A holiday streaming guide for unsung Christmas classics, Scrooge-friendly holiday hits and this year's Oscar hopefuls

Carol
Carol

The holidays look weird this year. So, too, does the movie industry.

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, blockbusters have either been indefinitely delayed or relegated to streaming platforms. Here in Spokane, movie theaters reopened for a little less than a month, only to shutter again as case numbers skyrocketed.

It seems like the traditional theatrical release model is in a perilous position, and the latest hurdle was Warner Bros. announcing that its entire slate of new films — including Dune, In the Heights, The Suicide Squad and new installments of the Matrix, Conjuring and Godzilla franchises — will premiere on HBO Max concurrently with limited runs in theaters. That's assuming theaters will still be around to play new movies.

The thing is, movies and Christmas are inextricably linked. It's the time of year when studios toss out their prestige pictures and kid-friendly tentpoles, and millions of families have made an annual tradition of venturing to the multiplex on Christmas to take in the latest Disney adventure or future Oscar winner.

Obviously that's not a reality for most folks this year, but regardless of how you're spending Christmas 2020 — whether it's a modest gathering with the two or three people you've kept in your bubble, or alone in your apartment while your family beams in via Zoom — you'll inevitably get to the point in the night when you're desperate for something to watch.

So we've done the hard work for you, curating a diverse collection of movies that you should consider streaming this holiday season. We've included some unsung Christmas classics, some weird and wild yuletide-themed films, and even the newest movies that will no doubt be part of the upcoming awards conversation.

UNSUNG CHRISTMAS CLASSICS

These are generally beloved films, all of which are set at Christmastime, but none of which are usually brought up in the same breath as bonafide holiday classics like It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story (or, for that matter, Die Hard). But they're just as timeless and just as yuletide-y, and you'll either want to revisit them or finally cross them off your to-see list.

The Apartment (1960)
Like the work of Frank Capra, Billy Wilder's Best Picture winner is somewhat misremembered — a romantic comedy that's a lot more melancholy than you probably recall. It's the story of lonely hearts at Christmas-time, including an office drone (Jack Lemmon) leasing out his bachelor pad to cheating executives, and an elevator operator (Shirely MacLaine) having one of those affairs. What are the odds they'll find love with each other? Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

Carol (2015)
OK, so maybe it's still too recent to be designated a classic, but Todd Haynes' sumptuous romance is the sort of movie that feels like it's going to be around for a long time. Set in the 1950s (during Christmas, natch), this flawlessly realized adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel tracks the blooming love affair between a wealthy housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a department store clerk (Rooney Mara) who lock eyes across a room and find an instant connection. Let the swooning commence. Streaming on Netflix.

click to enlarge Fanny & Alexander
Fanny & Alexander

Fanny & Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman's epic tale of childhood, social status and religious fervor opens with an elaborate and decadent Christmastime set piece, instantly establishing the wistfulness and magical realism that pervades the rest of his late-career masterpiece. It's available in two versions, both worthwhile — a five-episode TV miniseries version and a three-hour theatrical cut. Streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Metropolitan (1990)
Whit Stillman's directorial debut, one of the finest indie films of the '90s, is a vicious satire dressed up as an urbane ensemble comedy in which a middle-class college student insinuates himself into a group of posh rich kids. It's filled with swanky Christmas parties in upscale Manhattan apartments, as well as the sparkling (and often hilarious) dialogue and lacerating wit that became Stillman's trademark. Streaming on HBO Max.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart star as feuding co-workers at loggerheads during their store's holiday rush, unaware that they're also anonymous pen pals falling in love with each other via letters. The premise might sound familiar — You've Got Mail would copy it 50-plus years later — but this predecessor is infinitely superior, not only one of the best romantic comedies ever made but arguably the best of director Ernst Lubitsch's sterling career. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut

KEEP CHRISTMAS WEIRD

Christmas-based narratives tend to pick one of two lanes — either comforting predictability, or Bad Santa-esque weirdness. The former might not be your cup of chamomile, but there's plenty of off-kilter Christmas fare out there, and these titles might be best enjoyed with a nip of egg nog, or after you've smoked some, uh, mistletoe.

Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam's mad vision of the near future, as famous for its mix of slapstick and surrealism as its post-production nightmares, where a totalitarian government has made its populace over-reliant on cumbersome machinery it never intends to repair. It's a black comedy that uses its Christmas setting as an ironic juxtaposition to Orwellian dystopia and Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and every shot is bursting with detail and invention. Streaming on Hoopla; rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This existential curio rode a huge wave of publicity upon release: It was the final work by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, it starred then-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and it was loaded with censored sex and nudity. And it's still a divisive film, a dark fable about a hotshot doctor who learns his wife has contemplated adultery and sets out to find carnal depravity for himself in the lead-up to Christmas. Typical of Kubrick, it's detached and disorienting, but isn't that how the holidays feel sometimes? Streaming on Hulu.

Female Trouble
Female Trouble

Female Trouble (1974)
Although provocateur John Waters has been trying to get an honest-to-god Christmas movie made for years, you'll have to settle for an infamous scene in this deranged, pitch-black comedy. It comes early in the film, when teenager Dawn Davenport (the late, great drag queen Divine) doesn't get her cherished cha-cha heels for Christmas, destroying the living room and running away to become a murderous performance artist. Ho, ho, ho. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

Lady in the Lake (1947)
You wouldn't think Christmas and film noir would go hand in hand, but the holiday setting of this B-movie takes murder and intrigue and decorates it with tinsel. What makes Lady in the Lake special is its central gimmick: The entire film is shot from the POV of famed detective Philip Marlowe as he hunts for a missing woman and becomes embroiled in a more elaborate plot, and that somewhat cheesy approach lends the material a woozy, dreamlike weirdness. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
One of the greatest movies ever made, actor Charles Laughton's sole directorial effort has a singular, eccentric tone. Robert Mitchum delivers his most iconic performance as a murderous Southern preacher who goes looking for his former cellmate's hidden stockpile of money, marrying the man's widow and pursuing her children as they escape with the fortune. It doesn't have any Christmas scenes until the very end, but they help to drive home the unexpectedly hopeful tone of this allegory for original sin and redemption. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

ANTI-CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS MOVIES

More of a Scrooge than a Tiny Tim? Consider these movies that have a Christmas backdrop but are almost actively anti-Christmas themselves, defying the froth and frivolity of their snowy settings. Here's a bit of misanthropy and nastiness to stuff in your stocking.

Better Watch Out (2016)
A thoroughly twisted (and twisty) little Christmas slasher flick that starts out as one thing and ends as something much different and much darker. It begins with a nerdy 12-year-old kid and a slightly older babysitter being left home alone on a dark December night, and they're menaced by home invaders with no apparent motive. But all is not as it seems, and... well, the less you know about the plot's bloody surprises, the better. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Deadly Games (1990)
On Christmas night, a maniac dressed as Santa breaks into a giant house, only to be outsmarted by a crafty kid with an arsenal of booby traps. Sound kinda familiar? This wild French thriller (also known as Dial Code Santa Claus and Game Over) was released the same year as Home Alone, and its director even unsuccessfully sued the makers of that holiday classic. Here, that familiar premise is mined for menace and Rambo-style action, and it's truly bonkers. Streaming on Shudder.

Scrooged
Scrooged

Scrooged (1988)
Even though Bill Murray's miserly TV executive undergoes the requisite third-act change of heart, this weirder-than-you-remember take on A Christmas Carol spends an awful lot of time wallowing in the sort of darkness and grotesquery not normally befitting a holiday favorite. Most of the supporting players (especially Carole Kane's maniacal fairy godmother) seem to have waltzed out of Looney Tunes, and there's even a subplot involving Bobcat Goldthwait going postal. If you can't stomach a scintilla of sentiment, this is the Christmas movie for you. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

The Silent Partner (1978)
One of the great underappreciated heist films, a Canadian caper starring Elliott Gould as a meek guy who uncovers plans for a robbery at the bank where he works. He decides to swoop in and steal the money away, but the thief (Christopher Plummer), who dresses up as a shopping mall Santa, gets wise and engages Gould in a crafty, unpredictable cat-and-mouse game. It's darkly funny and tense, and features a young John Candy in one of his first film roles. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

Trading Places (1983)
Arguably Eddie Murphy's best golden-era film, an uproarious Reagan-era riff on The Prince and the Pauper that stars the comedian as a homeless huckster who, by way of a Christmas bet between two bored stockbrokers, switches places with a bratty millionaire (Dan Aykroyd). Not all of its jokes have aged terribly well — is there an '80s comedy where that isn't the case? — but it's propelled by an old-fashioned screwball energy, and the supporting cast — Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott — is A-plus. Rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.

Soul
Soul

OSCAR SEASON

Netflix has started to corner the market on end-of-the-year Oscar-y releases — in recent years, they have seen titles like Roma, The Irishman and Marriage Story get plenty of Academy Awards attention. 2020 is no exception, even though the state of the Oscars is still sort of up in the air. Here's what you should see to keep up on your office's (virtual) Oscar pool.

Hillbilly Elegy
Critics (including yours truly) didn't much care for this backwoods melodrama based on J.D. Vance's controversial bestseller, but it's hard to imagine a year in which members of the Academy would overlook a film so expertly calibrated to get their attention. It also helps that its stars, Amy Adams and Glenn Close, have been nominated for multiple Oscars without winning. Could this be their year? Streaming on Netflix.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Viola Davis is an Oscar winner herself and will likely get her fourth nomination for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but it's her co-star, the late Chadwick Boseman, who will no doubt be the real Oscar front-runner this year. Based on August Wilson's celebrated play, the film is set in a recording studio as a group of musicians wait for troubled 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey to arrive, dredging up just as many reminiscences as rivalries. Streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 18.

Mank
David Fincher's first feature since 2015's Gone Girl is the sort of thing the Academy loves — a Hollywood film about Hollywood. Gary Oldman stars as the irascible, alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz, a prolific screenwriter whose political and personal conflicts would inspire the legendary Citizen Kane. His performance is a shoo-in for awards love, and Amanda Seyfried, playing scorned starlet Marion Davies, could score her first-ever nomination. Streaming on Netflix.

News of the World
Tom Hanks' last collaboration with director Paul Greengrass, 2013's Captain Phillips, featured one of the best performances of the beloved actor's career. The Academy ignored Hanks' work then, but they likely won't do the same for Greengrass' News of the World, starring Hanks as a grizzled Civil War survivor whose journey to retrieve a missing girl in the treacherous Texas plains is equal parts True Grit and The Searchers. Streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 25.

Soul
Soul, Pixar's 23rd feature, premiered at the London Film Festival in October to rapturous response. It's about an aspiring jazz musician who, right as his career is about to take off, suffers an accident that has him trapped between realms in some kind of afterlife. It comes courtesy of Up director Pete Docter, so expect this one to snag a best picture nomination and become the 11th Pixar production to handily win the Oscar for best animated film. Streaming on Disney+ starting Dec. 25.

About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.
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