411 Movies Top 5 12.13.13: Top 5 Non-Traditional Christmas Movies
Posted by Shawn S. Lealos on 12.13.2013
From Die Hard and Batman Returns to Gremlins, Reindeer Games, Lethal Weapon and more, the 411 staff counts down their top five non-traditional Christmas movies of all time!
Welcome to Week 404 of the Movie Zone Top 5. My name is Shawn S. Lealos and you have entered my world.
The 411mania writers were given the following instructions: Last year around this time, we counted down our Top 5 Christmas movies. This year, lets count down our Top 5 movies that take place during the Christmas holiday, but are not actually about Christmas.
Honorable Mentions: Gremlins (1984), Trading Places (1983), Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Batman Returns (1992)
5. I Come in Peace (1990)
I'm going to assume that director Craig R. Baxley and/or writers Jonathan Tydor and Leonard Maas, Jr. set the supremely awesome I Come in Peace at Christmas simply because that's what everyone did with their action movies back in the late 1980's/early 1990's. The movie, also known as Dark Angel, has a sense of humor about itself, so I wouldn't be surprised to find out that, on some level, the whole "Christmas" thing is meant to be a kind of parody of the action movies of the day. If you haven't seen this Dolph Lundgren classic, make sure you track it down and check it out as soon as you can. It's worth your time, and you'll have a blast watching it. I know I have a blast every time I watch it.
4. Trancers (1985)
I have no idea why Trancers takes place at Christmas outside of the need to further show that the future is very different from the past. As Tim Thomerson's Jack Deth remarks to Helen Hunt's Lena as she gives him a Christmas present it's spring in Deth's future. Of course, the Christmas setting also allows a punk band to sing a hilarious punk rock version of "Jingle Bells," Jack Deth to fight and kill a trancer Santa, for Deth and Lena to talk to "3 wise men," and for Lena to crash through the window and into that old guy's Christmas tree. Since Trancers came out before Lethal Weapon and Die Hard the Christmas setting isn't an obvious copy of those movies. As I said before, I guess the setting was included to show how different the future is.
"Dry hair's for squids." Sorry, I couldn't resist it.
3. Cobra (1986)
The opening scene of Sylvester Stallone's Cobra is one of the greatest opening scenes in movie history. Stallone's badass cop Lt. Marion Cobretti infiltrates a supermarket to rescue people being held hostage by a seriously demented, heavily armed psycho. You're not supposed to see that kind of thing around the holidays, but the psycho (brilliantly played by Marco Rodriguez) has on interest in any of that stuff. He needs to shoot the place up and kill people (he makes one guy run down an aisle, allowing him "to go free," only to shoot him in the back. And the poor victim falls into a Christmas tree display. That's messed up). It's "the way of the New World," whatever the hell that means. And think about that poor bastard in the parking garage who, after leaving an office Christmas party, gets axed to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oh, and who could forget the Toy R Us TV commercial followed by a news update on the flick's villain the Night Slasher while Cobretti cleans his gun. The world is a rough, terrible place here. It really is.
2. Die Hard (1988)
Christmas exists in this movie so Bruce Willis' John McClane can go to the Christmas party thrown by his wife's employer. Otherwise, why would he be trapped inside the Nokatomi tower after the uber terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) seizes the place so he can jack the vault? Yeah, McClane probably would have tried to get into the place had he found out about the hostage situation while watching TV with his kids, but that wouldn't have been as fun (he also would have been wearing shoes in that scenario). It's just better if McClane finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. That way he can overcome the odds, and that's what's most important in Die Hard. Well, outside of getting a machine gun.
1. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Even though plenty of movies engaged in the whole Christmas thing before Lethal Weapon, it's the first movie where I actually noticed the Christmas thing. Having the movie start off with "Jingle Bell Rock" over the opening credits followed by a topless woman committing suicide by jumping to her death is just an insane way to start a movie. Having people deal cocaine in a Christmas tree lot is pretty insane, too. And then the Christmas thing sort of disappears until the end of the movie, when Gary Busey's Joshua flips out on a TV showing some kind of Christmas special. In between it's just action movie stuff and bonding between new partners Riggs and Murtaugh. Die Hard made the Christmas thing seem bigger, but Lethal Weapon made it a thing for future movies to follow.
Do you think a Lethal Weapon 5 will try to go back to the Christmas thing?
5. Reindeer Games
Ben Affleck is pretty up front over a lot of the crap movies he made a decade or so ago and this is one of the more famous examples. He plays a car thief just paroled who decides to pose as a recently killed cellmate in order to score with that guy's pen-pal girlfriend (Charlize Theron in one of her many pre-"Monster" bad roles). It turns out she's the sister of a psycho (Gary Sinese) who wants Affleck to help his gang rob a casino on Christmas Eve. Double-crosses abound with some twists before the robbery is pulled off, turning into a bloody massacre of guys in Santa suits and a wild twist that either makes you gasp or roll your eyes. To top it off comes the hilarious finale of a figure walking along depositing stolen money into mailboxes to "Little Drummer Boy" before returning home for a Christmas meal. Utterly insane use of the Christmas season which fits in well with this list.
Setting this frankly bloody horror tale at Christmas was a masterstroke for Joe Dante. The idea that these vicious creatures are running around causing mayhem at the happiest time of the year just makes it more wild and harder to get dark laughs at bits like the woman whose stair chair is sent flying out the window. And of course, it contains probably the most famous dark Christmas moment in movie history: Phoebe Cates' monologue over what happened when her father tried to come down the chimney in a Santa outfit which will never make you look at a mall Santa the same way again and sums up the biting tone of this flick.
3. Batman Returns
While the first movie was a fun action blockbuster, Tim Burton got much more moody for the second and the idea of setting it at Christmas time was a masterstroke as snow makes his Gotham even sharper and darker. The first big scene as the evil Circus attacks a Christmas gathering is fun leading to the great bit of Bruce Wayne brooding in the darkness and coming alive when the Bat-Signal is lit. The final sequences are Christmas Burton-style, wildly over the top and yet a touch of sympathy and a fun ending that fits in well with his unique take on the holidays and a different super-hero movie than usual.
2. Trading Places
This 1983 hit that asserted Eddie Murphy as a box office star probably would have worked at any time. Yet the Christmas setting gives a nice dark air to the proceedings as two smug millionaires (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy), just for the kicks of a dollar bet, arrange for a rich broker (Dan Aykroyd) to be kicked to the streets and a con man (Murphy) to get his job instead. This leads to goofy bits like a Santa Claus-clad Aykroyd crashing a party and Murphy enjoying a fun Christmas in a rich place while Jamie Lee Curtis' hooker shares her own outlook on the holidays. Of course, the better part is when the two stumble onto the scheme and join forces to bring their bosses down. A smart ending for a sharp comedy that shows how the "gift" of the holidays isn't always as fun as it seems.
1. Die Hard
"Now I have a machine-gun. Ho-ho-ho."
No surprise this action classic should top a list like this. The Christmas theme is prevelant to be sure as that's the reason John McClane is in Los Angeles, to see his estranged wife, Holly. But a bunch of thieves posing as terrorists taking over a building and embarking on a cat and mouse game of trading explosions with McClane doesn't scream holiday joy. And yet, the Christmas setting does lend it some fun such as when that vault is open to "Ode to Joy" on the soundtrack and tech guru Leon getting in fun lines about the holidays. The best movie where Christmas is the setting, not the mood but still a great fun ride to enjoy at the holidays.
Honorable Mentions - I'll start off by mentioning the most recent contender, the disastreriffic Iron Man 3. More than a bit random to have a summer blockbuster set at Christmas but it won't be the last time Shane Black will be mentioned in this list. In fact, he's back again already with a far superior directorial debut with Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. You can probably tell which way this list is going to go if I'm putting Die Hard 2: Die Harder in the honorable mentions category.
Defo the least Christmas associated on my list, Cobra still finds a place in my heart this time of year, because in Stallone's Cobratti's head, his washing of the streets of the scum that terrorises LA is his own demented method of the time of good will. Cobra's deadly force at the time was a commentary of the escalation of violence with a dash of deadpan humour in an 80's riffic snapshot of the time. Who can forget Cobra's method of eating pizza – cutting the front of a slice off with scissors?
4. Lethal Weapon
Not the most obvious of Christmas films with nothing to do with Christmas at first, as well as the above Tree drug deal which turns into a shootout, the climax of Lethal Weapon sees Mel Gibson's Riggs taking on head goon Gary Busey in an ultimate fighting style scrap on Briggs' partner's front lawn in an almighty tussel. After wrecking the front room of tree and other X-Mas decorations, the two take it outside and get the fire hydrant involved as Riggs wins by making the guy choke like a bitch. What's brilliant is that this fight happens for little to no reason after they have the guy to rights anyway! Apart from Mel's gesture of "do you want a shot at the title?", there's no reason apart from being a top dog for the heel to go for it, apart from Shane Black's script. Needless to say, he pays and Danny Glover's Murtaugh must wonder what the hell he's going to do for X-Mas morning in a few hours. Wonderful.
3. Batman Returns
Just like the recent gaming outing of Bats in Arkham Origins, the second Tim Burton Bat-outing on the big screen seems a bit "WTF?" to be set at Christmas. Until you realise how Tim Burton this is. After a fight with Batman taking on Penguin's goons (and flat out murdering them) against the backdrop of a Christmas tree dominated Gotham City Centre, you know what you're getting in for. And the Penguins taking the Penguin away in the water at the end of the movie is the icing on the cake. Naturally Michael Keaton's Bats no sells everything and just shrugs his shoulders and gets on with it. It's Burton doing "Batman's lonely X-Mas" and it's more than gloriously in his revelling of it with a fantastic memorable Christmas soundtrack with a Dark Knight spin on it.
2. Rocky IV
What I like most about Rocky IV is that it's almost a throwaway line in when Rocky takes on Ivan Drago in a press conference from I can remember. The fact that Rocky's big emotional match with the guy that killed one of his friends, Apollo Creed, and he's giving up his title to do so is one thing, but the fact that it takes part at Christmas is another. Whilst training in the baltic Russian countryside, away from his wife and son, it would be enough to pull on anyone's heartstrings but at the holiday season? As a trucker's son who has missed his dad once or twice round about this time of year, I totally get the emotional conncection here if you look deep enough.
1. Die Hard
Not only is it one of the best action movies of all time, it's one of the best Christmas movies period. Echoing the thoughts of many of my fellow 411'ers above, the tale of how John McClane saved Christmas is easily one of the greatest things commited to celluoid. A ruthless terrorist group take hold of McClane's wife's business party on X-Eve at the top of a skyscraper, whilst John is caught shoeless. Hilarity ensues. I've turned it into my own little Christmas tradition actually – no matter what I do on X-Mas Eve, be it partying with friends, quiet time with family, loud time at a bar with my old man, there's always time for a couple of beers and X-Mas Eve night with the first outing of misfortunes of John McClane. No matter what time of night I start, it's not the same Christmas unless Die Hard is involved.
Shawn S. Lealos
5. The Ref
Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are an unhappily married couple kidnapped by a criminal who escapes from a burglary gone wrong during the holiday season. He has them take him to their house, where their son is, and this criminal has no idea what he is getting involved with. The couple feuds non-stop and Leary's character has to play referee to keep from going insane. By the end, their son wants to leave with Leary and he has to find a way to escape the entire mess.
As the saying goes, "you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not get them wet or feed them after midnight." "Gremlins" is a black comedy that takes place during the Christmas season when a young man (Zach Galligan) purchases a Mogwai as a pet, but soon learns that, if he breaks some very important rules, he will end up overrun by evil little gremlins.
3. Nightmare Before Christmas
This stop-motion animated movie mashes up the Christmas and Halloween genres in one brilliant film. Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King, the greatest Halloween legend of them all. However, he wants something different, and when he discovers Christmas, he kidnaps Santa Claus and sets out to spread his unique form of joy to all the boys and girls of the world.
2. Batman Returns
The entire movie starts off with a bit of black Christmas gloom when a family dumps their baby into a river because of his grotesque look. The baby grows into the Penguin and then returns years later, during the Christmas holiday, to seek vengeance on the normal people of Gotham City. While Batman sets out to stop the bad guy, the entire darkness of the film contrasts with the white snow of the holiday season.
1. Die Hard
Bruce Willis went from being a comic television star on Moonlighting to one of the most unique action stars of his era thanks to Die Hard. At the time, only muscle men like Arnold and Sly or martial arts experts like Van Damme and Seagal was leading the action barrage. However, Bruce Willis proved that even a normal looking guy could realistically lead an action movie here. The movie takes place at a Christmas party where Willis' John McClain was supposed to meet up with his wife only to find the brilliant villain Hans Gruber took the part hostage. It is still one of the greatest action movies of all time.