Thursday December 20, 2012

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

So This Is Christmas? -- There are, of course, the usual Christmas-themed movies that are as familiar around this time of year as an airing of the classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is on television. However, if you’re looking for films that have a less obvious relationship to the holiday season, I recommend the following list of movies.

Considering both films share a relationship with the Christmas season, it is interesting that the futuristic vision of doom in "Children of Men" (2006) is so immediately reminiscent of filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s "12 Monkeys" (1995). This is especially true considering both movies also portray a similarly desolate, apocalyptic future, in which the hope for humanity is in short supply.

However Gilliam’s imagination has always resided more in flights of the imagination, and makes for a more fantastical scenario. In comparison, director Alphonso Cuaron’s "Children of Men" has the potent immediacy of a shot-on-the-fly documentary that proves emotionally devastating. Signs denoting "Homeland Security" in the movie are difficult to miss, and the movie’s subject matter concerning revolutionaries battling against a military state in the near future draw thought-provoking parallels to our current international environment.

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s "2046" (2004) may be labeled with a science-fiction heading, however I can guarantee it’s nothing like any other movie from that genre you’ve ever seen. Like a feverish dream, this distinctive movie offers a persuasive and heart-breaking examination of romance and loneliness that is absorbing from the first frame to the last.

Zhang Ziyi in particular proves herself as a radiant actress of incredible depth, contributing greatly to the moody atmosphere of Kar-Wai’s strikingly beautiful film.

Director Guillermo Del Toro might be best known in the United States as the director of "The Devil’s Backbone" and "Hellboy." However his debut Mexican film remains one of his best. "Cronos" (1993) mixes movie genres with startling effectiveness, combining science fiction, horror and fantasy elements to concoct a completely unique and imaginative movie experience. It’s another example of the kind of movie that is best to approach cold, for not knowing details of the story make its bold imagination that much more mind-blowing.

Following on the heels of 2005’s "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" (2007) seemed to suggest that director David Cronenberg’s movies were becoming more mainstream. However, closer inspection reveals that the director is actually subverting filmmaking formulas of from the inside out. Focusing on the grim realities of the characters’ situations, Cronenberg’s cerebral approach consistently avoids conventional means, and ultimately raises a potentially melodramatic story to the level of transcendence.

Meanwhile it is Hugh Grant’s irrepressible charm that makes the movie "About a Boy" (2002) work, for he takes the role of a lazy, self-centered single guy in his late-30s and not only makes him likable, but ultimately endearing. Much of Will’s appeal here is in his absolute acceptance of his own unappealing nature and fairly pointless existence, and Grant takes full advantage of this quality.

Clever lines abound in the script as well, providing some very funny moments, but fortunately this cleverness never overwhelms the impact of the more serious scenes. In fact, "About A Boy" never falls for facile emotional manipulation, instead opting to treat situations and relationships with a realistic complexity that many formulaic romantic comedies could learn a few lessons from.

Similarly appealing is Paul Newman’s character of Sully in 1994’s "Nobody’s Fool," a 60-year-old terminal adolescent with few responsibilities and even less personal motivation. In this relentlessly endearing movie, Newman proves that his considerable charm hadn’t abated over the years, as he provides Sully with the kind of personal magnetism that has only ripened with age.

In fact, at one point in the movie, Sully’s landlord and former eighth grade teacher Mrs. Beryl (Jessica Tandy) asks him, "Don’t you wish sometimes that you’d done more with your life?" One can only laugh at the disparity between the character of Sully and Paul Newman himself, as few movie stars have given so much of themselves both on and off the screen. It serves as a reminder that a vintage Paul Newman performance is easily one of the best Christmas gifts anyone could give themselves during the holiday season.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.