Have a Lethal Gremlins French Connection Christmas: 21 non-holiday holiday movies

Photo: Gremlins (Warner Bros. Pictures/Amblin E/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Every December it’s the same, as we settle down with classics like White Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Miracle On 34th Street. Frankly, after so many years, these standards have been rerun so often as to absolutely lose all meaning. So this year, we suggest an off-brand breed of holiday film. These cinematic efforts’ pivotal moments take place during the holiday season, but they’re not the ones that necessarily come to mind when you think “holiday movie.” Sure, you may not automatically think of legendary car chases or surrealist parables when you’re celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, but hey, Wonderful Life had its dark moments as well. And these films may offer a scene or two just as emblematic as “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” So this December, curl up with a double feature from the below list for a much-needed new take on the holiday spirit.

1. Diner (1982)

When people remember Barry Levinson’s witty coming-of-age breakthrough hit, they probably think of the fraternal camaraderie of the then-unknown cast, quippy ad-libs, the football quiz, Mickey Rourke’s crazy hairstyle, and Kevin Bacon’s baby face. What they may not recall is that the film is framed by two holidays, as it starts on Christmas Eve and wraps up on New Year’s Eve at Eddie (Steve Guttenberg, in his best role ever) and the never-seen Elise’s wedding. The holiday theme allows Billy (Timothy Daly) to come home from college, the soundtrack to be populated with pop holiday hits like Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph,” and in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Bacon’s drunk Fenwick to fill the nativity absence of a stolen baby Jesus to become the messiah himself, in a misguided but certainly holiday-fueled intention. Now, are you going to finish that sandwich? [Gwen Ihnat]

2. The French Connection (1971)

Like any city, New York can be downright enchanting during the holidays. It can also be downright filthy, which is the side captured by The French Connection. As detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) attempt to stop the import of $32 million worth of heroin, they navigate an environment packed with the scummy hallmarks of an urban winter wonderland: melting piles of exhaust-stained snow, clouds of steam hissing out of vents, and mobs of disgruntled New Yorkers. The film even kicks off with Popeye chasing down a man while dressed as Santa Claus. Oddly enough, the sleaze ends up being just as evocative as more picturesque Christmas movies, probably because, at the end of the day, it’s much closer to real life. [Dan Caffrey]

3. While You Were Sleeping (1995)

Chicago and its surrounding areas have provided the setting for multiple Christmas movies, including National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Home Alone, probably because the city can be counted on to provide its own snow. But Jon Turteltaub’s While You Were Sleeping traded those big, suburban homes for a small apartment in the city proper, and the big, suburban families for Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock), a CTA attendant and adult orphan who dreams of traveling. When Lucy saves the life of Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher), a handsome yuppie she’s been silently worshipping from her station booth, a mix-up at the hospital leads Peter’s family to believe that Lucy is his fiancée as well as his savior. Lucy is soon invited to holiday gatherings and is too lonely and worried (about his grandmother) to turn down the Callaghans’ invitations, even though her continued presence at Peter’s hospital bedside raises his brother Jack’s (Bill Pullman) suspicions. Jack trails her in order to expose her, but ultimately falls for her—and, since this is a rom-com, she for him. The case of mistaken identity and subsequent love triangle sound formulaic, but Bullock is delightful as Lucy, and Pullman proves he has plenty of charm left from his Spaceballs days. [Danette Chavez]

4. The Family Stone (2005)

With an ensemble cast this good—Craig T. Nelson, Diane Keaton, Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, and Rachel McAdams, just to name a few—brought around a dinner table, it doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to view The Family Stone as a potential holiday favorite. After all, everyone is home for Christmas, even if that’s beyond-secondary to the shenanigans happening at the forefront. Take for example the title, which refers to Everett’s (Mulroney) request for his grandmother’s wedding ring (the family stone)—which his mother Sybil (Keaton) begrudgingly parts with. In a way, it’s the catalyst for each subplot surrounding the Stone clan. Amid the slap-stick comedy and emotional fodder, though, it’s two Christmases that tie the movie together, showing a family changed for the better by the end of the film, which leaves viewers with the sort of warm and fuzzy feeling often associated with the holiday season. [Becca James]

5. An American Tail (1986)

Hanukkah gets the short end of the stick when it comes to holiday films. Flip on the TV in December and you’ll almost certainly find a Christmas movie or 12. But mainstream films about the Festival Of Lights are basically limited to The Rugrats Chanukah special and Eight Crazy Nights. Those looking for something a little less on the nose this Hanukkah should seek out Don Bluth’s animated adventure An American Tail, which features the holiday—and the Jewish experience in general—without ever making a big deal about it. The film opens in 1885 Russia where a family of Jewish mice are celebrating a Hanukkah evening. In true dad fashion, Papa Mousekewitz pretends to have forgotten all about presents before gifting his daughter Tanya and his son Fievel with new headwear and words of encouragement. Though the film goes to some dark places—a Cossack attack interrupts the celebration and convinces the Mousekewitzes to immigrate to America—its core celebration of the power of family makes it the perfect holiday-watch for viewers of any denomination. [Caroline Siede]

6. The Ref (1994)

You know you’ve got domestic problems when Denis Leary is more composed than any member of your family. A comedy with enough black wit to sharpen even the most treacly of holidays to a fine edge, The Ref tells the story of Gus (Leary), a burglar who has the bad luck to stumble into taking hostage Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis), a married couple coming apart at the seams. As the cops search the neighborhood, Gus is forced into playing ersatz marriage counselor as the couple fight. And fight. And fight some more. (Itchy and Scratchy would be impressed.) By the time Lloyd’s family—complete with a nightmare of an overbearing mother—comes for a holiday visit, the evening spirals out of control. As much living-room farce as black comedy, the film’s Christmas setting is just about the only family-friendly aspect of the movie. It’s not Bad Santa-level crass, but it packs enough of a sting to make for satisfying holiday counter-programming. It also provides the fun sight of watching both Spacey and Davis out-motormouth a guy used to being the quickest tongue in the room. [Alex McCown]

7. Go (1999)

Go qualifies as a holiday movie from the moment Katie Holmes delivers the first dialogue of the film: “Do you know what I like best about Christmas? The surprises!” Many such surprises are delivered during the course of the proceedings, which revolves around three co-workers at a supermarket and the events that go down in their respective lives in the 24-hour period before Christmas arrives. Even with all the sex, drugs, and violence, the holidays are never far from the camera’s eye during the course of the film, thanks to scenes including an incredibly awkward Christmas dinner with William Fichtner and Jane Krakowski, and a shirtless Timothy Olyphant doling out drugs in a Santa hat. [Will Harris]

8. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Writer-director Shane Black has a penchant for including Christmas elements in all his action movies, a trend he began with his screenplay of 1987’s Lethal Weapon. From “Jingle Bell Rock” playing over the credits until the camera zooms in on a penthouse where a woman leaps to her death, the balance of holiday cheer and rampant violence is struck early and often. Our hero Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is introduced watching Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol with a gun in his mouth, busts up a gang of drug dealers operating out of a Christmas tree lot, and deals with a jumper as a man in a Santa Claus suit looks up from the street. A drug dealer closes a weighty negotiation by wishing the other party “Merry Christmas,” and later orders another business partner executed, the bullets cutting through the carton of eggnog he was drinking seconds ago. Cementing his role as the film’s Grinch, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) drives a car through the Murtaugh family’s holiday display and shoots up a TV playing another version of A Christmas Carol, leading into his climactic fist fight with Riggs on a front lawn with Christmas lights all around. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, if you can survive it. [Les Chappell]

9. Rent (2005)

In the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Rent, the holidays are a backdrop for its depictions of bohemian New York artists dealing with scummy landlords, interpersonal drama, the ability to make ends meet, and (especially) the AIDS epidemic. More specifically, holidays are used as scene setting—the movie begins on cold, snowy Christmas Eve 1989 and ends one year later on the same day—and a plot device: A pivotal New Year’s Day scene finds the group having to break into their apartment, which has been emptied by said landlord (and former roommate) Benny. This causes Mark (Anthony Rapp) to take a job with slimy tabloid Buzzline, the first in a series of events that ends with his friend group fracturing for much of 1990. Although the film is faithful to the musical, the latter places greater emphasis on the role of holidays as a marker of time; in fact, the stark, moving “Halloween”—which ruminates on the consequences of the Christmas Eve 1989 decisions—only appears as a DVD extra. [Annie Zaleski]

10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

In a perverse way, Eyes Wide Shut is the perfect distillation of anxieties about the complex Christmas interplay of emotion, economics, and reciprocity. From its opening, with Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) preparing for a swanky Christmas party, to the ending where they wander through FAO Schwarz, Stanley Kubrick’s last film provides an eerie, cynical view of the holiday unfolding in the background. Shaken by a (frankly minor) revelation from his wife, Bill goes on a baffling odyssey through a simulacrum of New York City lit by twinkling lights and Christmas trees. He thrusts himself into the arcane debaucheries of the rich as he tries to uncover the truth about the death of a woman he thinks he met briefly… but Eyes Wide Shut isn’t really about a mysterious death. It’s about Bill Harford, who travels through the long night of this artificial city frantically trying to buy back his lost complacency, but only succeeds in reducing every relationship to a transaction. [Emily L. Stephens]

11. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)

This plot will likely sound familiar: Two coworkers who openly hate each other carry on an anonymous love affair through the mail, and neither of them know the other’s pen-name identity. Set in a small store in Budapest where curiously only one of the employees has any sort of a native accent, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner peaks during the holiday shopping season. Real-life friends Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play Alfred and Klara, the star-crossed lovers unaware that their loathed co-worker is the person who’s been writing them those lofty letters. The charm and chemistry of the young leads—headstrong Sullavan and lovestruck Stewart—transcends this picture as they battle and flirt, often simultaneously. Just check out the scene when Alfred has figured out that Klara is the writer he loves, and courts her in the shop on Christmas Eve, lit only by holiday lights. You may love this store and its employees so much that you’ll be tempted to check out the 1949 Judy Garland/Van Johnson remake In The Good Old Summertime, which is fine. But by all means, avoid the hackneyed 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan version, You’ve Got Mail. It’s Christmas, for God’s sake. [Gwen Ihnat]

12. Brazil (1985)

Brazil indicts lazy consumerism and lip-service civility at every turn, so it’s only natural that writer-director Terry Gilliam would start his darkly comic masterpiece just as its bureaucratic dystopia gears up for the blank-eyed rituals of the Christmas season. Under the Ministry Of Information’s jolly holiday watch, torturers hand out prefab gifts to their friends and family, little girls ask Santa Claus for credit cards, and cold government barracks sport festive Christmas trees. The best Yuletide moment, though—for a black-hearted definition of best, in any case—comes early in the film, when an adorable little girl asks her mother how Father Christmas will visit their family when they don’t have a chimney. Cue a jarring cut to the apartment ceiling, as saw-wielding thugs cut a hole in it, rappelling down as their as their jackbooted compatriots kick in the door. In the space of a minute, the little girl’s father is gone, zipped up in a government-issued body bag, with her shocked mother left with nothing but that most important of Christmas shopping artifacts: the receipt. [William Hughes]

13. Gremlins (1984)

Although the horror-comedy Gremlins hit theaters in June of 1984, it is without a doubt a Christmas movie. It opens with a father (Hoyt Axton as Randall Peltzer) looking for a Christmas gift for his son (Zach Galligan as Billy Peltzer), which he finds in an antique store in New York’s Chinatown. The Mogwai, a small, furry creature, makes the trip back to Kingston Falls, a town that closely resembles It’s A Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls (later in the movie that film is actually playing on a television) with all the snow and merriment. That merriment, however, soon turns into a massacre when Billy breaks three very important rules regarding his new pet, resulting in a destructive army of Gremlins that are determined to ruin Christmas for everyone. Interestingly, Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates—don’t worry, Judge Reinhold also makes an appearance) also wants to ruin Christmas by sharing that her father, dressed as Santa and attempting to fit down their chimney, died a few Christmas Eves back. But in the true Christmas spirit, nothing can take down one of the most celebrated holidays, and the movie wraps itself up nicely, sparing the main characters any true heartache and teaching them some sort of lesson in the process. [Becca James]

14. Just Friends (2005)

Just Friends usually gets written off as “Ryan Reynolds in a fat suit,” doing this very funny comedy a tremendous disservice. It deserves another run every December, depicting the simple story of a now-big-shot who returns to his small town over the holidays and attempts to win over his high school crush. Reynolds is consistently more hilarious than his disastrous action movie franchises, or less-successful comedies like The Change-Up, would indicate, as he flails on too-tight ice-skates or regresses into bitch-slap fights with his younger brother. Here he also has Anna Faris in tow, going completely over-the-top as an insane Britney Spears knockoff. Even Chris Klein was never better as a wannabe lothario. There’s a lot more to love in Just Friends than its unfortunate marketing campaign would lead you to believe. [Gwen Ihnat]

15. L.A. Confidential (1997)

Ed Exley is an LAPD detective sergeant who’s about as by-the-book as they come, Bud White is a plainclothes detective with a violent streak, and neither gentleman has much use for the other, but the event that creates a state of tension between the two of them that lasts until the closing moments of L.A. Confidential takes place on Christmas Day. After indulging in way too much eggnog, a collective of cops led by Bud’s partner, Dick Stensland, decides to extract revenge on a group of prisoners who’d gotten into a fight with several officers earlier in the evening in which one cop reportedly lost an eye, with another suffering from brain damage. Bud rushes to try and stop Dick from doing something rash but ends up doing something rash himself, throwing a prisoner against a cell door and head-butting him. Unfortunately, a news photographer happens to be present and snaps pictures of the carnage, leading to the L.A. Times headline “Bloody Christmas.” Having been present for the incident, Exley agrees to testify to everything he witnessed, which results in Dick getting fired and Bud growing bitter. Happy bloody holidays. [Will Harris]

16. Trading Places (1983)

Dan Aykroyd’s snooty commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III might be in need of a Ebenezer Scrooge-style attitude adjustment, but John Landis’ ’80s comedy classic Trading Places is more Mark Twain than Charles Dickens. Eddie Murphy co-stars as the pauper to Aykroyd’s prince, a con artist named Billy Ray Valentine who gets swept up in a bet between the billionaire Duke brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) over whether Valentine and Winthorpe’s personalities would remain the same if their social positions were reversed. Propelled by Murphy and Aykroyd’s formidable comedic talents, Trading Places doesn’t delve too deeply into the inner workings of Wall Street—the climactic scene breezes through a commodities trading scheme so quickly, NPR asked an actual broker to explain what happens—nor does it spend too much time focusing on its Christmas setting. Winthorpe tries to frame Valentine at a Christmas party, but he could have just as easily snuck in dressed as a waiter instead of an especially ragged Santa Claus. Similarly, Christmas decorations appear in the background of nearly every scene, but are about as important to the plot as the sexually predatory gorilla. (Of course there’s a gorilla. This is John Landis we’re talking about.) [Katie Rife]

17. Peter’s Friends (1992)

Peter’s Friends is often billed as the British The Big Chill, which makes sense, as it, too, boasts an absurdly overqualified cast, features a reunion of college friends who’ve drifted apart, and is sort of disappointing, when it comes right down to it. Still, that cast really is overloaded, featuring then-marrieds Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, and Thompson’s mother Phyllida Law. (And very annoying American comic and co-screenwriter Rita Rudner, but we’ll let that go.) Taking place the week after Christmas at the wealthy layabout Fry’s ancestral estate, the film uses the holiday as a backdrop to its serio-comic sniping and hugging, as Peter and all his friends gradually reveal the buried discontentments, regrets, and one big secret. Even if Rudner’s script strands them with contrivances, the cast is uniformly wonderful, nowhere more so than the lovely scene where the former college revue pals sing an affectionate version of “The Way You Look Tonight” while director Branagh’s camera pans slowly around the still-decorated Christmas tree. [Dennis Perkins]

18. Little Women (1994)

Given that Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel Little Women was published in two volumes, it makes sense that the story feels a little disjointed. The first half depicts the younger, happier years of the March sisters while the second follows the girls as they move away from home to pursue careers, marriages, or both. Director Gillian Armstrong uses a cozy winter setting as shorthand for childhood nostalgia in the first half. Jo (Winona Ryder) and her sisters attend holiday parties, generously share their Christmas feast with the poor, romp in the snow with their impish neighbor Laurie (a perfectly cast Christian Bale), and snuggle by the fire while learning important life lessons from their sanctimonious mother Marmee (Susan Sarandon). Christmas itself may be only a small part of the film, but Little Women acutely captures the sense of childhood as a warm, cozy time when everything was just a little bit easier. [Caroline Siede]

19. Die Hard (1988)

“Come out to the Coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs,” Bruce Willis mimics ruefully, as he crawls through an air shaft in Nakatomi Plaza. It’s perhaps the clearest summation of what’s so great about this action classic, which takes place entirely on Christmas Eve. Streetwise NYC cop John McClane may have calcified into an unstoppable superhero in the recent films of this series, but in the first installment, he was just a regular guy looking to reconnect with his wife, who recently took a new job on the West Coast. Unfortunately, his arrival at the company Christmas party is perfectly timed to coincide with Hans Gruber’s terrorist gang, who seize the building and the hostages inside. Willis was reportedly just about the last choice for the role, but his everyman sarcasm and cool-guy-next-door panache helped usher in a new era of more relatable action stars. Of course, making one of the best action films of all time probably didn’t hurt the movie’s reception, either. It’s got quality, ho, ho, ho. [Alex McCown]

20. King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong certainly isn’t perfect. Aside from a badass T-rex fight and an effectively squirmy scene with giant bugs, Skull Island feels more like a video game than a movie, and did we really need the mentor subplot between the first mate and Jamie Bell’s stowaway? Luckily, things pick back up once the action shifts Stateside, especially when Kong goes on his iconic rampage through the Big Apple. Unlike the original, however, there’s a quiet moment for the giant ape and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) between his escape and his last stand atop the Empire State Building. When he comes across a frozen pond in Central Park, he can’t help but get a little playful with his potential mate (as primates are known to do), sliding across the ice and tumbling into snowbanks as Darrow’s terror gives way to laughter. While many have dismissed the sequence as silly, it deepens the bond between the two characters, a bond that ends up being essential for the final line of the film to ring true. Also, the image of Christmas trees twinkling against the New York skyline captures the magic of winter in the city, exuding Yuletide comfort for gorilla and human alike. [Dan Caffrey]

21. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Though most people can probably hum “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” they’re less likely to know that the song originated in the Judy Garland musical Meet Me In St. Louis. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film charts a year in the life of the upper-middle class Smith family as they eager anticipate the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—right in their own hometown! While it hits many of the major holidays (Halloween is appropriately spooky), the Christmas segment serves as the film’s heart. After Mr. Smith announces his plan to move the whole family to New York, there’s extra poignancy to what the Smiths assume is their last Christmas in St. Louis. An elegant Christmas Eve ball becomes a high-stakes comedy of errors full of lost tuxedos, absent dates, mischievous dance cards, and underlying anxiety about the future. And later that night when little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) worries that Santa won’t be able to find their new East Coast home, Esther (Garland) comforts her sister with a ballad that embraces the melancholy of the holiday season. In fact, it basically sends Tootie into a minor emotional breakdown. Though the film may ultimately have a happy ending, those moments of Christmas pathos make it feel like more than just a fluffy musical confection. [Caroline Siede]