By Simon Fearn and Eugene Smith
I have a confession to make: I quite like Love Actually. I know I shouldn’t; both you and I owe it to ourselves to discard the traditional festive fluff for more substantial fare. So grab the leftover turkey and a generous helping of mulled wine, and sit back and relax (or, in fact, despair) with these unconventional seasonal offerings:
The Hunt (Jagten) (2012)
Thomas Vinterberg’s (Festen, Far From the Madding Crowd) Oscar-nominated, 2012 Danish flick is ideal for getting you in the festive mood. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is having a difficult Christmas; a child has wrongly accused him of molestation and the community is quick to violently turn against him. Needless to say, there is a distinct lack of ‘goodwill to all men’ in the air.
Mikkelsen gives an acting masterclass as the persecuted Lucas. You can’t help but cringe at each new attempt by the community to ostracise him – bricks are thrown through windows; he’s turned away from shops; even his girlfriend begins to suspect him. This is a film that utterly involves the viewer, like a nightmare playing out in an all too predictable way.
Raising issues of falsified memories and the lengths we go to protect our loved ones, The Hunt is just the kind of thing you want to mull over in a lethargic post-Christmas-dinner haze.
This is England ‘88 (2011)
Following on from Shane Meadows’ phenomenal 2006 film, This is England ’88 is the second of three Channel 4 series that follow the lives of a loveable bunch of misfits getting by on a rough estate. It’s gritty and occasionally very bleak stuff that’s tempered with a bizarre sense of humour.
The previous series had a devastating (if slightly melodramatic) conclusion featuring adultery, rape and murder that tore friends apart and left the already long-suffering Lol (Vicky McClure) deeply traumatised. Can the gang make up their differences and have a merry Christmas after all?
The tone is well-balanced throughout and Meadows and Jack Thorne’s dialogue is always brilliantly naturalistic. Lol’s experience as an isolated, mentally ill single mother is as bleak as it sounds, but meanwhile the persistently disastrous Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is falling for his co-star in a terribly-acted school play.
(the latter co-wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Heartbreak is delivered in elegant understatement and the comedy is always spot on.
Much like The Hunt, This is England ’88 isn’t exactly feel-good stuff. But I think there’s too much unrealistic happiness going around at Christmas – this is the perfect antidote!
This one conjures up many happy childhood memories! Written by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Home Alone) and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins should really be as much of a staple as Elf or The Grinch at Christmastime.
Mega-dork Billy (Zach Galligan) is given the ultimate Christmas present – an adorable furry Mogwai called Gizmo. Alas like many of us he doesn’t really read the instructions before playing with his new toy, and before you know it an army of mischievous little gremlins are causing havoc.
It’s not particularly profound, but it’s a memorably bonkers idea with a surprising dose of gore (the infamous scene with the gremlin exploding in the microwave for instance). On the whole it’s very, very silly.
For Gremlins fans there’s a sequel and a rumoured third instalment on its way. But for now just appreciate this excellent specimen of crazy 80s filmmaking.
The trouble with Christmas films is that, being made at a time of year that isn’t Christmas, their seasonal schmaltz can often feel somewhat disingenuous. It is, therefore, far better to bypass the saccharine scenery and stick your teeth into the grittier takes on everyone’s favourite time of year. Here are my top three options for doing just that:
Die Hard (1988)
It’s Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. Bruce Willis’ New York cop John McClane doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to become the iconic hero of what I long ago chose to describe as the Citizen Kane of popcorn action movies. A group of vaguely European terrorists, led by the peerless Alan Rickman as the positively seminal villain Hans Gruber, seize control of a Japanese corporation’s skyscraper and take the staff hostage, at which point it is up to McClane to save the day – largely by roaming the building’s ventilation shafts in a grimy tank-top, shouting into a walkie-talkie and sweating.
Though the film paved the way for a stream of inconsistent sequels, and opened the floodgates for a deluge of formulaic copycat actioners, every minute of its 131-minute runtime is captivating. From explosions to gunfights, and from dramatic deaths to grammatically-dodgy German, whacking this on at Yuletide will bring you the very best of thrillingly non-Christmassy Christmas cinema.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
This sharply witty neo-noir crime caper was one of a handful of films that heralded Robert Downey Jr’s triumphant return to the big screen following his substance abuse and rehabilitation in the early 2000s. Playing Harry Lockhart, a petty criminal mistaken for an actor and given on-the-job experience of detective work to prepare him for a role, Downey’s performance is authentically droll and his double act with Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Batman Forever), playing Harry’s private detective mentor ‘Gay’ Perry, truly sizzles.
What begins as an ironic kind of buddy-cop comedy soon becomes tantamount to a fast-paced conspiracy thriller, as the plot thickens so much as to actually require the tension-breaking levity of the film’s countless one-liners and set-piece visual gags. The whizzing action sequences – involving shootouts, car chases and a hilariously misjudged game of Russian roulette – are also punctuated by the protagonists’ attendance of the odd Christmas party, which is what validates the film’s inclusion on my list.
Children of Men (2006)
The Nativity is all about a pregnant mother seeking a place of refuge in which to give birth; so is Children of Men – the difference being, in this thoughtful sci-fi thriller, everyone on the planet stopped being able to give birth two decades ago. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity), the film is set in a dystopian 2027, where inexplicable global infertility has resulted in deteriorating social order and rampant state terrorism. Clive Owen stars, alongside a glittering supporting cast of Julianne Moore, Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Released in the United States on the 25th of December, Children of Men is simultaneously the best, and least Christmassy, film on my list. Together with hauling you to the edge of your seat through a flurry of enthralling action scenes, the film also coaxes you into a real intellectual engagement with its fascinatingly broad sweep of issues and characters. The denouement, set in an overcrowded refugee camp infested with corruption, police brutality and religious radicalism, provides one of the most breathtakingly provocative and memorable scenes in cinema.
Photographs: Grace Tseng