There’s just no way around it: You’re going to have to see them.
Yes, like carols to the radio, peppermint to your Frappuccino, and Ryan Seacrest to New York City’s Times Square, so too the holidays mean for most of us the inevitable return of the inescapable family gathering. An often less-than-pleasurable proposition, even in the best of years, in these hair-trigger days of polarizing politics and generally heavy headlines it can be downright arduous.
But, to those for whom the thought alone of spending time with your relations this holiday season has you reaching for the eggnog a bit too early in the day, or seriously contemplating how badly you’d have to be injured to be excused from the get-togethers, I say this: Stay your hand, at least until after lunch. Please, do not toss yourself down those stairs.
What you need is not chemical assistance or a doctor’s note.
What you need is perspective.
And, funny enough, it just so happens that I’ve got a few flicks in mind for you, dear reader, and they each come with a heaping helping of objective reality.
If you think your family is so awfully bad, cue up one of these fine films and take solace in the fact that however terrible your own tribe may be, at least it’s better than these people.
1. ‘The Ref’ (1994)
Bonus points for this one actually taking place at Christmas.
Yes, the ranting tells-it-like-it-is white guy character so synonymous with Denis Leary typically wears thin quickly (and I’m somebody who actually enjoyed his early stand-up specials) and has not aged well. But if ever there was a role that cried out for such a persona it was this one. His portrayal of Gus, the titular thief-turned-kidnapper-masquerading-as-marriage-counselor in this Ted Demme-helmed dark comedy, is Leary’s masterpiece (sorry, “Operation Dumbo Drop”).
And yes, speaking of things that didn’t age well, the presence of Kevin Spacey is admittedly also not ideal. But the shadow of his since-revealed awfulness is offset wonderfully by a truly great rapport between him and Judy Davis.
They are the world’s angriest couple — bickering, resentful and staying together out of sheer obstinacy — trying to prepare Christmas dinner for a horde of soon-to-arrive relatives they loathe, when their night goes from bad to worse as they’re taken hostage by Leary, a thief on the run in need of a place to lay low.
Prison starts looking better and better, though, as he’s forced to play at being the hateful couple’s counselor and contend with their awful family, budding criminal son returned home from military school, nosy cops, and an imbecilic partner.
It’s smart, funny and tense, and, with a runtime of just 97 minutes, doesn’t overstay it’s welcome (remember when movies were less than three hours long?). There is a refreshing candor and general lack of schmaltz in this Christmas movie, too, which I really enjoy.
Overall, highly recommended holiday viewing sure to make your family seem downright loving in comparison.
2. ‘The Clovehitch .Killer’ (2018)
A teenage boy comes to believe his father may be the notorious serial killer who shocked their rural religious Kentucky town a decade before, strangling at least 10 young women before apparently disappearing without a trace.
Dylan McDermott is utterly mesmerizing as the eerily wholesome Scout Troop leader, with a suspicious smirk on his handsome face and strange glint in his otherwise kind eyes — or is it all in his son’s head?
Charlie Plummer is believable and engaging as the troubled teen who fights hard to ignore his budding suspicions but can’t quite put the terrible idea out of his mind.
Is his father really a monster? Or is all the just the twisted imaginings of a rebellious boy feeling smothered by an overbearing church, petty high school atrocities, and parental expectations?
You’ll be torn to the end in this dark and disturbing crime thriller, easily one of my favorite films of 2018.
3. ‘Frailty’ (2001)
It is a cultural crime that the late great Bill Paxton directed only one movie before his untimely death, one made all the more heinous by how brilliant that sole offering is. What else might he have done, given the chance? We’ll never know. But I do know that “Frailty” is one of the most deserving under-seen films in need of a renaissance I’m aware of.
Paxton stars as the lovable good-guy single dad of two young boys who one day, with no prior warning or indication, becomes convinced he’s received a message from God. It seems the world is full of demons, demons who look just like humans, and it’s his job to seek them out and kill them.
One brother believes wholeheartedly that Dad has been chosen by God for a holy mission, while the other begins to fear Pop has lost his mind. Faith, family, trust and loyalty are all tried, as Dad becomes wary of his doubting son and resolves to test him Old Testament-style.
Generally liked upon release, the movie has since developed an ardent coven of fans (yours truly among them). Even Roger Ebert singled it out for praise, giving the film a whopping four out of four stars and declaring, “’Frailty’ is an extraordinary work, concealing in its depths not only unexpected story turns but also implications, hidden at first, that make it even deeper and more sad.”
It’s true. And Paxton is a master here, in front and behind the camera. His portrayal of Dad (no name given) is realistically terrifying in the way it goes from relatable everyman to tragic killer. See, he doesn’t want to do these things, but honestly believes he has been chosen to save the world. So what else can he do? And besides, it’s not like these are real people he’s murdering. God told him so.
Check out a strong early career showing by Matthew McConaughey, and a fun performance by Powers Boothe here as well.
4. ‘Matilda’ (1996)
With the musical adaptation set to come to the Bainbridge Performing Arts stage next month, now is the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with the film version of what is perhaps Roald Dahl’s most beloved creation.
Is there a more unpleasant family in the history of children’s cinema that the Wormwoods?
They openly despise their quiet genius daughter, mock her for wanting to go to school and deride her enjoyment of reading. And all that’s to say nothing of their slovenly and brutish manners and generally dishonest and selfish ways (the father, Danny DeVito, is like an avatar of all slimy used car salesmen who ever lived and the mother, Rhea Perlman, an even more nightmarish version of the Peggy Bundy-type housewife).
And things don’t get much better at school for young Matila (played to perfection by Mara Wilson), where she and her friends must contend with the tyrannical elementary school principal, former Olympian Agatha Trunchbull.
But Matilda has a secret weapon on her side, something even more powerful than her already awe-inspiring math and reading abilities. Yes, like a less-murderous “Carrie,” the young protagonist has telekinesis and is not afraid to use it.
Magical, whimsical, fun and funny — with just the right hint of darkness to keep the kids really invested — this is pure Dahl filtered through the leering lens of DeVito, who, as a director, showed a career-long fascination with the grimy and macabre underbelly of the dangerous creature that is familial relations (“Throw Momma from the Train,” “The War of the Roses” “Death to Smoochy,” etc).
You’ll never think of Thurston Harris’s “Little Bitty Pretty One” the same again.
5. ‘Step Brothers’ (2008)
Following the flawless one-two punch that was their collaboration in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” the comedic coupling of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly seems to have peaked (avoid “Holmes & Watson” at all costs) with this sublimely simple, but totally effective, film about two grown men, both still living at home, forced to contend with each other when their respective single parents get married, much to their chagrin.
There are so many moments worth replaying and quoting here, it’s hard to single out a favorite. Both Farrell and Reilly give amazing performances, playing off each other but never seeming to compete to be the star.
Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen (who might actually have my favorite line in the whole film, though it’s unprintable here) are perfect as the beleaguered but loving parents, who seem as confused as the viewer as to how their lives got to this very strange place where they have to separate and chaperone their adult sons.
Also, Adam Scott is wonderful as Ferrell’s obnoxious little brother, his performance so believable that it actually made me dislike his “Parks and Recreation” character at first.
It’s silly humor, slapstick and profane, but it’s a good time.
And, as promised, it’s bound to make your family look comparatively well adjusted.