It’s that time of year again. The time of year where people with ordinary jobs find themselves swamped with hours and little to no respite for their own sanity’s sake. It’s also time for a return to that age-old tradition we have here at BENEATH THE SCREEN OF THE ULTRA-CRITICS, the listicle.
Since we’re only mere days away from being positively bombarded with the stuff, we figured, why not beat everybody to the punch. Enjoying the leftover Halloween candy, we compiled a list of five under-discussed Christmas movies. These are movies that are more likely to be seen in something like Alonso Duralde’s Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas than the average Buzzfeed article.
So, without further ado, here are five Holiday movies that somehow always fly under the radar come this time of the year. As usual, the numbers mean nothing, except to state how many they are.
1. GREMLINS (1984) Dir. Joe Dante
Somehow or other people always forget Gremlins. I’m not saying it’s a forgotten classic. YouTube film buffs are too prevalent, to allow such a thing like that to happen. But Joe Dante’s cult classic doesn’t get the love of say Die Hard when it comes to the holidays.
The special effects still hold up but more than that, Gremlins has a wonderful sense of playfulness and good cheer about it. The problematic ancient Chinese wise man aside, Gremlins holds up remarkably well. Horror movies are usually aimed at adults but Gremlins aims at the whole family. Through all the blood and screams it somehow captures the feel of a small town at Christmas.
But the creme de la creme comes in the form of what is now viewed as one of the great monologues of the eighties. Phoebe Cate’s Kate tells a dark tragic Christmas story that haunted children years after seeing the film. Dante’s tongue in cheek direction and a script by a young Christopher Columbus that’s a sly subversion of the holidays elevates Gremlins from a goofy cult film to a holiday classic.
2. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000) Dir. Richard Schenkman
Look. Someone needs to acknowledge that Vanessa Williams is our Christmas Lord and Savior, and guess what? It’s sure as shit gonna be me! Williams has been criminally underrated for years, and as much as I’ve held my peace about it, I cannot allow her being perpetually overlooked for A Diva’s Christmas Carol anymore. This movie is from the height of VH1’s (are they even around anymore?) media career, and it’s the perfect lady Christmas film to kick back, grab some hot chocolate, and enjoy. Camp? Check. The best melodrama crafted biopic prior to Walk Hard? Check. It gleefully embraces every biopic trope and rolls it up in a familiar Christmas package.
Keep your Bill Murray and Scrooged, I’ll take the Beyonce of Christmas movies any day.
3. Christmas Again (2014) Dir. Charles Pokel
Charles Pokel’s Christmas Again is possibly the least cheerful of all the films on this list. Less a reminder of the reason for the season and more a dour melancholy look at a man looking for love whilst selling Christmas trees. But underneath it all, it has a great big heart.
Noel (Kentucky Audley) is broken-hearted and adrift. Like any person, he soothes his soul by running a Christmas tree lot. He meets Lydia (Hannah Gross) and soon the two find themselves falling for each other. Complications and revelations arise but ultimately Pokel’s nuanced and sweet exploration of working-class people during the holiday season is warm and deeply moving.
Pokel gives us a peek into the ins and outs of running a Christmas tree lot, the differences of sales technique, understanding the varying types of firs, inventory, and of course, the people. Nothing much happens and, if you’re looking for Christmas magic, you’ll be disappointed. But it’s a sweet little movie that normally glides under the radar of the average Christmas aficionado.
Bonus: The song that plays over the closing credits, a cover of Christmas Everywhere sung by Fran Alexandre, will instantly become one of your favorite carols of the year.
4. Edward’s Scissorhands (2005) Dir. Tim Burton
Most people would cite Burton’s other movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is a Burton produced movie, not a Burton-directed one. We disagree, though the visual design of Nightmare is classic and loving crafted. But Burton’s Edward Scissorhands has a haunting, loving way about it that leaves one breathless from the depth of empathy and imagination from which it sprang.
On its face the story of Edward (Johnny Depp), a Frankensteinesque creation with scissors for hands is preposterous. Yet, Burton and Caroline Wilson, the screenwriter, have us buy the entire premise hook, line, and sinker within seconds. Burton has always been attracted to stories about outsiders, but few have been as lonely and misunderstood quite like Depp’s Edward. Winona Ryder’s Kim, Edward’s love interest, is no less an outsider, and the two find solace in each other.
It’s the tender ache at the center of Edward Scissorhands which sets it apart from the rest of Burton’s filmography. Oh sure, all his films have a tenderness and a loneliness, but none of them have had Deep and Ryder. Ryder for her part is the reason why Edward Scissorhands works. If we don’t buy Kim’s feelings for Edward, then the whole thing falls apart. Burton and Wilson don’t use Christmas as a backdrop to clash with the goth aesthetic Burton fetishizes. They use it as a way to explore family dynamics and more importantly, the idea of loving a stranger and giving him a home.
5. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Dir. John R. Cherry III
Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell has never gotten the credit he deserves as a singular American comedic creation. A cross between Jerry Lewis and a southern Mr. Bean, Ernest is a man so eager to please he can never see how insufferable he is. Ernest Saves Christmas is both a satire of how corporatist and consumer-driven Christmas is while magically somehow finding heart and warmth in the cold harsh cynical decade known as the eighties.
Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) comes to L.A. to find a children’s show host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark) so he can pass on the mantle of Santa. Unfortunately for Santa, Ernest is his taxi driver. An old man Santa leaves his bag of magic in Ernest’s cab and Ernest must try to return it so Santa can pas the bag onto Joe and Christmas can continue. Along the way, Ernest and Santa meet a young runaway grifter Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker). The three have to get Santa’s bag to Joe so they can make him believe. The plot sounds thin but, believe us, the last scene where Ernest is flying Santa’s sleigh as he careens out of control is like mother’s milk to a child.
With jokes like Joe taking a new job as an actor in a horror film Santa’s Slay, Ernest Saves Christmas shows itself to have a sardonic eye. Miraculously, it never veers into made for Hallmark Christmas territory, though it is corny at times. But that’s to be expected with any Christmas movie, much less an Ernest one. Imaginative while at times surreal, such as when the reindeer get stuck in customs, Ernest Saves Christmas is a classic that’s never been embraced by cult fans or Christmas fans. The film has a gonzo humor most Christmas films avoid; making it kind of prickly in places. If not for Varney’s rubber-faced exuberance somehow winning us over, the film might have collapsed under its own weight.
A Christmas movie in L.A.? And it’s not a Shane Black movie? It’s a Christmas miracle.