From A Sunburnt Christmas to Mixed Nuts: These Are Seven Christmas Movies that Don’t Suck

Or maybe they all do. In which case I respect your right to grinch out.

Personally, I’m a sucker for a Christmas movie that strikes that ineffable chord progression of cynicism to unironic sentiment. Maybe there’s snow, maybe there’s red mud and sunshine. Maybe it’s urban, maybe it’s rural. Hopefully the cast isn’t entirely white because hey, we people of colour do Christmas too, thanks no thanks to colonisation. And yes please to more queers under the mistletoe. There should be food and presents, perhaps a new indie cover of a beloved carol, and gorgeous decorations of gold and green and red with a healthy dose of fairy lights, and hearts should be goddamned warmed by the end. If only for that final act, a Christmas movie should create the illusion of hope and that the new year will bring loveliness and relief from the heartache of this year and last. Check your ugly sweaters at the door, pop on your silly antlers, and dive into seven Christmas films that may or may not warm the cockles of your cold dead heart. And no, they aren’t your usual suspects.

A Castle For Christmas (2021)

Look, I was furious at Netflix for shamelessly targeting my Eighties/Nineties nostalgia by pairing Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes in a Christmas romcom. I screamed outrage and hit Remind Me and then grumbled a good deal when it came time. And yes, Cary Elwes’ Scottish accent is ludicrous, probably because we’re so used to him sounding American — even though he was totally born and partly educated in England and so presumably more able to do a convincing job than your average American. And apparently the Scottish geography is all over the place but then movies tend to do that, don’t talk to me about Sydney.

But damnit, this one disarmed and charmed the hell out of me. Brooke Shields plays a novelist who dodges a book deadline by fleeing to the Scottish castle where her dad grew up as groundskeeper. Cary Elwes plays the current duke in ownership of said dreadfully expensive castle that is falling down around him. They take an instant dislike to each other, and it’s so much fun to watch them bicker and fight with delightful acidity and mutual wariness. Watching them gradually fall in love feels like a guilty pleasure, and the sexual chemistry is pretty spesh.

Brooke Shields owns the magnificent physicality of her presence onscreen, so tall and broad, the wonderful age lines on her face unconcealed, and those excellent brows in full effect. I spent a good deal of the time marveling at the way Cary Elwes’ hair was arranged: whether immaculate or disheveled, it looked so fine and touchable in a white blonde shade that seems like he has and hasn’t aged at all. Is this the first time we’re seeing him as a romcom lead? Certainly felt like it, and I very much appreciated how the camera lingered on his perfectly cut mouth and the deep blues of his eyes. I too would sniff his neck, okay Brooke, no judgement.

There’s your usual raft of faintly quirky ensemble characters: two people of colour in a mostly white cast, one token gay man who is literally silenced until a crucial and admittedly lovely moment. Though I was severely embarrassed by a bit of caroling, I liked the grim reality of grand old estates opening to public tours for maintenance funds, and the negotiation of class tension. The cinematography makes good use of natural light and warm wood to render the castle homey and beautiful, showcasing some stunning stained glass. Mary Lambert, who directed that rather excellent Eighties adaptation of Pet Sematary, grounds this Christmas tale to nice effect. Was my heart warmed? Yes.

A Sunburnt Christmas (2020)

Believe the hype, this is a little ripper of a Christmas yarn. Andrew reviewed it here and I fully echo his enthusiasm for this and more of the same. It’s unabashedly rural Straya, set in parched South Australia, filmed with such intensity you can almost smell the air crowded with the scent of hot wild grass and weird little flowers, of the earth baking in the sun. That sensory intensity becomes super effective in the final act, so much so my skin tingled in response to the visual.

About seven minutes in, I knew I loved this film because for once Daniel Henshall wasn’t scaring the living daylights out of me. Instead, he plays the most adorable little ratbag, a larrikin of the first order. The family he crashes into is a well-calibrated mix of endearing and cynical and traumatised characters. And even better, they happen to be mostly people of colour, battling the elements and the inhospitable outback landscape just like the whitefullas of the Australian canon.

Really, you can’t get more white saviour than Santa, can you? But it’s sheer delight to watch Daniel Henshall and his tattoos bullshitting his way through the first half of the film and then revealing his heart to this family doing it so tough. I loved Ling Cooper Tang’s performance as the archetypal outback woman doing what she needs to do in overalls and welding mask, battling through her grief, Asian-Australian and capable as any white woman idealised in Australian literature, a year before New Gold Mountain came to our screens.

Perhaps the situation of a farming family struggling on drought-stricken land is too bleak for a typical seasonal flick, what that means for presents and food at Christmas, and the mental health of the farmers themselves. But this is Straya, this is the reality of rural Australia, and paradoxically the movie fantasy of an easy fix seems all the sweeter. Perhaps.

A subplot featuring Sully Stapleton on his own twisted version of a nativity journey makes the film so much smarter and funnier than it needs to be. He’s really quite terrifying – not quite the Full Mendo, maybe like Two-Thirds Mendo.

Heart roasted in the sun.

Call Me Claus (2001)

Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime.

Did you know there’s a Christmas movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, Victor Garber, and playing Santa Claus is the legendary Nigel Hawthorne whom you might remember from such classics as Yes Prime Minister and The Madness of King George (1994)? Nobody told me!

Whoopi Goldberg stars as a home shopping network executive producer looking for a Santa to flog trash in a Christmas showcase. Victor Garber plays her efficient assistant, and together they’re faced with the perfect Santa in the form of Nigel Hawthorne. Who, y’know, is really Santa, and he’s there to give the red suit and sleigh over to Whoopi.

Yes, these are very familiar tropes of the Christmas genre but what elevates this derivative mishmash are the performances. Whoopi’s cynicism and impatience works well for most of the film, countering all possible sentiment. And Victor is smooth and subtle and delicious as ever. Brian Stokes Mitchell is typically camp and over the top as the greedy big boss. But it’s the tenderness of Nigel Hawthorne that is just heartrending, a reminder of what a beautiful naturalistic actor he was. And when Whoopi’s cynicism melts away to pure joy, it’s impossible not to be charmed by her energy and the shenanigans of the final act.

There’s a great little montage of the contrasts between rich and poor in Los Angeles, with acts of goodwill that cross faith and poverty lines, that culminates in a moment of exquisite grief. That’s when the film got to me. And then Nigel Hawthorne devastated my emotions as he has done before.

A nice little treat, nothing remarkable but nothing too awful either. Heart moderately warmed.

Just Another Christmas (2020)

If you put the words “time-loop” and “Christmas” in a blurb, of course I’m bloody gunna click. Except it’s not actually a time-loop, okay nerd quibble ahead. Our protagonist doesn’t repeat the same Christmas Day over and over again, that would be a proper time-loop. Instead the plot is this: harried family man Jorge finds himself skipping time, waking up each morning in an eternity of successive Christmas Days, having lost all the days of the year in between. As his life changes in bewildering leaps and starts, he struggles to save his marriage and his children from his own disastrous mistakes.

The film is a ride of high-octane Christmas Day chaos which turns into an emotional rollercoaster that had me choked up with tears almost all the way through the final act. Yes, the comedy is very broad at the start, reminiscent in several ways of Jerry Lewis movies. But then just when I was thinking of all the darker grimmer ways of how Jorge’s life could fuck up, the plot turned and went in exactly those serious and heartbreaking directions. Well, not exactly, the specifics differed to good shocking effect, but the tone and trajectory was a very satisfying exploration of that darker side, with an absolutely wonderful ending.

Leandro Hassum’s portrayal of Jorge holds the whole film together in a thoroughly entertaining blend of frustrated tomfoolery and genuine pathos, like a good comedian does. Elisa Pinheiro as his wife Laura barely changes as he ages, but their love is tender and recognisably narky, a mostly functional marriage that is always so lovely to see onscreen. I loved that he actually told her what was going on, that she and the kids tried to work around it, instead of him keeping it secret from them like in usual Hollywood narratives. Of course, that made the sad bits even sadder.

The Brazilian setting of sun-drenched yellows is a refreshing depiction of a Southern Hemisphere Christmas, closer to what it’s like for us in Strayan cities with the food and the sunshine and the argumentative families amid the typical decorations regardless of hemisphere. The production details are pretty cool with how the bedroom and kitchen and even the fridge change year to year. I particularly loved that the movie playing on the television screen one Christmas was Klaus (2019).

Heart brimming over.

Mixed Nuts (1994)

Available to rent or buy on YouTube.

Apparently I am one of only two people on Letterboxd who adore this film.

Based on a French film of a French play, directed by the legendary Nora Ephron, the castlist reads like a comedy fever dream: Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Adam Sandler, Garry Shandling, Rob Reiner, Juliette Lewis, our own Anthony LaPaglia, Rita Wilson, and Liev Schreiber looking particularly delectable. Martin, Kahn, and Wilson play telephone counsellors working Christmas, fielding odd calls and even odder people turning up to the premises, while their own relationships implode and develop in all sorts of ways.

It’s a film that moves from absurdism/farce to tender compassion and ends on unabashed sentiment. There are times it feels very much like a Classic Hollywood dramedy, and other times very much like a stage play in the best sense with the same atmosphere of claustrophobia and escalating emotions. All the stories and characters intersect in a construction that’s fascinating to watch as they tangle and develop and crescendo. There’s the most wonderful speech at the end about the exquisite agony of Christmas because that’s when all your feelings are exacerbated, all your loneliness and your pain and all your joy. I felt so seen, nodding tearfully along, while also making a mental note to look up the exceptional song playing. (It was The Night Before Christmas by Carly Simon, promptly added to my Christmas playlist.)

My favourite aspect of the film was Liev Schreiber who plays a trans woman named Chris. Yes, there is the initial transphobia/panic you should expect from a mid-Nineties film. But what surprised and delighted me was how quickly that turned to fun and then melted into such tenderness with two of my favourite actors being lovely to her. Sandler’s songs are fucken adorable, especially with his lil falsetto and his sweet shy so young face. I’m convinced Liev snorting out tissues in laughter at Sandler’s lyrics was totally not meant to happen and that they just went with it. Also, Chris’ outfit is fabulous and goth af.

A much-maligned Christmas classic, heart overflowing.

The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

I may have to renounce my Classic Hollywood card for this admission but here goes: I vastly prefer this remake to the 1947 original, The Bishop’s Wife. In fact, I love every change it makes, how it fixes all the flaws, updates the situation to a proper recognition of poverty and hardship, and really develops the problems of a marriage.

The basic premise is the same: An angel comes to help a preacher/bishop save his church/cathedral from financial ruin, and endangers and saves the holy man’s marriage. (Clearly, these are not Catholics.)

It helps that the three leads in the remake are all icons in their own right: Denzel Washington as the angel; Courtney B Vance – yes, you’ve seen him in stuff – as the preacher; and Whitney Houston as Julia, the wife. It’s a perfectly mainstream Nineties film, filmed on location, geared towards naturalism with subtle polish, paced in typical leisure, and therefore enormously comforting to us Nineties kids.

It’s rare to see Denzel in a comedy and of course he turns in a rich nuanced performance as he always does, moving from exuberance to watchful affection to an increasing reticence. I can’t work out if he plays that final act with revulsion or simple longing as his angel character realises human life and all its messiness is not for him. And I love that he’s costumed in dapper grey hat and suit like he’s stepped right out of the original 1947 film, striking a sleek discordant note in this textured mundane Nineties world.

Denzel’s chemistry with Courtney B Vance is hilarious in its bickering and outright antagonism. It might be that poor Courtney has the least interesting role of the three but that doesn’t stop him from playing up the grumpiness, the frustration, and also keeping the seriousness and humanity of that neighbourhood in focus.

But aahhh, Whitney Houston. Her Julia is a vibrant interesting character, impishly defiant from the very first scene, fierce enough to glint rage when shushed, and not above yelling at her husband in public when he fully deserves it. It’s not difficult to see the influence of Penny Marshall behind the camera as director, a fierce wonderful woman herself. And of course the gospel numbers are absolute bangers – if you love Whitney as a singer, you’re going to be delighted every time the plot works in a song; if you don’t, well, mate, what’s wrong with you?

No, really, that rendition she and the Georgia Mass Choir do of Joy To The World is electrifying. It’s never off my Christmas playlist.

The supporting cast is equally delightful: Jenifer Lewis and Loretta Devine bringing the hilarity and realness, Gregory Hines as a smarmy villain and utterly adorable in his redemption (I so wanted him to dance), and Lionel Richie in a very cool cameo. Possibly the only weak point for me is the excruciatingly cute boy child but then you can’t have everything.

Unlike the original, the religion is fairly overt in this version with an ultimate point made about faith that somehow had even a positive atheist like me tearing up in happiness. Blame the Catholic hardwiring. Heart most definitely sparking.

Klaus (2019)

I have zero chill about this movie. The first time I watched it, I felt utterly dazed with so much rightness, and had to rewatch it three days later to check that it really was that excellent. It was.

In the nineteenth century, trainee postman Jesper, is sent to a postal office at the northernmost point of the world, and told that he has a year to procure and send out six thousand letters from the tiny village of Smeerensburg. Except the villagers are more interested in fighting each other, and the children can’t write and are even less interested in attending school. In desperation, Jesper seeks out a woodsman who, it turns out, makes toys. The two of them set off the most delightful chain of events, cause and effect over and over again, that change the village and themselves and create the tradition of Christmas presents.

Klaus is exactly the blend of withering sarcasm and wholehearted sentiment that I want from everything. The animation marries the exaggeration of Tim Burton figures with the most gorgeous lighting that enraptures and amazes me every time as the colour palette moves between cold and warm. The pace is relentlessly breakneck for a good long while, with super dramatic camera angles that would make Frank Tashlin proud, and thrillingly fast editing. That frantic pace lends a certain delicacy to the quiet reflective moments of reveals and character development.

The plot is a clever reinvention of familiar tropes and histories, steeped in reality, with the barest touch of magic, and even that could be read as a metaphor, the transcending of reality to metaphorical myth. It’s very like the Industrial Revolution novels of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and Jesper is so much like Moist von Lipwig (yes, really) that I wonder on every watch if the filmmakers are Pratchett fans.

I relate deeply to Jesper with his privileged whining and acidic clapbacks. He’s at once the most hapless person in existence and also very clever and unscrupulous, voiced by Jason Schwartzmann who is clearly having way too much fun. The voice cast is stellar: Rashida Jones, JK Simmons, Joan Cusack, and Norm Macdonald in his final film role. All make the most of the crackling dialogue and distinctive characterisation, though unsurprisingly Schwartzmann adlibbed most of his lines.

What’s also really cool is the inclusion of Northern Sami language from European countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland, here spoken by people living in a community outside of the village. Though it irks me every time that the language remains unsubtitled for the whole movie – it feels too much like persistently othering the Sami people – their inclusion in the Christmas myth manages to be clever without descending into colonial tropes of trickery or enslavement. And their visual symbolism is particularly awesome.

A bona fide Christmas classic, guaranteed to melt your cold dead heart into fluffy warmth for at least a little while.

Want queer Christmas romcoms? Check out Vulture’s list which appeared just after I finished writing this up, argh.

Also worth checking out:

Dash And Lily: the only Netflix show about teenagers that I can stand, a weirdly addictive tale of opposites attract – one who hates Christmas and the other who loves it a little too much – set in New York at that most glitzy time of year. A lot of really great knit and crochet work.

If you can find them:

Lady On A Train (1945): Is it screwball comedy? Is it film noir? Both, it’s both. Deanna Durbin is a super hawt blonde and quick-witted as ever, running rings around Edward Everett Horton, sexing up the screen and Silent Night, in a twisty plot with a baddie reveal that made me bolt upright in wide-eyed shock. Wait til you hear that villain speech and all the innuendo that violate so many Hays Code tenets. Some really stark glam cinematography, a hilariously atypical romantic hero, and a lot of fun recognisable parodies. And yes, it’s a Christmas film.

Holiday Affair (1949): Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh in a Christmas romcom, what? A strange lovely combination of post-WW2 cynicism and sentiment and unexpected psychological insight and hotness.


Born in India, based in Sydney, queer nerd who would like to assure you they only put their feet up for the one second it took to get the pic.

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