Around the holidays, most indulge in the time-honored tradition of throwing on a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life or Elf while cooking a Christmas spread or hanging out with chosen family. We have nothing but respect for our brethren fans of straight-up holiday films—but personally, we like to switch it up. It’s been well-established that W relishes off-the-beaten-path classics and atypical family tales. We’re also fans of stories that aren’t technically your standard Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa-related fare. This winter solstice, consider pressing play on an alternative choice: a highbrow, well-made classic whose narrative may take place around the holidays, but isn’t explicitly a holiday story. Below, we’ve assembled a list of our eight favorite holiday-adjacent movies; perfect flicks to watch over a well-deserved winter break.
Catch Me If You Can
Arguably the King of Kinda Christmas Classics, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film features one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performances (he was robbed of the Oscar—yes, we said it!) along with a star-studded cast. Based on a true story, DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, Jr., a teenage scammer who forged checks all over the world and posed as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer, before his 18th birthday. Tom Hanks plays Carl Hanratty, a work-obsessed FBI agent hot on Abagnale’s trail. Each Christmas, the two end up connecting in some way—for better or for worse.
Buckle up, folks—we’re switching gears here. But director Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology horror film is an utter masterpiece, and deserves a seat at the classics table. Based upon four stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales, this movie received tons of awards (the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival among them) for a reason. Although each of the ghostly tales in Kwaidan are independent of one another, they’re all visually ornate and sprawling; this movie is less a series of terrifying horror stories and more a celebration of Japanese folklore. “The Woman of the Snow,” the second story in the anthology, is especially seasonal, taking place in the dead of winter.
The Last Waltz
Technically, this is a Thanksgiving movie. But it’s such a wonderful project that we felt compelled to include it. In 1976, Martin Scorsese followed the Canadian-American rock group The Band for their final farewell concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day. The documentary features priceless footage, done only as Scorsese can—and the concert is fantastic, too. More than a dozen special guests stormed the stage throughout the show, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, and Muddy Waters.
Stream The Last Waltz on Amazon Prime.
The holidays are utterly incomplete without some Cate Blanchett in the mix. Carol centers a forbidden love affair between Carol Aird (Blanchett) and shop-girl-slash-photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara)—the former of whom is going through a bitter divorce. Through their clandestine relationship, the two bond and fall deeply for one another. Elegant, restrained, and a lovely homage to 1950s cinema, this is the perfect film to watch right now.
Stream Carol on Amazon Prime.
Although at first blush, Edward Scissorhands may not seem like it qualifies as a Christmas film, we believe it belongs firmly in the holiday movie canon. Firstly, the visuals, audio, and overall mood of Tim Burton’s 1990 classic evokes the quiet, chilly mood of the holidays. Secondly, there are more than a few theories that Edward Scissorhands’ personal story is based loosely upon the life and death of Jesus Christ (both were born under miraculous circumstances, grew to be kind and giving, and were abused by those who feared them; plus, both Jesus and Edward were believed to experience eternal life). And third—simply put, it’s a real mood to watch this movie in December.
Watch Edward Scissorhands on Disney+.
This year, you may have heard much fanfare about Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in the Irish Oscar contender, The Banshees of Inisherin. But back in 2008, the two lauded actors were known for a completely different project: In Bruges, directed by Martin McDonagh and also starring Clémence Poésy. In the black-comedy-slash-crime-drama, Farrell plays Ray, a hitman whose latest assignment goes horribly wrong. With his business partner, Ken (Gleeson), Ray escapes to Bruges, Belgium, where they await further instructions from their boss. The guilt-stricken Ray’s weary mood stands in stark contrast to beautiful Christmastime in Bruges, where churches are lit by hundreds of candles, trees are trimmed with golden ornamentation, and families share lots of good cheer.
Watch In Bruges on Amazon Prime.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Much argument has taken place over whether Kiss Kiss Bang Bang qualifies as an actual holiday film. We are here to say that it is—just because the movie takes place at Christmastime in sunny Los Angeles (where the temperatures rarely dip below 50 degrees) doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate to put on. In fact, if you’re in L.A. during the holidays, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang constitutes the ultimate Hollywood holiday tale: Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) stumbles into an audition for a mystery film while on the run from the cops—and he wins the part.
Our final pick is absolutely, without a doubt, a bonafide holiday film. Bill Murray is so fabulous in this 1988 reimagining of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” we had to add it to the list.
Watch Scrooged on Amazon Prime.