Holiday

Blue Christmas: 8 films and TV episodes that explore the ennui of the season

An antidote to all the movie-of-the-week holiday romances.

An antidote to all the movie-of-the-week holiday romances

A woman sitting on the carpet in a living room in front of a Christmas tree. She's wearing a blue dress and wrapping a toy train with Christmas wrapping paper.
(Source: Edward Lachman/The Weinstein Company)

With its glittering string lights and trees caked with snow, December is inarguably one of the most magical months — and the movies we watch this time of year tend to reflect that. But if you're seeking a watch list that celebrates the more melancholy side of the holiday season, look no further. The following films and TV episodes will help you reclaim that seasonal ennui and revel in the emotional catharsis of winter. After all, is there anything more beautiful and poignant than snowfall?   

Tangerine

Let Sean Baker's 2015 Sundance sensation reset your holiday lineup by relocating the festivities to the scorching hot streets of downtown Los Angeles. Tangerine tells the story of transgender sex workers Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) as they face their harsh realities one fateful Christmas Eve.  

While Alexandra embarks on an odyssey to promote her live musical performance, best friend Sin-Dee chaotically seeks revenge on a cheating boyfriend. Though the plot may sound campy on paper, Baker treats it with the precision of a Williams Sonoma gift wrapper, bringing together a collection of characters rarely seen on the snow-white Christmas movie landscape to stage a passion play unlike any other. 

Stream it on Hoopla, Tubi, Mubi or Plex. 

My So-Called Life: 'So-Called Angels'

A man and a woman sitting on the floor in the living room in front of a Christmas tree, facing one another.
(Source: Charlie Lieberman/ABC Productions)

Elder millennials and gen-Xers know the deal: My So-Called Life is a gorgeous mid-'90s teen drama, captained by an adolescent Claire Danes as the angsty and elusive, but ever relatable,  Angela Chase. In the short-lived series' crushingly dramatic holiday special, Angela finds herself panicking over friend Rickie Vasquez's well-being at Christmastime, after he becomes unhoused following a fight with his abusive uncle. 

The episode is anchored by extraordinary performances from all involved — particularly Wilson Cruz in his groundbreaking role as an out queer high school kid. A reminder of what the holidays are really about, "So-Called Angels" is the perfect tear-jerking palate cleanser for when Hallmark and Lifetime are starting to leave a stale taste in your mouth.

Stream it on Disney+.

Nightmare Alley

Based on the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, this master class in film noir from Guillermo del Toro concerns a shadowy grifter named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who finds work at a travelling carnival, learns the tricks of mentalism, and eventually becomes a big-city ballroom act, mystifying the elite of 1940s Buffalo, N.Y. 

After earning himself a hefty income by exploiting a client who believes Carlisle can communicate with the dead, the phoney psychic medium soon begins to realize the peril of displeasing the wrong people. With its intense, snow-blown finale, Nightmare Alley proves itself a chilling December spectacle — ideal for having on in the background for the final act of your own upscale holiday soiree. Just be warned: in true noir fashion, this one doesn't end without a little bloodshed. 

Stream it on Disney+ or Crave.

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands isn't a traditional holiday film by any means. It is, however, as sparkling and touching as the season often proves to be. This Tim Burton classic highlights our collective — and often tragic — fear of the unknown through the truly gut-wrenching portrayal of a young man whose only crime is being different.

However, the real reason Edward Scissorhands will have you in a pool of tears is Vincent Price, in his final on-screen film role as the Inventor, Edward's father, who dies before he can transform Edward's scissors into hands. This story about loss, love, snow and tolerance is always reliable for a therapeutic ugly cry on a dark December day. 

Stream it on Disney+.

Are You Afraid of the Dark?: 'The Tale of the Frozen Ghost'

You'll never convince me there was a greater television show to come out of Canada than Are You Afraid of the Dark? By the end of its original seven-season run, the horror anthology series had successfully terrified an entire generation of kids with its confusing blend of campfire spooks and subtle existentialism — a perfect example of which can be found in the winter-themed "The Tale of the Frozen Ghost." 

The frosty tragedy at this episode's core makes it an ideal choice for alternative wintertime viewing. In it, a young babysitter (played by Melissa Joan Hart of Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch fame) helps the boy she's caring for uncover the mystery behind a child who froze to death in the woods outside his aunt's vacation property. Scary, sad and just the right amount of silly, this classic instalment of AYAOTD will have you quoting "I'm cold" to a room full of people who will probably have no idea what you're talking about. It's also the perfect way to pass time on a chilly holiday morning while everyone else is still fast asleep. 

Stream it on Paramount+ and YouTube.

Stepmom

Released on Christmas Day in 1998, Stepmom stars Susan Sarandon as a terminally ill woman coming to grips with the fact that her ex-husband is bringing a new mother figure into the lives of their two young children in the form of a younger second wife, played by Julia Roberts. 

Featuring incredible performances from both leading women, it's no surprise that this film ends up being equal parts heartwarming and intolerably sad. Stepmom tackles the realities of death and loss with unrelenting honesty, so you may want to steer clear if depictions of illness or losing a parent are especially difficult terrain right now. However, if you're in need of a light cry or a Motown singalong, look no further. And gather a crowd to watch this one if you can — the movie's Christmas morning finale is sure to thaw the hearts of even the most callous members of your hive. 

Stream it with ads on CTV.ca.

Six Feet Under: 'Pilot'

Alan Ball's '00s HBO series Six Feet Under would ultimately last five seasons and earn countless accolades, but its journey began with a sobering yet zany premiere set on one very unfortunate Christmas Eve. In the episode's opening moments, Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), the proprietor of Fisher and Sons Funeral Home, is killed by a bus while driving a brand-new company hearse.

This event sets in motion a pilot episode that — like the remainder of the series — expertly blends irony and grief by putting the endlessly fascinating Fisher clan under an unforgiving microscope. This tight hour of television is a great way to pass some time alone on a train or plane this Christmas.

Stream it on Crave. 

Carol

Luxe 1950s Manhattan makes for a beautiful, forlorn snow globe in this Cate Blanchett vehicle from filmmaker Todd Haynes. Based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol tells a story of forbidden love between two women — and the consequences once they get found out. 

An antidote to all the unrealistic movie-of-the-week holiday romances that abound this time of year, Haynes's film, set at Christmastime, replaces their cheesy heteronormative formulas with striking realism. Watch it while you gaze at the snow softly falling out your window and reflect on your own romances of holidays past.

Stream it on Prime Video, Hoopla, Paramount+ or CTV.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Korngut is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. He's also the managing editor of Dread Central, a web publication that covers all things horror. Check out his podcast, Development Hell, wherever you listen, and say hi to him on socials via @joshkorngut.

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