A Festivus Film Guide: Unusual Holiday Movies

Andrew Buckle,

You must know the famous Seinfeld episode, “The Strike”, where a unique holiday, “Festivus”, is passionately celebrated by Frank Constanza (Jerry Stiller). Embraced on December 23 as an alternative to the commercialism of Christmas Day, it involves practices such the airing of grievances, feats of strength and is symbolised by an unadorned aluminium pole.

This Christmas you will inevitably roll out the favourites for the kids – Home Alone, Elf, The Grinch, Arthur Christmas and The Christmas Chronicles are strong options – but we’re thinking about the hardworking parents who want to put their feet up after the kids are in bed, and perhaps are curious for something a little bit different this Christmas Eve.

The Holiday is great, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a classic, Last Christmas may yet become an annual staple and Die Hard is a winner if you’re on that side of the fence, but we present our Festivus Film Guide – a triple-feature of alternate festive programming – for the adventurous viewers.

8pm – The “Airing of Grievances”

Happiest Season

This charming romantic comedy is about a lesbian couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), who have made plans to visit Harper’s conservative family for the Christmas holidays. While Abby intends to spring a marriage proposal on Harper, she becomes reluctant when she discovers that Harper hasn’t come out to her family and they are clueless as to the nature of their relationship.

As Harper desperately tries to please her parents and one-up her siblings, feeling the pressure of their expectations, what seemed like a perfect union is thrown into doubt. Scene-stealing performances from Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza are part of an excellent ensemble cast.

Why the ‘Airing of Grievances’?: Abby and Harper’s relationship would inevitably come out, but Harpers’ family doesn’t make it a comfortable environment for her to be open about her sexuality – testing her (and Abby) in the ways that only a family can.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

Surviving Christmas

Ben Affleck stars as Drew Latham, an obnoxious millionaire, who, after taking the questionable advice of his therapist to burn a list of his grievances at his childhood home to get over a breakup, meets the current occupants – the Valcos. Seeking to recreate some cherished childhood memories, Drew offers to pay the Valcos (headed by a spectacularly bearded and very grumpy James Gandolfini) a large sum of money to allow him to spend Christmas with them while they pose as his family. But are the Valco’s the seemingly perfect family that Drew envisions, and will money solve their problems?

Though it was a commercial flop at the time for it’s cynical view of Christmas and family – spruiking the idea that money can buy you, literally, a fake family – we have repeatedly enjoyed the battle between Affleck and Gandolfini. While there are kinks in the script – Gandolfini has admitted that a lot of scenes were improvised, resulting in some wild performances – there remains a smattering of offbeat strangeness that places this comfortably in the realm of “guilty pleasure”.

Why the ‘Airing of Grievances’? Drew literally burns a list of grievances, and let’s just say that his ‘intrusion’ into the Valco household leads to a lot of grievances being aired over the course of this bizarre 90-minute experience.

Rent on Prime Video.

10pm – The “Feats of Strength”

All is Bright

In All is Bright Paul Giammati and Paul Rudd try and work together as camped-out Christmas tree salesmen. Are you sold yet?

While out on parole, the misanthropic Dennis (Giamatti) decides to travel to New York City with old pal Rene (Rudd), an easygoing charmer who is now together with Dennis’ ex-wife, for the quick-buck scheme. Dennis is trying to save enough money to buy his estranged daughter a piano, but can he and Rene settle their differences and make an honest go of it?

This dark buddy/slice-of-life drama is really a showcase for the committed performances from the two leads who largely sit and bicker with one another about their failures as men amongst a forest of yet-to-be-sold Christmas trees. And yet there is something about watching these flawed, but inherently decent guys, fight for their families. It features distinctly unglamorous work but the chemistry between the pair, along with a surprising supporting performance from Sally Hawkins, is more than enough to keep this interesting.

Why the ‘Feats of Strength’? – Christmas trees are heavy, and this pair deals with a lot of them.

Stream All is Bright on Stan.

Deck the Halls

Self-proclaimed Christmas expert Steve (Matthew Broderick) just want his family to have the perfect Christmas. But when his new neighbour, Buddy (Danny De Vito), decides to elaborately decorate his house so that it can be seen from a space satellite, Steve’s standing as the neighbourhood “Christmas guy” is threatened. As Buddy’s decorative display grows bigger and substantially brighter than Steve’s, conflict emerges as they attempt to out-do each other.

While Deck the Halls is certainly in the debt of something like Christmas Vacation, and recived some Razzie nominations the year of release, the comforts of watching comic legends Broderick and De Vito have a ton of fun in a movie together cannot be underestimated.

Why the ‘Feats of Strength’? – The original theatrical poster featured Broderick and De Vito playing tug-of-war with Christmas lights, and throughout the film they attempt to sabotage each other’s decorative aspirations as Buddy usurps Steve’s neighbourhood popularity.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

Midnight – The “Party”*

*Okay we’re stretching it here, but if you’re still awake at midnight on Christmas Eve with kids plotting their Christmas tree rampage any minute you deserve some fun.

Office Christmas Party

When the CEO (Jennifer Aniston) of Zenotek threatens layoffs and the cancellation of the Christmas party as part of the closure of her hard-partying brother’s (T.J. Miller) Chicago branch, he and his CTO (Jason Bateman) put a plan in place to save their jobs. They make it their mission to rally their co-workers and host an epic office Christmas party in an effort to impress a potential client and close a major sale.

Office Christmas Party is a big-budget studio comedy that showcases the money spent (on things being destroyed, mostly) in a jaw-dropping office set-piece. This is the Christmas Party of Christmas Parties. An all star cast (including NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler, then playing for the Bulls) of comic performers (Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Rob Corddry, Sam Richardson are just some of the party-goers) let loose, but there is also a sound story, which the ever-reliable Bateman, along with Olivia Munn (they share great chemistry here), carries us through. While you’d hate to be any of these characters the morning after – you will feel like you’re fit to party as you watch it now bleary-eyed in your living room.

Why “The Party”? – This party gets CRAZY. Kudos to the filmmakers, and a game cast, for going all-in on creating an extravagant, off-the-rails, alcohol shower of debauchery in the second half of this film.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

The Night Before

Buddies Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have made it an annual tradition to gather on Christmas Eve to celebrate the holidays with a bang. In what is looking likely to be their final hoo-rah – Isaac is preparing to become a first-time father – they decide to make it as memorable as possible, embarking on a quest in search of the Nutcracker Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

As most Seth Rogen led comedies are, some of The Night Before is very silly and the gross-out brand of humour can be a turn-off. But, we have found that most of the barrage of jokes do hold up very well – one gag involving a cell phone swap is tremendous – and there are some hilarious cameos (Michael Shannon!). But there is also a big heart at the core of this, as the trio pause to respect what they have been through together and accept that there are more important things in life than attending a kick-ass party. Until they get to the party that is.

Why “The Party”? – The group’s endgame is to gain access to their “white whale”, and they spend the entire night dodging various obstacles to get there. As they watch the freedom of youth pass them by they make a desperate commitment to realising the dream they have been clinging to for so long.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

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