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Eight Overlooked Christmas Movies That Should Be In Your Queue

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There's no denying the greatness of It's A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra's sob-story is one that feels acutely honest, even if the setup is wholly contrived. And how can we forget the whimsy of Miracle on 34th Street? Or the nostalgia of A Christmas Story? Or the puncture wounds of the first two Home Alone movies? While Christmas has turned out some unconscionably awful songs, it has a surprisingly decent track record with cinema (Last Holiday notwithstanding).

Because we dig Christmas movies, and because we're a little tired of watching It's A Wonderful Life for the upteenth time, we're proposing a few titles that, if not exactly classics, should make it onto your Christmas rotation. Most of the picks aren't specifically about Christmas, and some are kind of a downer. But hey, sometimes we're just in the mood for a blue Christmas, right?

The Shop Around The Corner (1940)

Before there was You've Got Mail, there was Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner, on which the former was based. Starring a fresh-faced James Stewart and a lively Margaret Sullivan, it embodied all there is to love about romantic comedies (yes, the genre has its merits). The highest compliment one can give to the movie, perhaps, is that it shouldn't have worked, as the premise is as wacky as it gets. For one thing, it's set in a Hungarian city where, improbably, the two leads have American and English accents. And the whole premise revolves around two co-workers who are arch-rivals IRL, but who also (unwittingly) fall in love through their anonymous letters. Rather than being total fluff, however, the result is an irresistibly charming movie; one that's sweet but not cloyingly whimsical. Much of the credit goes to Lubitsch's direction (the so-called "Lubitsch touch"), but a lot is also owed to Sullivan, who wins us over with a performance that's spirited but not affected. There's Stewart, too, who's routine of being perpetually baffled never gets old. The movie isn't exactly "overlooked," but we argue that it deserves a stronger association with the yuletide season.

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Metropolitan (1990)

How about a two-hour flick in which young yuppies attend debutante balls, sip martinis, debate the merits of French philosopher Charles Fourier, and do the tango in a living room? If you think that sounds ridiculous, director Whit Stillman is on your side, which is why he has the characters cite incriminating lines like, "The cha cha is no more ridiculous than life itself," and "It's a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate." Metropolitan amounts to an endearing tale, however—one that provides a keen and funny look at youth, byzantine social norms, and the stratification of class. What makes it so irresistible is that Stillman understands that the characters are smart people who are, ultimately, victims of their own naiveté. While another movie would have excoriated the cast for being brats (or covet them for their affluence), Metropolitan churns out a ticker-tape of fine-tuned dialogue to draw a middle line; the movie invites us to laugh at the characters, but never to ridicule (the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, by the way). The movie is set sometime in the '80s during a bitingly cold winter in Manhattan, and it features a restrained and charming romance plot, which is to say it's a good flick to watch while cozied up on the couch (with a dry martini in hand).

Black Christmas (1974)

Here's a festive one! Black Christmas is credited as a progenitor of the slasher genre. But, compared to our modern standards for gratuitous gore, this description may be a bit misleading. Yes, the body count piles up, but the movie is at its best when the tension is set at a simmer.

The Hitchcockian levels of dread and paranoia owe a lot to the writing, which teases us with number of cryptic...happenings. There's a masterfully devised set of misunderstandings as a group of college girls leave home for Christmas. There's an uncomfortably realistic subplot in which a young couple finds out they're pregnant. And there's a simply crackling sequence in which phone operators attempt to track the location of someone who's been plaguing a sorority with anonymous calls. There are the murder scenes, too, which are fairly graphic and inventive.

Black Christmas is gripping from beginning to end; you'll spend most of the time dreading the murders, not hoping they'll arrive to cut through the tedium (which is often the case in most modern slashers). A 2006 remake failed to capture this spirit, apparently.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

When it first came out, Eyes Wide Shut was shadowed by the then-recent passing of its director, Stanley Kubrick. As such, the film was beset with the weight of lofty expectations. It was supposed to cap off the career of a visionary, showcase the talents on an A-list casting that included Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and plunge into the darkest reaches of sexual desire. What we got instead was a surprisingly muted tale about a man who gets super jealous. Here, Cruise spends the first half wandering around Manhattan in search of a hookup, and the other half running away from a mysterious organization that he's crossed. Eyes Wide Shut was basically a competent thriller with some Cinemax-level nudity.

The whole affair was visually elegant, but also a big letdown for people who'd expected more. Now, more than fifteen years removed from the much hyped release of the movie, we can take the movie at face value: Eyes Wide Shut is just a very effective caper with a stellar cast, an atmospheric score, painstaking set design, and dialogue that has the Kubrickian quality of being both obtuse and precise.

But is it a Christmas movie? It does take place right before Christmas, and there are some wintry scenes of Cruise meandering through the chilly cityscape. There's also a kind of family bonding moment towards the end of the film, when characters embark on the most hallowed of all Christmas rituals: shopping.

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Tangerine (2015)

Christmas can be a lonely time of year. Most of your friends are out of town, your family might be in another part of the country, and you might not even partake in the celebration yourself! Sean Baker’s little movie that could, Tangerine, knows this. At its heart is the tale are two trans women who live on the streets around Santa Monica and Highland—ignored by most of the city passing through but home to Sin-Dee and Alexandra. As much as they seem to drive each other nuts, they’re both there for each at their lowest moments. On Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, no less. "Merry Christmas, bitch." — Carman Tse

Fanny And Alexander (1982)

Originally conceived as a four-part television series, Fanny and Alexander is a sprawling melodrama that peers at the inner lives of a Swedish family in the early 20th century. It has all the grand trappings of a 1800s British novel, and includes appearances by mean step-parents, elaborate theater productions, extramarital affairs, sudden plot-changing deaths, otherworldly apparitions, and, yes, scenes of Christmas festivity. The ambitions are grand in scale, but the real treat is that director Ingmar Bergman has the patience to draw out his characters, making them at once familiar and mysterious to us. Also, the sets and costumes are rich and detailed, which give you a toasty feeling as you imagine yourself setting down in the well-furnitured room of a Victorian home. There's the three hour theatrical cut if you're just spending a night in by the space heater. Or, if you're looking to binge over the course of several days, you can track down the original five-hour version that was intended for the small screen.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Even if all the Christian imagery of Christmas is off-putting for many, at the very least the holidays can bring people together for a year-end celebration in spite of our differences. In Nagisha Oshima’s homoerotic POW tale, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Christmas brings together the captive and the captor, for at least one night of respite from the conflict going on outside and within the prison fences. Anchored by terrific performances from the late David Bowie (who passed away earlier this year) and composer Ryuicihi Sakamoto (who also composed the film’s beautiful synth score), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is the World War II torture film that’s fun for the whole family! — Carman Tse

Batman Returns (1992)

Superhero movies today are overwhelmingly OK. The special effects are OK. The acting is OK. Writers even throw in some existential hang-wringing to whip up an OK storyline. Major studios have figured out how to churn them out on the regular (for the most part). There was a time, however, when the process was less structured, and Batman Returns falls into this era. It's not exactly great (it might not even be OK) but it's also a wonderfully weird maelstrom of ideas that director Tim Burton springs on us at random. Danny DeVito is absolutely terrifying as the Penguin (and has a particularly scary scene involving his chompers). Michelle Pfeiffer is as sultry as ever, and Christopher Walken does a lot of Walken-y stuff. There's also a masterful scene in which the film pokes fun at a notorious goof from Burton's first Batman. And how about penguins equipped with rockets? And evil carnys? And a cameo by Paul Rueben? The movie's got all of that too, as well as a gorgeously snow-swept Gotham that's gearing up for Christmas.