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When it comes to Xmas movies, the chances of there being a happy ending, an appearance by Santa Claus, plentiul shots of snow-covered streets, Xmas trees bedecked with tinsel and baubles and surrounded by brightly wrapped presents, and people being selfless and loving to the point of nausea, are pretty high. But for those of us who like a little (or a lot) of humbug mixed in with our Xmas cheer, here are ten movies that take the idea of Xmas and turn it on its head with unabashed enthusiasm and delight.

1 – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) / D: Henry Selick / 76m

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Perhaps the most obvious title on the list, this animated classic is a sure-fire winner for mixing ghoulish elements with a traditional(-ish) Xmas narrative. Even the songs are wonderfully appropriate – Oogie Boogie’s Cab Calloway-inspired number is a highlight – and the stop-motion adds an extra layer of charm to the proceedings, making this one of the best movies about the Yuletide season ever made.

2 – Black Christmas (1974) / D: Bob Clark / 98m

Black Christmas

If The Nightmare Before Christmas has its dark side, then this Xmas horror is way beyond even that, with a chilling storyline that is still impressive over forty years (and dozens of imitators) later. Superbly crafted and with great performances from the likes of Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder, the movie comes complete with an ending that is even more unsettling than what’s gone before.

3 – Christmas (2003) / D: Gregory King / 89m

Christmas (1)

This New Zealand movie set at Xmas – which occurs during their summer – shows the flip side of family get-togethers and just how demoralising and depressing they can be when the family that meets up is the definition of dysfunctional. Dignity and self-preservation are the order of the day in a movie that is at once desperately funny, often unbearably sad, but remains a strangely poignant tribute to dealing with emotional fragility.

4 – Bad Santa (2003) / D: Terry Zwigoff / 91m

Bad Santa

A tour-de-force performance from Billy Bob Thornton anchors this scathing look at a department store Santa whose foul-mouthed attitude and disregard for the feelings of others is slowly eroded over the Xmas period by the attention of a fat kid who just won’t leave him alone. Scurrilous isn’t the word, and your tolerance for crude language may well be stretched very early on, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny and with a surprisingly tender heart at its core.

5 – A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) / D: Todd Strauss-Schulson / 90m


It’s Xmas Eve and you’ve just burned down your father-in-law’s beloved Xmas tree – what do you do? Well if you’re Harold Lee (John Cho), you enlist the help of your best friend Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) in finding a replacement. Whether or not that proves to be a good idea depends on how high Kumar is, and how long Harold can put off joining him as their plan backfires at every turn. For a second sequel, this is much better than expected, and its unapologetic stoner humour makes it all the more enjoyable.

6 – Christmas With the Kranks (2004) / D: Joe Roth / 99m

Christmas With the Kranks

Adapted from the novel by John Grisham, Skipping Christmas, this is a Xmas movie that for its first half at least, is a tribute to the joys of saying “bah humbug” to the festive season. Tim Allen is the dad who jumps for joy at the chance of spending Xmas without having to splurge on decorations or lights or being festive. But when his Xmas-loving daughter announces she’s coming home, it’s panic time and this once curmudgeonly dad becomes – sadly – a Xmas convert.

7 – The Ice Harvest (2005) / D: Harold Ramis / 92m

The Ice Harvest

A darkly comic thriller set on Xmas Eve, this sees John Cusack’s shady lawyer and Billy Bob Thornton’s strip club owner embezzle $2m from the local mob, and then thanks to a series of mishaps, they begin to see their plans unravel with humorous consequences. A bit of an overlooked treat, this uses the backdrop of the Xmas period to show that goodwill to all men is a great phrase in theory but little else in practice.

8 – Less Than Zero (1987) / D: Marek Kanievska / 98m

Less Than Zero

The Eighties were a time of selfishness and greed, and this adaptation of the novel by Bret Easton Ellis perfectly encapsulates the extremes to which some people would go to to realise their “dreams”. With plenty of snow on display (just not the stuff that lies on the ground), and a selection of gaudy Xmas parties to highlight the hollowness at the heart of the lead character’s return home for the holidays, this is a movie that takes no prisoners in depicting the decadence of the holiday season.

9 – Die Hard (1988) / D: John McTiernan / 131m

Die Hard

Set in L.A. at Xmas, this franchise opener uses the Yuletide season as a cover for all sorts of mayhem and destruction, and pits Bruce Willis’ lone cop against Alan Rickman’s group of mercenaries. Sly nods to the season abound throughout, but it’s John McClane’s ability to survive everything that’s thrown at him that acts as a surprising metaphor for negotiating the ups and downs of a family Xmas and coming out the other side (relatively) intact.

10 – The Apartment (1960) / D: Billy Wilder / 125m

The Apartment

While it starts at Xmas and then moves into the New Year, Wilder’s acerbic take on the holiday season is littered with allusions to the darker side of Xmas, including suicide, alcoholism, and extra-marital affairs. That it retains a positive side as well is a tribute to the screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, whose storytelling abilities make the whole tawdry period more bearable thanks to the sympathy they imbue the main characters with.