"I usually play solitaire by myself," the lonely Christmas tree salesman says to a stranger in his trailer; red and green lights blink warmly around him while just outside, the city freezes. "Can I watch?" the strange woman asks. He takes one of the painkillers he has placed in each day of his Advent calendar, shuffles the deck, and proceeds to play the game alone with her beside him, and perhaps they're both a little comforted by being alone together. This scene from Christmas, Again perfectly captures the act of watching a particularly sad or dark film: we visit the lonely characters in their own world, playing solitaire with themselves, but we're somehow comforted by the chance to spend some time with them, especially if we ourselves are sad, and even more especially if it's Christmastime.
Christmas isn't exclusively cheerful, or perhaps not happy whatsoever. Whether one abhors the commercial and materialist trappings of the holiday, is not a Christian, has lost loved ones or hates spending time with them, or simply says "bah humbug," Christmas can be a weird time for many, and the bevy of Hallmark-style Christmas flicks churned out each year only reinforces this.
For some people, when all is said and done, Frosty still melts and Christmas is just a sad puddle. Thankfully, there are many great alternatives to cheerful Christmas movies available for people who, in fact, don't think It's a Wonderful Life.
Christmas is, after all, a strange thing to celebrate and could probably use some deconstructing. For some, it commemorates the birth of God in human form as Jesus two thousand years ago; for others, it embraces the countless breaking and entering acts through fireplaces across the world, committed by an obese man who loves children; for others still, it's a chaotic mad rush to purchase ridiculous toys for children who will grow tired of them in a month.
All of these are somewhat odd things to obsess about, so it's fortunate that there are Christmas films which sidetrack the common traditions and focus on something a little different. Sad, dark, or just plain weird, these are the best of the bunch.
10 Anna and the Apocalypse
Anna and the Apocalypse asks the question, "What would happen if High School Musical was a gory zombie movie set on Christmas in Scotland?" The answer is a delightful, infectious, and bizarre pastiche of styles and tropes that dismantle the standard Christmas musical. The film follows a high school senior with some serious family trauma who plans to move away from her small town, something which is upsetting her father and friends. Before she can do so, though, the world erupts into a zombie apocalypse. With surprisingly catchy music, upbeat performances from a committed young cast, and smooth direction from John McPhail, this eccentric film spikes the eggnog in a crowd-pleasing way.
An Action-Packed Horror Musical Comedy Romance Christmas Film...
Aside from being a musical horror comedy with some romance, the film has some genuinely excellent action set pieces, from tiny and hilarious moments (beating a zombie in a snowman costume to death with a giant candy cane) to epic rescue sequences (with a high school auditorium filled with zombies). For a small UK film, Anna and the Apocalypse is very polished and really has it all. Stream through AMC+ or rent or buy on Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, etc. And if you love a little action with your gingerbread, check out our video list of great Christmas action movies below:
9 I Trapped the Devil
Josh Lobo poured all of himself into his debut movie, writing, producing, editing, and directing the tense and claustrophobic little gem I Trapped the Devil. A man and his wife visit his estranged brother on Christmas after years of tragedy have kept them at odds with each other; his brother has a history of mental health conditions, so his family is skeptical and horrified when he claims to have literally locked the devil up in his basement. The man trapped behind the fortified door, whether a victim or Satan, becomes the catalyst for an intense reunion between bitter brothers.
Tense and Tinsel
Constantly awash in gorgeous Christmas lights and colors, Lobo's indie feature expertly captures the fraught filial tensions and family drama which makes Christmas so difficult for many. Yes, it does so within a Twilight Zone-style narrative (specifically the episode "The Howling Man") and with an increasingly suspenseful climax, but the heart of the film is family dysfunction and alienation. Watch for free on Tubi or Sling TV, through an AMC+ subscription, or rent or buy on digital platforms.
8 The Ice Harvest
Harold Ramis is beloved for his films Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Groundhog Day; much less so for his bitterly acidic comedy thriller, The Ice Harvest. The film captures John Cusack at his best as a divorced, misanthropic alcoholic spending Christmas Eve night plotting to steal $2 million from his mobster boss.
A Cold Film Noir Christmas
Cynical but often very funny, the film portrays Christmas through the lens of film noir, brimming as it is with femme fatales, hard-drinking loners, vicious criminals, and a suffering antihero at the heart of it all. Bolstered by an excellent supporting cast (Oliver Platt, Billy Bob Thornton, and Connie Nielsen are especially fantastic) and beautiful imagery of a snowy Kansas Christmas, The Ice Harvest is dark but delicious. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play, and YouTube.
7 Better Watch Out
A cute but precocious 12-year-old and his 17-year-old babysitter believe someone is trying to kill them in the nasty Christmas shocker Better Watch Out. The young Luke has the kind of immature romantic feelings for his babysitter that makes him a kind of urtext for incels, but at the same time, he's a child and his childish games with his friend exist in that uncanny space where innocence bleeds into psychological issues. Pairing him with the teenage babysitter in a fight for survival makes for a brilliant dynamic.
Have Yourself a Nasty Little Christmas
Surprisingly cruel and unexpected in its narrative twists, Chris Peckover's film revels in subverting expectations; what begins as one kind of holiday movie turns into something else entirely. Better Watch Out almost entirely takes place within a beautifully decorated, upper-middle-class home, and becomes a kind of Christmas chamber drama as a result. The young Olivia DeJonge proves why she is an actor set to rule the film industry in the future; she is a real Christmas star in an unsettling movie which has become a new Christmas horror classic. Watch for free on Tubi, PLEX, or Pluto TV, stream through Peacock or Prime Video, or rent or buy on any digital platform.
6 Blast of Silence
Allen Baron wrote, directed, and starred in the weird Christmas film noir Blast of Silence, which was largely forgotten by critics and the public alike until the Criterion Collection digitally restored it and released it on DVD (and now a gorgeous Blu-ray, as of December 2023). Extremely low-budget and almost better because of it, the movie follows a lonely mafia hit man who runs into an old flame during Christmastime as he awaits instructions for his next murder.
You Are a Lonely Christmas Killer
The film is an anomaly for many reasons. It was one of the early American indies to transform the image of New York, alongside John Cassavettes and Shirley Clarke, who presented a grittier, more alienated Big Apple than romantic Hollywood movies. Yes, the town is all decked out in Christmas trees and lights, but the quasi-guerrilla filmmaking offers a truly naturalistic, crowded, and uncomfortable New York. Blast of Silence is also one of the rare films to feature voiceover narration in the second-person. A growling, melancholic, and mean voice puts you in the character's shoes and reminds us that, for some, the holiday can be especially lonely, even in a crowd. Watch on The Criterion Channel.
5 A Christmas Tale
Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is a nearly schizoanalytic holiday film that follows a bickering family which comes together for Christmas when their mother develops leukemia. Jean-Paul Roussillon, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Emmanuelle Devos, and Chiara Mastroianni are wonderful as the cliquey French family filled with secrets and resentments.
A Tragicomedy About Death and Family
Funny and tragic in equal measure, with extreme tonal shifts unbalancing the audience at every turn, this marvelously acted ensemble luxuriates in the beauty of both snowy France and the magnetic Catherine Deneuve, one of the greatest French actresses of all time. Defiantly different and empathetic in its portrayal of family, A Christmas Tale "skates on thin ice across a crowded lake," as Roger Ebert once put it, "arrives safely on the far shore, and shares a cup of hot cocoa and marshmallows with Death." Stream on AMC+ or rent or buy through Prime Video and other digital platforms. And if you're interested in any other Christmas movies with truly incredible casts, check out our video list below:
4 Mon Oncle Antoine
One of the greatest coming-of-age films of all time, and perhaps the most beloved Canadian film ever made, Claud Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine delves deep into Christmas through the eyes of a growing boy whose life will be changed and innocence shattered by the end of the holidays. Before his life changes, Benoît (a powerful Jacques Gagnon) lives out another Christmas in a mining town in rural Québec during the 1940s, a few years before life actually changed for many people in the region due to the Asbestos Strike of 1949. He works at a general store with his aunt and uncle, and at Christmastime learns about adultery, betrayal, adulthood, and death.
Innocence Melts Like a Snowman
Beautifully directed and performed, the film meticulously captures the holiday festivities of small town life while grasping deeper, universal truths. Just like a belief in Christmas, childhood usually has an endpoint in which the magic and innocence die, and that's what's so delicately rendered in Mon Oncle Antoine. Benoît acts as a kind of surrogate for the filmmaker, who developed early-onset Alzheimer's disease about when he turned 50, a decade after making this film. His body was found in Spring in a river he may have wandered into; he had a note in his pocket that read "Je m'appelle Claude Jutra" ("My name is Claude Jutra"). Watch on The Criterion Channel or Hulu or Sling TV with live television subscriptions.
3 White Reindeer
Zach Clark utilizes Christmas to dissect suburbia, capitalism, whiteness, and chauvinism in his bizarre and brilliant White Reindeer. Led by Anna Margaret Hollyman in one of the greatest and most underrated performances of the past decade, Clark's film observes what happens when the death of a devoted suburban wife's husband unleashes dirty secrets, and the strong friendships between very different women which blossom as a result.
Strippers, Cocaine, and Christmas Magic
It's hilarious and almost inspiring to watch the fabric of this woman's life be unraveled until it finally reveals herself in the process; it's a holiday miracle. Of course, she has to descend through some debauchery first to get through the other side. She meets her dead husband's mistress, a very kind and introspective stripper, and begins to live a very different life around Christmastime involving sex parties, cocaine, shopping (and shoplifting), and much more. White Reindeer is, in many ways, like a modern Ecclesiastes, with one woman trying to find out if anything even has meaning. Stream on AMC+ or rent or buy through Prime Video and other digital platforms.
2 Black Christmas
Although Silent Night, Bloody Night predated Black Christmas by two years as one of the first holiday horror flicks, it is the latter which has become an all-time classic. Extremely influential to the horror genre and considered to be the progenitor of Halloween and the new wave of slasher horror, Black Christmas created and mastered many of the tropes which have since been overused for five decades. The film follows a sorority house at Christmastime which is stalked by a serial killer.
A Christmas Master Makes a Macabre Classic
Remade twice but never as effectively as the first, the film captures the merriness of the season on a college campus and injects it with dread. The director, Bob Clark, truly knows Christmas: he went on to create the ubiquitous favorite A Christmas Story, but it is this specific Christmas classic which appeals to the weird and the wild. Black Christmas is streaming free pretty much everywhere, including Tubi, Prime Video, Pluto TV, Peacock, and YouTube. And if you like winter-themed horror films, check out our video list below:
1 Christmas, Again
Charles Poekel's Christmas, Again may be a masterpiece with a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but hardly anyone has heard of it; that's a shame, considering it's one of the most achingly intimate Christmas films ever made. Though deeply melancholic, the story of a Christmas tree salesman suffering after a break-up delivers a great deal of hope and resolve through its empathetic characters, gorgeous setting, and genuine warmth.
A Melancholic Christmas Masterpiece
Christmas, Again is a sad film, though it documents a short period of significant growth for its wonderful protagonists, without ever being melodramatic or saccharine. Like great tragedy, its melancholy somehow makes the unbearable (loneliness, heartbreak, Christmas) more bearable. Plus, a movie set in a Christmas tree lot is about as seasonal as these things get. Stream on Fandor through Prime Video, Philo, and YouTube, or rent or buy on digital platforms like Apple TV and Vudu.