Some of the most poignant Christmas movies are not about Christmas at all. Instead they show the holiday season as a peripheral force acting upon chaotic, messy, often heartbreaking lives. The people in these movies find hope and strength not because of Christmas’s redemptive power but almost in spite of it.
The first movie on this list, Moonstruck (1987), never mentions Christmas, but the holiday forms a context for the film as Christmas decoration and cards are shown in the background. The film is about an Italian-American family filled with quirky characters. Loretta, played by Cher, has given up on love because she believes she has bad luck—her first husband was killed by a bus. But just as she agrees to marry a man for whom she feels only friendship, life forces her to consider the miracle of love again. This movie, both funny and poignant, helps us to believe in second chances.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The 1945 film adaptation of Betty Smith’s coming-of-age novel shows a young teenage girl growing up in grinding poverty in Brooklyn of the early 1900s. Francie’s mother is a practical, hard-working woman while her father is a daydreaming alcoholic who works as a singing waiter. The movie contains a memorable scene in which Francie and her brother obtain a Christmas tree for their family by participating in a local ritual; a vendor throws unsold trees at people, allowing anyone who can catch one to keep it. Soon after the Christmas in question, Francie’s father dies and the family must struggle more than ever. In spite of her hurt and bitterness, Francie manages to find the strength to keep pursuing a better life.
The Lion in Winter
Set at Christmas in 1183, this 1968 film depicts quarrels and conspiracies within the family of King Henry II of England, played by Peter O’Toole. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Katharine Hepburn, has been kept locked up for years because of a previous attempt to overthrow the king. Now she is allowed to join the court for Christmas because the king wants to divorce her and marry a new wife. Henry and Eleanor’s three sons are each plotting to become Henry’s heir and disinherit the others. As Eleanor famously asks, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” Although this movie has a less hopeful ending than the others, it convincingly portrays the importance of resilience in dealing with family disappointments.
In this 1980 film, the Jarrett family is trying to recover from the death of their older son. The mother Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore, desperately attempts to act as though everything is normal, while her son Conrad, played by Timothy Hutton, struggles with suicidal depression and guilt over having survived the same accident that killed his brother. At his father’s urging, Conrad starts to see a psychiatrist even though it makes his mother uncomfortable. Throughout the holiday season, confrontations and revelations push this family to the edge and ultimately decide whether Conrad will survive.
Billy Wilder’s 1960 black comedy is set during the holiday season, from late October through New Year’s Day. Buddy, played by Jack Lemmon, is being taken advantage of by several managers at his office. They use his apartment for cheap assignations, not caring that this causes Buddy to have to work late or roam the streets to kill time. Buddy tries to ignore the sleaziness of the situation until the Christmas Party at the office, when he discovers that the young woman he’s attracted to, Shirley Maclaine, is having an affair with their married boss. The same evening, she learns that her lover has been lying to her, and the situation comes to a crisis that will change the lives of the characters forever.