The 18 Best Christmas Movies That Aren’t Actually Christmas Movies
There are plenty of films set during Christmas that don’t fall under the classical definitions of a Christmas movie. These can range anywhere from action films to superhero extravaganzas and even horror flicks, but even if they might not include Santa Claus or reindeer doesn’t mean there isn’t some holiday cheer to be had by watching them this season.
While we could argue whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie all day long, it’s clear that, along with all the other films on this list, the Christmas setting plays a huge part in the story of many flicks. Parents, if you’re looking for some more Christmas movies to watch with your kids, use some discretion here, as the majority of these films are more adult-themed with only a small amount of Christmas relevance. That said, here is our list of the best Christmas movies that aren’t your typical Christmas flick.
1. Die Hard (1988)
Probably the most controversial Christmas movie, not because of the film’s content, but because you can’t go one holiday season without someone arguing that Die Hard either is or isn’t a Christmas movie. Regardless of where you stand, it’s no question that the Christmas backdrop is essential and weaves its way into every aspect of the film (including the score).
The film follows New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis, Unbreakable) who travels to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, Parenthood) and their kids for Christmas, only for a terrorist group led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, Love Actually) to take control of Holly’s company Christmas party. McClane must use his wits and skills as a policeman to defeat the terrorists and save his wife, all while spouting wisecracks and wearing no shoes.
An action-packed thrill ride, Die Hard is Bruce Willis at his best, and if you’re looking for an action extravaganza to watch this Christmas, this is the picture for you.
Ps. this film is definitely a Christmas movie.
2. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Another action film, this buddy cop picture was directed by Richard Donner (the mastermind behind Scrooged). Lethal Weapon pairs Mel Gibson (Mad Max) and Danny Glover (The Color Purple) together as LA detectives: the former a suicidal former Green Beret named Martin Riggs, and the latter a 50-year-old veteran and family man by the name of Roger Murtaugh.
Use of Christmas songs aside (and of course the end scene, which is magical), the Shane Black (The Nice Guys) written Lethal Weapon doesn’t necessarily scream Christmas, but the holiday setting adds beautifully to the buddy cop drama. As Riggs and Murtaugh learn to better work together to stop the psychotic Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story), the “spirit of Christmas” is made clear.
Lethal Weapon might not be Die Hard, but it’s another Christmas-set action romp that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.
3. Gremlins (1984)
Gremlins is legitimately crazy. What begins as a nice story about young boy Billy (Zach Galligan, Mortal Passions) and his new pet mogwai named Gizmo, quickly turns into a horror story full of demonic gremlins who attempt to destroy the town. Compared to some of the other films on this list, Gremlins is pretty strictly a Christmas movie, but not at all in a classical sense.
Written by Chris Columbus (Home Alone), directed by Joe Dante (The Howling), and executive produced by Steven Spielberg (E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial), Gremlins has some amazing filmmakers behind it. Honestly, it’s a pretty perfect movie no matter how disturbing it gets (like stories about your father pretending to be Santa Claus only to die in the chimney. Yikes).
Gremlins is the perfect holiday blend of horror and comedy that will have you laughing, crying, and praying that nobody gifts you a mogwai for Christmas.
4. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s triumphant second Batman outing features a Christmas setting that only adds to the greatness of this movie. Although it wasn’t released anywhere near the festive season, the holiday element helps make the Penguin’s (Danny DeVito, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) backstory a whole lot sadder.
Between Michael Keaton (Birdman) as Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer (Mother!) as Catwoman, and Christopher Walken (The Prophecy) as “the Santa Claus of Gotham” Max Shreck, Batman Returns is loaded with tons of talent who give Burton their best. If superheroes are your thing, then Batman Returns is the dark and twisted Christmas movie for you.
5. The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Are you ready for another Shane Black-written Christmas in LA? Look no further than The Last Boy Scout, directed by filmmaking legend Tony Scott (Man on Fire). This film stars Bruce Willis as down-on-his-luck private detective Joe Hallenbeck and Damon Wayans (Beverly Hills Cop) as ex-quarterback Jimmy Dix. The unlikely duo is dragged into the dirty world of sports corruption as they try to find out who murdered Dix’s girlfriend (played by a young Halle Berry).
Like most Shane Black movies, The Last Boy Scout’s subtle weaving in of the Christmas narrative provides the perfect backdrop for Hallenbeck and Dix to realize their own flaws and come to a mutual understanding. Message aside, this is just a really great buddy action movie and the banter between Willis and Wayans is excellent. Also, that scene with the puppet is comedy gold!
6. Trading Places (1983)
Did you know that Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters), Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop), and Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) starred together in a wacky Christmas movie? Enter Trading Places, a comedy where a poor street hustler (Murphy) and an upper-class commodities broker (Aykroyd) are unwittingly swapped in a bet to see how each would perform in the other’s shoes.
If that sounds crazy, then you’ve got to check this one out. It’s pretty wacky, but also one of the only films on this list to really be centered around Christmas. In a very A Christmas Carol fashion, Aykroyd’s character, Winthorpe, goes through his own Ebenezer Scrooge character arc, from having no one at the beginning of the film to a family of his own by the end.
Trading Places being labeled as a Christmas film is definitely less controversial than most of the films on this list, and should absolutely make an appearance on your TV screen this holiday season.
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7. Little Women (1994)
While it would have been easy to include the recent 2019 remake (which is excellent by the way), the 1994 Little Women was promoted as a holiday event, so we thought this adaptation makes the most sense. Following the lives of the four March sisters during the American Civil War, this film will remind you of those closest to you this Christmas, even if they’re far away.
With an amazing cast that includes Winona Ryder (Stranger Things), Trini Alvarado (The Frighteners), Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), Samantha Mathis (The Strain), Claire Daines (Romeo+Juliet), and Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Little Women is an impressive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s two-volume novel.
8. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
After years of writing not-quite-Christmas movies, Shane Black finally took on the director’s chair for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, uniting Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) and Val Kilmer (Tombstone) together for a Christmas in LA story of sex, murder, and mystery, and boy does it deliver. This one has to be seen to be believed because trying to explain would just ruin it.
Whether it’s the oddball coupling of Harry Lockhart (Downey) and Perry van Shrike (Kilmer), the fantastical Los Angeles action sequences, or the hilarious situations the pair find themselves in (like accidentally cutting Harry’s finger off), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang might be the wildly intense Christmastime flick for you this season. Especially if black comedy crime flicks are your thing.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of Shane Black’s best, proving time and again that Christmas is the perfect setting for any type of action-comedies.
9. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
Based on the C.S. Lewis classic of the same name, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the perfect fantasy epic to watch with your kids during Christmas. For one thing, the world of Narnia is stuck in an endless winter, but never Christmas, until the arrival of the Pevensie children and the return of the lion Aslan (Liam Neeson, Love Actually).
The battle between Aslan’s army and the White Witch’s (Tilda Swinton, Doctor Strange) is exciting, and if you think that there are no Christmas connections here besides the snow, think again! One of the most important scenes of the film features the actual Father Christmas (James Cosmo, Braveheart) as he gives the Pevensie children a few gifts for their journey. Oh yeah, and there’s the whole Aslan being Jesus thing, but you’ll discover that while watching.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an exciting fantasy adventure that puts the Christmas magic back into the non-traditional holiday film.
10. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Shane Black returns (we just can’t get enough of him), this time to the superhero genre with Marvel’s Iron Man 3, reuniting with Robert Downey Jr. for another Christmas-centered action-adventure. Here, Tony Stark (Downey) must wrestle with his own demons as he deals with the fallout from The Avengers and his latest opponents.
After an attack on his home, Stark finds himself in rural Tennessee to spend part of his Christmas fixing his armor with the young, fatherless Harley (Ty Simpkins, Jurassic World) before flying off to spend the rest of his holiday fighting superpowered criminals in different Iron Man suits. It’s a lot of fun, and Black’s spark makes the whole thing come together for a wonderfully fulfilling Christmas flick.
11. Reindeer Games (2000)
A little bit more in your face about Christmas, this heist thriller stars Ben Affleck (The Town) as Rudy Duncan, who pretends to be his deceased cellmate Nick in order to get a ride out of town with Nick’s girlfriend Ashley (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road). This turns out to not be such a great idea after Gabriel “Monster” Mercer (Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump) arrives.
As Duncan struggles to maintain his lie and just wants to spend a quiet Christmas with his family, Mercer forces him to join his gang for a Christmastime robbery. Things get sticky as secrets are slowly revealed with a twist ending you won’t see coming. This is a wild one, folks!
12. Edward Schissorhands (1990)
Another melancholy Christmas tale from Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands is the kind of odd fantasy that only Burton could come up with. The film follows the young Edward (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean), a humanoid with blades for hands, who he befriends the Boggs family and falls in love with their daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder).
While not strictly set during Christmas, it is during the holiday season that we see Edward sculpting Kim from ice, causing “snow” to fall for the first time in a long time in their suburban Californian neighborhood. This scene actually serves as the catalyst for the rest of the story and propels the tale to its natural conclusion.
Edward Scissorhands is a strange tale about a scary-looking man with a pure heart; perfect for the Christmas season.
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13. Green Book (2018)
Based on the crazy true story of pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, True Detective) and his driver Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings), the Oscar winner Green Book, which challenges racism and prejudice in New York and the Deep South, might have very little Christmas in it, but the little bit it does have means a whole lot.
In the final act of the film, taking place on Christmas Eve on the last leg of Shirley’s tour, the guys make it back to New York where Vallenlonga offers the lonely Shirley a seat at his dinner table. While Shirley initially rejects his hospitality, he eventually accepts and is surprisingly met with lots of love and acceptance, reminding us why it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Green Book has very little connection to the traditional holiday season, but the small bit it has is incredibly powerful.
14. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
While not directed by Shane Black, The Long Kiss Goodnight was written and produced by him. The film follows an amnesiac schoolteacher (Geena Davis, Thelma & Louise) who sets out with a private investigator (Samuel L. Jackson, Shaft) to discover her destructive past and unravel a dark conspiracy.
The Christmastime setting and themes of The Long Kiss Goodnight might be the most appropriate of all of Black’s works as Charly/Samantha fights to protect her family and get them through the holidays all while remembering who she really is. Also, Samuel L. Jackson is an excellent addition to this movie, and to this day the film is his favorite movie to watch that he’s starred in.
The Long Kiss Goodnight makes it clear that if you had plans for a quiet Christmas evening, it’s time to kiss them goodnight.
15. Black Christmas (1974)
Originally titled Silent Night, Evil Night, this Canadian slasher (yes, you read that right) follows a group of sorority sisters who receive some strange phone calls and are stalked by a deranged killer around Christmas. Believe it or not, this is one of the earliest slasher films out there, and even predated (and heavily influenced) John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Black Christmas just screams Christmas. Well, actually, there’s just a lot of screaming. Out of the three films with the same title (the latter two remakes from 2006 and 2019), this original is the best, and still the scariest. Plus, it stars a young Margot Kidder (Superman), so there’s that!
Black Christmas is a horror Christmas classic that will keep you from going to bed on Christmas Eve, no matter if that keeps Santa from coming or not.
16. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The most disturbing film on this list by far, Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) really outdid himself with his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which is equal parts odd, sensual, and frightening on various different levels. Starring Tom Cruise (Top Gun) and Nichole Kidman (Batman Forever) as husband and wife duo Dr. Bill and Alice Harford, this one is not for the faint of heart.
Set in New York City during the Christmas season, Bill reels after learning that Alice contemplated an affair the year prior, only to eventually, and somewhat accidentally, gain an invite to a masked orgy of an unnamed secret society. It’s pretty disturbing though (and terribly explicit), and not necessarily a film this author would recommend, but its Christmas setting is worth noting.
Eyes Wide Shut is a haunting film about one man’s journey to finding his own sense of pleasure during the holidays, though what he finds is much different than what he expected.
17. Krampus (2015)
Another Christmas horror film, though this one might be a bit more comedic, Krampus unleashes the beastly wrath of the demonic Krampus upon an unsuspecting neighborhood to punish unfestive children and their families. This forces the neighborhood families to band together to survive the holiday season.
The biggest highlight of Krampus is for sure the cast, which includes Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), Toni Collette (Hereditary), David Koechner (The Office), Allison Tolman (Fargo), and Conchata Ferrell (Two and a Half Men), which masterfully combines the hilarious nature of contemporary Christmas with the terrifying European legend.
Krampus will do its best to convince you to be good for goodness sake, or else!
18. The Ref (1994)
Swapping horror for black comedy, The Ref stars Dennis Leary (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Gus, a cat burglar who is forced to take a bickering and miserable family hostage on Christmas Eve after his heist goes wrong. Judy Davis (King Lear) and Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) also star as the Chasseur family wife and husband.
As Gus attempts to deal with the Chasseur’s, including all their extended family, he slowly loses his mind and begins to hate the Christmas season itself. It’s a fun one for anyone who can relate to an insufferable family, a lack of marital bliss, and constantly screwing things up, which, at times, is probably all of us.
The Ref is a fabulous look at family during the holidays through the eyes of someone who doesn’t even remotely want to be there. It’s a good time.
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