If Rudolph and kids with BB guns have got you down, or you just have one of those families, here’s a list of non-traditional Christmas themed movies that won’t judge you for feeling down during December or burning the turkey (and a few that won’t mind if you burn the whole house down while you’re at it).
“A Pinky and the Brain Christmas” (1995)
All right, so not exactly “non traditional”, but it’s not something that gets played often during the season or is nearly as well known as Rudolph or Frosty. And it’s one of my absolute favourites. In this episode, Brain’s plot to take over the world takes advantage of Christmas and Santa’s distribution system. It has all the wonderfulness of a Pinky and the Brain episode with a genuinely sweet ending. I highly recommend this one.
Batman Returns (1992)
I love this movie. Batman (Michael Keaton) has to stop a corrupt businessman, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who has teamed up with Penguin (Danny DeVito) – a mysterious new comer whose tragic story has caught the hearts of the city – from taking control of Gotham. Meanwhile, Selena Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), reborn as Catwoman, is out for her own revenge on Shreck. All taking place around Christmas, Gotham is lit up (yet still dark) with exaggerated decorations and a huge Christmas tree. Bruce Wayne has his own gigantic tree, which apparently he makes Alfred decorate all by himself. A sense of belonging and familial ties are central pressures of Christmas and are underlined in the film by Penguin’s public arc of uncovering the identity of his birth parents who abandoned him because of his disfigurement. Penguin’s story also mirrors Bruce Wayne’s childhood of being orphaned following the murder of his parents. As a bonus, Batman Returns also looks forward to Easter with a resurrection!
Tales from the Crypt “And All Through the House” (1989)
“And All Through the House” isn’t only full of the characteristic wit and tongue-in-cheek humour of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, it’s one of the best episodes of the whole series. It’s the heart warming story of a woman who gets exactly what she wants for Christmas. In fact, her daughter and their unexpected house guest do too! It’s a Christmas miracle!
Black Christmas (1974)
If the annual marathon of A Christmas Story has been making you sick, try Bob Clark’s earlier offering of the Christmas spirit. Black Christmas is a seminal horror film about a sorority house being terrorized by a killer over the Christmas break. Highlights include men wearing fur coats (ah, the 70s). Fun facts: it was made in Canada, and the snow is real!
There are actually a heap of Christmas theme horror movies, but I’m not that big of a connoisseur outside of mainstream horror. But if this is your cup of tea, check out this list over at Best Horror Movies, which seems to be pretty comprehensive.
Die Hard (1988)
It seems like I get into the debate over whether or not Die Hard is really a Christmas movie every year. Well, it is. Not to mention, it’s also quite possibly the best action movie ever made. NYPD officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) visits his wife and kids in L.A. for Christmas, since they have relocated to California for a high powered job opportunity for John’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). While attending Holly’s office Christmas party the high rise is taken over by terrorists (led by a sparkling Alan Rickman) and McClane isn’t wearing shoes. All about keeping a family together, and, to borrow a line from a later Die Hard instalment, “The shit we do for our kids.” The movie features the positively inspired use of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and really, you can’t argue it’s not a Christmas movie when a dead body shows up with this printed on his sweater: “Now I have a machine gun! Ho Ho Ho!”
First Blood (1982)
In First Blood, Vietnam war veteran Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) finds himself battling against a small town police force who discriminate against him and harass him. Taking place during December, the movie opens with Rambo searching for the only other surviving member of his unit. Christmas is a critical juxtaposition in the film, evoking the themes of family – whether the family we’re born into or the families we make – home, and, once again, searching for a feeling of belonging: all of which were complicated issues for Vietnam veterans in the real world who returned “home” to find themselves ostracised, maligned, and too often abused. Am I taking Rambo too seriously? Maybe. It’s a wonderfully entertaining action movie, to be sure, but the action movies of the 80’s were an unexpected but important site for dealing with the traumas of the Vietnam war and First Blood is an essential example.
A mysterious Irish woman hires a group of professional killers to track down a suitcase which is wanted by an ex-KGB group and the IRA. Christmas-time blah, blah, entertaining, yeah, yeah. All that you really need to know here is Robert De Niro.
Reindeer Games (2000)
So, Ben Affleck doesn’t exactly look like he’s spent time in prison but hey, why stereotype. Reindeer Games is about a newly paroled ex-con, Rudy (Ben Affleck), who decides to take the identity of his cell-mate, who was supposed to be paroled with him on the same day but was killed in prison. Rudy, posing as Nick, not only gets Nick’s beautiful pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron), but finds himself caught in a plot to rob a casino, Nick’s former workplace. This one features thieves dressed like Santa, some twists, and Rudy helps deliver some Christmas surprises to a few random strangers.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Screenwriter Shane Black’s first film, setting up the common thread through all of his movies: Christmas. A veteran detective, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), is given a new partner, Vietnam veteran and “lethal weapon”, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), who is on edge and suicidal due to his wife’s recent death in a car accident. The new partners investigate the murder of a prostitute, the daughter of Murtaugh’s old friend, and find themselves mixed up in a serious drug ring. Aside from the predominance of Christmas decorations in many of the sets, Lethal Weapon explores how the Christmas season underlines the importance of family – the grief caused by a loved-one’s death, our vulnerability when someone we love is threatened – and suggests the extent to which our ability to define our lives as meaningful is so utterly dependent on the welfare of those we love.
And one can forgive Martin for feeling a little suicidal around Christmas: studies of mortality rates have found repeatedly that death rates spike dramatically on Christmas day.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Another Shane Black offering as writer and director. A thief, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), hiding from the police stumbles into a movie audition, is mistaken for an actor and sent to L.A. to research the role only to find himself entangled with Private Investigator Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), the beautiful Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan) who’s obsessed with pulp detective novels, and a string of homicides. Honestly, my favourite thing about this movie is Val Kilmer. It also features Robert Downey Jr. getting to be Robert Downey Jr. and is well worth a watch.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Okay, I actually haven’t seen this one yet, but it’s another Shane Black movie (as writer/director), and, you know, I hear it was pretty popular.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
So, I may be cheating on this one, but even with a rail thin chance of getting to mention James Bond I’ll take it. In Britain, James Bond is the Christmas tradition: ITV has been airing Bond films during the holidays and a marathon on Christmas day since the mid-70s. But! For those of us outside the Isles, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service takes place around Christmas-time and features a ski chase which becomes a really great car chase through a stock car race around a Christmas tree. With her driving skills, it’s no wonder Tracy steals Bond’s heart.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
A bullet-ridden man who doesn’t remember who he is is rescued from open water by fishermen, and in the course of trying to unravel his own identity discovers he has a particular set of skills. Based loosely on the novel by Robert Ludlum. Really, the only Christmas connection here is a few rogue decorations, but I thought I’d include it for those of you who want a spy thriller and are crazy enough not to care for James Bond. In which case I’m really not sure why I’m including this because you people don’t exist in my world. So… we’ll call it a case of being thorough.
Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Crash follows the interwoven lives of several people in L.A. as a brave contemplation about racial divides and the assumptions we make about others. Though on the surface it may not appear to be in the Christmas spirit, at heart it offers many of the lessons we associate with Christ: the importance of not passing judgement on others; that no individual is a total saint or devil, but rather only human; and the essential interconnectedness of people. In Detective Graham Waters’ (Don Cheadle) storyline, too, we get a heartbreaking view of how difficult and challenging love can be, but the film manages to underline exactly why it’s important.
Trading Places (1983)
Not unrelated to Crash, Trading Places also examines the assumptions we make about what makes people who they are, and the attendant roles of race and wealth. Two rich brothers who run an exchange firm make a bet on whether a man is a product of his genetics or his environment and set up an elaborate plot to exchange the lives of their right-hand man at the firm, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd), and a homeless con man, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). There’s a bizarre New Year’s Eve sequence involving a gorilla, but it works. It also features the Christmas blessing of a miraculous healing – which may be more of a Festivus miracle.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Because nothing says Christmas like a naked knife fight! What? Not in your family? A kind hearted and head strong nurse, Anna (Naomi Watts), investigates the background of a young, Russian woman who died in childbirth after discovering her diary. In her search for the baby’s family, Anna finds herself intertwined with the Russian mob. Christmas plays a central thematic role, underlining our loyalties to cultural and familial traditions. The great care and love that Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) takes honouring his culture’s Christmas rituals is brilliantly juxtaposed with his other familial traditions… A more sombre entry in the list, but a wonderful movie.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Curtis Hanson’s neo-noir mystery set in the early 50’s, it includes all the pillars of the best noir films: corruption, brutal cops, beautiful but duplicitous women, murder, and the futility of honesty, all at Christmas-time. The inciting incident in the film, the beating of several prisoners during a Christmas party at a precinct, was based on a real event and the attempted cover-up. As with Eastern Promises, L.A. Confidential uses Christmas, the time of year which totes concepts like brotherly love and good will, as an effective contrast to a world in which honesty, authenticity, and happiness just aren’t possible. Hey, it’s a noir thing.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The last film by legendary director Stanley Kubrick, with shades of Roman Polanski, Eyes Wide Shut absolutely stands out from everything else on this list. You will probably never see another film quite like it. It tells the story of a married couple, Bill (Tom Cruise), a handsome doctor, and Alice (Nicole Kidman), an art curator, who get into an argument following a Christmas party. Bill is traumatized by the revelation that Alice once fantasized about another man, leading him to take a strange adventure into his own desires. Christmas seems to be the time of year onto which we project our hopes and ideals of happiness and fulfilment, and so too is marriage, love, sex, and fantasy. And just as Christmas underlines our desire to feel like we have a place in the world and belong, sex in particularly is our most vulnerable projection of our worthiness and lovableness, and the film does a beautiful job of creating a sense of dislocation and never quite fitting in. Eyes Wide Shut is vibrant. It has gorgeous sets that are beautifully shot, and Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances. If you have patience, a love of the surreal, and feel like dipping into your subconscious, give this one a try.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
If you’re only going to watch one movie on this list, I would pick this one. Christmas isn’t just a backdrop here but an emotional force. The movie follows Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he cons millions of dollars posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and playing a game of cat-and-mouse with FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Catch Me If You Can revolves around a series of Christmases and Christmas day phone calls between Frank and Carl because neither of them have anyone else to reach out to. Just as in Eyes Wide Shut, our projected ideals and desires about happiness, what a loving, secure family looks like, and our deep need to feel like we belong are used in the film as a poignant way to convey Frank’s displacement in the world. Isn’t the true con of any con man hiding that at heart he’s afraid he’s not enough?…
American Psycho (2000)
One of my favourite movies ever (second only to Taxi Driver), and also one of my favourite books. There’s a great scene at a Christmas party which not only features those tacky reindeer antlers but a “mistletoe alert!”
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
A few years ago my sister and I drove past a house which didn’t have a single Christmas decoration out front, but instead had a large white and blue banner stretched across the porch that read “Happy Birthday Jesus!” It’s possible they were Spanish atheists, but they also could have been making a very clever reference to Full Metal Jacket, in which Gunnery Sargent Hartman makes all the Marine trainees sing Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas day. I’m hoping it was a Full Metal Jacket reference.
The World is Not Enough (1999)
Whose main Bond girl is named Christmas. And, of course, Bond has a few Christmas related one-liners.
Hope you enjoyed the list! Merry Christmas 🙂