Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The 10 Greatest Christmas Movies That Aren't Christmas Movies

More requests have surfaced for another perennial Hub Review movie list - the 10 Best Christmas Movies That Aren't Christmas Movies. So in the spirit of our popular "Smartest Horror Movies Ever Made," here are several great films that, while perhaps not "Christmas movies" per se, are nevertheless set on Christmas, and seem to have something pertinent to say about the holiday season.

So what's not to like? Enjoy!

Brazil - How, in 1985, did Terry Gilliam manage to predict the entire millennium - terrorists, Bush administration, and all?  I'm not sure, but Brazil probably remains apropos to the age of Obama, alas, with its drones, pervasive surveillance, and random shootings. And it's set at Christmas time - indeed, poor Mr. Buttle is ripped from his home by an NSA black ops team just as his family finishes reading A Christmas Carol (above).

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek - Betty Hutton parties down with some soldiers and comes home pregnant in the most daring of Preston Sturges's comedies. But if you think that premise sounds crude, think again: as usual, Sturges teases from the hard facts of life a sense of sweet, rueful delight. Betty Hutton, and the wonderful Eddie Bracken, are both terrific (see above), and William Demarest is reliably furious throughout.  And yes, it all wraps up on Christmas.

The Shop Around the Corner - The famous "touch" of director Ernst Lubitsch was never more lighter than in this 1940 classic, in which Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan fall in love as pen pals even as they drive each other crazy during the Christmas rush at the eponymous shop in which they both work.  (And yes, that's Frank Morgan, the Wizard and Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, in the clip above.)

Meet Me in St. Louis - Garland, directed by Minnelli, with all the resources of MGM at his disposal. That's really all you need to know, although this landmark musical is blessed with many great performances,  gorgeous design and photography, a gently subtle script, several marvelous sequences like "The Trolley Song," and, of course, the holiday standard introduced above (the original lyrics to which were deemed too depressing by Garland, and so were subsequently changed.)

The Apartment - What says "Christmas" more than pimping for the boss and attempting suicide? Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and especially Fred MacMurray - all in perhaps their best roles ever - still rock Billy Wilder's dark romance. Above, the cynically rendered office Christmas party, as Jack Lemmon tries on for size a clownish "Junior Executive Model."

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - A Christmas present by any reckoning, this durably charming movie is deeply romantic in a very Gallic way, which means that after long stretches of wild artifice (the singing! the color schemes!) it closes with a heartbreakingly bittersweet scene on - you guessed it, Christmas Eve. PLUS it stars Catherine Deneuve (and the now forgotten, but adorable, Nino Castelnuovo).  The scene above climaxes with Michel Legrand's famous theme - and the tryst by which love eventually undoes itself. Merry Christmas.

Decalogue III - Krzysztof Kieślowski's ten-part television drama The Decalogue remains one of the greatest achievements of late-20th-century film.  (And it may be the most profound spiritual achievement in film, period.) Each episode ponders, or perhaps questions, one of the ten commandments, in vignettes loosely linked by the repeated appearance of a single, silent character, played by Artur Barciś.  The third installment is one of the more obscure, but also one of the most poignant, and takes place on the eve of our favorite holiday.

The Hudsucker Proxy - Technically this movie is set on New Year's Eve, but that's close enough to Christmas to make the list!  I admit that, like many Coen Bros. movies, Hudsucker feels more like an assortment of mannerisms mixed with brilliant set pieces than a coherent story - but several scenes are unforgettable, the whole thing has a post-Capra-esque romantic appeal, and the production design is at the highest level the brothers ever achieved. The magical opening sequence, above, is one rapturous example of the dazzling visuals.

Fanny and Alexander - It turned out to not actually be Ingmar Bergman's final film, but it's certainly his last great one, and still serves as a handy summation from the master's hand of his own themes. And its crowning glory comes early, in the long, lavish Christmas party near the beginning of the film (above).


Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick put the XXX in Xmas with this haunting meditation on sex, marriage, and (yes) death - all set at Christmas! The first half is far better than the second (the orgy sequence, set in the house we've come to love as Downton Abbey, remains amazing; uncensored version here, if you must), but be sure not to miss Alan Cumming in a bizarrely fey performance near the finale - and the ending itself, set while Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise Christmas shop (and encounter most of the symbols from the movie along the way) is superb.  Misunderstood and pilloried on its first release, EWS has slowly earned props as the damaged masterpiece it really is.

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