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.