Christmas is a time for family. It’s also a time for fireballs, gun fights and Danny DeVito eating raw fish.
For those looking for an antidote to schmaltz, or are numb to the effects of the annual 24-hour Christmas Story marathon, here’s a list of nontraditional holiday films that buck the trend. From Batman to Iron Man, from John McClane to Stanley Kubrick (?!), these 13 films can help you couch-potato the hell out of your holiday break.
1. Batman Returns
Multiply your worst holiday season ever by 10 and you’ll have a vague conception of how bad things get in Gotham City around Christmas.
Villainous Christopher Walken pushes a secretary out of a window, transforming her into Catwoman, The Penguin threatens to show a few young ladies his “French flipper trick” in a bid for Gotham’s mayor, and Batman suffers through Alfred’s cold soup-only dinners.
This is the weird but entertaining recipe for Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel to Batman. Sure, it’s overstuffed with the director’s eccentricities and black-on-black sense of humor – sometimes to an alienating degree -- but Batman Returns works more often than not, thanks in large part to Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic turn as Catwoman. While Returns isn’t as satisfying as its predecessor, this guilty pleasure deserves at least one viewing every Christmas.
Arguably Barry Levinson’s best film, Diner is responsible for introducing audiences to then-unknowns Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg and Kevin Bacon.
In 1959 Baltimore, a group of friends face college graduation and the real world with the help of a witty script chronicling their struggles. Levinson is scary-good at balancing comedy and drama, investing each scene with the perfect amount of whatever it needs. The charming cast and compelling performances only strengthen the argument to add Diner to your viewing queue.
Director Joe Dante and executive producer Steven Spielberg found a way to do for Christmas what Halloween did for, well, Halloween.
At first, dad’s gift to Billy seems adorably awesome: a cuddly, talking Mogwai named Gizmo. But once Giz is fed after midnight and gets a little wet, he turns Billy’s life and the town of Kingston Falls into a PG-13 nightmare, plagued by murder-fueled monsters. Bonus points for Kate’s story about how her father died on Christmas Eve.
4. Lethal Weapon
Writer Shane Black’s first Christmas film on our list is one of his best.
Mel Gibson and Danny Glover star as two unlikely cops forced to team up to take down Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) and his well-armed crew of heroin distributors. Lethal Weapon set the standard for the now tried-and-true “buddy cop” movie formula, while also proving that more films need to end with karate fights on front lawns decorated for the holidays.
5. The Ref
Dennis Leary headlines this dark-ish 1994 comedy, playing a fugitive thief who picks the wrong family to hide out with on Christmas Eve.
Homeowners Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are a hair’s breath away from divorce, and in the middle of hosting the most awkward family dinner ever. The film’s comedy – and surprising heart – comes from the banter between Leary and the family, as the former is able to hold up a thematic mirror to the latter’s antics just in time to give them a semblance of a happy ending. The Ref is definitely one of the ‘90s most-underrated comedies; watching it this year can help change that.
6. Iron Man 3
Marvel’s first film after the mega-success of The Avengers arguably delivers a more engaging experience at the theater, thanks to the inventive script by writer/director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce.
The filmmakers have an endless commitment to putting Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in a corner, and forcing him to get out of it without the help of his metallic alter ego. If there’s a better Christmas-set superhero movie featuring Extremis-powered soldiers and mid-air rescues of Air Force One passengers, we don’t wanna know about it.
7. Trading Places
This 1982 comedy hit helped put Eddie Murphy and fellow Saturday Night Live alum Dan Aykroyd on the track for A-list stardom, playing unwitting pawns in a wager between a pair of wealthy, unscrupulous brothers. Equal parts pointed satire and identity-swap comedy, Trading Places is one of Murphy’s best R-rated turns – which promises a welcome boost to your holiday’s cuss-word quota.
8. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Shane Black never met a movie he couldn’t set on and around Dec. 25, and we are all the better for it.
His pulpy ode to dime-store detective fiction helped position Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man stardom, with the future Tony Stark playing a thief-turned-actor-turned-private eye who gets in over his snarky head while investigating multiple homicides.
The script delivers laugh-out-loud exchanges the way action movies churn out set pieces, as writer-director Black showcases an effortless affinity for grounding comedy and gunplay with a strong sense of heart – no matter how ridiculous the plot gets. Val Kilmer and the excellent Michelle Monahan (seriously, how is she not a bigger star after this movie?) round out an impressive cast in one of the best movies in recent memory to turn Christmas into the unlikely setting of a very compelling and funny whodunit.
9. Eyes Wide Shut
We know what you’re thinking: The sex-party movie … for Christmas? Yup.
There are worse films to watch over the break than Stanley Kubrick’s last – a deliberately paced, heady thriller about how emotionally dangerous the lines between lust and love can be.
After Dr. Bill (Tom Cruise) finds out about wife Nicole Kidman’s temptation to be unfaithful – one that never got past the “thinking about it” stage – the good doctor spends one night roaming the streets of New York City, searching for vice but finding out more about himself instead, which proves more problematic than the event that set him off.
The then-controversial “orgy” scene is much tamer (and shorter) than critics would have you believe, so don’t let that stop you from watching one of the auteur’s most divisive and underrated films, one more concerned with the emotions than carnal pleasures.
10. Edward Scissorhands
Tim Burton’s first collaboration with Johnny Depp remains their best.
This whimsical drama packs more heartfelt moments than one would expect from the traditionally “dark” director, as Burton delivers his take on the Pinocchio fairy tale with great care. The only fingerprints on this movie are Burton’s, largely because its titular character doesn’t have any. It’s one of the most tragic and emotionally complex films on the director’s resume, and one of the most welcomed additions to your holiday viewing plans.
11. The Long Kiss Goodnight
Yes, another action movie set at Christmas. Written by Shane Black. You’re welcome.
Geena Davis stars as an amnesiac assassin-turned-Suzie Homemaker, who gets pulled back into her old life when the bad guys literally shoot holes into her new one.
Director Renny Harlin’s film fell on deaf ears during its initial release, but has picked up a small but growing cult following. Samuel L. Jackson benefits the most from Black’s signature wit, and the end result is both a great holiday film and action movie.
12. The Ice Harvest
We know you haven’t seen this. It’s OK, hardly anyone did. But thanks to Netflix Instant, you can remedy that over the holidays.
John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton are two crooks stuck in a town they just robbed, weathering a terrible ice storm and their own personal friction. To reveal any more would spoil too much of this dark comedy’s best moments.
13. Die Hard
Saved the best for last.
Die Hard never wears out its welcome, so gather your cousins and siblings to watch John McClane dispatch terrorists with feet smaller than his sister’s. If by the end of the movie you’re don’t find yourself endlessly quoting Hans Gruber’s famous “Now I have a machine gun too” line, then you’re not doing it right.