Movies set at Christmastime have been a long tradition; who can resist all that great imagery, lights, snow, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, wrapped presents, candy, stockings, etc.? (It even looks good in black-and-white.) But for every It's a Wonderful Life, there have been other movies with decidedly darker dealings, sometimes set directly in contrast with the bright holiday season.
1. 'R Xmas (2001)
Combine the words "Abel Ferrara" and "Christmas" in the same sentence and you're bound to come up with a heartwarming holiday tale like this one. A well-to-do wealthy Latin American couple (Lillo Brancato Jr. and Drea de Matteo) spends the days before Christmas trying to track down the hottest new doll for their daughter (Lisa Valens) as well as packaging and selling a shipment of heroin. They're just your typical, happy New York family, until the husband is kidnapped. Ice-T plays the kidnapper. 'R Xmas is very poorly regarded in the United States -- mainly thanks to shoddy distribution, both theatrically and on DVD -- but it's one of Ferrara's best films.
2. Morvern Callar (2002)
Poor Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) wakes up to find a dead boyfriend under her tree (he committed suicide). She opens all her presents from him, takes the money from his wallet, goes to a party, comes home and signs her name to a manuscript he completed. She then takes a road trip looking for "someplace beautiful." That's the dark beginning to Lynne Ramsay's poetic film, but though it stays dark and death-obsessed for some time, it's ultimately just a tiny bit hopeful.
3. Far from Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes gives us Christmas in 1950s suburbia, pretty as a postcard, but roiling with accusations and guilt under the surface. A housewife (Julianne Moore) falls for her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert), while her husband (Dennis Quaid) sneaks off to find love in underground gay nightclubs.
4. All That Heaven Allows (1956)
Douglas Sirk's Technicolor masterpiece was the inspiration for Haynes' film (as well as for Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) and also features some glorious, snowbound Christmas imagery on top of its desperate, heart-rending emotions. In this one, an older widow (Jane Wyman) falls for her younger gardener (Rock Hudson); in real life, she was a whole eight years older than him. Gasp! Her uptight children give her grief over her friendship, and she must decide between true love and decorum.
5. The Unholy Three (1925)
One of Tod Browning's most twisted dramas has Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist and a master of disguise, posing as "Granny O'Grady." Together with a circus strongman (Victor McLaglen) and a dwarf (Harry Earles), they have a foolproof robbery scheme. One pivotal scene takes place at Christmas, around the Christmas tree no less, but the moment is anything but cheery. In fact, it's pretty seriously demented.
6. The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
One of my favorite movies, Val Lewton produced this when a sequel to Cat People (1942) was ordered. He brought back the "cat girl" (Simone Simon) from the first film as a ghost, but focused the story on a little girl with a powerful imagination. The parents constantly worry about her and warn her to snap back to reality, but she can't help it, and things start getting weird when she begins seeing her father's dead ex-wife in the backyard. The directorial debut of Robert Wise, this is an uncommonly gorgeous and intellectually complex B-movie, complete with snow and Christmas carolers.
7. Doubt (2008)
What better way to celebrate the holiday season than pedophilia and backstabbing? John Patrick Shanley's film earned some notice last year for its performances, but I think it's a pretty solid package, and it held up to a second viewing this year.
Other considerations: Baby Face (1933), Batman Returns (1992), The Merry Gentleman (2009).