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Everyone loves the Hollywood holiday classics — from It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story to Home Alone and Die Hard (yes, it is a classic, too – don’t get us started).
But after the 100th rerun, one’s holiday spirit can start to sag, and nostalgia for those festive evergreens can turn toxic.
So The Hollywood Reporter‘s international team has come up with this alternative list of holiday favorites from outside the U.S.
Our eclectic dirty dozen, including a French murder mystery, a Canadian horror classic and an anime retelling of the Christmas story, are the perfect counterprogramming for anyone looking for new ideas this festive season.
Christian Carion’s World War I drama, about the real-life Christmas truce that broke out on the Western Front in 1914 — amid the horrors of the war, a true holiday miracle — features Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Guillaume Canet and Andor star Alex Ferns. Rarely has the absurdity of war, and faith in humans’ fundamental kindness and decency, been more poignantly expressed.
Anime pioneer Satoshi Kon gets right to the heart of the Christmas story with this modern-day animated update, which revolves around three homeless people: an alcoholic with a gambling addiction, an ever-optimistic trans woman and a teenaged runaway with anger issues, who, on Christmas Eve, discover an abandoned baby girl in a trash heap. Harrowing and heartwarming in equal measure, this grown-up cartoon isn’t for kids, but it’s a beautiful addition to any movie lover’s holiday canon.
Baltasar Kormákur’s bombastic directorial debut is an Icelandic comedy as black as Nordic winter nights. Named after the city’s postcode, 101 Reykjavík tells the story of 30-year-old slacker and barely functioning alcoholic Hlynur (Hilmir Snær Guonason, seen in last year’s festival favorite Lamb) whose life of day drinking and online porn is thrown into disarray when his mother (Hanna María Karlsdóttir) comes out as a lesbian and kicks Hlynur out of the house so she can have quality time with her pregnant lover, Lola (the phenomenal Victoria Abril of Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). Some might quibble with calling this a Christmas film, but all the action does take place over the holidays, so it makes the list.
Not to be confused with the horrible 2006 remake, this Canadian holiday slasher predates the original Halloween and Friday the 13th and set the template for low-budget terror with its combination of dark humor, prowling camerawork and tension-building set pieces constructed on top of a fairly pedestrian plot involving a psycho stalking and killing university sorority sisters. Director Bob Clark would go on to direct A Christmas Story, but this first festive entry is worth revisiting any dark winter’s night.
From mass murder to murder mystery, this kitschy delight from French master François Ozon is Agatha Christie by way of Hollywood OTT musicals. The eight women of the title are a who’s-who of French cinema: Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Ledoyen, Firmine Richard and Ludivine Sagnier. All gather in a snowbound cottage to celebrate Christmas, when an inconvenient corpse spoils the party. Cue the plot twist bonanza, some spectacular scenery chewing from a cast obviously having a ball, and no fewer than six song-and-dance numbers.
This Spanish animated tale from Netflix is probably the most conventional, and definitely the most family-friendly, film on our list, but directors Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martínez López manage to avoid the Yuletide cliches with their Santa origin story that plays like an anti-Grinch. Here, Santa is a reclusive, slightly misanthropic, artisan toy maker (voiced in English by J.K. Simmons) who gets tricked into becoming the big guy bringing joy to the world’s children. The cynical tone — greed and self-interest give birth to those beloved holiday traditions — might not be to everyone’s liking, but as a bracing alternative to the season’s sentimental treacle, it’s hard to beat.
The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!
This Soviet-era screwball romantic comedy set on New Year’s Eve involving a nutso plot, gallons of booze and some pretty catchy songs (with lyrics by Doctor Zhivago writer Boris Pasternak), The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! has been a holiday staple in Russia since it was first broadcast on Jan. 1, 1976. Andrey Myagkov stars as the soon-to-be-married Zhenya who, after a traditional boozy steam bath with friends, accidentally boards a plane from Moscow to Leningrad and, passing out on the flight, doesn’t realize he’s changed cities. When he arrives, he gives the taxi driver his Moscow address, 3rd Builders’ Street, but ends up in the Leningrad street of the same name in an apartment with an identical Soviet layout. He passes out, only to be discovered by the real tenant, Nadya (Barbara Brylska) when she comes home to prepare a New Year’s meal for her fiancée.
There aren’t many laughs in Maria Sødahl’s Hope, which is set during the holiday season but focuses on a couple, Tomas and Anja — played by Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgard — navigating a crisis after Anja is given a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. Based on the director’s real-life experience, the Norwegian feature avoids mawkishness and melodrama to tease out an intimate, grown-up portrait of love tested, and ultimately strengthened, and of the hope that can emerge when things seem darkest.
The Match Factory Girl
This deadpan dramedy from Finnish director and writer Aki Kaurismäki could be the ultimate anti-Christmas movie. Inspired by the heartbreaking Hans Christian Andersen fable — about a waif freezing to death on a cold Christmas Eve — it transfers the story to a shabby, soulless match factory with the “girl” played by Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen who dreams, not as in the original of a warm iron stove and a glorious Christmas tree, but of revenge. A minimalist masterpiece — there can’t be more than 10 lines of dialogue in the entire film, The Match Factory Girl is by turns hilarious and merciless but always compelling.
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And now for something completely different. Gen Sekiguchi’s omnibus cult classic is as aesthetically in-your-face — a pop-culture explosion of neon pinks and comic-book greens and blues, like a Wes Anderson film on acid — as Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl is distant and restrained. The five storylines in this anthology — including one of a man caught in an endless cycle of murdering his wife, only to see her return, slightly miffed, every evening; Vinnie Jones as a serial killer who asks people their purpose in life before pulling the trigger; and one involving a successful hypnotizing session that turns a man into a bird, permanently — don’t make much sense, but it’s impossible not to keep watching. The film doesn’t revolve around Christmas, but each story has a pivotal Christmas chapter, making this the ultimate holiday alternative watch.
Call Me by Your Name
Non-American Hanukkah films are few and far between, and, admittedly, it is stretching the definition of the holiday movie to include Luca Guadagnino’s romantic classic in our list. But the film’s divesting climax comes on the seventh night of Hanukkah as Elio (Timothée Chalamet), after discovering his lover, Oliver (Armie Hammer), is engaged to be married, pauses briefly before a lit menorah before sitting in front of his family’s fireplace and crying for almost three full minutes. You could argue that scene embodies the holiday’s themes of endurance and belief in a brighter future. Anyway, it’s a great film, and it’s got Hanukkah in it, so it stays in.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Our dirty dozen holiday movie list closes with the cinematic equivalent of a nasty lump of coal shoved up the stocking of Christmas tradition. Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports mashes up a Santa Claus origin story with the plot of John Carpenter’s The Thing to create a dark, fantasy horror film that will change forever how you think about jolly fat men in red suits. And reindeer. It may be the Christmas classic you never knew you needed.
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