Five of the best alternative Christmas films

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By Ben Glennan, Ancient History, Third Year

Well, it’s Christmas. At least that’s what the calendars are saying. Apparently, it’s traditionally a time for fun, for family. But as we all know, it’s really about the films.

There is a decidedly un-festive chill in the air this time around: where previously we’d have dusted off our old videos of Home Alone at our auntie’s, this week we’re more likely to be streaming it in the safety of our own bubble, for fear of dusting off Auntie. This Christmas is shaping up to be the least typical holiday in decades, but I am of the firm belief that we should adapt to this unusual yuletide. Why don’t we embrace the strange, forget about the typical Christmas movie experience, this isn’t exactly a typical Christmas is it?

Let’s double down on the different, if nothing else the hours of online shopping for presents surely has shown to some degree the rampant consumerism of it all, the abuse of tradition etc. etc.

I present a Christmas film list, an anti-Christmas film list, with hopes that this year, you will join me in celebrating the season through tenuous, and unconvincing argument about how Die Hard (1988) just isn’t a Christmas film obviously not how could you even argue it is you’re blind.

Quick clause to swerve any confusion over what constitutes a Christmas film; to be labelled a “Christmas Film”, a feature’s plot either deals explicitly with the holiday, or it is a framing device for the narrative. A simple way to think about it, if the events of the film took place two months later, would it still all make sense without the Christmas connection? To be honest, it’s often easier if you don’t think about it.


Leonardo DiCaprio, Lidia Sabljic, Karrie MacLaine, and Hilary Rose Zalman in Catch Me If You Can (2002) | Courtesy of IMDb / Dreamworks, LLC

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Why do the Yankees always win? Nobody can keep their eyes off the pinstripes.

It’s just great. Tom Hanks’ accent alone makes it a success, coupled with DiCaprio’s pathological con-man and the 60’s backdrop – it’s the coolest cat and mouse flick of the century. Based on true events, Francis William Abagnale Jr. (DiCaprio) is a sixteen-year-old growing up in 60’s New York when suddenly, financial downturns and his parent’s divorce send him into a criminal tailspin as he cons his way across the country, successfully imitating doctors, lawyers and quite impressively, an airline pilot.

Naturally, this doesn’t fly with FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) and the film unfolds at a constant pace that draws you into the battle between the two.

Multiple Christmas scenes occur, each seeing exchanges between the two leads as they remarkably always confront each other on Christmas Day. This future classic is conveniently currently streaming on BBC iPlayer if you don’t have access to other paid services.


Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny Devito in Batman Returns (1992) | Courtesy of IMDb / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Batman Returns (1992)

My dear penguins, we stand on a great threshold! It's okay to be scared; many of you won't be coming back.

One that needs less of an introduction, Batman Returns is another of Burton’s Christmas drenched outings, though is obviously not the festive focused feature that The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) is.

This superhero sequel sees Michael Keaton return to the cowl, this time round facing off against the idiosyncratic Danny DeVito as the amusing and wonderfully disgusting Penguin. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman still steals the show as the unhinged anti-hero, coupled with the dark and gothic Gotham cityscape that does nothing to block out the real-world chill, this film doesn’t warm us with Christmas family cheer.

It none the less stands as a great sequel that is synonymous with alternative Christmas film.


Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) | Courtesy of John Bramley / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Why in pluperfect hell would you pee on a corpse?

Less family friendly, but who cares, you’re not seeing them anyway, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a slick Christmas-time caper that brings together two great cinematic hooks: L.A. noir crime and an angry gay Val Kilmer.

Much like his more recent buddy detective comedy The Nice Guys (2016), Shane Black’s 2005 outing with Robert Downey Jr. and Kilmer flew under the radar but is well worth seeking out. While not as polished as The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just another example of why the Lethal Weapon (1987) writer is the best at what he does: action packed, irreverent buddy detective movies.

Drawing on the noir tropes of private dicks and murder mystery, it’s Downey and Kilmer’s back and forth that really make the film memorable, with more than a few golden lines. Black’s signature of setting his films at Christmas (on display with Downey reuniting with him in Iron Man 3 (2013)) is evident in this one, though the Santa hats are pretty much the only clue as to the time of year.

On and off various streaming sites, this could be a good last minute stocking filler for a cinephile otherwise.


Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol (2015) | Courtesy of IMDb / Wilson Webb

Carol (2015)

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes

Carol is unique in this list in that it feels both warm and cold at the same time.

That’s a very wishy-washy statement that hopefully becomes clear when you watch it. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play lovers held back by their places in society and society itself in this visually stunning romance set against a Christmas in 1950’s New York. It’s not the attention-grabbing spectacle of Batman but it is no less gripping, though you will have to devote your attention to it – it isn’t exactly a family friendly watch.

The cosy interiors, the snug coats and soft light of mid-century department stores are what transport the viewer to a vision of Christmas that they may have forgotten ever existed this year.


Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges (2008) | Courtesy of IMDb

In Bruges (2008)

What, on a job? Here in Bruges? Here in Bruges? On a job?

In Bruges follows two hitmen laying low over the Christmas period in Bruges after a botched job.

This film is darkly hilarious and at times utterly depressing, walking the line perfectly. The boring and dreary depiction of the Belgian jewel might hit a bit too close to home for some this Christmas, but Colin Farrell’s hilarious one-liners are more than worth sticking around for, with Ralph Fiennes being a delightfully furious addition.

There are five anti/pseudo/alternative Christmas films that should tide one over during festive lockdown, but if that’s not enough then look at Rocky IV (1985), The Thing (1982), Brazil (1985), and Black Christmas (1974). I know I said five but who cares, it’s my list, I can do what I want. Merry Christmas!

Featured: Dreamworks, LLC., IMDb, John Bramley, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Wilson Webb


Will you be watching any of these alternative Christmas films?

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