What better way to celebrate the holidays than to watch a bunch of short Christmas movies while you snuggle up on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa (or a cocktail or whatever).
I watched a lot of short Christmas movies for this article. A lot. “Too many,” she shuddered, a far-off look in her glazéd eye…
There were some noticeable trends. Quite a few went the saccharine route, conjuring the Christmas spirit to bring loved ones together again. Tons turned the typical magic-of-Christmas archetype on its head with bad Santas, gritty thrillers, or dark comedies. Many had fun concepts but took way too long to get to the point. Short films are the poetry of filmmaking — they must be short.
If you’re interested in writing and creating short films, you should be watching short films — the good and the bad. Writing a short Christmas movie, in particular, is a great way to discern what makes a film successful. Because holiday films and television episodes are so popular, by now you are probably very well versed in what a classic formula is for their tellings. Knowing that innately means you can begin to replicate it in short form, as English for Beginners masterfully did, or you can turn it on its head, such as with How Awesome Dad Saved Christmas.
Here are ten short Christmas movies to inspire you. Study them and be the judge of what they did right and what they could have done better.
‘Come Together’ directed by Wes Anderson
This H&M Holiday Short Film featuring Adrien Brody is a classic Wes Anderson piece that unites strangers trapped together on a wintry Christmas day. Taking place on an Agatha Christie-esque cross-country train of yore, Anderson combines his unique visual styles with lovable characters and a wintry sense of whimsy.
‘English for Beginners’ by Hubert Stadnicki
Technically a commercial, English for Beginners became a viral sensation a few years ago due to its sweet story and lovable lead. We follow a precious old man throughout his daily routines as he tries to learn a new language. Notice that his motivations are kept a mystery but his journey is nonetheless compelling, especially as we see delightful details through his cute pup, his charming routine, and the, shall we say, less than polite phrases he picks up from time to time.
This one will leave you with a smile on your face — a perfect little holiday treat. If only all commercials strived toward this level of storytelling and entertainment!
‘Drunk History Christmas’ courtesy of Funny or Die
On December 15, 2012, Allan McLeod drank half a bottle of whiskey and then attempted to recite the class Christmas poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. In the traditional Drunk History stylings, the inebriated narrator sets the stage for an amusing reenactment starring Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Jim Carrey.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen one or a hundred Drunk History stories — the format is innately entertaining, as the narrator’s unpredictability inspires moments of surprise and chaos in the story. In this case, McLeod made for a sincere, inept, and remorseful narrator, adding to the humor.
‘How Awesome Dad Saved Christmas’ from Shawn Vance
Three weeks before Christmas, a group of friends decided to shoot a clever little holiday film wherein “Awesome Dad” tells a Christmas story to his very young “Awesome Kid” — and as “Awesome Mom” begins to suspect that the story will not be at all age-appropriate, the bedtime story grows exceedingly and charmingly dark and violent. It should surprise no one that a couple of veterans were behind this fun festive flick.
Told in rhyme harkening to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas or Doctor Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, there’s much to love in this holiday short.
‘Santa Baby’ by SNL
Doug (Ryan Gosling) and Gina (Vanessa Bayer) make everyone at the neighborhood holiday party uncomfortable when they demand to meet the real Santa. This short film demonstrates excellent use of comedic tools, from parody, truth in pain moments, turning on a dime, surprising language, and the use of reactions to bring the humor home.
‘The Letter’ by Rebecca Murga
In 2013, ABC gave U.S. veterans a chance to follow their dreams of working in the entertainment industry after their military service. U.S. Army vet Rebecca Murga created The Letter, starring U.S. Navy veteran Stephanie Maura Sanchez.
By empowering veterans to tell their own stories, ABC helped create an authentic look at the sacrifices military service members and their families make, especially during the holidays.
‘Believe’ by Jeffrey Pratt
Does this film manipulate your damn heartstrings by delivering a magical Christmas story starring a dog in need of some love? Yes, yes it does. Notice how it builds emotions and tells a sweet story without the use of dialogue — and be sure to look out for animals this holiday season.
‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’ by Dan Roe
This short film takes one joke to its most extreme, building the tension and consequences against a suburban holiday backdrop. The mix-and-match use of comedy and violence makes for a darkly comedic lesson about keeping your word.
Keep your eye on the pacing and visuals as this one proceeds.
‘New Year’s Eve’ by Pranav Bhasin
I loved the simplicity of this film as the endearing protagonist, a single guy on December 31st, tries to find a date for a party that night. Proof that you don’t need complex lighting or a myriad of characters to tell a compelling story, this short film leans on its clever screenplay and charismatic lead.
‘The Dance’ by Ryan Curtis
In another 2013 ABC Home for the Holidays special, U.S. Army veteran Ryan Curtis wrote and directed a touching story starring U.S. Army vet Ruty Rutenberg and Kelly Hancock. The Dance offers a sobering look at the cost of war mixed with a bit of holiday magic and hope.
If you’re interested in writing and creating short films, you should be watching short films — the good and the bad. Short Christmas movies, in particular, are a great way to discern what makes a film successful. Because holiday films and television episodes are so popular, by now you are probably very well versed in what a classic formula is for their tellings. Knowing that innately means you can begin to replicate it in short form, as English for Beginners masterfully did, or you can turn it on its head, such as with How Awesome Dad Saved Christmas.
If you’re in the mood to make a holiday short film, be generous with the knife as you cut out unnecessary dialogue, exposition, and scenes. If you’re writing a comedy, make it fast or funny — keep it moving and tighten up those jokes. If you’re aiming for emotional sentiments, find the most poignant ways to express them and don’t linger on excess support. Audiences are savvy and attention spans are shorter than ever. They’ll understand where you’re going — but if you bore them, you lose them. And, as always, know why you want to create a short film — it will help you fine-tune it and make it sing.
A writer’s note here: while searching for live-action narrative holiday short films, I couldn’t find any that celebrated non-Christmas holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanza, or even very many New Year’s Eve films. There’s an opportunity there to share non-dominant cultural experiences, in my humble opinion!
Happy writing to all, and to all a good night!
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. Her screenplays have placed in the Top 10% on Coverfly and in the Top 10% at the Slamdance Film Festival. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!
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Author: Shannon Corbeil