Christmas is a holiday that is supposed to bring out the best in humanity. It is promoted as a time for family, giving, sharing, and appreciating all the wonderful people in your life. Christmas is the one time of year we’re supposed to let go of our selfish, everyday worries and look past our anger and resentments to see the best in the world around us.
While this yearly utopian dream scenario exists for many households (especially those seen on television and theater screens), the other (perhaps truer) side of Christmas is one that reveals a much more bitter reality: family dysfunction, complete loneliness and isolation, commercial greed, criminal behavior, murderous rampage, addiction, terrorism, really kinky superhero outfits, and, sometimes, officials from a totalitarian government cutting a hole in your ceiling, putting a bag over the head of your household, then whisking him off to a horrifying and unknown destination without any warning whatsoever. In other words, for some people out there, Christmas really sucks.
The films on this list represent a Christmas that isn’t commonplace in most households during the season. Or, more accurately, a Christmas that no one wants to be commonplace: cold, uninviting, and utterly chaotic.
These films won’t leave you feeling warm and gooey inside, filled with all kinds of goodwill towards men… They will leave you drunk and alone behind secured locks on Christmas, guarding your front door with a shotgun, all the while waiting for the peace of knowing that the worst day if the year is finally coming to an end.
20. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1987)
An orphaned, abused, and emotionally troubled teen goes on a murderous rampage at Christmastime while dressed in a Santa Claus outfit. Silent Night, Deadly Night is an eighties cult classic designed to appeal to the bitterest parts of our Christmas spirit.
Deliciously demented, wonderfully mean-spirited, and perfectly depressing, Silent Night, Deadly Night is the perfect Christmas movie for those who dread the feelings dredged up by the most wonderful time of the year.
19. Santa Claus (1959), (Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus, (1993)
This downright surreal and impossibly weird Mexican-language (and endearingly but poorly English-language dubbed) Santa Claus tale is a must-see for anyone who favors something bizarre for the holiday season. If Alejandro Jodorowsky did the set design for a low budget directorial collaboration between Federico Fellini and Tim Burton while they were all simultaneously competing in an LSD contest, the result would be something close to Santa Claus.
The incomprehensible story is best experienced with the brilliant and soothing wisecracks provided by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe in their season six episode from the nineties. MST3K will help viewers cope with the constant barrage of “WTF?!” that will fly through their brains while watching this tripped out accidental masterpiece of which Ed Wood would have been proud.
18. Less Than Zero (1987)
This heavily neutered but still effective adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel is a cautionary Christmas tale of addiction, decadence, and surviving the endless spectacle of surface-driven pleasures provided by a 1980’s Los Angeles environment. Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and Robert Downey, Jr. star as monetarily spoiled but emotionally neglected college-age youths struggling to get through their holiday break without doing as much cocaine as they possibly can.
McCarthy is the moral center of the film (something nonexistent in Ellis’ much more dangerous source material) who is trying to help his downward-spiraling model ex (Gertz) and his new-depths-of-bottom-hitting childhood friend (Downey, Jr., in his first great dramatic performance).
Needless to say, the holiday season doesn’t lift any spirits or create any miracles for this particular story, and Christmas looms in the background as the cold reminder of everything the film’s protagonists lack in their emotionally vapid lives.
17, 16. The Ref (1994) and Bad Santa (2003) (tie)
Both Ted Demme’s The Ref and Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa are such obvious choices for this list that they barely qualify as “atypical”.
While they may not just yet be as popular as other now-classics that started as atypical Christmas films with a cult following (A Nightmare Before Christmas, A Christmas Story, and Scrooged to name the obvious), they certainly are beloved fixtures in an increasingly growing number of American homes at Christmastime. For now, they fit quite nicely amongst the films listed here, as not mentioning them at this point in time would be a disservice to their darkly inappropriate but still touchingly sincere hearts.
The Ref stars Dennis Leary as a (predictably) fast-talking burglar who reluctantly becomes something of a marriage counselor to a bickering couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) while taking them hostage.
Bad Santa features a criminal, foul-mouthed mall Santa played by Billy Bob Thorton who (kinda sorta) discovers the meaning of Christmas through a dim-witted but good-hearted boy he befriends on the job. Both films are darkly comedic and reluctantly optimistic takes on modern-day Scrooges finding their humanity in the Christmas spirit, in spite of the pitch-black nature of their barely beating hearts.
15. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
If it’s not enough for you to simply enjoy the Pythons’ take on the (re)writing of the first Christmas, then this comforting thought should do the trick: this film is proof that, if there is a God, he/she/it almost certainly has a sense of humor. Otherwise, there’s simply no way this film would ever exist. It would have met the same recurring fate as former Python member Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film (which God apparently holds a very strong grudge against,): biblical plague.
Life of Brian presumably met with God’s approval, however, and allowed it to be completed and released to the masses. So, when you’re whittling down your list of Christmas films to watch this year, remember to put Life of Brian at the top… Because God wants you to.
14. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s final film is a cautionary tale about the temptation of straying from the security and vows of marriage. The institution may be a nightmare of compromise, jealousy, and betrayal… But it’s a hell of a lot better than all the other perversions (pedophilia, prostitution, and group sex to name a few) out there, all of which are explored in the nightmarish near-comedy of errors that is Eyes Wide Shut.
The film opens in the family home of Tom Cruise’s and Nicole Kidman’s characters. It is decorated with a large Christmas tree, festive lights, and stockings to represent the loving parents and their young daughter. Christmas, in Eyes Wide Shut, represents the warmth of the home and family that Cruise’s character is all-too-eager to stray from.
As he goes down the wild road of his sexual curiosities, the atmosphere of Christmastime is always looming in the background, reminding the audience of everything he’s potentially leaving behind and at further risk of losing forever with every step he takes. In Eyes Wide Shut, Christmas is a warm background for a cold film, and a symbol for all the things that are all too easily taken for granted.
13. In Bruges (2008)
Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and darkly comedic tale about of a pair of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) awaiting punishment from their boss after a botched job is a wonderful, bitter pill of a Christmas movie.
The story takes place in a small, quiet medieval city that Farrell’s character slowly comes to realize is something of a (metaphorical) purgatory. The Christmastime atmosphere adds layers of both sweetness and sadness to the always-shifting (but expertly plotted) tones of this wild and ingenious film.
12. Gremlins (1984)
Director Joe Dante’s career-defining blockbuster about a bunch of, well, gremlins that are unleashed on a small town is one of the best, and most twisted, horror comedies of all time. It also happens to be one of the most bent Christmas films of all time.
The Christmas backdrop to all the destructive mayhem is an interesting and unsettling twist, but it’s Phoebe Cates’ beyond-screwed-up monologue about why she hates Christmas that makes Gremlins the anti-goodwill Christmastime favorite it is today for some of the holiday’s least ardent supporters.
11. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton’s beautiful fable masterpiece about teenage misfit emotions is also one of the best movies to represent feelings of loneliness and alienation that are experienced by many people during the holiday season.
While the enormous fan base for this film almost makes it too obvious of a choice for this list, the sad and resonating feelings found at the it’s heart are what make it a slightly less-appealing choice for the majority of those seeking out films to put them in the Christmas spirit. It’s certainly not the happiest of Christmas movies, but it can definitely provide a comfort to those who, for whatever reason, feel a little out of place at Christmastime this year.