The Discerning Person’s Guide to Underrated Christmas Movies

12/11/2009 4:00 AM |

Holiday traditions are funny. Once something sticks we get a little superstitious. It’s a Wonderful Life is a prime example of something that took hold—when it was in the public domain and TV channels screened it often—and now we just can’t let go. Meet Me in St. Louis is a personal favorite, yet that too gets played out at this time of year. The frequent viewings numb us to the content; we forget that these films about angels getting their wings and families coming together are also about suicide attempts and six-year-olds mass decapitating snowmen. That seasonal spirit is complex.

In honor of some less-celebrated holiday favorites screening in New York this season, like Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (full disclosure: a screening I organized), I asked other critics, programmers, and filmmakers about films they consider underrated holiday favorites:

Whit Stillman, director of Metropolitan

I’m afraid my true favorites are the overrated ones—The Shop around the Corner, Miracle on 34th Street (the original) and It’s a Wonderful Life (two with Jimmy Stewart, which seems appropriate)—before the start of shooting Metropolitan the cinematographer John Thomas and I watch and discussed scenes from Wonderful.

The problem with the underrated is that, we’ve probably not seen them—but I recall enjoying Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy one Christmas in the 80s.

Chris Eigeman, star of Metropolitan (pictured above)

The films that truly make me think of the holidays are really the ones I watched as a kid (and will always watch when they are on), and they are those Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV movies like Rudolph, and the one with Fred Astaire. I know, this isn’t what you’re looking for (and given this logic, I should just submit the Channel 11 Burning Yule Log as my favorite film). But they are much more evocative than any other film for me.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, author of Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons and most recently author/curator of The Unquiet American: Transgressive American Comedies from the USA

Eyes Wide Shut: People don’t always like to admit this, but holidays are often periods when lives become unmoored and destabilized (which is why the crime rate tends to go up then, especially involving family members), and this is certainly what Kubrick’s last feature is all about. And it’s important to bear in mind that it’s both members of the marriage who become unmoored and destabilized, even though we see much more of the husband than we do of the wife. The Christmas trees and decor that we see everywhere only serve to underline the disequilibrium.

Kent Jones, Executive Director of World Cinema Foundation, author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, and director of Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows

The first film that comes to mind is A Holiday Affair with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. Then, Remember the Night, but how underrated is that finally? And then, what about Holiday? It’s not often thought of as a holiday film, but it is, and it’s a great one.

3 Comment

  • How about Elia Kazan’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? I think it’s rather overlooked and underrated, to the general public at least. It should be on the list of “dark” Christmas tales.

    For real obsure stuff which you will never see: “Where are you, Santa Claus?” a short film(drama) from Poland, about a lonely and neglected pre-teen girl looking for the real meaning of Christmas. It might be my favorite Christmas flick, if I had to pick just one.

    Also remember that parts 1 and 3 of Kieslowski’s Decalogue are set around Christmas time…

  • I am pleased to see so many mentions of Remember the Night. But isn’t someone, anyone, gonna stick up for Bad Santa?

  • The original “I, the Jury,” a fun pulp peculiarity (in 3-D) from 1953 takes place over Christmas…