Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cinema Siren had settled in to write the “Dysfunctional Family Holiday Movie Guide”, tucking into the first mulled wine of the season, only to discover all the great holiday movies, like all great families, show some dysfunction.

It’s a Wonderful Life has a drunken and enabled uncle. The whole premise of A Christmas Carol is predicated on dysfunction. Still, there are movies we can watch during the holidays that either affirm our experience of family life, letting us know we are not alone, or allow us to feel a bit better that our own family could always be a little worse. With that in mind, here are a few well-known and lesser-known movies that will resonate with all our worst and best experiences of the holidays with family.


Of course I have to mention before I even begin, the kings of the “that’s my dysfunctional family” movie genre: A Christmas Story (1983), and Christmas Vacation (1989). Both these movies have become perennial favorites because many fans recognize aspects of their own families in them. Both more or less center around a “wacky” dad, (that is to say, maybe medication is in order?) and a long suffering mom. Personally Cinema Siren prefers a more idyllic movie landscape, but here are a few movies that anyone who doesn’t have the perfect family will recognize.

1. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986):
Between two Thanksgivings, sisters navigate the murky waters of attempted marital and partnered bliss, with varying degrees of success. One of Woody Allen’s better movies, with Michael Caine and Allen himself playing the confused, weak men he’s famous for writing into his screenplays. We all know a few of these walking messes. That we can all keep interaction with them down to a few hours a year is another reason to celebrate this holiday season. A little of them goes a long way.

2. Pieces of April (2003):
Oh yeah, Katie Holmes can actually act, and here’s proof. This little indie flick has black sheep April attempting to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her bizarre and largely thankless family. Who needs another excuse to watch Patricia Clarkson? (She plays the judgmental mother.) This movie has great heart, and is my winner for holiday black sheep girlie-fest.

3. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005):
My pick for the holiday black sheep boy-fest is this huge hit in Canada, and famous worldwide film that’s a coming of age story of a gay kid in the 70s. Born on Christmas day in 1960, Zac struggles to fit into a family of five sons, and tries to be what his father wants, which, of course we want to yell at the screen, is a losing battle. It is a very sweet and affirming movie about acceptance, both from the outside and inside.

4. The Family Stone (2005):
What a messy family. New additions, folks dying of cancer, resentments, awkwardness, betrayal and it’s still pretty funny. This movie is for those of you with family you love but sometimes you find really hard to be around… and yet with them everything gets out on the table and in the open eventually. It’s really quite beautiful. Great ensemble cast.

5. Home for the Holidays (1995):
Jodie Foster directs this great ensemble cast including Robert Downey Jr. before his “Sherlock Holmes” popularity, Anne Bancroft, and Holly Hunter as the lead, in a movie about a Thanksgiving gathering where neither comedy nor drama takes the driver’s seat for too long. Proof that family reunions from hell can be captured in celluloid, that many of us will recognize them, and, yes, they are funny.

6. What’s Cooking (2000):
Centered in LA, this look at multiculturalism features four households celebrating Thanksgiving amidst family tensions. The terminally underrated Mercedes Ruehl, Alfre Woodard and Joan Chen all have moments to shine in this great movie that has lots of characters and yet fleshes many of them out wonderfully.


These movies represent schadenfreude to such a degree unless you’re visiting your family in jail during holidays, watching them will without question help you appreciate them. On the other hand, if you took valium just to get through the weekend, these movies might not be for you. This is the dark side of dysfunction. Watch at your own risk, and curse not the Siren.

1. The Ice Storm (1997):
Taking place Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, Ang Lee’s film based on the novel of the same name is about two dysfunctional families dealing with their own and societal changes using alcohol, adultery and just a flagrant irresponsibility that leads to disaster. Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood, in breakout roles that got them a lot of attention.

2. The Lion In Winter (1968):
Set at Christmas in 1183, this is like the medieval version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It belongs in the Cinema Siren Hall of Fame for Cinematic Awesomeness, and shows Katherine Hepburn can live up to the acting hype of winning and being nominated for so many Oscars (she won one for this, as did the screenplay, and rightly so). A royal family plots to kill, maim, outwit, disinherit and make war with each other. It features Anthony Hopkins in his film debut and Peter O’Toole in spectacularly high form. The costumes won’t fool you, this is just another highly dysfunctional family with way more power.

3. Ordinary People (1980):
No matter how waspy your mother or mother-in-law might be, she won’t hold a candle to Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarrett. You might not even notice this movie happens during Christmas, but the twinkling lights and perfect tree are an interesting backdrop to the low hum of familial disaster that permeates this great Robert Redford directed study in grief and its destructive force. Ms. Dark, meet Mrs. Darker.


Dysfunctional families aside, we all enjoy watching movies during the holidays that make us think perfection is out there somewhere. It isn’t, but that’s what fantasy is for, after all. Here’s a bit of celluloid fantasy to cheer you and put sparkle in your weekend.

1. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944):
Can we all have this family? Ok, ok, none of us would trade, but still. Who doesn’t want Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien as sisters, and Mary Astor as a mom? A wonderful movie full of charm and innocence, which you’ll need if you watched anything from above, but also which you’ll want to see just to watch Judy sing “The Boy Next Door” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s always nice to be inspired after you’ve had whatever kind of Thanksgiving you’ve had. Good or bad, this family will make you feel even better.

2. Little Women (1949):
There she is again, Mary Astor as a great mom. This is my favorite version of this movie. Although June Allison is a bit of a weird choice for Jo, you get Margaret O’Brien again as Beth, Liz Taylor looking luminous as Amy and Janet Leigh as Meg. This movie is in spectacular technicolor and directed by Mervyn LeRoy (who worked on The Wizard of Oz, Random Harvest, and Mr. Roberts). Let’s all try to be as giving to each other as the sisters in this film, shall we?

3. Auntie Mame (1958):
An ode to unconventional families, this is a lovely journey showing an unconventional Aunt and her loving nephew, whom she raises after his father dies. They have zany adventures and lots of fun, and break all sorts of rules. Semi-dysfunctional, but full of love. Rosalind Russell shows once again she can act, and the costumes just about make your eyes pop out of your head. This movie popularized the quote, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!,” and was the No. 1 moneymaker of 1959.

Holidays can be as fun as you make them, so Cinema Siren sends strength for you to do your best. Make the spirits bright. Don’t throw anything. If this is a teaching holiday and proves difficult, let it make you stronger. This is the time to actively love your family, whether it’s the one you were born into, the one you’ve made or the one you decide to create for yourself in the future. Remember the movies can always help. And happy holidays.