For today's audiences, modern holiday comedy Elf is right up there with It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in terms of beloved Christmas classics. But, what other movies set during the Yuletide season deserve to join their ranks? Recent holiday movies that have built stories around LGBTQ+ love stories (Carol, Happiest Season) and under-represented communities (Tangerine, Tokyo Godfathers) stand out. In addition, many modern seasonal films have integrated other genres into the merry festivities (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Krampus).
While older classics incorporate musical sequences or center around the story of Santa Clause, modern Christmas movies have taken the holidays into new and exciting territories. So, which modern festive films are challenging Elf for the top spot in the holiday movie pyramid?
Happiest Season (2020)
One of the things modern holiday films provide audiences with are love stories that expand representation. Happiest Season tackles the difficulties around coming out to family, especially around the holidays. Kristen Stewart continues her post-Twilight career of excellent performances as Abby Holland, the significant other to Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis), who struggles to reveal her true self to her family.
The film is an endearing love story that puts LGBTQ+ characters front and center and gives audiences a Christmas couple anyone can root for. Fans of the movie have added a Happiest Season sequel to their Christmas wishlist.
Bad Santa (2003)
Bad Santa is the perfect anti-holiday film in that it's filled with violence, cursing, and a purposefully unlikeable central character. Billy Bob Thornton unleashes Willie T. Stoke, a holiday mischief-maker (a thief masquerading as a mall Santa) not seen in typical Christmas movies. Willie is a foul-mouthed crook devoid of any semblance of a character arc and has earned a spot on the (very) naughty list.
Bad Santa is definitely not a holiday movie for the whole family, but it is perfect for audiences who aren't charmed by the Christmas spirit.
Love Actually (2003)
Of all the modern Christmas movies, Love Actually boasts the most extensive ensemble cast. The film follows nine interwoven stories about characters in London who learn the real meaning of Christmas. Although the film has "love" in its title, the movie isn't about romance in any cheesy sort of way.
Love Actually has some genuinely heartwarming moments, but overall it's moody, melancholy, and more interested in what makes the human soul tick than any corporate version of Christmas.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Dark humor aficionado Shane Black makes his directorial debut — and gives Robert Downey Jr. his comeback — with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The detective caper is set during Christmas but shies away from delivering any sort of holiday cheer. Instead, it's more interested in having the two central characters snap sarcasm at each other as they try to shoot their way out of dangerous predicaments.
Action fans often cite Die Hard as the definitive action Christmas movie, but why not mix it up with something a little more recent — and just as clever?
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Tokyo Godfathers, directed by animator Satoshi Kon, is visually stunning and features lush animation. Kon was the creator of some of the most thought-provoking anime works of the last 30 years, including Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Paprika. Typically, his films centered on themes of morality and identity.
In Tokyo Godfathers, Kon used Christmas as a setting to examine how modern cinema portrays heroes and villains while celebrating the human drive of kindness.
Tangerine uses the Christmas season as a subtle backdrop to deliver exciting character studies. Christmas decor is subtlely strung around the diners, washeteria, and bars the two central characters visit on their way to hunt down a cheating boyfriend on Christmas Eve. The film's script is sharp and hilarious while never losing its poignance.
It is rare to see trans people of color as protagonists in cinema. However, Tangerine gives viewers one of the past decade's best revenge/redemption stories.
The Polar Express (2004)
Throughout his storied career, Tom Hanks has been a comforting presence on-screen. So, a Christmas movie that gives viewers three characters voiced by Hanks is a gift that keeps on giving. The Polar Express adapts artist Chris Van Allsburg's Caldecott Medal-winning book for the big screen.
The film's best scene is when the titular train arrives at its destination, and the children aboard — and the audience watching — discover the gorgeously rendered North Pole.
Carol is an excellent example of the blank canvas Christmas provides directors willing to push boundaries. For example, the tagline for this important lesbian period piece was, "Some people change your life forever." The same goes for how the love story at the film's center changes the audience's perception of a Christmas movie.
Director Todd Haynes shot the film in lush 16mm and captured the look and feel of the fifties when the movie took place. Critic Peter Travers wrote for Rolling Stone, "From Phyllis Nagy's alluringly uncluttered script to Cate Blanchett's sturdily tremulous performance as a society woman with everything to lose, this brilliantly captures the thrills, tears, and fears of forbidden love."
A horror-comedy movie set during Christmas, Krampus succeeded in blending the two genres thanks to a solid cast featuring Adam Scott and Toni Collette. Krampus captures the same holiday spirit of campy horror-comedy Gremlins and the scares aren't so frightful that one loses the general holiday vibe of the movie. When Krampus embraces horror, the creature's slow reveal delivers legitimate scares.
Krampus is a hoofed-footed and horned ancient spirit, wreaking havoc on those who have been naughty throughout the year.
A Christmas Carol (2009)
It seems as if every other decade, another director remakes the classic A Christmas Carol story. However, this 2009 version stands out because of the central performances (yes, multiple) from star Jim Carrey, who brings this classic magical tale to life.
Carrey delivers all the goods, portraying Ebenezer Scrooge and the three visiting ghosts who change his life for the better. Some may prefer the Muppets' version, but this adaptation makes its mark.
Aaron Sorkin’s film about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz feels like a collection of anecdotes rather than a worthwhile narrative.