Monday, December 2, 2013

5 Christmasy Movies That Are Way Better Than "Love Actually"

As you can probably tell, I'm not a big fan of Love Actually. Call me a grump, but you know the saying that underneath every cynic, there's a disappointed romantic? I think I dislike the movie because I wanted to like it so much when I first saw it, and I did enjoy it a lot the first couple of times that I saw it. Then I kept seeing it every Christmas and realized how full of shit it is.

Just a quick checklist of the things that bother me:

- The unbearable and cloying Pax Britannica patriotism in the Prime Minister's speech. Portraying England as some underdog on the world stage, even though we're barely decades removed from its imperial era and still to this day, things like British accents are automatically associated with wealth, class, and sophistication? And god, THAT MUSIC. Ugh. And fucking up geopolitics for sex is not romantic, just childish and selfish. It didn't fly for me in The English Patient, and it doesn't fly here.

- Poor Emma Thompson really gets screwed, huh? Where's her happy ending? Everyone seems to get at least something except for the middle-aged housewife.

- Never understood why Laura Linney's mentally challenged brother had to prevent her from hooking up with her hot co-worker. A contrived obstacle.

- Liam Neeson and his son sure got over their very recently deceased wife and mother quickly, huh? How heartwarming.

- That "best friend" sure was kind of a dick, huh? I mean, I understand the inner turmoil that must come with being in love with your best friend's wife. But did he really have to do that stupid title card thing? To me, it seemed like he was mainly trying to make himself feel good by doing this supposedly awesomely swoon-worthy thing and, therefore, become the great romantic lead in the movie of his own life. What if she liked that a little too much? What then? He could've just written her a short confessional letter and left it at that.

- London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, yet the London in Love Actually is still stuck in Churchill's time or something. Even in a freaking ensemble piece with no central character, not a single major character is a person of colour, unless you count the Portuguese, and that's really a stretch. Besides, they're just portrayed as boorish peasants.

But I'm here to be positive, not negative. Here's a list of movies, in no particular order, that I think do a better job of evoking the Christmas spirit than Love Actually. Only one of these movies is actually heavily centered around Christmas, but all of them have significant elements of Christmas in them.

Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo Godfathers revolves around children, but I probably wouldn't call this a movie FOR children because it's about 3 homeless people in Tokyo during Christmas who find a baby in a dumpster. Led by the extremely maternal Hana (oh, who happens to be a a tall, ugly dude who's convinced he's actually a woman), the grizzled drunkard Gin and the troubled teenager Miyuki try to find the baby's parents and return the child to them.

The movie is very funny in both a dark and warm way because the main characters live such wretched lives. But they're also good people with complicated pasts, and as you get to know their stories more, you stop seeing them as these grimy hobos and more of a dysfunctional family that you want to see succeed in the end. You also get to experience the urban jungle of Tokyo, which not a lot of movies allow you to do.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: The spirit of friendship and family

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Most of this movie is not set during Christmas, but its big centerpiece, the Yule Ball, is. That's why it's on this list. I've always enjoyed the Harry Potter books more for the "normal" elements than the magical ones. The story of Harry finding a surrogate family in the Weasleys and in the Hogwarts community was much more interesting to me than all the dragon battles and wand fights (which, to be honest, look kind of stupid on-screen, don't they?) put together.

That's why The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite book in the series, because it's the first book where Harry's family story takes center stage instead of a cartoony villain and his super evil quest to rule the world. And that's why The Goblet of Fire is my favourite movie, because it deals with the awkwardness of puberty so well, especially during the Yule Ball part. Christmas at Hogwarts has gotta be pretty cool, and Goblet of Fire portrays that the best out of all the movies.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: The awkwardness of having a crush, worsened by the fact that all the snow and twinkling lights puts more pressure on you to do something bold and romantic

Catch Me If You Can

Home Alone is one of my favourite Christmas movies (I just didn't include it here because I thought it was too obvious), and I think that explains why I like Catch Me If You Can so much during the holidays. Because it's really a kind of grown-up version of Home Alone, isn't it? Neglected kid gets carte blanche (quite literally, in this case) to do whatever he wants, but he just ends up lonely around Christmastime and wants a family more than anything. Except in this movie, Frank's family doesn't get chaffeured to this house on Christmas morning by John Candy.

This is actually a pretty bipolar movie, now that I think about it. On one hand, you have the giddiness of watching Frank hoodwink all those people into thinking he's a pilot/doctor/lawyer/whatever. Then you have the parts where he's all alone on Christmas with no friends or family, with only his nemesis in the FBI to call. It strikes a good balance, and despite it being considered one of Spielberg's lighter films, I still think it's among his best work.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: The desire to spend Christmas with family while opening presents by a big fireplace... and the melancholy that comes when you don't have that

The Apartment

C.C. Baxter is the schmuckiest schmuck who ever schmucked. He's like Willy Loman meets Kirk Van Houten. He's an office drone at a soulless insurance company, and he's the type who'd eat TV dinners on Christmas Eve. Well, that's if he's lucky and actually gets to spend Christmas Eve in his own apartment, as opposed to wandering around outside as he waits for his bosses to finish using his place as a discreet motel for their flings with their mistresses.

It'd be a stretch to call this a Christmas movie, though Ms. Kubelik does attempt suicide on Christmas Eve and that's when the movie really gets going. But The Apartment does capture that sense of neverending loneliness that tends to fester for many at this time of year. For a really dark movie that presents a rather bleak world full of lies, corporate conformity, spinelessness, self-harm, and the rigid social hierarchy in which the top dogs get to do whatever they want, the mood is nevertheless endearingly optimistic. Maybe it's just Jack Lemmon's ceaselessly earnest demeanor or Shirley MacLaine's proto-manic pixie dream girlness, but somehow in the end, you feel that the tread-upon schmuck and the suicidal girl are the luckiest people in the whole city.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: Feeling like a lonely nobody, but with the hope that maybe there's somebody out there for even you

You've Got Mail

And just in case you thought I was a heartless bastard who couldn't stand romantic comedies, here's one! A lot of the appeal behind Christmas is the nostalgia as the best Christmases tend to be the ones we had when we were very young, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to chase those experiences again. You've Got Mail gives you a nostalgia fix that's so pure that Heisenberg would be proud. It has aged wonderfully precisely because it's so dated now. It's a contradictory statement, but the movie is now such a perfect artifact of the 1990s: AOL, Tom + Meg, the very idea that a books superstore is some kind of unstoppable business juggernaught... Listening to that dial-up song as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan connect to the internet can't help but bring back warm memories of being a kid and discovering the internet for the first time. And not to mention the very quaint idea of interacting with an online friend with long confessional missives through email, as opposed to a "wut up?" on Tinder.

This movie also portrays one of the most pleasant versions of New York City ever, where everybody lives in cozy apartments and works in cozy bookstores and has cozy friends. There's absolutely no stampedes of pedestrians, even during the holiday rush. And actually, though this isn't an obvious Christmas movie, almost half the movie takes place during the Christmas season.

Christmas Emotion Evoked: Nostalgia, lots and lots of nostalgia

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