“It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Miracle on 34th St.” “White Christmas.” “Elf.” “Love Actually.” Have you had your fill of seasonal schmaltz yet?
Sure, there are plenty of Christmas films out there that aren’t totally dripping with cheesy sentiment and instead take a more irrelevant, even offensive approach to the “most wonderful time of year”: “Bad Santa,” “Scrooged,” "Harold and Kumar’s 3D Christmas” and basic cable standard, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” just to name a few. These are trusty alternatives to the cinematic yuletide standards and a departure from the saccharine fluff produced by the Hallmark Channel and LMN. But when it comes down to it, they’re still Christmas movies.
And then there are films that may prominently feature the month of December in all of its garish and goodwill-y glory but at the same time boast plots that aren’t completely driven by Christmas itself. In other words, they’re Christmas movies that aren’t really Christmas movies. Get the drift?
We’ve wrangled up 12 such Christmas-y films across a range of genres — action, comedy, musical, horror — along with a handful notable selections at the bottom of the page. In many of these films, you’ll find an ample amount of snow, evergreen swags and Santa paraphernalia. But, more importantly, you’ll find mischievous hell-beasts, morose hit men and, of course, John McClane.
"Die Hard" (1988)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A whole lot of Yippee-kai-yay’ing in lieu of ho-ho-ho’ing. Chain-smoking, potty-mouthed NYPD officer John McClane travels to L.A. to spend the holidays with his estranged wife and children. Instead, he spends Christmas Eve battling a group of highly organized criminals who have commandeered the downtown high-rise where his wife works. Because, really, nothing quite says holiday cheer like machine gun-wielding terrorists with bad German accents and a wisecracking Bruce Willis wearing a bloodied undershirt. The first sequel in the “Die Hard” franchise also takes place on Christmas Eve but in the most terrifying of all holiday settings: a crowded airport.
"In Bruges" (2008)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A pair of bumbling, bickering hired killers — one super-depressed and despondent after accidentally killing a young boy during his first gig, the other hell-bent on sightseeing — hiding out in the spectacularly preserved medieval Belgian city of Bruges during the holiday season. This bloody, pitch-black comedy that won over critics and audiences alike may not have Christmas written all over it, but the snowy, seasonally bedecked setting of fairytale-like Bruges (obviously) plays a major part in the film. Plus, the notion of gift giving — gifts both unwanted and wanted — plays a major part in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s brilliant script.
"Lethal Weapon" (1987)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A suicidal undercover narcotics officer going berserk during a coke bust in an L.A. Christmas tree lot, and a bare-breasted prostitute, high out of her mind on drain cleaner-laced drugs, leaping to her death from a high-rise apartment to the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock” during the film’s opening credits. Plus, there’s Gary Busey voluntarily burning his arm with a cigarette lighter, head-butting, exploding houses and the finest cinematic mullet of 1987. Seriously, talk about holiday fun for the whole family!
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Jay Mohr
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: Two soap opera actors (with a secret) trying to — but not very successfully — score 20 hits of ecstasy on Christmas Eve from an entrepreneurial supermarket cashier (remember folks, this is the late '90s we are dealing with) whom they later accidentally run over with a car outside of a rave. Well, it’s a touch more complicated than that. Doug Liman’s follow-up to “Swingers” features three interconnected storylines, a top-notch electronica soundtrack, Melissa McCarthy in her film debut and Timothy Olyphant chewing the Christmas-light strewn scenery as a shirtless, Santa hat-wearing drug dealer.
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: The most high maintenance Christmas gift known to mankind: A cute and cuddly critter of inexplicable origin named Gizmo, who, with improper care — remember: no liquids, no sunlight and, most important, no snacks after midnight — is capable of spawning mischievous lizard-monsters that enjoy nothing more than terrorizing the residents of sleepy Kingston Falls. Written by the late Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg, this horror-comedy is also known for containing what’s perhaps the most depressing Christmas story of all time. Seriously.
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A completely sloshed college dropout destroying a life-size Nativity scene — punching out the three wise men, manhandling the menagerie and passing out in baby Jesus’ crib — outside of a church. In his underwear. And with that, Kevin Bacon’s career was officially launched. If you haven’t seen it before, “Rain Man” director Barry Levenson’s ode to male bonding set during Christmastime in late 1950s Baltimore is certainly worth a watch if not only to see what Mickey Rourke used to look like.
"Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: Overdosing hookers, masked orgies, pot smoking, infidelity, Alan Cumming … it’s Christmastime in Stanley Kubrick-land! In a review written for “Film Quarterly,” Tim Kreider proclaims that though Kubrick’s final film — an epically long and epically creepy erotic thriller — was released in the summer, it “was the Christmas movie of 1999.” Explains Kreider: “Stanley Kubrick seems to have gotten seriously into the Yuletide spirit in his last film. Hardly an interior in the film (except the Satanic orgy) is without a baubled Christmas tree. Almost every set is suffused with the dreamlike, hazy glow of colored lights and tinsel.”
"The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Cox
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: An amnesic New England housewife who also happens to be a CIA assassin really disrupting Niagara Falls’ holiday festivities by dangling from a helicopter whilst screaming expletives and shooting down the bad guys with a machine gun. Talk about multitasking. Also, there’s a harrowing chase scene involving a reindeer-driven sleigh. The combination of explosions, carnage, nonstop F-bombs, and holly-jolly scenery makes perfect sense as Christmas-preoccupied screenwriter Shane Black — “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” — is responsible here.
"Reindeer Games" (2000)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A terrible script, a ludicrous ending and snow. Lots and lots of snow. “Manchurian Candidate” director John Frankenheimer’s final film is a sloppy grade-A stinker that, in the words of New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick is as “appealing as leftover Christmas fruitcake.” But for those on the prowl for a mindless (if somewhat restrained) action film set during the holiday season — and the chance to see Ben Affleck playing a Santa costume-clad ex-convict involved with the heist of an Indian casino — this one certainly fits the bill.
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Anthony Rapp, Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A spunky, song and dance-prone group of young artists struggling with love, loss, gentrification, heroin addiction and paying their landlord on time in New York City’s East Village. Like the late Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical (itself a riff on Puccini’s 1896 opera, "La Bohème," that replaces tuberculosis with the AIDS epidemic), Chris Columbus’ faithful but lukewarm film adaption begins and ends on the Christmas Eves of 1989 and 1990 and features one very special Angel.
"L.A. Confidential" (2007)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A hotheaded cop with a strong distaste for domestic violence yanking the plastic rooftop Christmas ornaments — Santa and his reindeer and all — off of the home of a man guilty of the very thing that makes his blood boil. Said cop later beats the living daylights out of the creep in his own front yard before handcuffing him. There’s also an ample amount of police station spiked 'nog swilling. It's an ill-advised yuletide activity that truly sets the plot of Curtis Hanson’s lauded neo-noir film — one revolving around a case of police brutality based on the notorious real-life Bloody Christmas scandal of 1951 — into motion.
"Black Christmas" (1974)
Starring (they ain't Jimmy Stewart): Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, John Saxon
What you’ll find instead of Santa Claus and rampant yuletide cheer: A group of sorority sisters being terrorized via phone — and then knocked off, one by one via crane hook, fireplace poker, plastic sheeting and crystal unicorn ornament — by a deranged lunatic lurking in the attic of their house during the days leading up to Christmas. Perhaps the most outright Christmas-centric film on this list, this influential shocker is the first in a long line of Christmas-themed horror films (see: “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “Christmas Evil,” etc.). It’s also regarded as the very first slasher film, predating “Halloween” by four years. Funny enough, Bob Clark of “A Christmas Story” fame directed.
"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944)
“Lady in the Lake” (1947)
“Mon oncle Antoine” (1971)
“Trading Places” (1983)
“Less Than Zero” (1987)
“Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
“Batman Returns (1992)
“The Ref” (1994)
“Just Friends” (2005)
“Children of Men” (2006)