Holiday season has arrived, which means we’ll once again be inundated with the holiday spirit by many of our favorite films. You know, those. It’s a Wonderful Life. Miracle on 34th Street. White Christmas. Home Alone. Elf. Fred Claus (just kidding with that last one).
These movies have carved a place in our holiday calendar for years, and as much as we love them, there’s also room for some other favorites to slip in. The difference between “Great Films Set At Christmas” and “Great Christmas Movies” is nuanced, and a little bit of expansion can open up our holiday viewings for some untraditional film experiences.
By all means, don’t cancel your yearly rewatching of The Muppets Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story, but once you’ve burned through the standard slate, consider some of these slightly off-kilter Christmas films as well.
Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece centers on the feelings of jealousy, frustration and lust that many feel in particular during the final months of the year and follows the twisted obsessions of a New York doctor (Tom Cruise) who learns of a secret society operating illicit ceremonies. A word of warning, though: This is definitely not one to watch with the family unless you really want to squirm in awkwardness.
Remember when Tim Burton created a demented drama about damaged people, each tormented by the impact of violence and capitalism to the point that they became costumed freaks, and disguised it as a family superhero movie? The overt violence and sexuality in the film actually inspired McDonald’s to recall its Happy Meal line for the film.
There’s no better film about not reading the instructions beforehand, and there are few movie scenes as unintentionally hilarious as Phoebe Cates’ story about a tragic Christmas accident that colored her feelings about the holiday.
Between this, Batman Returns and A Nightmare Before Christmas, we sure wonder what exactly goes on in Tim Burton’s household during the holiday season. Burton never treats his characters as anything less than human, and the angelic dance between Edward (Johnny Depp) and Kim (Winona Ryder) is among the most touching things he’s ever created.
While Die Hard is commonly cited as one of the best Christmas movies ever made, another major '80s action franchise also has many ties to the holiday season. The seminal buddy cop adventure puts Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) on equal ground when the two spend the holiday together.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black has a strange fascination with setting action films during the Christmas season (his scripts for The Long Kiss Goodnight and Iron Man 3 also follow this rule), and his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is unsurprisingly loyal to that tradition. This 2005 satirical action-comedy was Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback vehicle, three whole years before he first starred as Iron Man.
It’s the famous “Bloody Christmas” case that initiates the conflict in L.A. Confidential, the noir favorite that follows two very different police officers, by-the-book Edmuny Exley (Guy Pearce) and the rough-edged Bud White (Russell Crowe), in a mystery surrounding police corruption in 1950s Hollywood.
The “can’t we all just get along” theme is common in many holiday movies, and it’s rarely been done better than in this 1983 comedy classic about a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) and a Wall Street asshole (Dan Akroyd) whose careers are swapped as the result of a sadistic bet. It’s got the same thematic beats of family, corporate greed and self-worth that are found in It’s A Wonderful Life — just swap the plucky charm of Jimmy Stewart with the comic zaniness of Akroyd and Murphy.
This one is a bit of a downer, so schedule it early in your viewing session, but this touching period piece about a fleeting romance between a wealthy divorcee (Cate Blanchett) and a holiday sales associate (Rooney Mara) is one of the essential love films of 21st century filmmaking.
Three Days of the Condor
This creepy slice of 1970s political paranoia feels ever more relevant now than it did during its initial release, following a nebbish CIA agent (Robert Redford) who is framed for murder by an insidious government conspiracy. Director Alan Pakula brilliantly uses the Christmas setting to underscore the film’s themes of an overbearing, overwhelming establishment.
It took two tries, but after striking out with Eight Crazy Nights, Adam Sandler finally succeeded in making the greatest Hanukkah movie ever made.