Few holidays have as many movie options as Christmas.
From It’s a Wonderful Life to A Christmas Story to Home Alone, December 25 has long proven a popular setting for entertainment. It makes sense, too; the combination of family-centrism and focus on selflessness and harmony provides a feel-good atmosphere to pretty much anything that calls itself a Christmas movie.
But those movies — and so many others — are explicitly about Christmas. There’s also a hotly contested subcategory of motion pictures set around Christmas. The most popular of these is probably Die Hard, the classic action film being screened on Dec. 22 for a special holiday edition of the Majestic’s Brew ’n View series.
So which films could technically, if you squint real hard, count as Christmas movies? I’m glad you asked.
There’s something about setting an action movie on Christmas that’s inherently interesting. It’s such a wholesome, family-centric holiday that seeing it used as a backdrop for brutal violence is a shock to the senses — as it is in the zany Lethal Weapon. The 1987 genre classic, written by Shane Black, stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as a buddy cop odd couple going above and beyond to take down a drug cartel, and it includes a shootout at a Christmas tree farm. Clearly, something about the winter holiday seems to intrigue Shane Black, because Christmas is a recurring theme for him.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Written and directed by Black, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a criminally underrated film. It is also, coincidentally, about criminals; it focuses on a good-natured petty crook who’s down on his luck at Christmastime. Back to School’s Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time New York criminal who inadvertently goes Hollywood while running from the cops. Along the way, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery with a gay private eye named, fittingly, “Gay Perry.” This performance was widely seen as a comeback for the once-troubled Downey, and it would help him win the biggest role of his career.
Iron Man 3
For the rest of his life, Robert Downey Jr. will be Tony Stark. Iron Man redefined his career, turning him into one of the most famous movie stars in the world. Co-screenwriter Drew Pearce once said “loneliness is heightened at Christmas,” and accordingly the third installment of the Iron Man franchise, released in 2013, is Tony Stark’s dark night of the soul. The chief Avenger is dealing with some major PTSD after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, all set around the supposed most wonderful time of the year. That’s certainly true of Tony Stark. And guess what? CO-WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY SHANE BLACK.
Marvel wasn’t the first comic book giant to tackle the holidays. DC went there with Tim Burton in 1992 for the spectacularly extra sequel Batman Returns. In Michael Keaton’s second and final outing as the Caped Crusader, Gotham is under siege from all fronts. Christopher Walken plays “The Santa Claus of Gotham,” industrialist Max Schreck, who is actually grifting the city. In the sewers, Danny DeVito’s legit disgusting Penguin is plotting his own takeover. And one of the film’s biggest set pieces takes place around a giant Christmas tree downtown. It’s among the most ’80s films of the ’90s.
And now, one of the most ’80s films of the ’80s. Essentially, the plot of 1984’s Gremlins is about a kid getting the best worst Christmas present ever. Billy Peltzer’s dad went to a shop in Chinatown and got his son a “mogwai,” which literally translates to “devil” in Cantonese. Billy names him Gizmo, and they become buds. But their town is soon overrun with other, more murderous mogwai, and only Billy and Gizmo can stop it. It’s totally absurd, but that’s also what makes it fun. And keep an eye out for Steven Spielberg’s cameo as a guy riding a recumbent bicycle.
Directed by said recumbent bike enthusiast, Hook is another example of why the late Robin Williams is a national treasure. While on a family Christmas trip to London, his milquetoast lawyer character, Peter Banning, rediscovers his magical roots as Peter Pan and does battle with Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook. An alternate title for this could have been How Peter Pan Got His Groove Back. While there isn’t too much Christmas-y about it beyond the setting, the 1991 film deals with the importance of family, one of the most popular themes in holiday entertainment. Incidentally, it’s the only movie on this list that was released in December.
Fair warning: Trading Places includes a blackface scene that has not aged well. But beyond that, this 1983 Christmastime-set comedy does a pretty solid, if naive, job of navigating class. As part of a sociopathic bet between two old Reagan-era capitalists — hotshot broker Dan Aykroyd and charming homeless dude Eddie Murphy — switch stations in life, forcing each to see how the other half lives. Plus, there’s truly hilarious a scene where Aykroyd’s character has a complete nervous breakdown while crashing his former company’s Christmas party. While dressed as Santa Claus.
Less Than Zero
Ah yes, nothing says “Christmas cheer” like “adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel.” Less Than Zero, a 1987 flick based on Ellis’ literary debut, is a gonzo meditation on the moral failings of upper-class white America. When a college freshman (Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy) returns home to Los Angeles for the holidays, he finds that the lives of his old friends have fallen apart. For example, best buddy Robert Downey Jr. (his third entry on this list!) is working as a prostitute to pay off his drug debt. Actually, when you think about, coming home for Christmas and finding everything irreversibly fucked is pretty on-brand.
Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut opens to its two leads, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, attending a Christmas party that’s actually a freaky orgy for rich people. It only gets weirder from there. I’m not sure I could tell you what the plot is, other than it’s a psychosexual drama that’s also Stanley Kubrick’s last film (he died in 1999, shortly after showing the final cut to studio execs). It’s also kind of a mess, but it begins and ends with holiday-themed scenes, making it a sort of strange present: a bizarre piece of arthouse erotica in Christmas wrapping.
An intense debate has raged for some time now about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Bruce Willis, who stars as ex-cop John McClane in the 1988 action classic, says no. Twentieth Century Fox, however, says yes, and has now doubled down with a recut trailer that proclaims their 1988 film to be “the greatest Christmas story ever told.” You probably know the plot: terrorists take over a Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza, and when McClane’s estranged wife is trapped inside, he literally walks across broken glass to save her. Bad guys get shot, shit blows up, and a corpse is dressed up in a Santa hat and sweater that says “now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho” in blood. Merry Christmas and yippee-ki-yay motherfuckers.
Die Hard will screen at the Majestic Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m.