For as many movies as are clearly “Christmas Movies,” there are quite a few others that take place during the holiday season and yet are not dubbed with the colorful moniker. Do they need to be set at Christmas? In a lot of cases, no; they really are just using the holiday as a setting or are adhering to the release date. For some reason, movies released at Christmastime are often set then as well, as though people who go to the movies in December can’t fathom a story taking place in May. At any rate, here are ten movies that take place at Christmas that maybe don’t need to. Here, they’re in chronological order.
The Thin Man (1934)
If you want snappy dialogue, this is the movie for you. William Powell and Myrna Loy play perpetually-sloshed socialites Nick and Nora Charles, who solve a murder case for seemingly no other reason than they can and are pretty good at it. Christmas is in the background through the whole thing, and Nora gets increasingly upset when people wish her a merry one. This culminates in a line in which she threatens to kill the next person to give her a season’s greeting. Not very Christmassy, there, Nora.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
More than half a decade before he was running around Marble Falls yelling about his beautiful old building-and-loan, Jimmy Stewart was in another, much less Christmas-centric Christmas movie about people working in a Hungarian department store leading up to the 25th of December. Directed by the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch, this movie is actually an earlier adaptation of the story that eventually became You’ve Got Mail, with Stewart and Margaret Sullavan despising each other at work yet falling in love through anonymous pen-pal letters.
Stalag 17 (1953)
Billy Wilder’s WWII prisoner of war comedy (with a lot of drama in it as well) is a sort of whodunnit mystery in which someone is feeding information to the Nazi command about escape attempts. Most everybody assumes it’s the defiant and lackadaisical Sefton (William Holden), but that’d be too easy, wouldn’t it? The movie takes place over the days leading up to the holiday, but the big set piece is a Christmas party in the barracks in which the prisoners are forced to slow dance with each other in lieu of any women being around. It’s a sad but also funny moment. The big reveal comes on Christmas Eve as to who the mole actually is.
The Apartment (1960)
Another one from Billy Wilder, but in a wholly different setting. This movie is also set around the holiday season in which a diligent employee (Jack Lemmon) tries to get ahead in his company by allowing the executives to use his conveniently-nearby flat for their afternoon extra-marital affairs. The scheme turns sour when the girl he’s got his eye on becomes one of his boss’ many conquests. In Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond’s typical fashion, this movie is very racy and yet somehow quite wholesome and sweet. It was a gift. This also won Best Picture that year.
Lethal Weapon (1987)
The late-’80s were rife with action movies set at Christmas (as you’ll see with the next film as well), and the first of the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover buddy-cop series starts the trend. From the opening scene of Detective Martin Riggs slapping himself in the face while interrogating perps at a Christmas tree lot to the final fistfight that takes place on a front lawn with multi-colored lights on in the background, this movie perpetually tells you you’re watching a movie set in December, even though it was released in March and totally didn’t need to have any holiday cheer in it at all.
Die Hard (1988)
Next, we come to my hands-down favorite, must-watch yearly Christmas tradition. However, there really isn’t a reason for it to be a Christmas movie, other than as an excuse to have an office building full of employees and an estranged husband come to visit. As awesome as the lines about having a machine gun ho-ho-ho and the often jingle-bellsian score are fun, this could have been set just as easily at New Years or Thanksgiving, or, like March 4th, too. The second film in the series continued the Christmas theme, but the subsequent three abandoned it entirely.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
I have a theory that the only reason Tim Burton set this movie at Christmas time is so he could have that scene of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder dancing romantically in the scissor-shaved snow. He made a point to put the action in a cookie-cutter suburb that is usually as bright and bland as possible so that the iconic snow shots could seem all the more impressive. The poster image for the movie has Edward in front of a snowy background, and it was released in December, so clearly the marketing folks thought that playing up the snow was the way to go. And it worked; What can I say?
Batman Returns (1992)
Like Billy Wilder, Tim Burton really must enjoy Christmas and making it slightly creepy. This might be the only superhero movie to use the Most Wonderful Time of the Year as its setting, generally because these movies come out in the summer and it’s weird for it to be set in the winter. From a visual standpoint, the mixture of the snow-covered Gotham City looking dreary and yet sparkly with the lights and decorations is quite striking and works really well, though the script is almost totally awful. Again, though, Burton’s visual eye takes precedence over plot.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Another big ol’ creepy take on a traditionally happy time, this movie follows a jealous Tom Cruise as he attempts to have a dangerous sexual experience so he can feel equal to his wife, Nicole Kidman. However, this quickly becomes a paranoid nightmare as he witnesses a secret sex society and people start turning up dead. Stanley Kubrick’s final film exists in a New York City that looks far from real life (because it wasn’t filmed there) and has a dreamlike quality throughout, all the while giant Christmas trees and trips to the toy store surround the very troubling circumstances.
In Bruges (2008)
This is a movie that you probably never thought about taking place at Christmas, but it nevertheless does. Two Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) are forced to take a trip to the “fairy tale” Belgian town of Bruges to hide out after a botched assassination. They bicker and do touristy things, but the locals are decorating for the holiday, and the woman who runs the inn in which they’re staying is trimming a tree during one scene. Their angry London mob boss, Ralph Fiennes, yells at his wife in front of their Christmas tree and kids. Despite these visuals, it almost never registers to me that it’s Christmastime, and that’s how you know it’s not important for the plot.
These were merely ten examples; there’s a whole lot more. Brazil, L.A. Confidential, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang all take place at Christmas but the holiday is secondary (if not tertiary) to the plot. So, when your mom wants to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, why not suggest Batman Returns and Die Hard and make your cases thusly?