Streaming: Christmas films that chime with the times

In tune with socially distanced festivities, the more melancholy end of the seasonal movie spectrum beckons, with an undertaker, sudden death and doomed romance

Even in a year that has made us numb to strangeness, it’s been a funny old December: a festive season largely without festivities, while many will be spending Christmas apart from their usual crowd. With that in mind, the usual seasonal viewing options – those extravagant Christmas films that pile on the tinselly cheer – may feel out of step with the collective mood.

A time, then, for Christmas films that permit a little wintry chill, some room for loneliness or pensive melancholy. Or exquisite misery, if you feel like plunging into the anti-Christmas genre at its most extreme with Mon Oncle Antoine – a Canadian classic that I hadn’t seen until recently. Made in 1971, Claude Jutra’s film is an unsentimental coming-of-age tale, following a Quebecer teen through about the least jolly Christmas Eve imaginable, as he assists his undertaker uncle in the collection and eventual rescue of a dead body. If that sounds solemn, it is, but there’s hard-won humanity amid the austerity, and Jutra has an eye for crisp, severe beauty. It’s also free to view on YouTube, thanks to the National Film Board of Canada’s marvellous archival channel.

Dialling up the warmth several notches, Bill Forsyth’s wistful, gently absurd Comfort and Joy (1984; on Amazon Prime) begins with a breakup, as Scottish DJ Allan “Dicky” Bird (a droll Bill Paterson) is left single days before Christmas – but not wholly alone, as he finds himself improbably tangled in a turf war between rival ice-cream vendors. On its release, the film was seen as something of a letdown after Forsyth’s previous films, but time has been kind: it glimmers with home and kinship against bleak odds. You could pair it with either of two films about the unexpected consequences of one’s lover departing at Christmas: in both Lynne Ramsay’s mordant, oddly rapturous Morvern Callar (2002) and Zach Clark’s eerily deadpan White Reindeer (2013; both on iTunes), the young heroine’s partner abruptly dies, making for a holiday season of sudden independence and surprising escapades.

Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar.
Samantha Morton as Morvern Callar. Photograph:

You could say something similar for Tom Cruise’s nasty yet cathartic yuletide odyssey in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999; on Microsoft Store) – a weirdly evocative film that captures the silly season in all its sometimes alienating excess. Staying in New York’s sinister underbelly, Allen Baron’s 1961 thriller Blast of Silence is short, shadow-striped and razor-cut. A neo-noir tracking a hitman going about his business between Christmas and New Year, it’s niftily nestled in the Internet Archive. Nearly as minimalist, though a lot more colourful, Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot gem Tangerine (2015; on Google Play) has already attained seasonal counter-classic status with its jangly, touching study of two transgender sex workers spending the holiday together on the streets of Los Angeles.

2046. Photograph: Columbia/Jet Tone/Kobal/Shutterstock

All of which isn’t to say the alternative Christmas film can’t partake of a little swooning romanticism. I’ll be rewatching Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004; on Amazon) this coming week, bathing in the saturated, satiny colours of a time-shifting puzzle in which Christmas – and the lost loves and unsuccessful trysts that congregate around it – is the one constant. But I’ll be following it up with Todd Haynes’s dreamy, crystalline Carol (on Prime), a red-ribboned Christmas romance in which heartbreak does lead to the brink of ecstatic reconciliation: two people, alone against the world, heading into a new year and future together. What more do you really need to get through the holiday?

Also new on streaming and DVD

Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom.
Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP

The Prom
(Netflix, 12A)
The latest product of Ryan Murphy’s relentless Netflix content deal is also the first feature film he’s directed since 2010’s Eat Pray Love, and proves he has a better head for episodic TV. Adapted from a modest Broadway musical, this glitter-assaulted trifle centres on a vain quartet of New York stage luvvies, descending on a bigoted Indiana town to help a marginalised lesbian teen attend prom. Initially announcing its intent to satirise empty celebrity activism, it proceeds to fall into exactly that trap itself, with wet self-help songs, preening star performances from James Corden and Meryl Streep, and a forced air of sub-Glee gaiety – undercut by the film’s palpable confidence that it’s Really Helping People.

The Macaluso Sisters
(Curzon Home Cinema)
Playwright-turned-film-maker Emma Dante’s charming, lace-delicate second film premiered in competition at this year’s Venice film festival, where it was overshadowed by beefier competition. So it’s a surprise and a delight to see a UK release for this deft, moving tale of sisterhood across multiple decades, which most impressively traces and braids the life stories of five women in under 90 minutes, its melodrama never feeling forced or compressed.

Small Axe
(BBC, 15)
They’re all available free on the iPlayer, of course, but if you’re a physical media completist – or are Christmas gift-shopping for one – the five films making up Steve McQueen’s extraordinary television project have been gathered into a single DVD box set. Foregrounding London’s Caribbean community on a scale never previously seen on screen, it’s a rich, raging, celebratory quilt – in particular, Lovers Rock gives us the feverish party hit that this December has been missing.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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