I like Christmas movies as much as the next guy, but when they're bad, they're really bad, as in Christmas with the Kranks or Deck the Halls. Most times I prefer a different kind of experience. Sometimes a movie simply set during the holiday season can weave Christmas into its storyline without making an overt holiday statement, and these can evoke a warmth and nostalgia -- or sometimes the opposite -- of their own.
1. The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch)
Lubitsch rarely balanced comedy and pathos so beautifully as in this movie about a busy Hungarian department store during the month before Christmas. Hardly anyone mentions the holiday until the final scenes, but the hope and despair that the season can bring hovers everywhere. Jimmy Stewart plays a clerk having an anonymous pen-pal love affair with a girl (Margaret Sullavan) -- who happens to be working right next to him in the shop, unbeknownst to either of them. The entire cast is remarkable, from Frank Morgan as the shop's owner to William Tracy as the delivery boy. Unhappily, Nora Ephron remade this in 1998 as You've Got Mail.
2. The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
Van Dyke shot this film, adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, in less than three weeks, and that slapdash, accidental quality makes the movie seem fresh today. It's a perfect Hollywood entertainment, combining a decent mystery story with snappy humor and a warm, loving romance between married couple Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose chemistry was so winning that they made some fourteen movies together). The Christmas scene is a silly little interlude that doesn't further the plot, but provides a nice respite and a couple of laughs.
3. Fanny and Alexander (1983, Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman's most accessible film begins with an hour-long Christmas party segment, set in 1907, that introduces the characters and sets the tone for the rest of the 188-minute movie. (The Criterion Collection has also released the original 5-hour version that played on Swedish television.) The characters range from young Alexander, who can't wait to play with his new magic lantern toy and will remember this Christmas fondly for the rest of his life, to his grandmother, a widow, for whom the holiday is a time of sadness.
4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick's misunderstood masterpiece incorporates Christmas as just one more layer in its complex exploration of sexuality versus marriage. When Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) enters the apartment of his would-be lover, a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw), he pauses to look at her humble Christmas tree. The tree is a reminder of home and family, and just one more element to make Bill feel ill at ease. Christmas is everywhere in this movie, and -- if nothing else -- the lights are dazzling, especially during the opening party sequences.
5. The Dead (1987, John Huston)
Huston's final film may arguably be the crowning achievement of his career. Set during the turn of the century at a winter holiday party just a few days after New Year's (a great time for a party, don't you think?) the film follows various revelers and gossipers in party mode. Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) prepares to make his dinner table speech, but will soon discover a secret about his wife Gretta Conroy (Anjelica Huston) that will change everything. Huston's son Tony wrote the brilliant screenplay, adapted from James Joyce's great short story. Sadly, this film is not available on DVD in the United States, but imports are available.
6. The Curse of the Cat People (1944, Robert Wise/Gunther von Fritsch)
Robert Wise made his directorial debut on this wonderful Val Lewton production, taking over from the pokey Gunther von Fritsch. Lewton was charged with making a sequel to his successful horror film Cat People (1942), but instead made this lovely tale about a lonely girl and her imaginary friend (the cat lady from the first film, played by Simone Simon). Though the film runs only 70 minutes, a good chunk of it takes place at Christmas, complete with carols, a tree and a gorgeous snow scene.
7. Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)
Of course! I have no doubt that this landmark action film is a holiday perennial in many American households. There is nothing more to add except the following exchange, spoken over Run-DMC's song "Christmas in Hollis." McClane: "Ain't you got any Christmas music?" Argyle: "This is Christmas music!"