There’s no shortage of Christmas movies to go around. From classics such as Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life to more modern films like Home Alone and Elf, you could probably watch a Christmas movie all day, every day through December and never run out (especially if you get desperate and start including Hallmark and Lifetime movies). What if the standard fare isn’t your cup of tea, though? What if you want something that appropriately reflects a season of coldness, darkness, and hibernation? Though I love the holiday, I’m not one myself for traditional Christmas movies—they tend to get too gushy-feely, while I like my sentimentality with just a little garnish of cynicism. So then, here are some of my favorite holiday picks—certainly not Christmas movies, but they do put me in the appropriately contemplative mood for a time of year when the skies are grey, the trees are dead, and all feels right with the world.
I’m probably not unique in calling this a Christmastime movie, considering AMC seems to air it in constant rotation every December, but, in case you’re not part of the club, do consider making this Mafia classic part of your yuletide tradition. Though it only features a brief sequence set in Wintertime near the beginning of the movie, the overall mood of the film perfectly matches that of the season. It’s permeated with an atmosphere of coldness, isolation, and moodiness that perfectly accompanies the feelings summoned by waking up early on a winter’s morning and looking out at a grey world before it’s started its day.
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
This 2011 adaptation of John le Carre’s classic novel is probably the second greatest spy movie ever made (right behind The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, another le Carre adaptation), and it’s also perfect wintertime viewing. At the height of the Cold War, disgraced spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is called out of retirement when it turns out that his deceased boss’ paranoia about a Soviet mole in British intelligence was well founded. Since he’s the only one who’s been cleared of suspicion, Smiley is tasked by the government with investigating his own former coworkers, and learning what lead up to the events of a badly botched operation behind the Iron Curtain that resulted in the capture of a high-ranking MI6 assassin. Like The Godfather, it’s a movie that carries with it an incredible sense of loneliness and isolation that’s evocative of the desolation of wintertime, bolstered all the more by the movie’s heavy use of greys and slate blues. Adding to the movie’s credentials are a series of running flashbacks throughout the film to a fateful MI6 Christmas party, in case you ever wanted to know what it looks like when a bunch of spies and assassins get thoroughly wasted—albeit in a proper, British way.
Like The Godfather, this one isn’t too far off the mark from conventional Christmas fare, especially in recent years as the internet has come to openly embrace it as traditional yuletide viewing. Probably the closest thing on this list to a “traditional” Christmas movie, it is set during the holiday, features a smattering of carols and hymns, and ends with a message of redemption and triumph over the forces of darkness. It may not have Jimmy Stewart learning the meaning of life, but it does have Bruce Willis gunning down international thieves. What more could you want on Christmas Eve?
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
This is sorta my Christmas movie, so, I’ve written about it at length in another article. Suffice to say that, in contrast to the other “sweet” movie on this list, there’s nothing warm or fuzzy about this one. Also set against the backdrop of a New York winter, it’s as cold as the holiday—but oh, so good.
SWEET NOVEMBER (1968)
For the chronic depressive and hopeless romantic in your life comes Sweet November, the 1968 adaptation of an unproduced Herman Raucher play. Not to be confused with the craptacular remake with Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron. Anthony Newley plays Charlie, an uptight English expatriate to New York who’s come here to apply his stuffiness to a Madison Avenue ad agency. When he ends up in a driving class with Sandy Dennis’ boho chick Sara, it’s the stuff of hipster romance forty years before that was a thing. Providing the template for every manic pixie dream girl to follow, Sara offers Charlie “therapy” to cure him of his emotional constipation and other social phobias. Since the “therapy” involves moving into Sara’s apartment for the month of November—along with everything that implies—Charlie takes the offer. Things go about as well as you’d expect, until it turns out that Sarah’s got a more tragic motivation for all that lovin’ than meets the eye. Taking place in the heart of a sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal New York winter, this is a romantic comedy that flips the script at the 11th hour, perfectly segueing into a romantic tragedy the likes of which 1,000 Nicholas Sparks novels could never hope to accomplish. If you want to see tons of lovely snow and absolutely lose your stuff at the same time, this is the film for you. (Hey, wait, I think I found another Thanksgiving movie!)
For the hopeful romantic in your life—because I can’t just leave you hanging on Sweet November. (Seriously—that movie will mess with you). Not exactly a movie, this installment of Netflix’s sci-fi horror anthology Black Mirror works as a short film on its own, both thanks in part to its slightly extended running time and an overall mood and tone that sets it apart from the more pessimistic rest of the series. Set in the titular beachside town in the Summer of 1987, San Junipero tells the story of nebbish new girl in town Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), who falls in love with the charming extrovert (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who takes her under her wing. The girls’ nights of carefree partying and beachside walks are undercut by strange, unspoken circumstances that appear to involve long-dead loved ones, experimental technology, and things that neither girl can possibly be old enough to have experienced. It all leads to a fantastic second-act twist that segues into what’s one of the best hours of television ever produced. This one may break the mold by ultimately making you feel good, but you’ll still bawl your eyes out. My association between this and Christmas is somewhat personal (I watched it two days before Christmas last year in the light of my tree) but it does ultimately culminate with a message of hopefulness, renewal, and eternal life—all perfect themes for the holiday.