The holidays aren’t for everyone. I’m a bit of a Grinch myself, mostly feeling too exhausted with some of the more commercial and advertising-based aspects of the holiday along with the fatigue that comes from the inevitable cries of people in my life about the “war on Christmas” that their news pundits have told them to be pissed about because I dared to say “happy holidays.” This isn’t exactly my time of year, but I always find some comfort in the movies. Sure, there are your Charlie Brown Christmas specials and your How the Grinch Stole Christmas-es, but for those of us that don’t always find a reason for the season we find solace in other aspects. Today I’d like to present to you my list of ten Christmas films that always make me feel less of a bummer around the holidays. They are in no particular order, merely presented for your enjoyment.
Die Hard won’t make an appearance on this list. That’s been litigated elsewhere and you’ve already decided whether or not you’re in on that idea. There is also only one Tim Burton film and no Shane Black on here. I refuse to be that obvious.
So this one is more of a straightforward Christmas film that takes Michael Dougherty’s whimsical Trick ‘r’ Treat flair and applies it to the holiday season. It opens with a sea of suburban shoppers storming a sale, violently thrusting each other aside as a kid that’s too old to believe in Santa desperately tries to tell the underpaid actor what he wants. The mayhem ensues, but the real kicker of Krampus is that the violent delights breed something other than violent ends. Sure, Stefania LaVie Owen’s character is sacrificed to the plot, but the rest of the film gathers the family together as conservatives and liberals learn to respect one another and defend the same fortress from a supernatural creature hell-bent on punishing them for misreading the reasons for the season. This brutal little feature has some excellent puppetry involved in bringing the little hellions to life courtesy of Weta Workshop, making this one of the more entertaining and practical films that hearken back to silly slashers of old (and by old I mean the 70s/80s). You couldn’t ask for a better watch during the Christmas season, particularly if you’re sick of family political arguments and the supreme annoyance of having a good chunk of your holiday revolve around going broke paying for presents. This one’s only a hop, skip, and a monster away from being National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and it’s much more fun.
Tim Burton was once an icon for outcasts and art kids everywhere. While he’s fallen into disrepute due to a slew of films that just…aren’t good. He was once known for highlighting the innate sweetness of the kids we pick on and call names. Edward Scissorhands brings those ideas to the apex, a peak of creativity, and all of it revolves around a boy made by a scientist that just wants to open a hair salon and impress Winona Ryder (this was a childhood fantasy of many people my age). It’s a film full of that inner sweetness that Christmas is supposed to be about, from Diane Wiest taking this pale boy into her home to Alan Arkin wailing his balls off singing Christmas carols while he staples fake snow to the roof of his home. It’s a delightful family film that manages to remain more tender than it is frightening, and it brings Christmas into the plot in a way that allows Burton to explore what it can mean beyond any sort of traditions or societal structures. Sometimes we just need to love each other, no matter how different, and that dialogue is the core of Burton’s best film in a way that is more about how we talk to each other than how we celebrate. This may be a Christmas movie but stepping back to think about how we treat those that are different from ourselves is something we could all do with more of.
Look, the little shits ruin Christmas for the town and everyone still comes together in the end. While most films on this list won’t involve a ton of puppets getting loaded in a bar before driving (which turns out badly for everyone and is a lesson on consumption during this bacchanalia of excess) they could all take a lesson from Joe Dante’s classic story of knowing when to follow the rules and when to break them. There could be no greater icon than Gizmo, the adorable Mogwai that serves as one of our two heroes against his soaked brethren. Sometimes mistakes have drastic consequences and never has that been more on-brand than in Gremlins, which Christians should adore seeing as humanity’s sinning had the ultimate consequence according to their holy writings. Sure, I may be cheating a bit by including a few of these on the list, but this is the season for giving and I’m giving some of you the gift of Gremlins (and grandfathering in the gift of Gremlins: The New Batch, the far superior film to this nonetheless wonderful classic).
You’ve Got Mail
Sure, most of the world got their kicks watching Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love with Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, but I got mine with her later effort – You’ve Got Mail. Few things could predict the heights and pitfalls of having an internet crush (a thing that would later lead to the stardom of many Gen Z performers that learned how to weaponize this lust and acceptance) but Ephron’s greatest directorial effort hits the mark like nothing before it. Tom Hanks, endlessly charming and adorable as hell, is paired with the equally magnificent Ryan to create a power couple that assists and sabotages each other as they collide on the professional front. Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Parker Posey, and a very good boy who is known as Brinkley and deserves all the pets round out the cast, but it’s truly the wonder of Ryan and Hanks onscreen together that makes this one of the most special films ever made. It may have one of the saddest Christmases on record, but it makes up for it by offering just the right amount of bite to cut through all the sweetness. Everything culminates in maybe the most beautiful line in rom-com history (“I wanted it to be you” leaves me in a puddle every single time) and makes Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail an absolute showstopper.
There are two versions of this film that I adore and both serve as Christmas classics for me. There are few more heartwarming moments in film history than Mr. March returning home to his little women, embracing them as a family despite their struggles and the nation at war. Love and loss are the cornerstones of this film, particularly that of the immediate family. My own grandfather was of particular significance in my Christmas experience, hosting a party with my grandmother every year and inviting the family over whether they got along or not. It’s still difficult for me to exist through this season without him or my uncle, who tragically took his own life right before Christmas in 2015. Each moment of beauty and grace in Little Women is matched with a touch of tragedy, surrounding the lives of these characters with the same struggles and pain that I’ve long associated with this holiday (and that has made it difficult to connect with my family during this time of the year). The score to Greta Gerwig’s take on the story, composed by Alexandre Desplat, is a delightfully vibrant bit of music that I use to temper my holiday season. It is, in fact, the music that has become the soundtrack to my Christmases ever since these losses. The 1994 edition of the story, directed by Gillian Armstrong, is one of my father’s favorite films and one of the ways I can know him. Little Women is a timeless classic that contains a bit of actual Christmas and a metric ton of the spirit the holiday is supposed to revolve around.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
They came out at Christmas and that’s what I associate them with. Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy may have come to be seen as a classic but when it was announced that thing was a gamble, a risk that studios had been afraid to take for a generation and will probably fear for a few to come. While the actual story has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas the tone and story do. There’s something for everyone; the Christians that want a good old fashioned ‘good v evil’ narrative, those that want a fully realized fantasy world, and even the spirit of kinship and good faith cross all boundaries. There is perhaps no more spirited Christmas theme than the bromance between Legolas and Gimli, two people from races that have long held animosity toward one another that find a deep love between them after the simple act of making jokes, drinking alcohol, and spending time together. Beyond the spectacle, beyond the apocalyptic nature of the plot, and even beyond the budget…this is merely a story of people that love each other for the simple reason that they exist. We should all take this to heart during the holidays, no matter which you celebrate (if any), and it’s absolutely part of my Christmas feelings.
Idris Elba holds up a cigarette and coffee cup before a Charlie Brown-Esque teeny tree and says “It’s Christmas” and that’s good enough for me. Beyond this there’s plenty to dive into but nothing so on-the-nose as the idea that money can buy happiness. Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien is for the Christmas cynic, the ones that don’t want anything to do with the capitalist miracle that is the Western Christmas holiday. Everything involving those ideas goes wrong, from the corporate-funded mission to the stars to the idea that money may be able to buy immortality. Even family is askew, as Peter Wayland is supremely disappointed in both of his children (the biological character played by Charlize Theron and the robotic creation portrayed by Michael Fassbender) and neither brings him what he really wanted for Christmas – immortality. His finals words about the afterlife clinch the deal, sealing this as an alternative Christmas classic for everyone that is sick of seeing the holly and the ivy rear their ugly heads in October and that flinch at the mere idea of Mariah Carey’s brain-melting Christmas classic. Do you want something that hates all of these things? Oh does Clint have something for you in Prometheus, a sci-fi film so cynical you’ll think Planet of the Apes is cute.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
There was a time when I was excited about new Star Wars films. This was after I’d come to adore new trailers and let go of my anger over the dismissal of the Expanded Universe (get over it nerds, I was your alpha and even I let it go like the Yuuzhan Vong let go of Yuuzhan’tar). I decided to give this new thing a whirl and it became a Christmas tradition, seeing several of the new films multiple times in theatres. COVID-19 and the unfortunate online reaction of fans to Star Wars: The Last Jedi kind of ruined that for me but I’ll always have this brief moment in film history when everyone loved the thing I always had. I got picked on as a kid for liking this shit, by both adults and kids my age, and I’ll always have this shining moment where I was just one of the in-crowd that adored everything. Beyond that I got to watch the finale of my favorite film character, something that was both devastating and special to me, and the little kid in me that looked up to him as a badass still emotionally reacts to these moments every time. The Christmas tradition of watching a Star Wars movie is something that will stick with me for years to come even if many of you ruined it for me.
Star Trek: Generations
I haven’t forgotten you my dear Trekkies. While I associate a newer Star Wars film with this holiday I also associate a Trek film with it – Star Trek: Generations. There’s only a moment of Christmas in this film, riddled with lights and decorations, but it’s enough to connect with the theme of different generations coming together to help each other that really pushes this one over the edge. This is really just my excuse to include a Trek film in my list but it’s also my freaking list, one that will embrace this wacky adventure that features Patrick Stewart and William Shatner tag-teaming Malcolm McDowell to save the world (you heard me and I won’t hear otherwise). Part of its charm is containing these types of themes within a Trek package, involving the gripping mystery of a tear in space-time with the idea that humanity has the balls to try and understand it. Whether you choose to apply this to the idea that Christmas is about the birth of your savior or about your kid’s belief in Santa Claus is up to you, but the reality is that these types of themes are key to science fiction and Trek does it better than almost everyone else. This is a film to sit down and watch with your parents and grandparents, gathered around a crackling fire to understand just what the season means.
Eyes Wide Shut
I can’t believe you all fell for this. I can’t believe you fell for my excuse to talk about the turnaround I’ve had on Eyes Wide Shut. This is one of Kubrick’s best films, wrapping an enigma in a mystery that was probably just a nightmare, but it’s also a film about what it’s like to dream of your home at Christmas when it’s off. Watching this in college was a chore as it was a film about sexy orgies that was the least sexy thing I’d ever seen. I’ve come to appreciate it as a weird, ethereal masterpiece over the years and have decided that it’s absolutely worth including in a list of films to watch at Christmas when you don’t want to deal with the season. It’s an engaging journey to consider at Christmas, one involving copious amounts of sex that isn’t arousing and several nightmarish situations without engaging in outright horror, but it’s one of my favorite films and I urge you to take the plunge. There’s a magic to Tom Cruise when he’s allowing himself to be taken down a peg and that’s tripled down on through this journey. Kubrick’s film is one that he dropped dead after making, declaring it his ultimate contribution to his art form and then keeling over. That’s an absolute king move and what’s even more impressive is that he was right. Eyes Wide Shut may not tickle your fancy but then…that’s not the point, is it?