By Ben Lane
The Christmas season has arrived and with it a list of responsibilities (chores). Some people stress over buying a special someone a special something. Some people stress over buying their families a ton of gifts. Some people stress over making it across state lines in time to visit every distant relative in the book. Yes, Christmas, the best and most joyous time of the year, is accompanied with so much stress! How wondrous it is that we have something to turn to that can relax the nerves, lighten the mood, and engulf the viewer (even the whole family) with holiday cheer. Christmas movies are that something. There are so many great ones. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated classic), A Christmas Story, Home Alone (shut up, I love that movie!), and even recent releases such as Elf and Arthur Christmas provide excellent holiday escapism and joy. And what do those films mentioned have in common? When it comes to this list, they’re all absent. This isn’t a list of Christmas movie recommendations that aim to saturate you with Christmas feels. Some of these movies are dark, some are violent, and some are comic book movies (surprised? Just read on.) But I promise you all one thing: they take place during Christmas and are festive enough to warrant a Christmas season watch. (I excluded Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas because I find them to be more festive than not.) So put on your Santa hat, tune into some Christmas carols (modernized ones, please), grab your Peppermint Mocha, and let’s begin.
THE FAMILY MAN (2000)
Nicolas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle
Directed by Brett Ratner
In The Family Man, Nicolas Cage plays Jack Campbell, a wealthy businessman who pitches his tent in New York City. He’s got the bucks and the success, but family isn’t a thing. He has a family, don’t misunderstand me, but he doesn’t put family anywhere near first place in his list of priorities. Jack meets Cash (an excellent Don Cheadle), a homeless man who is convinced he’s won the lottery. After an altercation in a convenience store leads Jack to purchase the ticket from Cash, things get crazy. Jack wakes up the next morning in a different world. He’s now with the girl who used to be his ex and his friends now seem to not even recognize him. In a way, this movie resembles A Christmas Carol and in other ways it doesn’t at all. It’s a unique film and even though I’m not a fan of director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand), I do enjoy this movie very much and it is perhaps the most Christmas-y of all the other films on this list.
IN BRUGES (2008)
Colin Farrell, Brenden Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Martin McDonaugh
Here is one of my all time favorites. A perfect example of a black comedy done right. Martin McDonaugh’s In Bruges is an excellent film (I would actually call it a perfect one), one that is impeccably scripted, fluently directed, and hilariously acted. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two hitmen who’ve just got back from a job gone wrong. They’re instructor (a curse-spewing Ralph Fiennes) has informed them that they are to await further instruction off the grid in Bruges, Belgium. Gleeson’s character loves Bruges for the awe-inspiring sights and historical relics. Farrell’s character thinks it’s (and I quote) “a shithole.” This set of conflicting mindsets allows McDonaugh to script some excellent and memorable conversations. Once Gleeson’s character receives “further instructions,” it’s a hard pill to swallow, and you’re heart will race as you try to decide if his character has it in him. If for no other reason, watch this movie for the gorgeous cinematography, which captures the snow covered stones of Bruges with crisp clarity and beauty. Also, the final act of the movie is just perfect, which involves a chase through the snow covered stony streets of the city. Oh, and if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you get to see Mad-Eye and Voldemort (yes, I dare speak his name) talking to one another, which is a plus.
IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Robert Downey Jr. Gwenyth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley
Directed by Shane Black
(Spoilers for Iron Man 3 follow)
Let it be known that I am a defender of Iron Man 3. Seriously, this movie rocks. I love it. Haters can hate on the twist on the Mandarin. It didn’t bother me. Ben Kingsley nailed it as the menacing terrorist and as the drunkard slouch named Trevor. I think I still prefer the first Iron Man movie over this one, but that’s taking nothing away from this surprisingly great third entry. Director Shane Black (who directed another Christmas-y movie that you’ll see later on the list) is known for placing his events around Christmas, and I thought it really worked for the character of Iron Man. The shot of Tony Stark pulling his inactive suit through the snow is beautiful and much of the rest of the movie feels like Christmas too. If you want to read further on why Iron Man 3 ended up being a Christmas movie, read this article: http://www.slashfilm.com/why-iron-man-3-is-a-christmas-movie/
My FULL REVIEW of IRON MAN 3 can be found here: http://benlanesreviews.com/tag/iron-man-3-movie-review/
DIE HARD (1988)
Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman
Directed by John McTiernan
What else can said about Die Hard that hasn’t been said already? This is a staple of action cinema. A truly extravagant flick that gets everything right. Probably Bruce Willis’ best movie (it is debatable), this is highly regarded as one of the greatest action movies ever made. What gets overlooked, however, is its Christmas-time setting. The whole thing takes place during a Christmas party! As Alan Rickman utters “Ho-Ho-Ho” as slick as a serpent, it’s hard not to label this as a Christmas movie. I love Die Hard, and for me, it’s a must-watch-every-year Christmas tradition. (Its sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder is also very Christmas-y, so watch that too. I didn’t include it on the list because I don’t want to use two slots for two movies of the same franchise and to be honest, I don’t find the second one to be all that great. Still good though, and worth a watch for the Christmas season.)
LETHAL WEAPON (1987)
Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey
Directed by Richard Donner
Lethal Weapon isn’t as good as Die Hard, nor is it as noticeably Christmas-y, but what do you expect? Die Hard takes place inside a building all decorated for Christmas. Lethal Weapon takes place in the streets of LA (no snow). But this, another staple of action cinema, is still stuffed with trees and lights along with lots of gunplay to entertain even the slightest of action junkies. This movie (written by Shane Black, whom you’ll see for a third time later in this list) is a classic, and if you forgot that it’s a Christmas movie, do yourself a favor and watch it again this holiday season.
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Oh boy. This is a big one. I’ve only seen Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut once, so I don’t feel like I can justifiably call it one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I can say that it is one of the single most shocking, ambitious, awe-inspiring, and unforgettable film experiences I’ve had. I had no idea what the plot was before I watched this 160-minute feature, and boy am I glad. It’s essentially a psycho-sexual fantasy. The whole thing. No spoilers here. The movie is incredible. And it takes place during Christmas! I highly recommend Eyes Wide Shut. It’s long. It’s slow. And it’s got lots of nudity. But it’s a true work of art, and it’s one of Kubrick’s absolute best.
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Anthony Michael Hall
Directed by Tim Burton
How wonderful is this film? I mean seriously. This movie is just great. Released in 1990 (that’s twenty-four years ago!!), Edward Scissorhands was the first collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. This collaboration has went on to become a series of collaborations, now nine total. The two work around each other well and are two fine go-to guys for dark material (Sweeney Todd is a modern masterpiece), but sometimes the actor-director spark hasn’t amounted to great results (Dark Shadows, ugh). That being said, Edward Scissorhands, all these years later, is every bit as magical as it ever was. The music is soothing, the acting is heartwarming and heartbreaking, and the story is one of great emotional resonance. I love this movie, and it’s a sure pick for any Christmas movie list.
KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005)
Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Directed by Shane Black
I promised another Shane Black film, and here it is. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pulpy, engaging, and flat out fun. Shane Black loves Christmas (he’s had three movies on this list), and this may just be his best. Robert Downey Jr. (who worked with Black again on Iron Man 3) has terrific chemistry with Val Kilmer as the two try to ease their way out of a conspiracy that they accidentally get entangled in. The strong point is Black’s screenplay, which allows the characters to lay out dialogue that is hilarious and sometimes edgy. It’s also pretty intense too. If you haven’t seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, now is the perfect time. It’s an excellent film, and one that has a strong Christmas theme.
Michael Keaton, Michelle Phieffer, Danny DeVito
Directed by Tim Burton
And we’ve come back to Tim Burton. He’s one of my favorite directors, a true artistic genius that paints his visions on the screen even if it sometimes means a sloppy story. I can forgive him. Most of his work is tremendous, to me anyway. Batman is my favorite comic book character and has always had a deeply rooted place in my heart. The two together go hand in hand. While I don’t think Burton’s Batman movies are exceptional pieces of work, I do give him credit for making Gotham (and most of the characters in it) dark, gritty, and impermeably bleak. And even though they aren’t perfect, this is the best of the two (and it’s certainly better than the two that came after it). I understand the monster called Penguin isn’t even remotely similar to the one in the comics and you know what? I can look past it. Burton’s vision is Burton’s vision. People who complain about the inaccuracy of the Penguin in this movie also have to complain to the inaccuracy of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (another terrific Batman movie). Danny DeVito is great as the character, and I can’t see anyone else ever playing the character (at least that version of the character), and Michael Keaton is just wonderful as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Oh, and don’t get me started on Michelle Phieffer in that leather. Mmm. And finally, rejoice in the fact that this is a Christmas movie, which makes it look all the better (the visual style of the film is exceptional). I like this movie a lot.
So if you didn’t know beforehand, not all great Christmas movies have to feature elves in the North Pole or a little boy wanting a BB Gun. The 9 listed films are diverse: drama, action, sci-fi, fantasy. But they all have one thing in common: Christmas! If you were looking for some movies to watch to feel relevant during Christmas but didn’t want to get ones that were overly-joyous or bubbly, hopefully this list helped you out. If not, I hope you enjoyed reading it and I hope it was, at the very least, informative. If you have any other suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments below! And be sure to follow me on Twitter @benlanesreviews for more movie stuff! Merry Christmas!