Well, the holidays are upon us yet again. Presents are wrapped. Stockings are stuffed. Deliberately ugly sweaters are purchased. Most importantly (for the purposes of this article anyway), movies are watched. We all have a short list of holiday favorites. Claymation bangers. Furry puppet takes on Dickensian classics. Sadistic cat and mouse heists that showcase the dangers of parental neglect. Timeless black and white staples that are beloved by all creeds even though the main theme is a criticism of capitalistic greed and the benefits of an at least partially socialistic economy. These movies are so deeply ingrained in our collective psyches that it can feel like a chore to get through all of them.
So I guess it wasn’t all that surprising that the non-traditional Christmas movie genre squeezed its way, John McClane style, down our chimneys. I want to say it was almost a decade ago that I started seeing the arguments online as to whether or not Die Hard was a Christmas movie. Like other internet optical illusions, it doesn't seem to quite fit into either box, does it? It’s an action flick that takes place on Christmas Eve with merry motifs woven into its pun-filled delights. It is fun because it is not burdened by any traditional themes, yet it is still dressed for the holidays. And, you know, just way more action. And killing. And jokes about killing people. On Christmas. The movie is literally summed up by its own famous elevator scene.
Now I have a machine gun ho ho ho.
And so, in the spirit of Die Hard, I present to you in no particular order a short list of some of my favorite non-traditional holiday movies that will feel fresh and maybe add a little kick, like an extra shot of rum in your eggnog.
1. Four Christmases (2008)
Alright, hear me out on this one. Yes, I know Christmas is in the title. I know this movie wants to be considered a Christmas movie, but that’s what I think makes it so interesting. It’s my answer to the question of what is on the other end of the Die Hard spectrum of peripheral holiday movies—a rom-com that just doesn’t quite fully decorate the tree.
Here we have a modern couple, Vince Vaugn and Reese Witherspoon, who revel in the idea of not following the mold. They do whatever they want together and have no intentions of marrying or having kids or being with any of their family during the holidays. Every year, they make excuses and plan trips to exotic locales until one year they are caught and forced back into the Christmas carousel of family visits.
I would say the movie would be better beloved if it didn’t suffer from a pretty forgettable third act, but man is it a fun ride. Apparently, the leads hated each other on set due to acting style differences, but their onscreen chemistry is perfect here. Now that we’ve had a break from the seemingly endless string of fast talking Vince Vaugn comedies, I think we can appreciate his style a little more here in hindsight. The movie is also full of great casting. Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight are each great in their own way as Brad and Kate’s parents. Add Jon Favreau, Kristin Chenoweth, and Katy Mixon to the list of off-beat siblings and in-laws, and you have a movie rife with laugh out loud moments (seriously, the movie is worth it for the Favreau/Mixon wing chomping round of Taboo alone).
So why am I labeling it as a non-traditional Christmas movie? Well, it just doesn’t have a whole lot of Christmas in it. I mean, yes, there are trees and lights and even a mega-church live action rendition of the Nativity scene, but it just doesn’t give off a holiday vibe. If anything, the movie is a fun spotlight to the harsh truth that we sometimes don’t like our families and don’t always want to be with them around the holidays. Kind of like being forced to watch a Christmas movie over and over again (I’m looking at you A Christmas Story). It’s not perfect, but I guarantee you will laugh.
2. Reindeer Games (2000)
Woah. We’re just two movies in and I bet you think I’m crazy. Call this the non-traditional list of non-traditional Christmas movies.
First things first, this is NOT a good movie, and if you don’t have the tongue-in-cheek MST3K sensibilities of watching bad movies for fun, you should just avoid this one altogether. Like a misfit elf that cobbles together a horrendous toy that still manages to delight children in ways completely unintended, this movie holds the rare esteem of being a movie so terrible it’s actually quite fun to watch.
Ben Affleck is just so laughably bad in this one. There are close-up scenes of his dumb face where you see that he is trying to convey some sort of complex emotion that makes you wonder what emotional cues the director was actually giving him in the first place. Charlize Theron is pretty open about this being her least favorite film and only did it to work with John Frankenheimer—sadly his last film in a storied career.
The plot follows a man just sprung from prison impersonating his murdered cell mate so he can have sex with the woman said murdered cell mate was writing to from prison. Yep. From that great foundation, the plot keeps throwing ridiculous curveballs at us until we submit. Mostly, it’s a heist movie where a group of dinguses attempt to knock off an Indian casino somewhere in Michigan on Christmas Eve. See this movie for Gary Sinise’s gloriously long hair that will surely conjure visions of Nick Cage in Con Air. Also, if you can stick it out to the end, the final twist is actually quite good.
3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
What’s not to love about a modern LA meta-noir set on Christmas Eve? And I do mean meta. Here we have a supremely fast-talking, anxiety-ridden Robert Downey Jr. as Harry, our leading man and somewhat reliable, albeit shaky narrator. Harry is a thief from New York who, stumbling into a casting room to avoid the police, finds himself at a Hollywood Christmas party. He is being considered for a part in a crime thriller and, at the producer’s request, is sent along on a job with the resident private eye advisor, Gay Perry (played fantastically by Val Kilmer) to soak in some gravitas and, you guessed it, finds himself ensnared in an actual web of crimes. Michelle Monaghan plays a femme fatale never-was actress with childhood ties to Harry to help thicken the plot. There is a vibe in this one that LA is another land of misfit toys where people come to make it big and end up just scraping by.
The meta-narration is clever and doesn’t feel overdone, though sometimes it’s too quick for its own good. What really sends this movie over the top for me is the absolute brilliant comedic chemistry between RDJ and Val Kilmer. They play off of each other so well that the plot almost becomes secondary. Many people credit Iron Man for bringing back Downey’s career, but I actually believe it was this one that made people realize he was still a versatile actor.
There is one elephant in the room here that I feel compelled to address, and it seems to be a theme amongst comedies in the mid to late aughts. Val Kilmer plays a gay character, and, while I think it mostly works, there are definitely some moments that would not fly today. This includes at least one gay slur being used. If there is one interesting thing to take away from the movies of this era, it’s that they can be measuring sticks to see how far we’ve progressed as a culture away from being casually homophobic for laughs.
Anyway, it’s a small portion of this movie and in my opinion still well worth the watch. A few grinchy moments are not enough to steal this non-traditional Christmas.
4. Tangerine (2015)
Traversing to the other end of the gender sensitivity spectrum we have Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Shot entirely on three Iphones, the film thrusts you into the wildly chaotic, fragile, and drama-filled world of transgender prostitutes on some of LA’s roughest streets on Christmas Eve. It is heavy on the realism (Mya Taylor was just starting to take female hormones and has been open with her past as a prostitute) and is more of a slice-of-life documentary than anything plot-oriented. Halfway through you think you can feel the movie mellowing out, but then you realize that it’s not. You are just starting to understand and feel for these characters. Because they are flawed, sure, but they are beautiful as well. The final scene is just a perfect summation of that theme. That we are, all just humans trying to live our lives, and ultimately we have something if we have friends and people that care about us.
I think of this movie when I watch a lot of modern ‘elevated’ movies because they are all just so heavy-handed in comparison. This movie is a straight up ‘Aunt Pam got drunk off the holiday punch again’ slap in the face, but it is subtle in the way it presents itself. It does not preach to us. Hell, it doesn’t really care what we think at all. It doesn't have time for our semantic bullshit. It simply gives us a voyeuristic view into a perspective that most are not accustomed to, and because of that, we are compelled to find connections instead of differences, and that is what makes it such a powerful piece of art.
Have I made your heart swell two sizes too big yet for this one?
See it. It’s an experience.
5. The Ice Harvest (2005)
And now we come to the last movie on my list, and if I’m being honest, the movie that drove me to create this list in the first place. Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest is not a happy movie. It can be a real downer actually, but that is what allows its offbeat Christmas noir style to be effective. John Cusack stars as a midwest mob lawyer who’s decided to rip off his boss and leave with the cash along with his partner in crime (played here by Billy Bob Thornton). They’d like to leave, but the weather just won’t cooperate. And so, one last Christmas Eve in Wichita Falls.
There are just enough comedic moments to soften some of the ennui and nihilism. Cusack, who has always played a great sad boi, is perfectly cast here. By all accounts, he is not a great person. He has a failed marriage under his belt, seems to also have a bad relationship with his kids, and clearly has a questionable moral compass, but you can’t help rooting for him. He appears genuinely aware that he has to turn his life around, and to do that he needs to get the hell out of the Midwest, and to do that he needs one big score. Add everything together, along with a cold and rainy Midwestern Christmas Eve, and you have fertile soil for a noir.
It’s not a perfect movie. Connie Nielson is a bit too over the top in her femme fatale deliveries (although you could make the argument that is typical of the genre). The movie definitely has a lot of casual violence and not enough interesting female characters. I can only tell you that I love this movie because I was down and out during the holidays one year and it somehow managed to make me feel better. Misery loves company, and there really are some nicely timed zingers and laughs along the way. Is heart-warmingly depressing a thing? Just me?
That concludes my list. I highly encourage you to add them to your seasonal lists. And check them twice. Ok, no more Christmas puns, I promise.
What are your favorite non-traditional holiday movies?!