When we think of Christmas movies, we tend to think of the usual ones—Home Alone (dir. Chris Columbus, 1990-92), Elf (dir. Jon Favreau, 2003), or pretty much any adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843)…Muppets or otherwise. But what about the alternative ones? There’s a lot of films out there set around the festive season—whether that be as part of the plot or the film’s themes of love and family. We tend to associate the holidays with warm, wholesome feelings of friendship, forgiveness, and a sense of coming home. It’s this kind of emotion that these movies are trying to tap into (or else, using to emphasize the opposite).
In this list, we’ll dive into the top ten movies that are—at least partially—set during Christmastime. They’re dark, tense, funny, warming, magical… there are no set rules like with your standard, family-friendly Christmas movie. Which is what makes them so great! You can watch these movies any time during the year as they aren’t specifically Christmas movies per se. However, they’re especially good for when you’re looking for something a little different to snuggle up to this December:
10. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s crime biopic isn’t exactly the first movie to come to mind at Christmas. That said, “Catch Me If You Can” was released on December 25th after having been in development for over two decades. Based on Frank Abagnale Jr.’s semi-autobiographical novel (1980), the film follows young Frank’s life as an alleged con artist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Frank begins scamming after he runs away from home as a teenager, and it quickly escalates into a full-time job, posing as airline pilots and secret agents. On his case is FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who dodges through the minefield of Frank’s fake identities to—as you can guess from the title—catch him.
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None of this sounds particularly festive, but as Spielberg navigates us through Frank’s life story, we are of course guided through a whole bunch of Christmases. The opening scene to Catch Me If You Can is set on a rainy Christmas Eve in 1969, and from there we witness a happy-families flashback to a Christmas in 1964, followed later by Frank’s arrest on December 24th, 1967. Every year on Christmas Eve, Frank taunts agent Hanratty with a phone call, until the two eventually form a father-son type relationship (as a stand-in for Frank’s own lost father figure) in the festive spirit of families coming together. Christmas is a recurring motif that holds the plot of Catch Me If You Can together, ringing out the sound of Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
9. Little Women (2019)
Like “Catch Me If You Can”, Little Women takes place over multiple Christmases when following the lives of the March family in the late 19th century. Louisa May Alcott’s famous coming-of-age novel (1868) has been adapted for the screen several times, but we’re picking the most recent, Oscar-winning version for this list. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Little Women is a cozy rendition of the classic Victorian Christmas. The cute country cottages, open fires, and close-knit family setup make it a perfect alternative to the usual Christmas flicks. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and Laura Dern, the March sisters form a close bond while their father is away fighting in the American Civil War. Despite their bickering and teenage jealousy, the four wholly different sisters—a tomboy, an artist, a girly girl—forever have each-others back through the hardships of life back in the day.
Throughout the story, Christmas always marks a time for giving, healing, and making amends for the March family, whether that be their father coming home from the war, recovering from illness, or giving their festive feast away to the less fortunate. Little Women is the perfect example of a good, old-fashioned Christmas, typically read aloud to the family before television was invented. Nowadays, we can watch the warm glow of nostalgia rendered on screen, where Gerwig makes the characters so fully formed we feel part of the family ourselves.
8. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Away from the twinkling candlelight of Little Women is 12 Monkeys—a dystopian sci-fi thriller starring Bruce Willis. We’ve already seen him in the semi-Christmas classic Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988), but this one’s even more niche. Directed by the zany Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys is a time-traveling, apocalyptic adventure, where prisoner James Cole (Willis) is sent back to the 1990s. It’s somewhere around here that a world-ending plague is thought to spawn, and it’s up to James to gather more information and save humanity. Suffice to say, it doesn’t go exactly to plan.
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12 Monkeys is especially potent given the current world climate. Viewers really sympathized during 2020’s quarantined Christmas (a pandemic movie set at Christmas…what could be more relevant than that?) and still can this year. Not only is 12 Monkeys a puzzle-movie masterpiece, but Gilliam elegantly uses the festive backdrop to exaggerate the bleak storyline. The opposing tones—holiday cheer vs. deadly virus—put a new spin on the term “Christmas movie”. The requisite airport scene isn’t quite Love Actually (dir. Richard Curtis, 2003), swapping out tearful reunions for a bloody shootout. It might not particularly lift your spirits, but it’s a gritty alternative to Christmas cliches nonetheless.
7. Carol (2015)
There was some controversy around the release of Todd Haynes’s romantic drama Carol. It was omitted from the Academy Award’s Best Picture and Best Director categories and certain scenes were censored by ABC and Delta Air Lines, which social media criticized as somewhat regressive. Carol is a highly acclaimed LGBTQ+ movie led by two strong female actors—Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett—so these omissions were not taken too well. Despite this, Carol still did exceedingly well for an artsy period piece. Based on the 1952 romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol takes place in the warmly lit, post-war holiday season.
Filmed on Super 16mm for the extra balmy Christmas feel, the story centers on two women who lock eyes at a Manhattan department store and eventually fall in love. They buy Christmas trees together and take photographs, but Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) grows suspicious of their relationship. Highsmith was in fact inspired by a blonde woman she met when working as a seasonal salesgirl in 1948 when writing the novel, so the origins of this movie are rooted in the culture of Christmas. Carol is a subtly endearing movie, embracing audiences with that fuzzy feeling of love during the season when love is most important. Yet, for Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara), this love is forced into secrecy with dire consequences.
6. Phantom Thread (2017)
Phantom Thread has been dubbed the “best anti-Christmas movie” around, which still arguably qualifies it as an alternative Christmas pick. Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis once again team up to bring us a carefully crafted drama starring a moody anti-hero, played by Day-Lewis. If you liked There Will Be Blood (2007), you’ll be sure to love this one! Day-Lewis is the renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock—an influential figure of the high-end fashion scene in 1950s London. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) ensures his meticulously organized lifestyle is kept in check, but the young and beautiful Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes bustling in and disrupts it.
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Alma becomes more than just a muse for Reynolds movie-star designs but is quickly tired out by his finicky demands. Worlds away from the easy-going hilarity of classics like Jingle All the Way (dir. Brian Levant, 1996), Phantom Thread is an oppressive, humdrum salute to the grapples of the past year. Not to sound morbid—Anderson’s masterstroke with the camera still makes Phantom Thread a stunning example of refined filmmaking. It was released on Christmas Day with the intention of being watched over the holidays, full of good food, new clothes, and New Year’s celebrations. The period drama serves mostly to echo the bitterness of winter and aging, with the odd dazzling sequin dress perfect for Christmas parties.
5. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut is another dark, wintry tale that probes into the shadowy side of an anti-heroes psyche. Stanley Kubrick’s unusual erotic thriller stars Tom Cruise as Dr. Bill Harford, whose troubled relationship with his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) makes him obsessed with having an affair. This obsession leads Bill down a seedy rabbit hole of sex cults and dangerous men. It’s not your usual Christmas movie template, but the whole thing is triggered by a Christmas party scene, attended by Bill and Alice. The whole story then comes full circle when ending with Alice Christmas shopping with their daughter. Browsing the bustling New York City streets, Bill and Alice decided to address the marital problems that plague the entire film (ironic, for they divorced two years later in real life, just after Christmas).
Based on the 1926 novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, Eyes Wide Shut doesn’t take place at Christmas coincidentally. The blinding lights and themes of excess are a potent critique of our materialist Western culture. And when is consumerist greed rifer than during the holidays? Kubrick’s final movie before his death is tense and cinematic, using Bill’s psyche as a mirror into the corrupt workings of modern society. Although the atmosphere is swaddled in the glitter of Christmas lights and pretty cinematography, this is just a red herring; the glamour of Christmas is simply a mask (linking to another motif in the film—Venetian masks) on the excess of upper-class New York, playing tug-of-war with over-indulgence and unhealthy repression.
4. Trading Places (1983)
The fact it’s a cold winter in Philadelphia makes Louis Winthorpe III’s lesson a lot harder for him to learn in Trading Places, cast away to the chilly streets in destitution. Played by Dan Aykroyd, Louis is a snobby managing director for a brokerage firm, whose upper-class lifestyle is switched with street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). This switch is orchestrated by the owners of Duke & Duke Commodity Brokers, who conduct an experiment on the effects of nature vs. nurture. How will the two men survive and thrive in their new environments? Will Louis be able to handle a Christmas spent in poverty? Can Billy take on the pressure and social expectations of being a businessman?
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John Landis’s classic 80s comedy is full of funny mishaps and social allegories. During the firm’s Christmas party, Louis plants drugs in Billy’s desk to frame him, but only ends up in a muddied Santa suit holding a gun to his head. It’s a sorry sight to see, and especially heartless to crush a man’s life over a $1 dollar bet at Christmas. As the holidays are a known time for charity and community, it’s the perfect time to put Louis’s (and his bosses, come to that) greedy lifestyle to the test.
3. Spencer (2021)
Spencer also utilizes Super 16mm film to achieve that sentimental, avant-garde look, playing out in an old-fashioned square ratio. But behind the cozy fires and lavish table spreads is a sad story about a woman shunned by those closest to her. Many have speculated over conspiracies of Princess Diana’s tragic death, which director Pablo Larraín feeds into in this recent historical fiction. “Will they kill me, do you think?” Diana asks when being late for a Royal dinner party, playing on the idea that this Christmas was to be one of Diana’s last. Brilliantly performed by Kristen Stewart, Diana stays at the Queen’s luxurious Sandringham Estate in Norfolk for Christmas, 1991. However, the entire ordeal is mostly an act to please the news reporters, with the everyday trips being photographed and outfit carefully chosen out.
Diana doesn’t even have the freedom to open her own curtains; her existence is carefully controlled, monitored, and measured out. On top of this suffocation, the holidays are also a difficult time for those struggling with an eating disorder, which Diana openly admitted to the press. Despite being loved by millions for her kindness and humanity, Diana was reportedly disliked by the Royal family, which Spencer eloquently explores. The entire film takes place across the December month of 1991, offering a snippet into the difficult life of the beloved princess at a time when the family is supposed to be the most giving. Instead, they do nothing but take away from Diana’s life held in captivity.
2. The Green Knight (2021)
The Green Knight puts an unusual spin on Arthurian lore, suffusing the legends of Camelot with the experimental flair associated with A24 films. Dev Patel stars as Gawain—King Arthur’s nephew—in David Lowery’s epic medieval fantasy, which was highly praised by critics. The story begins on Christmas morning, where Gawain wakes up hungover in a brothel and rushes back home to his family in Camelot. There, he attends a feast at the Round Table, taking up the challenge of a duel with the Green Knight. This tree-like mythical creature warns Gawain that any blow he delivers, he will receive back in one year hence.
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Twelve months pass and it’s Christmas again, so Gawain must take a grueling journey to the Green Chapel and receive his fate. The holly and ye-olde Christmas decorations give this darkly whimsical tale a healthy dose of festive spirit, where it always seems to be Christmas morning. December is the perfect time for nighttime stories in front of the fire, reveling in old myths and magical folklore. The Green Knight is exactly that, but with a cinematic flourish. The Green Knight offers a frosty reminder to reflect and be grateful for the years passed, and ones ahead; it is a tale of loneliness, morality, and finding love in unexpected places.
1. Harry Potter (2001-2011)
The Harry Potter franchise is beloved and watched all year round by fans, but none more than at Christmas. Each of the eight movies—adapted from J.K. Rowling’s iconic book series (1997-2007)—takes us through the festivities of the wizarding world. Hogwarts is dressed top to bottom in magical holiday decorations; Hagrid hauls giant Christmas trees through the snow; and the Weasley’s host an annual Christmas dinner for all the family, friends, and misfits they know. Maybe it’s the cozy glow of the castle in winter…maybe it’s the wholesome themes of friendship or good defeating evil. Whatever it is, the Harry Potter universe is perfect to watch with all the family this Christmas.
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An all-star British cast (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith…the list is endless) make up the witches and wizards of Hogwarts school, who sacrifice everything to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It’s your typical hero’s tale—full of trolls and werewolves and wands—and the rickety, old-timey architecture of the wizarding world perfectly matches the festive season.