If you are the type that does not see the 1988 action movie masterpiece Die Hard as a Christmas movie (including Bruce Willis himself, apparently), that’s all fine and dandy. However, you should keep in mind that everyone has their own individual holiday traditions – some that involve placing gifts under a pine tree, others that involve watching John McClane outwit German terrorists, or a combination of both!
In my humble opinion, not all of the best Christmas movies depend on typical holiday tropes or even, necessarily, involve Christmas itself as the main focal point of the story. In fact, there are even some classic cinematic holiday traditions that would not be too different if you removed the holiday element from them and those actually tend to be the ones I prefer. The following are some of my favorite examples of movies that just barely count as Christmas movies, but still deserve to be considered part of the genre – starting with the most famous (or infamous) of them all.
Die Hard (1988)
On Christmas Eve, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife in her company’s office building while they celebrate their company holiday party. Festivities are soon ruined by a gang of European criminals, led by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, who take the guests hostage, leaving it up to McClane to single-handedly save the day.
As I have hinted at before, it has been long debated whether or not Die Hard qualifies as a Christmas movie just because it takes place on Christmas Eve, but if you disregard the violence, excessive language, and brief nudity, the remaining 10% is definitive holiday cheer. The film even ends with a tear-jerking family reunion and a pleasant snowfall… OK, maybe it’s really shreds of stolen bearer bonds, but it’s complemented well with “Let It Snow” over the soundtrack. What more can you ask for?
The Ice Harvest (2005)
On Christmas Eve, Kansas lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) believes he has found a way for him and beautiful strip club manager, Renata (Connie Nielsen), to run away together after he embezzles millions of dollars from a local mobster (Randy Quaid). However, his partner in crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), his drinking buddy, Pete (Oliver Platt), and suspicious cops start to put a damper on his holiday plans.
Here we have yet another crime thriller about a man who just wanted to spend Christmas with the woman he loves, if not for violence getting in the way. However, there is also a lot to laugh at in The Ice Harvest – directed by the late Harold Ramis – and, not to mention, references to the season are much more frequent and overt, even if the plot, technically, could have survived without them.
There are actually a couple of great superhero movies on our list – the first being this DC Comics adaptation about a teenager (Asher Angel) chosen by a wizard to be his champion. Zachary Levi plays Billy Batson’s adult-sized, super-powered alter ego who looks to his foster brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), for help in mastering his abilities and saving the city from a power-hungry scientist (Mark Strong).
It is perfectly understandable if you forgot that director David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! – which is also one of the funniest superhero movies in recent memory – takes place during the holidays. However, you might be kicking yourself once you remember that the bulk of the third act takes place at a public Christmas celebration where young Darla’s alter ego (Meagan Good) rescues a Santa actor before letting him know she has been a good girl this year.
Love Actually (2003)
While it has become a holiday tradition for many people (save some of its own cast members, however), can we all agree that Love Actually often feels more like a film better suited for Valentine’s Day? I mean, some of the best of its interwoven stories have little to nothing to do with Christmas, such as Colin Firth’s flirting with Lúcia Moniz or when Kris Marshall’s Colin travels to America believing his accent alone will get him the female attention he craves… and being correct.
Of course, I will admit that the most iconic moments from Richard Curtis’ anthological rom-com are deeply rooted in holiday lore, for better or for worse, such as when Emma Thompson’s Karen discovers her husband’s (Alan Rickman) infidelity when he gives her a CD for Christmas instead of jewelry she caught him purchasing. Or, when Mark (Andrew Lincoln) quietly professes his love to his best friend’s wife (Keira Knightley) by posing as carol singers.
Just Friends (2005)
We are including this movie starring Ryan Reynolds as a music executive forced to re-confront the unrequited love of his childhood buddy (Amy Smart) while visiting his hometown for the same reason we included Love, Actually. This is yet another rom-com that happens to take place during Christmas.
However, director Roger Kumble’s Just Friends is also sure to take advantage of its holiday setting for many key moments. The best example (and, arguably, the best scene in the movie) sees a vengeful Samantha James (a scene-stealing Anna Faris) unintentionally turn a beautiful display of festive decorations into an elaborate and horrifying death trap for a group of carolers.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
There is not a single title in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography that screams holiday cheer quite like his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, am I right? If you disagree, perhaps you forgot that the inciting incident of the story takes place at a Christmas party and also sees Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s married couple, William and Alice Harford, doing some holiday shopping with their daughter near the end.
The only thing that has prevented the mystery thriller from being remembered as a holiday classic is a plot involving Cruise’s character participating in a bizarre and erotic masquerade that ends up putting him and his family in danger. At least we can say that it concludes somewhat happily and that is a surefire sign of all Christmas movies.
Batman Returns (1992)
In Tim Burton’s sequel to his 1989 smash hit Batman and one of the most unique live-action movies about the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) struggles to keep focus on crime fighting when he finds himself falling for a woman who dresses like a cat at night (Michelle Pfeiffer). Meanwhile, Gotham City is unwittingly under threat by Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) – a man born with bird-like features running a mayoral campaign with insidious intentions. Oh, and it’s also Christmas time.
Batman Returns is yet another example of a film in which you have to ignore its dark moments to accept its holiday quality (and the fact that it had a toy deal with McDonald’s). When not subjecting its audience to comic book action and Tim Burton’s signature irreverent imagery, the movie is not without its holiday references – such as Batman and Catwoman’s “kiss” under the mistletoe, Penguin releasing his goons on the city in a giant green box with a red bow, and the fact that it is always snowing in Gotham.
Black Christmas (1974)
In 1983, Bob Clark released his longtime passion project A Christmas Story, which went on to become a holiday tradition with its own 24-hour marathon every year on TBS. Yet, nine years earlier, the director released his first Christmas movie, which could easily get airplay during Halloween, too.
Black Christmas, which was gifted with its second remake in 2019, follows a group of college women spending their winter break in a sorority house where they are stalked by a murderous stranger. Not only is this often credited as the first modern slasher film, it is also one of the first of a rare, but ongoing, breed of cinema: the holiday horror film (i.e. Silent Night, Deadly Night, Krampus).
Speaking of scary Christmas movies, director Joe Dante’s creature feature from executive producer Steven Spielberg may be PG, but it is a pretty terrifying holiday adventure. In Gremlins, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receives a Christmas present from his father: a rare creature known as a mogwai. The creature, which they name Gizmo, starts off cute, but when Billy accidentally breaks the rules required to own one, this species begins to show off its dark side.
The marketing for Gremlins was a stroke of genius – particularly its poster depicting a young man holding a gift that appears to be harmless. When audiences discovered that the contents were a cuddly creature that transforms into a destructive, maniacal green monster that ruins Christmas for a quaint little town, they might not have taken the kids with them.
Home Alone (1992)
With John Williams' wintry score, annual cable reruns in December, and the fact that it does take place around Christmas, you are probably thinking, Well, of course Home Alone is a Christmas movie. Who could debate this? I agree, but also wish to reinforce my belief that the holiday MacGuffin of Macaulay Culkin’s breakout hit, while a perfect setting, is not entirely necessary.
For one, the McCallisters could have taken their Paris vacation in the summer and Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) do not seem like the type of thieves who would wait for the holidays to make a score. Also, to be frank, the concept of an abandoned child single-handedly taking on petty criminals is incredibly dark and the film’s execution is – while funny – a carousel of pain. Not to mention, has anyone else noticed that the plot of Home Alone is eerily similar to fellow Christmas movie, Die Hard?
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s fantasy of self-discovery is yet another example of a cinematic Christmas tradition that unnecessarily uses the holiday as a plot device. Now, allow me to reiterate that I consider all of these films to be Christmas movies, but It’s a Wonderful Life does not really need to be one.
The story is essentially the rise, fall, and rise again of businessman and family man George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), whose sudden financial troubles one Christmas Eve leads him to witness an alternate reality in which he had never been born, thanks to his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers). Setting It’s a Wonderful Life during the holidays makes its themes of self-worth an especially powerful lesson, but the message is still a timeless one, no matter what time of the year you watch it.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Unsurprisingly, this will not be the last Shane Black movie on this list, but it is probably the last one you would have expected to be included. Yet, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s follow-up to The Avengers has a strong case to be considered a Christmas movie.
Iron Man 3 follows Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he suffers through a bit of an identity crisis around Christmas time (hey, much like It’s A Wonderful Life) as he takes on his biggest personal threat yet, terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley… well, not really). If you still don’t believe me that it is a Christmas movie, at least Disney+ agrees.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
In December, veteran Los Angeles detective Roger Murtagh (Danny Glover) is thrown together with suicidal loose cannon Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) as his new partner. The pair must set aside their differences to catch a gang of drug smugglers in time for Christmas.
Written by Shane Black and directed by Richard Donner, this buddy cop movie classic is often overlooked as a Christmas movie. But anyone who denies the holiday spirit of Lethal Weapon will have to put up with producer Joel Silver, who fought hard to make sure that this and Die Hard would become Christmas movie classics… but with gun fights and explosions.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
This action-packed romp follows amnesiac suburban mother Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) on a journey of self-discovery while suffering a bit of an identity crisis around Christmas time (hey, much like It’s A Wonderful Life and Iron Man 3) when her forgotten past life as a government assassin begins to catch up with her. She teams up with detective Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight off her old enemies as her long-lost persona resurfaces.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is written by Shane Black (so expect plenty of holiday references and goofy buddy cop banter between Davis and Jackson) and directed by Renny Harlin (so expect a lot of explosions and illogical stunts). But, remember that this is still a Christmas movie, most exemplified by Caine’s dedication to her 8-year-old daughter.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
One of a handful of dark holiday-related tales from the mind of Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the story of a world entirely engulfed by the spirit of Halloween and its king, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), who longs to break from the year-long cycle of spooks. When he discovers a world engulfed by the spirit of Christmas, he tries to introduce the themes and traditions of the holiday to his fellow citizens, inadvertently threatening the sanctity of the season in the process.
Now, this stop motion animation classic is clearly made to watch during Christmas, yet I often see its own licensed merchandise in Halloween stores and, as one of Tim Burton’s most worshipped films, its biggest fans have been known to indulge in its juxtapositional holiday mania whenever they feel like it. That is the wonderful thing about The Nightmare Before Christmas: it’s a Christmas movie that offers entertainment suitable for any time of the year.
The Ref (1994)
Cat burglar Gus (Denis Leary) is abandoned by his partner in the middle of a Christmas Eve crime spree. To escape capture, he randomly takes a married couple (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) hostage in their own home, acting as the reluctant moderator to their incessant, petty bickering – hence the title.
The Ref is the kind of Christmas movie that trades joyful spirits for bitter cynicism, while managing to be boldly hilarious all the way through. Not to mention, like most of these films, you could watch it any time of the year, especially considering it was released in March.
Trading Places (1983)
In one of his biggest early theatrical hits, Trading Places stars Eddie Murphy as poor street hustler Billy Ray Valentine, who is offered the chance to become rich beyond his dreams by two brothers who own a stock brokerage firm. Little does he know that he is just a pawn in the brothers’ experiment, which also involves them stripping their employee, Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd), of all his wealth at the same time.
The signature moment in which director John Landis’ Trading Places reaches the peak of its holiday appeal is when Dan Aykroyd eats a stolen fish through the dirty beard of his Santa suit in front of an audience of disgusted city bus passengers. It is not the most cheerful thought for a Christmas movie, but its brilliant humor and invigorating resolution will have you as giddy as a child on Christmas Morning.
Unless you still have your reservations over whether or not you can confidently call these films Christmas movies, perhaps you have some refreshing prospects to add to your traditional holiday viewing. To that I say, you are welcome and Happy Holidays!
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Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.