It’s time for the most potent and divisive argument of the year: What movie should we watch this Christmas? Traditionalists might tune in for straightforward fare like Miracle on 34th Street; delusional romantics fire up the Hallmark Channel; and elder and younger Millennials debate Home Alone versus Elf while your spooky cousin demands The Nightmare Before Christmas.
But this is all well-worn territory, and this December, maybe you’d like to get even further out of the box than usual. From a nostalgic children’s tale that treats holiday stories with an artistic touch to films that consider Christmas a fair setting for horror to a movie more existentially dreadful to watch than Reindeer Games, here are our offbeat picks of the genre to help spark memories — or family feuds — this season!
Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) + The Year Without Santa Claus (1974)
First aired on NBC as part of the “General Electric Fantasy Hour,” Rankin/Bass Productions’s stop-motion animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been a mainstay of holiday viewing ever since. Generations of viewers love its anachronistic style and exploration of the titular character’s misfit-turned-perfect-fit story. It holds the title of longest-running Christmas TV special in the United States, and has spawned several iconic holiday franchises, including Frosty the Snowman (1969) and a 2001 Island of Misfit Toys sequel.
Oh, Rudolph is too mainstream for you? No worries. The 1960s and ’70s were positively festooned with oddly animated Christmas television specials. Based on a 1956 Phyllis McGinley book of same, Rankin/Bass’s The Year Without Santa Claus gives the “Wonderful Life” treatment to Santa himself (voiced by Mickey Rooney). With a plot more convoluted than A Tale of Two Cities, the main thing to know about this special is that, despite all manner of holiday hijinks, the Christmas spirit prevails. I mean, truly, when does it not?
The Snowman (1982)
Originally a 1978 illustrated children’s book by Raymond Briggs, the wordless story that follows the overnight relationship between a boy and a snowman-come-to-life was adapted as a short film for television in 1982. Directed by Dianne Jackson, who previously worked with producer John Coates on The Beatles’s Yellow Submarine, the short went on to be wildly successful, first in the United Kingdom and then worldwide. Its adaptation for American release featured a live introduction by David Bowie speaking as though he were a grown-up version of the boy in the film. Briggs, who passed away last year at the age of 88, has an impressive oeuvre of Christmas-related content, including Father Christmas (1991), The Bear (1998), and the 2012 sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog. Interestingly, the original Snowman narrative has nothing explicitly to do with Christmas, which makes it perfect for enjoyment and lively debate about its nature as a holiday movie.
Let’s face it, no one wants to be that bummed out while watching a Christmas movie. But Christmas horror is a legitimate genre in its own right, and no film nails the balance between campy jump scares and holiday hilarity better than Gremlins. Firmly establishing Christmas as the motif in an opening sequence that looks like the interior of a wholesome small-town snow globe, the movie soon descends into chaos as our protagonist Billy fails to follow the operating instructions on his Christmas gift, a mogwai named Gizmo. Gizmo soon replicates some evil friends, who transition quickly into the titular creatures and waste no time turning the scene from Norman Rockwell to Norman Rockhell. Best of all, the movie’s bar sequence highlights the particular plight of servers during the holidays, with the ineffable Phoebe Cates standing in for every beleaguered bartender putting up with the excesses of the season. Throw on Gremlins 2 for New Year’s Eve, and you’ve got a whole holiday theme going!
Set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and shot entirely on iPhone 5S, Tangerine premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015 to a strong critical reception. The action mostly follows two trans sex workers, Sin-dee and Alexandria, the taxi driver who loves them, and the pimp-slash-boyfriend who cheats on them. Plumbing the depths of interpersonal betrayal and featuring drama set in strip clubs and donut shops, the movie also maintains a comedic vibe, even as characters smoke meth, street fight, form unlikely friendships, break up marriages, and experience anti-trans violence. For a fun holiday activity, innocently suggest this one and place side bets on when your MAGA uncle will lose his entire mind and leave the house (the over-under is two minutes).