10 Great Christmas Movies Barely About Christmas

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Christmas movies don't have to be limited to dusty copies of It's A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street or timelier tearjerkers such as Elf or Love Actually.

In some cases, it actually helps when the Christmas movie isn't that Christmasy at all.

Classics notwithstanding, movies don't tend to need a whole lot of Christmas trappings to be a hit around the holidays. On Christmas weekend 2009, when Hollywood brought in a record $270 million at the box office, the top films featured blue aliens, a British detective, animated chipmunks and a middle-aged love triangle. Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and It's Complicated have nary a sprig of holly nor a Santa reference between them and fared just fine on a Friday Christmas.

Last year's holiday weekend box office haul declined 48% as in its top film, Little Fockers, leads Ben Stiller and Teri Polo inviting parents Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand and Blythe Danner to their house for Christmas. The lesson learned: Less Christmas is more.

Even the folks who make movies are divided over what makes a great Christmas movie. When the folks at movie ticketing site Fandango polled the directors and stars of some of this holiday season's films, The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked star Jason Lee chipped in 24-hour holiday favorite -- A Christmas Story -- and Young Adult co-star Patton Oswalt gave the nod to A Charlie Brown Christmas. War Horse and Tintin director Steven Spielberg, however, went with David Lean's 1946 take on the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations, while Young Adult lead Charlize Theron voted for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

Though Theron's tongue was planted firmly in cheek, her pick makes the valid point that holiday movies don't have to be cheery, colorful or have Christmas at the center of the plot to be great Christmas movies. We went digging through the vault of holiday film favorites and found 10 that are only tangentially "Christmas" movies:

Gremlins (1984)

Box office take: $153 million

Fretting about getting your holiday shopping just right? Don't worry. At worst, your bad gift will just completely destroy your town and kill a bunch of innocent people.

This '80s classic was released midsummer 27 years ago, centered around a Christmas present that made it very tough to laugh off last-minute holiday shopping. An inventor buys a furry little pet in Chinatown despite the shopkeeper's misgivings and gives it to his son with three warnings about its care: Keep it out of bright light, don't get it wet and never feed it after midnight.

As was the case with most '80s protagonists, Gremlins star Zach Galligan either fumbled or ignored each of those warnings right off the bat and the cute little fuzzball named Gizmo didn't stay very cute for very long. Water makes it spout spawn that look like Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins spilled on a salon floor, late-night snacks turn it from a Furby template to a scaly-skinned, razor-toothed troll and bright light -- well, let's just call it gremlin pepper spray.

There are plenty of Christmas lights and decor strung about this Joe Dante/Spielberg production, but despite the fuzzy little critters for audiences to fawn over and gruesome, expressive gremlins singling along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this film is incredibly dark. Mean old lady Mrs. Beagle is dispatched in unflinching fashion, a science teacher's hand is eaten clean off his arm and co-star Phoebe Cates relates a story about her grandfather snapping his neck while trying to climb down the chimney dressed as Santa Claus that is the Gremlins equivalent of the USS Indianapolis speech from Jaws. Oh, and a gremlin is microwaved until it explodes.

The fuzzy little Mogwai Gizmo found his way onto cereal boxes, fast-food promotions and video games immediately after the film's release, but Gremlins never had the staying power of some of its holiday contemporaries. Maybe if Rudolph threw one of the other reindeer who used to laugh and call him names into the Magic Chef and hit the "Venison" button, Gizmo's gross little tale could have gone down in history as well.

The Apartment (1960

Box office take: $25 million

Before there was Mad Men, Billy Wilder served up all the booze and fornication in real time during this holiday tale.

A little advice from Jack Lemmon's lead character: Never lend out your place for the boss' liaisons. If you do, never fall for the boss' mistress (Shirley MacLaine). If that happens, and the boss (Fred MacMurray) tells you she's his mistress, make sure she doesn't have the key to your place so she can just let herself in and overdose on pills once she realizes she's just the boss' latest conquest. If all of the above happens, you'd better learn to play gin rummy, because it's going to be a long holiday season.

This was Wilder and Lemmon's follow-up to the wildly successful 1959 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Some Like It Hot, and was it ever a success. It made more than eight times its $3 million budget, won Wilder an Academy Award for best director and took home four more oscars, including best picture.

Though released in June, The Apartment has the holiday season stamped all over it, from the swingin' Christmas Eve office party to MacMurray's New Year's Eve request to swing with MacLaine just one more time in Lemmon's pad. We Bought A Zoo director Cameron Crowe called The Apartment his favorite Christmas movie of all time.

Cobra (1986)

Box office take: $49 million

Sylvester Stallone's not generally thought of as a Christmas film star. On this list, however, he may as well be Bing Crosby.

Sly has two films in our list, but only one as low-rent as this tale of a renegade cop taking on an army of killers amid Los Angeles' urban decay. Cobra was chock full of the shootings, mass murder and misogyny that were the trademarks of Cannon Films, which also produced the Death Wish and Missing In Action films on its way to becoming Santa Claus for fans of lowest-common-denominator action films.

Stallone's Officer Marion Cobretti (see what they did there?) is an L.A. cop and member of the LAPD's zombie squad who stumbles upon an army of neo-fascists after killing a hostage taker in a supermarket shootout. What happens afterward really isn't important. All you need to know is that there are fake Christmas trees around Cobretti's apartments just before the gang kidnaps a model -- Stallone's then-wife Brigitte Nielsen -- and starts aiming a small war's worth of ammunition his way.

There are a lot of great little Christmas presents tucked away in this one for holiday action fans. The cover and poster art, for example, gives Stallone sunglasses and a gun with a laser scope and gives his fans the closest thing they'd get to a glimpse of Stallone as the Terminator until a joke scene in Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1993 shoot-em-up satire Last Action Hero. The Stallone-written script for this movie just keeps giving as well, with Sly testing the limits of his acting prowess by keeping a straight face through lines likes "you're the disease and I'm the cure" and "this is where the law stops and I start."

The greatest Cobra-related gift you can give someone, though, is the knowledge that its screenplay was actually Stallone's original script for Beverly Hills Cop. Yep, Stallone was supposed to be the lead, Judge Reinhold's Billy Rosewood gets bumped off and there's definitely no Bronson Pinchot, Axel Foley or bananas in the tailpipe. Stallone was swapped out at the last minute, the entire movie was rewritten around Eddie Murphy and he and Jerry Bruckheimer are probably tempted to put Stallone on their Christmas card lists to this day.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Box office take: $162 million

If The Apartment went all the way and had no sense of humor whatsoever, it would have been Eyes Wide Shut.

Stanley Kubrick's final masterpiece featured Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's final performance as a couple, models, prostitutes and a masquerade orgy that gets really interesting once the ratings board gets out of the way. The only thing more jarring than the heavy digital censorship of the American version, however, were the Christmas trees in just about every setting.

There's some question about why Kubrick picked a Christmas backdrop for a film based on a novella that takes place around Mardi Gras, but Kubrick's colored lighting, tinsel and trees juxtaposed with a images of sexual desire, frivolity and ultimately disappointment and resignation seems seasonally appropriate. With all respect to Frank Capra, it's a Christmas tale that doesn't talk down to adults.

Unless you want to your partner to think they're getting justified paranoia or a sexually transmitted disease this Christmas, you may want to save an Eyes Wide Shut viewing until sometime after the holiday season.

First Blood (1982)

Box office take: $125 million

Stallone jumps back onto our holiday list as an ill-defined version of one of his defining characters. Considering we could have put a couple of his Rocky films up here as well, perhaps its best that we end his Christmas contributions with John Rambo.

Say the name Rambo now and the majority of the '80s children who remember it think back to a bandanna-wearing, M60-firing, muscle-flexing extension of the Reagan era tying up the loose ends of American foreign policy. Back in 1982, though, Stallone's John Rambo was just a lonely Vietnam veteran trying to pass through Hope, Wash., during the holidays.

When Brian Dennehy's the local sheriff and doesn't take kindly to your long hair and military coat, though, that's just not going to happen. After Rambo is kicked out of town, returns and suffers a jailhouse beating that trigger Vietnam flashbacks, it's time to ruin just about everyone's holiday plans.

While the town is busy wrapping its Christmas presents, Rambo's up in the hills making good on his promise to rain pain down on local law enforcement and give them "a war you won't believe." Apparently a Medal of Honor recipient's wish list for those who've wronged him includes Viet Cong-style booby traps, exploding gas stations and an actual war on Christmas that includes blowing up the local sporting goods store. So much for last-minute shopping.

This film didn't exactly do wonders for the crazy Vietnam veteran myth, however on-point Rambo's final soliloquy may have been, but it does bring up an inconvenient holiday truth. An American veteran commits suicide once every 80 minutes, according to VA statistics quoted in a study by the Center for a New American Security. While the nation rewards itself with a nice cup of eggnog for ending the war in Iraq and turns off news about Afghanistan in favor of Christmas specials, for many of those who fought in those wars the battle is just beginning.

At least First Blood has an ending.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Box office take: $89 million

Ever wonder how your teachers kept busy during Christmas break?

If you're Geena Davis' amnesiac teacher/mom Samantha Caine, you get into a car accident that triggers repressed memories of your previous life as cold-blooded CIA assassin Charly Baltimore. The pros are that you can now chop vegetables with blinding speed and get to hang out with a certain MF-dropping private eye played by Samuel L. Jackson. The cons? Your old CIA buddies and a bunch of terrorists want you dead.

It's hard to get more Christmasy than a film that opens with Davis dressed up as Mrs. Claus in one of the opening sequences, but the holiday cheer gives way to action-comedy bits and badass shooting scenes in a matter of minutes.

While Davis' shower and water torture scenes may have been early Christmas presents for pubescent '90s teens, the rest of the film is a fun action thriller worthy of a holiday watch. Exhausted holiday shoppers get to hear Jackson drop his NSFW calling-card curse word while Davis' frustration with her assassin's liability of a daughter gives harried parents hope for making it through the holiday.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Box office take: $120 million

Remember when Mel Gibson just played crazy?

Lethal Weapon didn't work simply because it perfected the buddy cop movie 48 Hours tried to be. Box office receipts didn't go far and above its $15 million budget because of its melange of LAPD action films and "crazy Vietnam vet" subplots that '80s audiences adored -- not to mention gratuitous toplessness, cocaine and saxophone score in the first 10 minutes. No, Lethal Weapon worked because Mel Gibson's Riggs was entirely believable as an unhinged, suicidal powder keg who made bad guy Gary Busey look as even-keeled as Tom Hanks by comparison.

It helped that straight-man Danny Glover was about as exciting an action hero as Hanks. Even his Murtaugh admits he's just way too old for this. But even with his daughter kidnapped he's not really essential to this as a Christmas film.

Again, it's all Riggs. Without him, Busey doesn't shoot out a television for showing the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. Without him there's no climactic "shot at the title" fight amid the Murtaugh family Christmas lights. Without him, there's no Christmas Day finale in the crash-damaged Murtaugh home that features Riggs giving the hollow-point bullet intended for his suicide to Murtaugh as a Christmas present.

Christmas needs more of that on-screen brand of Mel Gibson crazy and a whole lot less of his off-screen Riggs impression.

Trading Places (1983)

Box office take: $90 million

Saying Trading Places isn't a Christmas movie is like saying it's not about a snooty trader brought low, a hustler-turned-broker or a hooker with a heart of gold. Somewhat true, but a huge oversimplification.

When Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) and his brother Mortimer (Don Ameche) make a $1 bet on whether experience or environment make the man, the slow decay of Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and the grooming of Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), everybody ends up learning a couple of lessons. The first is that commodities brokers and bookies are not-so-distant relatives and the commodities they traded only got motors running in the go-go '80s.

The second is that an audience teased long enough by countless horror movies where bare breasts abound for everyone but the lead actress will come out in droves if Jamie Lee Curtis gives them a (NSFW) topless scene for Christmas. Finally, Trading Places makes it known that you can feature in a scene that involves Dan Aykroyd in blackface and still be elected to one of Minnesota's Senate seats, as the gentleman at the 2:40 mark of this clip was.

Mostly, however, it's a pleasant holiday reminder that Eddie Murphy could liven up a Christmas movie without disguising himself as a cartoon donkey. For parents who remember Murphy's Raw but have been worn down by countless backseat showings of Shrek, that's the greatest gift of all.

Go (1999)

Box office take: $28.5 million

We've given the '80s movies on this list a hard time for their standard tropes, but a '90s movie complete with a rave, the Macarena and a soundtrack featuring No Doubt? That, my friends, is a period piece.

Back when every Quentin Tarantino wannabe was putting out films with Pulp Fiction-style intertwining narratives, director Doug Liman decided to base his around Sarah Polley and her ecstasy deal gone awry but give it a little '90s flair. If you were really into Dawson's Creek at the time, you got Katie Holmes as Polley's good-girl friend and the spirit of Christmas. Into Party of Five instead? How about Scott Wolf playing boyfriend to Jay Mohr?

The best parts of this movie, however, have nothing to do with Guy Ritchie rejects going to Vegas with Taye Diggs and Breckin Mayer or Wolf and Mohr bickering like an old married couple. The poseur ravers "tripping" on allergy meds and chewable aspirin, Holmes softening the heart of drug dealer Timothy Olyphant through Christmas stories and the introduction of Len's Steal My Sunshine into the soundtrack are just joyous little stocking stuffers of on-screen awesomeness tucked away throughout the film.

This was a pre-Bush v. Gore, pre-9/11, pre-war and pre-recession joyride and it was good while it lasted. That may date this film a bit, but it also fills it with cheer sorely lacking in a movie climate where a symbol-laden tearjerker about a troubled war horse is supposed to be uplifting holiday fare. Just roll this film and let go.

Die Hard (1988)

Box office take: $138.7 million

"Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho."

There's nothing we can say about Die Hard as a Christmas movie that terrorist/bank robber Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) doesn't recite better in that one line. From the opening credits when New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) listens to Run D.M.C.'s Christmas in Hollis on the way to pick up his estranged wife in L.A. to the Vaughn Monroe version of Let It Snow that plays over a bloodied McClane and burned-out Nakatomi Plaza and Beethoven's Ode To Joy played throughout, this film is just the right mix of holiday spirit and hard-shooting action.

Sure, this film has the NSFW '80s catchphrase, the decade's cocaine-and-finance stereotypes and a lot of big-budget blowups, but as multiple tribute videos suggest, this is a Christmas film at heart. There would be no hostages if the company wasn't having its Christmas party on premises. One of the casualties of the Nakatomi Plaza roof explosion is the building's giant Christmas tree in the lobby.

Most importantly, McClane couldn't have his final showdown with Gruber if there wasn't Christmas tape around to create the perfect hiding space for his gun. It's not a traditional holiday movie by any means, but in many American households John McClane is as much a holiday staple as George Bailey. If only Bailey had that machine gun ...

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