Everyone knows that the month of December means it’s time for Christmas movies. For better or worse, they’re inescapable. In the best circumstances, you can watch revivals of It’s a Wonderful Life in theaters and all-day marathons of A Christmas Story on TV. In less good ones, you are stuck with an endless parade of mediocre movies replacing Matlock on the Hallmark channel.
But what about all of the Christmas movies that aren’t quite Christmas movies? Not all films with trees, lights, and Santa Claus focus so heavily on the tenets of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. That’s a great message and all, but sometimes you need a solid dose of action, monsters, or absolute chaos. Even in December there are plenty of films that still deliver the goods from your favorite genre and combine them with the season du jour. They deliver the right colors and ornaments, but still entertain with explosions. These are the non-traditional Christmas movies that many of us come to rely upon year after year, and here are five of our favorites.
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman
It’s the one film on this list you absolutely expected to see. That’s for a good reason and it’s why we’re starting here. Die Hard is a classic with or without the “Christmas” modifier. From top to bottom this is a perfect action film. The setup of one cop with no shoes and weapons locked in a tower with twelve terrorists is a concept so simple and so good that it’s impossible to top. There’s a reason that modern action greats like The Raid use such similar structures. Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman are irreplaceable in their antagonizing roles, delivering smart alec one-liners and villainous threats that are endlessly quotable.
As a Christmas film, Die Hard is surprisingly effective once you start to think about it. John McClane is a put upon everyday family man (in the first film, at least). There’s nothing extraordinary about him outside of being an NYPD officer. Really, he’s just a guy trying to see his wife on Christmas. That he accomplishes extraordinary feats in order to do so really makes him the hero of the season, as well as the day.
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates
Most holiday-themed horror films are disappointing. The promise of killer Santas or Christmas-oriented killing sprees ought to deliver lots of fun, but everything from Krampus to Silent Night, Bloody Night tends to underwhelm. Gremlins is the sure-fire exception to this rule. Despite its comedic reputation, the first Gremlins includes a great mix of gross effects (those eggs!), creepy moments (the mall chase!), and mean kills (the stairlift!).
What Gremlins does best is capture key elements of the holiday season, delivering all of its horror with sentimental touches. The adorable Gizmo warms the entire film and makes for a great gift no matter the repercussion. Defining the gremlins reign of terror by their mischievous nature also helps a great deal. It allows audiences to laugh no matter how creepy things get and makes the monsters more Grinch-like than supernatural. All of that is what makes Gremlins the perfect mashup of Christmas and horror genres.
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan
One problem in making a list of great non-traditional Christmas films is not filling it entirely with Shane Black pictures. The Christmas season is a key element in the backgrounds of all of his films, and he makes a lot of great ones. Picking Kiss Kiss Bang Bang comes at the cost of greats like Lethal Weapon and The Nice Guys. However, this is one of his movies that best represents the spirit of Christmas while showing off all of Black’s other hallmarks like smart dialogue, shaggy dog plotting, and hilariously brutal violence.
The odd-couple trio at the heart of this film is perfectly cast and watching their friendships form over incredible tension and combative relationships makes Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to watch. While much of the holiday cheer is undercut by the ugly crimes being investigated, these three take care of one another in truly charming fashion. Their friendship is a reminder that the holidays can bring joy from the strangest of places.
Directed by John Landis
Starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy
John Landis working with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in the prime of all three of their comedic careers is all you should need to know if you haven’t already already seen Trading Places. It’s a take on Mark Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper that features a Wall Street broker (Aykroyd) having his life switched with that of a street hustler (Murphy). What follows is one of the funniest comedies of the 1980s, a decade that also gave us Ghostbusters, Coming to America, and Caddyshack.
The story also highlights humanity and shared experiences much better than most actual Christmas films. Watching both men deal with their new lives and come to understand one another is genuinely heartwarming. The best films with lessons are those that don’t force them upon you, and that’s exactly how Trading Places performs its magic. You never even notice your own preconceived notions being challenged while belly laughing. But at the end of the movie, you’ll certainly have a kinder outlook on the world, just in time for Christmas.
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Don Cheadle
Of course we had to include at least one superhero film, and it was between this and Batman Returns. This seemed like the underrated (and more controversial option), but it’s also the much better film. Black reunites with Downey Jr. in order to deliver some pitch perfect buddy cop antics in a Marvel Studios film that truly stands out as being different from the rest. His resistance to tradition delivers a truly charming segue in smalltown America (it really does work) and a refreshingly unexpected villain twist.
What really makes Iron Man 3 stand out as a great non-traditional Christmas film is how it delivers on its themes of moving forward. While the PTSD elements don’t entirely work, everything about Tony and Pepper’s relationship certainly does. The film requires Tony to throw away artifice (and a whole lot of suits) in order to appreciate what really matters. It’s not the money, things, or giant teddy bears that matter in Iron Man 3, it’s the people. That’s a lesson true at Christmas and throughout the rest of the year, as well.