As this strange year draws to a close, Steven T. Hanley, founder of East London film club Deeper Into Movies, has created a guide to the holidays to take your seasonal viewing to the next level. So, please enjoy: eight films (one of which may or may not be five hours long) filled with laughter, joy, violence, orgies and karate. Merry Christmas!
‘Metropolitan’ (1990), Dir. Whit Stillman
In Whit Stillman’s ultra-smart and witty story of New York's “urban haute bourgeoisie”, we follow a group of young intellectuals and socialites as they return home for the holidays to formally re-enter upper-class society as debutantes. Focusing in particular on the misadventures of one young man who sits outside the group's elite social sphere, we see him become inexorably immersed in their decadent world of endless parties and romantic woes. Still brilliant, its influence can be seen in everything from Lena Dunham’s Girls, to Noah Baumbach, to the costume design in Black Swan.
‘Less Than Zero’ (1987), Dir. Marek Kanievska
Playing out like American Psycho: The Teen Years, our melancholic and apathetic protagonist Clay (Andrew McCarthy) comes home to Beverly Hills for Christmas to discover that his former girlfriend and model Blair (Jami Gertz) has begun using cocaine - an addiction that pales in comparison to the drug dependency of her new boyfriend and serial party-boy, Julian (Robert Downey Jr.). Add into the mix James Spader, who has never been sleazier as drug dealer Rip.
Yes, lots of the shocking content from the book has been excised for the screen (no snuff movies and 12-year-old sex-slaves), but its sinister, detached perspective has not been scrubbed away. What’s left is a beautiful and cold eighties time-capsule full of empty Beverly Hills glamour, drugs, parties in mansions, swimming-pools glowing at night and Rodeo Drive power-dressing drip.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999), Dir. Stanley Kubrick
We need more holiday films with masked orgies set to haunting organ music! Stanley Kubrick’s final film still holds the record for the longest continuous film shoot, totalling four-hundred gruelling days. In fact, it was so strenuous that it’s allegedly what tore then Hollywood power-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman apart. Kubrick's insistence that the pair enact take after take pushes the performances into a strange, alien territory that contributes to the film's uncanny atmosphere. This unreality is reinforced by the snow-globe artificiality of wintry New York streets recreated in a London film studio. To this day, Eyes Wide Shut remains a mysterious and acerbically funny final act of provocation from one of America’s greatest directors.
‘Fanny & Alexander’ (1982), Dir. Ingmar Bergman
In Ingmar Bergman’s warmest and most autobiographical film, we witness the delights and conflicts of the Ekdahl family. Combining his trademark, distinctly Scandinavian mix of melancholy and emotional intensity with immense joy and sensuality, it remains the Swedish master’s finest film, and what he himself described as “the sum total of my life as a filmmaker.” A huge endurance test, the film is available in both three and five hour versions.
‘The Silent Partner’ (1978), Dir. Daryl Duke
After he correctly predicts a suspicious mall Santa is planning on robbing the bank where he works, an eccentric teller played by Elliot Gould hatches a plan to keep part of the loot for himself. Things get a little complicated when the thief (Christopher Plummer in heavy eyeliner) realises where his money is and sets out to retrieve it. Gould is typically engaging but Plummer is the real star here; chewing the scenery as a foppish agent of evil. The obvious comedy of a man dressed as Father Christmas packing a six-shooter aside, The Silent Partner features some of the most shocking acts of violence you’re likely to see in a Christmas film.
‘Blast of Silence’ (1961), Dir. Allen Baron
“Remembering, out of the black silence, you were born in pain” isn’t the kind of narration you’d expect to open a festive favourite and Blast of Silence is notably lacking in comfort or joy. Directed by Allen Baron (who also filled the lead role after Peter Falk dropped out), Blast of Silence follows an inarticulate hitman sent into the Big Apple to take out a target over the festive period. As he wanders the icy streets, a near-constant voiceover (performed with gravelly menace by Lionel Stander) reinforces the gulf between the seasonal cheer and our tormented protagonist. A glimmer of hope appears in a chance encounter with some childhood acquaintances, but don’t expect any Christmas miracles for this anti-hero.
‘A Karate Christmas Miracle’ (2019), Dir. Julie Kimmel
This feels like Tim & Eric were commissioned to make a TV holiday special.
Plot: After his father disappeared during a mass shooting by a mysterious cult on Christmas Day one year earlier, ten-year-old Jesse creates a “Twelve Days of Christmas List”. Each day on the list represents a task he must accomplish and if he completes them all, including teaching himself to become a karate black-belt, his father will return on Christmas.
Amazon review: “Whoever posted the 5 star review must have been part of the crew or related to someone on it. The ‘plot’ which barely exists is ridiculous, and the acting is below porno quality, and the production quality is worse than a couple kids with an old Super 8 camera. The only redeeming quality is that it could be pretty fun to ridicule, but other than that it's a mess. Seriously it makes The Room look like Citizen Kane by comparison.”
‘R-XMAS’ (2001), Dir. Abel Ferrara
Watching New York movies during the pandemic is like being in a long-distance relationship with a lost love. As the holidays come encroaching upon us, Abel Ferrara’s criminally under-seen ‘R-Xmas seems like the winning blend of nostalgia and anti-sentiment to come crashing down on us like a car-bomb sheathed in candy-coloured Christmas wrapping.
The film’s ultimate tension arises after we’ve already been strapped into a story of a drug-slinging husband and wife’s struggle to locate a highly-coveted “Party Girl” doll for their kid daughter’s Christmas gift. As if the notion of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men” even existed in Ferrara’s world, the tale shifts when the husband is kidnapped and held for ransom by a trio of crooks lead by a steaming-hot Ice-T, who rules the remainder of the film like a schoolyard bully. The whole movie plays out like one of the street scenes I’m so used to waking up to and watching from the window of my Brooklyn apartment. Not to mention, a wonderful fight broke out when I went to see this last year at MoMA: In typical Midtown fashion, two old-timers began bickering in the middle of the film and beating each other senseless over the head with their umbrellas. How I miss the world.