101 Reykjavik (2000)
Christmas is just as awful in Iceland as it is anywhere else, as young protagonist Hlýnur discovers in 101 Reykjavik. This wayward downtown boy has to trek out to the Icelandic suburbs for a day with his relatives talking about weather, wealth, and shopping trips overseas. Director Balthasar Kormákur's debut feature captures the Icelandic capital on the crest of its y2k tourism wave, and illustrates how even the Scandinavians can't make Christmas any more bearable.
Terry Gilliam's opus, which imagines a world subject to extreme government manipulation, might feel a little too close to home for Christmas viewing this year. But embrace your sci-fi Grinch. Brazil begins with a cutesy festive scene of Tiny Tim on the telly, the family all gathered around, just as a government SWAT team crashes Christmas and makes its first arrest. From here, it's a quick descent into seasonal hell, as Christmas gets transformed into a dystopian nightmare.
Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton poured all of his anti-Christmas creativity into The Nightmare Before Christmas, the definitive festive goth watch. But before that, he demolished the season of goodwill in Gotham with Batman Returns, in which garish festivities become a backdrop for a three-way battle between Batman, Catwoman, and The Penguin. Manhattan at Christmas will never seem as sweet again.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy's masterwork takes painting the town red to a whole new level. In this 1964 musical, the quaint side streets of Cherbourg are remade in pastels and primary colors to really make them pop on screen. Between that, the non-stop singing, and the unique quality of Demy's dialogue (which details a doomed romance), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has all the markings of an alternative Christmas classic. Its most important scene takes place on Christmas Eve, if you need more of an excuse to settle down with it over the holidays.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Festive folklore gets a high-quality horror reworking in this Finnish tale of one very bad Santa intent on fucking up Christmas with tremendous style. An international research team evacuate an ancient burial ground, reindeer are slaughtered in inexplicable numbers, and something is stirring in the pit of hell. Jalmari Helander's 2010 cult hit is not a mere parody of the Christmas film but a suspense-laden, artful horror that'll ruin the festivities for everyone. Come for the Christmas carnage and stay for the high-quality genre antics.
Christmas Evil (1980)
John Waters calls it "the greatest Christmas movie ever made," which is recommendation enough to get watching this 1980 cult American classic. Harry Stadling is a guy harboring a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Father Christmas, holding his neighborhood up to Santa's ideals. Christmas Evil might come from the John Waters school of crass but it's no straight-up slasher flick; the film challenges some of the ideology of the season from charity to "goodwill to all." Bad Santa's got nothing on this for bad taste.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
A Connecticut Christmas with all its rich, aspirational trappings is the backdrop for this classic Douglas Sirk romance across the class divide in suburban New England. All That Heaven Allows has provided a long cinematic legacy since its release in 1955. Rainer Werner Fassbender's Ali: Fear Eats through the Soul is inspired directly by it, John Waters spoofs it in Polyester, and Todd Haynes pays homage to it with Far From Heaven. The original, in all its Technicolor tinsel, is well worth watching.
Christmas shopping in December 1952 and well-to-do Carol Aird spots shopgirl Therese Belivet across Frankenberg's department store. From here — following an incident of some accidentally-on-purpose misplaced gloves — the two women (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) begin an illicit romance. Todd Haynes effortlessly evokes the period while exploring the emotional turmoil love deals its two players in this gorgeous adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt.
Whit Stillman uses the Christmas vacation to gather the young New York elite for a social whirlwind of LBDs, black tie, and sniping across the party floor. The "urban haute bourgeoisie" are a group of over-educated, upper-class college kids, home in Manhattan on winter break and engaging in a seemingly never-ending schedule of balls. Stillman's comedy of manners is your mood board for yuppie Christmas party realness.
Ordinary People (1980)
Robert Redford's directorial debut won the Best Picture Oscar in 1980 for its depiction of a middle-class family in ruins after the death of a son. It's not the most warming festive fare ever (obviously)—Christmas is the painful climax of all that familial strife—but it is one of the most compelling.