25 of the best holiday movies you didn’t realize were holiday movies

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Weinstein Company

25 of the best holiday movies you didn’t realize were holiday movies

What makes a Christmas movie? Most moviegoers will be quick to tell you that there’s a difference between a proper holiday movie like “Elf” or “Home Alone” and other holiday-adjacent movies like “Die Hard” or “Gremlins.”

And while we may not have a definitive answer either—Is it the setting? The number of Christmas trees or carols included in its scenes?—we are interested in expanding the canon of holiday classics. After all, there are only so many times you can watch “Miracle on 34th Street” before needing to switch it up.

Stacker spotlighted 25 holiday movies that front as another primary genre despite being a holiday film at their core. To qualify, the movie had to have at least 2,500 votes on IMDb and have at least a 70 Metascore or 7.0 on IMDb. Films are listed by release year.

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Keep reading to find new classics to add to your holiday-watching regimen—and see which you agree with. If nothing else, the entries on this list will give you valuable evidence next time a friend or family member tries to argue that something like “Batman Returns” is absolutely not a holiday classic.

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Charles Chaplin in a bar with a woman in a sparkly dress.

Charles Chaplin Productions

The Gold Rush (1925)

– Director: Charles Chaplin
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 95 minutes

Thought to be Charlie Chaplin’s favorite of all his films, “The Gold Rush” follows a prospector’s search for gold and discovery of love. Set in the Klondike, the black-and-white movie is full of snowy avalanche scenes and climaxes in a New Year’s Eve dinner. The overall vibes of the film feel very wintry and festive. Its adherence to a 1920s moral code also makes it a perfect family watch; there’s no need to worry about aspects of it being too grown-up for little viewers.

Judy Garland in a red gown sitting in a living room with a big family.


Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

– Director: Vincente Minnelli
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 113 minutes

Judy Garland stars in this musical about a year in the life of an early 20th-century family. The film is divided into seasonal vignettes, and a fairly substantial section is set around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s this portion of the movie that is often cited as viewers’ favorite, from Garland’s iconic rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the wintry proposal scene.

A young woman in a head scarf with large round earrings and a nose ring.

The Archers

Black Narcissus (1947)

– Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 101 minutes

It might strike you as odd to find a psychological thriller like “Black Narcissus” on this list, but there is a pretty critical scene that sets the tone for the end of the movie that takes place on Christmas Eve. The film, about a group of nuns who go mad trying to establish a convent in a remote part of the Himalayas, is often described as one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made. The eerie carols sung during said Christmas Eve scene perfectly exemplifies how much effort the production team poured into getting every detail exactly right.

A woman stands over a man lying on the couch under a blanket with a reindeer outside the window in the snow.


All That Heaven Allows (1955)

– Director: Douglas Sirk
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 89 minutes

A snowy New England town and Christmas tree farm provide the backdrop for this 1950s romantic drama. When an older widow named ​​Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls in love with a younger arborist Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), everyone in her life opposes the match. Then, on a very fateful Christmas day, Scott decides to live for herself rather than for everyone else’s opinions. Fair warning, this isn’t the feel-good holiday fare you might be used to—don’t watch unless you’re after a good cry.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine at an office party.

The Mirisch Corporation

The Apartment (1960)

– Director: Billy Wilder
– IMDb user rating: 8.3
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 125 minutes

Classic rom-com “The Apartment” follows an insurance clerk (Jack Lemmon) who tries to move up the corporate ladder by lending his apartment out to upper management so that they can conduct their affairs without risking being caught. The film may not feel like your typical holiday fare but makes this list by virtue of most of its action taking place in the weeks between the office’s Christmas party and New Year’s Eve.

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Catherine Deneuve in a brown fur coat next to a Christmas tree.

Parc Film

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

– Director: Jacques Demy
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 91 minutes

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is a musical about the ill-fated love between Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), the daughter of an umbrella shop owner, and a handsome young auto mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). The tear-jerker’s final scenes are set on a snowy Christmas Eve. The movie, nominated for five Academy Awards, is also unorthodox in that every bit of the dialogue is sung.

A woman clings to a man lying in the snow.

Adelphia Compagnia Cinematografica

The Great Silence (1968)

– Director: Sergio Corbucci
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: data not available
– Runtime: 105 minutes

Released during the 1968 holiday season, “The Great Silence” is a spaghetti Western about a mute gunslinger (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who works to protect a remote town from a band of evil bounty hunters led by Loco (Klaus Kinski). Set in the middle of winter in Utah, there is a ton of snow and blizzard scenes in the movie, providing the film with a strong holiday vibe. Interestingly, because its ending is fairly bleak, director Sergio Corbucci filmed two alternate endings hoping they would appeal more widely to holiday moviegoers.

Warren Beatty in a brown suit and top hat and Julie Christie in a fur coat and hat with veil.

David Foster Productions

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

– Director: Robert Altman
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 93
– Runtime: 120 minutes

Roger Ebert described “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” as “like no other Western ever made.” The movie follows a mysterious gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and a sex worker named Constance Miller (Julie Christie) who become business partners, only to find their ventures threatened when a group of enforcers comes to town. The film’s final scenes were improvised during an unexpected snowstorm, lending the project its holiday feel.

Four men laughing, yelling and waving guns in a moving car.

NLT Productions

Wake in Fright (1971)

– Director: Ted Kotcheff
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 109 minutes

Set in the Outback during the school’s holiday break (which, on this side of the equator is in the warmer, sunny months of the year, not the colder snowy ones), “Wake in Fright” has none of the blizzards or Christmas trees we’ve come to expect from even the most tangential holiday films.

The psychological thriller follows a disgruntled elementary schoolteacher named John Grant (Gary Bond) who finds himself stuck in a town of crazed, violent men who threaten to turn him into a crazed, violent man himself. If nothing else, the hot, dry, and terrifying film serves as a reminder that sometimes even the worst holiday break can make us more thankful for the routine of the rest of the year.

A guy holding a Santa hat while looking at a creature playing a keyboard.

Warner Bros.

Gremlins (1984)

– Director: Joe Dante
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 70
– Runtime: 106 minutes

When a young man named Billy (Zach Galligan) accidentally turns his unique new pet into a monster, the creature wreaks havoc on his town on Christmas Eve. The wildly successful, comedy-horror mashup that is “Gremlins” spawned a host of commercial products (toys, branded food items, books, etc.) and even a sequel, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” which came out in 1990. The holiday-esque movie was considered so violent that it helped establish the PG-13 film rating.

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Two men in suits and a redheaded woman in a red gown and jewels at a party.

Embassy International Pictures

Brazil (1985)

– Director: Terry Gilliam
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Metascore: 84
– Runtime: 132 minutes

A bizarre dystopian masterpiece often compared to the works of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, “Brazil” follows a disillusioned bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in the days leading up to Christmas as he sets out to create a life with the woman of his dreams. Like “The Great Silence,” the movie’s ending is fairly bleak and studios pushed for alternative conclusions that they felt would better appeal to a wider audience (though Terry Gilliam’s vision won out in the end).

Bruce Willis running and screaming with a gun in his hands.

Twentieth Century Fox

Die Hard (1988)

– Director: John McTiernan
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Metascore: 72
– Runtime: 132 minutes

Audiences have stronger opinions about whether or not “Die Hard” should be considered a holiday film than about any other movie on our list. Set on Christmas Eve, the story follows an NYPD officer (Bruce Willis) as he tries to save his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and a party full of people after they become trapped in a high rise with terrorists. The action sequences overshadow many of the traditional holiday film elements, continuing the debate over whether the classification stands.

A group of guys in black suits and women in white dresses sitting on a couch in an elegant living room.

Westerly Films

Metropolitan (1990)

– Director: Whit Stillman
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 77
– Runtime: 98 minutes

The title card of “Metropolitan,” which reads “Manhattan. Christmas Vacation. Not so long ago.” would seem to establish the 1990 movie as a holiday film, as would the many Christmasy parties the main characters attend. However, the bulk of the action, which is focused on the social dynamics of the city’s wealthiest set, would seem to say otherwise. No matter where you stand on this romantic drama, there’s no denying that it is an interesting and insightful look into the role money and status play in our country.

A dressed up family sitting at a dinner table in front of a Christmas tree.


The Long Day Closes (1992)

– Director: Terence Davies
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 85 minutes

“The Long Day Closes” is a collection of vignettes from the childhood of a closeted, imaginative young boy named Bud (Leigh McCormack) in 1950s Liverpool. Many of the individual scenes are set around the holidays, though the main focus of the movie isn’t the celebration of Christmas or New Year’s, but how the circumstances under which we come of age change us. The soundtrack includes several songs from Christmas music legend Nat King Cole.

Penguin and Batman stand outside an arctic cave lined with red and white striped poles.

Warner Bros.

Batman Returns (1992)

– Director: Tim Burton
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 68
– Runtime: 126 minutes

The second installment in Tim Burton’s “Batman” franchise stars Michael Keaton as the masked hero who must protect Gotham from Penguin (Danny Devito) with the help of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The superhero flick is set during the Christmas season, and there are a number of Christmas references scattered throughout. A big portion of viewers insists that the film shouldn’t be viewed as a holiday movie but simply as an action/adventure thriller.

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A man holding a toy and a present next to Santa Claus.


The City of Lost Children (1995)

– Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 73
– Runtime: 112 minutes

Peculiar sci-fi fantasy film “The City of Lost Children” was shot in a similar style to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s other big hit, “Amelie.” The pivotal sequence in the movie, which is about a scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork) who kidnaps children to steal their dreams, features a Christmas party-turned-nightmare and several evil Santa Clauses. It’s far from the usual holiday fare, but its unique storyline and gorgeous visuals make it well worth a watch.

Kim Basinger in a black and white silk hood.

New Regency Productions

L.A. Confidential (1997)

– Director: Curtis Hanson
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 138 minutes

Drunken officers on Christmas Eve beat several inmates as they sit in their cells. So goes the opening scene of “L.A. Confidential,” a crime drama about the corruption in the LAPD during the 1950s. The movie is dark and heavy, but its holiday setting provides just enough lightness to make the Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce film watchable.

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise dancing in a ballroom.

Warner Bros.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

– Director: Stanley Kubrick
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 68
– Runtime: 159 minutes

Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” follows a Manhattan doctor (Tom Cruise) as he dives into a secret society after his wife (Nicole Kidman) admits she’s unhappy in their marriage. The psychological drama doesn’t contain any of the family-friendly elements of typical holiday films, but it is set during the Christmas season. Considered by some to be one of the best films of the ’90s, “Eyes Wide Shut” has developed something of a cult following in the years since its release.

Leonardo DiCaprio walking with a group of female flight attendants.

Dreamworks Pictures

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

– Director: Steven Spielberg
– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Metascore: 75
– Runtime: 141 minutes

Loosely based on the real-life story of conman Frank Abagnale, “Catch Me If You Can” has four different sequences set on Christmas Eve (or at least sometime during the holiday season).

Most of the film’s action centers around Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as he impersonates a pilot, doctor, and prosecutor, but those Christmas scenes always coincide with a significant moment of character or story development. The Academy Award-nominated film opened on Christmas Day and stars Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, James Brolin, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Pompeo, and Elizabeth Banks alongside DiCaprio.

An animation of a choir singing a holiday song with a baby bed of hay in the front.


Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

– Director: Satoshi Kon
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Metascore: 73
– Runtime: 92 minutes

In this animated Japanese film, three homeless people—all outcasted by society for different reasons—discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. The story is a serious one: There’s none of the lighthearted humor or thematic content in this film that you’d typically find in a holiday movie. Still, themes touching themes abound in “Tokyo Godfathers,” from found family to doing what’s right. The movie won several awards overseas for its animation.

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Naomi Watts watching a man in an apron play violin for two little girls in a restaurant.

Kudos Film and Television

Eastern Promises (2007)

– Director: David Cronenberg
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Metascore: 82
– Runtime: 100 minutes

“Eastern Promises” is a gangster crime thriller about the Russian Mafia’s presence in London and involvement in sex trafficking. Like many of the other films on our list, it’s set during Christmastime, though its content isn’t exactly heartwarming or cheer-bringing. Still, the movie is memorable and impactful as evidenced by its dozens of award nominations and inclusion on many cult classic lists.

Colin Farrell having a beer with a man and woman.

Focus Features

In Bruges (2008)

– Director: Martin McDonagh
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Metascore: 67
– Runtime: 107 minutes

If movies about guilt-stricken hitmen wrestling with ruthless orders from their bosses put you in the holiday spirit, consider watching Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges.” The black comedy, which stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, is set against the backdrop of Belgium at Christmastime, and Bruges’ world-famous holiday market pops up in many of the scenes. The film was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award.

Rooney Mara in a Santa hat behind a counter talking to Cate Blanchett.

The Weinstein Company

Carol (2015)

– Director: Todd Haynes
– IMDb user rating: 7.2
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 118 minutes

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” “Carol” tells the story of the forbidden romance between a glamorous, older divorcee (Cate Blanchett) and an aspiring female photographer named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). The beginning of the romantic drama is set during the hustle and bustle that is the holiday shopping season and winds down in the far less magical dead of winter. Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler star alongside Blanchett and Mara.

Mya Taylor sitting on a stool onstage in front of a red curtain.

Freestyle Picture Company

Tangerine (2015)

– Director: Sean Baker
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 88 minutes

Shot on three iPhones, “Tangerine” tells the story of transgender sex workers who struggle with relationships during the holidays. Described as “singularly delightful” and “uplifting” by The Hollywood Reporter, “Tangerine” was the first film to push for Oscar nods for openly transgender actresses, with star Mya Taylor winning the Independent Spirit Award in the Best Supporting Female category.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe smoking and drinking at a bar.

Warner Bros.

The Nice Guys (2016)

– Director: Shane Black
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Metascore: 70
– Runtime: 116 minutes

Ryan Gosling plays a private eye who teams up with a tough enforcer (Russell Crowe) to track down a missing teenage girl in “The Nice Guys.” Set in 1970s Los Angeles at Christmastime, the action comedy film isn’t festive in the way “Elf” or “Home Alone” is, but its happy ending certainly makes it feel more like a holiday movie than some of the more somber entries on the list. Critics praised the buddy comedy for its tight writing and strong acting and nominated it for several awards.

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