It’s almost that time of year, when friends and families gather together for the holidays. Holiday movies, much like traditions, are hard to change, and so the same movies end up being watched year after year. But Christmas movies come in all shapes and sizes (or maybe genres and lengths), so if you are looking for a fresh alternative to the usual saccharine holiday fare, or if you simply want more Christmas in your life and on your screen, the following films might be your new wish list.
It’s not enough that these films take place during Christmas time or that they have scenes that take place during the holidays. Plenty of movies, from Harry Potter to Rent, feature Christmas. Instead, these movies include Christmas images or events and themes – each film has a reason that it employs holiday imagery, and that reason is central to the film.
That being said, the Christmas imagery and themes that are present in these films are often overlooked, and they are rarely classified as classic Christmas films. While many of these films are not suitable for children, they are on this list because they are not considered Christmas films at all, as opposed to being Christmas films for adults.
Instead of watching Love Actually or It’s a Wonderful Life, here are 15 Movies You Forgot Were About Christmas:
Die Hard (1988)
Most people remember Bruce Willis’s classic action movie, in which police officer John McClane is trapped in a building that has been taken hostage by terrorists, and has to devise a plan in order to save the day. This movie launched a franchise and cemented Bruce Willis as the action star that he continues to be today. However, Die Hard is rarely remembered as a Christmas movie, even though the events take place over the holidays, and McClane ends up trapped because he is attending a Christmas party at his estranged wife’s workplace.
What’s more, not only is Die Hard set over Christmas, but contains a classic holiday story: McClane’s daughters wish for Christmas that their parents will get back together. McClane and his wife do reunite – it only took saving hostages from terrorists. It also inspires holiday cheer with lines like, “Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho.”
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 (2013) was released in May, and so its Christmas setting was surprising to many of its viewers. But Iron Man 3 is decidedly a Christmas movie, which features an old Scrooge named Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) with some shrapnel in his heart. But, of course, he learns the true meaning of Christmas from a young boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). One of the screenwriters, Drew Pearce, said that they chose Christmas specifically because it amplifies the loneliness of Tony Stark by setting the story against the backdrop of the holiday season. The director, Shane Black, likened Harley to the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Gremlins is a dark comedic horror film about a young man named Billy (Zach Galligan), whose supernatural pet Mogwai, Gizmo, spawns devilish and murderous gremlins. Gizmo is initially given to Billy as a Christmas gift by his grandfather Rand (Hoyt Axton).
The cult classic film juxtaposes terrifying acts of violence with holiday cheer, including a dramatic Christmas story told by Billy’s girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) about how her father died in their house’s chimney whilst trying to surprise her dressed as Santa Claus. Gremlins takes a seasonal setting and turns it into a hilarious and horrific mix of holiday fun.
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Returns is Tim Burton’s face-off between the Gotham’s dark knight (Michael Keaton) and the evil trio of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Not only are the streets of Gotham decked with red and green for the holidays, but the Gotham tree lighting ceremony is a key scene, becoming a fighting ground between the caped crusader and his foes. Even the Penguin himself, while not explicitly holiday-themed, seems like a seasonal enemy.
Home Alone (1990)
Home Alone tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an eight year old boy who is left behind while his family goes to Paris for Christmas. Kevin had wished that he had no family, and believes that his wish came true. Most of the film revolves around the comic hijinx of Kevin creating booby traps to protect himself and his family’s house from two burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), but it ends with a happy reunion with his family on Christmas Day.
Home Alone centers on Christmas, and the repeated holiday imagery is coupled with the reconciliation and reunion of Kevin with his family. It’s a feel-good film, but is better suited for those who prefer being naughty to nice.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton is clearly fond of Christmas. In addition to Batman Returns and the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), his film Edward Scissorhands draws on holiday themes and images. Only part of Edward Scissorhands is set around the holidays, but the entire story is framed by the elderly Kim telling her granddaughter about where snow comes from. The unlikely and fantastical love story between Kim (Winona Ryder) and Edward (Johnny Depp) blossoms as he creates ice sculptures and she dances under the snow that he creates.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Lethal Weapon is a buddy cop adventure film that stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as a pair of “odd couple” police officers, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. Martin’s wild-man antics get on his partner’s nerves, but the two working together are able to save the day (and by extension, save Christmas) by the end of the film.
Christmas imagery and themes repeatedly appear in the film, which opens to the tune “Jingle Bell Rock”. Martin busts a cocaine operation at a Christmas tree lot which turns into a bloody shoot-out. The film ends with the two police officers reuniting at Roger’s house for Christmas while “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” plays in the background.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a noir crime comedy starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Harry Lockhart, a burglar-turned-actor-turned-private investigator. Christmas is used to set the tone of this black comedy – Harry begins the film robbing a toy store, in hopes of getting the toy that his kid wants. To avoid getting caught, Harry ends up in an audition room, and is cast as a detective in a film. For the role, he shadows Val Kilmer’s private investigator Perry, and the two end up having to solve a mystery of their own.
The violence and darkness of the film are put into stark contrast with the Christmas decorations. Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), Harry’s childhood friend and crush, also wears – shall we say – a very festive Santa outfit. Ironically, the writer and director of this film is Shane Black, who would go on to make Iron Man 3 – another film on this list – with Downey eight years later.
Just Friends (2005)
Just Friends features Ryan Reynolds as Chris Brander, an awkward and bullied high schooler who grew up to become a successful music executive. Reynolds had planned to go to Christmas in Paris with pop singer Samantha James (Anna Faris), but they end up stuck near his hometown for Christmas, and so he returns home for the first time since high school. Chris decides to try to win the heart of his high school crush, Jamie (Amy Smart).
Just Friends follows the formula of a typical romantic comedy, but its Christmas setting proves to be important: Jamie throws a Christmas party, Chris accidentally ruins the local Christmas pageant, and Samantha destroys Christmas decorations in a jealous rage.
Tangerine is set in the ever-sunny LA, and it never uses stereotypical Christmas images (like snow or decorations) as visual cues. The film centers on Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender working girl who is released from prison on Christmas Eve, only to discover that her boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful. Sin-Dee, along with her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) goes searching through Los Angeles to find Chester.
The film does not shy away from its purposeful Christmas setting, however. It opens with the line, “Merry Christmas, bitch!”, and Mya Taylor’s performance of “Toyland” by Victor Herbert is moving and conjures images of the holidays. While much of the film’s subject material might seem too risque for a seasonal film, it also carries with it the familiar Christmas themes of generosity and friendship.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
L.A. Confidential is another holiday film set in Los Angeles, which makes the season slightly less noticeable outside. A gritty crime film that follows three police officers with three different methods – Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), Bud White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) – L.A. Confidential‘s connection to the holidays is subtle, but purposeful.
All three officers spread Yuletide cheer. Exley testifies in the 1951 Bloody Christmas scandal, when a group of police officers were indicted for the assault of seven men. Vincennes attends a Christmas party and busts some teenagers for smoking weed. White tears down Christmas decorations in order to get an abusive husband to stop hitting his wife and come out into the street. When the abuser asks who White thinks he is, he responds, “The Ghost of Christmas Past. Why don’t you dance with a man for a change?” before beating him and handcuffing him. The wife, as she leaves, quietly wishes White a Merry Christmas.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is not famous for being a holiday movie so much as it is infamous for featuring an orgy. Tom Cruise plays Dr. Bill Hartford, who discovers that his wife (Nicole Kidman) fantasized about having an affair. After learning this, Dr. Hartford pursues an affair of his own, and discovers a secret society with unorthodox sexual practices.
While the original story that Eyes Wide Shut is based on is set during Mardi Gras in 1900s Vienna, Kubrick changed the setting to Christmas in New York City. Christmas lights and decorations appear in almost every scene, and critics have pointed out that they give the movie amazing color and other-worldliness in its lighting.
Eastern Promises (2007)
David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises explores the underworld of the Russian mob in London. When a Russian-British midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) saves the baby of a teenage prostitute, her curiosity leads her to the Russian crime boss, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his driver/hitman, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
The film has multiple exchanges of and discussions about gifts, but what can seem like an innocent exchange can also become quickly dangerous. The bleak midwinter setting creates a stifling feeling of isolation, and Christmas values, like family and community, are transformed into dark bonds of obligation, rather than unifying virtues.
Go tells three simultaneous stories that all occur on Christmas Eve leading into Christmas morning. The film opens with Claire (Katie Holmes) saying to the – shall we say – festively dressed Todd (Timothy Olyphant): “You know what I like about Christmas? The surprises. You get this box, and you’re sure of what’s inside. You shake it, weigh it. You’re convinced you have it pegged. No doubt in your mind. But then you open it and it’s different.”
Claire’s monologue in many ways represents the stories that the film’s audience is about to see; Go is a surprising mixture of stories and characters who all get their fair share of surprises for Christmas.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus takes the holidays to outer space. But the fact that Captain Janek (Idris Elba) sets up a Christmas tree and says, “Ho ho ho,” aren’t what make Prometheus a Christmas movie. But the endless dialogues on the nature of faith, the thinly-veiled allusions to Jesus being an alien sent to Earth by their intelligent designers, all coupled with Janek’s secular Christmas celebration, really sets the tone of the film.
Oh, and fact that a barren woman (Noomi Raplace) is told by an angelic android (Michael Fassbender) that she is pregnant, and then she proceeds to give birth to an alien which may or may not be another thinly-veiled Jesus reference. Merry Christmas from Ridley Scott!
What are your favorite out-of-the-box Christmas movies? Were there any that we forgot? Tell us in the comments!