The 5 Greatest (and Most Underappreciated) Christmas Movies of All-Time…

Merry Christmas movie house!

It’s almost Christmas and Christmas means cramming in as many Christmassy films as possible before Boxing Day. (As if you had time… but you can make time and you have to make time because it’s Christmas, y’know?) Ho ho, yes! ‘Tis the season to screen festive flicks and laugh (and cry) all over them for the 542nd time.

Christmas looks a bit like this. It's being consumed by film...

Christmas looks a bit like this. It’s being consumed by film…

Swept up in the spirit of the season and the timely moment, people and media outlets have been sharing their own personal ‘Best Christmas Films Ever’ lists. As you’d expect, the usual suspects – The Muppet Christmas Carol, Elf, Home Alone, Die Hard, that one where Jimmy Stewart is suicidal – are all there decking the Halls of Fame and ringing jingle bells. I really like those films, but I’ve found that I have a couple of problems as I browse through these lists.

Firstly, can we count Edward Scissorhands as a Christmas movie? (Yes, we can and yes I will and I’m going to cry either way.) Secondly, why do people always bring the same movies to the conversation and, indeed, to the DVD player every single year? It’s true that the aforementioned seasonal staples are classics but I feel that there are other ‘Tinselflick’ works out there worthy of mention. Thinking beyond the mainstream, there are a few long-forgotten festive treasures that are widely unseen, underappreciated and unloved.

This then is my alternative ‘Top 5 Christmas Movies’ list. It’s good for hipster-types, for arthouse afficionados, for serious film buffs or for anybody who wants to try something a bit different with their family this Christmas.  Without any further ado, here are the cult crackers I’m putting forward for your consideration…

#1. The Happy Little Crooked Christmas Tree (1934)

Awww, this one is really sweet. A lovingly crafted silhouette animation from wunderkind artist Heinrich Juhnke, this stop-motion masterpiece is a perfect papercut picture of festive charm. Played out by black card puppets across colourful backdrops, the story follows the titular tree’s journey from lonely misery to love and happiness. In the beginning, the Happy Little Crooked Christmas Tree is actually the very unhappy resident of the Black Forest. Bullied by its taller, straighter peers and subsequently dismissed by cruel woodcutters who don’t rate its commercial potential, the poor little bent tree retreats into the wilderness.

But wait! Dry your tears, for while lost in the forest it’s found by the good-hearted twins Gerta and Günter. They think that the little tree is just lovely and take it home to Grandmother’s. All three then decorate the long-suffering spruce and turn it into the most beautiful Christmas tree in the realm. Being so happy, the tree releases its ancient inner magic in gratitude and the happiness attracts the spirits of Gerta and Günter’s deceased parents. In the end, they all sing traditional carols for the happy ending that this type of fairytale requires.

Sadly, the Nazi Party took exception to the subtexts and The Happy Little Crooked Christmas Tree was stomped down beneath fascist jackboots. Juhnke – a highly-talented disciple of the great Lotte Reiniger – fled to America with the film’s few copies. He managed to eke out an existence as a street performer in New York for a couple of months before succumbing to a bout of pneumonia that killed him. Film historians continue to search far and wide for any of Juhnke’s remaining works, including reels of The Happy Little Crooked Christmas Tree – a timeless animated fable that continues to touch those fortunate enough to see it.

What makes it a Christmas cracker? Tiny Tim-characters; fairytale wonder; German folk setting; strong morals; family-friendly nature; arts & crafts; children (and orphan children at that); ghosts; the ugly and unloved getting their Christmas wish and finding family and friendship; a Christmas tree.

#2. The Couperthwaites’ Christmas Dinner (1995)

Bradford-native Damian Sharrow was raised on video nasties and the schlock horror B-movies that made the 1980s such a glorious era for those with twisted minds and bad taste. For his debut feature, Sharrow decided to make a fever dream which crossed the splatstick of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead with the holiday season and the Yorkshire moors of his own backyard. On the stringiest of shoestring budgets, he made The Couperthwaites’ Christmas Dinner – a blackly comic horror yarn revolving about a farming family’s battle against their Christmas turkey. Said Christmas turkey is, indeed, a possessed mutant bird brought back to life when Old Mavis Couperthwaite reads aloud the dread arcane Latin that, for some unknown reason, was scrawled into the back of a Delia Smith cookery book.

Don’t focus too much on the ridiculous plot, though, because the fun here is in listening to proper Yorkshire folk cursing a giant diabolical turkey carcass. What’s more, the gore – and gravy, and gunk, and guts, and flesh, and other assorted bodily fluids – go everywhere. The film only lasts 72 minutes and approximately 59 minutes of that involves some kind of splatter. Needless to say, the Couperthwaite family (all twelve of ’em) come together in a crisis, though the festive season – and indeed life – will never be the same again following the battle with the damn bird.

Unfortunately, Sharrow’s sick fantasy failed to find its audience (or, rather, any audience). When the owners of Duncombe Farm returned from holiday to find their home completely trashed (gravy, dead bird parts, fake blood, etc.) they sued the aspiring director for damages. Sharrow had also led his cast to believe that they had permission to shoot on the farm when no such thing had been given. Shamed and in a financial mire, he backed off into the shadows and took his movie with him. The Couperthwaites’ Christmas Dinner occasionally pops up at cult festivals and can be found on the web if you look hard enough. Sharrow is currently believed to be somewhere in America, working in the entertainment industries under a pseudonym.

What makes it a Christmas cracker? Family bonding; a real homeliness and down-to-Earth sensibility; traditional customs; body horror; bodily fluids; someone reading Latin; overcoming adversity for the sake of Christmas dinner; Christmas dinner; things you thought were dead coming back to life; an ugly, ugly, ugly cooked bird.

#3. Your Mother Wishes You Merry Christmas But Isn’t Sure About the Lingerie (2008)

Directed by feminist auteur Anabel Valiente Méndez, this thought-provoking picture follows the sole figure of Felícita Tato as she fails to go anywhere. To be precise, we spend 103 minutes with Felícita as she stands outside the window of a lingerie shop in Madrid while trying to decide whether to buy the underwear that her 16-year-old daughter has requested for Christmas. The agony and indecision is both compelling and affecting, and the question of ‘Is this an appropriate gift for a teenager?’ is soon joined by other troubling thoughts that the mother struggles to find satisfactory answers to.

What would her own devoutly Catholic mother say about this? What would her husband say? In fact, would that taciturn and apparently indifferent man care at all? How do we feel about the sexualisation of young women? Why is her daughter asking for risqué undergarments? When did she, all of a sudden, grow up? Why is fancy lingerie so expensive? Why don’t I wear fancy lingerie any more? Do I want to wear fancy lingerie? What kind of culture do we live in that wants women to wear this overpriced nonsense? Why didn’t I buy something when the sales were on? Why am I stood here when I have all this other Christmas shopping to do? How much were the factory workers who made those silk panties paid? Am I a complicit actor in the exploitation of third world wage-slaves whose rights are denied them by industrial powers catering for the selfish needs of Western world consumers? Am I inadvertently supporting systems that undermine women and perpetuate the grossly unfair and unsustainable myth that is capitalism?

Felícita gets few answers and audiences get little festive cheer, but it’s a powerful think-piece and I recommend it as a catalyst for post-Boxing Day dinner discussion. It’s hard to find on DVD or blu-ray but you may be able to find a copy online or an import somewhere out there.

What makes it a Christmas cracker? Christmas gift dilemmas; wanting the best for your family in spite of it all; window shopping; money worries; resenting consumerism; hints of seduction; relationship issues; charitable thoughts towards people in far-flung parts of the globe who are far less fortune than yourself; heady philosophising; seasonal existential crisis.

#4. Black Belt Santa (1975)

The Jim Kelly movie that pretty much got erased from history by ‘The Man’, this blaxploitation flick reminds us of the truth, brothers and sisters. That truth is that Grandaddy Christmas was a black philanthropist who got whacked by Syndicate hoods when he tried to intervene and help a poor ghetto community in Los Angeles. The path to profitable-yet-socially irresponsible redevelopment is thus cleared for a cold business cabal of mobsters and greedy entrepreneurs; at least, it is until Jim Kelly steps up to bring the just beatdown. Kelly is Kris Kringle III – Grandaddy Christmas’ grandson – and he is both a master of karate and keeper of Grandaddy’s mystic secrets.

Kringle accordingly motivates the students of his downtown dojo and raises an army of martial artists to fight back. Cue funk soundtrack and montage sequence after montage sequence of Kringle and comrades beating up hordes of henchmen, henchwomen, henchhookers, henchdealers, henchpimps, henchrottweilers, henchsecretaries and henchsuits, all while looking superfly. Of course, it all takes place amidst plastic Christmas trees and fairy lights and, come the end credits, the karate kids have saved the community from homelessness and all the dirty drug-pushers and fat cats threatening them.

Sound good to you? It didn’t to Warner Bros. and, once it was finished, they dropped the movie and tried to bury it (most likely having been pressured by powerful commercial concerns). Interest in the ‘long-lost’ festive kung fu flick was reignited in the wake of Kelly’s death two years ago and a widespread re-release could potentially be on the way soon. It’s worth seeing, just for the fact that it has an afrotastic guy dressed as Santa shouting “ho ho ho sucker!” and “jingle them bells, brother!” while karate chopping and roundhouse kicking hoodlums into seasonally-suitable submission.

What makes it a Christmas cracker? Grandaddy Christmas; action Santa; altruistic missions for the good of the vulnerable and helpless; family values; thoughts about homelessness and poverty; innocence triumphing over the evil and immoral; seasonal aesthetics; surprising and comedic violence; concerns about reckless consumerism, its effect on the masses and the distorted myths that power the American Dream; empowerment for minority groups;cult heroes; nostalgia for the 1970s; ludicrous kitsch; wish-fulfillment..

#5. Lumières de Noëlle (1961)

I think your Christmas needs a 1960s French New Wave road movie, and Lumières de Noëlle is that movie. Written and directed by Lucie Delsarte, Lumières de Noëlle is an arty black-and-white winter wonder that somehow manages to be be both downbeat and uplifting. It also has all the nouvelle vague touches you’d expect – jump cuts, fourth wall-breaking, existential musing, lots of sighing in French and a heck of lot of cigarette smoking. Cigarettes are, indeed, the Macguffin that get this thing moving.

The plot: Noëlle is a young woman driving home for Christmas in her Citroën 2CV. Said car is loaded up with boxes of cigarettes given to her gratis by the advertising company she works for. This will make make a nice gift for her chain-smoking dear old widowed father she figures, so weighed down with the load she starts the long slow journey from Lyon to the coast of Brittany. Driving 800km through the snowy landscapes alone with only cigarettes would be a drag, but Noëlle soon encounters hitchhiker Lucien. Lucien is handsome, charismatic and has that attractive melancholy thing going on. Noëlle is stunningly beautiful, charismatic and has that attractive melancholy thing going on. Naturally, they fall to long stretches of existential discussion, cigarette-smoking and lovemaking on the roof of the Citroën.

Sounds perfect, right? Alas, it turns out that Lucien is actually on the run from gambling debts and – in the beginning at least – was eyeing up those cigarette boxes as a way to get loan sharks and gang thugs off his back. He falls in love with Noëlle for real but, sadly, their romance is ruined when heavies catch up with the couple, club him to death, smash up the Citroën and leave her to die alone in the snow by the rural roadside. They do, however, leave her with a packet of cigarettes to help her pass the time. ‘But why haven’t I heard of this festive French masterwork?’ I hear you cry. The reason is that the Cahiers du Cinema crowd of film critics and filmmakers didn’t like Lucie Delsarte and rejected her. Starved of the oxygen that is peer support and press, Delsarte is an obscure artiste even in her own native country. *sighs, and would smoke a cigarette if he smoked*

What makes it a Christmas cracker? The main character’s name is ‘Christmas’; snowy landscapes; driving home for Christmas; epic holiday travel; thoughts of distant loved ones; holiday romance; doing things that are really not good for your health; existential musing and philosophical discussion; making love in inappropriate places; arty melancholia; realisation that you’re cold and alone in a brutal winter world and that you’ll never find your way home; death of hopes and dreams.

*single tear and sighs…* Ah, Merry Christmas movie fans…

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  1. Merry Christmas from Me to You, You and All of You… | ENTER... JAMES CLAYTON

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