Not-So-Merry Christmas Movies to Celebrate the Holidays

gremlins not-so-merry Christmas

Believe it or not, not everyone likes spending December listening to cheery songs and wrapping bright-colored packages. For some, the last month of the year means cold weather, long nights, and commercialization.

However, these Scrooges need not miss out on the one agreed-upon pleasure of the holiday season: watching Christmas movies. Those who know where to look will find plenty of films about the dour parts of the Yuletide, certain to put a grin — or frown — on any Grinch’s face. Meet the roster of not-so-merry Christmas movies.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Yes, It’s a Wonderful Life ends with banker George Bailey learning how much his neighbors care for him when they arrive to pay the amount he owes the government. And yes, the movie ends with the angel Clarence getting his wings. Up until that point, however, this Frank Capra classic goes to some dark, not-so-merry Christmas places. At every turn, Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) fails to live out his dream and leave Bedford Falls, forced instead to eke out a living while staying in a drafty old house. The film’s larger cosmology argues that God approves of Bailey’s selfless lifestyle, but it sure doesn’t look enjoyable through most of the movie. 

2. Carol (2015)

Carol 2015
Image Credit: The Weinstein Company.

To one not paying attention, the Todd Haynes-directed Carol has all the trappings of a classic holiday movie, including a store setting that recalls Holiday Affair (1949) or Miracle on 34th Street (1947). However, amidst the bright lights and cheery music that brings affluent Carol (Cate Blanchett) to the counter of shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) to purchase gloves comes a story of longing and unfulfilled romance.

Set in 1952 and adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol captures the tremendous lengths to which the central couple must go to be together, thwarted by everything from legal restrictions to a vengeful husband (Kyle Chandler) who hopes to hold Therese with him. 

3. The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment (1960)
Image Credit: United Artists.

The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a company man who hopes to climb the corporate ladder by lending his apartment to executives to use with their mistresses away from home. Lemmon plays the part with his already well-honed comic skills, but director Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the film with I. A. L. Diamond, layers the film with a deep, not-so-merry Christmas cynicism.

Baxter questions his plan when he falls for elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the mistress of his boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Wilder, Lemmon, and MacLaine find notes of kindness and humor in their story, but one cannot help but see the bitterness in their jokes about fruitcake when the two lovers realize the weight of the economic system stacked up against them. 

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

All Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) wants for Christmas is a happy holiday with his beautiful wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) and his daughter. But after Alice admits thoughts of infidelity early in Eyes Wide Shut, Bill goes on a journey of sexual intrigue that insnares him in a mysterious conspiracy.

For his final film, director Stanley Kubrick applies his cold eye and determined camera movements in New York City drenched in not-so-merry Christmas lights. Nowhere is that clearer than when Bill and Alice take their daughter Christmas shopping in the final scene, the weight of their forbidden knowledge muffling the aggressive music playing over store speakers. 

5. Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru, Takashi Shimura
Image Credit: Toho.

Strictly speaking, the Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru is not a Christmas movie. Neither the main character Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) nor any of the others he meets in Tokyo celebrate the Western holiday.

However, the film’s snowy scenes and sobering message set it right alongside films such as It’s a Wonderful Life. The story, written by Kurosawa with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, follows the last year in the life of bureaucrat Watanabe, who fights to build a playground after receiving a stomach cancer diagnosis (hence the not-so-merry Christmas distinction). The film’s title may translate to “To Live,” but Kurosawa never lets the film slip into saccharine schmalz.  

6. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife Cary Grant, Loretta Young
Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

The opening of The Bishop’s Wife finds Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) having a very unmerry Christmas. Overwhelmed by his parish’s financial difficulties and the tensions between himself and his wife Julia (Loretta Young), the good bishop cries out to the heavens and receives an answer to his prayer in the form of the angel Dudley (Cary Grant), come to help him with his difficulties.

However, director Henry Koster, working from an adaptation of the Robert Nathan novella by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood (with uncredited rewrites by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, which may account for the pessimistic, not-so-merry Christmas tone), throws Henry for quite a loop when Dudley and Julia fall for each other. Of course, everything works out in the end, but it's hard not to sympathize with Henry as things go from bad to worse at Christmastime. 

7. The Ice Storm (1997)

The Ice Storm (1997) Tobey Maguire
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Based on the angry 1994 novel by Rick Moody, The Ice Storm takes director Ang Lee’s interest in emotionally stunted characters and applies it to the suburbs of the 1970s, in which a group of neglected teens entertain themselves while their parents attend a wife-swapping party.

Kevin Kline and Joan Allen star as Ben and Elana Hood, an unhappy couple who attend a neighborhood key party alongside their neighbors Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver). At the same time, the Hood’s children Wendy (Christina Ricci) and Paul (Tobey Maguire) explore their own feelings alongside their neighbors, including the Carver’s older son Mikey (Elijah Wood). Tragic and sad, The Ice Storm explores the frigid emotions of disaffected families in the weeks before one not-so-merry Christmas. 

8. Black Christmas (1974)

Taking a phone call
Image Credit: Film Funding Ltd./Vision IV/Canadian Film/Development Corporation/Famous Players.

Considered the first slasher movie by many observers, the Canadian film Black Christmas comes from director Bob Clark, the same man who made the more acceptable holiday classic A Christmas Story. Clark and writer A. Roy Moore create a confusing whodunnit about sorority sisters, including final girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) and raunchy Barb (Margot Kidder at her best), under attack from an unseen killer who attacks the house over one not-so-merry Christmas break. Beneath the convoluted plot are themes about abuse and the right to choose, making Black Christmas something far more substantial than a simple provocation. 

9. Gremlins (1984)

Zach Galligan in Gremlins.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Midway through director Joe Dante’s madcap classic Gremlins, Kate (Phoebe Cates) tells her boyfriend Billy (Zach Gilligan) why she hates Christmas. The story ends with young Kate and her mother discovering her father stuck in the chimney, dressed as Santa and suffocated to death.

While Dante brings his love of Looney Tunes to the anarchic film, resulting in several funny sequences, the darkness of Kate’s story drives Gremlins. Writer Chris Columbus, who would go on to make family-friendly movies such as Home Alone and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, drenches the monster movie in cynicism, which neither the Gremlins’ antics nor the movie’s rocking soundtrack can diminish. 

10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Image Credit: Loew's, Inc.

Every year, malls and car stereos pump out the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a slow but optimistic ditty that fits alongside “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But the song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane and performed here by Judy Garland, has a much darker tone in its original context.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli and written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, from the novel by Sally Benson, Meet Me in St. Louis chronicles a year in the life of the upper-middle-class Smith family, including daughter Esther (Garland). Toward the end of the film, the Smiths prepare to move to New York, just after Esther’s love John (Tom Drake) proposes to her. When Esther sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” uncertainty and the specter of lost love lingers over her, making the song more of a dirge than a comfort. 

11. The Green Knight (2021)

The Green Knight Dev Patel
Image Credit: A24.

On Christmas Day, Sir Gaiwan (Dev Patel) leaves his beloved Essel (Alicia Vikander) to join his fellow knights at Arthur’s round table. There, the Green Knight challenges the knights to a battle, which the arrogant Gaiwan accepts. When Gaiwan beheads the Green Knight, he learns that he has one year to live, when the mystical Knight will do the same to him.

Much of director David Lowery’s adaptation of the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place between Christmases. But as Gaiwan discovers throughout The Green Knight, he cannot outrun fate, which gives the holiday takes a tone of dread.  

12. Happy Christmas (2014)

Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynsky, and Lena Dunham in Happy Christmas (2014)
Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

Like most films in the mumblecore movie that dominated independent cinema throughout the 2010s, Happy Christmas features a rambling plot and improvised performances. However, the film works thanks to the great actors that director Joe Swanberg chose for his cast, including Melanie Lynskey as tired housewife Kelly and Anna Kendrick as her irresponsible sister-in-law Jenny. While Swanberg, who co-stars as Kelly’s husband, does allow a few big, dramatic moments in his film, including Kelly’s attempts to write a romance novel, most of the film has a gentle energy about people who cannot change their ways, no matter how much they try. 

13. Krampus (2015)

Krampus (2015) David Koechner
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Director Michael Dougherty opens Krampus with not-so-merry Christmas images of shoppers trampling one another to get a deal, and the cynicism just grows from there.

By the time Yuletide-themed monsters descend on the Engel family, headed by Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) to capture them and their relatives, the beasties provide a welcome reprieve from the family bickering. Dougherty, along with his co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields, fill Krampus with satisfying scare scenes. But beyond the titular creature, the real horror comes from the loss of holiday hope in young Max Engel (Emjay Anthony). 

14. Last Christmas (2019)

Last Christmas (2019) Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Just like the Wham! song that lends the movie its title, Last Christmas tells a romantic story about lost love regained when aspiring singer Kate (Emilia Clarke) meets handsome Tom (Henry Golding). However, director Paul Feig and screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson (who appears in the film as Kate’s grumpy mother) take the song’s lyrics in a very literal direction. The first viewers of Last Christmas took issue with the movie’s twist ending, but later viewers have come to appreciate Clarke’s chops as a lovable romantic lead and the hint of melancholy the twist lends the film. 

15. Deadly Games (1990)

Deadly Games (1990)
Image Credit: Deal UGC.

In 1990, viewers thrilled to a movie about a clever, if murderous, little boy who fought a home invader one not-so-merry Christmas Eve. Sure, that sentence describes Home Alone, but it also refers to a better holiday film, the French movie Deadly Games, also known as 3615 code Père Noël.

Written and directed by René Manzor, Deadly Games stars Alain Musy as Thomas de Frémont, the grandson of a rich toymaker and Rambo superfan. While alone with his grandfather (Louis Ducreux), Thomas must defend the house from a madman dressed as Santa Claus (Patrick Floersheim), which he does by weaponizing the many toys at his disposal. Deadly Games swings from one tone to another, sometimes mirroring the lil’ stinker energy of Kevin McCallister and occasionally indulging in pure schmaltz. For that reason, it remains one of the most baffling and entertaining movies about a kid who learns the truth about Santa. 

16. A Christmas Tale (2008)

A Christmas Tale (2008)
Image Credit: Bac Films.

Unlike the perennial favorite A Christmas Story, the 2008 French comedy A Christmas Tale stars Catherine Deneuve as Junon, head of one of the most dysfunctional families to ever grace the screen. Junon gathers her family for Christmas dinner, hoping that one of them will have the match to allow her a life-saving bone marrow transplant. However, familial in-fighting and secrets make that simple request almost impossible. Director Arnaud Desplechin and his co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu wring laughs out of sheer discomfort, sure to make anyone appreciate their actual families a bit more this Christmastime. 

17. Violent Night (2022)

David Harbour in Violent Night (2022)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

As if the name didn’t tip everyone off, Violent Night begins with Santa (David Harbour) getting drunk in a bar, complaining about how much he hates delivering presents. As he flies away in his sleigh, an older woman looks up in wonder, recovering an awe she hasn’t felt since she was a child. And then drunken Santa leans over the sleigh and vomits on her.

From that disgusting opening, Violent Night puts an action twist on the holidays, as Santa — here a former Viking berserker sentenced to centuries of good works to make up for his heinous crimes — comes down the chimney to discover a hostage situation. Lead terrorist, taking the appropriate name Scrooge (John Leguizamo) has his reasons for hating Christmas and despite the presence of cute urchin Trudy (Leah Brady), few would find reason to disagree. 

18. Blast of Silence (1961)

Blast of Silence (1961)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Hitman Frankie Bono, the protagonist of Blast of Silence, paves the way for the main characters in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) or David Fincher’s The Killer (2023). Bono approaches his job with a disaffected seriousness, which starts to break when he comes home to New York City to do a job over a not-so-merry Christmas week. As Bono plans to kill his target, he reunites with old friends and family, all of whom only increase his sense of ennui. Writer and director Allen Baron, who also stars as Bono, uses a heavy-handed approach that doesn’t work for all viewers. But anyone who wants a cynical Christmas film will find Blast of Silence satisfying. 

19. The Christmas Tree (1969)

William Holden in The Christmas Tree (1969)
Image Credit: Continental Distributing.

At first glance, The Christmas Tree sounds like a typical holiday romp. After meeting his new love Catherine (Virna Lisi), single father Laurent (William Holden) decides to take his son Pascal (Brook Fuller) on a series of adventures. But when one takes into account the fact that Laurent goes on these adventures with Pascal because the latter is dying of cancer, the result of exposure to nuclear radiation no less, then The Christmas Tree takes a sobering turn. Director and writer Terrance Young leans into all of the sappiness the story offers, but that doesn’t prevent The Christmas Tree from being one of the bleakest, not-so-merry Christmas entries on this list. 

20. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Rare Exports (2010)
Image Credit: Kinology.

Like Deadly Games, the Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale tells the heartbreaking story of a boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) who learns the truth about Santa. However, in this movie from writer and director Jalmari Helander, the truth isn’t that Santa doesn’t exist. Quite the opposite: Santa exists as a hateful monster who has remained trapped in Finland for decades, while Coca-Cola and Macy’s propagate a white-washed image of a lovable toy-bringer. When miners unleash the real Santa and his horrible elves, Pietari and his family must fight to save Christmas by destroying Santa, once and for all.  

21. The Best Man Holiday (2013)

The Best Man Holiday (2013) Image Credit_ Universal Pictures.
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Everybody knows that holiday gatherings bring up hidden tensions, but the characters in The Best Man Holiday take them to an extreme. Written and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, who also helmed the 1999 original The Best Man, The Best Man Holiday brings friends and their baggage to the home of Lance and Mia Sullivan (Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun), including best friends Harper (Taye Diggs) and Q (Terrance Howard). As attendees learn about their kids’ unsavory habits and secrets the friends keep from one another, the fallout threatens to ruin Christmas. Even though Lee doesn’t let the film get as dark as it could go, The Best Man Holiday reminds viewers that the most wonderful time of the year doesn’t come without its unpleasant interactions. 

22. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Lethal Weapon
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Writer Shane Black loves two things: foul-mouthed action buddies and Christmas. Thus, movies written and directed by Black — including The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Nice Guys, and Iron Man 3 — use Christmas as a background for the carnage on screen. That combination works particularly well in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, directed by Richard Donner, which brings together veteran cop Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and disturbed new partner Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson). From that setup comes all the property damage and forgoing of civil rights that one expects from an 80s police action movie, set against the jolly lights and music of Christmas time. 

23. Blue Christmas (1978)

Blue Christmas (AKA Blood Type_Blue) (1978)Blue Christmas (AKA Blood Type_Blue) (1978)
Image Credit: Toho.

With Blue Christmas, the Japanese Toho Company returns to the format that made their Godzilla films such a success. Writer Sō Kuramoto and director Kihachi Okamoto look at the way the arrival of UFOs affected many aspects of modern life, including celebrity culture and scientific study. The movie looks at the world’s response to people who come into contact with the UFO, an event that gives them blue blood, building up to a bittersweet Christmas reunion. Okamoto’s cinema verite style may not work for everyone, especially a choppy sequence involving intelligence officer Oki (Katsuno Hiroshi) in America, but Blue Christmas takes an undeniably unique look at the titular holiday. 

24. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Robert Brian Wilson in Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Image Credit: Tri-Star Pictures.

“You see Santa Claus tonight, you better run boy, you better run for ya life!” Grandpa Chapman (Will Hare) tells his grandson Billy in the trashy slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night. “Santy Claus only brings presents to them that's been good all year. All the other ones, all the naughty ones, he punishes!”

For all the absurd places that director Charles Edward Sellier Jr. and writer Michael Hickey take their movie, the duo does uncover one important truth about Christmas: the whole idea of Santa Claus can terrify kids. Even without later scenes of grown Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) donning Santa gear and “punishing” naughty people he meets, Grandpa’s warning remains the scariest part, because every kid believes it. 

25. The Ice Harvest (2005)

Oliver Platt and John Cusack in The Ice Harvest (2005)
Image Credit: Focus Features.

Harold Ramis made some of the funniest movies of all time, including Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. But with The Ice Harvest, Ramis directs a not-so-merry Christmas comedy as cold as its Wichita setting.

Written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton, based on the novel by Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest stars John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as two down-on-their-luck crooks trying to escape the city with $2 million stolen from their mobster boss (Randy Quaid). When bad weather keeps them trapped in Wichita on Christmas Eve, the two have to lay low while trying not to kill each other in the process. For anyone looking for a dark Christmas movie, it’s hard to get blacker than The Ice Harvest

Author: Joe George

Title: Pop Culture Writer

Expertise: Film, Television, Comic Books, Marvel, Star Trek, DC

Bio:

Joe George is a pop culture writer whose work has appeared at Den of Geek, The Progressive Magazine, Think Christian, Sojourners, Men's Health, and elsewhere. His book The Superpowers and the Glory: A Viewer's Guide to the Theology of Superhero Movies was published by Cascade Books in 2023. He is a member of the North Carolina Film Critic's Association.