You know how the conversation goes: Somebody at some party or other social gathering this season asks the generally reliable ice-breaker, “What’s your favourite Christmas movie?” Conversation gets flowing, and the usual suspects come up (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually). And then some guy (it’s almost always a guy) gets a slightly smug look on his face and declares “Die Hard“. And his smugness grows because he thinks his contribution to the conversation represents an original thought.
But no. Smug dude is wrong. Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It is a fantastic action movie that just happens to have some Christmas decorations in the background.
Don’t get me wrong, I watch Die Hard around Christmas every year. And I completely get the basic impulse to want to place Die Hard in the “Christmas movie” category. Actual Christmas movies suffer from being somewhat monochromatic in tone and theme (and in the case of made-for-TV Christmas movies, colour scheme). So wanting to place some off-beat additions in the Christmas canon would seem to be a great way to break up the monotony and add spice to the season. Admirable. But wrong.
For clarity’s sake, let me at least define briefly what the essential qualities of a Christmas-movie are (in order of importance):
- Christmas themed – love, joy, peace, giving, sacrifice, etc
- Non-Christmas season appropriateness – how weird would it be to watch a particular Christmas movie in July?
- Family friendly – not that it has to be inoffensive, but inoffensive enough that a family could presumably sit and watch it together.
- Crowd-pleasing – optimism and a positive outlook.
- Christmas setting – actually takes place during Christmas.
I do have one more rule, but I’m going to save that one for the actual “Best Christmas Movies” list (I have to offer just a little bit of intrigue).
While Die Hard does not pass this test what I will grant though is that Die Hard belongs in a sub-category of films that I call “Christmas-Adjacent films”. These are movies that don’t necessarily fit thematically with Christmas (sacred or secular), but do find themselves superficially (or not so superficially) providing appropriate hints of the season. And before you accuse me of relegating these cool and alternative Christmas picks to a separate category let me reiterate that I watch Die Hard just about every Christmas. Christmas-Adjacent films are necessary especially for someone like myself who will probably watch a couple of dozen seasonally appropriate films before Christmas rolls out. If I just watched strictly Christmas movies I would drown in their overwhelming amount of sweetness. I need Christmas-Adjacent films in my life to vary out the diet, but I am just not willing to move those movies into the category of a traditional Christmas film.
And without further ado, let’s just dive into the best Christmas-Adjacent films out there. (Note: Before you heckle me for its lack of inclusion here, The Nightmare Before Christmas passes my strict and obtuse Christmas film litmus-test. So it shows up next week.)
10. EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Let’s face it, only the weirdest class of people would consider Kubrick’s last film – an intense psychological and erotic drama detailing the spiralling of a husband’s confidence in his marriage after an unexpected revelation from his wife – a Christmas film. But the fact is that this mind-trip of a movie happens during Christmas and that Christmas trees inhabit just about every scene in this movie. And for every person who is head-over-heels in love with Christmas, there are more who find the season oppressive and depressing. And then there are people like me who oscillate between the two on an almost daily presence. If that proves to be the case for you, this acerbically bitter fairy tale is definitely a perfect choice.
9. BATMAN RETURNS (1992) dir. Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s dark and gothic follow-up to Batman famously caused McDonalds to furiously try and recall their Happy Meal line due to its lack of child-friendliness, and justifiably so. Batman Returns is the only Batman movie to really delve into the grotesque, with Danny DeVito’s Penguin, or the psycho-sexual, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, making it easily the most adult of the Batman movies (Christopher Nolan’s trilogy included). But it also is the best place to go if you want to see what a German-expressionistic Christmas as interpreted by traditional Hollywood would look like. Additionally by watching this you get to shower some love on the Burton Batman movies which for some inexplicable reason don’t get as much respect as they probably should.
8. DIE HARD (1988) dir. John McTiernan
Fortunately for all of us the moment of John McClane’s debut as a badass cop just happened to be set in the season of Yuletide. By happy happenstance we get to put in this movie every December and claim it somewhat seasonally appropriate (but if for some bizarre reason you want to run through the whole Die Hard series, you probably have to watch this movie sometime other than Christmas). But here’s the thing about Die Hard: Of all the movies on this list, it is also clearly the movie that can be viewed just about any time of the year and there is nothing about the Christmas season that plays a major role in the plot. One could set this same movie over Labor Day, New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, or any other American public holiday and the premise would still work. Let me just reiterate, I have no problem calling this movie “Christmas-Adjacent”. Just don’t try and show this to me on Christmas Eve.
7. KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) dir. Shane Black
This is easily the most “Christmassy” movie on this list as Christmas carols frequently occupy the soundscape, almost as much as Christmas decorations occupy its backdrop. And yet this darkly comic film delves beyond this festive exterior to deliver a classic hardboiled crime movie with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheekness to it. In Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr., the movie also has one of the most surprisingly great buddy pairings of all time (as well as a preview to the glib Tony Stark-esque persona Downey would make the rest of his career on). In many ways the movie is all over the place in terms of tone and genre, but it’s also just so much fun to watch.
6. METROPOLITAN (1990) dir. Whit Stillman
Tom, a middle-class Princeton student, finds himself attending a dress ball one evening and suddenly finds himself sucked up into a group of young and very rich socialites who are in the middle of debutante season. And as he ingratiates himself to the group he finds himself travelling to well-decorated after well-decorated event. To describe the plot of a Stillman movie is pointless, as the heart of the movie is the dialogue that happens in and around these Christmas gatherings, as the socialites try to make sense of the outmoded lifestyle that they don’t really want to live but have been forced to partake in due to their social standing. While their world is perhaps a little bit different than you and I live in, it is nonetheless the perfect movie for any of us who have had to muddle through the Christmas season with obligations galore.
5. FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982) dir. Ingmar Bergman
I know that whenever I’m hankering for some Christmas spirit, I turn to the works of Swedish existentialist director Ingmar Bergman. In all seriousness though this intimate epic of of a large and expansive family is for the first 45 minutes a Christmas movie. This first section is a deep and immersive dive into a traditional Swedish Christmas replete with a feast, games, family squabbles, and a general spirit of joviality. Unfortunately the movie is also three hours long and quickly moves away from its festive beginnings, thus eliminating it from contention from being an actual Christmas movie. Other than that though, this movie is as close to perfect as you can get.
4. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) dir. Curtis Hanson
Unlike Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was a tongue-in-cheek hardboiled crime movie, L.A. Confidential plays the hardboiled crime movie straight and is all the better for it. Set during the glamorous yet sordid backdrop of the golden age of Hollywood, it tells the story of three cops who decide to investigate a multiple homicide that looks like a botched robbery gone wrong but end up uncovering corruption hiding beneath the artifice of decency. In this way the shimmering lights of Christmas and its veneer of happiness and joy is the perfect backdrop for this dark tale of murder, corruption, and the quest for justice.
3. THE APARTMENT (1960) dir. Billy Wilder
The thing that makes Billy Wilder such a timeless director is that his movies are well-versed in the acerbic bitterness of life, and yet he remains a romantic (most of the time). And this is most certainly the case with The Apartment in which a lonely employee of a major corporation who is taken advantage of by his employers who use his downtown apartment for their infidelitious dalliances finds himself falling in love with another lonely and depressed employee of that same company who has been used in a similarly dehumanizing way. The festive season seems to simply mock these two fragile souls who have no home to go to, and yet the way these two find each other, though sad and melancholy, is so genuine and warm that the movie can’t help but be uplifting in spite of its generally melancholy spirit.
2. BRAZIL (1985) dir. Terry Gilliam
On the flip side of the joviality and good cheer of the season is the season’s darker side where commercialism, consumerism, discontent, and the conflating of wants with needs lives. And it is exactly this side that Brazil explores in which Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) finds himself desperately trying to escape the machine of a society and job he finds himself in so that he may find the woman who inhabits his dreams and (hopefully) find some modicum of fulfilment there. In between there are the crass trappings of commercial Christmas, with obligatory parties, decorations, mall shopping, and mall Santas all placed not so much to celebrate the heart of the season but to pay fealty to the never-satisfied deity of consumerism. Brazil may not be the Christmas movie we want to see during the season, but it’s probably the one we need.
1. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990) dir. Tim Burton
Are there better movies on this list? Of course there are. But that is besides the point because of all the movies on this list Edward Scissorhands actually comes closest to looking and feeling like a Christmas movie without actually being a Christmas movie. This movie is a modern day fairy-tale in plot and tone, as it tells of a fictional homogenized suburbia and the oddball Edward who introduces flair into their monotone lives. The only reason keeping me from placing this movie in the official Christmas canon is that when Christmas happens in the movie it is an inconsequential happenstance (with more being made of the snow than anything else). But truth be told, this movie is such a perfect fit for the season in every other way that a half-decent argument could easily sway me to make an exception to my stodgy rules.