There are many, many… far too many cheery “hey look it’s Christmas” type Christmas movies out there that get a ridiculous amount of play once the holiday season starts— even before the holiday season should start. Will Ferrell‘s Elf starts playing in living rooms all across North America before the flags on Remembrance Day have even risen from The Last Post.
That being said, there are some fantastically deep, engaging, dramatic, horrific, and hilarious films out there that still share the holiday spirit, celebrate Christmas, and are loved the world over.
Whether a boxer trying to keep hold of his family, a claymation skeleton trying to share joy, a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” looking for redemption, wizards looking for family, thieves already part of ‘the family’, creatures having torturous fun mocking humanity, or just a secretary who, having been pushed out a window, returns as a sexy, vinyl-clad kitty cat with a hate for corrupt men, these unsuspecting holiday treats are filled with all of the staple qualities of each of those overplayed Christmas classics: family, unity, giving, loss, love, and spirit… even if some is rather violent and/or psychotic spirit.
15. Rocky IV
This is perhaps one of the greatest and worst Christmas movies of all time! The fourth film in almost any series is more often than not complete garbage, but Rocky IV, though script-wise is just that right amount of garbage, is a heroic holiday movie if ever there was one. Not only does the climactic fight between Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) take place on Christmas Day, but Rocky single-handedly defeats the USSR, and its perversion of Communism, by knocking out its poster boy of Communist strength. Sure, Apollo Creed had to be killed by Drago before Rocky could train up in the Soviet wilderness, sustain an incredible amount of brain damage, defeat Drago, and thereby prove America is greater than Russia, but those are minor points, only some of which return in the latest Rocky film Creed. Otherwise, given the time the film hit the big screen, and the turmoil between the USA and the USSR at that time, this sports film was a huge Christmas gift for the American people.
14. Reindeer Games
A star-studded, and underrated film, Reindeer Games is a wonderfully jolly, heist-thriller. Sarcasm being key here; the only thing jolly about this film is the guise in which the thieves find themselves when making to rob an “Indian” casino on Christmas Eve. Assuming a former prison mate’s identity, Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), finds his way into the arms of a deceitful woman (Charlize Theron), who has been stringing him (the man he’s impersonating) on in order to work with her “brother” Gabriel (Gary Sinise) to rob a casino that they think he’s worked at. A whole incredibly unbelievable series of deceptions and assumed identities, this film is a roller coaster ride of catching up to just who is who, and how, but disbelief is a key part of Christmas movies, and by the end of the film, a surprisingly still living Rudy Duncan takes the money stolen from the Casino, and stuff it in peoples’ mailboxes as he strolls home to his family for a nice Christmas dinner. Nothing like exploiting the American First Nations in order to spread some holiday cheer.
13. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Yes, yes, it has Christmas in the title, so it, of course, must be a Christmas movie. This Tim Burton treat, from before Burton started turning his films and Johnny Depp into jokes, is an unsuspecting Christmas film because it is equally a Halloween movie and, while there is song and dance, there is really only one Christmas song in a score of morose and macabre music. Embracing change, and turning horror into happiness, The Nightmare Before Christmas takes all of the terror of Halloween, the absurdity of Easter, and the jollity of Christmas, and throws it into a love story between two characters who just want to be rid of their labels, released from their chains, and free to pursue love and happiness in any way they choose to. This holiday horror is just the right mix of terror and tinsel to even out the typically manic manner of the Christmas season.
12. Lethal Weapon
This harrowing buddy cop movie, from before Mel Gibson was a completely bigoted anti-semite (or at least a vocal one), really punches out the holiday spirit by way of two cops overcoming incredible odds against a crime ring comprised of Vietnam vets. Spattered with lights and Christmas trees, and some direct holiday homages here and there, Sergeants Roger Murtaugh, and Martin Riggs (Danny Glover and Mel Gibson), both with respective death wishes, charge head on to take this gang on who, at every turn, kill some not-so-innocent part of their plan, in order to either shake up, or shoot out the two feuding cops. Of course by the end of the film, the two sergeants have come to terms with each other and, after ensuring that neither will commit suicide (Murtaugh giving Riggs a hollow point that was meant for Murtaugh’s brain), they both sit to a wonderful Christmas dinner with Murtaugh’s unsuspecting family.
11. Harry Potter
Yes the irony is not lost here, celebrating the birth of Christianity at a magical academy for wizards, but why shouldn’t the Pagans take something back from the oppressive Christians once in a while? Besides, when it comes to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), his best Christmases are celebrated, not at home, but at school, where his true friends and family surround him (and who wouldn’t want an invisibility cloak for Christmas?). And for a school that flies in the face of so much Christian tradition, Hogwarts does Christmas right: twelve great Christmas trees in the great hall, with festoons of holly, mistletoe about, and other holiday hoots; fairies, everlasting icicles formed on the banisters of the grand staircase, warm dry snow falling from the enchanted ceiling, and suits of armour down the hallways that sing carols… it’s great that Harry discovered the true meaning of Christmas at Hogwarts… surely there is no better place to be.
10. Iron Man 3
Who would think that a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” would need any sort of redemption come the Christmas season? Shane Black, of course, who wrote and directed Lethal Weapon. Stating in an interview that stories of loneliness and redemption are heightened when set at Christmas time, because everyone is united in knowing what the pressures of the holiday season are like, and no one truly wants to be alone, or to face their fears come Christmas. Thus, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is meant to make a reckoning of his sins, as the “Christmas coward” that he is. Teaming up with a ten-year-old boy, Tony Stark discovers the secrets of an epic plot, forged by a former acquaintance of his, to kill the President of the Unites States. Together he and the young boy manage to rebuild, not only Stark’s suit, but Stark as well, spurring him on to take account of his transgressions, the ones he truly loves, and the person he really is. Now if that isn’t a Christmas movie in a nutshell… then what is?
“Don’t expose him to bright light. Don’t ever get him wet. And don’t ever, ever feed him after midnight.” That’s the warning given to Randall Peltzer upon purchase of a cute and cuddly little “mogwai” (translated to monster in Chinese) in Chinatown, after searching high and low for a gift for his son, Billy: Christmas being just around the corner. Accepting the gift, but not the rules that came with it, Billy gets the little monster (Gizmo) wet, and from his back, several other Gremlins appear. Stripe, the super villain of the piece, spawns an army of gremlins who terrorize and murder everywhere they go, all while enjoying the fruits of the holiday spirit: getting tossed at a local bar, singing carols, launching an old lady into the sky via her stairlift… One of the characters, at an emotional moment in the film, reveals that her father died, trying to come down the chimney dressed as Santa one year, and that’s how she discovered Santa wasn’t real. A dark twist on Christmas, Gremlins takes all of the camp that every holiday movie has, pokes fun at it, embraces it, and takes away some of the brightness from it, so that the creatures are free to wreak havoc.
8. Batman Returns
Unfortunately not the happiest of holiday movies, this film opens with the creation of a supervillain on Christmas night, when the parents of The Penguin (Danny DeVito), send him downstream in a carriage, never to look upon their hideous son again. Jump ahead thirty three years, and some rather holiday-themed carnies come out of the woodwork in a sort of strangely decorated Gotham. Another film about rebirth, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) AKA Catwoman, comes back from eight of her nine lives, before vanishing into the night, and Batman (Michael Keaton) is forever haunted by his rebirth into the Bat. Holiday domination (while the other baddies squabble about in supervillainous ways) is looked after in this film by Maz Schrek (Christopher Walken), who gets fried near to the end. But ice princesses in need of rescue, Christmas trees used as weapons, ice and snow all about the place, and a happy holiday ending (of sorts), makes Batman Returns a true Christmas classic.
Goodfellas certainly may not seem like any sort of holiday film, but there is definitely a major merry Christmas moment or two, for at least some of the characters. After pulling off the Lufthansa heist, the whole gang meet to celebrate. Of course it doesn’t go well for some… correction: most of the players in the robbery, but Henry and Jimmy (Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro) celebrate with drinks, a whole lot of cash, and the biggest, whitest Christmas tree Henry could get for his beloved family. Whether or not his family is really all that beloved by him, the fairly sociopathic Henry does still provide for his wife and kids, for the most part… for a time. Cadillacs, fur coats, intense paranoia, and a whole lot of murder pervade this holiday season, but that doesn’t change the clear Christmas element to this film… it’s just that the gift giving here is more relative to what happens to those on Santa’s naughty list.
6. Eyes Wide Shut
Rather than a story of birth as is traditionally the story of Christmas, Eyes Wide Shut is the dark, sexy, and strange story of rebirth (though there are plenty of opportunities for birth to be a likely future in this film). Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), have fallen away from each other, especially sexually (first brought up due to both of them being heavily hit on by guests and a Christmas party), and Alice fantasizes, over and again about a naval officer (and many other men) having at her, while her husband watches, while Bill, having been out on a trist of temptation nearly finds trouble in every sexually deviant place he goes. Narrowly escaping infidelity here and there, the two finally have a sit down, where Bill breaks down and shares all the details about the torrid night he’s had, and how close he came to a great deal of trouble. Upon his admission, Alice proclaims her deep love for him, and they then head to a toy store with their child for Christmas shopping, whereupon Alice shares with Bill that they need to “fuck” ASAP. Merry, merry Christmas!
5. Edward Scissorhands
Sure, the story itself may not be much of a holiday tale, given the vibrant pastels and the incredible amount of greenery everywhere, but the film opens and closes with an old Kim Boggs (Winona Ryder), telling her granddaughter the story of why it snows every Christmas. Leave it to the classic Tim Burton to twist the holiday spirit into a malevolent apparition for at least a little while. This film is chock full of Christmas tropes though. The inventor (Vincent Price) gives life to Edward (Johnny Depp), and Edward must overcome adversity and, while he does end up hiding away yet again, forbidden a deep love due to criminal allegations (and eventual murder of Jim— Anthony Michael Hall), he shows the true meaning of Christmas by way of his willingness to learn about people and to share his gift and his generosity with all of them. If people weren’t so close-minded and xenophobic, Edward could have made the world an even better place, but at least he still gives us snow every Christmas. Thanks, Edward.
4. Die Hard
Now this should be a serious Christmas classic! Not only is Die Hard a badass action flick, but it’s a sweet and heartbreaking love story filled with laughter, tears, a swanky party, the occasional death, and some explosions (but not too many a la Michael Bay). Besides, John Mclane’s (Bruce Willis) giving spirit sees him gracing the terrorist party with a bit of “Ho ho ho” jollity… even though all he gives the crooks is a dead body, in an elevator, with a Santa hat, but hey, at least then he has a machine gun. Brightly decorated with garlands, Christmas trees, hugs and kisses from strangers, some great holiday hip hop tunes, and some wonderful singing by Reginald VelJohnson (Carl from Family Matters), Die Hard is a very effective, albeit unsuspecting, Christmas movie that shows one’s dedication to family, freedom, and holiday charm.
3. Die Hard 2: Die Harder
That’s right, Die Hard 1 and 2! Unlike Home Alone that sticks to the exact same formula, almost down to the letter, and deadly pranks, Die Hard 2: Die Harder changes it up a bit and takes the audience on an even bigger adventure, filled not only with the signature gun fights, melee fights, explosions, and rescue, but also with the hustle and bustle of a real airport on Christmas Eve, chock full with “everyone from the shriner’s convention to the goddamn boy scouts… lost kids, lost dogs… international diplomats… a fucking reindeer flying in from the fucking petting zoo…” and more! Sure, the language doesn’t speak so much to a classic Christmas movie but… Bad Santa with Billy Bob Thornton does exist, and there’s a whole lot more wholesomeness, and morality in Die hard 2. Yes, there’s some death and destruction, like any action film, but there’s still that great bond bringing family together for the holidays.
2. Home Alone
Ok sure, Home Alone (and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York) is typically marketed as a Christmas classic, and it is heavily focused on Kevin McAllister’s (Macaulay Culkin) obsession with having ridiculously dangerous holiday fun, but there are some very good reasons as to why this is not a typical holiday film. The basis of the film, apart from a family’s search for their pain-in-the-ass son (one of them anyway), is two inept thieves’ attempt to case a house for valuables. Instead of calling the police, and dealing with the two vagrants like a normal kid might, Kevin instead sets both incredibly humiliating and obscenely deadly traps for the two men, and spends at least ten whole minutes of the film celebrating and relishing the terrible pain he has caused two men, who may be thieves, but are also broke, inept, and stupid. Maybe Home Alone is actually a horror film?
1. American Psycho
Now come on, sure, the Christmas moments in the film may be brief, but it’s certainly worth being called a holiday film when you get to see a psychotic Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), covering for mistaken identities, drinking champagne served by an elf, while he wears reindeer antlers. What could be more Christmas than some holiday cheer, a damn good drink, and the commercialized facade of holiday cheer? After all, the Christmas party sets up Bateman’s ability to assume a colleague’s identity, go on a spree of sexually torrid experiences, commit a few murders and, in the end, get away with every single one of those actions. Sure, he ends up leaving his fiancee, but one might say that is the best Christmas gift she has ever received. After all, the breaking off of that engagement, likely saved her life. And so Patrick Bateman spread Christmas cheer by indulging his whims, saving one woman’s life in exchange for… a few others’, and by letting a cute little kitty cat roam free. Merry Christmas from Patrick Bateman.