UPDATED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 8:56pm
You're bound to find all the usual suspects on television pretty easily on Christmas Day -- "It's a Wonderful Life," "Home Alone," "Miracle on 34th Street." But what if you're feeling like the Grinch, or you want something a little different this holiday season? Something where strange little creatures spread anarchy through a small town? Or kids home from college run wild on drug binges? Or Santa turns out to be evil? Then we've got the film for you, with plenty of nostalgia as your wrapping paper:
'Bell Book and Candle' (1958)
Think the only Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie is "It's a Wonderful Life"? Check out this enchanting story about a man who falls under the spell of a witch on Christmas Eve (one of the inspirations for the TV show "Bewitched"). Stewart reteams with his "Vertigo" co-star Kim Novak, the witch in question, who uses her cat/familiar Pyewacket to get her upstairs neighbor to jilt his fiancee and fall for her instead, even if falling in love might make her lose her powers. Among her other charms -- she prefers to walk barefoot, even in the snow.
'Trading Places' (1983)
In this twist on Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper," wealthy Dan Aykroyd switches life circumstances with a homeless Eddie Murphy at Christmastime. During his lowest point, Akyroyd dresses as a grubby Santa Claus in order to crash a Christmas Eve party at his former employers' house, so that he can try to plant drugs in Murphy's desk and perhaps get his job (and life) back. This, needless to say, does not work -- and probably placed him smack dab on Santa's naughty list.
'Fanny and Alexander' (1982)
One of the most ornately decorated homes for the holidays you'll ever see is in Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," in which the Ekdahl Christmas party takes up the first third of the film (especially if you watch the televised versus theatrical version, which gives a generous amount of time to the decadent feast, including recipes). It's the most lavish and luxurious party you'll get an invite to this season.
Yes, there's a cute mogwai as a Christmas present, and tons of mischievous gremlins who really know how to decorate a Christmas tree, but "Gremlins" does more than create total anarchy out of the holiday season; it also exposes its heartbreak. Phoebe Cates delivers a chilling monologue about how her father broke his neck trying to climb down the chimney, and she learned there was no Santa Claus. Not for kids of any age who still believe.
'Lethal Weapon' (1987)
"Jingle Bell Rock." Drug busts in Christmas tree lots. And if you've ever agonized about what to give someone for the holidays, consider the present Mel Gibson gives Danny Glover -- the unfired hollow-point bullet he would have used to commit suicide. See, it really is the thought that counts. Honorable mention: "Die Hard."
'Less Than Zero' (1987)
"Are you coming home for Christmas?" Jami Gertz asks her very recent ex, Andrew McCarthy. He thinks he has a shot at getting her back, even after discovering she's been sleeping with his best friend, Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.). But as he learns at a very fabulous and very pink "F*** Christmas" party, decorated with fake penguins on fake ice glaciers, the only snow they're going to get this Christmas is cocaine. Julian is in the throes of a serious drug habit, and despite his friends' best efforts, it only gets worse. The whole piece is impossibly glamorous, decadent, and sad.
Christmas is not what you might expect in Terry Gilliam's classic. A mother reads to her children about Tiny Tim, and as they ask about how Santa will come visit if they don't have a chimney, a team of police intruders drops through the roof and takes their father away on sabotage charges. "Father Christmas" turns out to be the minister of information, and a bomb goes off in a department store during peak shopping hours -- one of the many swipes the film takes at Christmas commercialism.
The Tim Burton trio: 'Edward Scissorhands' (1990); 'Batman Returns' (1992); 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)
It always snows at Christmas because of the ice sculptures that Edward Scissorhands creates for the girl he loves. Mistletoe provides an occasion for Batman and Catwoman to kiss (OK, lick). Even Gotham's own Santa Claus (Christopher Walken) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) can't ruin Christmas, despite their manipulation of the good-will-toward-men spirit. So of course Jack Skellington (as directed by Henry Selick) wants some Christmas, too -- all of Tim Burton's creations do.
'Love Actually' (2003)
Several stories intersect around the holidays (including those of Hugh Grant; Martin Freeman, before he was a hobbit, as a porn star stand-in; and Keira Knightley as the unavailable object of affection for "The Walking Dead's" Andrew Lincoln), revolving around the ensemble cast's different relationships. Check out the terrible cover of "Love is All Around" -- "except," as aging rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) explains, "we've changed the word 'love' to 'Christmas.'"
'Children of Men' (2006)
Most Christmas movies aren't about the Christmas story at all. Sure, they've got the trappings of the holiday -- even the ones mentioned on this list have presents, stress, mistletoe, snow, Santa Claus and/or parties. But in contrast, "Children of Men," set in a dystopian future where humanity has given up hope after 18 years of mass infertility (no more babies, no more future of civilization), is about a woman who miraculously becomes pregnant. She reveals her state to Clive Owen in a manger of sorts, to which he declares, "Jesus Christ!" And when she gives birth, the baby's cries cause a ceasefire -- at least long enough to get them out of the building. Peace on earth still has to wait another day.
A Stocking Stuffer -- 'Rare Exports' (2010)
Santa exists, but this Finnish film reveals that the man credited with giving gifts to children all around the world is more about the naughty than the nice. After being trapped in a grave for centuries, he's free, and he's on a killing/kidnapping spree. Be careful you don't make his list.