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A very foreign Christmas: 5 excellent Christmas films from around the world

Yeah, that's Santa in a cage. Be glad that he's there.

Yeah, that's Santa in a cage. Be glad that he's there.

If you’ve looked at the Christmas movies that TV has to offer, they all tend to fall into two general categories. There's the classics, like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, and then there are the Hallmark movies, which all seem to have this plot: a busy career woman, who has given up on love, returns to her hometown for Christmas, where she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend from high school, who is now a firefighter.

The classics are great, but we’ve seen them enough for one lifetime. As for the Hallmark pabulum, the less said, the better. Let’s see what the rest of the planet has on tap! Here are five excellent Christmas movies from around the world.

Title: The Night before Christmas (Russia, 1913)

Plot: Over 100 years later this film, adapted from Gogol’s tale of the same name, is still strikingly weird. It’s Christmas Eve in a Ukrainian village and a demon has stolen the moon. But that’s not going to stop the Cossacks from going on festive drunken rambles, or young men armed with witches’ charms from paying court to Oksana, the prettiest girl in the village. When she tells the smitten Vakula that she will not marry him until he can present her with the Tsaritsa’s slippers — a seemingly impossible task — the young man will not be deterred. Before the night lovers will be split apart and reunited, copious quantities of booze will be imbibed, and flying demons will be hijacked, all in the interest of saving Christmas.

Broader context: Possibly the most famous pre-Revolutionary Russian film, The Night before Christmas was directed by Ladislas Starevich, who is better known for his pioneering work in stop-motion animation (his magnum opus is the 1930 French animal adventure The Tale of the Fox). His lead actor in this deranged Christmas adventure is the legendary silent-film star Ivan Mozzukhin, whose gorgeous features are hidden beneath a demon mask for virtually the entire film. Mozzukhin would go on to be an A-lister in Western Europe, where his name was Romanized in a variety of ways, each one suggesting a slightly different pronunciation. He was just about to take Hollywood by storm when the advent of sound ruined everything. Poor Mozzukhin, you see, could never shed his thick Russian accent; while not a problem in silent film, his few sound roles find him confined to playing sinister foreigners and his career never recovered.

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Where it’s streaming: YouTube (it appears to be in the public domain).

Title: Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada, 1971)

Plot: Christmas isn’t just about whimsy and joy, a point driven home with shattering effectiveness by filmmaker Claude Jutra in this Quebecois classic. The year is 1949, and Benoît has the misfortune to be 15, an age when we feel things more deeply and everything seems more important that it really is. At Christmastime, Benoît begins his grim initiation into adulthood, where sex blends into squalor and work equals drudgery, and all of this played out against the backdrop of a bitter strike at the local asbestos mine. Because nothing says Christmas like mesothelioma.

Broader context: Often described as the greatest Canadian movie ever made (it’s not, that distinction clearly belongs to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome — but it’s still really good!), Mon Oncle Antoine has a great feel for place and time. It depicts a parochial Quebec, its inhabitants ground down by the twin weights of Catholic traditionalism and pitiless capitalism, on the verge of the rapid post-war modernization that would come to be known as The Quiet Revolution. It also depicts something universal — one of the perennial themes of Francophone cinema, really — namely the pains and pangs of adolescence. Much as in the films of François Truffaut and Maurice Pialat, Claude Jutra is just as concerned with the sensitive teenager’s clashes with adult hypocrisy and complacency as he is with the social reality he so ably depicts.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu.

Title: Fanny and Alexander (Sweden, 1982)

Plot: Lay into a supply of egg nog (and Kleenex) and clear your schedule for five hours, because we’re watching Fanny and Alexander and we’re watching it unabridged. When we first meet the titular siblings circa-1908, they live a contented life with their cheerful parents and extended family. When their father unexpectedly dies, their mother marries the cruel and joyless Bishop Edvard Vergérus, who rapidly proves himself to be a tyrant. Will Fanny and Alexander ever be restored to the lost idyll of their early childhood, embodied by their memories of Christmases past? Perhaps, with the help of their father’s friends and family, and a Christmas ghost or two.

Broader context: One of international art-house star Ingmar Bergman’s greatest achievements, originally a four-part miniseries on Swedish television, Fanny and Alexander is many things: a richly imagined depiction of early 20th century Swedish bourgeois life; an evocation of Bergman’s own childhood under the cold authority of his Lutheran pastor father (chaplain to the king of Sweden, no less); a Christmas movie in that major events happen at Christmas, rather than a movie about Christmas; and finally, a Christmas ghost story, just as Charles Dickens intended. The capstone to a prolific career spanning decades and dozens of films — The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), to name a few — Fanny and Alexander represents the apotheosis of Bergman’s art and is the Christmas movie par excellence.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu.

Title: A Christmas Tale (France, 2008)

Plot: When French matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) gathers her family together for Christmas, she knows it might be for the last time. Junon has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and her only chance of survival lies in a risky bone-marrow transplant. But fear not! This is not a Hallmark movie (uplifting Christmas kitsch) or a Lifetime movie (depressive Christmas kitsch). Rather, this is a complex ensemble film, warm and richly textured, balancing comedy and drama as it explores a dense web of family relationships. One almost loses track of the question: “Who’s going to provide maman with bone marrow?” Her grandson, who would be a perfect match... but who is struggling with incipient schizophrenia? Her son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), with whom she shares an unexplained mutual hatred? Americans would have made this movie mawkish and melodramatic, but director Arnaud Desplechin never lets his multiple storylines veer off into the realm of bad taste.

Broader context: And let’s talk about Arnaud Desplechin, who’s built his career around big movies. Generally there are long runtimes (at two and a half hours, A Christmas Tale is short by Desplechin standards) and big ensemble casts, often featuring the same actors: Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni, her mother, Catherine Deneuve. Desplechin’s attempts to cross over to Anglophone cinema, Esther Kahn (2000) and Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013), have been better received by critics than audiences, but they both betray Desplechin’s greatest strengths: deft characterization and engaging dialogue. Some people complain that in some of his movies that nothing really happens, the characters just talk. But they talk really well.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

The holidays are a great time to give the side-eye and death stare.

The holidays are a great time to give the side-eye and death stare.

Title: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Finland, 2010)

Plot: Let’s take a step away from the art house for a moment and journey to a small village in northern Finland, near Korvatunturi mountain (the traditional home of Santa Claus in Finnish tradition), where sinister doings are afoot. Scientists have come to town to excavate a mysterious prehistoric grave site. Meanwhile, the reindeer that are the mainstay of the local economy begin to turn up dead. Have the scientists unleashed an evil beyond anything they could have ever imagined? Of course they have, that’s how these movies work. And yes, the evil in question is Santa Claus, a demonic figure locked away for millennia and now unleashed by man’s hubris. It will be up to the plucky and eccentric locals to suppress Santa’s evil before it can spread its tentacles around the world.

Broader context: It has been said that some countries have so narrow a profile in the world of cinema that blinkered international critics can only recognize one filmmaker from each country. In the case of Finland, this filmmaker is undoubtedly Aki Kaurismäki. Something of a working-class Wes Anderson, his careful, color-coded compositions, affectless actors, and understated humor have come to define global perceptions of Finnish cinema. High time, then, for a garish, over-the-top fantasy like Rare Exports to blow up our expectations and enter that category of rare Finnish exports that includes the Moomins of Tove Jansson and the Finnish Formula One champions, of whom there are at least two at any given time, both of them known as “The Flying Finn.”

Where it’s streaming: Hulu.