Many iconic films take place during the holiday season. There are those that center on Christmas or Hannukuh, whereas, others might have another focus with the holidays serving as a mere backdrop, or even appearing as a segment in a passing montage. Cinema gave us bank-robbing Santas, first love under mistletoes, and an overall richer perspective of life in all its winter glory! The composition of holiday movies has evolved throughout the generations with both artist and technological feat. Below, let’s take a look at some of our favorite examples of composition for the holiday season!
Genre: Drama, Family Fantasy
Aspect Ratio: 1.37 : 1
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is perhaps the most recognizable classic Christmas movie. Set in a small town in middle America, cinema icons Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed lead a powerful holiday tale about small-town solidarity and capture what really matters in life. What’s most notable about this classic is how an angel who was sent from heaven shows George Bailey (Stewart) what life would have been like if he had never been born.
Genre: Comedy Family
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Before the age of streaming services, who doesn’t remember the 24-hour marathons of A Christmas Story on cable TV? In this 1940s nolstagia piece set around a series of vignettes, the movie follows Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), his family, and friends.
A Christmas Story embodies the Christmas spirit to those who grew up in the era of the Red Ryder BB gun, and the composition puts you in the perspective of a 9-year old boy.
Genre: Animation, Family, Fantasy
Aspect Ratio: 1.66 : 1 (negative & intended ratio); 1.85 : 1 (alternative theatrical ratio)
The Nightmare Before Christmas is the Blade of holiday movies. It’s part gothic nightmare, part Christmas splendor. That means it’s ideal to enjoy on both Halloween and the Christmas season — but let’s be honest, it’s great no matter the time of year.
Henry Selick directed this stop-motion Christmas nightmare, crafting each image to horrific perfection!
Genre: Drama, Romance
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Carol is a period piece set in 1950s New York where the titular character Carol (Cate Blanchett) falls for Therese (Rooney Mara) while going through a terrible divorce. The film is set during the holiday season and depicts pillars of vintage ‘50s Americana like large department stores full of glowing Christmas lights and vintage model trainsets.
The film was shot on Super 16mm film with 35mm format lenses. Carol’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, ASC shot through doors, windows, and reflections to evoke the emotions of the characters and see them partially obscured to express their fragmented identities.
Aspect Ratio: 1.66 : 1
In Ingmar Bergman’s final masterpiece, Christmastime is explored in the first decade of the 1900s. What’s most notable is the lively Swedish Ekdahl family who celebrates Christmas with fun and bemusement. By contrast, when Fanny and Alexander’s father dies, their mother remarries the Lutheran bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö) who is cold, strict, and abusive. Beginning with the prologue at Christmastime, the cheer of that earlier memory hangs over the rest of the story, and the rich palette fades to heavy grays and blacks.
Though the colors are rich in the prologue, there’s a sense of weightlessness in the labyrinthine world of Alexander’s grandmother’s house. And when he sits behind the toy paper theater with the light from the candles hovering before him, nothing seems immutable.
Genre: Action, Crime, Fantasy
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Yes, Batman Returns counts as a holiday movie (because, well, I said so!). In the days of Michael Keaton donning the cowl and cape, he must take on the Penguin (Danny DeVito) while also going toe-to-toe with Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Christmas holds special significance in the film because it’s the birthday of the Penguin, who was confined to a sewer by his aristocrat parents because of his deformities. Then, you guessed it, he was raised by a family of penguins. Why are their penguins in the sewers of Gotham? Who knows. But, it’s better than what’s prowling beneath New York City.
Director Tim Burton was influenced by German Expressionism, which exposes a haunting garish version of the holiday season.
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Mystery
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Okay, so there’s a debate about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang being a Christmastime. The general consensus is yes, so we’re including it on our list. Technically, the entire film takes place during the Christmas season in Los Angeles. But instead of a winter wonderland, Los Angeles is decorated with tacky Christmas lights and more promiscuous features of the season that you wouldn’t expect from a traditional holiday film, such as sexy reindeer. Yes, you read that right.
Along with its 2.39 : 1 aspect ratio (the widest in modern cinema) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is filmed like a neo-noir that is self-aware and plays upon tropes. And its visual composition reflects this sentiment.
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Aspect Ratio: 1.33 : 1 (Full Screen); 1.85 : 1 (theatrical ratio US & UK); 1.37 : 1 (negative ratio)
Stanley Kubrick’s last film follows a Manhattan doctor (Tom Cruise) who wanders the city of New York one night after hearing a bizarre confession from his wife (Nicole Kidman). The setting of the film takes place during Christmastime and opens with the young doctor and his wife attending a Christmas party. But where there’s extravagance in one portion of the film, there are variations of Christmas displays from shop windows to the small Christmas tree alit in Domino’s (Vinessa Shaw) apartment.
Bask in the screengrabs below in all their Kubrickian glory.
Genre: Action, Thriller
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
It’s just… well, John McClane (Bruce Willis) ran all out of both. So, now it’s all about machine guns and whoop-ass!
Take a look below at its wide composition and the placement of each character and how it corresponds to their specific plight.
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Aspect Ratio: 1.33 : 1 (original/open matte)
You could consider Edward Scissorhands as essentially a dark fantasy akin to Krampus. Although, with a key exception: the titular artificial man (Johnny Depp) has a heart of gold. The film makes you leave your biases at the door. Externally, Edward may appear dangerous but internally he’s a complete sweetheart.
Part of the plot centers on Peg’s (Dianne Wiest) annual Christmas party full of lights and Christmas grandeur. Note below the composition of each shot and how it captures pieces of isolated suburbia.
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Aspect Ratio: 2.00 : 1
Holidate is exactly as it sounds — a “holiday date.” The comedy follows Sloane (Emma Roberts) who avoids the hassle of being single during the holidays by pairing up with Jackson (Luke Bracey) during every holiday. That means New Years, Valentine’s Day, and — yeah, you guessed it — Christmas!
In this Romcom, the composition is framed beautifully by Shane Hurlbut, ASC, who depicts Christmas (among other central American holidays) packed full of decorations and the spirit of the season, while the protagonists struggle to navigate through their love lives.
Drink in the gorgeous composition below like a good ol’ glass of eggnog.
Learn cinematography from Shane Hurlbut, ASC and other filmmaking subjects from industry veterans at the top of their game.