This list was originally published in 2017. It’s been updated to include more films.
Whenever we discuss our favorite Christmas movies, there’s always that one guy (and it’s always a guy) who chimes in, “What about Die Hard?” And, listen, Die Hard is a great film, but saying it’s a great Christmas film is, at this point, well-trodden territory. If you’re looking for actual holiday-movie alternatives to watch in December — something that takes place during Christmas but isn’t It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, or one of the 97 versions of A Christmas Carol (for the record, the best is the 1984 version with George C. Scott) — there are many other Christmas-adjacent movies out there. Movies that have that hint of yuletide without all of the usual Christmas trappings and lessons. Movies that take place during the holiday season, and may feature brightly lit trees and snow — and maybe even a carol or two — but aren’t about learning the real meaning of the holiday or taking over for Santa because he’s injured.
Below, we’ve listed 16 of our favorite movies that take place at Christmas but aren’t technically Christmas movies. If you’ve made viewing Die Hard a family holiday tradition, you might want to check out some of these as well.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Maybe it’s wrong to get a warm and fuzzy feeling from a movie where all of Robert Redford’s co-workers are murdered because he gets too close to a government conspiracy, forcing him to go on the run as he’s hunted down. But Three Days of the Condor is such a perfect film, it’ll become one of your holiday-adjacent favorites anyway. It actually filmed on location in a cold, wintry New York City, and it really does feel like a Christmas movie: In one scene, Redford hides from the bad guys in Central Park and buys a pretzel from a vendor while a band plays “Good King Wenceslas”; in another, Faye Dunaway buys equipment for a ski trip while “Silver Bells” plays. Fun fact: This was remade as a TV series, titled Condor, starring Max Irons, William Hurt, and Katherine Cunningham.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Titanic is an undeniably great movie, but there’s an argument to be made that L.A. Confidential should have won the Best Picture Oscar that year. This terrific drama, based on the novel by James Ellroy, delves into police corruption and cover-ups in the LAPD of the early 1950s. It actually begins on Christmas Eve, with a violent police-station brawl, as several cops, juiced up on massively spiked eggnog, beat several Hispanic and black suspects in their cells. The headline splashed across the newspaper the next morning is “Bloody Christmas” (which happens to be the title of another movie that isn’t on this list). This leads us to the main plot: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey work to figure out who killed several people at a diner, including Crowe’s partner, who was involved in the Christmas Eve scandal.
This all sounds dark and serious, and it is, but having the movie set at Christmas works as something of a mental balm, demonstrating that there are some good and nice things in this world, even if it is filled with dirty things and bad people. Appropriately, the soundtrack features “The Christmas Blues” by Dean Martin, one of the great “sad” Christmas songs that should be a lot more popular than it is.
Cover Up (1949)
You’ve probably never heard of this film noir, but it’s well worth seeking out. An insurance investigator (Dennis O’Keefe) goes to a small midwestern town to find out if a suicide victim actually killed himself or was murdered. (I’m not sure why he would bother, because if it’s a suicide, the company wouldn’t have to pay out, but then we wouldn’t have a mystery.) No one, including the sheriff (William Bendix) wants to help the investigator because, well, the victim wasn’t very well-liked. But he decides to stick around and find out if he can figure out what’s going on — and he finds that just about everyone in town is keeping secrets, including the woman he’s falling in love with.
The producers initially wanted to change the time of year Cover Up is set, because they didn’t think the plot was appropriate for the holidays, but O’Keefe convinced them otherwise. Without giving anything away, Cover Up has a rather neat twist ending that actually fits the holiday season and makes you think that this isn’t such a terrible small town to live in after all.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder’s classic comedy-drama, about a business exec (Jack Lemmon) who lets his bosses use his apartment for their extramarital affairs and trysts, could have been set at any time of year. But the Christmas–New Year’s setting adds a nice touch of melancholy to the proceedings. It’s easy to see how it was one of the inspirations for Mad Men: There’s a jolly, drunk Santa ringing a bell in a bar, decorations adorn all of New York City, and Fred MacMurray (one of Lemmon’s cheating bosses) decorates the Christmas tree with the family while hiding the fact that he’s seeing other women. Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine (as the mixed-up girl Lemmon finds himself falling for), and MacMurray are all great — the whole cast is flawless, in fact — and the film went on to win several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director.
Batman Returns (1992)
People generally don’t think much of Batman Returns, perhaps because they can’t get past the grossness of Danny DeVito’s sad Penguin character, or because some of the set pieces (all those carnival people!) are over the top. Like most of the Batman flicks, it’s got too much going on and too many villains. (Though I would liked to have seen an entire movie about Christopher Walken’s bad-guy millionaire and his son.) But I’d argue that Batman Returns is the most underrated of the Batman movies. Make no mistake, it’s an unbelievably weird superhero movie, and probably wasn’t what fans or the studio were expecting — it’s by Tim Burton and features a penguin funeral and a scene where DeVito gnaws on raw fish — but it works. With so many scenes set in the snow, it’s a wintry, superhero noir — sort of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas before The Nightmare Before Christmas. Walken’s bad guy, a character who looks like he just stepped out of A Christmas Carol, makes a big public speech in front of a giant Christmas tree, and at one point, the wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman gets a warning from Batman that “mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.” Even the famous bat-signal, lighting up the dark winter sky, could pass for a Christmas decoration if you look at it the right way.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Writer Shane Black really, really loves Christmas. Even if they aren’t Christmas-centric, many of his movies are set during the holidays, including Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; Lethal Weapon (mentioned later on this list); The Nice Guys; and this actioner, where amnesiac housewife Geena Davis suddenly remembers that she used to be a spy (she can bake Christmas meals, but also knows how to karate-chop enemy agents!).
Like a lot of Black’s movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight is outrageous. Davis shoots at the bad guys with a machine gun while holding her child, several deer get their necks broken, and there’s a torture scene, all set to Christmas music like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and “Jingle Bells.” It’s subversive, funny, serious, and a non-Christmas Christmas classic, all at the same time.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Admittedly, very little of this film — Nora Ephon’s best, and nobody better argue with that — actually takes place at Christmas. Children’s bookstore owner Kathleen (Meg Ryan) starts to correspond over email with big bad bookstore exec Joe (Tom Hanks) in the fall, and the movie ends in the spring, but the Christmas section in the middle is undeniably powerful. Kathleen decorates her tree alone and starts to reminisce about the Christmases she used to spend with her mom, whom she misses dearly. She also makes the observation that Joni Mitchell’s “River” is such a sad song and “not really about Christmas at all.” That line could describe You’ve Got Mail, too — but the Christmas scenes are so vital to the plot that it would be wrong not to call it a Christmas-adjacent movie.
The Thin Man (1934)
In my experience, people rarely recall that the The Thin Man is set at Christmas, and that’s what makes it a great Christmas-adjacent movie. Retired San Francisco detective Nick Charles and his rich wife Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are spending the holidays in New York City (John Updike once said that New York City was the capital of the American Christmas, and watching these movies, you can see what he meant). Naturally, they agree to investigate a case involving the disappearance of a friend and a murder. It’s witty and fun and well-paced, and there’s more than one scene with the couple enjoying a Christmas cocktail (or two). There’s also a scene where Nick lays on the couch and shoots balloons off of the Christmas tree with a gun, terrifying a dog.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Yes, Iron Man 3 really is a Christmas-adjacent movie. Not only does it include a scene wherein Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) hides out from the bad guys in a small town decorated for the holidays, he also buys a ridiculously big bunny as a Christmas gift for Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). And, of course, there’s the scene where Stark dances to a funky version of “Jingle Bells” while trying out the Iron Man technology. One of the cable networks needs to do a Shane Black Christmas movie marathon one of these days.
Blast of Silence (1961)
Unlike Cover Up, there’s ultimately nothing overtly Christmasy about this stylish, low-budget crime drama, about a hit man (Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed the film) who comes to New York City for a job. But it’s beautifully shot on location by cinematographer Merrill Brody and, like The Apartment, features some outstanding scenes of Christmas in Manhattan in the early 1960s. Those scenes serve as sort of a travelogue of what NYC looked like in December during that time, and give the film a “this is really Christmas” vibe you don’t usually get in movies like this. Ultimately though, the black-and-white and gray visuals simply serve as a cold, bleak tableau for the loneliness that fills the film — and it has a downbeat ending that proves that nobody gets out of this world alive. Merry Christmas!
Lethal Weapon (1987)
For an L.A. action movie about death and drug dealers, Lethal Weapon still manages to have a yuletide feel to it. The opening scene even has Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock” playing over the credits. Okay, it leads to a scene where a strung-out nude woman jumps to her death from a high-rise, but still … Merry Christmas! Not festive enough for you? There’s also a scene where Los Angeles cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) goes undercover at a drug deal that takes place in a Christmas tree lot, where he pokes a guy in the eyes a la Moe Howard.
Like the above-mentioned The Long Kiss Goodnight, this was also written by Shane Black (I told you he liked setting stories over Christmas). It holds up as one of the ultimate cop-buddy movies, with great action scenes and lots of style. I still don’t know why Gibson throws down his gun after capturing psycho hitman Gary Busy instead of just arresting him, but then they couldn’t have the big fight scene on Danny Glover’s front lawn (with festive Christmas lights in the background). It was all worth it for the moment when Gibson and Glover shoot Busey simultaneously when Busey rises to attack them. Nothing brings people together during the holidays more than killing someone together.
Lady on a Train (1945)
A mystery-novel-loving woman (Deanna Durbin) witnesses a murder while on a train and no one believes her. She decides to investigate herself and tries to get help from her favorite author (David Bruce), who may not be as competent as she had hoped. The film has a fun mix of humor and menace, as Durbin doesn’t know who committed the murder (the identity of the killer was hidden by a window shade). Was it Dan Duryea? Ralph Meeker? The creepy henchman at the mansion? We know it’s Christmas, thanks to holiday decorations and snow. There’s also a scene where Durbin sings “Silent Night”— not to serve the plot, but because Durbin was also a singer and they had to get some songs in the film somehow.
Lady in the Lake (1947)
From a lady on a train we go to one in a lake. This is the noir where director Robert Montgomery (he also stars as private eye Phillip Marlowe) uses the first-person camera technique so we experience everything the way the main character sees it. We don’t even see Montgomery that much, except for an introduction and mirror reflections. It’s not entirely successful (it’s used to much better effect in the Humphrey Bogart film Dark Passage, also from 1947), but it’s certainly interesting. I’ve always wondered why Montgomery and screenwriter Steve Fisher chose to have this film take place at Christmastime when Raymond Chandler’s novel takes place in summer.
Is it the most Christmassy movie on this list? No, but it is Christmas-adjacent! Along with the trees and decorations in several scenes, the opening gets you into the holiday spirit right away, as “Jingle Bells” plays over the credits, complete with names written on really elegant Christmas cards. (Side note: If anyone happens to know if these cards still exist and where I can get them, tell me.) There must have been something in the air the year it came out. 1947 also saw the release of Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas Eve, It Happened on 5th Avenue, and The Bishop’s Wife. That’s a TCM Christmas marathon right there.
Trading Places (1983)
Like Lethal Weapon, this is sort of a buddy movie, though the buddy part doesn’t happen until later in the film. Two rich jerks (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) make a bet about what will happen when they strip another rich guy (Dan Ackroyd) of his wealth and transfer it to a homeless guy (Eddie Murphy).
There’s plenty of Christmas in this classic, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s a movie for many holidays, because it starts around Thanksgiving and ends on New Year’s. However, the scene with a dressed-as-Santa Ackroyd sloshed and waving a gun and slurring “Ho, Ho, Ho,” is one of the iconic comedy scenes of the ’80s. And on a personal note, I’d like to say that the infamous scene with Jamie Lee Curtis remains one of the most cherished of my teen years. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but I still think about it often 40 years later.
In Bruges (2008)
After a hit on a priest goes horribly wrong, two assassins (Colin Farrell and Brendon Gleeson) are sent to await further instructions in Bruges, where they celebrate the holidays and live a happy, uneventful life. Well, no. The hit going wrong is only the first bad thing that happens to them. There’s a sharp contrast drawn between Farrell’s sadness and the festive beauty of Bruges — the lights, the cozy fireplaces, the churches, what crime boss Ralph Fiennes calls “all that beautiful fucking fairy-tale stuff” — that permeates the entire film. There’s heavy stuff here but there’s also … hope?
If you like this movie, note that Farrell, Gleason, and writer-director Martin McDonagh reunited for the new film The Banshees of Inisherin.
Little Women (1994)
There have been approximately 210 film adaptations of the Louisa May Alcott book, but according to many fans, this is the best one. You likely know the plot already (even Joey on Friends read it!), but a quick refresher: The four March sisters (Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy, here played by a stellar cast) learn about life and love with their mom while their father is off fighting in the Civil War.
The movie starts (and ends) at Christmas; the women wear red dresses and the men puffy shirts, which give everything a Dickensian feel; there’s snow and horse-drawn carriages and smoke coming out of chimneys; there are Christmas traditions like candlelit caroling around the piano; there’s skating and a snowball fight; and at the end, Winona Ryder fights Gary Busey on Danny Glover’s Christmas-lights-decorated lawn. (Sorry, I got my holiday movies mixed up there.) It also has a great soundtrack by Thomas Newman that manages to sound like Christmas without featuring complete Christmas tunes in it.
By the way, if there’s any doubt Little Women is a Christmas story, note that there’s a 2012 modern version of the story titled The March Sisters at Christmas, which pretty much says it all.