“Christmas is around the corner, and I ain’t gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip!” – Billy Ray Valentine (Trading Places)
Is a Jaffa Cake a biscuit or a cake? Crucially, does it even matter? Whilst we opt for cake (the clue’s in the name), the nature of such a question can be applied to other matters of similar importance. Take the Christmas movie for example, what must a classic of the genre contain for it to be considered a festive favourite? Santa Claus, snow, festive cheer and goodwill are thought to be staples of such films, even if Die Hard disagrees.
Judging by the quintessential Christmas cracker, It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic festive film must have a moral heart with a compelling message to flourish, teaching viewers of the importance of giving whilst appreciating the love of those around you. The same teachings can be found in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, on which It’s a Wonderful Life is based. Certainly, the early films of the genre were all about reflection, reconciliation and appreciation.
Such remains true in contemporary cinema, with the likes of Elf, Arthur Christmas and even Krampus holding a central moral message of familial appreciation, even if each film prefers to largely focus on horror or action set pieces. The aforementioned films certainly identify as modern Christmas staples, though the following ten films just shy away from this definition, even if they remain classics in their own right.
The 10 best Christmas movies that aren’t Christmas movies:
10. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
An XXXmas treat that may not entirely comply with the nature of a classic festive movie, Boogie Nights from Paul Thomas Anderson sees Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and Heather Graham toy with the porn industry in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
One of Anderson’s greatest and most entertaining films, Boogie Nights is a raucous journey of dogged ambition led by an incredible ensemble cast that defines late ‘90s filmmaking. With several festive scenes, such as the scene in Dunkin Doughnuts as well as the party in which Little Bill murders his wife. It may not be the most cheery film to stick on with the family, but it is a quintessential modern classic.
9. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Director Shane Black loves a Christmas film, or at least a film set at Christmas, with both Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys also displaying a notable festive theme throughout their runtimes.
We’ve opted for the snappy action film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for our pick of the bunch, a film starring Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan that follows a thief who is mistaken for an actor and is sent to Hollywood. A frenetic action romp, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is likely still Shane Black’s best film despite several efforts since that hasn’t been able to capture the whizz and festive fun of his 2005 cracker.
8. Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
One of Steven Spielberg’s finest and most underrated films, Catch Me If You Can is a wild goose chase, crime romp starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams and Christopher Walken.
It all follows the true story of a 21-year-old Frank Abagnale Jr, a skilled forger who passes as a doctor, lawyer and pilot all whilst evading the FBI. With many plot points in the film intersecting around the Christmas season, including Abagnale being released from prison on December 25th, Catch Me If You Can may not be your most conventional festive movie, but it is certainly one of the finest operating on the periphery of the genre.
7. The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)
A popular film of the Christmas holidays all around the world, Robert Wise’s classic musical The Sound of Music doesn’t really have any connection to Christmas at all, even if it is an eternally compelling moral tale of joy.
Though, with lyrics like, “Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,” as well as “Silver-white winters that melt into springs,” from the song ‘My Favourite Things’, can you really blame viewers for embracing it as a festive classic. Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and Charmian Carr, The Sound of Music is often repeated on the BBC over Christmas as well as by multiple U.S networks.
6. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
Lit with the Christmas lights of the festive season, the Belgian city of Bruges has ironically never looked better than in Martin McDonagh’s violent crime thriller that often mocks the mere existence of the city itself.
“Two weeks, in fuckin’ Bruges. In a room like this? With you? No way!” Colin Farrell’s, Ray, cries in just one of his many rants about the historic city. Beautifully decorated with glittering lights and multiple Christmas trees, Ray and his partner, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are unable to enjoy their time in Bruges due to the looming threat of Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) a murderous criminal who travels to the city to bring them both down.
5. Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995)
Everyone’s favourite pig movie, Babe, is a family classic starring James Cromwell, Christine Cavanaugh, Hugo Weaving and Miriam Margolyes, that suffuses with Christmas joy even if it isn’t the film’s main intention.
Adapted from the novel by Dick King-Smith, Babe follows the story of a pig raised by sheepdogs who learns to herd sheep and find himself in the process. With several moments centred around the December holidays, at one point Babe believes that he may be eaten by the farmer and his obnoxious family, though thankfully this never happens and Chris Noonan’s film remains a PG favourite for all ages.
4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001)
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a film that feels as if it is shown on constant repeat on British television throughout the festive period, with the film displaying all the joy of the holiday without the Santa hats.
An iconic film of the 21st century, the Harry Potter franchise went on to start a cultural revolution thanks to its trio of lead stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. With a nasty uncle and aunty at home, the titular Harry Potter stays on the grounds of Hogwarts during the Christmas period, swapping presents with Ron whilst enjoying the snowy woodland with his trusty white owl, Hedwig. It all feels very Christmassy, even if the film is more concerned with kicking off a billion-dollar franchise.
3. Trading Places (John Landis, 1983)
From the same director as Coming to America, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London, John Landis’ Trading Places is one of the filmmaker’s most underrated works, starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in this hilarious comedy, crime caper.
The film is one big middle finger to the big business stockbrokers, following a bet made by two callous millionaires who force a homeless man and a snobbish investor to swap lives to see who could make more money. Featuring Aykroyd as a manic Santa Claus and multiple Christmas parties, Trading Places certainly contains more of the holiday spirit than many other films on this list and even has a nice moral lesson too.
2. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
You may think that Stanley Kubrick is the last filmmaker who would have made a Christmas film, though his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, certainly came very close, picking apart the commercialism that festers beneath the surface during the December holidays.
With Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman leading the line, Eyes Wide Shut remains one of Stanley Kubrick’s most underappreciated films, following a doctor in Manhattan who embarks on a strange sex-filled odyssey after his wife admits to having an affair. Finding themselves trapped in an elite world of their own making, both lead characters realise that they are ruled by money, hedonistic behaviours and laughter in the face of misfortune. Look closer and you’ll find a venomous criticism of the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.
1. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1989)
Controversial may it be, Die Hard is as much a Christmas film as any other film on this list, displaying none of the classic iconographies of the festive period nor even a moral message to underpin its violence.
Led by a merciless police officer, John McClane (Bruce Willis), Die Hard follows a plan to foil a terrorist plot headed up by the maniacal Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). With action at the top of Die Hard’s list of priorities, the central theme of the film comes down to violence being redemption, saving McClane’s marriage as well as the lives of all the hostages in the tower block. In enacting such violence, McClane asserts his manhood, saves his job and kills many people. It may take place at Christmas, but it doesn’t sound too festive at all.