The 12 Days Of Alternative Holiday Entertainment

If You’re Tired of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, Check Out This Advent Calendar of Christmas Films

When you think “Christmas movie,” your mind might immediately jump to The Hallmark Channel or It’s a Wonderful Life. But for those of us who may be looking for some holiday entertainment that’s a little different, here’s a list of 12 movies that are set around the holidays but aren’t explicitly about the holidays. And no, there’s no Die Hard on this list, because that should already be a Christmas (or Halloween) classic already.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

L.A. Confidential

What does a neo-noir film have to do with Christmas? When the film in question is a fictionalized account of a real-life Christmas crime. The investigation of the 1951 “Bloody Christmas” beatings, where L.A. cops brutally beat five Hispanic and two white men, was an event that James Ellroy turned into a 1990 neo-noir book. It later became an Oscar-winning 1997 film starring Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Danny DeVito.


On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Edward Scissorhands

Snow is the perfect indicator that it’s the holidays, and what better film to show that than Tim Burton’s fable about a gentle giant with scissors for hands? The movie begins with a grandmother telling her granddaughter why it snows every year at Christmas, and then goes on to tell the story of Edward and his ice sculptures.


On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Another neo-noir, this time from Shane Black, who sets most of his films around the Christmas holiday. This one centers on a thief (Robert Downey Jr.) who inadvertently gets mistaken for an actor in L.A. and then lands a role as a private investigator. When he becomes embroiled in a real-life murder investigation after a Christmas party, he gets in over his head trying to solve the mystery. This one is endlessly quotable and features some fantastic supporting character turns from Michelle Monaghan and Val Kilmer.


On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Batman Returns

Here’s another Tim Burton film. His Batman sequel is a winter wonderland of practical effects and superhero action. The most Christmas-y aspect (besides all the snow) is when the Red Triangle Gang attacks Gotham on Christmas Eve.


On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Trading Places

Eddie Murphy’s and Dan Aykroyd’s tale of rags to riches and vice versa is still relevant after all these years. But what often gets lost amid all of the talk about the film’s perspective on wealth is that the inciting incident—a nurture vs. nature bet by two millionaire brothers on whether or not they can turn a street tough into a millionaire–takes place during the holidays. As such, it also provides us with this iconic scene:


On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Lady in the Lake

Something about juxtaposing the stereotypical “good tidings of great joy” of the holiday season with the grittiness of neo-noir just works for some reason. This entry into that niche genre is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novel of the same name, where our down-and-out detective (Robert Montgomery) investigates the disappearance of a publisher’s wife. The film adaptation flips the setting from the summer to Christmas. Another interesting bit? This is filmed entirely in first-person, making the audience feel like they are Marlowe. (YOU are ROBERT MONTGOMERY! The poster exclaims.) That’s an interesting gimmick for any time period, let alone in 1946, when the film was shot.


On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

When Harry Met Sally

Hear me out. This film takes place over decades, so the holidays don’t really play a huge factor, but Christmas and New Year’s Eve are very big moments in Harry and Sally’s relationship. He helps her take up her Christmas tree, and then the end scene is set during the New Year’s Eve parade. But ultimately, the ending is very happy and feel-good, and the film makes for great holiday viewing.


On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

The Apartment

The Apartment is another movie that makes use of both the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Widely regarded as one of director Billy Wilder’s best films, the film is about Bud Baxter, a young businessman who climbs the corporate ladder by leasing his apartment to his bosses for their extramarital affairs. When Bud learns at the company Christmas party that his boss is using his apartment to sleep with an elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) that he likes, he has to choose between love or money.


On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…


Tangerine hasn’t gotten a lot of attention for its status as a Christmas movie, with much of the attention focusing on director Sean Baker’s decision to shoot the whole thing on iPhones. The whole thing takes place on Christmas Eve as transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella, just done with a 28-day prison sentence, discovers her boyfriend and pimp has been cheating on her with a cisgendered woman. This isn’t something that screams “Christmas” movie, but if you’re looking for something to watch that takes place on that holiday, this is an underrated entry.


On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

The Long Kiss Goodnight

Here we have another (and final) Shane Black entry on this list. The Long Kiss Goodnight is The Bourne Identity before The Bourne Identity became a thing. Geena Davis stars as school teacher Samantha Caine, who washed up on a beach eight years ago, pregnant and with no memory of how she got there. When she suffers a concussion in a car crash during the holiday season, she starts to remember her past life as a government assassin. Samuel L. Jackson stars as the detective who helps her make sense of her life. Pair this with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for a good double feature of holiday mystery.


On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

In Bruges

Do you like your holidays irreverent and violent, with lots of swearing? Look no further than Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. The demented holiday tale features Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as hitmen hiding out in Belgium after a botched hit in London. While there, they come to terms with the violence of their jobs and wonder about if they can be redeemed, among other things, while their boss comes after them to order them to lay low. Aside from McDonagh indulging his familiar tics he would later use in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (liberal usage of the word “retard,” lots of jokes about dwarves and other slurs), it’s a great look at the way violence permeates our society, with the holidays as a backdrop.


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Eyes Wide Shut

I find it interesting that the summary of Die Hard also applies to Eyes Wide Shut: A man tries to fix his broken marriage after some crazy shit goes down at a Christmas party.


And a Partridge Family in a pear tree! 

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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