A Not-So-Christmas Canon

By  · Published on December 11th, 2015

A few days ago, as part of my ongoing effort to check out every movie I missed in 2015, I finally sat down to watch Sean Baker’s Tangerine on Netflix. Much has been written about the many ways in which Tangerine broke new ground for the industry; the film was shot entirely on iPhones, features two transgendered actresses in transgendered roles, and speaks openly about prejudices against immigration and sex work. None of this, though, should overshadow the fact that Tangerine is also wickedly funny, deeply affecting, and arguably the best Christmas film of the last decade.

It was that last part I wasn’t expecting. Since the trailer and marketing material show only the yellowed streets of Los Angeles, I had no idea that Tangerine took place on Christmas Eve. And while it would be an excellent addition to any holiday movie list – with each character’s attitude towards Christmas Eve playing an important part in the narrative – the fact that it would be considered at all only serves to demonstrate the literalism of our approach to Christmas movies. Every other holiday is filtered through its core components. We watch horror films of any ilk on Halloween and enjoy patriotic or bombastic movies on the fourth of July, but Christmas is the one holiday that must be overtly present for a film to be added to its canon. Tangerine may be set at Christmas, but it’s the underlying values of the film that make it a great pick for the holiday season, not the date.

And that got me thinking. Every year, people talk about putting together an alternate Christmas playlist that doesn’t hit on any of the established greats, so let’s do just that. Using the keywords function on IMDb as the basis for this exercise, I pulled the word (or words) that users submitted to describe each of the fifty most popular movies with ‘Christmas’ listed as one of their keywords. The films on the list ran the gamut from the traditional favorites (What a Wonderful Life) to the alternative canon (Eyes Wide Shut) and even included a few now-you’re-just-being-cute titles such as American Psycho and Prometheus. Once I had these fifty titles in place, I went back and added Die Hard to cater to the masses, resulting in a list of fifty-one movies and eight thousand-plus keywords.

If you prefer an old-fashioned list to a word cloud, the words that appeared most frequently in the list were as follows: Christmas (51), Christmas Tree (32), Snow (26), Husband and Wife Relationship (24), Mother Son Relationship (22), Box Office Hit (21), Father Son Relationship (21), Friendship (18), Cult Film (18), Dog (18), Family Relationship (18), and Brother Brother Relationship (18).

Now, taken by themselves, none of these keywords should be particularly surprising. The common thread in all of these films is the idea of relationships; whether you live in the same town you grew up in or have traveled halfway across the country, many people still use the holidays as a time of renewal with their loved ones. To suggest that a holiday film should be about family relationships is about as insightful as saying that Halloween movies should feature something scary. People want to see their current emotional space projected onscreen, and Christmas movies have long bartered in our season sentimentality.

It’s when we start plugging the data back in that something fun begins to happen. If holiday movies are, as the IMDb keywords suggest, more than just films that take place the week of December 25th, then we should be able to remove ‘Christmas’ from the aforementioned keywords and still be left with a list that captures (on some level) the holiday spirit. So let’s do that just that. Going back to IMDb, I did a search for movies that used seven of the aforementioned keywords but did not specifically include a Christmas-related phrase. What remains is a list of movies that hit on many of the same themes as the most popular Christmas movies – I even included both ‘snow’ and ‘dog’ as active keywords – but ones that wouldn’t be popping up on any other holiday lists any time soon.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Peter Pan (2003)
Downfall (2004)
Click (2006)
A Single Man (2009)
Dogville (2003)
Fellini Satyricon (1969)
Bounce (2000)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Here you have a truly alternative Christmas movie list for your holiday viewing, one that doesn’t devolve into the same tired arguments as to the merits of Love Actually and Die Hard as December viewings. While this list might be considerably lacking in good cheer, what stands out is how many of these films would make for a unilaterally better viewing experience than some of the established canon. Your new Christmas canon – one complied using qualitative research, no less – gives you just cause to put on Federico Fellini for your in-laws or to scare the crap out of your nieces and nephews by suggesting that their dad is actually the crazy murderer from The Night of the Hunter. If someone complains? Hey, they asked for a movie about families that takes place in the snow. What are you, a mind reader?

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)