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7 holiday movie picks that aren’t Santa standard issue

Steve Martin in "Mixed Nuts"
Steve Martin in "Mixed Nuts"Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Holiday movies come in all kinds of wrapping paper. Some are as familiar as the sound of sleigh bells: “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Home Alone” (1990). Others you have to look (very) closely to find the ribbon candy. “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974)? It’s Christmastime when Don Vito gets shot, and it’s New Year’s Eve when certain memorable events happen to his two youngest sons in Havana.

Somewhere in between those extremes are these seven holiday films chosen by Globe staffers. They’re not Santa standard issue, but neither are they Christmas at the Corleones. One of them, in fact, nicely splits the difference: It’s arguably the least canonical of the dozens of TV and film versions of “A Christmas Carol.”


Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment."
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment."AFP


If Billy Wilder was going to set a film at Christmastime, you’d better believe he’d find ways to spike the eggnog. Yuletide rituals add a mordant undertow to key scenes in Wilder’s “The Apartment,” which stars Jack Lemmon as a corporate drone named C.C. Baxter who rebels against an unwritten job requirement: to loan out his apartment for assignations by married executives.

At an office Christmas party where soused coworkers are singing “Jingle Bells,’' C.C. discovers the elevator operator he’s smitten with, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is involved with a caddish bigwig played by Fred MacMurray. When C.C. tries to drown his sorrows in a bar, a rowdy, guffawing guy in a Santa Claus suit disturbs his ruminations. Then a woman intent on picking C.C. up begins to recite a fractured version of “The Night Before Christmas.’'

Happily, C.C. and Fran eventually find their way to each other. And that bigwig? Fran dispatches him with a kiss-off line that ranks with the tastiest in movie history, one that partakes not of eggnog but another seasonal, er, delicacy: “We’ll send him a fruitcake every Christmas.” Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.




There’s an ice cream war going on in Glasgow, and a morning deejay (Bill Paterson, the father in “Fleabag”) gets dragged into it. Oh, and his girlfriend just dumped him. What could be more evocative of the holidays?

Well, Bill Forsyth’s wonderfully relaxed film does share its title with a Christmas carol. Mark Knopfler, who did the score, slips it on to the soundtrack several times. The story’s set at Christmastime — Chris Menges really captures the watery northern light of December — and ends with the words “God bless us, everyone.” It also has a version of the Marx Brothers’s “sanity clause” joke (say the two words out loud).

But what makes this keenly observed comedy just right for the holidays is how Forsyth braids together kindness and sadness. If you don’t think sadness is part of the holidays, might I interest you in a time-share on the Island of Misfit Toys? This was the movie Forsyth made after his much-loved “Local Hero” (1983). Nowhere near as well known, “Comfort and Joy” may be even better. Available on Hoopla and at www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7eQNcZxEM0.


It's easy to open presents when Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) is around.
It's easy to open presents when Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) is around.


Tim Burton’s early-’90s Christmas trilogy, “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns” (1992), and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), raises some serious questions about what Christmas was like in the Burton household while the director was growing up. The three movies, which hit their dramatic crescendo at the holidays, feature misunderstood heroes and villains trying desperately to fit into their respective tinsel-draped worlds like square pegs in a snowflake-shaped universe. In the process, Burton becomes the Gen X answer to Charles Dickens or Frank Capra.


Nowhere is this more evident than “Edward Scissorhands.” Edward (Johnny Depp) is the ultimate latchkey kid, left alone in a decaying Gothic castle after his creator (Vincent Price) dies before transforming his mechanical Pinocchio into a real man-child. When Edward is adopted by a saintly Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) and brought to live in the ultimate Florida cookie-cutter cul-de-sac, his attempts at fitting in and finding love with an inexplicably blond Winona Ryder all go terribly wrong.

Burton would go on to repeat this formula in “Batman Returns” and “Nightmare,” appealing to every Gen Xer who felt like an outsider as they spent their disaffected teen years experimenting with eyeliner and black hair dye. His dark-yet-sweet stories have held up very well, particularly the fairy tale of Edward and his attempts at becoming part of a community that eventually sends him back to a solitary existence of landscaping and ice sculpting. Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube.



Everyone knows that as soon as you go home for the holidays you revert to your pimpliest, most insecure teenage-misfit self. The cheerfully sloppy, shamelessly funny “Just Friends” builds on this premise by casting Ryan Reynolds as a one-time dweeb who goes back in the Friend Zone when he reconnects with high school crush Amy Smart at Christmas. Like a vintage “Savage” Steve Holland ’80s comedy, the film keeps throwing humiliations at the hero and surrounds him with a grand supporting gallery. Pride of place goes to the gifted clown Anna Faris as a rock-star diva: To see her character zonked out on Vicodin and drooling toothpaste into the hero’s ear after a minor Taser mishap is to enter low-comedy heaven. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.




Nora Ephron’s farce upends a host of Yuletide cliches: a Christmas miracle delivered by a veterinarian; Santa straight from the clink; and old Tannenbaum stood, quite literally, on its head. Steve Martin, who stars as the head of a struggling suicide prevention hotline, couldn’t save it from landing at the box office with all the thud of the film’s defenestrated fruitcake. But today “Mixed Nuts” has found a following online, its fans drawn as much by the film’s easy kookiness as by its ensemble cast, a veritable Advent calendar of once and future stars, including the inimitable Madeline Kahn, Jon Stewart, and, in his feature debut, Liev Schreiber. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Tubi, Vudu, YouTube.


Bill Murray and Carol Kane in "Scrooged."
Bill Murray and Carol Kane in "Scrooged."John Shannon/Paramount Pictures


“Sometimes you have to slap them in the face just to get their attention!” That’s what Carol Kane tells Bill Murray’s heartless TV exec, Frank Cross, in Richard Donner’s 1988 comedy, “Scrooged.” Kane plays a very violent Ghost of Christmas Present dressed up like Tinker Bell. There are so many personalities who get standout scenes in this take on “A Christmas Carol”: Bobcat Goldthwait as Cross’s disgruntled subordinate; Robert Mitchum as Cross’s former boss, who warns him about his greedy behavior; Alfre Woodard as Cross’s loyal assistant; and gymnast Mary Lou Retton as … herself. But Kane, a ghost who gets to kick a greedy narcissist right where it hurts, is the most memorable delight — and a 2020 mood, for sure. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube



"Tokyo Godfathers."
"Tokyo Godfathers." GKIDS Films


No one captured the beauty and grotesquerie in the human face quite like the late great animator/director Satoshi Kon, and his fairy tale of Tokyo is as heartwarming as it is unconventional. When a trio of homeless misfits find a newborn in a dumpster on Christmas Eve, they’re suddenly off on a whirlwind midnight race to find the baby’s parents. Don’t be fooled by Kon’s other work (“Perfect Blue,” “Paranoia Agent”), it’s Christmas — of course there’s a happy ending. What’s more, this year saw GKIDS Films release a 4K restoration and accompanying English dub, starring Shakina Nayfack (“Transparent: Musicale Finale”) as Hana. No need to think about subtitles if you’ve had your share of eggnog. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.