Ladies and gentlemen, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. Now that I’ve effectively lost half my male audience, allow me to break this down. You see, a Christmas movie should be, and usually is, defined as a movie where Christmas is essential to the plot. Either the story surrounds the festivities of Christmas (i.e. Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story) or its message is too undeniably Christmas to pass up (i.e. Joyeaux Noel, It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone). However, just because a film isn’t technically a “Christmas” movie at its core doesn’t make it unworthy – plenty of films use Christmas as a backdrop to telling a greater story, even if the film itself has nothing to do with Christmas. And that’s how we’ll wrap up this year’s A Sacred Wall Christmas (The Greatest Gift Of All!), with the Top Ten Christmas Adjacent Movies!
For this list, we’ll be looking at the best movies to use Christmas as a backdrop, without technically being Christmas movies. Honorable Mentions range from the family affairs, like Harry Potter and Hook, to horror films, like Black Christmas. Romantic comedies love the Christmas season, so you can watch yourself some While You Were Sleeping, The Sure Thing, and Meet Me In St. Louis. And some films use Christmas as an ironic backdrop to the joy of the season, like the (slightly) nonfiction L.A. Confidential and the Stanley Kubrick nightmare Eyes Wide Shut. It’s important to know that I have yet to see Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander, which takes place at Christmas. And I should absolutely establish that, while It’s a Wonderful Life technically could qualify for this list as well (I believe that it is a Christmas movie due to its date and its themes, but I’ll admit its as debatable as Die Hard), it would be unfair for it to be #1 on both lists, so it is ineligible. And finally an important note: technically speaking, literally every Shane Black movie could make this list. Black loves setting films during the holiday season to offset his comical, violent stories. So everything from The Long Kiss Goodnight to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to Iron Man 3 could have ended up making this list. However, because it would be unfair to allow Black to have full dominance here, I am limiting him to only one entry. So keep your eyes peeled for which film ends up qualifying.
10. The Holiday
I’m fairly certain that The Holiday created Hallmark movies. If you break down the (admittedly) convoluted plot into chunks, it all centers around staples of the genre: great leaps of logic (two heartbroken women switch houses for Christmas and HAPPEN to find love?), a widower whose wife died under mysterious circumstances, conflicts that could be easily resolved if the characters just TALK to one another, sweet moments of romance between too-perfect guys and beautiful women struggling to balance careers with love lives, and a wise, cuddly old man who gives the main character the advice she needs to find her “gumption.” However, as cheesy as The Holiday can be, there’s a lot of good in it. It has great performances from Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Eli Wallach and Jack Black. The script is sweet and charming without becoming cloyingly sappy (although the Hollywood dialogue is so ear-splittingly bad that it may tempt you to turn it off). And it smartly uses Christmas as a romantic time of the year, making it far closer to its Hallmark brethren than its unwatchable movie counterpart Love, Actually. The Holiday is the staple of the “guilty pleasure,” and it is the perfect guilty pleasure for the holiday season.
9. Batman Returns
Tim Burton is obsessed with Christmas as Shane Black. Not only did he make The Nightmare Before Christmas (a Christmas movie) and Edward Scissorhands (not a Christmas movie), but he directed Batman Returns, one of the best Christmas adjacent films of all time. In the sequel to his original superhero blockbuster, Burton uses the Christmas season as a means to amplify the German Expressionistic roots in the series. The snow contrasts the dark streets of Gotham City, creating a stark black and white world for the Dark Knight, the tuxedo-clad Penguin, and the leather-bound Catwoman. And by amplifying the Expressionism at the heart of the series, Burton managed to amplify the themes of the series: death, betrayal, Oedipal fears and desires, and tragedy. The upsetting appearance of the Penguin feels much more frightening when contrasted with a Christmas tree, and when Penguin and Catwoman kill the Ice Princess, it’s a pretty clear metaphor: Batman is fighting villains who are willing to literally kill Christmas. And yet, at the heart of all this dark, Germanic violence, there’s still the sweetness of the holiday – as weird as the first kiss between the Bat and the Cat may be, it is still inspired by mistletoe at its core. Batman Returns uses Christmas well, and is one of the best Christmas adjacent films.
8. Trading Places
Trading Places, which takes place over the month of December, utilizes several major themes and ideas associated with the holiday season. It uses the Scrooge-esque greedy millionaire plot. It uses the rags-to-riches story. Hell, the very nature of winter makes the stakes that much higher for both protagonists – it’s the reason Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine needs to scam to keep warm at the beginning, and it’s the reason that Dan Aykroyd’s Louis Winthrope III needs to shack up with Jamie Lee Curtis’ Ophelia when he can’t find another place to stay. And yet, this is the magic of John Landis’ film: it uses the Christmas background and these themes to tell an entertaining story. Yes, Christmas is everywhere in the tale of Duke Brothers’ machinations and the suffering of the working class below them. Like the best Christmas stories out there – It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, etc., Trading Places is about the importance of the brotherhood of man over the rich assh*les who play with the rest of us for fun. And most importantly, it allows for one of the greatest sight gags of all time: a depressed Aykroyd dressed as Santa trying to plant drugs on Eddie Murphy, and, upon failing that, pulling out a gun and stuffing meat down his pants as he vacates the building. If there’s a better way to utilize Christmas as a sight gag, I don’t want to know about it.
7. The Shop Around the Corner
The Shop Around the Corner has been told a thousand times throughout pop culture: originally, it was a play, titled Parfumerie; after, it was remade as Judy Garland’s In the Good Old Summertime, Broadway’s She Loves Me, and the immortal Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail. However, at the heart of all these variations, there lies one of the sweetest Christmas stories ever committed to film. Set during the lead-up to Christmas, salesman Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) finds himself frustrated when his boss and dear friend, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), hires a new girl to help with the holiday rush, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan). Like many a film of the era, Klara and Alfred go back and forth in a series of tête-à-têtes, mocking and teasing each other at every opportunity. However, as they remain too busy sniping at each other to get to know one another, they secretly maintain an anonymous correspondence with one another, hopelessly falling in love with a stranger who may be closer than they think. The Christmas season remains important to the couple throughout the buildup to their relationship: it gives reason for Klara to be hired, it creates a snowy backdrop for the pair to stare longingly at each other, and it makes for a romantic Christmas rendezvous when they finally do get together, as couples are wont to do. The Shop Around the Corner is a high mark in the romantic comedy, and a terrific utilizer of Christmas as a backdrop.
6. Just Friends
Just Friends is my guiltiest of guilty pleasures on this list. There’s little plot to this 2005 romantic comedy, and quite frankly there is no justifiable reason for this film to have a happy ending (the characters aren’t likable enough to deserve happiness, and the final monologue is not contrite enough to warrant forgiveness for Chris Brander’s behavior). However, the dialogue is so unapologetically funny, and the characters are so ridiculously, humorously, usually-intentionally awful, that there’s something enjoyable about this modern Christmas “classic.” After overweight loser Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) has heart broken by his only friend in high school, Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart) in front of the whole school, Chris moves to L.A. and becomes a fit, womanizing douchebag. However, while escorting a sex-obsessed ditzy pop star (a literally icon-creating Anna Faris) to her next gig, their plane is downed near Chris’ hometown, and he has to confront the small town life he’s tried to escape, as well as win back the heart of the girl who got away. The film manages to find a balance between the pain of unrequited love and the inherent problems with the whole “friend zone” mindset (as I’ve written about before, the “friend zone” is fine when referring to unrequited love, but has been coopted by assh*les to mean “that b*tch won’t sleep with me even though I treated her like a human being). However, most importantly, it manages to use Christmas to tackle most of its major issues – by giving gifts with Jamie, Chris can remember the last time he was truly happy; by visiting his hometown, Chris can see all the way he’s better than the bullies, while still being unhappier than his married, content friends. And as with most of the films on this list, the Christmas backdrop makes for a series of growing affections, including mistletoe, house lighting ceremonies, and ice skating (resulting in a hilarious game of ice hockey where Reynolds plows over a series of eight-year-olds). Just Friends is far from the best film on this list, and far from the most politically correct (some of the jokes age really badly, including one involving J*red from Subway). However, few films have utilized Christmas as brilliantly as this trashy legend of the 2000s.
Gremlins is so reliant on the Christmas season I almost wonder if I put it on the wrong list. I mean, sure, Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) could have given son Billy (Zach Galligan) the Mogwai Gizmo for his birthday instead of as a Christmas gift, but somehow that just feels less magical. Christmas and Gremlins feel like they should go hand-in-hand. By giving the Mogwais as a gift, the film makes us form a sense of attachment to Gizmo and his brethren before the nightmare begins, creating an emotional connection to the stakes of the movie. Then there’s the now-famous Phoebe Cates monologue, which is either a brilliant work of post-modernism laced with irony and wit, or a horribly misguided attempt at drama. Either is possible from Chris Columbus, but I give him the benefit of the doubt here. And Cates really sells it as she explains her reasons for hating the Christmas season: her dad never came home one Christmas, and they discovered him a week later having fallen down the chimney dressed as Santa and breaking his neck. “And that,” concludes Cates, after discussing her father’s death in graphic detail, “is how I learned there is no Santa Claus” (sorry, kiddies). However, at the end of the day, there’s just something funnier about the Gremlins inflicting their night of unholy terror in the snow of Christmas time. Watching the Gremlins murder their way through the small Northwestern town in the midst of a snowfall (the scene with the mean old lady’s stair lift is a work of art). And in the end, the final battle plays out in the toy section of the department store, a location made all the more pertinent by the Christmas season. Christmas is ingrained in the DNA of Gremlins like the after-midnight feedings that create them: you can’t have one without the other.
4. The Thin Man
The Thin Man is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a sweet romantic comedy, a thrilling mystery, a spot-on spoof, and a Christmas-adjacent work of cinema, all rolled into one. Centered on Nick and Nora Charles (played perfectly by William Powell and Myrna Loy), the film follows the two socialites (Nora’s from money, Nick’s a retired famous detective) who decide to get back into the mystery solving game for kicks and giggles. They don’t really take it seriously – they’re goals in life are get drunk 24/7, not get killed by hitmen, love each other incessantly, and solve murders – exactly in that order. And honestly, watching their lack of decorum as they go about solving the mystery of the Thin Man is hilarious in and of itself, as their own stupidity, alcoholism, and childishness serves as the perfect cover for their intellect and crime-solving skills. But this is a list of Christmas-adjacent movies, so let’s look at how they use Christmas, shall we? For starters, there’s the film’s iconic scene, which perhaps best sums up their relationship in a nutshell. After having their lives threatened Christmas morning by a mafia tough, the couple who has everything exchange Christmas gifts and lounge together in the parlor. Nora sits in her new mink coat and watches her husband, whom she has bought a toy air rifle, attempt trick shots from the couch as he pops balloons on the Christmas tree. He shoots between his legs, over his shoulder, and backwards, like an overgrown five-year-old, and clearly having the time of his life. And as Nora watches him, we can see a mixture of emotions on her face – she rolls her eyes at his childish antics (especially as he misses and breaks the window), but there is an undeniable love in her eyes. These two love each other passionately, and by using Christmas as a backdrop, the filmmakers allow us to see this love play out in its most natural state.
3. The Apartment
The Apartment is, without a doubt, one of my favorite films – romance, comedy, or otherwise. A nasty little film with a sappy streak a mile wide, The Apartment tells the story of two lonely people doing what they can to get ahead in life, both at work and in their love lives. Bud Baxter, played indelibly by Jack Lemmon, finds that the quickest way to get promoted is by loaning his single apartment in the city to his bosses, who need a place to take their mistresses to have affairs. Being single, and believing his only hope in life is to get ahead, Bud has no problem doing this, other than the guilt it places on his conscience. He hopes that if he can appease his managers, he can one day win the heart of the lovely elevator operator of Miss Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine – who it just so happens is the miserable mistress of company manager Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). By using Christmas as a backdrop, the film manages to amplify the loneliness inherent in the two characters, who are convinced that their rich and powerful bosses will one day do the right thing, both for them and morally speaking. This loneliness drives Kubelik to suicide in Bud’s apartment, and it allows them to spend Christmas together – their first Christmas with someone who cares about them emotionally in a very long time, if ever. It uses Christmas as a means to emotionally destroy its characters, only to lift them back up stronger than ever, and to form the basis of one of the cinema’s greatest loves. The Apartment possesses one of the smartest uses of Christmas in all of film, and doubles down on it for New Year’s, too – the New Year’s Eve climax is truly one of the funniest, darkest, sweetest sequences in all of movie history. And we wouldn’t have had it if Christmas didn’t come first.
2. Lethal Weapon
At last, we’ve come to Shane Black. For all the meatheads that talk about that other Christmas-themed action movie, not nearly enough people talk about the fact that Murtaugh and Riggs first defeated a heroin-smuggling ring during the Christmas season, too. However, more than any other film on this list, Lethal Weapon uses the backdrop of Christmas to create the literal bonds of family between its broken protagonists. When Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh first meets Mel Gibson’s reckless Martin Riggs, they could not be more mismatched. Murtaugh is a respectable Vietnam vet nearing retirement age, who is, as he states, “too old for this sh*t.” Meanwhile, Riggs is a broken husk of a man – after the death of his wife in a car accident, he is constantly drunk, constantly contemplating suicide, and willing to throw his life away on the job. We get to see Riggs’ issues amplified, thanks to the Christmas season, as he both sticks a loaded gun in his mouth and drags a man he’s saving from suicide off a roof to an inflated raft below (did you know that the suicide rates go up around the holidays? Well, it’s true). However, thanks to the accepting nature of Murtaugh’s family, and his newfound brotherhood with his partner, the film uses the Christmas season to take on a new angle – the redemption of Martin Riggs. He begins to value his own life again, and, in the film’s dramatic finale, he not only manages to defeat Special Forces fighter Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey should be in every Christmas movie, fact), but he also hands the hollow-point bullet he was saving for his own death over to his partner, symbolizing that the man has saved his life. Shane Black uses Christmas better than any other director, for two reasons: he knows how to juxtapose it to the violence of the real world, and he knows how to use it to redeem his characters.
1. Die Hard
THERE I MADE IT #1 ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, INSECURE BOOMERS AND GEN-XERS?!? Ahem, now that I got that out of my system, let’s talk about Die Hard. Honestly, I was debating making this film #1, because despite it serving as the genesis for the creation of this list, it really has nothing to do with Christmas. Sure, John McClane is flying out to L.A. to attend his wife’s Christmas party, and yes, there are Christmas trees everywhere, but other than that, there are only hints of the holiday spirit. Hell, it wasn’t However, at the end of the day, I couldn’t resist – not only because of the Christmas-related reasons (which we will talk about in a second), but because of what Die Hard is as a whole. I mean, it is hard to argue that the film isn’t one of the best ever made – it has one of the best heroes in Bruce Willis’ John McClane, it has one of the best villains in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, and overall, it is one of the best action films ever made. The editing is impeccable, the cinematography stylish, and the fight scenes, from shootouts to hand-to-hand combat, is perfectly staged. They even have a perfectly structured story, what with the arcs of John McClane, Al Powell, and more tying together in a story of redemption, heroism, and morality. Which, I suppose, brings me to the “Christmas” of it all. Many of the major themes of the Christmas season can be found here. John is travelling to reunite with his wife and see if he can save their marriage, tackling the “family” aspect of the holiday season. Meanwhile, Al Powell is looking for redemption after a horrible accident on the force, and finds it in his saving the day by shooting Karl as he assaults McClane in the finale. And I guess they do throw in a single use of “Christmas In Hollis,” so I guess that counts? Either way, Die Hard is one of the best films ever made, and it takes place during Christmas. I suppose, at the end of the day, that does earn it the title of “Best Christmas Adjacent Movie.”
Well, that wraps up this year’s Sacred Wall Christmas! I hope you and your families all have a wonderful day, and we will be back tomorrow with more Oscars coverage, Best of 2018 Listicles, and reviews. Until then, please enjoy one more Christmas treat!