When the weather outside is frightful, what could be better than curling up and watching a movie? As an avid movie-watcher, I believe one of the best ways to celebrate Christmas is to delve deep into the holiday’s expansive catalogue of films. While Christmas is here to bring good cheer, some might need a respite from the festive, hokey, and downright cheesy movies typically associated with the season.
To me, movies that explore depression, loneliness, or the effects of capitalism are much more true to the Christmas spirit than movies about elves, angels, finding true love, and the like. Some movies use Christmas themes in unconventional storylines or even use the holiday only as a backdrop: they may acknowledge the time of year but they do not necessarily leave that sugary sweet taste of Christmas cheer in our mouths. Below are 12 movies that I think embody the spirit of alternative Christmas cinema best.
Trading Places (1983)
Loosely based on the Prince and the Pauper story, Trading Places stars two of cinema’s best comedians at the height of their game and the movie’s themes of race and class differences feel even more relevant as time goes on. It’s not centered on Christmas but Christmas is the perfect setting for the issues that the movie confronts. Highlighting the woes often experienced by the poor during the holiday, the film contrasts their state with the seemingly carefree life of the rich. It might be a tad cringeworthy due to the racial boundaries it crosses but it’s otherwise a funny movie, with an iconic scene of a haggard Dan Aykroyd having an epic meltdown in a Santa suit.
No, not the Christmas cartoon classic The Tangerine Bear: Sean Baker’s Tangerine is the newest addition to alternative Christmas movies. Centered around transgender women working as prostitutes in LA, the movie subverts typical holiday stories yet has familiar themes of isolation, love, and unity. It has a poignant and haunting scene where one of the friends, Alexandra, sings “Toyland” in a nightclub, strengthening the film’s Christmas motif. It has a raw style where its characters deal with their harsh LA environment: Christmas is acted out more than authentically experienced and the audience only knows it’s the holiday season because the characters say so.
Bad Santa (2003)
A grumpy Santa and his little helper spend the holiday season robing malls in this unconventional classic. The movie turns the idea of Santa Claus as a wholesome figure on its head, with Billy Bob Thorton playing Santa as a filthy, foul-mouthed antihero. However, the character has a redemption arc where he rediscovers his heart and humanity through the care of a young boy who has a pure and innocent love of Christmas. Though a kid is in it, Bad Santa is definitely not a family movie. It’s a cringeworthy dark comedy meant for grown-ups that has definite shades of A Christmas Carol; perfect for lovers of both Christmas and uncensored hilarity.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
A suicidal, widower policeman and a cop who is “too old for this sh*t” become partners on a case to catch drug traffickers. Lethal Weapon set the pace for subsequent buddy-cop films, weaving classic Christmas themes of unity and forgiveness into its storyline. Featuring a heated gun battle set in a tree lot and a heartfelt final scene of the pair sharing a wholesome Christmas dinner together, it’s a fun, kickass, and overall great movie that makes it easy to forgive all the sexy saxophone playing.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
What happens at the Christmas orgy, doesn’t stay at the Christmas orgy. Stanley Kubrick considered this film to be his greatest work, and though that view may not be shared by his fans, Eyes Wide Shut is nevertheless a great alternative Christmas movie. Exploring a subculture where the rich engage in sexual occultism, the movie has a Christmas in New York backdrop and has all the elements of a holiday movie – love, family, and flawed, lonely characters. It is disturbing and overtly sexual, but has real substance in its portrayal of marriage, fantasy and desire, with it also touching upon the objectification of women, the undeserved power of the wealthy, and the nature of the holiday season itself.
Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men hit theaters on Christmas Day 2006, which is fitting since it could be read as a modern day retelling of the nativity story. Set in a world where women have become infertile and the end of man seems in sight, a miracle in the form of a child restores hope, faith, and peace on earth. Also, like Mary and Joseph, the mother must make a perilous journey in order to find a place for her child to be born. The movie’s cinematography is beautiful and the story symbolizes faith as the modern world inches closer to the dystopias that were once fiction in films.
Rare Exports (2010)
I stumbled upon this hidden gem one Christmas while surfing Hulu (where it is still streaming, in case you’re curious.) Set in the snowy mountains of Finland, this movie is sure to send a Christmas chill up your spine: a father and son deal with the fallout of archeologists unearthing the body of Santa Claus, who as it turns out, eats children and not cookies. Rare Exports is full of suspense as it has Christmas folklore meeting the modern world head on with comedic results.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
A comedy of errors wrapped in a sheath of mystery, this movie is from Shane Black, who apparently loves Christmas enough to use it as a setting in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Iron Man 3. Black is skilled at marrying dark happenings with comedic timing and incorporating signature Christmas ideas of redemption and family in order to ground isolated and lonely characters. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is alt-Christmas fun, using the bright lights and domestic peace of Christmas as a contrast to his dark, and violent crime narrative.
Batman Returns (1992)
It’s Christmas in Gotham City, and bats, cats, and penguins are on the prowl! This movie amply demonstrates auteur Tim Burton’s love of Christmas settings, displaying his unique ability to portray poetic and tragic characters while crafting beautiful worlds with characters in ugly situations. Despite its Christmas setting, Batman Returns is more of an anti-Christmas movie than an alt-Christmas one, ending on a rather pessimistic note with little redemptive or hopeful feelings for the Gotham or its inhabitants. It does, however, have a memorable opening scene where the Penguin attacks a tree lighting ceremony and also an unforgettable Christmas conversation: Batman says, “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it,” to which Catwoman replies, “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”
In Bruges (2008)
A pair of hitmen are stranded in Belgium for Christmas, but it’s not your typical “I’ll be home for Christmas” movie. Witty dialogue, brutal violence, and some of the darkest comedy to ever grace film, In Bruges becomes more depressing as it unfolds. It’s a character driven movie that follows multiple redemption arcs, touching on common holiday themes of love, judgement, and forgiveness. An existentially-minded movie, the characters try to navigate the circumstances that brought them to Belgium in a story that is dark, funny, and heartfelt all at once.
Die Hard & Die Hard 2 (1998 & 1990)
Yippee ki yay mother… Christmas-lovers! One of the most contentious entries in the Christmas movie subgenre, Die Hard‘s status as a holiday film is controversial thanks to its pronounced use of machine guns, hostage situations, and marital troubles. Though Bruce Willis has said that the film is not a Christmas movie to him, a good argument could be made that it is. It has Christmas themed one-liners, a great Christmas-y music score, and if it weren’t Christmas Eve in the movie, his character wouldn’t even be in LA. Nor would Hans and his posse have the window of opportunity needed to attempt their heist, a second plot point that serves as a catalyst for the movie’s story. The film’s sequel, Die Hard 2, also continues the Christmas backdrop, with its everyday action hero going up against a group of bad guys on Christmas Eve… again.
The Ministry of Information invites you to participate in enhanced interrogation this holiday season! Terry Gilliam, one of the greatest contributors of weird but brilliant film and cartoons, created a bleak and Kafkaesque dystopian society and set it against a cheerful Christmas time period, resulting in one of the greatest movies ever. When Christmas is usually about hope and looking forward to the upcoming new year, Brazil is a depressing look at the future that brings us back to reality, though it is heavily steeped in fantasy and satire. It’s George Orwell’s 1984 but set during Christmas and injected with Gilliam’s trademark humor and social cynicism. On a side note, it’s the source of one of my favorite scenes ever, which you can see below!
These movies will not air on Hallmark or Lifetime anytime soon. However, they are Christmas-y without having cliché holiday-centric plots and tell their stories without glossing over the tragedy that occasionally afflicts people during the season. Compared to the non-diverse, formulaic nature of typical Christmas films, alternative Christmas movies buck manufactured cheer and tell authentic stories, with there being no better way to truly appreciate the season than celebrating unconventional cinema.