The Best Alternative Christmas Movie Guide

December 2023
December 2023

John Ashbrook

I'm a Senior Writer. I put words together to create sentences. Hey, I'm doing it now! If it needs words, the call goes out: "This is a job for John!" My red phone rings, I slide down my pole, switch my laptop batteries to 'power' and my turbines to 'speed' then I begin typing. What am I going to type this time, I wonder? Let's see ...

If you’ve had your fill of festive family films over the last few days, you may well be in the mood for an alternative Christmas movie. Maybe you fancy a Christmas classic that isn’t appropriate for the kids? Y’know, as a Yuletide palate-cleanser before you dive into your twentieth screening of ‘Elf’. Well, we’ve got you covered!

See, the thing with Christmas moves – and Christmas songs, for that matter – is that very few of us want to have anything to do with them at any other time of year.

The great thing about these alternative Christmas movies is that they are *so much more* than that. You can watch them at any time of year without any sense of embarassment or loss of enjoyment.

Shall we do them alphabetically? Why not.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.1:
The Apartment

In common with all Billy Wilder films – there are a lot of things going on in ‘The Apartment’.

Yes, it’s a bleak depiction of the American Dream, of the abuse of corporate power and of the entitlement of wealthy, powerful men.

But, it’s also a really sweet love story.

And a delicious comedy.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are on career-best form (both were nominated for Oscars) while the film won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Script.

You can unlock ‘The Apartment’ on Amazon Prime and on YouTube.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.2:

Terry Gilliam’s life’s work is about the battle between cold, cruel reality and free flights of fantasy.

As someone who has had to fight, tooth-and-nail, to get his fantastical films on screen – he knows only too well how the powers of mundane reality will drag you down if you let them.

Christmas is a time when we shelve reality and bathe in fantasy.

But, we know that January is right there … lurking in the dark.

This film begins with a shake of jingle bells as government storm-troopers explode through the walls of an innocent man’s house. It ends with a corrupt, political patrician, dressed as Santa, ensnaring our hero and destroying him.

And yet, when I wrote 5,000 words on the film, in my Terry Gilliam book, I didn’t mention once that it’s set at Christmas.

Cos that really isn’t the point.

Almost 40 years on, there is still nothing else out there quite like ‘Brazil’.

You can visit ‘Brazil’ on Amazon Prime.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.3:

Now, the 1990s was a wildly hedonistic decade. The Cold War was over. The economy was functioning and people had money to spend.

We had an excess of everything and a lot of us were pretty sure the world was going to end at New Year’s 1999. So: party!

Consequently, cinema went through a phase of being wildly creative and entertaining (the two are not often found in the same movies).

In America – in the absence of a clearly defined ‘other’ to exploit, 90s movies would often analyse their own society.

One of the ways this manifested was in films like ‘Go’ – a ribald comedy drama from 1999 which feels very British – in that it is channelling the energy of ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Lock Stock’.

It follows several groups of people who are trying to sell drugs to those enjoying Christmas parties, in order to make a little extra cash.

The film uses a motif that has rarely been employed successfully since Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ in 1956 – in that we get to see the same events several times from several different people’s perspectives. Each new iteration fills in more blanks, until we gradually get the whole picture.

Cinemas don’t play these mid-list films any more. Movies with no big stars, with no special effects, but with a reckless sense of creative possibilities.

I miss movies like this – and director Doug Liman’s previous film, ‘Swingers’.

The great Timothy Olyphant is finding his feet in this early role, Sarah Polley (from Gilliam’s ‘Baron Munchausen’) is all grown up (and went on to become a Writer/Director in her own right) and WIlliam Fichter gives a delicious performance as a creepy cop. “So, Zack, would you say you’re open to new things?” It really makes you wish he chose to work in film more often, cos he really does lift the quality of anything he’s in.

You can stay in and ‘Go’ on Amazon Prime and on YouTube.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.4:
In Bruges

Martin McDonough’s ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ was released recently, in which Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play evolutions of the characters they played back in 2008, in ‘In Bruges’.

Here, Farrell is the simple-minded but good-natured one with the short attention span and the short fuse. Gleeson, by contrast, is the smarter one with something resembling the soul of a poet.

Unfortunately, they have chosen a career that doesn’t really accommodate a good nature or poetry.

Imagine if Laurel and Hardy were assassins. It would be funny. And tragic.

The dialogue is snappy, the performances pitch-perfect and the level of snark just right. And a particular highlight is Ralph Fiennes taking a break from having no nose in the Harry Potter films to having a riot chewing the furniture.

So, why is it a Christmas film?

Well, it’s set at Christmas. It features Christmas markets and lights. There’s a suicide attempt, a betrayal, a shoot-out, a head explosion and a coke-addict American dwarf dressed as a schoolboy.

So, y’know, all your traditional Yuletide ingredients are here. Ho ho ho.

You can see the sights of ‘In Bruges’ without leaving home on Amazon Prime and on YouTube as well as on AppleTV.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.5:
LA Confidential

‘LA Confidential’ is just a masterpiece.

1997 was a helluva year for classy Hollywood films – ‘Boogie Nights’, ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘Contact’, ‘Starship Troopers’, ‘The Game’, ‘Grosse Point Blank’, even ‘Face/Off’ and ‘Titanic’ happened in ’97.

After seeing them several times at the cinema, they all (apart from ‘Titanic’) found their way onto my TV in the shiny new medium of DVD.

They all (apart from ‘Titanic’) have a claim to shelf space in any self-respecting film geek’s collection.

But ‘LA Confidential’ possibly deserves that place more than the rest – because it’s a film that is now virtually forgotten.

It was Russell Crowe’s second year in Hollywood and his first starring role. For fellow-Aussie Guy Pearce, it was his LA debut.

Yes, it is also a tent-pole performance from Kevin Spacey – his first after his breakthrough year of ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘Se7en’. That may put you off but, for me – in this case – I don’t want to let the real world activities of one person cancel out all the good work done by everyone else.

Not inappropriately, the film deals with the difference between the image Hollywood projects of itself and the dark, sleazy, corrupt reality of the darkness behind the lights.

It’s a bit like having an illuminated Santa Claus on the roof of a house where the ex-con homeowner beats his wife. There is a paradox at play, there.

Christmas is about pulling-on a fake beard, slapping on a fake smile and pretending that love is all around. Therefore, it is perfect for a film that exposes the truth behind the cosmetic veneer of Hollywood to be set at Christmas.

You heard it here first, off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.

And you can watch it first on Amazon Prime or on Disney+

Alternative Christmas Movie No.6:
Shane Black Films

I was going to include ‘Lethal Weapon’ but, of course, it’s only one of the Shane Black films that take place at Christmas – so let’s talk about them all.

When people debate whether or not ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas film, they are forgetting that the point was moot from the very beginning. ‘Lethal Weapon’ came out the Christmas before and established that an action movie can absolutely also be a Christmas movie.

Ironically, Bruce Willis was considered for the role of the unhinged-but-heroic Riggs.

And the Christmas setting was settled upon almost certainly because the first draft of Black’s spec script featured a trailer full of cocaine exploding in the Hollywood hills and blanketing the city in a different kind of snow.

That didn’t survive the cut, but the Christmas setting did – and promptly became a Shane Black signature.

For further evidence I refer you to the watchable ‘Last Action Hero’ (1993) and the hilarious ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ (1996). Then there’s the moment when Robert Downey Jnr’s career was rebord with ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005). And, just for old time’s sake, ‘Iron Man 3’ (2013) and ‘The Nice Guys’ (2016) – which is kinda a remake of ‘KKBB’.

There’s rather a lot of gun pointing in his films. What could be more Christmassy?

You can enjoy a Black Christmas at home on Amazon Prime and on YouTube.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.7:
Rise of the Guardians

This is, by far, the least alternative of my alternative Christmas films, in that it’s animated and has Santa in it. A tattooed Russian Santa voiced by Alec Baldwin, but Santa, nonetheless.

The world-building in this film is phenomenal. It’s a delightful fantasy with a beautifully constructed internal logic, bristling with magical ideas and great imagery.

It’s based on a series of novels by one WIlliam Joyce (whose books also formed the basis for the films ‘Epic’, ‘Robots’ and ‘Meet the Robinsons’). His notion that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the Sandman are all guardians of children is brilliantly executed.

Jude Law delights in being the evil Pitch Black, the bringer of nightmares.

Meanwhile, the new recruit to the ranks of the Guardians is Jack Frost – voiced by Chris Pine in his most endearing performance yet.

Oh yeah, and Hugh Jackman is the Easter Bunny. An Australian Easter Bunny? Yeah. Why not? Oh. Okay.

Why is this alternative, then? Well simply because, while some films are released – others escape. This one certainly did that. Virtually no-one saw it.

It was the biggest flop in Dreamworks’ history, losing them over $80 million.

It’s a Christmas underdog … But an underdog that’s not just for Christmas.

You can rise to the challenge on Netflix.

Alternative Christmas Movie No.8:
Trading Places

There was a time when John Landis could do no wrong. ‘The Blues Brothers’ and ‘American Werewolf’ tested the boundaries of what was understood to be a comedy and they were massive hits that, forty years on, still have real cultural significance.

He created long, complex movies with lots of moving parts. He shot in real locations, created a mise en scène every bit as gritty and real as the most serious 1970s drama films, and he would cast unknown actors and people who weren’t actors.

‘Trading Places’ has all that and way more besides.

Based on a script by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod (who also wrote the similarly-themed ‘Brewsters Millions’ – which would make a decent double feature with this film, methinks) ‘Trading Places’ explores the notions of nature versus nurture.

The rich Duke brothers believe they are superior by divine right so, to test this theory, they throw entitled stock broker Dan Aykroyd down into the gutter and drag penniless beggar Eddie Murphy out of the gutter and deposit him in the boardroom, to see whether either fish can survive outside of their natural water.

There is also a phenomenal turn by Jamie Lee Curtis who manages to elevate her standard hooker-with-a-heart character to career redefining levels.

Given that this film came out at the very beginning of the avaricious eighties, it absolutely predicted the direction of travel our culture would take.

But, even though it is set at Christmas, this is a story of redemption and rebirth – so, I suppose it would be equally as effective as an Easter film.

I bet you $1 you can find ‘Trading Places’ on Amazon Prime and on YouTube.

Alternative Christmas Movies: honourable mentions

This is just a sample of the seasonal delights the discerning cineaste will find buried at the bottom of Santa’s cinematic sack, under all those Hallmark Christmas rom-coms and remakes of ‘Christmas Carol’. Here are a few that didn’t make the cut this time. Ask me again next year and any of these films could find their way into the main list.

  • 1941
  • American Psycho
  • Bernard and the Genie
  • The Bourne Identity
  • First Blood
  • The Godfather (& Godfather Part II)
  • Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian
  • Rare Exports

What are your recommendations?

So, which alternative Christmas movies would you recommend? Drop a comment below or swing by our social media feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn and let us know!

John Ashbrook

I'm a Senior Writer. I put words together to create sentences. Hey, I'm doing it now! If it needs words, the call goes out: "This is a job for John!" My red phone rings, I slide down my pole, switch my laptop batteries to 'power' and my turbines to 'speed' then I begin typing. What am I going to type this time, I wonder? Let's see ...
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