Bah, Humbug: 12 Movies for the Holiday Blues

A film festival for those who find little to be cheerful about this time of year

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Every year, it’s the same ol’ dance: the Turkey comes, the malls start coughing, the people go nuts, and TBS decides to run A Christmas Story for 24 hours. For some, it’s the closest thing to hell on Earth, which is ironic given that we’re supposed to be celebrating peace, love, understa– oh, whatever.

Nowadays, with Black Friday starting October 28th, the whole winter festival feels even more transparent. As Holly Hunter said in 1995’s Home for the Holidays, “Nobody means what they say on Thanksgiving, Mom. You know that. That’s what the day’s supposed to be all about, right? Torture.”

Well, not exactly. Histrionics and first-world problems notwithstanding, it’s totally understandable how anyone could be a curmudgeon this time of the year. Who can you turn to? Where can you go? What can you do? Not much, especially if you’re dealing with a very involved, highly aggravating family.

There is the cinema, however. If you can whisk away from the forgettable college football games your uncle demands everyone watch, or tuck beneath some pillows to avoid your nagging cousins prying through your room — you could escape into one of these 12 vaguely holiday-themed films.

Just be sure to give thanks to Eadweard James Muybridge.


[12]  200 Cigarettes

Risa Bramon Garcia’s strange, chaotic, and sometimes groan-worthy ensemble comedy about troubled New York twentysomethings on New Year’s Eve 1981 isn’t quite great. It’s a fluff film with some enjoyable supporting performances Paul Rudd, Kate Hudson, Jay Mohr, Ben Affleck, and even Courtney Love. Its true genius lies in the film’s 101 minutes of chaos; it’s like a midnight movie that persists to seemingly unbelievable results. Basically, you’ll feel better about yourself and that warm Coors Light you’ve been nursing next to the fire.

Unwrap… if you have a thing for Elvis Costello.


[12]  Less Than Zero

Five-and-a-half words: Robert Downey, Jr. and Andrew McCarthy. Marek Kanievska’s 1987 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial debut novel is an underrated relic of an era that was fun on the outside, but devilish from within. McCarthy’s college freshman character, Clay, returns home for Christmas, only to find his ex-girlfriend and best friend struggling amidst the LA underbelly. Cocaine, sex, and The Bangles make this a thrilling rollercoaster ride of emotions: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll ask Santa for therapy.

Unwrap… when you’ve confirmed all your childhood friends are nothing like you anymore.


[10]  Better Off Dead

Hey, it’s John Cusack — and literally no one else you’ll recognize. In what might be the strangest movie of his career, Better Off Dead follows Cusack’s eccentric Lane Myer, a sad sack teen who tries to hang himself (to hilarious results) over the holidays after his girlfriend leaves him for a dumb jock. Along the line: a hamburger comes to life, a young kid builds a rocket ship, and there’s a big skiing race on an equally big mountain called K-12. A year after the release of this film, Dead director, Savage Steve Holland, would re-team with Cusack for One Crazy Summer.

Unwrap… if you have two dollars (and 97 minutes) to spare.


[09]  12 Monkeys

Terry Gilliam’s time-traveling masterpiece about… yeah, that’s the ticket. So, Bruce Willis must find this virus. Well, it’s about a secret organization run by an oogly-eyed Brad Pitt. Eh, there’s Madeline Stowe in it — remember her? Animals run lose. David Prowse does his creepy thing well. Hitchcock’s Vertigo factors in. Whatever, it’s complicated. Just watch it, then re-watch it again, and then get yourself committed. You’ll probably want to wear a sweater, too. One look at this movie makes me feel cold.

Unwrap… if you’re beginning to think that the sniffles you can’t seem to shake might be something more serious.


[08]  The Apartment

More sad sacks, only with a squeeze of Jack Lemmon. Director Billy Wilder’s finest work finds the late pal of the late Walter Matheau lending his apartment out to his office’s top executives who are all looking to carry out their love affairs. Things get complicated and messy and then Shirley MacLaine shows up to just charm the pants off of everyone… literally and metaphorically. At one point, Lemmon is without his digs and has to sleep in Central Park; mind you, this all takes place between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Ouch, right?

Unwrap… if you’re forced to sacrifice your bed for the in-laws.


[07]  Gremlins

Gizmo makes the world feel warm and cuddly. Mohawk burns it down. Director Joe Dante’s classic horror-comedy will either give you nightmares — or leave you up at night Googling “mogwai” in hopes of finding a cuddly, little furball of your own. (Spoiler: You’ll just find lots of post-rock.) Almost 30 years later, the film still resonates with solid special effects by Chris Walas and the surreal twist on a Rockwellian Christmas portrait. Steven Spielberg admittedly had his hands on this, but removed just enough to allow Dante to lean in on the horror.

Unwrap… only after you’ve eaten dinner, the lights are off, and it’s before midnight.


[06]  Dutch

Kids…am I right? In this John Hughes-penned road comedy, blue collar everyman Dutch Dooley (Ed O’Neill) offers to bring home his girlfriend’s bratty son (Ethan Embry) from boarding school for the Thanksgiving holiday. Of course, he has no idea what he’s signed up for, and he’s soon shot with BB guns, robbed by prostitutes, and almost left for dead on the side of the highway. Don’t worry, it’s not that macabre, but it’s hardly your traditional feel-good holiday movie, either. What sells the movie is the chemistry between O’Neill and Embry, and another memorable villain in Mr. Shooter McGavin, aka Christopher McDonald.

Unwrap… if you feel like strangling your cousins.


[05]  American Psycho

It’s (hardly) a wonderful life when you’re being asked to “Feed Me a Stray Cat” at the ATM, or chasing down call girls wearing only a chainsaw and a pair of Nikes. For our second Bret Easton Ellis adaptation on this list, Christian Bale stars as Patrick Bateman, a sophisticated Wall Street stockbroker who murders on the side — or does he? American Psycho twists your head repeatedly as it drives through the wintry streets of 1980s New York City. Set to the tunes of New Order, Huey Lewis and the News, or Robert Palmer, Mary Harron’s sleek 2000 thriller is both sexy and cold, the perfect recipe for a nihilistic Christmas. Just pray you don’t get a pot bellied pig the next morning.

Unwrap… if there is no exit.


[04]  Edward Scissorhands

Weird in the best ways possible, Tim Burton’s 1990 masterpiece is arguably his most iconic work to date. Johnny Depp forgoes his identity as the title character, a troubled Frankenstein-like being with, well, scissors for hands. Winona Ryder plays his sympathetic love interest, securing her reign post-Beetlejuice and Heathers as the quintessential It girl for goths and slackers everywhere. What’s more, Alan Arkin and Dianne Wiest turn in hilarious performances, and Anthony Michael Hall will scare the living daylights out of you. You’ll never look at your neighborhood the same way ever again.

Unwrap… if you hate Tim Burton movies post-2003.


[03]  Scent of a Woman

“I’m in the dark here Charlie,” Al Pacino screams with a gun to his head. Martin Brest’s phenomenal 1992 drama takes plenty of dark turns despite its sunny decadence. For Christ’s sake, it’s about a blind Lieutenant Colonel invested in blowing his brains out at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria over Thanksgiving weekend. His temporary caretaker, a young Chris O’Donnell, is the only thing standing in his way, though even he has his own problems to sort out. It’s an emotionally gripping film made all the more majestic with crisp autumnal scenery and a vivid score by Thomas Newman. Hoo-ah, indeed.

Unwrap… when you’ve run out of ways to get your grandfather off your back.


[02]  The Ice Storm

Ang Lee dials it back to Thanksgiving 1973 and zeroes in on two dysfunctional Connecticut families in this 1997 drama. With a cast that features Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Tobey Maguire, the film tosses around some uncomfortable imagery as everyone tears their souls apart through alcohol, adultery, and sexual debauchery. A creepy Elijah Wood delivers a particularly electrifying performance, while Christina Ricci reminds us why we all thought she’d go on to better things. The film’s climax is the real water cooler moment here, and if you’re currently a thirtysomething, you might never look at your parents the same way again.

Unwrap… if you think you have a snazzy keychain.


[01]  Eyes Wide Shut

Fidelio. That’s all you need to unlock New York’s sordid, sexual underworld. Stanley Kubrick’s swan song would prove quite polarizing in 1999, but many today consider it his underrated masterpiece — and with good reason. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story, Eyes Wide Shut modernizes the Austrian tale about psychological transformations in an upper class marriage with former Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The two mentally tear each other apart with subtle threats of infidelity, though it’s Cruise’s character who succumbs to the darkness, finding himself enraptured by lonely call girls and the strangest orgy you’ve ever seen. The way Kubrick juxtaposes all these lascivious activities against Christmas lights and decor… it’s a thing of beauty. 

Unwrap… if you can’t stop thinking about who your spouse was talking to at her holiday office party.