Discomfort and Joy: WTF Festive Films

“And to all, a good night” —Matthew Goode toasts the end of the world in Silent Night. 
“And to all, a good night” —Matthew Goode toasts the end of the world in Silent Night

Silent Night filmmaker Camille Griffin leans into the messy excess of the season as her movie joins The Green Knight and Spencer in the canon of offbeat, ‘WTF’ Christmas movies.

Note: this story contains discussion of films that feature suicide and end-of-life decisions.

It has been a manic pandemic, during which we’ve been supposed to act like everything is normal, while the world is anything but. And now, just as a fast-spreading new variant adds a bitter sting to this world of dread and fear, Christmas cinema once again insists upon cookie-cutter seasonal films of great joy, large kitchens and capitalistic excess.

No two Christmases are alike, but many Christmas films are. Movies are escapism, yes, and it is the personal choice of the film lover to survive this most wonderfully exhausting time of the year by going straight for the cheese. That might mean taking seriously three Vanessa Hudgenses at once in a third Princess Switch movie, or falling for Cary Elwes’ almost-convincing Scottish accent in A Castle for Christmas, or rooting for Philemon Chambers’ Nick along with 2021 best-movie-dad Barry Bostwick in the very sweet Single All the Way. Or, it might justify this year’s umpteenth hate-rewatch of Love Actually. (No judgment here, actually. Needs must, and Dame Emma Thompson forever.)

But I am looking for more. I want something nervier, more indicative of these real times. Entertainment that fully embraces the darker, lonelier, stranger side of the season. Something, for example, that might make you scream: “What the fuck is this movie? Oh my god? What the hell is this?” after watching it on a cold autumn night.

That is exactly what Silent Night director Camille Griffin shrieked at me, in her impression of my Letterboxd review out of TIFF of her debut feature, an apocalyptic, pro-vaccine, anti-government, über-socialist Christmas film. I am mortified, obviously, but just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the exact wording of said review:

Ella Kemp’s review of Silent Night.
Ella Kemp’s review of Silent Night.

Silent Night joins a growing canon of films that fall into a very specific but hard-to-define Christmas subgenre. I’m not talking about out-and-out holiday horror (head to Horrorville for that), or the incomparable Christmas-crime subgenre (as explored for us by Justin LaLiberty), but rather the strange place between Better Watch Out and Love Actually, where things get a little weird, a little bit “what-the-fuck-is-this-movie”.

They are, in essence, films that shatter the illusion that comes with the almost hallucinatory happiness we’re encouraged to feel at this time of year. “Every Christmas, people have an emotional reaction they don’t at any other time of year,” Griffin notes. “There’s something very sentimental and hopeful about the holiday, which takes us out of our ordinary selves and we start believing and feeling things that we haven’t felt all year.”

The cast of Silent Night going out with a bang. 
The cast of Silent Night going out with a bang. 

There is plenty sentimental, but not much hopeful, about Silent Night, and I’m not the only Letterboxd member to say so. Matt describes the film as “if Melancholia was a British Christmas movie”, while Dodi relishes the wicked setup: “having a party to pretend everything is fine just as the apocalypse is approaching—sounds about right.”  

Griffin is lapping up the responses, and won’t let me apologize for my “lol WHAT” review, calling my words “enthusiastically challenging” during our chat. We’re both laughing in spite of (or thanks to?) my tone-setting freakout, which we realize might actually be apt.

Silent Night isn’t the first film set during the holidays to flirt with death and the apocalypse, but it certainly does a good job of its new twist on yuletide end-of-life events. The movie follows a wealthy family (Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and sons) welcoming their nearest and dearest to their well-appointed house in the countryside. There are kooky children, glamorous lesbians, and a pudding emergency. So far, so British Christmas.

But these old friends must deal with the unimaginable: the climate end-times. A suffocating toxic cloud is enveloping the atmosphere, and Brits everywhere (those whom the government has deemed worthy of being equipped with the medicine; sorry to all the homeless) have made plans to die by taking an “exit pill” to avoid the more painful inevitable.

Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones and Kirby Howell-Baptiste are contemplating a Silent Night-cap. 
Davida McKenzie, Rufus Jones and Kirby Howell-Baptiste are contemplating a Silent Night-cap. 

“I think local cinema-goers are going to come out furious,” Griffin tells me from her home in Sussex, England, nodding to how excited I am to stress out my parents in Surrey as well when I show them the film. “I’m shitting myself! There’s going to be a lot of Ellas going, ‘What the fuck was that?!’” All jokes aside, the filmmaker is categoric about her intentions. “It’s truthful to who I am. I had to put everything that’s good about me and bad about me on screen. Sometimes I feel shame, sometimes pride, sometimes misfortune. But I write challenging material—I can’t sit around and go, ‘Oh, I put Marmite on everyone’s toast and I hope they’ll like it.’”

Silent Night joins two more gloriously unsettling 2021 Christmas gifts, The Green Knight and Spencer, in a growing collection that also includes Satoshi Kon’s abandoned-child fairytale Tokyo Godfathers from 2003, and much earlier classics like Billy Wilder’s bittersweet 1960 masterpiece, The Apartment, and Frank Capra’s 1946 everyman favorite, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Todd Haynes’ Carol has a place here; we get so caught up in the breathless romance of it all, we forget that in order to love Therese, Carol must be prepared to lose her daughter. And heck, since a pig saving itself from becoming Christmas dinner is a jubilant WTF moment indeed, let’s add Babe to the mix.

Miyuki, Hana and Gin all fall for baby Kiyoko in Tokyo Godfathers.
Miyuki, Hana and Gin all fall for baby Kiyoko in Tokyo Godfathers.

Frankly, the best Christmas films are 1) the bonkers, chaotic ones, of any genre, that are honest about the fact that bright baubles and forced family cheer can lead to distress and headaches, and 2) the movies that sneak up on you to prove they are the most festive of all—even if, and especially when, they are masquerading as Arthurian tales and anti-biopics of the Royal Family.

For this story, I asked people on Twitter to tell me the most batshit Christmas film they’d ever seen—mainly just to see how many people were thinking about Silent Night already (quite a few, it turns out). I didn’t expect the immediate outpouring of train-crash excitement, the “You know what? This holiday isn’t perfect at all.” Brett confessed “Christmas with the Kranks made my eyeballs burn”, Brianna wrote “Better Watch Out comes to mind as the Christmas horror movie that gave me brain damage,” while Chris suggested that “Nativity 3 is arguably the best contraception around.” There’s a kind of perverse pleasure to it all. Christmas can be warm and bright and silent and sweet, but so often it isn’t.

“Christmas is supposed to be perfect,” agrees Griffin of her vision for Silent Night, one full of complexities and no easy answers. “But nobody has a perfect Christmas unless you’re a truly fantastic person with a nice family. I don’t know anyone like that. Christmas is always chaotic and a mess.”

“Could I have my foldback up just a tinsel bit?” Tangerine’s Alexandra (Mya Taylor) has a Christmas Eve moment in the spotlight.
“Could I have my foldback up just a tinsel bit?” Tangerines Alexandra (Mya Taylor) has a Christmas Eve moment in the spotlight.

“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!” In Sean Baker’s 2015 LA-in-one-day dramatic comedy Tangerine, there’s no snow to be seen, barely a strand of tinsel, but Baker fully and deliberately leans into the Christmas outcast narrative, as we journey on foot with sex worker Sin-Dee and her bestie Alexandra to get to the bottom of a rumor. Popping in and out of their journey is married taxi driver Razmik, whose more traditional Armenian family is attempting to have a typically American Christmas. 

Talking on the Letterboxd Show recently, Baker explained that he and co-writer Chris Bergoch, while being inspired by “LA Christmas movies like Die Hard”, wanted to lean into the found-family narrative, “especially with the fact that many of the trans youth at risk here in LA, unfortunately, did not have a family connection because many of them were rejected by their [families].”

While Razmik’s in-laws struggle to perform a traditionally happy Christmas, we see that “the sisterhood, even through their hardships, they were there for each other,” says Baker. “We wanted to show that family doesn’t always have to be blood, and sometimes if it is blood, it can be more toxic than your friends who are family.”

Red sweater, blue blood in Spencer.
Red sweater, blue blood in Spencer.

And what if that blood is blue blood? Possibly the most haunting, unusual Christmas movie to be released this year is Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana film, Spencer. In Larraín’s feverish imagining, a Windsor family Christmas involves being weighed upon arrival, having every outfit decided for you, and a literal army overseeing the kitchen.

The filmmaker “turns the most opulent Christmas ever into a nightmarish prison of obligation,” writes Matt, while Kristen feels death rearing its ugly head in this anti-biopic as well. “There are a lot of movies about dead women during their lifetime; Spencer is especially haunting because it feels like a movie about a woman who is already dead,” she writes.

You feel both the manic sadness and the dull frustration of it all in these three artfully fictionalized days in the late Princess of Wales’ life, as she’s forced to navigate a terse Christmas at the palace. Diana would rather swallow a pearl necklace than finish her soup, and will need to fetch those bolt cutters pretty quickly to get through this winter break. It proves that no matter how large your hearth, home is sometimes the worst place to be.

Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney have snow business treating Archie Yates like that.
Ellie Kemper and Rob Delaney have snow business treating Archie Yates like that.

As young Kevin McCallister found, in a different sense, when his wish for some Christmas quiet turned into a nightmare in John Hughes’ iconic Home Alone, one of the more high-profile WTF Christmas films. Does anyone else also forget, whenever December rolls around, that this sweet family comedy is actually a grim horror scenario? (As Katie writes, “Who knew a movie about home invasion would be so wholesome!”)

It’s why this year’s well-intentioned Disney+ reboot Home Sweet Home Alone didn’t quite do the job. There’s a grubbiness to the original, a guttural terror in Macaulay Culkin’s face (that scream!), and a nastiness from those robbers that sweet Rob Delaney and Ellie Kemper could never inflict on little Archie Yates—no matter how many curse words were sprinkled in to roughen things up.

Yates’ Jojo Rabbit co-star Roman Griffin Davis, Camille’s son and the tiny hero of Silent Night, cuts straight to the bone with his take on Christmas when I ask if being in a holiday movie was a bucket-list job for him. “My Christmas is really dysfunctional and a bit mentally overwhelming, so, no!” he laughs.

Camille Griffin directs Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode as the parents of her three real-life sons in Silent Night.
Camille Griffin directs Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode as the parents of her three real-life sons in Silent Night.

Griffin Davis is matter-of-fact about this dysfunctionality having served Silent Night well. “If we were a polite, nice family, it wouldn’t have been the same outcome.” The fourteen-year-old’s candid, unorthodox answers (Did he enjoy working with his family? Not just mum, but his brothers and co-stars, Hardy and Gilby? “I find my brothers really annoying but I guess that helped?”) indicate his feelings about how extreme Silent Night is: “This isn’t a Halloween film, and I’ve never really thought of it as horror—I’m quite used to watching pretty dark films, and I’ve got a bleak sense of humor.”

So have many Letterboxd members, judging by what we rate highly when it comes to Christmas movies. We like films that are as true to the messy loneliness of the holidays as they are to the fundamental warmth of the season. Three of the highest-rated festive films on Letterboxd—The Apartment, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Tokyo Godfathers—all feature suicidal ideation or outright attempts.

There’s comfort to be found in the solitude that The Apartment’s CC Baxter and Fran Kubelik feel around this time of year, and a softness to their unlikely companionship. But there is also a central incident involving an excessive number of sleeping pills. It’s bleak and quite terrifying, as Fran Kubelik’s fate looks a little unclear for a minute in the face of such reckless and desperate actions.

Shirley MacLaine is in need of a lift in The Apartment.
Shirley MacLaine is in need of a lift in The Apartment.

And never have the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree been less festive than in Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, which opens on the Christmas-morning aftermath of a successful attempt. Robert Redford’s Ordinary People also dances with the topic, as do Michael Keaton’s The Merry Gentleman and the French festive farce Santa Claus is a Stinker (literally set at a suicide helpline, ‘SOS Distress’).

Even Gremlins goes there, in a conversation between Billy (Zach Galligan) and his crush, Kate (Phoebe Cates), who won’t pretend to like Christmas, due to a tragic back-story involving her father and a chimney:

BILLY: I always thought everyone was happy during the holidays, no matter what.

KATE: Most people are, but some aren’t. While everybody else opens up presents, they’re opening up their wrists.

BILLY: Cheery thought.

KATE: It’s true. The suicide rate‘s always the highest around the holidays.

The Green Knight pitches his a cool new Christmas game.
The Green Knight pitches his a cool new Christmas game.

Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain just straight-up accepts the inevitability of his death in The Green Knight, David Lowery’s sensual, high-concept adaptation of the medieval tale. In its opening scenes, the titular figure arrives at King Arthur’s yuletide gathering to propose a Christmas game: if someone is prepared to chop off his head, the Green Knight will return the favor a year hence. Moments before this, Gawain’s Uncle Arthur had asked of his nephew just one gift: “tell me a tale of thyself, so that I might know thee”. Gawain has nothing to tell, and so he volunteers for The Green Knight’s mystifying game.

Many movies become Christmas movies by way of incidental festive content, but Christmas was very deliberately on everyone’s minds while making The Green Knight. Though it was released at the height of this past summer, the good people at A24 have doubled down on the film’s Christmas themes, slyly re-releasing it for the holiday season with a wonderfully festive new trailer.

“I was very excited to make a new perennial holiday classic,” writer and director David Lowery told us. “I don’t know if that’s how it turned out, but it was certainly on my mind going into it.” (On Letterboxd, Maria, at least, provides proof that Gawain’s mission was accomplished: “men exchanging blows to the head, cum belt on, lingering glances… a true Christmas gay miracle.”)

On The Green Knight’s aesthetic ideals, Lowery explains: “When we began to design the film, we realized that many of the visual signifiers of Christmas—the trees, the holly, the greens and reds—were already present in the character of the Green Knight. He is essentially a giant walking Christmas tree, striding into a more traditional celebration of Christ’s birth. So we sort of put all that weight onto him.”

“What are you thinking for dessert: trifle and a Baileys?”
“What are you thinking for dessert: trifle and a Baileys?”

Lowery, then, with his visually luscious and totally sensorial drama, finds ways to nod to the decadent and pleasurable parts of the holidays, even while his lead character’s journey is advancing towards an honorable potential demise. That balance—of looming death, while sincerely believing the “lovely clichés like warmth and love and a genuine desire for togetherness and good will”, as Lowery calls them—creates a special kind of alchemy that allows for a lasting impact, far beyond the one-and-done streamer rom-coms.

The end-times vibes of these alternative Christmas films feel more aligned with the original reason for the season—a houseless family, a baby born into political turmoil—than the middle-class Hallmark cheeserama the studios think we want. The longer we spend with characters like The Apartment’s Fran, the more we get it. When everything is padded and insulated—by blankets, food, alcohol, an out-of-office email—it is easy to forget the extremes and ignore the outcasts. A little wake-up call, to remember what to be thankful for, what we’ve missed, what could have been, is so very welcome.

“How many days did you make it through Whamageddon?”
“How many days did you make it through Whamageddon?”

These bleaker, weirder Christmas films—a blueprint created by George Bailey’s heartstopping near-miss in 1946 with It’s A Wonderful Life, and set on fire with Henry Golding’s heart-swapping valentine in 2019’s Last Christmas—remind us that all is not merry and bright. Against a commercial outpouring of pretend jollies and Insta-perfect decorations—when we are, in fact, in a climate crisis—it is the greatest comfort of all that filmmakers like Griffin refuse to shy away from the uncomfortable parts of the holiday.

“I am the kind of person who thinks, when something like this happens, that I want to talk about it,” Camille Griffin says of her own enthusiastically challenging film. “Like you said, everyone’s gonna freak out—but it’s because when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” Griffin asks. “People have to ask themselves why this film upsets them. We have a responsibility to ask what we’re doing wrong in the world.”

Merry Christmas, then. And an enthusiastically challenging New Year to all!


Silent Night’ is in cinemas and streaming on AMC+ now. ‘The Green Knight’ is back in theaters and available to rent or buy on demand and physical release. ‘Spencer’ is in theaters and available to rent on demand. 

If you need help or to talk to someone about concerns raised for you in this story, please first know that you are not alone. These are just a few of the many organizations and resources available, and their websites include more information:

US

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (hotline 1-800-273-8255), The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678), Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860)

Canada

The Canada Suicide Prevention Service (hotline 1-833-456-4566)

UK/Ireland 

Crisis Text Line (text 85258 from anywhere in the UK), Lifeline Northern Ireland (0808 808 8000)

Further Reading

Tags

Share This Article