We wanted to compile a list of movies that get at the real heart of the Advent season. Some take place in a Christmas setting but the majority are probably the most un-Christmassy Christmas movies you’ve ever heard of – needless to say, the list is free of all traces of Tim Allen. So toss a yule log on the fire, grab the popcorn, and snuggle up under a blanket – here are our top picks:
Away We Go. An offbeat comedy about an unexpected pregnancy, Away We Go follows Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) through the months of anticipation. Without much money and virtually homeless, the couple travels across the country seeking advice from family and friends as they await their first child. Krasinski and Rudolph winsomely capture the nerves, excitement, confusion, and longing as an expectant couple. Take those feelings and multiply them by infinity and you get Mary and Joseph planning for the birth of what an ANGEL told them would be the savior of the world.
The Exorcist. Not a lot of holiday cheer to be found in this one. William Friedkin’s horrifying possession film depicts the collision of therapeutic culture (both secular and religious) with the reality of a monstrous spiritual presence. “It’s nerves, and that’s all,” Chris MacNeil tells her afflicted daughter, Regan. “You just take your pills and you’ll be fine, really.” Or not really. The Exorcist is a chilling reminder that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world – and that Advent marks the first strike in the cosmic war that the Prince of Peace has launched against the evil one.
Elf. The most festive movie in our present collection to be sure, but how could we not include it? Will Ferrell is in his prime as Buddy the Elf in this classic. What makes Elf hilarious is the same stuff that makes it profound. What says Christmas more than a son returning home, breaking social norms, laughing with the outcasts, and changing hearts through unconditional, nonsensical, and unrelenting love?
One More Time with Feeling. In 2015 singer Nick Cave’s 15 year old son, Arthur, fell from a cliff to his death. Cave and his band had just begun writing and recording the album Skeleton Tree, and in the wake of the tragedy they invited a film crew into the studio to document the creative process. You don’t have to know The Bad Seeds’ music to find this exquisite black and white film completely engrossing. While on one level it is about the making of a rock album, its true subject is what it is like to try to live after one’s world has been shattered. Although the circumstances of Arthur’s death are never directly discussed, his absence is itself a potent presence, down to the film’s last devastating shot. In the same way, Advent marks the reality of Christ’s absence as much as it does his coming. With Cave, we groan: “With my voice, I am calling you.”
Interstellar. The world’s crops and resources are on the brink of extinction and farmer-turned-astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a mission in hopes of finding new life in the last frontier. Christopher Nolan’s space odyssey is terrifyingly beautiful as he captures the vast expanse of the universe in conjunction with the smallness of humanity. His ability to captivate viewers with edge-of-your-seat expectation throughout the movie’s entirety is breathtaking. Considering the fact that all humanity is on pins and needles for good news from outside of themselves, this is covert Advent at its finest. Not to mention McConaughey’s tearful promise of return to his daughter – pure gold!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coen Bros’ bizarre anthology film is all about death. Yay, Christmas! Its artistic representation of the finality of life causes viewers to ponder meaning and hope in light of our predicament. As W.H. Auden says, “We who must die demand a miracle.” Buster Scruggs places us right in the middle of Advent longing for hope in darkness. We wrote about the film earlier this Advent season. Check it out!
Children of Men. Last but not least, our top pick. The year is 2027 and the human race is infertile – no child born for 18 years. As the world grinds slowly towards chaos under the crushing reality of a childless future, the cynical Theo receives an unexpected calling to shepherd a refugee named Kee safely out of England. But Theo soon discovers the impossible truth: Kee is pregnant. Much more than just a brilliant recasting of the Nativity story, the film’s depiction of immigration crisis and a disintegrating social fabric feel eerily prescient in 2018. But it is director Alfonso Cuarón’s stalwart refusal to draw clear lines between good and bad people and, above all, his attention to the miraculous nature of gift that make Children of Men a Christmas movie for the ages.