It's an old joke: What do Jews do on Christmas? Eat Chinese food and watch movies. It's probably not *entirely* accurate in this world of mixed marriages and generally muddy strains of tradition – I'm sure a lot of us extremely secular Jews have spent more late-December hours hanging Christmas ornaments than either roaming the halls of Blockbuster, OR lighting the hanukiyah. But still – there's no place I'd rather be on Christmas morning/afternoon/evening than sitting around the television, a stack of video tapes on the coffee table, the General Tso's on the way. What follows are seven great un-Christmas movies – movies that tweak the Christmas experience for, if not an obstinately Jewish, than definitely an outsider's perspective.
- The Apartment – Fran Kubelik's lover is married, so he gives her $100 on Christmas Eve and tells her to buy something nice. Instead, she goes into Bud Baxter's medicine cabinet and downs a bottle of pills. Meanwhile, Bud is out at the bar, drinking his bachelor holiday loneliness away. When he and a pick-up come back to his place and find Fran lying there, half-dead, the real holiday spirit kicks in: even if you're nursing her after a suicide attempt, Christmas isn't Christmas unless you're with the one you love.
- Meet Me in St. Louis - Absolutely one of the strangest family musicals ever made. Margaret O'Brien plays Tootie, a death-obsessed six year old who holds funerals for her dolls. When her father announces, on Christmas Eve, that the family is moving, Tootie flips out. Her sister Esther (Judy Garland at her best and most beautiful) tries to calm her down and cheer her up by singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" – but because it's Judy Garland singing, and because it's a Vincente Minnelli film we're talking about, it ends up being one of the most gorgeously melancholy moments ever put on screen.
- The Magnificent Ambersons - Orson Welles' *real* masterpiece, Ambersons was hacked to death after a disasterous test screening (you think showing it to an audience who had paid to see Lupe Velez in Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost was a mistake?) It lives on as the template for every epic melodrama ever made about the convergence of unhappy families, ill-fated romance, and the holidays.
- Metropolitan – To my recollection, Tom (Edward Clemens) isn't a Jew, but he is a Social Marxist who finds himself going to a lot of debutante parties, and that's enough to earn him a place at our table. Whit Stillman's near-perfect first film follows the young man as he tags along to season's worth of upper-crust Christmas parties, ostensibly as a detached observer, but, eventually, as a very interested party in love. What happened to Stillman? Where did he go? I could watch any of his three films over and over again – and, on many Christmases and sick days, I have.
- Everyone Says I Love You – Drew Barrymore's voice aside, I'll defend Woody Allen's musical (with tunes borrowed from George Gershwin, and concept allegedly stolen from At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's legendary flop) till the day I die. Its climax comes when, after escaping a stuffy Christmas-night charity dinner, Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn find themselves dancing along the Seine. It's a concept totally stolen from An American in Paris, but Allen adds a logical, literal, totally fanciful twist.
- Christmas in Connecticut – If there's anyone less prepared for entertaining Christmas guests than a certain Jewish, movie-blog editing bachelorette, it's Barbara Stanwyck. The quintessential ballsy bombshell gets thrown into a totally unconvincing domestic masquerade in this wartime comedy, and though you know from the beginning she'll never get dinner on the table without three or four horrible (and horribly predictable) misunderstandings, it's worth sticking it out: her finale speech about what a woman should be is priceless.
- Duck Soup – Because it's just not a holiday without Groucho Marx. Am I right?