Christmas movies are, in theory, supposed to reflect the season. They are supposed to fill us with the same hope and joy that Christmas itself fills us with. They are supposed to inspire cherished family time, where we all huddle around the TV together, and watch that holiday favorites that completes the season.
So why are so many Christmas movies also deeply cynical? Keep in mind that even classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, which probably has one of the most idealistic endings in movie history, also has a pretty dark bent for a lot of the film. Let’s not forget that George Bailey tries to kill himself, after all.
Or what about A Christmas Story? Despite its deep nostalgia and happy (albeit racist) ending, it’s worth keeping in mind how the family at the story’s center all seem on the verge of a breakdown. Even American hero John McClane is a Christmas cynic right up until he knocks Hans Gruber off of Nakatomi Plaza!
The fact is that there are plenty of movies out there for people who aren’t as won over by the relentless good tidings and great cheer that come with the holiday season. Christmas is a joyous time, but it’s also a stressful time, capable of bringing out your inner Grinch as much as your inner Santa Claus. To that end, here are few alternative Christmas movies, for the cynic in all of us.
Please note that this list is ranked in no particular order.
1. Scrooged (1988)
Scrooged is a lot like another Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day, in a sense. Like in that film, Murray plays a cynical jerk who has to learn the true meaning of life and love (and in Scrooged’s case, Christmas) in this, one of many modern retellings of Dickens’ holiday parable. The difference is that in Scrooged, Murray’s Frank Cross is much less likable and charming than Phil Connors, his lovable curmudgeon from Groundhog Day.
Perhaps that’s why this movie isn’t quite as beloved, and why Cross’s redemption at the end of this film doesn’t feel quite as earned. Regardless of any of that though, Scrooged is still an entertainingly sarcastic comedy, with a great turn from one of America’s favorite funnymen.
2. Stalag 17 (1953)
One of two Billy Wilder films on this list, Stalag 17 is a fun little movie about Christmas with the Nazis. William Holden won an Oscar for his performance as Sgt. J.J. Sefton, a POW with a keen business sense.
Though based off a play, Wilder does an excellent job of cinematically tightening the screws in this taut exercise in suspicion. Stalag 17 works because although it is very funny, its themes of paranoia and scapegoating are unfortunately timeless.
3. The Apartment (1960)
Like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Apartment is another classic Christmas film that hinges on a character’s attempt to commit suicide. Probably the best comedy ever made by director Billy Wilder (and that’s saying something,) this film was daringly dark for its time, and even today, it carries a surprisingly effective sense of melancholy. T
hat’s not to say it isn’t a hoot to watch, or that it doesn’t contain delightful performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. But this is ultimately a movie about loneliness, and how it’s heightened around the holidays.
The Apartment also gets points for getting its two lead characters together, but leaving just enough ambiguity so as to avoid a traditional Hollywood ending. The last scene is quite touching, despite the fact that Lemmon and MacLaine never even kiss.
4. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
It doesn’t get much more cynical than a Christmas movie where Santa is literally murdering people. Well, technically it’s a guy dressed as Santa, but still. This is one of the original Christmas horror movies, and one of the best.
Made at the late ‘70s/early ‘80s slasher movement, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a bloody treat for the whole family— assuming the whole family is a little twisted. Fans of this one should also check out Black Christmas from 1974, directed by Bob Clark, who would go on to make A Christmas Story.
5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
The thing that makes Clark Griswald such a compelling figure is that he’s obsessed with familial perfection. He’s willing to take his vision of good times, whatever that may be, to almost sociopathic lengths. So of course, he naturally gets swept up in the chaos that is Christmas.
This is why Christmas Vacation is a favorite in, and perhaps the most representative film of the entire Vacation franchise. Clark kind of gets his way in the end, but his efforts along the way say a lot about the potentially destructive nature of this supposedly wonderful holiday.
6. Batman Returns (1992)
It’s a Batman movie and a Christmas movie? You bet. On top of which, the fact that this film (director Tim Burton’s second and final installment in the original Batman franchise) is set during Christmas time only makes it work that much better. Something about the imposed cheeriness of the season makes the creepy nightscapes of Burton’s Gotham even more haunting, T
his may not be the best Batman movie, but it is the weirdest, with Michelle Pfeiffer playing a truly disturbed Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Danny DeVito appearing as a dark and grotesque version of The Penguin. This is a sad, strange, cynical little superhero movie, unlike anything else that’s come since. For that reason, Batman Returns also holds a special place both in the rank and file of superhero films, and Christmas movies.
7. The Ref (1994)
Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis play a bickering couple who are taken hostage by a cat burglar (Denis Leary) on Christmas Eve in this 1994 comedy from director Ted Demme.
Davis and Leary are great, but Spacey is especially fun to watch in this movie, which came at an interesting time in his career. He was still a year away from the fame that came with his turn in The Usual Suspects, but it’s not hard to see that star quality on the horizon here.
8. Bad Santa (2003)
Bad Santa is probably the most cynical Christmas movie ever made. Billy Bob Thornton stars in this black comedy as a mall Santa named Willie, and boy does Willie live up to the movie’s title. Willie drinks, sleeps around, and has a general hatred for all things Christmas.
The movie tries to make a point about consumer culture too, and while this feels a bit like an afterthought, it’s a smart observation nonetheless. Ironically though, while Bad Santa is unabashedly dark and cynical almost all the way through, and even hard to watch at times, it ends with a happy idea— that Christmas can bring out the best in even the worst of us. Lookout next year for a long-awaited sequel, with Thornton reprising his role.