It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas Vacation and Home Alone deserve their place at the top of the Christmas movie tree. But perhaps you’d like your holiday viewing to include a few explosions, some puppet gore, creepy orgies, and/or murder mysteries.
In honor of the 12 days of Christmas, here are 12 movies that are Christmas-related, Christmas-adjacent, and Christmas-set without having Christmas or Santa anywhere in the title.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Christmas cred: Michelle Monaghan in a Santa dress.
Why it’s worth watching: See above. Also: Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer make a damn fine on-screen odd couple. I wish one day to stumble across an ad for the detective agency they’ve opened and hire them to solve all the crime.
Example bit of dialogue:
Perry (Kilmer): Look up idiot in the dictionary, you know what you’ll find?
Harry (RDJ): A picture of me?
Perry: No! A definition of the word idiot which you fucking are.
Set in LA during the holidays, the pulpy noir covers all the good stuff: action, hilarity, romance, murder, people making that “wait a minute…” face when they snap to a clue. The story itself is nicely tangled and deliciously Chandler-esque (with movie chapters named after his novels). Plus Michelle Monaghan is adorable and funny and smart. And somewhere in there is a nightclub scene with a sexy/fuzzy/snowy reindeer woman slow rearing in a glass box that, for this writer, will forever be lodged in the Christmas memory file.
Christmas cred: It’s basically a fairy tale about how snow is made — a man in a dark castle with scissors for hands carves ice sculptures of his beloved, sending snow down to the seasonless cookie cutter neighborhood below. Director Tim Burton came out with Batman Returns a year later and produced The Nightmare Before Christmas the year after that, making this the first in an unofficial goth/Christmas mashup trilogy.
Why it’s worth watching: It’s sad and beautiful and funny and weird — which Burton does very well. Burton came up with the idea of a lonely gothy guy with blades for fingers when he was a lonely teenager in Burbank, CA, and Scissorhands feels like one of his more personal works.
This was also the film that helped Johnny Depp escape his teen heartthrob “stigma” and was the first collaboration between director and actor, who would go on to make seven more movies together.
Christmas cred: Probably the most Christmas-y movie on the list with back alley Christmas presents, Santa hats, decked out trees, caroling gremlins, and Johnny Mathis’s “Do You Hear What I Hear” (followed by very creative kitchen appliance use). But what makes Gremlins not exactly a Christmas movies is its June release date and the fact that it involves a lot of rather violent death and fairly splattery puppet gore — not your usual feel-good holiday fare.
Why it’s worth watching: Watch to know what to do when given a very adorable mogwai. No sunlight. No water. And for the love of every person in your postal code, no feeding it after midnight. The entertaining blend of dark humor and violence plus puppets with massive marketing appeal made Gremlins required viewing for anyone alive in the 80s. So watch it again for the nostalgia, or watch for the first time for a dose of bizarre murdery cuteness.
Christmas cred: It’s set on Christmas Eve. A Christmas party gets taken hostage. John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds a very good use for holiday-themed packing tape. But instead of mistletoe and children discovering the true meaning of Christmas, stuff gets blown up and an NYPD cop rescues an entire skyscraper from terrorists.
Why it’s worth watching: Because stuff gets blown up and an NYPD cop rescues an entire skyscraper from terrorists. Also, one of those terrorists is the late great Alan Rickman.
Die Hard was Bruce Willis’s first action foray, breaking away from his Moonlighting rom-com persona, and signaling the start of many decades playing very watchable, very capable, and very funny badasses.
Christmas cred: In Bruges, a movie about two hitmen laying low, is set, unsurprisingly, in Bruges. The Belgian city basically becomes Christmas every winter, decking out its medieval buildings with the lights, sounds, and sights (and shopping) of the season. One of the two hitmen (Brendan Gleeson) finds the town charming and takes in the wintry sights like a regular tourist. The other (Colin Farrell) finds very little to like in the festive town (and is quite vocal about it).
Why it’s worth watching: It’s a very dark comedy that pairs Farrell’s complaining Ray with Gleeson’s stoically contented Ken. The movie is quite funny, though the laughs are underscored by heavier themes of guilt and death and penance. Plus the architecture is lovely and Ferrell’s Irish accent means you get to hear many iterations of the deliriously satisfying word, “fook.”
Christmas cred: The virus that wiped out humanity was released on December 13th. As everyone was then concerned with the end of human civilization, they didn’t get a chance to pack up the tinsel and holly. When James Cole (Bruce Willis), a plague survivor living underground, is sent on a scouting mission to the surface, he encounters a world devoid of civilization, but the department stores are still decorated for the most wonderful time of the year. Also a recording of the words, “Have a merry Christmas!” serves as an important, though bleak plot point.
Why it’s worth watching: Time travel, mass extinction, twists on twists on twists, Brad Pitt playing a mental patient with a wonky eye and frenetic finger gestures, a carnivalesque score, and Terry Gilliam’s gritty, poetic filmmaking all come together for a mad and compelling sci-fi adventure you are sort of required to watch twice.
Christmas cred: The plane goes down on December 22 and the Fed-Ex engineer (Tom Hanks) who lands on a deserted island, survives thanks to the utility of ice skates, the companionship of a volleyball, and the resolve to deliver a wing-bedecked package — Christmas presents every one.
Why it’s worth watching: Three quarters of the film is a one man show of competence, relying on Hank’s charismatic screen presence (there’s a reason he’s been asked to do nearly eighty films) to keep you interested. And if watching a man transform from a doughy corporate workaholic to a lean, slightly off-kilter survivalist isn’t interesting to you, perhaps it’s time to lay off the torture porn.
Christmas cred: Penquin, Catwoman, and Batman work out their various conflicts amid tree-lighting ceremonies and Christmas parties, all set against a dark black Gotham winter wonderland.
Why it’s worth watching: Go back to a time when every comic book ever written had not yet been scraped for every possible filmable hero, villain, and/or sidekick.
In addition to another dose of Tim Burton’s dark take on Christmas, Michelle Pfeiffer is very shiny, Michael Keaton is suave and brooding (despite not being able to turn his head), Christopher Walken is requisitely creepy, and Danny DeVito’s Penguin is a perfectly grotesque villain.
Christmas cred: Early in the movie, a suicidal Riggs (Mel Gibson) is ready to swallow a bullet when a Bugs Bunny Christmas special makes him reconsider… for now. Riggs and his new partner Murtaugh (Danny Glover) catch and shoot bad guys with a Christmas-in-LA backdrop, and the true meaning of the season hits home when the buddy cops share a holiday dinner.
A year before Die Hard came to the screen, producer Joel Silver did Lethal Weapon. Two cop action films, both set during Christmas. He joked that all his movies should have Christmas settings to earn those sweet, sweet residual checks when they endlessly aired every December. From what I remember about broadcast television and the Yuletide ubiquity of those two films, the gambit paid off.
Why it’s worth watching: Mel Gibson’s hair.
Christmas cred: The rich old brothers’ social experiment all goes down in a wintry Philadelphia at Christmastime. Betting whether a streetwise con artist (Eddie Murphy) and a refined exec (Dan Aykroyd) are merely products of their circumstance, they decide to trade up their places and see what happens. A low point for Aykroyd’s character sees him dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, planting drugs, eating salmon, and getting disrespected by a terrier.
Why it’s worth watching: Eddie Murphy is brilliant and just about everything he did before the early aughts is well worth a go. This particular role even inspired a law in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, called the Eddie Murphy rule, which prohibits trading commodities using inside information — precisely the (then legal) move his and Aykroyd’s characters make in the final act.
Eyes Wide Shut
Christmas cred: There’s a Christmas tree in every scene (except in the creepy sex mansion) and Christmas lights are basically a cast member (which helped Kubrick stay true to his practical lighting decree.) David Ehrlich once likened Bill Harford’s journey to Ebeneezer Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol, and the analogy is not wrong.
Why it’s worth watching: It’s Kubrick’s last film. It holds the record for longest movie shoot ever. It’s a creepy, beautiful, meticulously shot erotic psychological odyssey about marriage, fidelity, and of course, Christmas.
Christmas cred: It’s a Christmas movie because it IS a Christmas movie: family coming together because the holiday dictates it so, the airing of grievances, Connecticut, drunken Santa Claus, candles, insults, and, ultimately, mercy and forgiveness. Unfortunately the studios didn’t bill it as a holiday movie, instead releasing it in March and promoting it as a Denis Leary MTV Eskimo Pie-style rant. And while Leary is great as burglar Gus, his performance is elevated to something with substance when set amidst the eternally bickering couple played by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey (pre-Usual Suspects and very pre-scandal).
Why it’s worth watching: If you find Leary appealing (either you do or you don’t — I do) this is a satisfying use of his brash talents. And if you don’t, you’ll scratch that universal itch that comes from watching families exorcise latent conflicts and dysfunctions, somehow coming out the other end.
May a little of that rebirth reach all of us this holiday season.