Everybody knows the classic winter holiday movies, from older ones like It’s a Wonderful Life to newer ones like A Christmas Story, to ones that get remade over and over again like A Christmas Carol. Whether or not you like such movies, you must admit that it does get a bit repetitive watching the same stories over and over again every year, with the possible exception of the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Here, then, are ten holiday movies (in no particular order) that aren’t on most people’s list to watch with the family, some of them for very good reasons.
1. Die Hard – You can’t get much less traditional than a movie with people being shot, blown up, dropped out of high windows, and killed in various other ways. But, even if you don’t want to watch it with your little kids, considering the violence and the language, it is a Christmas movie, and it does show how the forces of good can triumph over the forces of evil even when all of the good guys but two are completely incompetent. Right?
2. The Hebrew Hammer – Not only is this one of the few Hanukkah-related movies in existence, but it’s also hysterically funny. Unless you watch the version that Comedy Central shows, it’s not appropriate for young kids, but every Jew (of which I’m one) with a sense of humor will love this movie, and gentiles with any knowledge of Judaism will get a huge kick out of it, too. Honestly, I think it’s worth watching if only to see Andy Dick get the tar beaten out of him.
3. Desk Set – This is a classic movie, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, that takes place during the holiday season, but for some reason isn’t known as a classic holiday film. It’s got Hepburn & Tracy, romance, humor, and a main character who’s a geek! And it’s as family-friendly as just about anything you’re likely to find on the Disney Channel, only several orders of magnitude better. What more could you ask for?
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas – This is a classic holiday movie, but the holiday is Halloween, so I’m including it. What could be better at evoking the true spirit of Christmas than the song “Kidnap the Sandy Claws?” The only part of the movie I don’t quite understand is why all the kids who get the shrunken heads for Christmas scream; surely some of them should’ve thought it was cool, no?
5. The Lion in Winter (1968 version) – I will never understand how Oliver! beat this movie out for the Best Picture Oscar, but Katharine Hepburn won for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine. The movie stars Hepburn, along with Peter O’Toole as King Henry II of England, at a fictional Christmas Court in 1183. A very young Anthony Hopkins (making his film debut) plays one of their sons, the future King Richard. It is truly a brilliant film, one of the few showing castle life in the Middle Ages as it really was: cold, filthy, and dark. It’s definitely not your usual family film, unless you watch it so you can make your family look functional and loving by comparison, since the members of the royal family are all conspiring against each other.
6. The Thin Man – This is one of the best detective movies of all time, and one of the funniest. The Christmas part of the movie is pretty much incidental to the plot, but it has what is probably the best Christmas morning scene ever filmed, in which Nick Charles (played brilliantly by William Powell), trying out the air gun he’s received as a gift, shoots ornaments off the tree. There’s a reason this film inspired five sequels: Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Nora Charles are among the best film characters ever.
7. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – I’ll be honest: I’ve never actually seen the whole movie, just the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of it. But every sci-fi geek should see this film in one form or another, because it’s so terrible it’s hysterically funny. Both the original and MST3K version are available on DVD.
8. Gremlins – This is a classic light horror film from the ’80s that probably takes place at Christmas only to give the main character’s father a reason why he buys the first Mogwai, Gizmo, for him. It’s not a great film, but it has some surprisingly good special effects for a 1984 film, and has a lot of really good scenes. I don’t advise showing it to little kids if they’re at all prone to nightmares, but older kids should be fine with it.
9. Batman Returns – The Batman films made by Tim Burton weren’t as good as the two most recent films, to be sure, for a variety of reasons. But they were very well made nonetheless, and still have a great deal to recommend them. This, the second one, happens to take place at Christmastime, providing for a good scene in which the Penguin disrupts the lighting of Gotham City’s Christmas tree. I honestly could’ve done without Danny DeVito as the Penguin, and Christopher Walken isn’t quite as good as usual, but Michelle Pfieffer more than makes up for them both, and not just because of the way she looks as Catwoman.
10. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol– I know I’m cheating a bit here, since this is a TV show and not a movie. But I love it so much I really can’t leave it off, and besides, it has Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Jim Broadbent, and Miranda Richardson in it (among others). With a cast like that, it can stand up to most movies. It takes the classic Dickens tale and flips it 180 degrees, so that the main character, Ebenezer Blackadder, starts out a man who is kind and generous to a fault and ends up a cruel and bitter miser.
Any others you can think of? Please leave a comment.
Note: A version of this article was originally published on GeekDad in November, 2008.