For the Grinches
Bah, humbug! For some people, the Christmas season conjures up visions of sugarplums and Santa Claus and peace on Earth — but you're not one of those people. For you, Christmas is a uniquely unpleasant time of year, where you can't so much as go out to buy milk without having to fight your way through gift-obsessed crowds, or have to listen to yet another blowhard politician make "Merry Christmas!" into a kind of culture-wars battle cry. If the season's crass commercialism and forced good cheer make you want to see just how flammable a Christmas tree can be, these movies can feed your inner Scrooge instead.
Credit: Warner Bros.
You may be familiar with the Krampus: a Germanic goat demon who acts as kind of a counterpart to Santa Claus, punishing bad children instead of rewarding good ones. In Michael Dougherty's Krampus, Tom Engel (Adam Scott) has to oversee his dysfunctional family, who have arrived at his home for the holidays. Tom's family doesn't have much in the way of Christmas spirit, though, which acts as the perfect lure for the Krampus. Their antics as they try to evade the creature make for an agreeable comedy-horror film, and the body count should satisfy any Christmas-induced bloodlust.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2008)
There's something about Shane Black and Christmas movies. Between In Bruges, Iron Man 3 and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he's used the holiday as a backdrop often enough. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang stars Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart: a small-time crook whose botched Christmas robbery might be just what he needs to kickstart his acting career. Like Black's other movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is part crime thriller, part dark comedy, and a whole lot more watchable than listening to overly sincere families blather on about the true meaning of Christmas.
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The Ice Harvest (2005)
Christmas seems to bring out the wisecracking criminal in all of us. The Ice Harvest (directed by Harold Ramis) features John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie Arglist and Vic Cavanaugh, respectively. Arglist is a lawyer for the mob; Cavanaugh is a smut peddler. Together, they've stolen $2 million from some very bad guys, just in time to celebrate Christmas. A series of double-crosses and back stabbings put the two in constant danger, but there's something undeniably charming about the film's bizarre situations and witty banter. The ending, while satisfying, is anything but heartwarming, though.
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Bad Santa (2003)
If Christmas inspires feelings of nihilism and apathy for you, Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa has your back. Nothing is sacred in this dark comedy heist film, which stars Billy Bob Thornton as Willie T. Soke. Each year, Soke gets a job as a mall Santa Claus, then robs his employer blind, and this year's score might be his biggest yet. Full of foul language, lurid sex and shattered dreams, Bad Santa is nonetheless darkly reassuring: It's willing to be just as irreverent about Christmas as you are. Fun fact: The Coen brothers served as executive producers on the film, and even had a hand in rewriting the script. (Which makes sense.)
The Hebrew Hammer (2003)
Listen up, fellow Hebrews and Shebrews. We may not have many Hanukkah movies to call our own, but at least The Hebrew Hammer (directed by Jonathan Kesselman) is a treat for Jews and Gentiles alike. Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) is the Hebrew Hammer: a secret agent tasked with taking down anti-Semitism all around the globe. In the film, Santa Claus is a friend to the Jews — until he's murdered and replaced by his villainous son (Andy Dick, of course). Now, the Hammer must save both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa (just roll with it) from an evil Saint Nick.L'chaim!
Credit: Comedy Central
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1991)
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (directed by Nicholas Webster) is that special brand of mid-'60s kitsch that's enjoyable only if you make fun of it. Enter Mystery Science Theater 3000: a show dedicated to making fun of chintzy old B-movies. Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and his two robot buddies leave their good will toward men at the door, then strap in and roast the flick for 2 hours. In the film, Martians kidnap Santa Claus and force him to create toys for their underprivileged children. If Christmas leaves you in a snarky mood, this is a pretty controlled way to get your frustrations out.
Batman Returns (1992)
All Christmas movies are melodramatic tearjerkers about the wholesome magic of the season, right? Batman Returns begs to differ. Tim Burton's second Batman film is melodramatic, sure, but beyond that, it's an over-the-top, action-packed superhero romp, full of skintight catsuits, groan-worthy puns, and a surprising amount of mayhem and murder. Batman (Michael Keaton) squares off against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) in order to save Gotham City from a Christmastime killing spree. Arguably the weirdest of the Caped Crusader's films, Batman Returns is dark, sexy, violent — and about the furthest thing you can imagine from a cheerful holiday classic.
Credit: Warner Bros
Ghostbusters II (1989)
Ah, Ghostbusters II: the neglected middle child of the franchise. Neither as novel as the first film, nor as ill-conceived as the remake, Ghostbusters II nevertheless deserves a watch if you need a little respite from upbeat, overwrought Christmas films. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) reassembles the Ghostbusters just in time for Christmas, 1989. This time, the team is up against Vigo the Carpathian: a powerful ghost trapped in a cursed painting. The character interactions are as entertaining as ever, and seeing the Ghostbusters pilot a mobilized Statue of Liberty never gets old. The team is tired of Christmas and just trying to do its job in peace — sound familiar?
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (directed by Jeremiah Chechik) winds up on a lot of "Best Christmas Movies" lists — and for good reason — but nostalgic writers sometimes forget that the movie is approximately 88 minutes of mischief and 2 minutes of heartfelt holiday nostalgia. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to plan the perfect Christmas celebration for his suburban family, but crazy in-laws, inedible dinners and catastrophic gifts make that just about impossible. By the time Clark insists that his family is going to have the "hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny [REDACTED] Kaye," he captures the exasperation we've all felt on some dark December day.
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Die Hard (1988)
If you've really, truly, had it up to here with Christmas cheer, it's time to bust out the Die Hard VHS that your dad's been watching every weekend since 1990. Yes, I know; every "edgy" teenager picks Die Hard as his favorite holiday movie in order to look cool, but you know what? I'll take John McTiernan's blood-soaked action romp over yet another "adorable animal saves Christmas" TV special any day. John McClane (Bruce Willis) has to save his ex-wife from an office building full of terrorists on Christmas Eve — and if that doesn't fill you with holiday spirit, I don't know what will.
Christmas skeptics love the first two-thirds of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens — a very busy guy who just wants to get some sleep on Christmas Eve? Great! — but the resolution tends to bring things down a notch. Well, Richard Donner's Scrooged! may have a happy ending, but at least we get to see a vindictive Bill Murray take plenty of potshots at the holiday season along the way. Murray plays Frank Cross: a single-minded businessman who couldn't care less about Christmas, or the people who want to spend the season with him. You've heard the story before, but probably not in this darkly comic tone.
Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) gets an adorable creature called a mogwai for Christmas, along with three simple rules: Don't expose it to bright light. Don't get it wet. Don't feed it after midnight. Well, rules were made to be broken, and Billy and his mogwai, named Gizmo, find themselves facing down an irascible band of murderous gremlins. Joe Dante directed Gremlins, which has become one of the most frightening, most violent and most beloved Christmas cult films for kids. The gremlins themselves are pretty scary, but not nearly as terrifying as the story of an ill-fated Santa Claus stunt.
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Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
When Monty Python's Life of Brian (directed by Terry Jones) debuted, Norwegian censors refused to let it play. Swedish advertisements were quick to proclaim: "So funny, it was banned in Norway!" Life of Brian begins on the first Christmas, when three wise men mistakenly pay a visit to an unremarkable baby named Brian Cohen. As Brian (Graham Chapman) grows up, people continually mistake him for that other Messiah, up to and including what is perhaps the only funny crucifixion sequence ever put to film. When faced with scrutiny from the Catholic Church, the Pythons defended the film as heretical, not blasphemous — which is technically true.
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Black Christmas (1974)
Bing Crosby may have dreamed of a White Christmas, but Bob Clark had something much more sinister in mind when he directed Black Christmas. The film follows Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey) and her college friends, who start receiving threatening phone calls in their sorority house. The Christmas season provides the backdrop, with holiday parties and carolers providing the background while a slasher makes his way through the women in the foreground. Black Christmas isn't just a gore-fest, though; it's got a clever twist about the killer's identity, and it's even received some attention from feminist film theorists for its assertive female cast.
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Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
"The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason." If that sounds like you, you'll love Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, directed by Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame. The ill-tempered Grinch (Boris Karloff) despises Christmas, and plans to upend the entire holiday by stealing presents from the unassuming town of Whoville. The gorgeous animation and catchy songs play beautifully against Dr. Seuss' clever rhymes. Even if the ending is fairly conventional, the Grinch's scheme will feel downright cathartic to anyone who's ever felt slighted by Christmas.