Each year, the cable TV powers that be curate a selection of Christmas movies for families to enjoy over the holidays. The choices are uninspired, to say the least. It’s a Wonderful Life. Elf. Home Alone. A Christmas Story. You’ve seen ‘em dozens of times, and frankly, they’re getting a bit stale.
But there are a plethora of other Christmas-themed films out there for you and the fam to enjoy. And while they won’t exactly make you feel all warm-and-fuzzy inside, they’ll nonetheless deliver a tremendous sense of satisfaction. After all, nothing says yuletide cheer quite like a bleached blonde Geena Davis firing an Uzi at a helicopter whilst dangling from Christmas tree lights.
So without further ado, here are the best Christmas movies you probably don’t associate with it.
16. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996)
After blowing up his career with the catastrophic Cutthroat Island, schlocky action filmmaker Renny Harlin dropped this over-the-top gem whose premise is, well, batshit insane. You see, eight years ago Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) washed up on a New Jersey shore pregnant, and with no recollection of her past. She’s since settled down in a Pennsylvania suburb—schoolteacher gig, husband with a penchant for Christmas sweaters, the whole nine yards—when, during a family Christmas weekend, she’s attacked by an assassin named One-Eyed Jack. After disposing of him with her bare hands, Samantha goes off with private eye Mitch (a hilarious Samuel L. Jackson) on a mission to discover her true identity. In short, she’s a kickass CIA assassin named “Charly Baltimore” with a serious vendetta. The climax, involving Christmas tree lights, a helicopter, and an Uzi, will blow you away.
15. KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005)
Written and directed by action guru Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), who apparently loves setting his films around Christmas, this noirish black comedy really sings thanks to the fluid chemistry between co-stars Robert Downey Jr., playing an aspiring actor/thief, and Val Kilmer as a gay private eye. While the narration is a bit too self-referential for its own good, with these two gifted actors firing on all cylinders, a twisty plot, and newcomer Michelle Monaghan as the tough-talkin’ dame to kill for (in a sexy Santa costume, no less), what’s not to like?
14. GO (1999)
Sandwiched between Swingers and The Bourne Identity on filmmaker Doug Liman’s CV is this set of intertwining stories that culminate in an ecstasy-fueled Christmas rave gone terribly awry. Fast, funny, and deliriously gonzo, it features Sarah Polley and Katie Holmes (!) as a pair of checkout girls who get roped into an ecstasy deal with a sexy Santa hat-wearing, perpetually shirtless dealer (Timothy Olyphant); two gay soap opera actors (Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf) who are held hostage over Christmas dinner by Jane Krakowski; and Taye Diggs in a shiny gold blazer wreaking havoc with his buddies in Vegas. Oh, and the theme song kicks ass, too (“New” by No Doubt).
13. IN BRUGES (2008)
In this deliciously witty black comedy by the gifted playwright Martin McDonagh, two Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson) are ordered to hide out in the fairytale city of Bruges after a job gone awry. While awaiting further instructions from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast), they explore the Christmas-y city, befriending a fetching grifter and a foul-mouthed dwarf actor. The sight of a coked-up Colin Farrell karate-chopping a coked-up, racist dwarf is worth the rental price alone.
12. GREMLINS (1984)
In search of the perfect gift for his son, a former inventor wanders into the back of an antique shop in Chinatown and emerges with a furry little mogwai—the cutest little creature he’s ever laid eyes on. But when the critter, named Gizmo, accidentally gets wet, he births five mischievous little mogwai. And before you can say don’t feed them after midnight, a gang of Gremlins are raising hell all over town. Joe Dante’s cult classic receives bonus points for having Corey Feldman as the idiot friend who lights the fuse, as well as Phoebe Cates as the girlfriend whose father died in a chimney while dressed as Santa Claus (really).
11. EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
The last film by the late, great Stanley Kubrick features then real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a pair of moneyed Manhattanites struggling with fidelity, jealousy, and betrayal. Things open at an upscale Christmas party, as an urbane Hungarian creep tries to seduce Kidman and a pair of spindly, coquettish models have their sets set on Cruise. This, coupled with a troubling confession from his wife, sets Cruise’s playboy doctor down a dark path filled with drugs, prostitution, murder, and one incredibly NSFW masked orgy. Leave it to Kubrick to have the final word uttered in his final film be fuck.
10. LETHAL WEAPON (1987)
While Richard Donner’s buddy cop action-comedy gets demerits for Mel Gibson, the truth is he’s superb as Sergeant Martin Riggs, a suicidal cop haunted by the death of his wife. Joined by his over-the-hill partner, LAPD Homicide Sergeant Roger Murtaugh, the two investigate a murder case that leads all the way to a gigantic heroin-smuggling operation run by Vietnam War veterans (really). All the action takes place around Christmas time—including a touching Christmas dinner sequence—and there’s even Gary Busey as the film’s main antagonist, a violent henchman who goes by the name of Mr. Joshua.
9. STALAG 17 (1953)
This Billy Wilder classic tells the tale of a group of American soldiers imprisoned in a Luftwaffe POW camp. The year is 1944, and the action opens on the winter solstice, as a pair of soldiers who try to escape are shot dead—leading those in the camp to conclude that someone must have informed the Germans. They suspect Sefton (William Holden), a Rick Blaine-like fellow who regularly trades with the German soldiers, of ratting. But things, of course, are not as they seem, leading to one helluva Christmas Day surprise. Holden took home the Best Actor Oscar for his performance and subsequently delivered the shortest acceptance speech in Academy Awards history (“thank you”).
8. 2046 (2004)
This surreal romantic drama by Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai features four storylines across four distinct periods, as a group of women enter and exit the life of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), a writer mourning the loss of Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), whom he considers to be his eternal love. Without giving too much away, nearly all the action in this masterful film takes place across a series of Christmas Eves, as Chow travels across space and time in hopes of repairing his damaged soul.
7. BRAZIL (1985)
Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi masterpiece opens on a family cozied up in front of the television watching A Christmas Carol—that is, until a government hit squad bursts in, grabbing the father. Yep, welcome to a wacky dystopian nightmare, where, in true 1984 fashion, people are slaves to machines and controlled by a fairly incompetent totalitarian government. When the government determines that they’ve snatched the wrong man, a low-level employee (Jonathan Pryce) is dispatched to rectify the error, and goes on the hunt for Archibald Buttle (Robert De Niro), a freedom fighter. There’s a drunken, delirious Santa; religious cults dedicated to Christmas consumerism; and one particularly inspired sequence where De Niro transforms himself into wrapping paper in order to elude capture.
6. TRADING PLACES (1983)
This remarkably prescient comedy from the remarkably underrated filmmaker John Landis concerns a wealthy commodities broker (Dan Aykroyd) and a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) who become unwitting pawns in a cruel bet by a pair of finance executives. Plenty of hilarious hijinks ensue, including Aykroyd as a drunken, gun-toting Santa; Jamie Lee Curtis’s seductive Ophelia, a prostitute he befriends; and the comedy genius Murphy at the height of his powers. Oddly enough, the film has become a Christmas classic in Italy, where it’s broadcast every December 24th.
5. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
The framing device of Tim Burton’s gothic masterpiece is an elderly woman (Winona Ryder) telling a bedtime story to her granddaughter about where the snow comes from each Christmastime. Her tale centers on Edward (Johnny Depp), a young man with scissors for hands whose inventor (Vincent Price) passed away before he could finish his creation. Burton’s film explores themes of tolerance and acceptance, as Edward tries and fails to assimilate to American suburbia, culminating in a Christmas Day showdown involving an angelic ice sculpture, the even more angelic Winona Ryder, and—wait for it—Anthony Michael Hall as her prejudiced, douchebag boyfriend.
4. FANNY & ALEXANDER (1982)
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s magnum opus—the uncut version runs 312 minutes long—tells the story of Swedish siblings Fanny and Alexander, members of the wealthy and vast Ekdahl family. The year is 1907, and the first hour or so of Bergman’s film has all the trappings of a feel-good Christmas movie replete with lavish holiday celebrations and tear-filled speeches. Then the patriarch drops dead, causing the Ekdahls—including Fanny and Alexander—to splinter off. With warm, lush lensing by cinematographer Sven Nykvist and Bergman’s trademark blend of the surreal with the stark, this is a true Christmas classic.
3. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)
Curtis Hanson’s (RIP) 1950s-set neo-noir opens with Russell Crowe introducing himself as “the ghost of Christmas past.” Meet Det. Bud White, one of a cadre of LAPD cops who, after pummeling a group of inmates in an incident the press labels “Bloody Christmas,” are pulled into a convoluted mystery involving a dead prostitute, crooked cops, and Mickey Cohen’s drug racket. Boasting an excellent ensemble, including Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, and David Strathairn, it is not only the best noir of the past twenty years, but one of the greatest ever. Too bad it lost out on Best Picture to the far less deserving Titanic.
2. THE APARTMENT (1960)
Sure, it’s not a Christmas film per se, but Billy Wilder’s ode to 1960s Mad Men is set during the holiday season, and includes the greatest office Christmas party sequence in the history of cinema: where the lovable goof Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon) sets his sights on the love of his life, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), while she receives the bombshell that she is one in a series of employees seduced by Baxter’s boss, played by Fred MacMurray. It’s an incredibly charming screwball comedy two fools finding love. What’s more Christmas-y than that?
1. DIE HARD (1988)
On second thought, John McTiernan’s action flick contains the best office Christmas party sequence in movie history—given that the entire film is one extended office Christmas party from hell, as a band of German, Pantene-loving terrorists square off against a scruffy New York cop (Bruce Willis, never better) nursing a bad hangover. This movie has it all: Carl Winslow from Family Matters, the dick principal from The Breakfast Club, Argyle the limo driver blasting Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” and Alan Rickman making his film debut (!) as the mustache-twirling villain. “Now I’ve got a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.” Merry fucking Christmas.