It is at this time of year which one begins to truly get into the “Christmas spirit”. This usually entails putting up some tinsel, getting the jumpers out, drinking mulled wine, eating mince pies, spending time with family you usually wouldn’t, and of course, having your annual viewing of Elf. But this year, I urge you to explore some alternative festive films.
Rare Exports – the Finnish horror-fantasy comedy
After scientists uncover an ancient burial ground, children from the local towns begin to go missing and reindeer are mysteriously killed. It turns out the scientists have accidently uncovered the origin of the Santa Claus myth; a supernatural being who, rather than rewarding good children, punishes the naughty by sending out his elves to abduct children. The local reindeer herders and one lone child, a good child, set out to capture the elves and eliminate Santa, to save the village and its captured children.
Tangerine – the “not-so-Christmassy” film
On Christmas Eve, under the tango-coloured, ultra-saturated scorching skies of Los Angeles, trans-woman sex workers Sin-Dee Rella & Alexandra go on a comic adventure after they discover that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend (and pimp) Chester has been cheating on her with a white woman, Dinah. As Sin-Dee searches for Chester and Dinah, and Alexandra prepares for her stage show in West Hollywood, Razmik, an Armenian cab driver, drives clients around Los Angeles to raise money for the girls’ company under the nose of his suspecting mother-in-law. The film ultimately comes from another world to ours, and hence forces us to question the relevance of the extravagance of Christmas, when there are many communities cut-off from the family-gathering festivities.
Tangerine is entirely filmed on an iPhone, which one might initially think is a news-pandering gimmick, although what it produces is an electric freedom of the camera. We find ourselves intimately bound to the characters with a pure sense of authenticity – like an episode of Peep Show.
101 Reykjavik – the Icelandic Christmas fable gone wrong
This film from Iceland, land of volcanos and very nice people, is the usual Christmas fable of a man learning to live less selfishly, with a twist.
Hlynur, the main male character of the film, is an apathetic, unemployed, and porn-watching 30-year-old man, who still lives with his mum. He is stuck in a rut which he can’t get out of, and his life is going nowhere. However, after his mother’s Spanish Flamenco teacher stays in over Christmas, all this changes.
I won’t ruin the plot of the film, but you need to know that 101 Reykjavik isn’t like most Christmas films. It does involve the main character going on a self-discovery journey, reassessing their life and their place in the world, like It’s a Wonderful Life or Dickins’ A Christmas Carol. But this film is unusual in its approach, although more relevant to 21st Century life than a Victorian novel.
Trading Places – the Wall-Street Banker’s Christmas Carol
This film has the usual Christmas themes of the rich giving to the poor, moral journeys, and learning to be a less selfish person, but happens to be a Wall Street drama.
Trading Places is like The Wolf on Wall Street meets A Christmas Carol meets Freaky Friday; a snooty investment banker and a homeless con artist find their positions reversed, forcing both to reevaluate their lives and morals. It’s set in New York, a classic location for a Christmas film, and it has some familiar Christmas moral lessons, but it’s certainly not the usual Scrooge story.
The Apartment – the forgotten Christmas classic
The great, famous director Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity) creates yet another faultless “dramedy”. Bud Baxter tries to rise in his company by letting its executives use his apartment for trysts (sexual meetings), but complications and a romance of his own ensue. Bud soon discovers love and learns of the true values of life, as his becomes a whirlwind between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
This film is less well-known to modern audiences than many other classic Christmas films, such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. I put this down to its more adult subject matter, as well as it only being tangentially related to Christmas. However, it always puts me in a feel-good, festive mood, and I argue it is a better overall film than both.
Fanny & Alexander – the epic
Ingmar Bergman’s epitomic Christmas family film. It was originally conceived as a four-part TV movie, spanning 312 minutes; a 188-minute cut version was created later for cinematic release.
Fanny & Alexander follows the large Swedish family, the Ekdahls, through the drama and tragedies of their lives through Christmas and the years 1907-1910. The first part of the TV-movie can be found on YouTube; it covers the entirety of Christmas for the Ekdahls, making it a fantastic slow-burner for a Sunday afternoon in front of the fire.