By Noah Gittell
“It’s a Wonderful Life”, “A Christmas Carol”, and “Miracle on 34th Street” are out. “Die Hard” is in. The classic Christmas films will always have their place in our lives on or around December 25th, but in recent years, Christmas-adjacent movies have become a bigger deal. Maybe it’s a new generation putting their own stamp on the canon, or maybe the internet has elevated films that are as much to argue over as to watch. If you’re looking to shake up your holiday movie traditions, any of these films will do the trick.
“About a Boy”
There’s something special about Christmas in London, where the holiday’s commercialism is more in harmony with its ideals. If you want that special feeling, you might be tempted to throw on “Love, Actually” but I prefer “About a Boy”, which stars Hugh Grant as a confirmed bachelor living off the royalties of his deceased father’s one musical hit, a god-awful Christmas song called “Santa’s Super Sleigh”. After forming an unusual friendship with a bullied child (Nicholas Hoult), he learns to grow up. It’s a familiar story, but it sets itself apart with its well-defined characters, sharp humor, and incredible soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy. Oh, and it has two key scenes set on Christmas morning.
One of the wonderful things about Christmas is the way it blurs the line between child and adult. As you watch your children celebrate the holiday with wild abandon, it clears a path in your heart to your own youth. “Hook”, Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan movie, is about that feeling, which is probably why it’s set at Christmastime. Intelligent viewers can disagree on whether this is actually a good movie, but it definitely scratches the Christmas itch.
“Little Women” (2019)
Greta Gerwig’s audacious adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel about the March girls got mostly ignored at the Oscars — it won a single award for Costume Design, which seems like a massive oversight with every passing year. Gerwig’s screenplay (she also directed) creates a brilliant framing device, in which Jo battles with a gruff editor to sell her stories, and her nimble shuffling of the story’s two time periods was both a creative masterstroke and an act of tremendous craft. What’s more, I’m not sure I’ve seen a better representation of “the Christmas spirit” than the scene in which the girls gleefully agree to give their Christmas breakfast to a needier family.
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”
Almost every film by writer Shane Black is set at Christmastime – “Lethal Weapon”, “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, “The Nice Guys”, etc. But “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, his first directorial effort, is his best. Starring a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. and the last great performance by Val Kilmer as a fast-talking criminal and a Hollywood private detective, respectively, working a pair of interlocking cases, it features Black’s whip-smart dialogue, clever bursts of violence, and all the irresistible accouterments of a Christmas in LA.
“The Green Knight”
In 2021, moviegoers celebrated Christmas in July, with the release of David Lowery’s “The Green Knight”, his wildly original adaptation of the classic Arthurian tale. Starring Dev Patel as a young squire who engages in a mysterious Christmas game with the titular monster, it spins off its sparse tale into a surreal coming-of-age story bolstered by Lowery’s bold imagination. It’s a little scary and a tiny bit sexy, though, so save this one for when the kids are fast asleep.
The best Batman movie — yes, I said it — is also a Christmas movie, and it’s not the first-time director Tim Burton has pulled off this kind of hybrid. His “A Nightmare Before Christmas” is a stop-motion classic, but “Batman Returns” is a more dangerous, nastier film that is just barely wholesome enough for the whole family. Set at Christmas in Gotham, it features Batman (Michael Keaton) battling Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and even Max Schrek (Christopher Walken), a ruthless capitalist. It’s a film about lonely people at Christmas, and the nightmarish world Burton creates seems an expression of his characters’ inner angst. Merry Christmas, Gotham!