Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Top Five: Blue Christmas

It's no secret that Christmas a bummer for some people. Maybe the Yuletide season opens the floodgates of memories of a less-than-wonderful childhood, maybe you're a college student far too swamped with finals to feel the least bit merry, or maybe it boils down to the simple fact that your heart is two sizes too small, but your general disposition disposition during the month of December makes Ebeneezer Scrooge look a blanket-clutching, St. Luke-spouting five-tear-old. If this is the case, it's a safe bet that watching anything starring James Stewart or a stop-motion animated elf who aspires to be a dentist is only going to make you feel worse. Instead, pour yourself an eggnog and enjoy some of these malice-filled holiday movies.

1. Blast of Silence (1961)
This film noir-meets-French New wave lost classic is available only from online bootleg dealers and the occasional eBay auction, and that's a shame, because not only is it perhaps THE great lost American noir masterpiece, it's also the ultimate bummeriffic Christmas movie. Writer-director Allen Barron stars as Frankie Bono, a misanthropic hitman, is sent back to his childhood home of New York City in late December for a killing job. But when his target, a mid-level mob boss, heads off on a few days' vacation with his family, Frankie has to wait around for him to return, with nothing to do but wander around the tinsel-laden Manhattan cityscape, bumping into people he wished he'd never see again, and be painfully forced to remember his miserable childhood. It's one of the most fantastically shot films ever made, with on-location Manhattan cinematography, and hard-boiled second-person narration by Once Upon a Time in the West's Lionel Stander. Barron, unfortunatley, would only go on to direct one other feature that is even harder to see, and episodes of Charlie's Angels and Hawaii Five-Oh.

2. Gremlins (1984)
Critics often regard Phoebe Cates' grim Santa Claus anecdote as being out of place in this film, but in reality it's merely the holly leaf on top of Joe Dante's deliciously poisoned figgy pudding. It's a brilliantly biting satire of everything from the small-town sentimentality of Frank Capra's films to the commercialization of Christmas by bigwig corporations. It's a wry critique of Spielberg's "fantastic things taking place in the suburbs" subgenre, and a cautionary tale to parents who might think it's cute to bring home that puppy to their kid on Christmas morning, not taking into account that their child might not be up to the responsibility of taking care if that puppy, and will make the mistake of feeding it after midnight, causing the puppy to asexually reproduce a bunch of mean-spirited demonoids who will wreak havoc upon their lives.... metaphorically speaking. Plus, how can you not love a Christmas movie that has an old lady being flung out of a second-story window?

3. Batman Returns (1992)
The centerpiece of Tim Burton's unofficial "Christmas Trilogy" (beginning with Edward Scissorhands and ending, of course, with The Nightmare Before Christmas) is a strange animal, and probably the darkest film he ever made. Comic book fans and typical moviegoers must have scratched their heads, wondering why the Penguin they had come to know as a monacle-wearing, portly evil genius had been transformed into a perverted Quasimodo, why the Caped Crusader took something of a backseat to the exploits of the film's three villains, and most of all, why the hell a Christmas movie was being released in June. The film is certainly more Burton than Bob Kane, but that's exactly why I love it. The Penguin, abandoned on Christmas by unloving parents, almost makes you root for him in his devilish, King Herod-inspired plot to round up and slaughter all the first-born children of Gotham City.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
It's been almost a year since the release of Stanley Kubrick's final masterpiece, and sadly, it still seems this film is misunderstood. For some reason, the PR campaigns of the film thought it would be a good idea to subtly infer that Kubrick was helming a record-breaking budgeted porn film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and audiences were angered and confused when the final film turned out to be anything but. What it really is is a brilliant odyssey, earth-bound yet thematically on par with 2001 - and it just happens to be set around Christmas. While the kids are fast asleep, visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, the grownups are out angrily prowling in the night, getting in way over their heads with the wrong people and discovering things they never should, after finding out that there was one time their spouse came this close to cheating on them. Nicole Kidman's last line, delivered amongst the rows of teddy bears in FAO Schwartz, is the perfect end to this film.

5. Silent Night, Deadly Night
Admittedly, I have not seen this movie. But I plan to remedy that fact soon. Because any Christmas movie that features a scene like this, in my book, is pure solidified Yuletide gold.


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