The OTHER Classic Christmas Movies

It’s time to establish the official canon of movies from the holidays that aren’t about the holidays.

Bruce Willis in a scene from Die Hard

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You know It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street; you know A Christmas Story and Meet Me in St. Louis.” There’s certainly an authentic canon of Christmas and holiday films in the American library of classics. However, in recent years, other films that take place at Christmas has become something of an ongoing cocktail party discussion. Here are 10 Other Christmas Classics.

10. The French Connection (1971)

The trailer for The French Connection. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Your first thoughts of The French Connection are probably “that car chase” or the boatload of awards it won (which included Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor for Gene Hackman, Editing, and Adapted Screenplay). But if you recall the opening, it features Hackman’s Popeye Doyle getting involved in a police action while wearing a seasonally appropriate stakeout disguise: a Santa Claus suit.

9. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

The trailer for Edward Scissorhands. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

The first of eight (and counting) collaborations between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands is another of Burton’s dark outsider fables. The titular Edward was built by an elderly inventor (Vincent Price, in his final role) who gave him his special hands for utilitarian purposes; unfortunately, the old man dies before he can give Edward regular hands. Discovered by Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest), he’s brought to live in the Boggs home where he falls in love with their daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder). Much of the movie is a satire of suburbia and conformity, but things that a turn for the Gothic during a fateful Christmas season. The amalgam of tragic circumstances, the Frankenstein-esque reaction of the neighborhood, and Burton’s visuals tie this off as a dark parable that’s inextricably bound to the holiday.

8. Better Off Dead (1985)

The trailer for Better Off Dead. (Uploaded to YouTube by HD Retro Trailers)

This one belongs in the class of “Movies That Probably Wouldn’t Get Made Today.” It certainly has a controversial premise; after aspiring skier Lane Myer (John Cusack) is dumped by his girlfriend for the captain of the ski team, he makes numerous attempts to kill himself before realizing that there’s more to life than his ex. Of course, the approach of the movie is so off-the-wall and Lane’s “attempts” so patently absurd that it stays deeply in the comedy pocket, even with an incredibly serious issue underneath. One of the comic highlights is the extended, and painful, Christmas celebration at the Meyer home wherein Lane’s mom (Kim Darby) sports a bizarre reindeer suit and passes out gifts like frozen dinners.

7. The Harry Potter Series (2001-2011)

The trailer for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

You might be taken aback by two things here, but yes, it HAS been eight years since the last of the original series, and yes, it fits the parameters. Why? With the exception of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which takes place in the latter half of what would have been Harry’s seventh school year at Hogwart’s, each film (like the novels) devotes a not-insignificant section of time to Christmas. The fact that Harry gets any presents at all is a big deal in the first movie, and we later see him spending time with the Weasleys over the holidays as well. The series uses Christmas as a focal point to drive home the idea that Harry has managed to assemble a “found family” and an extensive band of allies.

6. Trading Places (1983)

The trailer for Trading Places. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Who can forget the sight of a drunken Dan Aykroyd in his filthy Santa suit? SNL alum Aykroyd and then-cast member Eddie Murphy powered this socially-aware comedy to box office gold in 1983. And while the plot turns mostly on scheming in the commodities trades and the disruptions caused by Murphy and Aykroyd’s life exchanges, the holiday piece plays a part, particularly in Louis’s (Aykroyd’s) spiral into depression.

5. Gremlins (1984)

The trailer for Gremlins. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

One in a class of horror films that’s inextricably linked to Christmas, but doesn’t abjectly state it (as opposed to the various versions of Black Christmas or the inexplicably-became-a-franchise Silent Night, Deadly Night movies), Gremlins turns on the notion of a bumbling inventor dad getting a last-minute gift for his adult son that turns out to be the adorable Mogwai named Gizmo. Of course, rules are broken and Gremlins are created to the backdrop of well-used holiday tunes and settings, including a Christmas tree ambush. The story could certainly be set at another time of year, but it would lack the resonance of things like the playing of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” leading up to the immortal kitchen battle.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The trailer for Eyes Wide Shut. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Stanley Kubrick’s final film, a rumination on faith, faithlessness, and the secrets that couples keep from one another, is set against the backdrop of Christmas. The yuletide trappings add despondence to the whole affair, but also provide the elements for a somewhat hopeful final scene. Most of the press for the film centered on the fact that it was a sort of erotic thriller starring the then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, but it’s more of a psychological experiment; in fact, the story was based on the Austrian book Traumnovelle, which literally means “Dream Story.”

3. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Trailer for Iron Man 3. (Uploaded to YouTube by Marvel Entertainment)

Much like Tim Burton, writer/director Shane Black loves the holidays. Like, really, REALLY loves the holidays. He’s made Christmas central to Lethal Weapon, Edge, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and he does so in Iron Man 3 as well. Black’s film is, in part, an extended commentary on PTSD; Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering in the aftermath of the Battle of New York from Avengers, and, like many sad feelings, the holiday only seems to make it worse. Along the way, Christmas music and decorations play ongoing roles, and Stark finds himself in snowy Tennessee for chunk of the film. Thematically, we also see how Stark’s constant attempts at overcompensating (his obsession with upgrading his armors, the giant plush he gets Pepper) highlight his own blind spots at dealing with his issues. He does get in a lovely gift note near the end of the film, when Stark leaves young tech fan Harley Kenner (Ty Simpkins) a roomful of gadgets and gear.

2. Batman Returns (1992)

(Uploaded to YouTube by YouTube Movies)

The first three Batman films of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher era all involved some kind of celebration; Batman had the Gotham Centennial and Batman Forever had Halloween, but Batman Returns claims Christmas. Anyone who’s paid attention to Burton’s work knows that he’s returned more than once to the melancholy notes of the season (which we’ll get to a bit later), but that is well and truly layered throughout this film. Part of the emphasis on winter in Gotham is due to the role of the Penguin, but other themes, like the sexism that surrounds the life of Selina Kyle/Catwoman, work into the narrative; Burton manages to combine them in the final conversation between Alfred and Bruce Wayne. When Alfred wishes the hero a Merry Christmas, Wayne, pondering the events of the film, replies, “Merry Christmas, Alfred. Good will toward men . . . and women.”

1. Die Hard (1988)

The original trailer for Die Hard. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers.)

Die Hard is, was, and always will be the standard-bearer for non-Christmas Christmas movies. Ostensibly, it’s an action film, with New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) trying to save his wife and her fellow hostages from a band of well-armed thieves led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Nakatomi Tower (really Fox Plaza) in L.A. From the music over the opening and closing of the film, from the fact that the action centers around a Christmas Eve party, and for dozens of other tiny reasons, this is most certainly a Christmas movie. The final line of dialogue even emphasizes the fact, with Argyle the limo driver speculating on what a McClane New Year’s celebration must be like. And how can you forget one of the most iconic “bad guy kills” in movies: “Now I have a machine gun, too. Ho Ho Ho.”

Featured image: (20th Century Fox; Atlaspix / Alamy Stock Photo)

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Comments

  1. It’s hard to believe I EVER liked anything by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp NOW, but Edward Scissorhands was a creative film. I went to ‘Batman Returns’ against my better judgement with some friends and had to walk out. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, but didn’t know it would be SO gross and thoroughly disgusting. This was before the internet. About 40 minutes in I told them I’m not subjecting myself to it another minute, would be getting my money back, and would meet them at the car once it’s done. They said “what?” and I said “you heard me.”

    I got my money back, plus a voucher for a free admission and a popcorn up to a year later. I believe I used it on the film ‘Benny & Joon’ with Johnny Depp. Still an excellent film. That was also Downey’s Golden Age too, with films like ‘Chaplin’. Depp and Burton just went on to make weird, bad movies I didn’t care about, until ‘Dark Shadows’.

    The 2012 film was really awful and did poorly, thank God!! I saw this one with friends and we all wished for Depp & Burton’s careers to crash and burn, and that’s exactly what’s happened. The film was even worse than we thought ahead of time, but not completely blindsided. I had no choice but to see it in this case. The only good that came out of it was in giving the original series (and 1991 version) good publicity as the ’12 film fades from memory. That aside, I probably wouldn’t give any of the others here the time of day either, but that’s fine. Yippee Ki Yay, etc., right?

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