25 best alternative Christmas movies

Feck the halls with boughs of holly – here are the best films offering a skewed take on the season of goodwill

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Director Shane Black's fast-paced, postmodern action film was unjustly overlooked on its release, but it's built up a cult following in recent years. Robert Downey Jr stars as Harry Lockhart, a small-time crook who's mistaken for an actor and paired with Val Kilmer's exasperated Hollywood private eye "Gay" Perry.

What follows is an entertaining, self-aware romp through the cliches of film noir, complete with femme fatale (Michelle Monaghan sporting a Santa hat) and more twists and turns than a Curly Wurly.

Children of Men (2006)

There isn't a Christmas tree, jolly Kris Kringle or loop of tinsel in sight, but director Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian sci-fi nonetheless has a festive theme. As Clive Owen's Theo – get the religious reference? – struggles to protect a young pregnant mother bearing the first child to be conceived in 20 years, there are clear echoes of the Nativity story.

Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam's Orwellian satire opens on an idyllic Yuletide scene – a mother telling her child about Santa's impending visit down the chimney.  "But Father Christmas can't come if we don't have a chimney," says the youngster. Whereupon paramilitary police descend through the ceiling, grab the kid's father (and put him in a sack, of course) before hauling him off for questioning. Later scenes savage the consumerist nature of Christmas, before Gilliam wheels out a Santa who advises the luckless Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) to give in to his torture at the hands of Brazil's faceless bureaucrats.

The Thin Man (1934)

Husband-and-wife detective duo Nick and Nora Charles investigate a missing person case over the Christmas holidays – but the sleuthing takes a back seat to the banter between the couple in this screwball classic. "The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I'll kill 'em," says Myrna Loy's Nora, perhaps not getting entirely into the spirit of goodwill to all men.

Johnny Depp's planning a remake of the series. He'd better not mess it up.

Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis at his best in a vest, wading about knee-deep in dead terrorists. Nakatomi Plaza didn’t know what hit it when – full of bad guys – it got between John McClane and his family Christmas dinner. C4 explosives, Steyr machine guns and a rocket launcher later and a sequel was inevitable. Plus Run D.M.C’s Christmas In Hollis brought the streetwise Ho, Ho, Ho to this all-time action great.

Batman Returns (1992)

When Tim Burton decided to set Batman Returns in a fairytale, snowbound Gotham City, we knew it was going to be a dark Christmas. But we had no idea how dark – Burton drew inspiration from 1930s German Expressionist films to conjure up an off-kilter Gothic masterpiece (which had McDonald's frantically back-pedalling on their toy promotion for the movie).

Between the lithe sex-appeal of Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s born-to-play-it performance as the Penguin (complete with his army of armed avians), it's a very different Christmas film.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Buddy cop duos were big in the 80s, and Lethal Weapon typified the genre. There’s a scene in a Christmas tree market, and it’s on every year around December 25 – giving us enough yuletide excuses to watch crazy Mel Gibson kick mental Gary Busey’s ass in his best fight since Blue Monday.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

A twisted take on the Christmas tale, told from the perspective of a band of hunters out to catch the fabled Santa Claus in its natural environment. If you like eerie and you like Christmas, you’ll love Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places has all the elements of a good Christmas movie: a Christmas-y setting, the underlying fable about money not being important and of course love and family (even if it is the unconventional kind). Oh, and Santa – a drunk and depressed, salmon-stealing Santa. A street hustler (Eddie Murphy), arrogant yuppie (Dan Aykroyd) and prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis) aren't exactly pillars of good, but compared to a pair of ageing, sinister millionaires, this unusual trio are the film's heroes.

Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins introduced the world to Gizmo – the cute ball of fur you shouldn't get wet, expose to bright light and feed after midnight. Of course, this strict set of rules is nonchalantly broken, throwing up a mixture of comedy and horror as Billy (Zach Galligan) struggles to put an end to the self-inflicted festive terror caused by the ugly and green side of the mogwai. See what happens when you defy your parents, kids?

Scrooged (1988)

Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol is made all the more entertaining by the zaniness of Bill Murray's character Frank – an egotistical and sardonic television producer who thinks it a good idea to staple antlers to a mouse. Frank must go through his redemption with the crude, cigar-smoking Ghost of Christmas Past, the hyper-active, ball-busting ghost of Christmas Present and the ominously creepy Ghost of Christmas Future. The nutcase from Police Academy running around is the cherry on top of this well iced Christmas cake.

The Apartment (1960)

Bud, a lonely insurance drone, loans his conveniently located apartment to various company managers for their extramarital affairs in exchange for a fast track ticket to the top of the corporate ladder. The bad stuff hits the fan at the office party on Christmas Eve when he discovers the object of his own affection, Fran, is his boss' mistress, Fran discovers she is one of many from his gossiping secretary and overdoses on sleeping pills. There is a happy ending. We promise.

More after the break...

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

There's nothing holy about this slasher film. It’s about an axe-wielding Santa – so it's definitely not one for the kids. But it does put a completely different spin on what Santa does to the badly behaved. Kind of. It's more to do with the psychological effects of witnessing your parents getting hacked to death by a man posing as Santa. But it does involve skewering a topless girl on the antlers of a mounted antelope head. Ouch.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

It’s set at Christmas, but The Long Kiss Goodnight’s peck on the cheek of festivity ends there (and with a soundtrack that includes Elvis Presley’s Santa Claus Is Back In Town). But get this: it was penned by the same screenwriter (Shane Black) who wrote Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Last Boy Scout – all set at Christmas. Spooky, eh?

In Bruges (2008)

Everyone wants to be in Bruges at Christmas. Everyone except Ray (Colin Farrell) who deems it a “shithole” on arrival. There’s little evidence of the Christmas spirit elsewhere either, as Ray and fellow hitman Ken blunder their way through the darker recesses of the Venice of the North. There’s plenty of merry, though – the jokes come thick and fast.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Perhaps you favour a traditional Christmas with a tree, fairy lights, gifts and turkey. But we won’t judge if you choose to spread your seasonal cheer at a quasi-religious sex orgy. With Tom Cruise. Like we said, we won’t judge. Joking aside, Stanley Kubrick’s directorial swansong is well worth a revisit.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

The “alternative” bit about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is that it’s not very good. At the time of writing, it resided at number 79 in IMDb’s Bottom 100 movies. To us, that’s an invitation for a remake, gossip that has churned the Hollywood rumour mill repeatedly. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the disappointing original. Humbug.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Kermit the frog, Rizzo the Rat, Gonzo the… thing, and all the rest of Jim Henson's multicoloured bunch of zany Muppets join in on this well-polished and surprisingly accurate representation of Dickens' classic tale. Michael Caine plays it completely straight as Ebenezer Scrooge – and the film's all the better for it.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

This Coen brothers comedy sees villainous corporate boss Paul Newman make bumbling Tim Robbins president of a manufacturing company in a bid to lower share prices, making for an easy buyout. When Robbins' naive Norville invents a toy that turns out to be a runaway success during the Christmas ball – we won't spoil the surprise – the company soars in value. The Coen brothers' homage to screwball comedies and Frank Capra sentimentality is full of Christmas spirit.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Between this and Batman Returns, we’d love to see what Christmas was like at Tim Burton’s house when he was a nipper. Chances are it was as innocently creepy as The Nightmare Before Christmas. The story of Jack Skellington opening up a portal between Halloween Town and Christmas Town is executed in glorious stop-motion with fantastic, dark and spindly animation. We have to warn you, it is a musical. But the good kind.

Black Christmas (1974)

With more in common with Halloween slasher films than Christmas classics, the original Black Christmas – rather than the 2006 remake, obviously – sees a killer on the loose in a sorority house. Cue hot college girls getting terrifying phone calls in the night and bags of suspense. It’s also fun if you’re rooting for them all to be killed from the word go.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s not easy turning a film about attempted suicide into a Yuletide family favourite – but Frank Capra and his leading man James Stewart did exactly that with It’s a Wonderful Life. So when you realise you’ve left all your presents behind at the last minute on Christmas Eve, don’t panic too much or else you might be plagued – we mean, helped – by a well-meaning angel called Clarence.

American Psycho (2000)

Who else would you want to see coming down the chimney but Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman? OK, American Psycho doesn’t exactly have a big helping of festive goodwill but throw in some mistletoe, reindeer antlers and a pot bellied pig and everyone’s favourite serial killer turns on the Christmas charm like a pro. Although he is still the kind of guy whose idea of a good present is getting his girlfriend fake boobs. Have a holly, jolly Christmas.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

"Merry Christmas, 007." George Lazenby was no Sean Connery but he still managed to wed Emma Peel and spend his Christmas Eve surrounded by beautiful women on a snow-dusted mountaintop. Not too shabby when compared to our Christmas, spent slumped on a sofa surrounded by Quality Street wrappers.

Bad Santa (1994)

He's not fot, he's not round, and he definitely isn't jolly. Billy Bob Thornton's booze-drinking, womanising Santa Claus is hilarious, in a dark comedy sort of way. A strange friend in the form of a socially inept boy called Thurman Merman makes the off-the-rails Santa see the error of his ways after years of drug abuse and robberies. Heartwarming and filthy at the same time.

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