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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: December 17, 2018

An off-beat Christmas movie list for the indie film fan

Written by: Dennis Perkins

Christmas movies are awful, right? Well, if not uniformly awful, then at least we can agree that basic cable playing the likes of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” on a 24-hour loop for the week leading up to the big day has sapped some of the life out of them. But have no fear, because the holidays are a time to get weird, at least if you’re an indie movie fan, so here are some picks for the wintry weird holiday movie wonderland of your sugar-plum dreams. It’s the perfect Christmas evening’s entertainment … for certain families.

Michelle Monaghan and Robert Downey Jr. in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)

Robert Downey Jr.’s petty crook starts out this pitch-perfect dark comedy neo-noir thriller robbing a toy store to get his kid a Christmas present. Whisked into a convoluted Hollywood murder mystery, thanks to his botched caper, Downey, alongside a never-better Val Kilmer (as hard-boiled detective Gay Perry), finds himself embroiled in an ever-tangling web of violence, mayhem and romance (featuring the always-outstanding Michelle Monaghan in a skimpy Santa suit), all with the tinny tinsel of an L.A. holiday season twinkling ironically in the background.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)

Stanley Kubrick’s mesmerizing, confounding final film sees then-spouses Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s seemingly ideal wealthy on-screen marriage threatened by a Christmas Eve’s worth of escalating, picaresque temptations, culminating in a much-discussed mansion orgy where we find out just what really rich people get up to for the holidays.

“Gremlins” (1984)

Joe Dante’s pitch-black comic fantasy takes place in the snowiest, gingerbread-iest ideal small town ever seen on screen, which only makes the chaos unleashed by a swarm of toothy, mystical little monsters that much more unsettling. Still, it’s teen Phoebe Cates’ story of why she really, really hates Christmas that turns “Gremlins” into the ultimate sick holiday joke.

Watch the “Gremlins” trailer:

“In Bruges” (2008)

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of unlucky Irish hitmen stranded in the picturesque titular Belgian city during the holiday season while they await news of their fate from royally ticked-off crime boss Ralph Fiennes. Like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” the juxtaposition of quaint European holiday trappings and extreme bloody comic violence provides an added layer of melancholy beauty to the proceedings. It’s like watching a cracker-jack crime thriller-comedy set inside a souvenir snow globe.

Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.”Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

“Die Hard” (1988)

Fine, “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie. You win.

Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa.” Photo courtesy of Dimension Films

“Bad Santa” (2003)

Look, you can watch Tim Allen in a Santa Suit, or Billy Bob Thornton in a decidedly more rumpled and booze-stained one, as the most disreputable, family-unfriendly mall Santa in history, drunkenly plotting with his trusty “elf” companion/partner (Tony Cox) to knock off a shopping mall on Christmas Eve. I know which one I’d pick.

Anna Kendrick in “Happy Christmas.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“Happy Christmas” (2014)

Indie writer-director Joe Swanberg’s holiday-set comedy-drama stars two exceptional actresses, Melanie Lynskey and Portland’s own Anna Kendrick. Kendrick swoops into the placid suburban life of Swanberg and Lynskey’s married couple, the ne’er-do-well trainwreck of a relative that everyone can recognize (unless it’s you). But the film is ultimately a warm-hearted, improvisational and funny rumination on how a holiday visit from the family screw-up can be a lot of fun, and beneficial for all concerned.

“L.A. Confidential” (1997)

One of the inciting incidents in this superlative period police thriller is called “Bloody Christmas,” a racist brawl between white L.A. cops and some Mexican suspects. So that’s both Christmas-y and historically accurate. Plus, burly, brutal cop with a heart of gold Russell Crowe lures a wife-beater out of his house by yanking the light-up Santa’s sleigh off of the roof before doling out some signature punishment, handing the contents of the jerk’s wallet over to the jerk’s relieved wife and wishing her a courtly “Merry Christmas.”

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in “Tangerine.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“Tangerine” (2015)

Director Sean Baker (who did last year’s acclaimed “The Florida Project”) made this Christmas Eve-set film for essentially no budget (he shot it on his iPhone), which makes this tale of the long, eventful night of a pair of transgender prostitute friends all the more impressive. Searching out the unfaithful pimp/boyfriend of one of the prostitutes through the grimiest streets, alleys and donut shops of decidedly unglamorous Hollywood might not sound like family fare, but the troubled yet unbreakable friendship of the two women and the improbable but realistically hopeful happy ending shows that, on the holidays, family is where you make it.


Starts Friday: “Mary Queen of Scots.” Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie star as Mary and Elizabeth I in this lavishly brutal period drama about the bloody battle for royal supremacy between two equally determined 16th-century monarchs.

Sunday: “Fanny & Alexander.” PMA Films’ Ingmar Bergman retrospective brings us the holiday gift of the full (312-minute) version of this, the legendary Swedish filmmaker’s most personal and warmest film. An intimately epic autobiographical portrait of a tumultuous but loving Swedish family, it’s the sort of massive, immersive achievement best seen on the big screen.

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