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Brazil Sam Santa.jpg

What Counts as a Christmas Movie?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | December 6, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | December 6, 2017 |

Every year, as we enter the inevitable throng of the Christmas season, a number of questions come up that make the rounds every December, and yet we end the festive period with no answers. We indulge in our festivities and enjoy the time off to spend with our families (or as far away from them as humanly possible, we don’t judge your choices), and we partake in our traditions, so it makes sense that we keep having the same fight year after year, one that will be familiar to any pop culture nerd: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

I know many people who have unreasonably strong feelings on this subject, and the hearty debates can soon turn nasty, but the arguments never change: Yes, it’s a Christmas movie because it takes place over Christmas; No, it isn’t a Christmas movie because it has no tangible ties to the festive period; Hell yeah it counts, because ‘Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho’ is all the Christmas warmth I need; dear lord if we start counting any movie that just happens to be set around December then where does the chaos end? And while we’re at it, do we even want to dig into the problem of whether The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas or Halloween film?!

I’d say I’m excluded from such narratives as someone who’s never really got the whole Die Hard thing, but I’m also the person who will fervently argue in favour of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as the ideal Christmas movie. Nothing says Happy Holidays like crushing dystopian misery, but with jokes! Setting a film at Christmas carries a lot of connotations - the expectations of joy and familial warmth; the increased commercialism; the battle between the holiday’s religious core and the overwhelming frivolities surrounding it; and the exhaustion that can often accompany having to be happy all the time. Christmas movies in their purest form are usually the fluffy blanket of films that embrace you with cheer and a relaxing simplicity, with the knowledge that everything will work out in the end. Pretty white family units will reunite and discover the true meaning of Christmas (well, as true as commercialism will allow), snow will fall and sleigh bells will ring. If you’re not in the right mood for it, that can be torture.

Perhaps that’s why we turn to Die Hard or Brazil or Black Christmas or even American Psycho during the dark Winter months when the decorations are all up and you’ve spent weeks trying not to get into fights with the crowds of shoppers in the town centre. It’s a quiet form of rebellion that still feels thematically consistent, a quick ‘screw you’ to the world that keeps telling you to be happy and festive and appreciate the beauty of the world, dammit! Brazil really has no interest in being a Christmas movie - not when it’s being one of the most pertinent satires of our age - but Sam Lowry being interrogated in a padded cell by a bureaucrat dressed as Santa feels more rooted in the reality of this surreal season than anything else on TV at this time of the year. It’s tiring having to constantly reassure your earnest loved ones that yes, you are happy and no, there’s nothing wrong with you, so why not embrace a film that demands no forced emotions?

Then there are the annual traditions that have literally no connections to Christmas but we still make a point of watching them after the turkey dinner and before the cheese plate (never forget the cheese plate). No matter how dire the circumstances, I can always rely on Channel 5 screening The Wizard of Oz, a film I only ever seem to watch at this time of year, and BBC putting on The Great Escape. It seems odd in hindsight that one of Britain’s great Christmas traditions centres on a 3-hour long prisoner-of-war drama, but when else would you find the uninterrupted time for a film of that length? We like the comfort of the same, and there’s no better moment for that than Christmas, an occasion where you eat the same food year after year, hang out with the same people, always get book tokens and new pyjamas in your stocking, and like it!

I find myself mostly bored with the traditional fare of Christmas films, although I can never deny myself the annual pleasure of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which seems to get better with every viewing. It shouldn’t be as good as it is - the entire premise reeks of a quick cash-in or contrived gimmick - and yet it may be the best version of a story that’s been adapted more times than I care to remember. Yes, there are jokes and 4th wall breaks and the inexplicable biology of Miss Piggy and Kermit breeding, but it’s a story that also takes itself totally seriously, or at least seriously enough. The language is right, the tone is spot-on, it doesn’t dumb down Dickens for kids, and it commits to the genuine atmosphere of the tale. Really, it’s the perfect Christmas movie.

But maybe we don’t really want Christmas movies at Christmas. Perhaps we just want a break from the ceaseless cheer and will throw any vaguely tangible thematic connection at the wall to see what sticks. Sure, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is only somewhat related to Christmas, but isn’t a dark December night the perfect setting for a viewing of a spitfire-funny crime comedy? Same with Eyes Wide Shut, a glacial affair that practically demands your attention in a dark room alone with the curtains shut as you watch the most boring fucking ever captured on camera. For a lot of people, Christmas and the overall holiday season isn’t one that feels especially unique or joyful in comparison to the rest of the year, which some find perplexing, but it’s probably more common than anyone’s willing to admit. We want the season to be ours, and we make our own traditions to fit that. They may not be the right ones for others, but there’s no joy to be found in conforming to arbitrary expectations of what is and isn’t Christmassy. Make the season what you want it to be, with the films you want to watch.

But for the record of course, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, how could you argue otherwise?!

Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.