10, 9, 8, 7, 6. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Iron Man 3 (2013), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang (2005), Lethal Weapon (1987)
These films all have a number of things in common. They share great and snappy dialogue, explosive action set pieces, a love of brutal violence, clearly defined and layered characters, a raw and hilarious (and wonderfully non-PC) sense of humor, and they are all beautifully and quirkily set up against a Christmastime backdrop.
They all also happen to be written or co-written (and in the case of Iron Man 3 and the near-perfect Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, directed) by Shane Black, one of the best and most successful yet trivially underrated screenwriters working in Hollywood today.
All these films (Lethal Weapon and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, being the best of them, respectively) focus on what most Hollywood action-driven spectacles today seem to forget first: their characters’ humanity, flaws, desires, and weaknesses.
And what better time of year to bring out anyone’s humanity and weaknesses than Christmastime? The ensuing action in these films always evolves from the feelings and emotions this brings out, and the results are some of the most involving, organic, and entertaining examples of storytelling (and atypical Christmas films) out there.
5. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
George Lucas is so ashamed of this Star Wars-themed Christmas special that he spent a significant amount of time and energy trying to have every copy of it removed from the face of the Earth. Lucky for us, he wasn’t successful. Now that you have this knowledge, it is your personal responsibility not only as a Star Wars fan but as a human being to seek out the work that the man who created and loves Jar Jar Binks DOESN’T want you to see.
If you’ve seen it, you either find the atrocity horrific or hilarious or both at the same time. If you haven’t, just imagine a program packed with everything from Wookies on their home planet celebrating their own version of Christmas called “Life Day” to Bea Arthur doing a musical number in a cantina-like setting. While you may not exactly understand, you’ll at least be so speechless that your curiosity will take you over to seek it out (and you’ll subsequently never be the same again).
4. Batman Returns (1992)
We are never going to see another film like Batman Returns ever again. We never saw one before it, and it’s safe to say a cherished and multi-billion dollar superhero franchise will never be given the perverse, art-house, Fellini-if-he-was-really-angry-at-his-parents treatment again. Due to its cheery (and often silly) Christmastime setting and its simultaneous love of grotesque monstrosities, Batman Returns also happens to be one of the most tonally polarizing films ever to be released by a major studio.
Tim Burton got away with murder when he made his “sequel” to the 1989 hit extravaganza Batman (the only things the two films really share are the title character and its portrayal by Michael Keaton).
When Warner Bros. courted the director back for a second time around, he decided to use his newfound clout to essentially fund an insane art project disguised as a summer tent pole blockbuster. He brought over his producing partner, Denise Di Novi, who was (or was going to be) behind Burton’s best and most personal works to date.
They, in turn, put together a wonderfully bent and brilliant misfit team that included Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, Edward Scissorhands cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, and Beetlejuice production designer Bo Welch, to name a few.
Burton and company then went on to create a surreal, sexually confused, and utterly morbid Batman story set at Christmastime in Gotham city. A story in which the Penguin (a perfect Danny DeVito) is a perverted, deformed little man literally raised in the sewer by penguins, Catwoman (an equally perfect Michelle Pfeiffer) is a sexually aggressive victim born of rampant corporate misogyny who was raised from the dead by some strange alley cat ritual, and Batman is…
Well, a lonely depressed guy who waits in dark rooms for the action to start only to become the cool supporting player in his own movie.
Like Edward Scissorhands, the Christmastime backdrop in Batman Returns deepens Burton’s characters’ inner conflicts and social alienation to an almost expressionistic degree. The warmth and goodwill everyone seems to be feeling around them is replaced by loneliness, lack of identity, some really perverse sexual gestures, and the desire to strap a bunch of live missiles to an army of penguins while delivering a monologue about blowing up the genitals of Gotham’s infant children…
Ultimately, Batman Returns is a horrible example of a Batman film, a great example of an underappreciated (and unhinged) Tim Burton film, and a perfect example of one of the most twisted Christmas films ever made.
3. The War of the Roses (1989)
As a director, Danny DeVito’s brand of dark comedy is so singular, brilliant, and fantastically twisted that it’s actually a good thing we have so few examples of it. When viewed today, The War of the Roses (along with Throw Momma from the Train, Matilda, and Death to Smoochy) is a rare example of a comedy that is made with equal parts style, wit, sophisticated filmmaking, some very sincere emotions, and a downright (though wonderfully) nasty sense of humor.
The War of the Roses is DeVito’s masterpiece. As darkly silly and whacked out as it gets, it also never loses its point or its grasp on reality. The film, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, is one of the best cinematic representations of the petty, bitter, and vindictive emotions brought out by divorce.
Douglas and Turner play a couple in the midst of leaving one another, and their disagreements over everything they can think of reach such a peak that their house literally becomes a war zone in which all lines of morality, decency, and restraint eventually dissolve.
The fact that the events of The War of the Roses are set during the holiday season amplifies the absurd nature of the film. Like so many other films on this list, the Christmastime atmosphere that envelops these clueless characters is a stark contrast to their selfish emotions, and provides the audience with a constant reminder of what these two are forgetting and losing in their lives.
Ultimately, what makes The War of the Roses such a great work is it’s ability to find as much love and sincerity for Christmas and family values as it’s ability to find faults and targets in the same things for some very brutal and astute American satire.
2. Brazil (1985)
Within the first few minutes of viewing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for the first time, you will know only one thing is for certain: there is absolutely no way of predicting what will happen next. Discomfort and unease are the primary emotions we’re treated to in Brazil, and they are set up early on.
We witness a lower class family peacefully enjoying time by the Christmas tree. They are soon violently interrupted by terrifying, masked men who literally come out of the ceiling and storm down on them. These government officials, as we quickly learn them to be, kidnap the father, bill the traumatized mother for their efforts, then leave her to weep by the lights of the Christmas tree, completely alone.
Gilliam’s haywire social satire masterpiece uses Christmastime as a creepy backdrop to criticize capitalism, commercialism, excess, and greed. In Brazil, Christmas is essentially a threat, there to remind us that peace and goodwill are just illusions and comforts waiting to be torn away.
Or, just as horrifically, Christmas is simply another upper class occasion used to celebrate themselves, pass the time by spending loads of money, and deny the reality of how soul-less and apathetic their lifestyles are. In Brazil, for perhaps the first time ever, Christmas is a truly terrifying, almost assaultive, presence in a film. As a result, it’s also one of the most effective and memorable.
1. Die Hard (1988)
Undeniably, this is the easiest and most obvious choice on this list. In fact, it’s so obvious that it would be forgivable to not even include it. Since it has been included, however, it would be a completely unforgivable crime against nature not to put at the top and we all know why… Because it’s Die Hard.
It may not be It’s a Wonderful Life, and the whole family may not sit around the television set as it blares at Christmastime… But for the legions of us who love it, there is no better way to celebrate Christmas than to watch John McClane smoke cigarettes, curse, run around shirtless, shoot machine guns at terrorists, wax metaphorical about Twinkies with the dad from Family Matters, save his estranged wife’s life in an inhumanly cool way, then drive off in a limousine while Vaughn Monroe croons “Let it Snow” in the background. There just isn’t.
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.