When it comes to Christmas time, much of our Yuletide viewing can tend towards overfamiliar and sentimental classics: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Holiday Inn (1942), White Christmas (1954) and the like. Even raucous comedies like Bad Santa (2003) can lose some of their edge through repeated viewing.
The same fare year in, year out can prove tiresome – and, Christmas or not, life goes on. Misfortunes occur, responsibilities intrude, arguments happen. A warm jumper and a roast dinner might signify a blissful pause in the year for some, but the season can also be a remarkably lonely time for many, when strained finances, drunken feuds or family dysfunction can all create their own malaise.
In the desire to seek out fresher and sharper festive viewing, indie and arthouse films often provide refreshing alternatives. Directors as varied and international as Whit Stillman and Eric Rohmer have set their films against or around the holiday season, while steadfastly avoiding making traditional Christmas films. Stillman made his feature debut, Metropolitan (1990), by selling his NYC apartment for $50,000 and casting a group of unknowns. Rohmer, as was typical of the French new wave directors, shot on the fly in locations across Paris. Tangerine (2015) was filmed entirely on an iPhone as its subjects traversed LA, making it a modern inheritor of the nouvelle vague aesthetic.
With their small budgets and lo-fi production values, many independent filmmakers are able to spotlight the types of protagonists who’d never make their way into mainstream Christmas movies. Looking at contract killers, street-walkers, and various other lost souls, what these films seem to have in common is their focus on the less fortunate of the festive season. So if you’re sick of faux good cheer – and have had enough of George Bailey to last you a lifetime – it’s worth delving into these 10 Christmas films with an independent streak.
Blast of Silence (1961)
Director Allen Baron
This lean, lonely noir thriller follows a hitman as he carries out his methodical work on Christmas Day. At only 77 minutes long, it hustles along after Baron (both director and star) as he walks a solitary trek down Fifth Avenue. The brightly lit department store displays and colourful lights are drowned out by the rough monochrome of the film’s black and white – not to mention the protagonist’s abject dislike of the city at large.
Lionel Stander’s gnarled baritone provides the voiceover here, and it’s certainly memorable: nihilistic, punch-to-the-gut prose that’s exquisitely hardboiled. Contrasted with the twinkling jubilation of a Manhattan Christmas, the protagonist walks the streets with a sense of existential dread. Regardless of the holidays, there’s a job to be done.
My Night with Maud (1969)
Director Eric Rohmer
Eric Rohmer’s My Night with Maud is a masterpiece of wordy insomnia, late-night ruminations and philosophical conflict. When Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a church-going Roman Catholic, finds himself snowed in during a chaste Christmas Eve all-nighter with the bohemian Maud (Françoise Fabian), a crisis of love and faith follows.
Rohmer frames the film with a kind of reverence as the two argue and debate everything from Marxism to Catholicism. That it takes place on Christmas Eve might seem tangential at first. But as Jean-Louis questions his firm religious and ethical beliefs – spurred on by the whip-smart, compelling Maud – a sense of confusion and rebirth seems imminent. The season of the winter solstice (the longest period of darkness in the year) seems a perfectly appropriate time for this transformative experience to take place.
Mon oncle Antoine (1971)
Director Claude Jutra
In this pantheon-level Canadian film, director Claude Jutra might depict the bleakest Christmas Eve committed to celluloid. Set in an impoverished mining town of the 1940s, the story revolves around an old-fashioned dry goods shop where a young boy, Benoit, works for his curmudgeonly old uncle. In spite of the snowy, wind-blown setting and the Nativity scene in the storefront window, things couldn’t be any less cheerful. To make ends meet, the boy and his uncle work as undertakers on the side, coming face to face with death on a regular basis. When the two set off on a night-long Christmas Eve odyssey to retrieve a corpse and find themselves in a ‘situation’, adolescent Benoit faces a troubling, revelatory conversation with his uncle.
The fact that Jutra’s life was cut short by an early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis – and subsequent suicide – can’t help but heighten the tragic dimensions of what we’re seeing on screen. Mon oncle Antoine features a watershed Christmas for a young boy whose innocence is shattered and who must face adulthood in startling new ways. Learning the news about Santa seems mild by comparison.
Black Christmas (1974)
Director Bob Clark
Black Christmas belongs to the early cycle of 1970s slasher films, with the fixtures we’ve now come to expect: sorority girls being stalked, a sinister voice at the end of the phone, and a killer who’s secretly been inside the house all along. With starring roles from big names of the time (Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea), Black Christmas stands up unusually well for its genre.
Opening with unnerving strains of ‘Silent Night’, the film begins with the sorority’s annual Christmas party, when the killer calls up and makes chilling, aggressive sexual comments to the girls. Gore and horror films set in conjunction with December festivities are not too uncommon, but Clark’s film really sets the tone – not just for the subversive impulses of the holiday horror, but for the architecture of the entire slasher flick.
Comfort and Joy (1984)
Director Bill Forsyth
A uniquely Scottish take on festive cheer, Comfort and Joy brings Bill Forsyth’s acerbic sense of humour to the fore. This absurdist cult comedy features Bill Paterson as a Glaswegian DJ (probably an influence on Alan Partridge) who finds his life turned upside down during the holidays when his girlfriend leaves him. At a loss and aimlessly driving around the city one day, he finds himself caught in a violent turf war between two rival Italian ice cream vendors. Forced to try and work out a solution (or else keep suffering damage to his BMW), Bill eventually manages to arrange a compromise.
Silly and kind-hearted, Forsyth’s film is less celebrated than Gregory’s Girl (1980) and Local Hero (1983), but similar in terms of its concern for the little guy. There’s nothing more Capra-esque than that.
Director Whit Stillman
One of the most celebrated independent films of the 1990s, Whit Stillman’s debut Metropolitan offers a rarified take on Christmas with a film among a world of debutantes and strivers in droll, chatty New York high society. Played by a largely unknown cast, the callow kids of Metropolitan do a lot of talking – about literature, romantic entanglements and, vitally, about their dying old-world monied class.
Rife with romantic intrigue and youthful spats, the film takes place over the course of winter break on the Upper West Side, where the cast gathers near a tastefully festooned Christmas tree. There’s an idealistic, F. Scott Fitzgerald-style youth in the lead male role (Edward Clements), and he soon falls into step with the rhythms of ‘deb’ society. Dressed to the nines in elegant tuxedos and au courant satin gowns, the twentysomethings bicker and party in an NYC that – now and then – opens itself wide to the ‘urban haute bourgeoisie’.
The Ice Harvest (2005)
Director Harold Ramis
Who better to slouch through a cynical holiday season than John Cusack? In Harold Ramis’s quasi-indie film about a criminal enterprise gone horribly awry, Cusack plays a morally dubious attorney who works for the mafia. On the night before Christmas, he is tangled in a hopelessly complicated neo-noir plot with more than a few Ramis-esque screwball elements. He buys presents for his kids, steals $2m, locks a mobster in the trunk of his car and visits his (ex) in-laws for the holidays – all over a 24-hour period during the most wonderful time of the year.
With a comical and drunken supporting turn from Billy Bob Thornton, this is the ‘Christmas movie’ at its hyper-violent and grotesquely funny best.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
Director Arnaud Desplechin
Big family get-togethers always come with at least a modicum of stress. There’s hosting the event, cooking the meal and making sure no one brings up religion or politics at the dinner table. But for the woebegone family at the centre of Arnaud Desplechin’s film, who’ve suffered terrible illness and grief prior to the events of the film, the holidays come very close to being maudlin. Catherine Deneuve plays a terminally ill woman who is graciously resigned to her fate. She is surrounded by a large, relatively well-to-do extended family, all of whom bring their own issues, personalities and resentments to the table (literally).
Desplechin’s light-fingered storybook approach saves A Christmas Tale from utter misery, but it’s an excruciatingly honest watch nonetheless. His penchant for meandering dialogue scenes – peppered with incidental humour and blistering honesty – make it a Christmas film for only the most steely-nerved. It’s a chamber drama with the realistic force of the most awkward family dinners.
Director Sean Baker
Sean Baker’s much talked-about Tangerine is as subversive as they come, in both style and content. It was filmed entirely on an iPhone 5S, capturing the undertow of nightlife on a Los Angeles Christmas Eve. The plot, running throughout the course of one day, follows best friends Sin-Dee (Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). They are two transgender prostitutes who end up traversing the city on a wild goose chase, looking for Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend/pimp.
Baker elicits humour, seediness and an odd poignancy from his small cast of mostly non-actors – all the while capturing an unusual and surprisingly beautiful aesthetic from his mobile phone. On their misadventures, the two women bump up against countless parts of a usually unseen American subculture, giving Tangerine an unforced, fable-like element. Along with its modernity, this makes it a Christmas film of revolutionary proportions.
Director Todd Haynes
Few Christmas love stories are as stylish and satisfying as Todd Haynes’s Carol, with those exquisite knit twin-sets, beribboned boxes and super-dry martinis. Haynes’s period-specific mid-century love affair is the antithesis of what we’d expect from a feel-good holiday classic – slowly paced, reserved, full of glacial silences and quiet longing.
When the chic Carol (Cate Blanchett) asks for holiday shopping advice from a gauche young shopgirl in a Santa hat (Rooney Mara) an illicit romance blooms. The women simmer beneath their cool exteriors but are stymied by their relationships with men and Carol’s desire to keep custody of her young daughter. Before they part, the pair take a weekend trip away from the frosty confines of Manhattan. The chemistry is undeniable, but it’s the emotional restraint of the denouement that makes Carol all the more affecting. And, after all, a touch of melancholy and longing forever seem to linger on the edges of the holiday season.