Coal-Hearted Cinema

Although I do my best to find the bright side of this time of year, my greatest pop-culture solace lies in the grimmer holiday film fare. Herein lies a list of dark Christmas movies that I originally compiled for Word and Film; consider it a mint on your pillow from the proprietress of Moulin Scrooge.

“The Ref” (1994)
Directed by Ted Demme (the late nephew of director Jonathan Demme), this stars Denis Leary as a potty-mouthed cat burglar who holds the wrong Connecticut couple hostage over the holidays. Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey are brilliant as spouses bound only by their matching sneers; supporting turns from J.K. Simmons as a military school commander and Glynis Johns as a mommie dearest-in-law round out the domestic sadism nicely. An excellent entry in the “Marriage Is Hard” film genre repopularized by “Gone Girl.”

“Bad Santa” (2003)
As a shopping mall Santa drowning in Wild Turkey and his own special strain of foul-mouthed misanthropy, Bill Bob Thornton is the ultimate antidote to candy cane cheer. Directed by Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb,” “Ghost World”), executive produced by the Coen Brothers, and co-starring the likes of John Ritter, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, and Tony Cox, this may be the crankiest – and least sentimental – Christmas movie ever crafted. Trust me, that’s a compliment.

“Batman Returns” (1992) Directed by Tim Burton, this is the most macabre of all the Batman movies – including, yes, Christopher Nolan’s recent hot messes. Set during the Christmas season, this stars Danny DeVito as the Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Christopher Walken as a nefarious tycoon, a bevy of visual puns based on ice, and, of course, Michael Keaton as The Bat. It’s especially fun to revisit now that Keaton is starring in “Birdman,” the much-touted, thinly disguised meta-commentary on his inclusion in this film franchise.

“Metropolitan” (1990)
This account of New York City debutantes during one holiday season is one of the archest (and most articulate) films ever made about lifestyles of the rich and un-famous. As dour as it is dapper, Whit Stillman’s debut feature serves up an an uneasily brilliant catalog of the cultural decline of the “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” to which these twentysomethings (including a then-unknown Christopher Eigeman) belong.

“A Christmas Tale” (2008)
About a fractured clan reassembled for Christmas to find a bone marrow match for their leukemia-stricken matriarch (Catherine Deneuve!), this offering from French director Arnaud Desplechin is jumbled, novelistic, gorgeous, erotic, neurotic, heart-rending, and deeply, deeply skeptical of “blood bonds.” Costarring such European greats as Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, and Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s daughter, a star in her own right), this is one of the best films of the Aughts – and easily the most underrated.

“Trading Places” (1983)
Starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd back when both were undeniably funny, this modern classic from “Animal House” director John Landis focuses on a street hustler (Murphy) and a stuffed shirt (Ackroyd) whose fates are swapped during – you guessed it – Christmas time. Costarring Jamie Lee Curtis as a bewigged lady of the night and the great Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as scheming financiers, this well-paced, dark horse of a comedy doubles as a terrific send-up of 1980s greed. Bonus: You’ll never see St. Nick the same way again after what emerges from a soused Aykroyd’s Santa beard.

“Scrooged” (1988)
Bill Murray is enjoying a much-deserved renaissance these days but when he was floundering in the 1980s he starred in this often-forgotten update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. With Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait, Alfre Woodard, and Karen Allen as his supporting players, Murray portrays a television executive with a heart of coal who’s forcing network employees to work through the holidays. The film delivers some good jabs to the media-bloated, commercialized circus of contemporary Christmas before settling into a bittersweet love story.

“Gremlins” (1984)
When a father (Hoyt Axton) buys his son (Zach Galligan) a cuddly creature he finds in Chinatown as a holiday present, neither are prepared for the grisly sort of elves that their new pet spawns. How could they be? A sendup of the cuter-than-thou alien films then ruling the school (here’s looking at you, “ET”), this is that rare horror film that manages to have its Christmas cookie and devour it too.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Yes, you read that title right. Though Frank Capra’s film about George Bailey, a bank administrator (Jimmy Stewart) facing ruin at Christmastime, is now widely revered as the ultimate holiday classic, it’s actually quite melancholy – so much so that it was poorly received upon its original release. Think about it. Before Bailey finds his happy ending, he stumbles through an awful lot of tragedy; even when that “angel gets its wings,” the gloom is never fully erased from our minds.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy