Every December, our stockings are stuffed with festive Christmas movies, like “A Christmas Story” (1983), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Scrooged” (1988), and other versions of “A Christmas Carol”. Well, AHFW is looking back at movies that feature the seminal holiday too. The only difference is that our picks aren’t traditional Yuletide affairs. For most of these flicks, Christmas isn’t the central focus, or in some cases, Dec. 25 is barely mentioned. Still, each picture is technically a Xmas film, so enjoy our walk through 12 not-so-Christmassy Christmas movies, and maybe take 12 days to pace yourself and watch them all.
Day 1 – “The Apartment” (1960) – C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works extremely hard at the Consolidated Life New York City office. He makes $94.70 per week and lives in a great apartment that costs $85 per month. Most nights, he works late – for an hour or two – but not to get ahead. He cannot go home to his apartment until around 8 pm. Why is that?
That’s the premise of Bill Wilder’s wildly successful rom-com that won five Oscars, including Best Picture! Now, C.C. may have his eye on a promotion, but the other is on Fran (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator. Will C.C. and Fran fall in love? They might, but they also spend Christmas Eve and Day in C.C.’s apartment, but not for the reasons one might think.
The Academy nominated Lemmon and MacLaine for Best Actor and Actress Oscars in a film that shows off his everyman persona (including C.C.’s curious reason to use a tennis racket in the kitchen) and her quick wit and girl-next-door charm. C.C. and Fran are a couple of friendly kids, but they are caught in a massively bureaucratic corporate environment that is so stuffy, it may have directly influenced John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990).
Day 2 – “Ben Is Back” (2018) – Writer/director Peter Hedges’ film centers around the holidays, as Ben (Lucas Hedges) – roughly 18 years young – arrives at home on Christmas Eve. However, his family has little to celebrate. You see, Ben is not on his college break. He took an unannounced leave from a rehabilitation center. Ben is a drug addict and should focus on his recovery, but his mom (Julia Roberts) wished that he could be home for Christmas, and the young man took her request literally.
This troubling story about addiction and household strive puts the audience through the wringer. Roberts is so convincing as a painfully-worried mother, she should’ve earned her fifth Oscar nomination.
Day 3 – “Black Christmas” (1974) – “Halloween” (1978) might be considered the first seminal slasher film, but director Bob Clark’s picture arrived in theatres four years earlier. A group of sorority girls hopes to spend a joyous holiday over Christmas break, but an unknown maniac – with an unknown motivation – attempts to murder them one by one. Creepy, violent, and unsettling, this film will make you wish that no one will ever slide down your chimney.
Day 4 – “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) – Thirty-one years after Tim Burton introduced his modern-day Pinocchio story about an artificial boy (Johnny Depp) who has scissors for hands, “Edward Scissorhands” still brings the tears. Burton does include a lot of satire here, as he regularly pokes fun at suburbia throughout the picture, but he delves into Christmastime in the second half, and it seems that every single modest home in-frame dons festive lights.
This fairy tale isn’t really a Christmas movie, but the holiday makes its mark, especially when Edward cuts up an ice sculpture for Kim (Winona Ryder). Cue the holiday music, and please bring a box of tissues.
Day 5 – “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) – Christmas in New York City brings images of Rockefeller Center, ice skating, and shopping on 5th Avenue. Stanley Kubrick’s last film takes place at Christmas, but this “holiday story” explores infidelity, visceral temptations, frank conversations between spouses, and sexual masquerade parties where mistletoe is not required. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were married in real life, as they play an on-screen couple questioning their relationship during the most wonderful time of the year.
Day 6 – “Gremlins” (1984) – Director Joe Dante has a history in horror with “Piranha” (1978) and “The Howling” (1981) under his belt, so he’s a natural fit for “Gremlins”. This film isn’t an unforgiving trip into terror. At first, it’s a rated-PG excursion with a group of cuddly teddy bear creatures – called Mogwais – who chirp, squeak, and sing a bit too. What’s not to like? Everyone should have a Mogwai. Just don’t feed them after midnight because they will change into impish lizard-like devils that cause lots and lots of trouble.
So, is “Gremlins” is considered a Christmas film? It is. Although Santa is nowhere to be found, and sicko elves have taken his place. Great. Eggnog, anyone?
Day 7 – “The Hunt” (2012) – Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a 42-year-old kindergarten teacher, is coping with his divorce and trying to maintain a relationship with his teenage son, but Christmastime is here, so ’tis the season to think positively. However, his world crashes, because someone does not accuse him of a serious crime, but a heinous one. A crime he did not commit. Lucas, a respected man in the community, suddenly becomes the centerpiece of a devastating controversy, and in the process, almost everyone in this small Danish town demonizes him. His life becomes a living hell. Lucas tries to remain composed and poised while staring into the mouth of madness, but when your closest friend does not believe your own words, he is an isolated soul on a crowded island.
Director Thomas Vinterberg gets into massively uncomfortable territory but handles the delicate subject matter with care. Based on the evidence, the townspeople have reasons to be a collective judge and jury, which makes “The Hunt” such an intriguing drama over a stressful 115-minute runtime.
Day 8 – “The Impossible” (2012) – A family living abroad in Japan decides to vacation on a gorgeous piece of real estate, The Orchid Beach Resort, on the coast of Thailand for the 2004 Christmas holiday.
With powdery sand, lanky palm trees, blue ocean, warm sunshine, and luxurious creature comforts, this particular spot just might be heaven drawn upon Earth. For Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts), the pressure of raising their three young boys and climbing social and financial ladders melts away during lazy afternoons and comfortable evenings in paradise. Of course, director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film doesn’t chronicle a beautiful relaxing visit to a remote locale.
Instead, he tells the horrific tale, one of the most brutal natural disasters in history: the infamous 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Bayona pulls off a complicated special effects disaster picture of grand scales and explosive consequences while also capturing the true story of the Belon family and their unfortunate experience. This film is no vacation.
Day 9 – “In Bruges” (2008) – Travel experts claim that Bruges, Belgium has one of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and this city has kept its medieval construction to make the festivities feel like an illustrious time warp.
There’s nothing festive, however, about Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray’s (Colin Farrell) visit to Bruges, at the least the initial reason. Their mobster boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) orders them to hide out until the coast is clear. Ken tries to make the best of it by taking in the old-world sights, but Ray thinks Bruges is a word that rhymes with bithole. For Ray, his experience worsens, because Ken and he have to share a room for possibly two weeks, because all the others are booked due to the holidays.
No (more) room at the inn, right?
Writer/director Martin McDonagh weaves a razor-sharp script that dances with biting, sarcastic wit and unexpectedly plunges into dark territory, mainly because the comic rapport between Ken and Ray is so light in the first act.
McDonagh went on to direct “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), but this little masterpiece is his first feature.
Day 10 – “Lethal Weapon” (1987) – Richard Donner’s buddy cop movie – set in sunny Los Angeles – does include plenty of Christmas references, including Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” during the opening credits. Soon after, police officer Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) goes undercover to buy drugs…and a Christmas tree. Still, when one thinks of action films and Christmas, most look to “Die Hard” (1988), so that’s why we include “Lethal Weapon” on this list.
Sgt. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) pairs up with the nearly (or actually) psychotic Riggs. They dive into a case of heroin smuggling and money laundering that gets personal once the bad guys kidnap Murtaugh’s daughter. Glover and Gibson share good cop/crazy cop chemistry, and Shane Black’s script includes clever gunplay and welcome laughs, as Murtaugh and Riggs slowly bond and realize they form a great team.
Day 11 – “Tangerine” (2015) – In a colorful Los Angeles neighborhood, a transgender prostitute Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) got out of prison, but she’s furious. Her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her. He’s also her pimp, so one might question his honor from the get-go, but in any event, Sin-Dee is hell-bent on confronting Chester and his new girlfriend.
Although the film takes place on Christmas Eve, there is nothing family-friendly about this edgy, brash, and raw rated-R dramedy, but co-writer/director Sean Baker’s theatrical release is also unique because he shot his picture with three iPhones. “Tangerine” was released in 2015, so imagine what Baker could do today with three iPhone 13 Pro Maxes! Well, Christmas is coming…
Day 12 – “Trading Places” (1983) – One might believe that Manhattan millionaires Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke are feeling charitable when they give a street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), a golden opportunity to work for Duke & Duke Commodity Brokers. Well, they aren’t. These affluent brothers are just playing games. Randolph believes that success can be made through a supportive environment, while Mortimer thinks hereditary determines accomplishments.
Of course, while the boastful bros prop up Billy Ray, they ruin their star employee’s life for fun, as Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) loses his job and fiancée. The old switcheroo of fortunes comes to a head at the company Christmas party as Louis might be sporting the grimiest Santa outfit in cinema history. Wait, this sounds like a serious drama. It’s not. George Landis’ “Trading Places” is one of the funniest films of the 1980s, right in the middle of Murphy’s lightning-in-a-bottle comedy run!
Image credits: United Artists, Lionsgate, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Nordisk Film, Universal Pictures, Magnolia Pictures, and Paramount Pictures