classics, or Christmas-adjacent classics, that should offer audiences some cheer and charm over the holiday seasons.
What alternative Christmas list can exist without the essential nod to the eighties action classic “Die Hard”? Perhaps this choice is no longer that much of an alternative choice when it topped Empire’s List of best films of the season in 2016. To invoke the question of Christmas movies is to be met with the hoard of action fans devoted to methodically arguing why Officer John Mc Clane’s attempt to deescalate a Christmas heist is really a Christmas film at the heart of it. And, I’ll allow it. Defeating bad-guys and conquering terrorists seem like the best things to do for the Christmas season. What is Christmas for if it not making do with what life throws at you? Even if it’s a murderous maniac.
“The Lion in Winter”
If “Die Hard” is the prerequisite action alternative Christmas pick then this 1968 classic is the old Hollywood version. The film takes place in 1183 when King Henry II is deciding which of his three sons will succeed him on the throne while battling with his wife, briefly out of imprisonment from a nearby castle, his mistress (betrothed to one of his sons) and her brother, the King of France. The backstabbing and plotting all take over the Christmas holidays at the Chinon castle complete with anachronistic Christmas trees (they didn’t become a sign of the season in England until under the reign of Queen Victoria), reluctant presents and drunken confessions. Late in the film, Queen Eleanor quips, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” And what better time than Christmas to reveal them all?
Billy Wilder’s superb 1960, part thoughtful comedy, part melancholic character study, effectively gets the happy-sad mood of the season, working as both a Christmas film and a New Year’s Eve film. Office drudge Bud Baxter realises the object of his affection, an elevator operator, is in an unhappy affair with his married-boss. The film follows a few days in their intersecting lives and despite an almost firing, an attempted suicide and a tearful break-up, “The Apartment” manages to be heart-warming and sweet, moving and joyful at the same time. What’s more, it features a final line that’s as good a mantra as any to get through the holiday season.
“Meet Me in St Louis”
This should be a Christmas staple, but it’s never been a Guyanese staple on local TV. The film features Judy Garland singing a mournful version of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’ What more could we want from a Christmas film? Rather than being centred on the holiday season, this delightful musical follows a year in the Smith family leading up to 1904. The last quarter is devoted to the Christmas season as the family must decide between a fortuitous but also heart-breaking move to a different city. If the royal family of Winter argues for the exhausting duplicity of family relations then “Meet Me In St Louis” argues for the regenerative warmth. Garland is the undeniable best in show but the film affords each member of the cast a chance to offer requisite familial and seasonal charm.
The debate as to whether Burton’s animated horror film is a Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas film may continue forever. Since only the one is part of Guyanese culture, the choice is made all the easier for me. In the film, Jack, the King of Halloween Town, has grown weary of the world of Halloween and a happenstance portal to Christmas town finds him beguiled by this new holiday. And so, he opts for a reinvention as reclamation of a new holiday with a new love for Christmastime. Even with its focus on monsters, ghouls, goblins, zombies and the likes, “Nightmare” offers potent Christmas messages that would charm even the most pious of believers. The film overflows with the promise of rebirth and new beginnings, themes of sacrifice and faith and at 76 minutes it’s short enough and compelling enough for all ages.
Few would argue that “The Holiday” is the peak of Nancy Meyers’ creative work and yet the holiday romance is an incredibly comfort and easy watch in a season that can get chaotic. It’s a two-for-one deal with the film follows two unlucky-in-love women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) as they switch houses and try to find some solace amidst Christmastime. The film’s plot is negligible, but the charm is high and all the actors, Diaz, Winslet their potential suitors Jack Black and Jude Law are committed to making the holiday confection of “The Holiday” charms even when it isn’t particularly inventive.
And a Christmas Extra “Roma”
In the middle of Alfonso Cuarón’s recently released Roma, a Mixtec maid Cleo and the family she works for head to the wife’s family for Christmas vacation. They listen to the “Jesus Christ Superstar” cast recording (the film version is another welcome alternative), drink wine, fend off questions from inquisitive relatives and put out fires. Literal and figurative. Does this make it a Christmas movie? I’m cheating and pretending it does. But the hardworking maid at the centre of the film aligns herself with so many valuable themes of the season. Cleo is Mary Magdalene, a tossed aside woman caring for those who do not always appreciate her. She is Jesus revitalised, sacrificing so much for so little. She is the prodigal child, who never visits his mother despite her altruism. Religious imagery subsumes the film overwhelmed only by Cuarón’s interest in the humanistic. If your family wants to be emotionally moved and provoked over the Christmas holiday, “Roma” would be a welcome alternative.