These days, it seems positively un-American to not have every word of "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Story" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" committed to memory. What happens, however, when you want to get your family into the holiday mood but can't stand to hear your annoying uncle shout, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" one more time?
To start, you can reach for the "secret" Christmas movies. Some of these films were poorly marketed as something else, others were overshadowed by their genre trappings, while a few others have been undeservedly forgotten. But like their better-known Christmas cousins, the following list contains great, quote-worthy films that are both naughty and nice:
[movie id="90223"]"The Ref" (1994)[/movie]
If anyone remembers this film, it's as a box-office underperformer made to cash in on Denis Leary's 15 minutes of mid-'90s mega-popularity. But re-watch "The Ref" and you'll uncover a frequently brilliant script whose savage one-liners are balanced well with the warm holiday undertones surrounding a cat burglar trapped in a small-town, yuletide hell. Credit late director Ted Demme and (little-known at the time) character actors Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis with fleshing out a movie as sweet as a candy cane but as deliriously offensive as day-old figgy pudding.
[movie id="9198"]"Die Hard" (1988)[/movie]
"Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho." Not only is it the greatest action movie ever made, but Bruce Willis' breakout performance as John McClane is also the endearing story of an estranged husband trying to save his marriage — and a few dozen hostages — on Christmas Eve. Director John McTiernan plays off holiday oddities (Christmas rap songs, celebrating the season without snow, awkward office-party encounters) to augment McClane's fish-out-of-water scenario, and Hans Gruber is one hell of a Grinch. If this is their idea of Christmas, we gotta be there for New Year's.
Sure, "It's a Wonderful Life" tugs at the heartstrings, and Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption always brings a tear to the eye. But no "Christmas movie" has a moment more tender than [movieperson id="10490"]Phoebe Cates[/movieperson]' remembrance of the year her father dressed as Santa and died while climbing down the chimney. The magic of "Gremlins" is that such a moment could exist in what is essentially a fun-loving monster movie about the world's worst Christmas gift.
[movie id="264595"]"Just Friends" (2005)[/movie]
Badly mis-marketed as a fat-suit comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, "Friends" has found a second life on DVD thanks to a hilarious script that gave several supporting actors (Anna Faris, Chris Klein, Amy Smart) the best roles they've had in years. Give this insanely watchable film about a man trying to reinvent himself for the holidays a shot, and you might just find yourself snuggling up with it beneath the mistletoe.
"Funny Farm" (1988)
Ever fantasize about your holidays being more like a Norman Rockwell painting? Be careful what you wish for, as this criminally underrated
[movieperson id="11106"]Chevy Chase [/movieperson] comedy deconstructs the American myth by roasting its chestnuts over an open fire. It's a family friendly film that goes best with a glass of nog and a plate of hot lamb fries.
[movie id="15932"]"Home Alone" (1990)[/movie]
Now that the huge box office, the Macaulay Culkin explosion and the lame sequels have faded into the background, John Hughes' last truly great script can be appreciated for what it is: a simple, cute film about a little boy learning to appreciate his family. While it might be a mistake to break out "The Ref" or "Die Hard" when your younger relatives are visiting this Christmas, the great thing about the original "Home Alone" is that there's something in there for everyone to enjoy.
[movie id="254776"]"The Ice Harvest" (2005)[/movie]
A pornographer, a shady lawyer, $2 million gone missing and one very long Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas. Of course, "Ice Harvest" was too complex to market, too smart for mainstream audiences and too twisted to be remembered as a "Christmas movie." But as the film moves along, this John Cusack/ Billy Bob Thornton crime thriller continues unwrapping its characters until they give us some satisfying, memorable Christmas gifts.
"Tokyo Godfathers" (2003)
Loosely based on an old John Ford western, this Japanese film uses anime to tell the story of three homeless people who discover an abandoned newborn while picking through the trash — needless to say, it's a refreshing break from your yearly Charlie Brown reruns. The film plays out like a biblical tale told in modern times, as the child brings the Tokyo residents love, fear and redemption.
[movie id="2499"]"Batman Returns" (1992)[/movie]
Until this year, it held the title as best Batman sequel ever made. But unless Chris Nolan is making secret plans to set his next Bruce Wayne adventure during Groundhog Day, Tim Burton's dark masterpiece will remain the best superhero film to be set during a holiday. Danny DeVito gives an off-the-wall Penguin performance, Michelle Pfeiffer sizzles as Catwoman, and Christopher Walken shines as Max Shreck. This year, spend your silent night with the Dark Knight.
[movie id="272576"]"The Family Stone" (2005)[/movie]
First off, let's put one thing out there that the studio didn't during this charming film's theatrical release: It's a depressing movie. Like so many family gatherings, there's a lot of sadness and bittersweet memories to be had during the Christmas reunion of this family. But with help from an all-star cast (Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rachel McAdams), this film hits all the emotional notes you'll need to hug your own family a little tighter this holiday season.
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