It’s hard to justify the amount of Christmas content out there, and the pile just gets higher every year. Sure, there are the must-see Christmas movies that would be downright blasphemy to miss. Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, Elf and A Christmas Story are all so great I can watch each of them more than once. A Muppet Family Christmas, Merry Christmas Mr. Bean and It’s a Bundyful Life are some of the all-time great holiday specials.
Then we start reaching. They can keep retelling us How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but it’s the same every time. Bill Murray‘s Scrooged is a watchable 1980s take on A Christmas Carol. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Jingle All the Way has somehow crept its way into my rotation, so bafflingly good it’s like witnessing a train wreck you can’t peel your eyes from. And of course, Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown are all mainstays.
When it comes to the bottom of the barrel, 2004’s Surviving Christmas starring Ben Affleck, Danny DeVito‘s 2006 bomb Deck the Halls and Home Alone 3-5 aren’t even worth the elbow grease to scrape them out. Then there’s the crap the Hallmark Channel forks down our throats every year like dry turkey.
But amidst the good and the bad, there are those often forgotten Christmas movies not always found on television or the Netflix algorithm. They’re the less obvious holiday classics when you’ve either exhausted all that’s worth watching or are struggling to find more Christmas viewing you can actually tolerate.
Good Movies That You Forgot Were Christmas Movies
Here’s a list of low-key Christmas movies you may not find played a gazillion times each year but are certainly worth watching.
1Lethal Weapon (1987)
Hardly a deep cut, Die Hard is the go-to Christmas action movie. It’s so good it tends to overshadow another Christmas classic for those craving some Yuletide homicide. 1987’s Lethal Weapon was actually released over a year before Die Hard in July 1988.
Lethal Weapon birthed a franchise that includes three sequels and a TV series. The film has everything you’d want from a gritty ’80s cop flick: Car chases, hostage negotiations, mullets, sexy sax music. Watch Mel Gibson fight back his Australian accent while getting into shootouts in Christmas tree lots, holding a gun to his own mouth while watching Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol and being almost drowned by Gary Busy in an inch-high rain puddle.
2Trading Places (1983)
As two of the biggest SNL stars in the prime of their careers, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd together onscreen is comedy gold. Watching now, Trading Places is a reminder of when comedies didn’t resort to the lowest common denomination of fart jokes and cheap laughs to appeal to general audiences. This is a comedy movie for comedy lovers; when a script held weight and actors stuck to it, and the premise was so well-structured it was just as much a social commentary as an escape from the everyday.
Oh yeah, and Aykroyd dressed as Santa eats a salmon:
This retelling of The Prince and the Pauper is so damn perfect, set during the Christmas and New Year’s season in snowy Philadelphia. Pre-Beverly Hills Cop Murphy’s character rises to wealth while Aykroyd’s businessman character sinks to rock bottom all because of a $1 bet between two wealthy businessmen who experiment with nature vs. nurture.
Garnering a cult following, Screwed is a movie you’ll either love or hate. As is Norm Macdonald, it’s an acquired taste. Norm plays a butler whose only Christmas wish is for a new uniform he never gets from his boss played by Elaine Stritch. Reaching his wit’s end, he and friend Rusty (Dave Chappelle) kidnap her dog for ransom. Not the most original premise, but one that pays off with some laughs.
What you get here are two of the best standup comics of all-time teaming together to see if they’d translate to film. We’d all later learn that neither of their movie careers would take off and perhaps the stage is truly their natural habitat. That’s not to say Screwed is bad. One saving grace is its strong comedic cast that includes the aforementioned Stritch as well as Sarah Silverman, Sherman Hemsley and Danny DeVito bringing some dark humor as a mortician somewhat reminiscent of his Penguin portrayal.
4Batman Returns (1992)
Because of the direction Joel Schumacher took the franchise in the films to follow, it can be easy to forget how good Tim Burton‘s 1991 follow-up to his 1989 classic really is. Michael Keaton suits up one last time as Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer squeezes into skin-tight latex to the joy of young boys everywhere as Catwoman, Danny DeVito is Penguin in Stan Winston makeup, and Christopher Walken is his natural creepy self as Max Shreck.
When you break it all down, Batman Returns is about as twisted as a Tim Burton film gets and its Christmas theme is the perfect contrast to its darkness. It begins with deformed baby Oswald Cobblepot being thrown into the sewer by his unloving parents, surviving to become the nose-severing, fish-eating, body-part-collecting Penguin.
A gang of killer clowns terrorizes the public. And an organ grinder shoots up the Gotham Christmas tree lighting with a minigun. Bruce Wayne is an even bigger loner than before and spends his Christmas staring at a fire. Max Shrek shoves Selena Kyle out of a window and cats drink her blood to revive her as Catwoman.
It’s hard to believe this movie was intended for children at all. I guess it’s what you got away with back in a time when nobody really understood how Compact Discs worked.
5Iron Man 3 (2013)
Albeit subtle, Iron Man 3 establishes itself as a low-key Christmas film from the start. It begins at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999 before flashing to the present (2013) where we see Tony Stark trying out his new Mark 42 armor while dancing to a lounge-style “Jingle Bells.” The film mostly takes place in Miami and Malibu, so there’s no fake movie potato flake snowmaking Christmas obvious. But it’s there. Christmas music and decorations are prevalent and holiday greetings are shared throughout the movie, almost as if it were an afterthought.
In fact, it was. Writer/director Shane Black said at a junket that setting the film during Christmas came into evolution during the writing process from co-writer Drew Pearce. Christmas, you see, acts as a great equalizer. Whether you’re good, evil or just happen to be there, everyone in the film is experiencing this time of year whether they want to or not. Black has a history of using this tactic of writing Christmas into his films, most specifically Lethal Weapon.
6Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
Jaws is bigger. He’s meaner. He’s more robotic. And this time…he wants retribution. That would have been a terrible tagline for this fourth installment that’s at least not as bad as its preceding Jaws 3-D, which according to this film didn’t even happen. So let’s return to Amity Island for the holidays where Lorraine Gary reprises her role as Ellen Brody whose husband Martin has since died – apparently due to a heart attack induced by shark fear! Seems legit.
7Grumpy Old Men (1993)
Taking place over a cold and snowy Minnesota winter, Grumpy Old Men isn’t a Christmas-centric movie either. But a large part of it takes place during the holidays, with some of the most dramatic and emotional moments culminating on Christmas Eve.
Hollywood vets Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon play best friend/arch-nemesis neighbors vying for the same woman, with great onscreen chemistry that made the film a blockbuster after its opening on Christmas Day 1993. Other legends include Ann-Margret, Buck Henry, Daryl Hannah the hilarious Burgess Meredith. The film is a bit of everything: One-part buddy comedy, one-part love story, and one-part family drama. It’ll make you laugh, make you well up and warm your heart – pretty much everything you want in a holiday classic.
NERD NOTE: Stick around for the Grumpy Old Men outtakes during the end credits. It’s actually the funniest part of the whole movie.
8The Children (2008)
I don’t know what it is about horror movies, but they take the most innocent things and make them something you’ll fear for the rest of your life. Clowns, for example. Wind chimes and rocking chairs. Dolls. And of course, children. Hence we have the 2008 British film, The Children. The film starts off as a fun family Christmas get-together and quickly turns into the parents being outnumbered by their sadistically cunning offspring.
Children are unpredictable and this film exploits the fact that we should never underestimate them. There are some great setups to some pretty gruesome violence. Overall, a very clever horror film that also offers some terrific acting by its child stars.
9Friday After Next (2002)
The Friday movies get progressively worse, and by this film, they’re almost out of steam. Rebottling the lightning of the original 1995 cult classic is nearly impossible. Although its first sequel has some really funny new characters. And this third installment isn’t all the way terrible. To give the franchise, and more specifically Ice Cube credit, each film is responsible for launching the careers of Chris Tucker, Mike Epps, and Katt Williams respectively.
Epps returns as Day-Day in Friday After Next, which also sees Terry Crews in one of his earliest roles. A hoodlum in a Santa suit is striking South Central. And he has stolen the rent money from Craig (Cube) and Day-Day who need to find a way to make it back before they get evicted. Don’t look for too much originality here. It’s dumb, it’s fun, it’s rated R and it uses a bunch of words that just wouldn’t fly today. With the fourth and final installment Last Friday looking it’s a go after years of rumors, let’s hope they manage to muster up some of the magic of the original film.
Okay, this is a more obvious pick, which is why I’m tacking it onto the end. But for a long time, 1984’s Gremlins was never part of mainstream Christmas viewing. Perhaps it was deemed too violent or scary for major networks to air. Only in recent years have I noticed it popping up on TV and theatres with special screenings during the holidays. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins is a true classic that doesn’t need much explanation. You know the deal. No bright lights and don’t feed after midnight.
Now, can we discuss the getting wet thing? It’s established early on that even a small bit of water can make the mogwai multiply like crazy. Yet shuffling, caroling and falling in the snow have absolutely no effect. Gremlins are absolutely fine in the snow as they terrorize Kingston Falls all night. Are we to believe that the reptilian gremlins have a stronger threshold to water than the mammalian mogwai? This may be a subject of discussion that will never truly be resolved.
Got any more suggestions for some of the less obvious or too often forgotten Christmas movies? Let us know in the comments section below.
Honorable Mentions: More Christmas Movies
Did you enjoy our list of Christmas movies? Hopefully, this mix of both old Christmas movies and recent Christmas movies inspire you, your friends and family to watch something besides The Christmas Story or Elf this holiday season.
We’ll leave you with one more thing. Here are some moves that are still great Christmas movies, they just didn’t make our top 10 list.