Table of Contents
Non-Traditional Holiday Films
Only a few of these films are really holiday films, but they all are set during the holiday season and would be quite different films without that backdrop. They are divided into categories of Science Fiction, Thrillers/Action, Domestic Drama, and Comedies, Light and Dark.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Perfect for getting into the imaginativeness of the season or its dystopian aspects.
- 12 Monkeys (1996)
Before the world as we know it comes to an end, we hear this cheery message: "The Freedom for Animals Association on Second Avenue is the secret headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They're the ones who are gonna do it. I can't do anything more now. I have to go. Have a Merry Christmas."
- Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam's black comedy is set in a dystopic retro-future disturbingly filled with Christmas greed and commercialism.
- Cité des Enfants Perdus = The City of Lost Children (1995)
This dystopian fantasy full of curious, comedic characters opens on Christmas Eve and slips in creepy Santa Claus imagery throughout the film.
- Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Begins and ends at Yuletide, and the Christmassy ice sculpture scene has been called the most magical moment found in any Tim Burton film.
- Gremlins (1984)
What happens when you buy an unusual Christmas present and your family isn't careful?
- Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006)
Discworld's holiday of Hogwatch is in jeopardy when the Hogfather goes missing. While his granddaughter goes looking for him, Death has to take his place.
- The Jacket (2005)
It's almost Christmas, and you're a Gulf War veteran in an institution for the criminally insane, when you learn during a trip into the future that you are about to die. Happy holidays.
- Prometheus (2012)
The crew of a spaceship spend Christmas Day by seeking humanity's origins on a journey that takes them to the darkest corners of the universe.
- The Seeker (2007)
On his birthday near Christmas an ordinary boy discovers that as the seventh son of a seventh son, he is destined to save the world.
Thrillers | Action Films
Die Hard is listed first because it is the one action film that really does get into the holiday spirit. The rest are in alphabetical order.
- Die Hard and Die Hard II (1988)
The original film is set in an office building taken over by terrorists and comes to an oddly sweet and sentimental ending. The first sequel is set on a snowy Christmas Eve at Washington Dulles International Airport.
- American Psycho (2000)
Celebrate Christmas with a gala party, champagne, reindeer antlers, a kiss under the mistletoe, cocaine, and an axe-murder.
- Batman Returns (1992)
The real villain is a conniving mega-merchant in this story set in Gotham City all decorated for Christmas. In spite of the darkness, there is some holiday cheer.
- Catch Me if You Can (2002)
Not only is the opening scene set on Christmas Eve, but Christmas returns at several other key points. I don't think there is supposed to be any particular connection between the holiday and deception.
- Eastern Promises (2007)
A dark, brutal, and gritty tale of an Eastern European mobster and a midwife who cross paths at Christmastide.
- 8 Femmes = 8 women (2003)
A French mystery: which of the eight women in the life of a wealthy industrialist murdered him during the family holiday gathering?
- Frozen River (2008)
It's almost Christmas, and near a border crossing on the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec, two single mothers bond through smuggling.
- The Hebrew Hammer (2003)
In this spoof of the blaxplotation films, an Orthodox super tough guy goes on a mission to save Hanukkah.
- Ice Harvest (2005)
Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, is the setting for film noir with a slight touch of comedy.
- In Bruges (2008)
Hit men lying low in Bruges in Belgium during the holiday season have a love/hate relationship with the city. One loves it; one hates it. Warning: the first half is much more of a light-hearted holiday film than the darker second half.
- Iron Man 3 (2013)
A bleak world made even darker through a snowy holiday setting, but with bit of Christmas cheer by the end.
- Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005)
Film noir spoof set during the Christmas season.
- L.A. Confidential (1997)
Much of the plot is centered on the Bloody Christmas scandal. Christmas scenes include a holiday party and the yanking of a plastic Santa and his reindeer off a roof.
- Lethal Weapon (1987)
Cop psychodrama set in December and remembered as a holiday film if only for the scene that takes place in a parking lot full of Christmas trees.
- Rare Exports (2010)
A Finnish horror story that is both creepy and full of dry humor. It involves an archaeological dig and Santa Claus.
- Rocky and Rocky IV (1976, 1985)
In Rocky, the story takes place from Thanksgiving, when Rocky is "a bum" to New Year's Day, when the championship match occurs. In Rocky IV the big fight occurs on Christmas Day.
- Run All Night (2015)
The action takes place on a snowless Christmas Eve, but
the grimmest scene doesn't involve violence and mayhem, but a drunken Santa at a Christmas party.
- 2046 (2004)
A romantic thriller with a Christmas Eve motif. In Cantonese, with English subtitles. 2046 refers both to a room number and the year in which a science fiction novel is set.
- The Unholy Three (1925)
A silent film about sideshow performers who turn to crime and commit a heist on Christmas Eve.
These are films set during the holiday season without paying that much attention to it. In this category are romances, buddies hanging together, and disfunctional families.
- Carol (2015)
This romance drama with noir overtones set in the early 1950s begins with Chrismas shopping, and much of the film stays in the season.
- The Dead (1987)
Based on a James Joyce story about a dinner party on Epiphany in 1904 Dublin.
- Diner (1982)
Post-high-school buddies reunite and bond between Christmas and New Year's Eve. In one memorable scene a church's life-size nativity display is demolished.
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Have yourself a merry little orgy.
- Fanny & Alexander (1982)
An Ingmar Bergman holiday movie? Not really, but in the first hour we are provided with a lavish holiday feast and a stately house opulently decorated for Christmas. Skip the last couple hours if you don't want to be miserable for the holiday.
- Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
The story of a disfunctional family in this Woody Allen non-comedy centers around three lavish Thanksgiving feasts.
- Jagten = The Hunt (2012)
During the Christmas season in a small Danish village, a kindergarten teacher battles accusations that he is a pedophile.
- Lady in the Lake (1947)
Private eye Philip Marlow begins the case on Christmas Eve and interrupts a Christmas party to help solve the case.
- Less than Zero (1987)
A college student returning home to LA for Christmas allows the film to examine the culture of decadent youth and drug addiction.
- A Lion in Winter (1968)
The ultimate dysfunctional family Christmas gathering dates back to 1183 at the court of Henry II.
- Ma Nuit chez Maud = My Night with Maud (1968)
The night in question, in this witty, Oscar-nominated film that explores love, desire, philosophy, and Catholicism, is Christmas Eve.
- Metropolitan (1990)
A look at rich urban college kids through the eyes of a college student who isn't, while they are all on Christmas break.
- Ordinary People (1980)
Around the Christmas holiday a family is challenged by tragedy and dysfunction.
- The Rules of Attraction (2003)
How overprivileged college students spend their winter vacation told from the viewpoint of three central characters, a drug dealer, a virgin, and a bisexual.
- Scent of a Woman (1992)
A preppie accompanies a blind and cantankerous retired Army officer on a Thanksgiving trip to New York City.
- Stalag 17 (1953)
Who is the German spy? All the action in this World World II prisoner of war camp story occurs from "about a week before Christmas in '44" to "after dark on Christmas Day." It has the right mix of taut drama, cynicism, hilarity, and poignancy to be a great holiday picture.
Comedies, Light and Dark
Set during the winter holidays, these films are not all jolly, but they are mostly fun.
- 101 Reykjavík (2000)
This bleak comedy involves a 30 year old man, his mother, and their shared lover, plus Christmas and New Year's celebrations to boot.
- About a Boy (2006)
Hugh Grant's cynical character lives off the royalties of a Christmas song that his father wrote, but he has a Scrooge-like change of heart by the time the movie ends.
- The Apartment (1960)
The Best Picture of 1960 was a dark comedy-drama of corporate intrigue and womanizing set in winter and culminating at a troubling office Christmas party and a depressing (hopeful?) New Year's Eve.
- Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
Another Jimmy Stewart holiday classic. This tale of a modern witch takes place during the Christmas season, not Halloween.
- Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
It begins and ends at Christmastide with scenes that are oddly charming and delightful, although Bridget does tell carolers to bugger off.
- C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
A young gay Québécois comes of age dealing with his conservative father and family. Much of the story is told in Christmas scenes.
- El Día de la Bestial = The Day of the Beast (1996)
In this blackest of comedies, a priest, convinced that the antichrist will be born in Madrid on Christmas Day, goes on a rampage of sin to sell his soul just so he can stop the monster.
- A Fost Sau n-a Fost? = 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006)
It is almost Christmas in Romania, and old friends, who can't seem to get into the proper spirit, debate the question, "Was there or wasn't there a revolution in good old Vaslui?" If this doesn't sound too Christmasy, it is supposed to be a droll comedy and one character dresses up like Santa Claus.
- Last Holiday (2006)
After learning that she has about three weeks to live, a store clerk (Queen Latifah) decides to live life to the fullest at a grand hotel in Europe. The holiday season happens to be Christmas.but you hardly notice.
- Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
Girl trouble for Mickey Rooney's teenage hero stemming from trying to find a date for the Christmas Eve dance.
- Millions (2004)
When British brothers (aged 8 and 14) find a bag of money, how they react helps us explore the meaning of Christmas. Comes with a school nativity play with a minor miracle.
- Mixed Nuts (1994)
Christmas Eve at a crisis hot line, but its a screwball comedy. Most reviews say it is not very funny, but if you think Steve Martin colliding with rollerbladers carrying a Christmas tree is your kind of fun, check it out.
- Moonstruck (1987)
Set in December and filled with tacit holiday spirit with scenes sprinkled with Christmas decorations.
- The Ref (1994)
When a cat burglar holds a family hostage on Christmas Eve, he becomes a referee to their irritating bickering and squabbling. Ho Ho Ho.
- The Sure Thing (1985)
A road trip over winter break
from Ithaca University includes a Tahitian-themed Christmas party.
- The Thin Man (1934)
This classic murder mystery/comedy was set during the holidays. Pity the poor Christmas tree in Nick and Nora's posh New York apartment.
What makes a film a traditional holiday movie? There are those films that coat themselves with the trappings of the season with cloying sentimentality. Others explore the meaning of the holidays, instead of exploiting the sentiment. A few are just a lot of fun.
1980s and 1990s
- Almost Christmas (2017)
A dying patriarch (Danny Glover) asks his family for only one gift: to get along.
- Conte de Noël = A Christmas Tale (2008)
OK, a film by a post-New Wave director can't really be traditional, but this stylized holiday fable about alienation and reunion runs the gamut from bittersweet hilarity to heartbreaking affectation.
- Elf (2003)
Enjoyable (I've been told) in a grating sort of way.
- The Family Stone (2005)
It's fiancée versus future in-laws for this year's Christmas combat.
- The Holiday (2007)
House-swapping and romance during the holidays, and even one Hanukkah scene.
- How About You (2007)
A "feel-good" Irish film about a young caregiver
put in charge of a nursing home during Christmas and four grumpy old residents.
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
The non-animated movie [and only grinches will quibble that 2000 wasn't in this century].
- Joyeux Noël (2006)
Christmas in the trenches of WWI, based on a heart-warming true story.
- Just Friends (2005)
Will an unplanned hometown Christmas visit convert an old platonic love into something else?
- Krampus (2015)
"You better watch out!"
- Love Actually (2003)
Now in its second decade, no longer non-traditional, but a classic.
- New Year's Eve (2011)
A "Love Actually" wannabe set in NYC.
- Noel (2004)
An interweaving of five stories set in New York City on Christmas Eve that doesn't seem to have caught on as a Christmas classic.
- Pieces of April (2003)
A young woman living in a small New York City apartment hosts Thanksgiving dinner for her family for the first time and learns the importance of family.
- The Santa Clause 1, 2 & 3 (2002, 2003, 2007)
You don't have to watch the sequels.
- Serendipity (2001)
Begins and ends with Christmas shopping in a New York City department store.
- Unaccompanied Minors (2006)
Based on a This American Life segment about kids trapped in an airport on Christmas Eve.
- A Very, Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002)
Includes send-ups of It's a Wonderful Life and a dozen or so other holiday movies.
- Dutch (1991)
A Thanksgiving road trip with a teenager and the man who wants to date his mother.
- Home Alone 1, 2, 3 & 4 (1990, 1992, 1997, 2003)
Once was cute; twice was borderline; more than that is getting a bit sadistic.
- Home For the Holidays (1995)
An out-of-work single mother heads home for Thanksgiving with her eccentric family.
- Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
As it mocks corporate intrigue, it oozes in holiday sentiment.
- Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story (1983)
More droll than sappy, but still charming.
- Jingle All the Way (1996)
Arnold Schwarzenegger is no tough guy when it comes to holiday shopping.
- Little Women (1994)
Opens with a snowy Christmas scene, and the Christmas sentiment never seems to depart.
- National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
- The Preacher's Wife (1996)
Remake of The Bishop's Wife (see below) with Whitney Houston in the title role.
- Toy Story (1995)
Ends appropriately on Christmas morning.
- Trading Places (1983)
A comic morality play set in wintry Philadelphia.
- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
One man's struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving.
- When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Wherein twelve years of non-courtship end happily at the last of the film's several New Year Eve's parties. [Oops, have I included a spoiler?]
- While You Were Sleeping (1995)
During a snowy Christmas season in Chicago, a hopeless romantic is mistaken for the fiancée of a coma patient, but romance is not hopeless.
- You've Got Mail (1998)
An update of Shop around the Corner [see below].
The Missing Years
The Sixties, Seventies, and Early Eighties were the decades that produced dozens of TV holiday cartoon and Hallmark-type Christmas
specials, but they were surprisingly devoid of holiday-themed theater releases.
For Ardent Traditionalists (Pre-1960 films)
Some fanatics insist that the best holiday movies were produced before 1960. Some even prefer them in black and white. They are listed here in chronological order.
- Détresses et charité = The Christmas angel (1904)
Georges Méliès's tale of a begger girl who collapses in the snow. Whether or not it has a happy ending depends on the language version you watch.
- Little Women (1933)
As in the later version, opens with a snowy Christmas scene, and the Christmas sentiment never seems to depart.
- The Blue Bird (1940)
With Shirley Temple. A quest to find the bluebird of happiness on Christmas Eve.
- Remember the Night (1940)
A shoplifter and a D.A. and Christmas good will.
- Shop Around the Corner (1940)
As Christmas approaches, pen pals plan to meet in person. Bickering co-workers are in for a surprise.
- Meet John Doe (1941)
Fake news about an unemployed "John Doe" threatening suicide on Christmas Eve
sets up a comedy/drama about the meaning of "Be a better neighbor."
- Going My Way (1944)
Perhaps the sappiest and most sentimental of them all. Ends on Christmas Eve.
- Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Dishonesty and pretense has to be vanquished before this screwball Christmas tale can have a happy ending.
- I'll Be Seeing You (1944)
A man and a woman, both on leave for Christmas, meet on a train.
Sentimental, but also sad.
- It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Too grim for its time; now the No. 1 favorite Christmas film.
- Bishop's Wife (1947)
There's yet an interfering angel, but this one is as suave and charming as Cary Grant.
- A Bush Christmas (1947)
In the Australian outback, five children bond in a quest to recover a stolen horse.
- It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
Sappy, sentimental fare as lower class meet disguised upper class in a "vacant" mansion.
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
I do believe in Santa.
- Three Godfathers (1948)
John Wayne in a Christmas tale disguised as a Western.
- The Great Rupert (1950)
A down-on-their-luck Vaudeville family receives a miracle on Christmas Eve thanks to a squirrel.
- O. Henry's Full House (1952)
Three of the five stories are based on Christmas classics.
- Plymouth Adventure (1952)
Trials and tribulations aboard the Mayflower
- White Christmas (1954)
Sappy and sentimental and in color.
- We're No Angels (1955)
Three escaped convicts encounter a beleaguered shopkeeper's family at Christmastide. One of the few comedies Humphrey Bogart appeared in.
- Desk Set (1957)
A Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn romantic comedy set in pre-Christmas days and comes to a climax at an iconic Christmas office party. Be careful or Katherine Hepburn's character will make you want to grow up to become a librarian.
A Christmas Carol
There have been enough variations on A Christmas Carol that they get their own box. Actors who have protrayed Scrooge or someone very like Scrooge in versions not listed here include Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones, Susan Lucci, Cicely Tyson, Rowan Atkinson, Jack Palance, and Tori Spelling – plus fictional characters Mr. Magoo, Mickey Mouse, and Barbie.
- A Christmas Carol (1938)
With Reginald Owen as Scrooge, in what some say is the most authentic representation of Dickensian England.
- A Christmas Carol (1951)
With Alistair Sim as Scrooge, in what some say set the standard for film adaptations of this classic.
- Scrooge (1970)
With Albert Finney as Scrooge, in a musical version of the story.
- Scrooged (1988)
With Bill Murray as Frank Cross, a modernized Scrooge.
- A Muppet Christmas Carol (2005)
With Michael Caine playing it straight as Scrooge against the songs and antics of the Muppets.
Animated films can be warm or icy, lively and funny or sad and sardonic – and just what you need this time of the year.
- An American Tail (1989)
This tale of Jewish mice emigrating to America begins during a celebration of Hanukkah interrupted by Cossacks.
- Arthur Christmas (2011)
Question: "How does Santa deliver all those presents?" Answer: with comic dysfunction.
- Frozen (2014)
Is Frozen a Christmas movie? No. But it is a celebration of winter, and it is about caring, family, love, and grrrl power. That's not bad for this season.
- Home (2015)
Bumbling aliens invade the planet in a film set at Christmastide until it is not.
- The Junkie's Christmas (1993)
An animated short film narrated by the author of the tale, William S. Burroughs. When a down-and-outer tries to score a fix on Christmas Day, he finds a special holiday spirit instead.
- Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Tim Burton's stop-motion animated fantasy musical is not at all a horror, even as Halloween creatures led by Jack Skellington try to take over Christmas.
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The movie wends its way through a frozen and snowy London until a final Christmas scene.
- Polar Express (2005)
Creepy or delightful? You decide.
- Rise of the Guardians (2012)
Jack Frost and Nicholas St. North are among the superheroes who protect the hopes, beliefs, and imagination of children all over the world.
- Tōkyō Goddofāzāzu = Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
It is Christmas Eve in Tokyo in this animated film when three companions, including a transvestite and a teenage runaway, find an abandoned baby.
Ballet – is there any other Christmas ballet than Nutcracker? Here are a few filmed versions.
Musical Holiday Classics
Music is in the air at Christmastide, but in compiling this list, I was surprised how few films there are with performances, opera, and musicals specific to the season.
- Baryshnikov's (1977)
- Pacific Northwest Ballet (1986) – with Maurice Sendak's costumes and set design
- Balanchine's (1993)
- Kirov Ballet's (1994)
- Annie (1981)
Since our poor orphan is invited to spend the Christmas holiday at a billionaire's mansion, I'm surprised this isn't touted more as a holiday standard.
- Babes in Toyland (1934)
A Laurel and Hardy musical set
in the days leading up to Santa's annual trip, but not very Christmassy.
- Black Nativity (2013)
Based on a Langston Hughes play -- with traditional Christmas carols and new Christmas songs are sung in gospel style.
- Scrooge (1970)
With Albert Finney. See also under A Christmas Carol.
- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Lovers meet and and are separated by war. They meet years later on Christmas Eve. Since it is sung in French, don't expect a traditional Hollywood happy ending.
- La Boheme
In Puccini's bittersweet opera of high-spirited bohemians and the doomed love, three of the four acts do take place on Christmas Eve.
– Baz Luhrmann's production at the Sydney Opera House (2002)
– Franco Zeffirelli's Live from the Met production (1982)
– Robert Dornhelm's production in Munich (2008)
- Rent (2015) and Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2009)
Like La Boheme, on which it is based, tragic love set on subsequent Christmas Eves.