A good Christmas movie is generally considered to be a suitable-for-all-ages romp or seminar that celebrates the specific redemptive glories of the holiday spirit. If it shades into irreverence (A Christmas Story, Home Alone) or even despondency (It's a Wonderful Life), all the better, as long as it doesn't go too far (Bad Santa is a very satisfying riposte to yuletide movies that pretend to be naughty before turning nice). Broadening that "Christmas movie" definition can give us movies that use the season as an ironic background, contrasting its surface good cheer with varieties of bad behavior (Eyes Wide Shut, Die Hard), and also movies that use but-once-a-year family gatherings as a pretext to stage dramatic shouting matches (The Family Stone). Two recent underappreciated foreign films fit neatly into this expanded holiday-viewing scheme.
Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (2008), released to rapturous critical acclaim at the end of 2008, took in just over $1 million at the domestic box office—an all-too-rare haul for a feature from overseas—but it's the kind of freewheeling, large-hearted film that will always deserve a wider audience. A Christmas Tale, currently available for Netflix subscribers to watch instantly, is a peerless example of the last kind of holiday movie in the typology roughly sketched out in the paragraph above. The two-and-a-half hour film, which begins by relating a piece of Vuillard family history through shadow-puppet theater, describes a complex network of intrafamilial alliances and rivalries. Things come to a head as children, grandchildren, and other relations—running the gamut from depressed creatives to outright scoundrels—rally around the recently leukemia-diagnosed family matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), in advance of Christmas.
"Overstuffed" was a (seasonally appropriate) word frequently used by critics in describing Desplechin's latest film, which is exhausting but ultimately near-irresistible. By the end even its apparent faults—its confusing connections, seemingly undisciplined digressions, and cutesy formal devices—begin to seem more like strengths: They all contribute significantly to this film's rare lifelike sprawl.
The Irish film Kisses, also from 2008 but only released in theaters and on home video in the second half of this year, more closely resembles classic heartwarming holiday fare than does A Christmas Tale, but it also uses the time of year to highlight the grimness of its setting. Writer-director Lance Daly's short feature, about two preteen neighbors who run away from home on Christmas Eve, deals head-on with child abuse and the hardscrabble facts of Dublin street life. Its mixture of vaguely magical romance and kitchen-sink grit recalls another recent Irish film, John Carney's Once, an aggressively gentle busker tale that became a small-scale word-of-mouth hit back in summer 2007.
Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) flee their worst-of-the-worst home lives to spend Christmas in the inner city, splurging on roller-skate shoes and encountering a mystical Bob Dylan impersonator (Stephen Rea) before suffering through a series of uniquely urban hardships. Daly implements a handful of Big Ideas here—for instance, color gradually bleeds into the film during Dylan and Kylie's long night in the city. But the film's real strength is the verbal exchanges between the two leads, filled as they are with convincing kid's-eye-view details, such as the fact that both of them half-believe-in, and half-don't-believe-in, a homicidal maniac called the Sack Man. The harsh coming-of-age realities never abate in Kisses, but its conclusion does offer a measure of solace.
A Christmas Tale and Kisses likely veer too off-topic and are too packed with so-called adult material to become anyone's idea of a holiday perennial. But both are terrific alternatives to the titles that typically blanket cable come December. They also meet an all-important criterion that many standard-issue Christmas movies fail to: They'll play any time of year.