Each year at Christmas time, we tend to watch the same holiday movies – whether it’s Elf, Home Alone or It’s A Wonderful Life. Or we stick to the TV specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. For many of us, watching these classic movies is a holiday tradition. But, let’s be honest, it can get a bit boring year-after-year. If you can recite every line from Scrooged or Miracle on 34th Street, chances are you need to shake things up. To help, we have assembled a list of ten unconventional Christmas movies that, while different, are still worth watching over the holiday period. Many of the movies on this list are classics in their own right. If you’re tired of the same old Christmas movie fare, you may want to consider watching one of the following films instead:
18. Batman Returns (1992)
If you’re hankering for some superhero nostalgia during Christmas, you may want to check out Batman Returns, the 1992 sequel directed by Tim Burton. Set in Gotham City during Christmas time, Burton takes the full license with the holiday season and creates elaborate sets featuring all manner of wondrous and, in some cases, grotesque characters, scenes, and settings. In the movie, Batman (Michael Keaton) battles both the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). They too are grotesque, over-the-top characters. But the whole movie and setting are made hyper surreal by the Christmas time theme. Interestingly, Christmas has played a big part in many of Tim Burton’s most personal projects – from Edward Scissorhands to The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s not the best Batman movie ever made, of course, but it’s the only one set at Christmas.
17. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979)
About as unconventional a Christmas movie as you can find, The Life of Brian skewers organized religion and it’s the biggest holiday mercilessly. It’s also a retelling of the very first Christmas when a character named Brian (played by Graham Chapman) is mistaken for the Messiah. Irreverent, funny as hell, and politically incorrect, this is arguably the best movie ever made by the Monty Python crew (or perhaps right behind The Holy Grail). It is also extremely smart satirical take on religion and fanatics and features some hilarious music too. A final scene featuring several people singing “Always Look on the Brightside of Life” while being crucified is the icing on the proverbial cake. If you want to laugh this holiday season, be sure and watch this classic comedy.
16. D.O.A. (1988)
For the arthouse crowd, you may enjoy the 1988 film noir D.O.A., which was a remake of a 1950 movie of the same name. The remake starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan is better than the original and worth seeing. Set on the campus of a Texas college, the movie is about a professor (Quaid) who is poisoned and has 36 hours to discover who murdered him before he dies. Meg Ryan plays a college co-ed who helps Dennis Quaid discover who wanted him dead. Set during the Christmas holidays, D.O.A. uses a mix of color and black-and-white shots to harken back to its film noir roots. The movie also has a great opening scene where Dennis Quaid staggers into a police station to report a murder. When the desk sergeant asks who was murdered, he answers: “I was.” With plenty of Christmas parties in the background and even a few dirty Christmas jokes included, D.O.A. is an underrated movie that deserves a viewing.
15. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Like his other great buddy flick, Lethal Weapon, writer and director Shane Black set Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at Christmas time in Los Angeles. The film, which is a take on hardboiled pulp thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s, stars Robert Downey Jr. as a petty thief who hooks up with a private eye played by Val Kilmer after accidentally nailing an acting audition while fleeing from the police. The plot is a little convoluted and is essentially a “whodunnit” murder mystery. But the movie also features great dialogue and is very funny at times. There’s also plenty of action, reminiscent of Lethal Weapon. Definitely one of the best movies ever done by Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, or Shane Black.
14. The Family Man (2000)
This is pretty obviously a Christmas movie and meant to be a modern take on the traditional holiday movies of director Frank Capra, who made It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet The Family Man rarely gets mentioned in the same breathe as other major Christmas films. About a selfish investment banker (played by actor Nicolas Cage) who gets to see what his life would have been like if he’d married his college sweetheart and settled down to raise kids and sell tires in suburban New Jersey, The Family Man takes place over Christmas time. Cage’s character gets to see what his life would be like celebrating the holidays with a wife and kids, as well as neighborhood friends and co-workers, rather than alone in a penthouse suite. More of a touchy-feely movie than an outright comedy, The Family Man nevertheless is a great family film to be enjoyed over the holidays. It’s about a family at Christmas time, which makes it the most conventional of the unconventional films on this list.
13. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
If you’re in the mood for a more cerebral thriller or looking to spice up your love life, consider watching Eyes Wide Shut over the holidays. The last film directed by famed director Stanley Kubrick, it takes place in New York City during the Christmas holidays, and the tension between the main characters (played by then-real life husband and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) begins at a Christmas party. Kubrick is a master of lighting and he uses it to full effect in this movie – especially as he employs Christmas lights on the dark, dank streets of Manhattan. Of course, this movie is really about sex and obsession, not Christmas. But it nevertheless takes place at Christmas time and the deterioration of the marriage in the film is made more poignant and sad by the fact that it is happening during the holidays. We did say unconventional, after all.
12. The Ref (1994)
While most people will point to Bad Santa as an example of a black comedy Christmas movie, we like an earlier film from 1994 called The Ref. The movie opens with an unhappily married couple (played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) attending a marriage counseling session on Christmas Eve. Through a series of funny happenstance, a cat burglar who is out robbing empty houses at Christmas time (played by Dennis Leary) ends up trapped in the house with Spacey and Davis. And although he holds a gun on the unhappy couple, he cannot get them to stop arguing and bickering with each other. It gets to the point where Leary’s cat burglar ends up meditating, or refereeing, the arguments between them – hence the name of the movie. This film is like Home Alone for adults. The Ref is worth checking out if you wish to watch something new this Christmas.
11. Eight Crazy Nights (2002)
Adam Sandler nailed it on Saturday Night Live with his infamous “Hanukkah Song,” and he took his love of the Jewish holiday to its logical conclusion in 2002 with the animated film Eight Crazy Nights, which focuses more on the Jewish celebration rather than the traditional Christian holiday that most movies use. Take that Polar Express! Yet despite being an animated movie, Eight Crazy Nights is adult-oriented and features lots of typical Adam Sandler humor, as well as topics ranging from alcoholism to depression. It concerns an alcoholic punk named Davey Stone (Sandler) who is facing ten years in prison unless he performs community service and helps to referee several youth basketball games. The charm of this movie comes from the eventual evolution of Adam Sandler’s character into a decent guy. But it takes a while. And along the way, we are treated to some funny and raunchy animated scenes. A new version of the “Hanukkah Song” is featured at the end of the film.
10. Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark is best known for directing the classic movie A Christmas Story about little Ralphie Parker who dreams of owning a Red Rider B.B. gun. However, Bob Clark also directed another Christmas movie that has a decidedly different tone than the nostalgic A Christmas Story. We’re speaking, of course, about Black Christmas, the 1974 horror/thriller film about a group of sorority girls who are stalked and murdered over the Christmas school break. While many fans of the holiday horror genre will point to the Silent Night, Deadly Night series of films, we think Black Christmas is more of a classic movie. The plot and pacing are better, and the movie—which stars actor Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Margot Kidder (Superman: The Movie)—is more of a thriller than an outright gorefest. People who don’t have the stomach for a hack and slash Christmas movie, but are still looking for some frights with their egg nog should check out this underrated gem from the man behind A Christmas Story.
9. Reindeer Games (2000)
A classic starring Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise (at his most sinister) and Charlize Theron, Reindeer Games was directed by action master John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate) and is about a convict (Ben Affleck) who is paroled on Christmas Eve and finds himself embroiled in the heist of a casino on an Indian reservation. All Ben Affleck’s character wants to do is get home for Christmas and enjoy a nice cup of hot cocoa. But instead, he finds himself at the mercy of love interest Charlize Theron and her psychotic brother played by Gary Sinise, who is hell-bent on robbing the casino on Christmas. Fun, dumb and with lots of action and funny one-liners, Reindeer Games is a decent film for people looking to watch something different over the holidays. Look for the director’s cut of this movie, which is better than the original version that was in theaters back in 2000.
8. Cast Away (2000)
This classic Tom Hanks movie opens at Christmas time, and we see Tom Hanks’ character enjoy a wonderful Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings before he boards the ill-fated flight that crashes and strands him on a deserted island for the next three years — where the only things he has to eat and drink are raw fish and coconut juice. And while the majority of this movie plays out on an isolated island, it is the initial Christmas scenes and holiday food goodness that helps the viewer appreciate what Tom Hanks has lost while being stranded on the remote island alone, save for his trusty volleyball Wilson. A great movie worth watching at any time of year, Cast Away is especially powerful during the Christmas holiday period. Check it out. Again.
7. Gremlins (1984)
Gremlins is set at Christmas, and the Gremlins themselves stem from a Christmas gift the inventor father in the movie Randall Peltzer (actor Hoyt Axton) gets for his son Billy (played by actor Zach Galligan). Once let loose, the Gremlins take delight in destroying the small town that is the movie’s setting on the eve of Christmas. This movie contains scenes of Gremlins in Christmas trees, wearing Santa hats, and there are several nods to other classic Christmas movies in the film—notably, It’s A Wonderful Life. This classic movie has aged very well and now seems like more of an action-comedy film than the horror movie it was made out to be when first released. Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins is a lot of fun for people who have a perverse sense of humor and are a little cynical about the holiday season.
6. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Who doesn’t love this classic 1990 film from the visionary mind of director Tim Burton? The movie, about a teenaged boy with scissors for hands, is a great modern love story that is very quirky, entertaining and effective. Starring Johnny Depp as the title character and actress Winona Ryder as his love interest, Edward Scissorhands features many scenes set at Christmas—all displayed in Tim Burton’s strange, signature style. The white Christmas trees and green ornaments are a classic example of Burton’s style. Plus the scenes set in the snow are magnificent. See this movie at Christmas for something different but still likely to tug at the heartstrings. It’s good, clean quirky fun.
5. Bad Santa (2003)
Arguably Billy Bob Thornton’s best movie, the 2003 film Bad Santa is a black comedy from director Terry Zwigoff that is aimed at the most cynical of hearts. About a miserable conman and his midget partner who pose as Santa and his elf helper in order to rob department stores on Christmas Eve, this movie has Billy Bob Thornton reveling in all the bad department store and street Santa clichés—from showing up to work drunk to pissing his Santa suit while a kid is seated on his lap. This movie isn’t for everyone. Many people find the premise and execution of repulsive. However, for people with a dark sense of humor, this is a classic Christmas movie. And you gotta give Billy Bob Thornton kudos for getting really into this role. It is one of his best. Actor Tony Cox as the evil and unrepentant elf that works with Billy Bob to rob the stores is also hilarious.
4. Trading Places (1983)
If it’s comedy you like, check out 1983’s Trading Places, a modern masterpiece starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, and directed by John Landis. About a rich, pampered investor (Dan Aykroyd) and a low life street hustler (Eddie Murphy) who have their stations in life reversed by two rich old men who make a bet with one another, Trading Places is set at Christmas and features a number of hilarious holiday-related scenes—none funnier than Dan Aykroyd as a drunk, gun-wielding street Santa. The Christmas backdrop helps to contrast the world of privilege with the world of poverty, and it allows the actors to riff on the holidays. For a great laugh, watch Trading Places this year rather than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which you’ve no doubt seen too many times already.
3. Nobody’s Fool (1994)
A heartwarming drama, and one of the best movies actor Paul Newman ever made, Nobody’s Fool is about a small-town handyman who is reunited with his son and grandchildren during the holidays and comes to realize how much he is needed in the lives of the people who populate the town of North Bath, New York. This movie, which also stars Bruce Willis, Jessica Tandy and Melanie Griffith, is charming and amusing while also managing to be touching. As the main character, played by Paul Newman, embraces the responsibilities he spent most of his life avoiding, the viewer can’t help but be touched that he has had this realization before it is too late in his life. Set between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, this movie has a Christmas backdrop and features a hilarious ongoing battle over a snowblower. Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for this movie.
2. Lethal Weapon (1987)
This classic 1980s action movie opens to the Eric Clapton song “Jingle Bell Rock” and ends with the main characters of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) heading inside to celebrate Christmas together. In between, the two LAPD cops take down a very nasty drug cartel run by ex-Vietnam war veterans turned mercenaries. Exciting, fun and action-packed, Lethal Weapon is one of those movies that is enriched from being set during the Christmas holidays. Suicidal cop Riggs’ (Mel Gibson) pain over the death of his wife is amplified at Christmas time, and his lone wolf persona is contrasted nicely to family man Murtaugh (Danny Glover) whose home is lovingly decorated for the holidays. With submachine guns, car chases, and aborted suicide attempts, how can you go wrong with this Christmas classic?
1. Die Hard (1988)
New York cop John McClane flies to Los Angeles to visit his soon-to-be ex-wife and kids at Christmas only to find himself caught up in a terrorist takeover of the ultra-modern high rise office complex Nakatomi Plaza. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history. This movie kicks-off with an office Christmas party and accelerates into a high octane action movie that is one of the best in motion picture history. Poor John McClane. All he wants to do is see his kids during the holidays, and instead, he’s forced to kick ass through 40 stories of sheer heart-pounding action sequences. This move made actor Bruce Willis’ career and contains some not-so-subtle jabs at the Christmas holidays. Case in point, the classic line: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, Ho, Ho.” A great Christmas movie and a great action movie. What could be better?