All That Heaven Allows
Douglas Sirk's romantic melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1954) contains what may be the saddest Christmas scene in cinema history—sad not only because it ironically sets a character's miserable experience against a jolly holiday backdrop (lots of movies have done that, from Citizen Kane to this season's The Savages), but because it constitutes a withering critique of the holiday itself. A wealthy widow (Jane Wyman), having fallen passionately in love with her much-younger hunk of a landscape gardener (Rock Hudson), is guilt-tripped into giving him up by her grown children. These two are appalling—a pair of smugly conventional brats who are scandalized by the notion of their middle-aged mother experiencing pleasure and freedom. When they come to visit her at Christmas, completely oblivious to her stark despair, they present her with the latest in high-tech entertainment—a television set in front of which to while away her declining years, alone. In a justly famous shot, Sirk shows Wyman's expressionless face reflected in the blank TV screen, surmounted by a huge bow. In addition to being beautiful enough to print on wrapping paper, it's an image that speaks volumes about the rise of consumerism, the prison of gender roles, and the bottomless loneliness of post-WWII America.— Dana Stevens
The Ice Harvest
John Cusack honed his luckless-schmuck-in-winter chops in movies like Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing. All grown up, he plods sullenly through The Ice Harvest as Charlie, a shyster attorney who conspires to relieve a local mob boss of a couple million dollars and flee iced-over Wichita, Kan. But the ill-fated heist isn't nearly as engaging as the dysfunctional lives of Charlie and his misfit friends as they unfold on the eve of Charlie's escape. It also happens to be the eve of Jesus' birthday, but Christmas is just a well-deployed prop, used to illustrate Charlie's misery. He's berated by his young son over cranberry sauce and stuffing at Christmas dinner, and he finds his buddy's wife idling near a Christmas tree, only to discover a bullet hole in her head. The holiday is becoming a nightmare for Charlie, and the darkly funny patter between him and his best friend Pete (Oliver Platt) is a fitting antidote to the usual holiday season sap (think Serendipity). When Charlie places gifts hastily purchased for his kids from a gas station under the cheerless tree in his ex-wife's house, his desire to escape the pain and disappointment he's created is etched across his face. With all that purloined cash, he's determined to give himself a gift, too—a new life.— Melonyce McAfee
We begin with a close-up of a Christmas tree festooned with balloons. We hear a quiet bang! and one of the balloons pops. Reverse shot to Nick Charles (William Powell), lying on a couch wearing white pajamas, a dressing gown, and a pair of slippers. He holds a small pellet rifle. He fires again but the rifle is empty. Hmm, he mutters thoughtfully and reloads. In the frame's left corner, Nick's wife Nora (Myrna Loy), dressed in a mink coat, slumps back sleepily in an armchair.
Nick fires again. Another balloon pops. Ah, Nick says, contentedly. He reloads the gun, while Nora sends him a mock long-suffering glance. Nick raises his slippered feet to cradle the rifle's barrel. He shoots and scores a third time. Nick raises his feet again, this time placing the barrel underneath, and shoots out another balloon.
Now Nick is really showing off. He rolls onto his stomach, holds up a silver ashtray as a mirror, and shoots backward. This time, the pellet bypasses the tree and cracks the picture window behind it. Nora rolls her eyes, and Nick assumes the fetal position.
"Well," Nora says, the dialog at last resuming. "I hope you're satisfied."
In symbolic terms—don't tell the Hays Office!—it's perfectly obvious that Nick and Nora are enjoying a lazy Christmas-morning screw. (This scene takes place in a hotel room.) But the implied carnality does nothing to mar the overall tone of innocent (if mischievous) play. It is Christmas morning, and Nick is behaving exactly like a happy child who has identified his favorite new toy while an indulgent woman looks on. We therefore have, in one brief sequence, an affirmation of just about every category of family pleasure. Real Christmas mornings are seldom this perfect, but that's why we have the movies.— Timothy Noah
Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! Morbidly obese, red-faced like an angry drunk, bellowing monosyllabic gibberish out of his sweaty, haggard beard—let's face it, Santa Claus is a frightening bastard. Although Hollywood tends to perpetrate the myth of a jolly St. Nick, some mavericks have had the courage to show the fat man's uglier side. Films like To All a Good Night (1980), Christmas Evil (1980), and Santa Claws (1996) make Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa look like the Good King Wenceslas.
The best entry in the Really Bad Santa genre, however, is the Silent Night, Deadly Night series, which did for Claus what Child's Play did for dolls, and what It did for clowns. That is to say, it turned Santa into a homicidal maniac. In the first film, a man dressed in a Santa outfit shoots a young boy's father in front of him, then rapes his mother and slits her throat. The boy, Billy Chapman, grows up to be a serial killer who murders anyone he deems to be naughty. This mostly means teenagers who have sex.
My personal favorite of the series is Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989), directed, sadly, by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and starring future Twin Peaks cast members Richard Beymer and Eric Da Re. The movie opens with a woman being chased through a maze of hallways by a gore-spattered, knife-wielding zombie whose brain is visible through a transparent dome. When the woman skids around a corner, however, she encounters a calming sight: Santa Claus. As a warped, Casio version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" plays in the background, she sits on Santa's lap and tells him what she wants for Christmas. "Ho, ho, ho," says Santa. And then he raises a bloody knife … — Nathaniel Rich