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If you are the type that does not see the 1988 action movie masterpiece Die Hard as a Christmas movie, 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 and others that involve watching John McClane outwit German terrorists, or a combination of both!
Not all Christmas movies seem like the typical holiday fair up close, Die Hard included. While the plots of films like A Christmas Story or Elf are entirely dependent on being Christmas-themed, many films are more subtle in how they express holiday cheer, with Christmas not being the main focal point, but still deserve the right to be housed on the same shelf as The Santa Clause or A Christmas Carol (whichever adaptation you prefer).
We have collected 12 (yes, like “The 12 Days of Christmas”) Christmas movies that either may not seem like Christmas movies up close or use the holiday as a framing device that's not entirely necessary. Take a journey through the world of unlikely Christmas movies, starting with the most famous one of 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 celebrates 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.
Batman Returns (1992)
In Tim Burton’s sequel to his 1989 smash hit Batman, 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 Pfiefer). 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 around Christmastime.
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, of course, 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 timeless cinematic holiday tradition with its own 24-hour marathon every year on TBS. Yet, nine years earlier, the director released his first Christmas movie, which often gets airplay during Halloween, too.
Black Christmas, which was gifted with its second remake this year, follows a group of college women spending their winter break in the 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 its 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 a 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 Christmastime, you are probably thinking, “Well, of course Home Alone 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.
The McCallisters could have taken their Paris vacation in the summer, 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, and, 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 necessarily need to be one.
The story is essentially the rise, fall, and rise again of businessman and family man George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) whose financially costly mistake 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 film 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.) on a journey of self-discovery while suffering through a bit of an identity crisis around Christmastime (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 (duh) 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 both 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 buddy movie romp follows amnesiac suburban mother Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) on a journey of self-discovery while suffering a bit of an identity crisis around Christmastime (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 Geena Davis and Samuel L. 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 Samantha 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 to prospects to add to your traditional holiday viewing. To that I say, you are welcome and Happy Holidays!