Had it up to here with Ralphie and his rifle? Need a break from George Bailey and Clark Griswold and John McClane? Sometimes, you’ve just gotta take even the most beloved Christmas movies out of the rotation so you can love them all the more next year after a little break.
If you’re looking to switch up your holiday viewing habits, check out these terrific flicks from my film guide Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas that might have traveled beneath your radar. You might like them enough to make them a new part of your annual traditions.
Between his breakout hit Trainspotting and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle gave us this charming and offbeat tale about two motherless brothers and their holiday adventure.
Damien (Alex Etel) and Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) are having their first Christmas since the recent death of their mother, a situation complicated by the sudden appearance of a bag full of money that’s chucked from a passing train into Damien’s cardboard fort. Damien, obsessed with Catholic saints, wants to give the loot to the poor, while Anthony has more secular ideas about what to do with the cast. But whatever they decide, they’re going to have to do it quick, since some local gangsters want their bag of cash back, and the money will all be worthless at the end of the year when Britain converts from the pound to the Euro.
The whole dead-mom situation provides a hint of melancholy to the film, but Boyle never wallows in bathos — neither boy is above using “Our mum’s dead” as a get-out-of-jail-free card in any crisis. Millions understands the infinite pleasures of a big, empty cardboard box, and the movie tells you everything you want to hear about love, family and generosity at Christmastime without beating you over the head with it.
La Bûche (1999)
The holidays don’t summon a lot of good cheer for one dysfunctional French family — but then, this might be the year that changes things.
For the recently widowed Yvette (Françoise Fabian, My Night at Maud’s), the impending holiday brings an opportunity for rapprochement with her long estranged ex-husband Stanislas (Claude Rich). Their three daughters have problems of their own: Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart) is busting her hump to put on a perfect Christmas dinner, not that anyone in her family appreciates her efforts, much less her philandering husband. Singer Louba (Sabine Azéma) may have just gotten pregnant by her married lover, and art dealer Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia) seems particularly embittered about the holiday. As everyone scrambles to prepare for the arrival of Père Noël, we learn a lot about these all-too-relatable characters and what’s guiding their behavior (while also getting a peek at how things might change).
This tart comedy is must viewing for people who aren’t fans of the holidays (the opening credits, with a French chorus shrieking “Jingle Bells” in English, tips you off that this isn’t going to be a gooey Lifetime movie), but there are plenty of sweet moments to go with the bitter.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
This screenplay almost became the first movie Frank Capra directed after World War II, until he decided to make It’s a Wonderful Life instead. Given this comedy’s uplifting sense of community spirit, you can see how it would have appealed to the director.
Every December, millionaire Michael O’Connor (Charlie Ruggles) closes up his Manhattan mansion to winter in Virginia; and when O’Connor leaves the house, homeless man-about-town Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) secretly moves in. This particular year, things are going to get crowded: First, McKeever invites veteran Jim (Don DeFore of Hazel fame), whose apartment was recently knocked down by O’Connor’s company, to join him in the house. Then when O’Connor’s daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) pops by to pick up some clothes, McKeever and Jim assume she’s homeless, too; smitten with Jim, Trudy plays along. Soon, they’re opening the door to several of Jim’s old Army buddies (including Alan “Skipper” Hale, Jr.) and their families. Meanwhile, O’Connor and his estranged wife Mary (Ann Harding) come looking for Trudy, and they too pretend to be hard-luck guests (forced to do chores!) in their own house.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue makes a pitch for collectivism, from the shared management of O’Connor’s household by the merry band of interlopers to Jim and his friends attempting to buy an old Army base so they can turn it into housing for veterans. (Perhaps not surprisingly, cowriter Herbert Clyde Lewis was eventually blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his leftist political leanings.) But no matter what your politics, this is a sweet and hilarious comedy, loaded with romance, terrific performances and some standout comic set pieces.
I know what you’re thinking: Another movie about the legendary collie? Trust me, this one’s absolutely terrific — and if the Christmastime climax doesn’t bring you to tears, you’re made of stonier stuff than I am.
Writer-director Charles Sturridge (TV’s Brideshead Revisited) goes back to Eric Knight’s source novel Lassie Come Home for this tale of poor young Joe (the amazing Jonathan Mason), whose impoverished family must sell his beloved dog Lassie to the wealthy Duke (Peter O’Toole) in Yorkshire on the eve of World War II. Lassie keeps escaping from the Duke to return to Joe, forcing the boy to lie to the dog that he no longer loves her so she’ll stay put. The Duke takes Lassie to Scotland, but his cruel kennel man mistreats the dog, so she escapes and makes the long trek across the U.K. to Yorkshire, and to Joe.
This version of the tale features a top-notch cast (in addition to O’Toole, there’s Samantha Morton and John Lynch as Joe’s parents, with appearances by Peter Dinklage and Kelly Macdonald as well) and it hits that sweet spot of sentimentality that never gets gooey. If you’re a sucker for boy-and-his-dog stories, they don’t get any better than this one.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Screenwriter Shane Black worked Christmas into action movies like Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the holiday is front and center in his directorial debut, a hilariously labyrinthine plot about murder and the movie biz.
Petty thief Harry (Robert Downey Jr.), on the run from the NYPD, ducks into what turns out to be an open casting call — and he’s so hyped-up and intense from the chase that he gets the role. Suddenly he’s in Hollywood, where private detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is set to teach him all about playing a movie cop, but that’s before Harry finds himself enmeshed in a real-life murder plot involving his high school pal Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), now a smart, sexy and struggling actress.
Black’s script is a marvel of self-commentary, moving the narrative backward and forward and calling itself out in the narration whenever it indulges in movie clichés. The three leads have great comic chemistry, with enough quotable lines to fill Santa’s bag, all set against the wonderfully glittery artificiality of an L.A. Christmas. Not a big hit upon its original theatrical release, this violent and witty action-comedy’s cult grows larger every December.