We all know and love the old classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” Attaboy Clarence, yule shoot your eye out, all that good stuff. But when you’re absolutely hammered on eggnog and full of roast beast, you’re feeling a bit adventurous; you want something with some teeth, something that might draw blood the way little Ralphie just ain’t able to. Usually this is when you reach for the greatest Christmas film ever made, “Die Hard.” Or you might throw on the one that traumatized your kids, made them stop believing in Santa Claus, and subsequently caused them to resent you throughout their teenage years, “Gremlins.” Maybe you want a protagonist who is in the same mind-set you’re in, in which case you try to find that “Bad Santa” disc.
But you’ve seen all of those too many times, dammit. You’re drunk, belligerent, yet full of Christmas cheer (or maybe it’s just that six-pack of Shiner Cheer you just drank)! You want something FRESH! Something NEW! Something that’s gonna BLOW YOUR MIND all over the wall, just leaving more mess to clean up with the next morning’s holiday hangover. Well, my inebriated friend, you’re in luck, because I’m here to offer you some excellent alternatives.
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1. Rare Exports
The newest film on this list, “Rare Exports” pulls off an impressive balancing act of having all the colorful look and vibe of a magical holiday film, while simultaneously freaking you out with its bizarre story. It’s the sort of “fairy tale for adults” that overcooked, over-hyped, nonsense like “Pan’s Labyrinth” wishes it could be. Whenever hacks describe a movie as a “fairy tale for adults,” it usually means the colors are sucked out so the stupid people in the back row know they’re supposed to take the movie seriously. Throw in some mean-spirited violence, and as usual, the critics fall all over it. “Rare Exports” doesn’t play that game. Instead it delivers a Christmas movie that is colorful and exciting, frightening yet warm.
Directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” is a Finnish flick takes place in a village that depends on herding Reindeer around Christmas for their annual income, but the Reindeer are all found slaughtered. The locals suspect that a mysterious nearby mountain excavation has something to do with it, and soon the local children start inexplicably disappearing. Believing that the purpose of the excavation was to dig up a malevolent creature that formed the basis of the idea for Santa Claus, the hunters decide to capture and ransom the old man back to the company that wants him so badly. Unbeknownst to them, the strange old man they’re holding prisoner has a few freaky surprises in store to shake things up.
“Rare Exports” may sound dark and violent, and it kinda is in places, but it ultimately provides a solid holiday vibe, albeit an off-kilter one. It easily trumps any of the pathetic, assembly-line offerings we’ve gotten from Hollywood in recent years. I can say with no exaggeration that this is one I’ll be putting on every year as my weirdo movie pick. I can’t recommend it enough.
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2. The Christmas Tale
Another film about capturing Santa, this Spanish-language TV movie takes place in 1985 and spins a yarn about a group of kids who find a woman dressed as Santa Claus trapped in a hole. The children quickly discover that she is a wanted bank robber and subsequently use the situation to their advantage, denying the woman food or a way out until she hands over the money she stole to them. The film is a small genre delight, informed by eighties coming-of-age kids-on-an-adventure movies, yet it ultimately chooses horror as its playground. A subplot involving a fake exploitation movie and voodoo give the film’s final act that strange supernatural element you find in a lot of films from the era it harkens back to. You can find this one on the affordable “6 Films to Keep You Awake” set from Lions Gate, which has a few other goodies on it.
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3. Black Christmas
Before he made the oh-so-beloved “A Christmas Story”, Bob Clark directed what is essentially the first holiday slasher film in 1974, laying the blueprint for “Halloween,” the movie that would cause the genre to explode. As John Carpenter reportedly asked Bob Clark after seeing “Black Christmas,” “If you were to make a sequel to ‘Black Christmas,’ what would you call it?” Clark replied, “I dunno, Halloween?”
In “Black Christmas,” an unseen killer terrorizes a sorority house during a frozen Christmas holiday, making frighteningly obscene phone calls and offing the girls one by one. A slasher film in a sorority house sounds like a sleazy affair, bringing to mind images like the poster for “Slumber Party Massacre,” yet absent are the base attempts at thrills that come from explicit nudity and gore, as Clark’s direction only has chilling suspense in mind. The killer is depicted almost entirely via POV shots, inspiring the iconic opening for “Halloween,” and the phone calls he terrorizes the sorority girls with are frighteningly perverse in execution. Ignore the botched remake that happened in 2006; Clark’s original is the only Christmas slasher that matters. Put it on, and check your attic for weirdos afterward.
4. The Ref
This one’s from the Bruckheimer/Simpson school of slick. While this movie’s intent was to be a star-vehicle for Dennis Leary and his comic persona, it’s ultimately his co-stars, Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, who steal the show. Leary plays a Christmas cat burglar who bungles a job, leading him into a moment of desperation that causes him to take a husband and wife who despise each other hostage. Their inability to get along ultimately forces the thief to play the role of a gun-toting marriage-counselor, and naturally, hilarity ensues, with an awkward Christmas family dinner being the film’s highlight. The predictable TV-movie plotting is elevated by the hilariously bitter banter between Davis and Spacey, as well as Leary’s man-on-the-edge-in-desperate-need-of-a-smoke shtick. The late Ted Demme’s direction does the actors a favor by stepping aside and letting them do their thing. It’s a family-in-crisis Christmas movie that doesn’t get a lot of love but is worth watching when you aren’t in the mood for one of the old classics.
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Nagisa Oshima’s adaptation of the novel by Sir Laurens Van Der Post is in keeping with the cinematic tradition of casting pop-culture spaceman David Bowie as a stranger in a strange land. Bowie portrays a British officer named Celliers, who is taken hostage as a POW by the Japanese army during World War II. Celliers’s guilt-ridden past gives him a haunted quality that immediately draws the interest of the camp’s commander, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), an officer whose past dogs him as well, and he begins to internalize his obsession with Celliers. Sakamoto, like Bowie, is a rock star with gravitas to burn, you can’t take your eyes off of either of them (Sakamoto also composed the film’s remarkable score).
Tom Conti also gives an excellent performance as the titular Lawrence, a prisoner who acts as the bilingual liason between the English captives and the Japanese captors. His banter with legendary actor/comedian/director Takeshi Kitano (in his first feature film role) provides the movie’s most memorable moments, the final scene being one you’ll never forget. To mention how Christmas works into the film’s plot would spoil the movie, but when Kitano utters the film’s title with his big baby-face filling the screen, it’s a moment that makes me well up every time.
Merry Christmas everyone, and here’s to a merry movie year in 2012.