Ah, Christmas movies. Everyone has a favorite, whether it be an old classic—the Rankin/Bass version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” comes to mind—or a newer addition, like Jim Carrey’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” or Will Ferrell’s “Elf.”
I will admit that a few traditional Christmas films still hold my heart, particularly “It’s A Wonderful Life” (because I love Jimmy Stewart) and “A Muppet Chistmas Carol” (because I love Michael Caine as Scrooge, plus muppets), but my tastes have changed considerably over the years.
Once I began to realize that schmaltz-fests like “The Family Stone” were unfulfilling, and garish clunkers like “Jingle All the Way” were actually materialism incarnate, I made a conscious decision to venture outside the Hallmark Channel-approved box for my holiday viewing.
I started watching movies set at Christmastime, often with plots still somewhat impacted by or connected to seasonal tropes, but that also contained much weirder, darker, and more complex themes than the simpler stories I enjoyed as a child. (I blame you, film school.)
Then there are those beloved holiday staples that toe the line, but never quite cross it. For example, “A Christmas Story” has enough acerbic wit to balance out the nostalgia, but also plays to the masses for 24 hours on TBS. National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” may veer hilariously towards the irreverent, but stops short of real oddball territory due to the near universal accessibility of writer John Hughes.
If you’re looking for a new yuletide tradition that doesn’t involve endless rounds of carol-singing, or if you’ve simply had your fill of Bing Crosby and “Frosty the Snowman,” then I suggest treating yourself to a Christmas movie with a little more bite.
Here are my Top 11:
11. “Brazil” (1985)
Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” is one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen; and consequently, one of my all-time favorites. The warped Christmas setting, though completely random and unexplained, is a perfect match for the dystopian terror of a society utterly devoid of holiday spirit. Plus, if you ever wanted to see Jonathon Pryce, Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughn, Katherine Helmond, and Robert DeNiro in a film together—or rather, spiraling out of control in a wacky, retro-future Orwellian universe—herein lies your opportunity.
10. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2011)
A Cold War espionage thriller starring Gary Oldman may not sound very Christmasy, but factor in a holiday office party as the scene that frames the movie—with gaudy ’70s suits, clouds of cigarette smoke, and a discordant sing-along to the Soviet Anthem, no less—and the idea of seasonal communion is turned wickedly on its head, like a wind-up doll gone deliriously mad. Meanwhile, in yet another sinister detail from director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), the singing is conducted by a eldritch-looking Santa Claus in a Lenin mask.
9. “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
In acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick’s final film, which premiered shortly after Kubrick’s sudden death from a heart attack, then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play a charged game of art imitating life. Here is a husband and wife who attend holiday parties together, then seperate, and fleetingly experience sordid lives outside their own. But when their wildest dreams turn to nightmares, notice the perverted symbolism: a Christmas tree (or related seasonal bauble) appears in almost every scene.
8. “The Apartment” (1960)
Leave it to filmmaker Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot,” “The Lost Weekend”) to write and direct a movie that focuses on the very darkest chasms of the human heart come Christmastime. Jack Lemmon plays the antihero, C.C. “Bud” Baxter: a lonely insurance salesman who decides to drown his sorrows in booze on Christmas Eve. He meets a fellow lonely heart at his neighborhood bar, and then brings her up to his apartment for a little more forgetting. But in a startling twist, they find that Shirley MacLaine’s character is already there, passed out on his bed from a drug overdose. This sequence of events is beyond unfortunate, but also painfully true to life: a mirror reflecting back on those of us who know all too well how soul-crushing the holidays can be, and how forced that “cheer” can often feel.
7. “Gremlins” (1984)
If you haven’t seen this cult classic about evil little monsters going beserk on Christmas, then I am slightly jealous of your good fortune. The very ’80s black comedy horror film, directed by Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Harry Potter”) and produced by Steven Spielberg, centers on a teenage boy who gets a critter called a Mogwai for Christmas. His dad found the thing in Chinatown, of all places, and he must follow three rules to care for it properly: never expose it to bright light; never get it wet; and most importantly, never feed it after midnight. Of course, the boy does not follow these instructions, and his cuddly little pet, whom he calls Gizmo, eventually mulitiplies into a horde of scary reptilian gremlins that begin terrorizing his small town. Honestly, I always feared that my Furby would do the same thing.
6. “Batman Returns” (1992)
Tim Burton’s first appearance on this list, with his second and last entry into the live-action “Batman” franchise of the ’90s, is also perhaps the most Christmasy superhero film in recent memory. Corrupt businessman Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) is described as “Gotham’s own Santa Claus,” Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman kisses Michael Keaton’s Batman under the mistletoe, and Danny DeVito’s deranged Penguin wreaks havoc on a snow-covered Gotham City. Ironically, the movie also enjoyed a successful June release in theatres, giving it the highest opening weekend of any film up to that point.
5. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005)
In this underrated crime caper from writer/director Shane Black, a theatrical thief (Robert Downey Jr.) teams up with a gay detective (Val Kilmer) to solve a murder mystery at Christmastime. Downey and Kilmer have surprisingly great comedic chemistry, likely aided by the kitsch romanticism of a snowless LA with plastic trees and Christmas lights. An actress also entagled in the crime (Michelle Monaghan) even shows up in a sexy Santa costume at one point.
4. “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)
Two employees at a Budapest gift shop (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, respectively) can barely stand one another; and yet, unbeknownst to both of them, are falling in love through the post as each other’s anonymous pen pal. But as fate would have it, Christmas is ultimately what brings these squabbling soulmates together. In the film’s memorable final scene, Stewart puts a red carnation on his lapel—thus revealing his identity to Sullivan as her longtime mystery correspondent—and the two share a passionate embrace on Christmas Eve. Does this oft-repeated romantic comedy scenario sound familiar? Watch “You’ve Got Mail” (the 1998 Nora Ephron-directed remake starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks), relive the nostalgia of AOL dial-up, and feel old.
3. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
Magical is the first word that comes to mind when I think of “Edward Scissorhands,” which is exactly the spirit that director Tim Burton conjures up in every fairy-tale frame. Johnny Depp’s impressive silent film actor performance is another revelation (how could one not fall in love with his sweet, gentle, sadly scissor-handed hero?) and the bizarro world that the rest of the characters inhabit looks positively ethereal once the snow starts to fall. In fact, Winona Ryder twirling like an angel admist snowflakes and ice sculptures is perhaps the purest embodiment of Christmas I have ever seen put to film: an exultation of whimsy, wonder, and most of all, hope.
2. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)
Yes, Christmas features prominently into the plot, but Tim Burton’s story is just as much about Halloweenteen and its delightfully creepy inhabitants as it is about what Jack Skellington discovers in the land of elves and Santy Claus. Plus, the incredible stop motion animation from director Henry Selick (“James and the Giant Peach,” “Coraline”) remains as mind-blowing today as it was when the film was first released.
1. “Die Hard” (1988)
I don’t care what Buzzfeed says; this movie is the epitome of yuletide joy. If you don’t believe in miracles after watching Bruce Willis bungee jump through explosions on a fire hose, what hope is there for the world? Also, as a card-carrying member of the Alan Rickman fan club, I simply cannot fathom why audiences tout his role in “Love Actually” (quite possibly the most overrated holiday film of all time, in which he plays one of the most unlikeable characters) over his turn in this priceless gem. Old standbys like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone” aside, “Die Hard” reigns as the ultimate Christmas movie.
What are your favorite unconventional Christmas films?
Leah Pickett writes about art and popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @leahkpickett.