Bah, Humbug: An Ode To The Importance Of Non-Sentimental Holiday Movies

The Christmas season is advertised as a time for "peace on earth" and "goodwill toward men," but for a lot of us, the holidays are little more than a headache and a half. It's hard not to feel like such a Grinch this time of year when everyone else seems to be filled with joy, but fortunately, there are movies to help us anti-sentimentality Scrooges feel a little less alone. We've talked before on /Film about some of the best alternative Christmas movies (that aren't "Die Hard"), but we've never broken down why these films are so important. I might be acting overdramatic by calling these films "non-sentimental," as there's plenty of sentiment to be found in any story (as long as you know where to look), but I think we can all agree that the sentiment of something like Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is in stark contrast to Bob Clark's "Black Christmas."

Christmas films and holiday culture as a whole are built around nostalgia, tradition, and warmth, often to a detriment of reality. Life is tough sometimes — and that toughness doesn't magically disappear on December 24th for a lot of us, no matter how much merry magic metaphorically dances in the air. There's something powerful about having those less-than-holly-jolly feelings validated on screen, especially as everyone around you is telling you to, "Cheer up, it's Christmas!" Some of us are Sinbad in "Jingle All The Way," screaming about being overworked and possibly committing domestic terrorism in an attempt to make the holidays enjoyable for the people we love. Some of us are Sin-Dee Rella in "Tangerine," abandoning holiday plans to settle a necessary conflict in order to make it through the day without exploding.

And that's okay. We're not alone.

All hail Christmas horror

Andy Williams lied because December is not always "the most wonderful time of the year." But with positivity oozing from every corner, even hinting at the possibility of having a negative emotion means you're out of step with the entire world. It's enough to make you want to put on a Santa Claus suit and burn it all down. This feeling — this subversion of the holiday spirit — makes Christmas horror films such a popular subgenre.

Christmas slashers are some of the most prominent, like "Black Christmas," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," and "Santa's Slay." This doesn't even scratch the surface of how many seasonal slashers exist, but Christmas slashers have always felt like the funhouse mirror version of the Santa legend in that a mysterious intruder invades multiple locations but instead of leaving gifts ... kills everyone.

The popularity of Christmas horror has expanded over the years, with transitionary horror like "Gremlins" and "Krampus," ultra-gore fests like "Inside," dark spins on classic lore like "Rare Exports," killer kid flicks like "The Children," Christmas horror comedies like "Jack Frost," and even the beloved zombie-comedy musical, "Anna and the Apocalypse." As varied and expansive as horror is as a genre, the subset of Christmas horror is just as diverse, which means there's something for everyone. During a season that can serve as a painful reminder of loneliness, those tailor-made options can offer a lot more comfort than we'd normally anticipate.

One of my favorite memories was curating a marathon of Christmas horror films at the bar my wife managed on Christmas Eve, screaming and laughing along with a gaggle of patrons who, like us, had nowhere to go for the holiday. The cheap alcohol brought us together, but the Christmas horror is what kept everyone around for hours.

The cathartic need for Christmas action films

Christmas is an undeniably stressful time, and I'm tired of every commercial break trying to pretend it's not. That beautiful holiday feast? That took time, sweat, and multiple runs to a packed grocery store in a snowstorm to make right. All of the beautifully wrapped presents under a tree? That was only possible after putting fussy kids to bed and watching at least five different YouTube tutorials on how to successfully wrap spherical LOL Surprise Doll containers. That beautifully carved-out sidewalk path for grandma and grandpa to get in the house? Well, someone had to spend hours shoveling, plowing, and salting.

Christmas is also really exhausting, but actually expressing that frustration (or even rage) makes you a "Grinch," so all of those feelings just simmer underneath until we finally pull a Clark Griswold in "Christmas Vacation" and just snap. Or, if you're someone who experiences catharsis while watching movies, Christmas action films can provide that sweet relief. Yes, "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie, and we thank you for your contribution, Mr. 2007 Online Discourse.

Fortunately, John McClane's adventure at Nakatomi Plaza is nowhere near the only high-octane Christmas film. "Everly" starring Salma Hayek might as well be "Die Hard" in a single room, both "Lethal Weapon" and "L.A. Confidential" are covert Christmas films, Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "The Nice Guys" are both pitch-black holiday crime thriller comedies, as is Harold Ramis' "The Ice Harvest." Even the recent hit, "Violent Night," is just a Santa slasher told through the lens of "John Wick." You might not be able to blow up a Christmas tree or crash a car into an abandoned building to get out your festive rage, but at least you can watch it happen in the movies.

We need more inventive updates to classic Christmas formulas

There's also a subsection of Christmas films that feel like traditional, sentimental stories, but take a wildly inventive approach to the formula. The French language drama, "Mon Oncle Antoine," for example, very much has the "live life to the fullest because it is fleeting" energy of something like "It's a Wonderful Life," but told from the perspective of a young boy who helps his uncle, the town's undertaker, pick up the body of a recently deceased local boy. Ingmar Bergman's period piece, "Fanny and Alexander," takes a similar autobiographical approach as "A Christmas Story" in remembering Christmas as a child, but instead of lighthearted stories about wishing for a BB gun, it's about two children who lose their father and are sent to live with their loveless mother who marries an abusive bishop.

And then there's a film like David Lowery's "The Green Knight," which has all of the elements of a proper Christmas movie but without the sentimental schlock shoehorned into most holiday features. It's important to have films like these because after an entire lifetime of rewatching the same movies over and over again — sometimes in 24-hour marathons — it becomes stale. It's hard enough for some of us (I'm talking about me if you haven't caught on yet) to maintain any semblance of holiday spirit this time of year, and repetitive, formulaic, stories certainly don't help.

Alternative comedies always bring the laughs

Films like "Home Alone," "Scrooged," and "Christmas Vacation" have crossed the threshold and become certifiable holiday classics in their own right, but there are plenty of alternative Christmas comedies that aren't afraid to be a little more mean-spirited. Of course, there are obvious examples like "Bad Santa" and "Jingle All The Way," but don't sleep on Paul Feig's "Last Christmas," a rom-com featuring "Game of Thrones" star Emilia Clarke that takes the lyrics to the Wham! song of the same name ... literally. The fact this movie even exists is worth celebrating because I truly cannot believe they let Feig run wild with this camp-as-hell concept.

I've been preaching the gospel of "Just Friends" for many years now, a film that with each passing year inches closer and closer to becoming my all-time favorite Christmas movie. Anna Faris? Comedic genius. We should be leaving out toothpaste every Christmas Eve in the hopes that her character Samantha James will pay us a holiday visit. She's that good.

But then there are dramedies like Joe Swanberg's "Happy Christmas," which sees an irresponsible Anna Kendrick moving in with her older brother (Swanberg), his wife (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler son, and completely throwing their lives into chaos. Due to Swanberg's trademark improvisational style, "Happy Christmas" is a painfully nuanced and relatable look at end-of-the-year festivities, with characters responding in ways that feel organic to the actual holiday, and not just the idealized version often put on screen. Sometimes the Christmas season can push you beyond the point of tears and into slap-happy, maniacal laughter. Films like this are a great way to get all those feelings out.

Cool kids celebrate Christmas with an edge

And for the rest of my fellow weirdos out there, there are Christmas movies with an edge. While these films take place around the holiday season, the festivities are the least important aspect of the story. These are inventive, provocative films that just so happen to take place around the holiday season, which is reflective of how many people spend their December 24th and 25th. The most seasonally appropriate part of Doug Liman's crime-comedy "Go" is the inability for minimum-wage workers to get a day off, and everyone's favorite dirtball version of Timothy Olyphant wearing a Santa hat while selling drugs. Satoshi Kon's beloved anime, "Tokyo Godfathers" — arguably the most sentimental film mentioned in this piece — is still a powerful takedown of the systemic issues that lead to the homelessness crisis. Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" is an erotic, psychosexual mystery, yes, but it's also a brutal critique of the disgusting materialistic excess of Christmas.

But it's Sean Baker's shot-on-an-iPhone Christmas masterpiece, "Tangerine," that might truly be the reason for the season. The film centers on a day in the life of two Black, trans, full-service sex workers who make their way across Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is on a mission to treat her boyfriend/pimp and his new lover a lesson, while Alexandra (Mya Taylor) is desperately trying to get people to come out and watch her sing Christmas songs at a club. "Tangerine" could take place on any day of the year, but the Christmas Eve setting is a powerful reminder that not everyone gets a Frank Capra-esque Christmas, and for a lot of people, it's just another day above ground — which makes it still one worth living.