When it comes to Christmas films, some hold top-tier positions in our hearts, boasting merry elements, holiday-themed mayhem, a sprinkle of magic, and maybe even Ole St. Nick himself. Think Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone, or A Christmas Story. Others, over the years, have been examined, popping up on Christmas movie lists and leading readers to question their merit as Christmas movies.
What makes a Christmas film? Is it about the themes — redemption, belief in the absence of proof, family? Is it simply about the Christmas aesthetic? Are you good to go with a zoom-in on a Christmas Tree, some decorative lights, and maybe a little snowfall? Below, are the most debatable Christmas movies that have worked their way into the genre (sort of), despite boasting other non-merry factors that seem more identifying.
‘Die Hard’ | 1988
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You can’t make a list of debatable Christmas movies and leave out the one that has arguably catalyzed the most discourse. The rated R action movie has a couple of strikes against it right out the gate — the rating, the “mature” language, and the overall bloody spectacle. That being said, the movie is set during Christmas time, Christmas music serves as a backdrop to much of the catch-the-terrorists film, and it even takes place during a Christmas party. The movie, though going about it in a much more gritty way, also features themes of reconciliation and redemption, which mirror the value often set forth in traditional Christmas movies when a protagonist needs to find his way back to what matters most. And, who could forget Bruce Willis’ Christmas-themed line — “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho?”
‘Batman Returns’ | 1992
Tim Burton’s campy comic book adaptation — with costumes that mirror the extravagance tied to the source material and dialogue so perfectly punchy and scrumptious — once defined the genre that has since given way to testosterone-fueled humor and forced seriousness. Though the film is first and foremost an action-adventure movie, it employs a Christmas atmosphere to juxtapose its more seedy, gothic elements. Burton intentionally exploits the festive cheer tied to the holiday — and the associated feelings of love and joy that define the time — to augment Gotham and its villains’ (Penguin and Catwoman) polar twisted and self-serving nature. Gift-giving and tree-lighting ceremonies occur alongside criminal activities and the pursuit of power. The extreme contrast enhances the film’s social commentary and its depiction of a sinister society, creating a visually engaging and thought-provoking action movie. With Christmas virtually serving as a character unto itself in this movie, Batman Returns is, dare we say, more debated than it should be…
‘Gremlins’ | 1984
With a horror-comedy approach and the mischievous gremlins catalyzing chaos, this film falls under scrutiny concerning the “Christmas tag” because of its lack of sentimentality, unsettling tonal shift, and strong emphasis on horror elements. It’s not exactly light and merry. That being said, it takes place during Christmastime and explores the consequences of not adhering to rules (even during the holiday season).
‘Frozen’ | 2013
All that snow. All that ice. A walking, talking snowman. This one is more about the atmosphere than anything else. The overall winter-themed aesthetic plays into the holiday spirit. Not to mention, the in-your-face themes about love and family shine through in several musical numbers and the overall plot trajectory. That being said, it doesn’t exactly feature “Christmas.” We’re not going to get a white elephant moment, and no one is kissing under the mistletoe. It’s festive, but not exactly ho-ho-ho merry.
‘Edward Scissorhands’ | 1990
While Edward Scissorhands kicks off in summertime, the film makes its way to a wintery wonderland later on. Christmas lights and decorations adorn the homes and landscapes, and Edward even makes festive ice sculptures. The movie also celebrates the importance of family and connection, yet not without first spotlighting Edward’s isolation — which many less fortunate can deeply relate to during the festive season. The importance of giving also surfaces throughout the film; Edward offers up his uncanny hairstyling ability, which manifests as both an art form and a way for Edward to emotionally connect with others whose first impressions may shroud his inner beauty. Incorporating fairytale elements, the film also benefits from a sprinkling of magical realism; the supernatural shtick here is just a bit more gothic than the neon-colored levity the decorations would otherwise suggest.
‘Harry Potter’ Series | 2001 — 2011
For years, ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas” featured the Harry Potter films. Several franchise installments include Christmas with Hogwarts decking the halls and characters exchanging gifts. Who could forget the laced-trimmed, second-hand dress robes Ron received from Mama Weasley? The debate here arises from the fact that the narrative itself has nothing to do with Christmas (it also gets quite dark as the series progresses). Rather, Christmas is interwoven into the films merely to serve various relationships and subplots.
‘Trading Places’ | 1983
Trading Places is yet another R-rated “Christmas movie” on this list. So, it strikes out on the family-friendly front that tends to define the genre. Two complete strangers and one twisted bet set the stage for this social satire starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. The former is a down-on-his-luck hustler. The latter is an upper-crust executive. The two switch places to satisfy the curiosity of successful brokers. The film is set during the holiday season with decorations and gift-giving elements (and themes of generosity) surfacing. While the film uses Christmas as a backdrop to explore class and privilege, it’s much more a satire than a Christmas movie, as the typical merry themes of love, family, redemption, as well as a sense of whimsy are amiss.
‘Lethal Weapon’ | 1987
With action genre dominance and little emphasis on Christmas traditions, it’s easy to see why this one is debated — even though the action culminates on Christmas day. The film follows two cops who couldn’t be more different forced to work together to uncover a massive drug trafficking ring. The premise doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas.” We’re sort of in a Die Hard position here with Christmas serving as a festive backdrop to the machismo, explosive vibes. However, the film does spotlight the go-to Christmas themes of family and redemption, while working in classic Christmas needle drops like “Jingle Bell Rock.” It’s merely gritty and violent instead of jolly and vibrant. With films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, you get the themes inherent to more festive films, but you don’t receive them in the festive light (despite the literal Christmas lights).