Despite only being in season for about a month of the year, Christmas movies are a booming business. Outside of big-screen offerings like Paul Feig’s Last Christmas and a new version of Black Christmas, the Hallmark Channel has produced a whopping 40 new festive movies for 2019 and Netflix has turned out a range of original films too.
Few of the new films produced each year will join the annual rotation of classics like The Muppet Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, but not everyone wants to watch the same films once a year every year. If you’re looking for something festive that you might have missed, or you just haven’t seen in a long time, or even something that isn’t about either Santa or Scrooge, we’ve got you covered.
By putting together an alternative Christmas movie guide, we’re haven’t come to re-adjudicate whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (Yes, it is, but is Die Hard 2?) or recommend a load of really bleak films that happen to take place around 25th December or remind you that films like Batman Returns and Prometheus take place at Christmas.
Instead, consider this your cut-out-and-keep guide to suitably Christmas-centric films that won’t appear in most other festive binge lists. Rather than pack out the list with horror movies, we’ve tried to put on a decent spread of films that haven’t already been covered in exhaustive detail elsewhere.
Few of them are considered classics and at least one of them is more “so bad it’s good” as the kids are calling it. But if you’ve been through all the old familiars, you might be looking for something new. Whether you’re watching for the first time or revisiting them for Christmas, here are 12 other festive films that you might not have had on your nice list up until now.
Anna and the Apocalypse
In John McPhail’s Scottish high-school-musical zombie comedy, Anna (Ella Hunt) finds herself fighting off ravening zombies and an odious teacher before the Christmas holidays kick off. Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t just a wacky post-Shaun of the Dead genre mashup, but an irresistible recent addition to the Christmas movie canon.
Just one year after its release, the film has already attained cult hit status and so we’re aware that we’re starting with one you’ll get a lot of recommendations for anyway. We’re including it here because it didn’t get the UK-wide distribution it richly deserved last December and it’s well worth catching up. Even with the recent oversaturation of zom-coms, this one finds a very specific niche and absolutely dominates it.
But is it Christmassy? Working all year round, the songbook is all bangers, no clangers, including numbers from an end-of-term Christmas concert that span from inappropriately horny ditties (It’s That Time Of Year) to the novelty singles that vie for Christmas number 1 (The Fish Wrap). Also, Anna’s weapon of choice against the living dead is a big candy cane with a lethal stabby end.
Await Further Instructions
Offering much more timely festive scares and chills, Await Further Instructions is a film that brings the whole family back home to gather around the telly at Christmas. The only trouble is that the family is riven by conflict, the home has been mysteriously encased in an impenetrable metallic substance, and the TV simply tells them to await further instructions.
And that’s when it starts getting weird. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian and written by Gavin Williams, this British indie horror is very much haunted by the ghost of Christmas present (Brexit is the subject of debate at one point) but also fixated on the rituals that lock us into submission, be they familial or institutional. For one thing, you probably shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV…
But is it Christmassy? Given the evident generational divide in the UK and elsewhere right now, this depiction of a family trying and failing to ignore their differences and have a pleasant Christmas might hit a bit close to home for some viewers. Still, it could also be read as a very different take on the nativity story as it escalates toward its Cronenbergian climax.
This might be one for those who are enjoying a vegetarian Christmas dinner, which is probably the only reason this whimsical family flick doesn’t pop up in more round-ups of festive favourites. When runt of the litter Babe is won by Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) at a local fair, he seems destined for the dinner table, right up until the little pig shows an aptitude for herding sheep instead.
Nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture), this George Miller-produced adaptation of Dick King Smith’s The Sheep-Pig is probably even better than you remember. It walks the line between saccharine sweetness and gallows humour with ease, creating an imaginative pocket reality that feels like one of the inspirations for Paul King’s Paddington movies. Miller later took the reins on the decidedly less Christmassy sequel, Babe: Pig In The City, but that’s a feature for another time.
But is it Christmassy? It’s not great news for the duck that winds up on the table instead, but this potent mix of light and dark generates plenty of warm and fuzzy feelings. As an extra guilt-trip for people who had pork earlier in the day, it was served up as the big movie premiere on BBC One’s Christmas schedule for 1998.
At the start of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasy Brazil, a government extraction team provide a less-than-elegant solution to a little girl’s worries that Santa won’t be able to find them because they don’t have a chimney. They cut through the Buttle family’s ceiling and abduct her father, mistaking him for air conditioning specialist-turned-terrorist Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro). Low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is then assigned by the government to resolve the matter of Mr Buttle’s accidental death during interrogation.
Throughout the film, Gilliam uses Christmassy motifs on the soundtrack for foreboding purposes rather than spreading cheer. The joy of the season is portrayed as a luxury for the privileged, who aren’t as affected by the horrific bureaucracy that the film posits. Many of the movies on our list grapple with different aspects of the season as opposed to the usual holly-jolly cheer, but none of them makes it quite as sinister as this.
But is it Christmassy? From the opening sequence to the Santa-suit-wearing snatchers who appear later in the film, the Christmas bits aren’t the uplifting parts of this modern classic. But hey, if you’re looking for Christmas cheer from Gilliam, pop 12 Monkeys on and enjoy a classic festive airport scene!
At one point dismissed another of the myriad Pulp Fiction rip-offs that littered the latter half of the 1990s, Doug Liman’s Go ranks among the most underappreciated films of its decade. Divided into three chapters set on the same night, the movie follows a broke checkout cashier, a pissed-off drug dealer, and a pair of clueless soap stars on a convoluted Christmas Eve run-around in Los Angeles.
Although Quentin Tarantino made an indelible impression on the decade and its crime movies, John August’s script rises above the other knock-offs. The film delivers a fresh, hilarious, and original take on a by-then familiar formula by foregrounding younger, more down-to-earth characters. Featuring relatively early breakout roles for Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Polley, William Fichtner, and Katie Holmes, it’s arguably a bridge from one decade to the next.
But is it Christmassy? Arguably, the festivities are only the backdrop to this one, but by the time all of the blanks have been filled in and all the characters’ arcs are resolved, it brings several of the major players together for a fairly unique Christmas morning at the very end.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Plenty of Shane Black films could comfortably occupy this spot on our list, given his penchant for writing scripts set during the most wonderful time of year, but for now, we’ll refer to 1996’s sleeper-agent action-comedy The Long Kiss Goodnight, a Renny Harlin-directed gem that rarely gets the kudos that it earns, not least for doing the amnesiac killer thing long before Jason Bourne did.
The film sees small-town school teacher and loving mother Samantha Caine (A.K.A. CIA assassin Charley Baltimore, played by Geena Davis), team up with seedy private investigator Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L Jackson) to recover her missing memories and eliminate an onslaught of bad guys in time for Christmas. The film has Black’s sharpest script of the era, teeing up his later festive directorial efforts like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys.
But is it Christmassy? The film opens with Samantha playing a starring role in the local Christmas parade (“Mrs Claus is hot!!!”) and keeps things seasonal by having Mitch constantly nudge the newly awakened Charley to look after her alter-ego’s young daughter. On top of that, there’s at least one all-timer of a death involving Christmas decorations.
Night of the Comet
Like Anna and the Apocalypse, this is a festive zombie comedy that you might not have seen, only this one has been described by Joss Whedon as a key influence in creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 1984’s Night of the Comet starts on 11 days before Christmas when, for the first time in 65 million years, the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, an event which reduces most of the planet’s population to red dust and turns many others into undead killers.
Aiming to make a B-movie with strong female characters in the centre of a post-apocalyptic suburban landscape, writer-director Thom Eberhardt gives us two smart-aleck teenage sisters, Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney), trying to survive the crisis while dispensing generous amounts of snark. It’s fundamentally unserious fare, but it’s elevated by the witty script and performances.
But is it Christmassy? There’s a super-Christmassy mall trawl set to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, and the action culminates with a confrontation in a secret underground lab on Christmas Day. Buffy didn’t have too many seasonal specials, so the similar blend of teen comedy and supernatural horror on display here will make a strong chaser to Season 3’s ‘Amends’, if you’re so inclined.
The Night Before
Here’s another movie that does it all in one night. Following a Christmas Eve ritual, The Night Before finds three friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie) making one last bid to find the hallowed, invite-only Nutcracker Ball at a secret location in New York City. Although fatherhood and fame beckon for two of them, the other is determined to make sure their annual tradition ends with a bang rather than a whimper.
Rogen and Gordon-Levitt reunite with their 50/50 director Jonathan Levine here, and while this is a much more ribald and raucous outing, it’s also just as heartfelt and hilarious as their previous work. On top of the easy chemistry between the three leads (Mackie is especially good here), the film also boasts terrific supporting turns from Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer, Tracy Morgan and the mighty Michael Shannon.
But is it Christmassy? If you’re not the type to go out adventuring on Christmas Eve yourself, this is a near-perfect pick for the evening of the 24th, capturing all the anticipation of the big day in a deceptively sweet romp.
Speaking of Michael Shannon, he’s front and centre in this certifiably insane confection from 2017. Starring alongside the likes of Judy Greer, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Ian McShane, and Thomas Lennon, he plays general store owner Maynard Grieger, who gives much more than he can to his community of oddballs and furries. While undertaking a moonshine-fuelled bender in a gorilla costume, he’s mistaken for Bigfoot, prompting renewed interest in Pottersville and its alleged sasquatch.
Festive movie aficionados will recognise Pottersville as the name of the alternate Bedford Falls where George Bailey was never born in It’s A Wonderful Life, and true to that name, this unaccountably star-studded movie feels like a Christmas movie gone wonderfully wrong. We’ve all seen Shannon’s eyes go wide in key scenes throughout his career, but they’re on blast pretty much all the way through this misjudged comedy, giving him the air of a man who can’t believe what film he’s in, or that any of the people around him have become stuck in it with him. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing with this one…
But is it Christmassy? As Bigfoot, Maynard brings the whole community together, albeit with the goal of hunting and killing his furry alter-ego. Greer is a constantly undervalued actor who has been much better in even worse films, but her sincere delivery of the line “You thought you had to become Bigfoot in order to save this town, but it turns out you saved it just by being you” is goddamn Oscar-worthy.
Produced long before we had the “I made a bot watch all the movies and then write one” meme, the fourth instalment of the Rocky series looks much like a 90-minute distillation of what the first three films did. It’s basically wall-to-wall training montages, power ballads, and dramatic boxing scenes. Depending what you’re in the mood for, it’s either the best or worst sequel in the series.
Granted, there’s heartache (and very little actual redemption) in a plot that starts with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) being killed in the ring by massive Russian supervillain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), but there’s a spirited build-up to the implausible Christmas Day rematch. It’s especially worth revisiting in a double bill with Creed II, a film that takes full advantage of the lay-up for a grudge match and finds new dimensions in one of the daftest sequels ever made.
But is it Christmassy? Obviously, you want to see Rocky bashing Drago’s teeth in and winning over the Soviet crowd on Christmas Day, but the snowy training montage is just the ticket to get you cheering as you sit, full of Christmas dinner, watching someone else do the hard work. Or you can be more like Balboa and spend the holiday shoulder-pressing a wheelbarrow loaded with your loved ones – it’s entirely up to you.
Knowing our readers’ geek credentials, we know there’s less chance that you haven’t caught up on Shazam! yet than there may be for general audiences, but it merits a mention anyway. Iron Man 3, Batman Returns, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may have Christmas going on in the background, but for our money, this is a comic book movie that deserves to become an annual fixture.
It’s not only a funnier, more enjoyable film than anything else we’ve seen out of DC’s recent crop of movies, but also a film that throws back to the family movies we’d watch over the holiday period in years past, with its Ghostbusters-inspired creature effects and its talented young ensemble. All that aside, it’s unexpectedly lovely, and well worth a catch-up if you missed it in cinemas.
But is it Christmassy? To go into further details would spoil a nice surprise, but there’s a key moment in which Billy Batson shares a gift with his foster siblings that made our small hearts grow at least three sizes. What could be more festive than that?
Before The Florida Project, writer-director Sean Baker used iPhone cameras to shoot 2015’s Tangerine, a wild indie comedy about a newly paroled transsexual sex worker called Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) who blazes a high-heeled trail of chaos across Los Angeles in search of the pimp who broke her heart.
Los Angeles has pretty scorching weather all year round and the sunshine belies the Christmas Eve setting, but the film’s seasonal credentials are propped up by the unexpected tenderness of its musings on love and friendship at the year’s end. With a shortage of conventional Christmas classics from the last decade, Tangerine is certainly in with a shout as one of the best festive movies of the 2010s.
But is it Christmassy? Like many of the other big Christmas Eve romps on this list, the film barrels around with manic energy, but it makes the quieter moments all the more impressive. It’s a film that can easily traverse from the screaming histrionics of a pissed-off Sin-Dee fighting off a dozen sex workers in a tiny motel room, to the small, sincere spectacle of a heart-to-heart in a laundromat. “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch” indeed.