10 Not-Quite-Christmas Films

11:54 AM 12/19/2016

by Patrick Shanley

Die Hard, Gremlins, and Just Friends-Photofest-H 2016
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest; Amblin/Warner Bros./Photofest; New Line Cinema/Photofest

Every new December is a chance to dust off old copies of holiday classics and bask in the warm glow of nostalgia and yuletide cheer, preferably with a warm drink in hand and cozy slippers on feet. The list of go-to Christmas films is ever-growing, from familiar classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life to more recent fare such as Elf or Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever.

However, repeated viewings may leave once-beloved films feeling as stale as leftover gingerbread cookies, not to mention the familiar themes, settings and tropes shared by so many "quintessential" holiday films. For those looking for a little kick in their red satin pants, here's a list of films that are "not quite" Christmas movies, but should become standard viewing every year when the nights grow longer, the air gets chillier and Saint Nick is a little too busy prepping his sleigh to keep a stalwart eye on who's been bad or good.

  • 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (1969)

    James Bond doesn’t regularly order an eggnog “shaken, not stirred,” but if he were going to, this would be the film he’d do it in. Taking over for Sean Connery in 1969, Australian model George Lazenby donned the tuxedo of Agent 007 for the sixth film in the franchise, and the first without Connery in the lead role. Odd(job)ly enough, the film is set around Christmastime, not exactly the traditional backdrop for a Bond outing. The film even features its own holiday tune, “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” which underscores a number of scenes in the film.

  • 'Gremlins' (1984)

    Elves are undoubtedly a big part of Christmas. Their imp-like, cheery optimism as they bustle around Santa’s Workshop preparing toys for good girls and boys exemplifies so much of what makes the holiday season so special. Mogwai are similar, in a way, with their adorably furry faces and floppy ears. But if you get them wet or feed them after midnight, well, then things take a turn from cuddly to carnivorous. 1984’s horror-comedy Gremlins follows the antics of the mischievous little titular monsters as they wreak havoc on a small town at Christmas time. The film is filled with classic practical effects and dark humor, but what cements it as a holiday classic is watching a man in a Santa Clause suit being mauled by the horrible little creatures.

  • 'Rocky IV' (1985)

    Admittedly, to call the fourth installment in Sylvester Stallone’s iconic boxing series a “Christmas Movie” is a bit of a stretch. However, one could posit this counterargument: The film’s most iconic scenes all feature heavy holiday imagery. Don’t believe it? Rocky’s training montage takes place in the deep heavy snow of Russia’s mountains surrounded by pine trees. Rocky’s final match against Ivan Drago takes place on Christmas Day. Rocky’s unforgettable unifying speech after defeating Drago ends with the boxer wishing his son back home a Merry Christmas. And, if that’s not enough proof for you, Sico, the film’s lovable robot, was clearly made by technically advanced elves.

  • 'Lethal Weapon' (1987)

    Screenwriter Shane Black penned the script for this buddy cop shoot-'em-up following grizzled veteran LAPD Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and his suicidally reckless partner Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) as they tackle a heroin-smuggling ring. The film is known for its humor and its full-throttle action sequences, but it should also be appreciated for Black’s decision to set his action at a time of year when we generally don’t think about heroin smugglers or prostitution rings – or not as much, at least.

  • 'Die Hard' (1988)

    In many households – read: awesome ones – NYPD officer John McClane is, and has been, a Christmas hero for years. However, not everyone thinks of yuletide cheer when they hear the words Die Hard. The 1988 action classic brought star Bruce Willis from the small screen to the big time by upping the violence and providing viewers with one of cinema’s best baddies: Alec Rickman’s Hans Gruber — a man so sinister even his reading of the words “ho-ho-ho” can send a shiver down your spine. The film takes place on Christmas Eve, when a group of German terrorists take an office Christmas party hostage. If watching John McClane pick off terrorists while muscling his way through a crawlspace doesn’t inspire you to spike some eggnog, then you don’t deserve a Christmas tree.

  • 'Batman Returns' (1992)

    Tim Burton may be known for offering a quirkily dark tone in his films, but he’s also no stranger to the holidays. A Nightmare Before Christmas is a December staple, and even Edward Scissorhands could have made this list, but Batman Returns is a film that rarely comes up in holiday conversations — but it really should. Burton’s 1992 follow-up to Batman brought back Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight — though the Dark (Silent) Knight could have worked as a title, too. In addition to the obvious fact that the film's main villain is the Penguin — arguably the most wintery of all Batfoes — it also features Catwoman and Batman sharing a moment under the mistletoe and a Burtonesque Christmas tree lighting that gets interrupted by an enormous exploding gift filled with murderous clowns. You won’t see that in Whoville.

  • 'The Ref' (1994)

    For whatever reason, Christmas seems a ripe setting for dark comedies. 1994’s The Ref taints the white snow of December a shade or two darker with its tale of a feuding couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) who are held hostage by a jewel thief (Denis Leary) while pretending to be their marriage counselor in front of their visiting family. Nothing feels quite as much like Christmas as tense family drama amongst in-laws. 

  • 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' (2005)

    Another Shane Black film, this comedic mystery starring Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. was a box office disappointment but has achieved cult status for its dark humor and tightly wound plot. The film is a send-up of many classic noir clichés, and its holiday setting only adds to the parody. Try to think of another crime noir where the “dame” — in this case a tough-talking Michelle Monaghan — sports a Santa hat and Kris Kringle-themed miniskirt.

  • 'Just Friends' (2005)

    Long before he was Deadpool, but after he was Van Wilder, Ryan Reynolds was the chubby kid in high school with a crush on the popular cheerleader in Just Friends. While the film initially wasn’t a hit, it has become something of a cult classic. Set on the days surrounding Christmas, everything from the costumes, the setting and the particularly strong soundtrack ooze Christmas cheer. Throw in Anna Faris’ superb performance as an over-the-top pop diva singing lyrics like "Mall people they come and go/Small people they just don't know," and you have the makings of a holiday classic.

  • 'Iron Man 3' (2013)

    Another Shane Black script, though this time he served as director, as well. Robert Downey Jr. returned as Tony Stark for the final standalone installment in the series. Set after the events of 2012’s The Avengers, this 2013 Marvel blockbuster was the highest-grossing in the Iron Man series and saw Stark fighting off anxiety as well as exploding superhumans. Dark stuff. But, despite its May release, it also featured fluffy white snow, jolly Christmas tunes, and a giant stuffed rabbit the size of which only someone like Stark could afford. Joyeux Noel!