It’s a dysfunctional life

Skip the standards; let Batman, burglars, and boxers show you the true cinematic gems of the season  

There’s no lack of holiday movies whose log lines are stuffed with words like “heartwarming” and “family-friendly.” But where among the chestnuts and mistletoe are the misunderstood love affairs? The bone-crunching patriotism? The militarized nightmarish dystopias? If the usual comforts of Bedford Falls, Red Ryder BB guns, and Burgermeister Meisterburger are suddenly boring, fret not. A sleigh-full of alternative holiday movies await you this season.



Finding the right gift: It’s the eternal holiday struggle. Do they already have one? Does it come with a gift receipt? Can I feed it after midnight? That last question became yet another addition to the Sisyphean task of finding the ultimate Christmas present in “Gremlins.” Who hasn’t found themselves in Chinatown desperate for a last-minute present to give to their college-aged son? That’s where inventor Randall Peltzer finds himself when he buys a small, furry Mogwai for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). Had Peltzer known Cantonese, he’d know that Mogwai translates to “monster” and he would have given the town of Kingston Falls a much less memorable Christmas. Instead, limbs were lost, Snow White was blown up and director Joe Dante made an entire generation terrified of YMCA pools.

“Eyes Wide Shut”

Nutmeg and cinnamon are the holiday spices of choice in my family, but maybe your tastes are of a more exotic variety — speedballs, prostitutes, secret sex parties, etc. If so, celebrate the season with Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as Dr. Harford and his wife, Alice, a young couple who spend their holiday season on a sexual walkabout through Manhattan. After all the trysts, drugs and masked-orgies, what do the Harfords, while Christmas shopping, decide is the gift they both need the most? Love. Except they use a different four letter word to describe it.

“The Ref”

A reminder of why December is the most dysfunctional time of year, 1994’s “The Ref” is the only holiday comedy that teaches valuable lessons about unhappiness, alcoholism, blackmail and breaking and entering. Like most families, Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline (Judy Davis) spend Christmas Eve in a marriage counselor’s office. While there, lovable cat burglar Gus (Denis Leary, playing a variation on his character from mid-1990s MTV ads) breaks into their home. Hi-jinx ensue and Gus guides the couple through an awkward holiday dinner, and, eventually, back into each other’s arms.

“Batman Returns”


The holidays are a time to reconnect with family, but not everyone’s childhood is filled with stockings hung by the chimney with care. Some grow up poor. Others are placed, warmly swaddled, in a river by their parents and, decades later, try to kill the first-born sons of a city. Moses has nothing on the near-biblical tale of Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), the lead antagonist in Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns.” Egged on by the megalomaniacal Max Shrek (Christopher Walken), spurned by Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and bullied by billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), Cobblepot, also known as the Penguin, simply wants to bring some Yuletide cheer to Gotham by kidnapping babies and amassing an army of penguins.

“Rocky IV”


Why waste time caroling when you could brush up on the Pledge of Allegiance? That’s most likely how marble-mouthed patriot Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) spends most of December. That is, when he’s not busy avenging his friend’s death. By fighting the six-and-a-half foot Ivan Drago. In a secret boxing match. In Russia. On Christmas Day. In “Rocky IV,” Rocky’s gift to his fallen friend is not only victory in the ring but also single-fistedly ending the Cold War. As Balboa eloquently proclaims, “During this fight, I seen a lot of changing. The way youse felt about me and the way I felt about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other. But I guess that’s better than 20 million. What I’m trying to say is … if I can change … and you can change … everybody can change!” Ah, America! The true reason for the season.


There’s a reason Santa Claus always checks his list twice. One small clerical error can have grave consequences. Witness the poor Buttle family in Terry Gilliam’s madly beautiful dystopia “Brazil.” While his daughter wonders aloud how Santa will find them on Christmas Eve without a chimney in their low-income housing unit, cobbler Archibald Buttle has nary a moment to console her before a pack of highly weaponized bureaucratic goons storm his home, stuff him in a sack and take him away to his death. The Buttle family’s Christmas is ruined due to a mistake by government clerk Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who intended to send the goon squad after suspected terrorist Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro). One of the most visionary films of the 1980s updates Orwell’s “1984” with the sort of manic cynicism and hopeless insanity that Frank Capra tended to avoid.

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