First, a confession, which may not seem immediately related to the subject at hand: until December 3rd, I had never seen a Batman movie in full. Not a Nolan, not a Keaton, only dim memories of Val Kilmer clips interrupting Seal in the “Kiss From a Rose” video. But that night I gathered with some fellow SportsAlcohol-ics to watch Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, in a thinly-veiled attempt on Jesse’s part to (a) get me to finally watch one of these things and (b) put forth the argument that Returns is part of one of my favorite genres: not unequivocally holiday-themed films like A Christmas Story or Elf, but what I’ll call the Christmas-Adjacent. These are films whose plots do not revolve around, say, getting the family together for a big dinner, taking over for Santa after accidentally killing him, or having your marital infidelities exposed with poorly hidden gifts intended for your mistress. Rather, they use the holiday, or holiday season, as a motif or backdrop for other stories, variously invoking the warmth, loneliness, and occasional homicidal rage the season brings. You can also watch them any time of year and it doesn’t feel too weird. Having now seen Batman Returns myself (Ed. note), I absolutely agree that it fits the genre, and is fun to contemplate as one of the strangest studio tentpoles to exist. But the following, in my opinion, are the best, and the ones that most often end up in my holiday-watching rotation.
6. Edward Scissorhands
I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention one of Burton’s other films that falls under this category. This one also falls under my own personal “Films I’ll Usually Watch All the Way Through If I Catch Them on Cable,” but given that I no longer have cable, I haven’t actually seen it in years. Still, Scissorhands may be Burton’s most potent mix of oddness and tenderness, a delicate quality that, at least for me, has been missing entirely from his recent work. The film starts with snowfall, and unfolds as a fable told by grandmother to granddaughter near a cozy fireplace, but much of it takes place in a suburban California neighborhood and Bo Welch’s set designs perfectly capture the incongruity of celebrating the winter holidays in a warm climate. It’s of a piece with the film’s larger themes, as even people without terrifying appendages can feel out of place in such cookie cutter surroundings. It also makes the warmth and acceptance that the Boggs family offers Edward all the more touching. The final reveal that the snow itself is likely Edward’s doing, a continuous gift to the woman he loves but can no longer see, ties it all together in a bittersweet bow, a reminder that even as we gather loved ones around us to celebrate, it’s also a time to reflect on those who can’t be with us.
5. Bridget Jones’s Diary
There is a minor cottage industry of romantic comedies that take place around the holidays, among them classics like When Harry Met Sally and While You Were Sleeping. But Bridget Jones is the one that best captures both the ambivalence and determination that comes with the annual tradition of making resolutions. Anyone who’s been single for awhile (and I myself will reach my own thirty-second year of it, which Bridget says with such dread in the film’s opening line, next August) can tell you that the holiday season is a particularly fraught time, with its nosy questions from relatives, bearing the costs of buying gifts and traveling on your own, and the barrage of couples photographing themselves in matching sweaters. Bridget is our ideal heroine for this time of year, as she doesn’t meet all its challenges perfectly: she drinks and smokes a bit too much, she dates men who are bad for her, she sometimes allows her prejudices to get the better of her. But her willingness to accept the things about herself that others might find ridiculous while also doing the hard work to improve her life is infectious in the best way. If we don’t all have a Mark Darcy waiting in the wings to tell us they like us just as we are, at least we have her to show that such things are possible, and that doing it for yourself is often the better reward anyway.
4. Eyes Wide Shut
Perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s most misunderstood film, this looks better and better every year. Removed from the scandal surrounding its then-married leads and from bearing the burden of the director’s impossibly stacked legacy, Eyes Wide Shut can now be taken on its own merits, not least of which is the delightful perversity of setting a pitch black tale of marital infidelity against the bright backdrop of the holiday season. Like most of Kubrick’s work, it’s deliberately paced and microscopic in its attention to the shifting desires of its central couple, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, whose performances both wink at their public personas, though only Kidman seems aware of it. The Manhattan air they breathe is rarified beyond belief, with Kubrick’s camera roving about the opulent “classic six” UES apartments and Central Park mansions and sniffing out their darkest corners. For all the feathers the orgy scenes ruffled on the film’s release, the real estate is more obscene here than any of the sex. Nevertheless, its depiction of Christmastime in New York has an uncanny, dreamlike quality that descends from wish fulfillment to nightmare as the film progresses, and while the advertising campaign highlighted the plot’s more salacious qualities, ultimately Eyes Wide Shut is an affirmation of commitment, especially in tough times. It ends, fittingly enough for the holiday season, with a forcefully spoken expletive in the toy section of a department store.
3. Trading Places
I still don’t understand what happens at the end of this movie. It’s probably Google-able, but at this point that would likely take away much of the fun of watching Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy concoct their scheme. Christmas is usually a time when we try to take stock, to think about what we have, and what we can give to others, charitably or otherwise. And then there’s what the wealthy do: use their considerable financial influence to interfere with the lives of others. Playing as a modern twist on Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, the comedy of Trading Places only gets more cutting as the gulf between rich and poor in this country grows. But beyond its social satire, it’s hard to think of a film with more amusing set pieces playing out at holiday gatherings, from an office party interrupted by a deranged, gun-wielding Aykroyd in a filthy Santa costume to the climactic gambit that transpires in a crowded private car on a New York-bound train on New Year’s Eve. There’s also its Philadelphia setting, which looks and feels realistically cold compared to many other holiday-set films. It may all end in a tropical paradise with a champagne toast, but that just makes the triumph of our dynamic duo over their capitalist pig tormentors all the sweeter. If they had to become capitalist pigs themselves to accomplish it, well, that’s just the American way.
2. Die Hard
I debated with myself endlessly on whether or not to include this on the list. Not because it isn’t awesome, because it absolutely is. But is it Christmas Adjacent? Many critics have listed it as a Christmas movie proper, and the fact that John McClane is returning home for the holidays to see his estranged wife and that the majority of the movie is set at her office Christmas party would support that. Its first needle drop is even “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. But it’s also first and foremost an action film; once Hans Gruber and company show up, the focus shifts entirely to freeing the hostages and bringing down the baddie, as it well should when a criminal mastermind has taken over a business plaza. Then again, the holiday only enhances this plot; the frustrations that naturally come with traveling far from home, seeing people you haven’t interacted with in awhile, and navigating gatherings you attend on a spouse’s behalf, are ones we can all recognize, even if we don’t have to deal with an actual terrorist on top of all that. In the end, I have to go with my heart, and also the discretion of the studio, which originally released Die Hard theatrically in the heat of July. If it works any time of year, then it belongs here.
1. The Apartment
Here is where I admit to an extreme bias: The Apartment is not only my favorite film in this genre I made up, but my favorite film of all time. But hey, it’s my list, damn it, and, as Jack Lemmon’s lonely-hearts lead would say, that’s how it crumbles, cookie-wise. There is no better onscreen depiction I’ve seen of the melancholy, bone-deep loneliness that can be particularly acute in a busy city during the holiday season, and especially for those on their own. Every time it starts getting darker earlier I think of the female barfly who warbles to Lemmon over one too many martinis, “Nights like this it’s kinda spooky walking into an empty apartment.” Of course, my apartment often isn’t empty, and neither is Jack Lemmon’s; my finances require roommates to be able to afford rent, while he is lending out his bedroom to higher-level executives in his office to conduct their affairs in what is one of the more poorly conceived schemes to get ahead in business I can think of. He is also hopelessly in love with elevator girl Shirley McClaine and the tentative courtship that unfolds between them from an ill-timed Christmas Eve overdose to a run through the streets on New Years forms the heart of the film. Cynical but not unkind, sentimental but never soggy, The Apartment strikes the perfect note of skepticism toward the oppressive cheer of the holiday season, and why it might still be worth hoping for happiness after all.