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The best alternative Christmas movies (that aren't Die Hard)
If you’ve spent much time online, you’re likely aware of the debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Hot on the Die Hard debate’s heels was the assertion that Lethal Weapon is a Christmas movie too. Both films are set at Christmas, and they certainly do touch on some Christmas themes — but they’re hardly alone. So, what other alternative Christmas movies merit a place among classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Charlie Brown Christmas, or Home Alone?
Below, you’ll find 10 of our favorite alternative Christmas movies to mix things up a bit this holiday season. So pour some eggnog, get yourself a plate of Christmas cookies, and enjoy. And if you disagree with any of these picks, well, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Happy holidays, and happy viewing!
The 10 best alternative Christmas movies
The story of a drug deal gone wrong, 1999’s crime comedy Go is told from multiple perspectives on one fateful Christmas Eve. Soap opera stars, narcotics officers, Las Vegas wedding crashers, broke grocery store clerks, and small-time enforcers collide in this cult classic that isn’t strictly about the holidays but does feature all of their familiar trappings. The 90s saw a lot of sub-par knockoffs of Pulp Fiction and its interconnected storyline format, but few managed to get out from Tarantino’s shadow as thoroughly and engagingly as Go.
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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Written by Shane Black, who has made a habit of setting his crime films at Christmas since Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was also Black’s directorial debut. It was something of a career reset for Robert Downey Jr. too, before he became Iron Man. A small-time crook accidentally lands a part in a Hollywood film while running from the cops. From there, he’s thrust into a seedy world of conspiracy, murder, and showbusiness as he, a private eye, and his childhood sweetheart get deeper in over their heads in this dark, hilarious, and smart send-up of film noir.
Trading Places (1983)
Perhaps one of the more conventional entries on this list, Trading Places is a brilliant comedy that taps into the spirit of Christmas with its updated take on The Prince and the Pauper. A homeless man and Wall Street broker trade places as part of an elaborate bet. But when the two main get wise to what’s going on, they work together to turn the tables on the two rich men pulling their strings, and this all happens in the lead-up to Christmas. Trading Places is a funny bit of social commentary that picks apart social inequality while reminding us that we’re not so different when you level the playing field.
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Alien prequel Prometheus is one of the more recent additions to the “X is actually a Christmas movie” discourse. In one scene, the ship captain, Janek decorates a Christmas tree. The Christmas scene is admittedly brief, but let’s not forget the film’s themes. There’s something downright Biblical about the story of humans grappling with our origins. The crew of the Prometheus is on a journey to a kind of intergalactic Garden of Eden, hoping to discover our creator. There’s even a gory virgin birth of sorts — okay, the character Elizabeth Shaw isn’t a virgin, but the alien she “births” is not exactly conceived by traditional means. The sequel Alien: Covenant continues these thematic preoccupations with a parable reminiscent of Noah’s Ark.
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P2, like Trading Places, has a pretty straightforward claim to being a Christmas movie. It’s set explicitly on Christmas Eve, with both the stress and joys of the holidays baked into its central themes. As a claustrophobic horror film, though, it’s rarely at the top of anyone’s list of Christmas films, and it’s a frankly underrated horror film more generally, earning it a spot here on our list of alternative Christmas movies. When businesswoman Angela stays at work late on Christmas Eve, she finds herself the last person in the office. While getting her car from the underground lot to rush to see her family, she finds herself locked in the building’s garage with a terrifying security guard who has holiday plans of his own. Making it home for the holidays will mean surviving one hellish night underground.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
This neo-noir crime film from 1997, based on the novel by James Ellroy, is one of the best films of the 90s, and always worth including among alternative Christmas movies. The film takes place in the 1950s and tackles police corruption and the seedier sides of old Hollywood. Two unlikely detectives team up to get to the bottom of things when the facts refuse to add up surrounding a multiple homicide. One is a sheepish cop who lives in his father’s shadow and has a bad reputation for ratting out his colleagues in the “Bloody Christmas” case. The other is a tough guy with a penchant for punishing men who abuse women. Together they take on the police force and local government, all set to a backdrop of Bing Crosby standards and glittering Christmas lights.
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Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The final film of legendary director Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut is an erotic drama about a man who becomes obsessed by his wife’s admission that she once contemplated an affair. He infiltrates a mysterious sex club where high-society figures have orgies. As he tries to learn more, shadowy men warn him off and threaten him. Despite never revealing himself, his identity is now known, and he realizes he’s in over his head. The film takes place at Christmas time and is brimming with Christmas imagery, despite the narrative having little to do with the holidays.
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The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Another Shane Black script set at Christmastime, The Long Kiss Goodnight is an alternative Christmas movie that’s also a wonderful homage to 1973’s The Long Goodbye. A happily married wife and mother living in Pennsylvania has spent the better part of a decade trying to find out her true identity after washing ashore in New Jersey, pregnant and with amnesia. After a car accident leaves her with a concussion, she can suddenly remember mystery combat skills and bits and pieces of her past as a spy. Teaming up with a sketchy private eye she’d hired to help unearth her own history, she hits the road to get more answers about who she is and who wants her dead. Like Die Hard, the film takes place around Christmas, with the big, bloody finale leading into Christmas morning.
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A trans sex worker is released from prison on Christmas Eve in this indie film notably shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. As she discovers that her pimp and boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was locked up, Sin-Dee spends the night looking for him and the girl he’s been cheating with. Tangerine is a testament to how real life doesn’t stop for the holidays. Incarceration, infidelity, transphobia, poverty, and the mistreatment of sex workers continue unfazed by the need for holiday cheer. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, of course. Within that story are the bonds of friendship and found family, and the power of community in the face of everyday realities. Those are pretty timeless Christmas themes that make Tangerine a great alternative Christmas movie.
Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton is no stranger to dark and twisted spins on Christmas films. His 1993 stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas is a timeless classic. Just one year before The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton revisited the Dark Knight with a sequel to his 1989 Batman. This time, he offered up a snow-covered Gotham City during the holidays. The film’s whole aesthetic builds on this juxtaposition. The bright, colorful cheerfulness of the holiday season feels bizarre and out of place as the backdrop for grim superhero action. The villains are stand-ins for classic Christmas figures like Scrooge and the Grinch, hoping to steal the magic of Christmas from the good boys and girls of Gotham. It’s a terrific Batman film and maybe an even better alternative Christmas movie.