Movies to Keep the Holiday Spirit At Bay

Suggested viewing for the sensible Scrooges among us.

I love people who hate the holiday season. Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t count myself among them, but I think they’re right (same goes for vegetarians). The holiday season is nothing more than a schmaltzy corporate cash grab, a celebration of everything shallow and excessive about our materialistic culture. But then again, so is Disneyland, and I love Disneyland. In other words, I’m a nostalgic rube who is instantly bedazzled by shiny objects, especially if they’re jingling and/or smell like nutmeg.

Holiday haters are more pure of heart than any of us, unimpressed by glimmering illusions and forced sentiment. In tribute to my beloved Logical Scrooges, I have compiled a list of movies to keep the irrational exuberance of the season from permeating the blood-brain barrier. While others are drowning in the fuzzy sentiment of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, you can watch these dour offerings and free yourself from the opiate of mass commercialism.

Rare Exports (2010)

The mythology behind Santa Claus is stupid. This is well established. I don’t have to re-litigate how weird and impossible his job is, but I would like to draw attention to the fact that he is an old man who demands that children sit on his lap while his employees take photos of it. The creepy side of Santa is the focus of Rare Exports, a Finnish film about the discovery of the real Santa’s “burial mound.” The real Santa, it turns out, is more of an ancient, punitive god-creature than a giggling, twinkly-eyed gift giver. A group of reindeer herders and a confirmed “good” child must do battle with this horrifying monster from humanity’s dark past. It’s the most realistic Santa story ever told—Finland is just down the block from the North Pole, so I think they know what they’re talking about. Plus, it makes a lot more sense than all of that cookies and chimney business.  

The Ice Harvest (2005)

Dark comedies are hard to pull off; misery and laughter need just the right kind of coaxing to meld properly. Fortunately, this overlooked gem has a strong roster of talent behind it. Directed by Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, writer/star of freakin’ Ghostbusters), co-written by Robert Russo (Kramer vs. Kramer, Bonnie and Clyde), starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton and featuring a career-best performance from Oliver Platt, this gloom-soaked crime parable manages to pound you repeatedly with sharp jokes and bleak human avarice. If you want to see one of the grimmest holiday scenes in recent memory, you can’t do better than when deadbeat mob lawyer Cusack stops off at a gas station on Christmas Eve to buy dollar-store plastic crap gifts for his kids while the attendant rings him up with disgust. “Only morons are nice on Christmas,” says Thornton. After watching this effectively cynical lump of coal, you might be inclined to agree.

Force Majeure (2014)

I’m not sure if this acclaimed Swedish film takes place during the holidays, but it’s about family dynamics and snow plays an integral part of the plot, so it’s close enough. While vacationing in the French Alps, a father’s reaction to a frightening but ultimately harmless avalanche leads to the gradual implosion of his once seemingly perfect family. It’s funnier than that description makes it sound, but not by much. While most holiday films are about the powerful bond that holds families together, this is a brilliant and squirm-inducing examination of how vague and mutable that bond can actually be.

The Apartment (1960)

This Billy Wilder classic is one of the best films ever made. Here’s how I describe it when I’m urging a friend to watch it for the first time: “This movie is really funny and beautiful, but you need to know that it will make you feel unbelievably sad, possibly for days afterwards.” After the first time I saw it, I sulked around like a sad teenager for a week (I was a sad teenager at the time). It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why the film has this effect, although it is a story about lies, loneliness, suicide and hopelessness during the holidays. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a super funny movie about lies, loneliness, suicide and hopelessness, but still. I’ve seen plenty of great movies about the futility of human longing before that didn’t cause the same kind of deep-burrowing, nearly unshakeable heartache. It’s one of the must brutally honest films I’ve ever seen. Are you tempted to watch it yet? No? Yeah, that’s what all of my friends said, too. 

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Yet another Santa-related horror movie, but this one is a little different. You see, the people who made the big-budget disaster Santa Claus: The Movie weren’t deliberately making a horror film. This film came out during a peculiar era in the 1980s when Hollywood inexplicably thought that little children needed more abject terror in their lives. So my generation was given Return to Oz, The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH and The Goonies. This abortive “new Holiday classic” featured Dudley Moore as an elf (*shudder*), John Lithgow as a psychotic corporate overlord (*twitch*) who eventually gets sucked into space (the source of no less than 1,000 of my nightmares) and a big awful sleigh full of super creepy mid-’80s special effects. I’d like to go into more detail (no, I wouldn’t), but this is a movie that I am legitimately afraid of watching again. I feel like I’ve only recently gotten over seeing it in theaters, and I don’t want to undo 30 years worth of therapy.

That Goddamn Jim Carrey Grinch Movie (2000)

I have been doing some serious thinking about this movie since I re-watched it last December, and I want to be perfectly clear: this is not a tossed-off statement aimed at getting a laugh or a generality that I apply to lots of other movies. Are you ready? Here goes: That Goddamn Jim Carrey Grinch Movie is the worst movie ever made. I believe this more strongly than I believe in almost anything else. It is a rank distillation of every terrible impulse American filmmakers have ever had. 1.) It is possibly the most grotesque looking film ever made. 2.) Jim Carrey should have served jail time for his obnoxious performance. 3.) At the end of one of the most cynical, market-tested bastardizations of a beloved property ever created, That Goddamn Jim Carrey Grinch Movie has the temerity to ladle on the hokey old “Christmas isn’t about materialism” message. This is hypocrisy in its purest form. This film is packed with such a density of bad ideas that I’m amazed a black hole doesn’t materialize each time it plays on TBS.

Worst of all, it gives an ace in the hole to my holiday hating friends. It is a visual manifestation of the calculated, unfeeling corporate hand that gooses us along to buy more stuff or your family won’t love you. Anytime I want to argue on behalf of the colors or the spirit or the togetherness of the Season, they can just say the words “That Goddamn Jim Carrey Grinch Movie,” and I have no choice but to concede the point.