Christmas Films: The Sentimental and the Savage

SantaChristmas is here and the mighty interweb has spewed forth the inevitable tidal wave of ‘Best Xmas Movies’ lists. While pondering how I might obnoxiously subvert this tendency on my own blog (I momentarily considered writing a list of the ‘Worst Easter Movies’), it occurred to me that I was being torn in two directions by the season’s two distinct sub-genres: the traditional Christmas film deeply embedded in sentiment, and the counter-cultural films that seek to undermine this sentiment.

As a result, here is a list of five traditional Christmas classics that you simply shouldn’t miss, and five corresponding films that will serve to inoculate viewers from the cinematic uber-naffness of said classics.

Santa Claus (1986) and Rare Exports (2010)

Santa Claus is the definitive Santa movie. Beginning with a fascinating origins story, the film sees the old boy in red take on the oppressive powers of corporate capitalism. If this childish fantasy sounds eye-rollingly tedious to my more jaded readers, check out Rare Exports. This very disturbing Finnish film sees Santa Claus unearthed in an archaeological dig. Unfortunately, the Santa myth got scrambled somewhere along the way, and he turns out to be a soul-eating beast. Soon enough, Santa’s entirely naked helpers (they all look like skinny Santas) start stealing the locals.


White Christmas (1954) and Black Christmas (1974)

We’re all familiar with White Christmas, probably the single most recognised of all Christmas movies. While your main recollection of the film will most likely be the cosy vocals of Bing Cosby singing the universally loved title song, where I live we don’t get a lot of snow. That’s why we’ll be watching Black Christmas this year, the underappreciated and touching tale of a group of sorority girls who are visited by somebody special at Christmas time. Nope, not that guy.


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Bad Santa (2003)

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, is an unforgettable work of art, even if its status as a Christmas film is questionable when viewed solely in the context of its narrative. But let’s face it, the title (and message) feels a little naïve in these more cynical times. That’s why I’d recommend taking a look at Bad Santa, which could quite comfortably be retitled It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life. This fantastic Billy Bob Thornton vehicle details the adventures of a drunken burglar who takes a job as an apartment store Santa to assist with a heist. This irreverent (offensive) film will abhor and amuse you at every turn, but in the end it will make the same point as Capra’s film (without the schmaltz).

Jack Frost (1979) and Jack Frost (1997)

Jack Frost, the immortal Christmas sprite, really changes between 1979 and 1997. Back in the old days he sacrificed his own happiness to ensure that the woman he loved married prince charming. I watch this every year and I’ll admit my eyes get a little red every time. But by 1997 the guy has well and truly gone off the rails – he’s turned into an angry snowman and has a tendency to do bad things. Poor little guy.

Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Rudolph deals with being the odd one out in this classic children’s television special about the little reindeer who couldn’t take part in any reindeer games. But at least he gets a happy ending. In Silent Night, Deadly Night poor Billy sees Santa do something horrible as a child. And it affects him. A lot.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

9 thoughts on “Christmas Films: The Sentimental and the Savage

  1. Pingback: Rudolph the Red Nosed, Reindeer? Are You Kidding ME? - I AM TOM NARDONE

  2. Pingback: Rudolph the Red Nosed, Reindeer? What an asshole. | I AM TOM NARDONE

    • It’s definitely quite full on – and suggestions of suicide rarely make for inspirational Christmas stories 🙂

      Having not seen this until adulthood like yourself, I’d definitely agree with you!

    • To the point of it depending upon your mood or, in particular, your point of view — in “Wonderful Life”, I see the ultimate victory of the human spirit. Another holiday movie that evokes different reactions is “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”. I consider this one of the funniest movies I have ever seen — notwithstanding the pathos in John Candy’s character’s situation. My wife dislikes the movie because she can’t get past the pathos — that’s the main theme to her.

  3. I love Christmas movies, man, and this was an awesome post.

    “Silent Night”, “Black Christmas” are favorites of mine. I’ll make sure to check out “Rare Exports”, it sounds dandy.

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