When we think of Christmas movies, there’s a certain subset that comes to mind. For years, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street were the gold standard for holiday films. But then came National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, and so many others to add to the list. Don’t forget TV specials – they’re often essential Christmas viewing too.
Over the past few years, a meme has developed, and it gets more and more traction every year. It’s the whole “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” argument. I get the idea — that the Bruce Willis actioner belongs in the pantheon of holiday viewing because it takes place at Christmas. I think Die Hard is a terrific film, but it took me a while to buy into the idea of it being a Christmas movie.
If Die Hard belongs on everybody’s Christmas list, I’d like to propose a further list of alternative Christmas movies for everyone to watch. These five films all either take place at Christmastime or have a pivotal scene or sequence that happens during the holidays. Add these movies to your family’s Christmas watch list this season.
5. Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Indulge me here for a minute, and not just because Swiss Family Robinson is my favorite live action Disney movie. Sure, only one scene takes place on Christmas Day, but I believe it’s the most pivotal scene in the movie.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, shame on you, but you may find spoilers in the next couple sentences. Brothers Fritz (James MacArthur) and Ernst (Tommy Corcoran) arrive back at the treehouse with Roberta (Janet Munro) on Christmas for a sweet reunion with their parents and younger brother Francis. So much happens in this scene that sets up the rest of the film.
First of all, when Roberta goes back and forth dancing with Fritz and Ernst, we see the development of the romantic tension between Roberta and both brothers, as well as the jealousy that each brother struggles with as they fight for her attention. Second, the fact that Roberta comes back with the Robinsons sets up the conflict with the pirates that takes place at the end of the movie.
See? That Christmas scene is more important than you thought. It’s all the more reason to include Swiss Family Robinson on your holiday movie list.
4. The Godfather (1972)
Another classic that doesn’t dwell on Christmas but contains a key sequence that takes place during the holiday season is The Godfather. I believe the Christmas scenes are the most important catalyst for what happens during the rest of the trilogy.
It’s December 1945, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is going Christmas shopping with his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). Michael is the brother who has the most potential for not going into the family business, until he sees a newspaper headline that his father (Marlon Brando) has been shot.
Michael’s greatest concern is his father’s safety, so when he visits him at the hospital and sees that the nurses have sent Vito’s bodyguards away, he enlists a nurse to move his father to a new room. He confronts a dirty cop who is on the take from a rival crime family, and the officer breaks Michael’s jaw.
This sequence sets up Michael’s entry into the family business. Of course, he later becomes the kingpin, and his life of crime destroys everything he loves. The Godfather is a great Christmas movie because these scenes are not only evocative of Christmas in New York in the ‘40s, but they also set up the powerful, heartbreaking action of the rest of the series.
3. L.A. Confidential (1997)
You may not think of Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential when you think of Christmas movies, but because its plot hangs on a brutal massacre that takes place right before Christmas, it belongs on the list.
The tale of crooked cops, seedy pulp magazines, and gangsters in early 1950s Los Angeles is searing and engrossing, and the portrayal of the city and the decade is remarkable. The writing and acting are top-notch, and all of the elements of the film come together to create something exciting.
L.A. Confidential won two Oscars – for its screenplay and for Kim Basinger’s supporting role – but it could have won more had it not come out the same year as Titanic. It also made big stars out of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. And for some reason, you don’t hear people talk about it when they discuss classic movies from the ‘90s. For those reasons alone it deserves a second look this holiday season.
2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
A James Bond movie doesn’t sound like something we would associate with Christmas, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service isn’t your typical venture into the world of 007.
For starters, George Lazenby played Bond for the only time in this one, and 007 falls in true love and marries Countess Tracy di Vicenzo (the amazing Diana Rigg). Roughly the second half of the film takes place around Christmas against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps.
Bond battles henchmen and encounters femme fatales amid Christmas trees and presents and an elaborate Christmas market in a Swiss village. It’s all great fun, and even if you’re typically not acquainted with the James Bond series, there’s enough in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for you to enjoy without feeling lost. And did I mention that Telly Savalas plays the villain? He brings his own level of entertainment by himself. Check out On Her Majesty’s Secret Service even if you’ve never watched a Bond film before.
1. The Apartment (1960)
The Apartment isn’t just one of the best films that takes place at Christmas; it’s also one of the best movies of all time. Billy Wilder’s comedy-drama tells the story of C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a low-level insurance company employee who moves quickly up the corporate ladder by allowing executives to use his apartment near Central Park for extramarital trysts.
When Bud discovers that the woman he loves, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is having an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray), he goes to a bar on Christmas Eve and picks up another woman. When Bud and the woman arrive at his house, he finds Fran unconscious on his bed. She has attempted suicide.
Lest you think this doesn’t sound like any kind of comedy you want to watch, Bud nurses her back to health over Christmas, and by New Year’s Eve, Fran has decided to – well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
The Apartment is witty, sweet, and at times heartrending. The cast is terrific, the writing is the kind that people use the phrase “they don’t make movies like that anymore” to describe. You won’t regret making The Apartment part of your Christmas viewing traditions.
There’s the list! Are there any movies you can think of that belong on this list? Let us know in the comments section below.