One thing’s pretty certain: The holidays require us to spend more time with people. Family, friends, store clerks, shoppers, fellow partygoers, kids out of school, Trail of Lights crowds, crowds, crowds and more crowds. For better or worse, potential social connections are everywhere during the holiday season. Depending on many factors, this may cause you to either cheer or run for the hills (I find myself doing a little of both). Regardless of your stance, I’m going to attempt to stir up some ideas that may help you to either further those connections, or escape them, at least temporarily.
Film and TV are powerful mediums. They can lead us to feel deeply, learn about a variety of topics, people and places, identify with certain characters and learn from their choices, or simply serve as an escape. Film and TV can also bring people together. During the holidays, for instance, films can be a traditional part of a family gathering—think It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, or Love Actually. Films and TV shows can even serve to connect strangers: My supervisor recently told me about a Christmas Vacation “quote off” she had with a salesperson while shopping at Old Navy. Sharing the experience of a film or TV show with another person can be bonding, nostalgic, comforting, and/or invigorating, whether you watch it together or simply talk about it afterwards.
On the other hand, if what you really need is an escape from the family, the friends, the crowds — well, movies and TV can help with that, as well.
Instead of making a list of all the traditional movies and TV shows you already know and love (or don’t!), here’s a list of a few “under the radar” options for you to try during the holidays – either to experience with others, to talk about with others afterwards, or simply to escape. Enjoy!
Movies (taking place on or around Christmas):
Die Hard (1988). Set on Christmas Eve, still one of the best uber-non-traditional Christmas movies ever. (Available on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix DVD)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Tim Burton’s masterpiece, which received both critical and box office success. Stop action, similar in style to the old Christmas specials (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, etc). Also features a wonderful soundtrack.(Netflix streaming)
Edward Scissorhands (1990). Another Tim Burton film. A beautiful story about a misfit who happens to have scissors for hands. Wonderful performance by Johnny Depp.(Amazon Instant Video)
The Ice Harvest (2006) Dark comedy featuring Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack. (Netflix streaming)
Less Than Zero (1987). Not exactly an “upper,” but features a young Robert Downey, Jr, and an amazing 80s soundtrack! (Netflix DVD)
TV Shows worth the binge (all on Netflix streaming, except where noted):
Transparent (1 season, 10 episodes) This new Amazon-produced series is about a retired professor and father (Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor) who finally opens up about identifying as female. It’s getting all kinds of acclaim. You can watch the first episode for free, but you either have to have Amazon Prime to watch the rest, or pay $1.99 per episode.
Black Mirror (2 seasons, 3 episodes each). Black Mirror is the most brilliant and riveting show you probably haven’t heard about—yet. Only recently released on Netflix (it’s British), it’s getting major attention from critics and audiences alike. Each episode features its own contained story (a lá Twilight Zone), and is filled with profound social commentary about technology and its impact on society and our relationships (or lack thereof). Be forewarned: this one is not for the faint of heart. It is dark. Very dark. But if that doesn’t send you running, it’s absolutely well worth checking out. Plus: There will be a Christmas special starting Jon Hamm (though its US release date is unknown).
Parenthood (6 seasons, 83 episodes). This uplifting, sometimes tear-jerking, family-oriented “dramedy” will be coming to a close in early 2015. If you haven’t tuned in yet, it’s a good time to catch up before the promised emotional and climactic series finale on January 29th.
Peaky Blinders (2 seasons, 6 episodes each) This one’s about a British gangster family in the aftermath of World War I. Beautifully shot, this series grows on you, as the drama gets much more intense after the 3rd episode, and just explodes in the second season. One of my new favorites. And the fantastic soundtrack is comprised of contemporary music (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave). (Tip: sometimes the Birmingham accent is tough to understand; try it with subtitles!)
Cheers (11 seasons, 275 episodes!) Because nostalgia + laughter is a great combo. (Tip: Christmas episodes are season 1, ep 12, season 6, ep 12, and season 11, ep 11)
Serial. This podcast, from the makers of This American Life, is obviously not a movie or TV show, but I’ve included it here because podcasts have the potential to do all that films and TV do (the images are just created in your own mind, rather than imposed externally), and this particular podcast is amazing, simply put. And people are talking about it. A lot. (Also, unlike TV and film, podcasts are perfect for holiday road trips!) Serial follows a single true crime story over multiple weeks, and it basically unfolds in real time, as the producers are just a step or two ahead of the audience. Each episode varies between 30 and 60 minutes, and there have been 10 episodes so far. You can listen directly from the website or subscribe on iTunes.