You won’t find nativity scenes, elves, or Santa Claus in any of these movies. The number one film doesn’t even mention Christmas. What sort of top movie list puts a campy ’80s horror flick directly above the (arguably) greatest American film ever made? A list of unconventional Christmas movies, that’s what! And these are about as unconventional as you can get:
10. About a Boy (2002): Cynical and immature, Will manages to get by in life off the royalties from a Christmas song his father wrote. When he encounters Marcus, a precocious yet lonely young boy, both of their lives will be transformed for the better. This film manages to tackle some of the more difficult realities of the holiday season–loneliness, family issues, even suicide–in a light-hearted and affecting way. “No man is an island.” John Donne wrote that. Or maybe it was Jon Bon Jovi.
9. What Would Jesus Buy? (2007): A documentary following the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, led by the charismatic Reverend Billy. This hilarious-yet-sobering film focuses on the consumerism and commercialism that has overtaken the Christmas season. My favorite scene features the entire choir outside of Walmart’s headquarters screaming and wailing as they perform an exorcism on the demons of consumerism.
8. Frozen River (2008): In the days leading up to Christmas, a single mom (Melissa Leo) at the end of her rope embarks on a dangerous partnership to keep her home from foreclosure. Located on the border of Canada, she and a young Native American woman are drawn into the illegal activity of smuggling immigrants across the border. A compelling and gripping drama, Frozen River captures a number of American cultural themes–independence, rising above circumstances, and doing whatever it takes for one’s family.
7. Millions (2004): A seven-year-old boy finds the best Christmas present: a large bag filled with money falls right into his play fort. With the help of some saints, the spirited (and spiritual) boy chooses to spend the money helping those in need around him. Danny Boyle’s imaginative family film reveals that goodness might possibly trump greed if one has the heart of a child.
6. Citizen Kane (1941): “Rosebud.” The final words on a dead tycoon’s lips don’t seem to make much sense unless you follow the rise and fall of his entire empire. Orson Welles’ masterpiece, and arguably the best film of all time, could also be considered a Christmas film. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but let’s just say Rosebud and Christmas have a strong connection.
5. Gremlins (1984): Let’s say you get a mogwai. There are a couple rules that come with this strange Christmas present. First, don’t get your mogwai wet. Second, keep your mogwai out of bright lights, especially sunlight. Third, don’t feed your mogwai after midnight. A family finds out the hard way what happens when the rules are broken and an army of green monsters–gremlins–invades their quiet town on Christmas. I remember watching this campy cult classic when I was a kid, but it’s definitely not a kid’s movie.
4. The Proposition (2005): Gritty and violent, this Australian western from director John Hillcoat (The Road) centers around a moral dilemma for one outlaw (Guy Pearce)–find and turn in his deadly older brother to the authorities, or his incarcerated younger brother will be hanged on Christmas day. Like the writings of Cormac McCarthy, the film focuses on the depravity of humanity in the context of the western frontier. Definitely not a family film; it doesn’t get much more violent (or spiritually enlightening) than this.
3. Edward Scissorhands (1990): A young man/machine with scissors for hands is embraced by the neighboring community after the death of his inventor. Like another Son who entered into our world, Edward is misunderstood and rejected by many, with only a few understanding the love he brings. The first pair-up between quirky director Tim Burton and quirky actor Johnny Depp has a beautiful scene where Edward carves an ice sculpture in the front yard, with haunting music and Winona Ryder twirling in the newly made snow. This strange fable might become your next delightful holiday treat.
2. Die Hard (1988): It’s not an argument any more–Die Hard is a Christmas movie. The doors of the elevator open up, revealing a dead terrorist with a Santa hat and the words, “now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho,” written on his chest. So begins the thrilling cat-and-mouse game with one man (Bruce Willis) taking on a team of terrorist thieves who have crashed an executive Christmas party. Possibly the best action film ever made, it’s unconventional Christmas at its very best. (Caveat: this film is rated R for language and violence.)
1. Children of Men (2006): With a world crumbling in the midst of despair and ruled by a corrupt empire, a young woman finds herself miraculously pregnant. Her baby is literally the hope of the future, the salvation for a dying planet. A faithful man–not the father of the child–chooses to embark on a mission to save the woman and child from the powers who would seek their harm. Through this unlikely trio, a dark world experiences the light. With its stunning cinematography, this dystopian science-fiction film from Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) parallels the nativity story in remarkably beautiful ways, alluding to the hope that Christ brings at Christmas in a most unconventional way.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): The aliens on Mars kidnap Santa Claus and two children because there is no one to distribute presents to their Martian children. Nothing says “Christmas cheer” like aliens kidnapping your children! (Note: this is the only film on this list which actually includes Santa as a character.)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978): This is a television special that aired during the holiday season in 1978, mostly a marketing ploy to keep building off the momentum of the first Star Wars. Han and Chewbacca must travel back to Chewie’s family to celebrate LifeDay. You can see Chewie’s family sit around, do the dishes, watch TV, and all sorts of other boring things, all leading up to a LifeDay celebration that includes Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) singing. George Lucas admits to trying to have all of the copies destroyed, but I had the pleasure/horror of first seeing this special in college. It’s a holiday special you’ll never forget, as long as you can stay awake.
In Bruges (2008): After a job goes horribly wrong, hitmen must wait in a purgatorial Belgium city for their enraged boss’s wrath. They drink. They talk. They wait. In Bruges is a darkly comic neo-noir film from filmmaker Martin McDonagh, and the Christmastime atmosphere adds an anachronistic irony to the inevitable violence that these assassins will face.
Tangerine (2015): Nothing says Merry Christmas like transgender prostitution. Right? Right. Shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine follows two working girls, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and their Christmas Eve exploits throughout the dark side of Los Angeles. Theirs is a bizarre and jarring world, and I nearly turned off the film multiple times due to the content. But somehow these characters grew on me, and by the final moments, I felt it: compassion. Roger Ebert once said the movies were machines for generating empathy. Tangerine is about as unconventional as it gets, but the heart of Christmas–love and presence–is clearly embodied here. Even if that presence wears a wig. (Caveat: this film is rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout, and drug use.
The Night of the Hunter (1955): One of my all-time favorite films, this film noir thriller centers on a serial killer who pretends to be a traveling preacher, with the words “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his knuckles. Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is one of cinema’s most terrifying villains, just as Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper is one of its finest heroes. Cooper takes in the children of Powell’s murdered wife and protects them at all cost. After all the disturbing and unsettling moments, the final scenes close on a comforting Christmas Day, making this one of the darker and most formally well-crafted of Christmas films.
Any other unconventional movies you enjoy during the Christmas season? Suggest them in the comments! I’ll update this list each year with new unconventional Christmas films.