Every few years, late in December, I like to revisit my favorite holiday film. It's a bona fide black-and-white classic about a despondent character who attempts suicide on Christmas Eve only to find out life really is worth living.
But it's not that movie. I'm sick of that movie. I'm also sick of that same tired feature every newspaper, magazine and Web site runs year after year listing the same tired Christmas movies we already know are beloved. Do we really need to be reminded again about Miracle on 34th Street? Is anyone not aware there are nine dozen variations on Scrooge but that Alastair Sim is still the best? Does the world really need another recap of Elf? Or that movie?
Do like me and skip that movie.
Please. Instead check out The Apartment, a far superior American classic in which Jack Lemmon saves Shirley MacLaine from offing herself on, yes, Christmas Eve. The Apartment is that rarity, an Academy Award winner that really was the best picture of its year. (For the record, 1960.) Writer/director/producer Billy Wilder took the Oscar Triple Crown for this sublime comedy/ drama which also includes pimping, adultery, corporate sleaze and a bar-hopping Bad Santa more than 40 years before Billy Bob Thornton came along. Yeah, there's a happy ending on New Year's Eve, but the characters are broke and unemployed.
The Apartment tops my list of nontraditional Christmas films, but it's not alone. Here are five others, in alphabetical order, to consider when you want your cup of cinematic Christmas cheer laced with a dash of bitters.
Black Christmas (1974): Ten years before he gave us Ralphie, the Old Man and that Red Ryder BB gun, Bob Clark delivered a very different Christmas story about a maniac stalking a sorority house. For a cult slasher movie, it's tautly directed and pretty creepy. The cool (in more ways than one) cast includes Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Olivia Hussey and Douglas McGrath, who just this year wrote and directed Infamous, that other Truman Capote movie which also touches on Christmas. Like all '70s horror flicks, it's being remade, with Clark himself executive producing and opening — you guessed it — on Christmas Day.
The Dead (1987): Don't let the title put you off; this isn't another Christmas horror flick. The legendary John Huston's final film is a minor masterpiece, a profoundly moving realization of James Joyce's short story about a Twelfth Night party in 1904 Dublin when the Epiphany comes in more ways than one. This was a Huston family affair — son Tony scripted and daughter Anjelica leads the otherwise all-Irish cast — and the result is a perfect miniature, an evocation of time, place and ghosts of Christmas past.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Another final masterpiece, this is the late Stanley Kubrick's most personal — and misunderstood — film. Hardly the pornographic sex thriller it was incorrectly rumored to be, this is instead a dreamlike contemplation of marriage and dangerous desire. It's also set, almost perversely, against a hypnotic Christmas backdrop. It opens with stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (an awakened dream of marriage themselves) drifting through a seductive holiday party and ends with Christmas shopping in a toy department where Kidman delivers the most point-blank final line in cinema history. In between everything but gifts become unwrapped.
A Midnight Clear (1992): Actor-turned-director-and-screenwriter Keith Gordon adapted William Wharton's anti-war parable into this quietly powerful film. In 1944 a small American battalion makes Christmas peace in the forest with a small German battalion, but the surrender sadly sours. The remarkable cast includes Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg and Ayre Gross, and the film's atmosphere is as ethereal as the snow.
The Ref (1994): This one does sometimes make the standard lists, and it usually gets its annual due on cable. But it's too funny — and subversive — to ignore. The ultimate dysfunctional family Christmas gathering features Kevin Spacey (warming up for American Beauty) and Judy Davis at their prickly best with acerbic support from Christine Baranski and Glynis Johns. Any movie in which the mom from Mary Poppins gets her mouth duct-taped for being a bitch has me thinking it's a wonderful life.
Merry Christmas! ©