20 offbeat Christmas movies for streaming Credit: Disney

20 offbeat Christmas movies for streaming

The holiday season brings with it many traditions, including the tradition of Christmas-themed movies. We love to watch our favorites again and again (like those on this Best Christmas movies list) to try and recapture what we love about the holidays.

But what if you’ve just seen those classics too many times? What if you can’t stand another feelgood moment in a movie? Sometimes you just need something a bit edgier, and outside the box. Here are 20 streaming movies that promise a little bit of Christmas, but also a bit of horror, comedy, tragedy, darkness, or other forms of subversive expression.

The Night of the Hunter

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

1 christmas2 nightofthehunter United Artists/Criterion Collection

★★★★★

The weird, atmospheric, masterful The Night of the Hunter (1955) was the only film directed by the great hammy actor Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum gives one of the cinema’s greatest performances as an evil preacher—with “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles—hunting for a young boy and girl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) who know the secret location of a stash of stolen loot.

Shelley Winters plays the children’s widowed mother, falling for the preacher’s sinister charms, and silent-era star Lillian Gish plays an angelic old lady who shelters the children. It has the feel of a great Biblical story, ethereal and unreal, with a Christmas finale truly worth seeing. Screenwriter James Agee and cinematographer Stanley Cortez contribute to a shocking, shadowy world of fairy tale horrors. The film flopped, and Laughton never directed again; only decades later has it begun to find its place as an American classic.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

(Hulu)

2 christmas2 onhermajestyssecretservice MGM/UA

★★★★☆

What could be more Christmasy than James Bond? Probably a lot of things, really, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) still makes perfect holiday viewing for those not in the mood for candy canes and elves. It’s one of the most controversial of all the Bond films; many fans agree that it’s arguably the best of all the Ian Fleming novels, and would almost be among the best of the movies, if not for the casting of George Lazenby, who replaced Sean Connery and failed to live up to Connery’s incredible star power.

Lazenby was more of a male model than an actor, but the film doesn’t suffer that much, and its December-set story and Christmasy background give it a great seasonal touch. In it, Bond battles Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and gets married (!) to Countess Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). Pop singer Nina even provides a weird, very 1960s-sounding Christmas song, “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”

Black Christmas

(Shudder, Hoopla)

3 christmas2 blackchristmas Warner Bros./Shout! Factory

Plenty of people love Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983), with its tale of Ralphie and the Red Ryder air rifle, but relatively few of them know that he also directed Black Christmas (1974), a movie that historians agree beat Halloween (1978) by four years as the first real slasher film. But don’t let the sight of a little blood turn you off—Black Christmas is actually extremely well made, with a great cast and fine performances, riveting suspense, a clever mystery story, and a special, spooky, snow-cloaked nighttime atmosphere dotted by colored lights.

It knows when to be quiet and when to pour on the horror. Margot Kidder (Superman) and Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet) star as two among a house of sorority sisters, who are hassled by creepy phone calls. Meanwhile, an unknown killer suffocates them, one by one, with plastic bags. Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) plays a clueless boyfriend, and the great John Saxon plays a police lieutenant.

Ernest Saves Christmas

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

4 christmas2 ernestsaveschristmas Touchstone

★★★☆☆

Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell character started on various 1980s TV commercials, speaking to the always-unseen “Vern,” and it seems like an awfully callous, Scrooge-like idea to shove him into several 90-minute low-budget movies, cashing in on a quickie trend. But the surprise is that Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) is, well… earnest and quite likable.

Ernest is a doofus, prone to slapstick-flavored accidents, but he is a good person who genuinely loves Christmas and wants to help people. He’s also an odd master of disguise, pulling off all kinds of weird characters, like a snake charmer and a bitter old lady. The plot has something to do with the real Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) looking for his replacement with time running out; his pick is recently laid-off children’s TV show host Joe (Oliver Clark). The plot arc is very slight, so whenever the movie needs a transition, it cuts to a running joke where two confused shipping clerks try to figure out what to do with eight flying reindeer.

Die Hard 2 

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

5 christmas2 diehard2 Twentieth Century Fox

★★★★☆

So everyone knows that Die Hard (1988) is a Christmas classic, but fewer harbor as much love for its sequel, Die Hard 2 (1990), which once again pits John McClane (Bruce Willis) against terrorists at Christmastime. (There’s just something about this guy and the holidays…) The setup isn’t quite as clever, but it’s still pretty riveting, and it led film critic Gene Siskel to name the film as one of the 10 best of the year!

On Christmas Eve, McClane shows up at the airport to pick up his wife (Bonnie Bedelia), but unfortunately, bad guys have taken over the computers and her plane is forced to circle until it runs out of fuel, or until McClane can cook up one of his badass plans. Suffice to say there is a lot of gunfire and several explosions. William Atherton and Reginald VelJohnson return, as Dick and Sgt. Al Powell, respectively, from the first film. It was actually adapted from a novel by Walter Wager that had nothing to do with the first film. Director Renny Harlin went on to make another Christmas-themed film, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).

Batman Returns

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

6 christmas2 batmanreturns Warner Bros

★★★☆☆

After the enormous success of his re-darkened Batman (1989), director Tim Burton made it winter in Gotham City, and also Christmastime. This setting lends a strange air to the dark adventure as Batman (Michael Keaton) battles not one, not two, but three villains. In Batman Returns (1992), the Penguin (Danny DeVito) decides to run for mayor, Catwoman (an unforgettable Michelle Pfieffer) seeks revenge against her boss, and the mastermind is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).

Rather than going with a traditional, handsome bodybuilder, Burton cast Keaton for his ability to convey the inner turmoil that might cause a man to put on a bat suit, go out into the night, and fight criminals. Even with the cowl on, Keaton’s eyes are immensely powerful. Some fans objected to the overload of bad guys as well as the ending, but the nightmarishly powerful atmosphere, mood, and pace (and a great Batmobile) eventually win out. Best of all is the astonishing origin of the Penguin prologue, rendered without dialog and like a Viking funeral, co-starring the one and only Paul Reubens (shortly after his infamous scandal).

The Nightmare Before Christmas

(Netflix)

7 christmas2 nightmarebeforechristmas Disney

★★★★☆

Though Tim Burton often gets credit for the whole thing, he provided the story and characters, and produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), but Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) did the actual directing work on this stop-motion animated holiday hybrid. Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown. Stuck for spooky ideas for the Halloween celebration, he stumbles into the neighboring Christmas Town and steals some, putting horrific twists on them. Unfortunately, Santa gets kidnapped in the process and ends up in the hands of the villainous Oogie Boogie.

It’s a wicked concept that the movie somehow manages to keep light and funny. Danny Elfman’s songs are gleefully off-kilter, and the animation is particularly, stunningly detailed. The overall effect, a film that can be enjoyed at both Halloween and Christmas, can catch you off guard. Chris Sarandon provides Jack’s speaking voice, while Elfman sings. Catherine O’Hara and William Hickey provide other voices, and Patrick Stewart narrates. This completed Burton’s unofficial Christmas trilogy, after Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns (above).

Eyes Wide Shut

(Netflix)

8 christmas2 eyeswideshut Warner Bros

★★★★★

Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is still recovering from the lukewarm reception it received upon its original release. Many are now realizing that it is a masterpiece, and one of the director’s best and most mature films. The film is set in a dreamy, unreal, holiday-decorated New York and begins at a Christmas party. After being flirted with, tending to an overdosed, naked woman, and hearing a story about one of his wife’s fantasies, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) embarks upon a nighttime odyssey across the city, flirting with various ideas of infidelity and sex, until he reaches a forbidden masquerade party. (Everyone in the film relates to Harford in a physical, sexual way. The film is about sex, even if it’s not inherently sexy.)

Kubrick’s ingenious framing and movement is still startling, and the film works on many levels, intellectual and visceral. Nicole Kidman—married to Cruise at the time—is luminous as Bill’s wife Alice. Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Thomas Gibson, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, and Alan Cumming appear. Frederic Raphael wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, based on a short novel by Arthur Schnitzler. Netflix is offering the uncut version, with the infamous digital figures—designed to cover graphic sex acts—removed.

Catch Me If You Can

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

9 christmas2 catchmeifyoucan Dimension Films

★★★★☆

Steven Spielberg is good at two-fers, two big releases in one year, and 2002 gave us both Minority Report and the delightful Catch Me If You Can (2002). The latter is based on the life story of Frank Abagnale, who lived like a rock star cashing fake checks and posing as an airline pilot, evading capture for years. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank, boyish at first, but growing more and more worn-out as the chase goes on. And Tom Hanks is terrific, combining his comic and heartfelt traits as relentless FBI man Carl Hanratty, barking in a thick, east-coast accent.

As the years pass, Frank begins making annual Christmas phone calls to Carl, partly to taunt, but partly because Carl is the closest thing Frank has to a real friend; these moments are unfailingly touching. Spielberg directs with a large burst of comic energy, keeping everything moving and funny, but making it all feel right. Christopher Walken received an Oscar nomination for his great performance as Frank’s father (Spielberg is always moved by father-son relationships), and Amy Adams has one of her best early roles. John Williams’s upbeat score also received an Oscar nomination.

Morvern Callar

(Amazon Prime)

10 christmas2 morverncallar Cowboy Pictures/Palisades Pictures

★★★★★

One of the most downbeat Christmas movies ever made, Lynn Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (2002) nonetheless touches on a certain kind of sad beauty that movies very rarely achieve. Morvern (Samantha Morton) is a young Scottish woman who wakes up on Christmas morning to find that her boyfriend has committed suicide. He has left her some presents, including a mix tape called “Music for You” which becomes the soundtrack for the film (including tunes by Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Ween, The Velvet Underground, and The Mamas and the Papas).

He has also left a finished manuscript with instructions on how to publish it. She erases his name, puts in her own, and submits it. She buries the body, takes the money he left for his funeral, and sets out on a road trip with her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). They flirt with boys, and Morvern ponders death. There are noisy moments, ugly moments, reflective moments, and lovely moments. Ramsey gives Morvern plenty of time to just be, including a scene at a dance club, with Morvern grinding to some alien beat, colored lights bouncing off her face, totally alone in a crowd. Morton is an extraordinary actor, with a face that reveals an open soul, and she’s mesmerizing. In spite of the dark material, this is a hopeful, beautiful film.

Bad Santa

(Netflix, Hulu)

11 christmas2 badsanta Dreamworks

★★★★★

Perhaps the funniest—and filthiest—Christmas movie ever made, the acclaimed filmmaker Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) holds nothing back in the outrageous Bad Santa (2003). Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie T. Soke (a character very much out of W.C. Fields), a drunken, foul-mouthed department store Santa and expert safe cracker; each year with his more sober, responsible, and also foul-mouthed partner Marcus (Tony Cox)—who plays an African-American elf with white plastic ears—they work all December taking wishes for kids and then robbing the store on Christmas Eve.

This year, Willie meets a hopeless doofus of a kid (Brett Kelly), a pretty barmaid with a “Santa” fetish (Lauren Graham), and a crafty store detective (Bernie Mac), who shake up their usual plans. This was the final film role for John Ritter, who is also hilarious as a meek store manager. Co-written, without credit, by Joel and Ethan Coen, this movie never forgets to deliver the laughs, even up to the climax. It’s a very satisfying balance between naughty and nice. Netflix and Hulu both offer the hit 91-minute theatrical cut, but there is also an 88-minute director’s cut, and a 98-minute “unrated” version. Avoid the ill-conceived sequel, Bad Santa 2 (2016).

Friday After Next

(Amazon Prime)

12 christmas2 fridayafternext New Line

★★★☆☆

The third in writer/star Ice Cube’s Friday trilogy, Friday After Next (2002) is a somewhat dark, perverse take on classic Christmas movies. It begins with an animated title sequence, recalling all those beloved old TV specials, but updated to the modern-day ‘hood. Then, we catch up with Craig Jones (Cube), a regular guy just trying to get by, perhaps not too terribly unlike George Bailey. A burglar dressed as Santa Claus breaks into the apartment shared by Craig and ne’er-do-well cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps) and steals their rent money.

If they don’t pay up, they will be evicted as well as pounded by the landlady’s son (Terry Crews). So they get jobs in a dingy, outdoor strip mall, which is filled with oddball characters and decorated for Christmas in a way that only emphasizes Los Angeles’s lack of snow. Eventually, the duo decides to throw a Christmas rent-party. Though it’s hardly brilliant, the movie manages to combine a smidgeon of holiday cheer (with some classic, soulful Christmas songs) with a bit of harsh, everyday realism (and hardcore hip-hop) in a way that’s effective and satisfying, like egg nog spiked with whiskey.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

(Amazon Prime)

13 christmas2 kisskissbangbang Warner Bros

★★★★☆

Screenwriter Shane Black has always loved to sprinkle Christmas into the background of his stories (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, etc.), and when he came to make his directorial debut, he of course set his unlikely detective story against a festive holiday backdrop. Robert Downey Jr. stars in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) as Harry Lockhart, a two-bit criminal who escapes the law by ducking into an acting audition—and nails it.

He is sent to Los Angeles and to detective “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer), who specializes in teaching actors sleuthing skills. Harry also runs into childhood friend Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), now a struggling actress herself. There’s a murder mystery too, but the movie is more like a wink-wink pastiche of every detective story ever made. (The movie has “chapters” that are named after Raymond Chandler stories.) Things seem familiar, even if they don’t always make sense. The crazy characters and the silly, fancy, chatterbox way they talk is the true draw here, along with the holiday setting that feels both cheerful and dangerous. Shannyn Sossamon appears as the girl with the pink hair.

A Christmas Tale

(Hulu, TubiTV, FilmStruck, Sundance Now)

14 christmas2 achristmastale IFC/Criterion Collection

★★★★☆

With A Christmas Tale (2008), aka Un conte de Noël, French director Arnaud Desplechin offers one of the most complex of all dysfunctional family holidays. It begins as Junon (Catherine Denueve), recently diagnosed with leukemia, assembles her entire family for a holiday gathering. Everyone there has his or her own emotional struggles, as well as some kind of conflict with at least one other person present. There are tragic pasts, nervous breakdowns, and characters bringing new girlfriends into the chaos.

Desplechin’s approach is far from linear, as things seem to start heading down one road, then double back and start again, all over the course of 152 minutes. But this approach creates a very lovingly messy, truthful portrait of something like life. It helps that the huge house allows characters plenty of space to duck away and hide, smoke, or read privately; the quiet gives respite from the misery. And, in spite of all the heavy suffering, the movie has plenty of charm and is worth cherishing. Mathieu Amalric, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, and Denueve’s real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni are also among the French-speaking cast. (With English subtitles.)

The Merry Gentleman

(Hulu, TubiTV)

15 christmas2 merrygentleman Samuel Goldwyn Films

★★★★☆

After several huge successes in the 1980s and 1990s, and before his re-emergence in Birdman, Michael Keaton’s star began to fall. During that time, he made his directorial debut, and though barely anyone noticed, it’s an accomplished character study, set over the Christmas holidays. The Merry Gentleman (2008) touches upon the way that people connect (or do not connect) on different levels, physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Keaton plays Frank Logan, a hitman who also works as a tailor, well-dressed and a man of few words. Kelly Macdonald plays Kate, who arrives in Chicago after escaping an abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale).

Kate and Frank meet when a Christmas tree falls on her, and they form a strange friendship. Kate is an object of desire for many men around her—and the object of women’s jealousy—so she is drawn to Frank, who remains the only one that doesn’t ask anything of her. When he comes down with pneumonia, she spends Christmas with him in the hospital; he has no family and she wants no part of hers. Of course, the violence is destined to re-emerge eventually, and Keaton ends the film a little on the ambiguous side, but all in all, this is accomplished filmmaking.

Happy Christmas

(Hulu, Vudu free w/ ads)

16 christmas2 happychristmas Magnolia Pictures

★★★★☆

A member of the so-called “mumblecore movement,” writer/director Joe Swanberg gives us this off-kilter Christmas movie, in which characters seem to be forming their thoughts as they go, rather than speaking completed dialogue. Swanberg stars in Happy Christmas (2014) as new father Jeff (his real-life baby Jude plays the movie baby). His wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, who gets to keep her New Zealand accent) is getting antsy and wants to return to her writing career. Meanwhile, his sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), has just gone through a breakup and comes to stay for Christmas.

Jenny immediately embarks upon a lifestyle of late night carousing and drinking, and her general lack of responsibilities makes it even worse for Kelly. Jeff rents Kelly an office in which to write, and Jenny begins hanging out with her, encouraging her to write an erotic novel. The low-key movie, shot in Swanberg’s house (complete with a tiki lounge in the basement) is Christmasy in only a background way—with chilly weather, parties and decorations—but the characters are realistic and involving. Lena Dunham co-stars as Kelly’s wisecracking pal.

Carol

(Netflix)

17 christmas2 carol The Weinstein Co

★★★★☆

Todd Haynes directs this glittering adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt, which was published in 1952, after her Strangers on a Train, under a pseudonym. Its passionate story of a love affair between women could have brought her serious trouble in the day, but now Haynes gives it the high-class treatment it deserves. At Christmastime, Therese (Rooney Mara) works in the toy section of a New York department store. Carol (Cate Blanchett) comes in to buy a gift for her daughter, and Therese can hardly take her eyes from the glamorous woman.

Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese returns them, and they begin a passionate, adoring, but tentative relationship. But soon, Carol’s husband is threatening divorce, and threatening to take their child away. Haynes doesn’t quite dig as deeply into Carol (2015) as he did with previous films like Far from Heaven (also set at Christmastime) but everything still clicks perfectly into place. Carter Burwell’s score is glorious, Edward Lachman’s cinematography is lush and rich, the holiday decorations are positively dreamy, and barely a thing could be improved upon. It received six Oscar nominations, but went away emptyhanded.

Krampus

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

18 christmas2 krampus Universal Pictures

★★★★☆

The idea of a killer Santa Claus has been used before, from standard serial killers to more supernatural creatures, but rarely has the idea been used so well. The surprisingly good holiday horror Krampus (2015) starts with a little holiday shopping department-store mayhem in slow-motion, before turning to young Max (Emjay Anthony), who still believes in Santa. But after a stressful season, and some teasing from his mean cousins, he tearfully rips up his letter to St. Nick and throws it out the window, an act that summons the evil Christmas demon.

It’s up to his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) and annoying relatives (David Koechner and Allison Tolman), as well as his knowing grandmother (Krista Stadler), to try to save the day. Dougherty includes practical monster effects that seem far more realistic than computer-generated ones, using snow and darkness and a sinister chime-and-bell score to heighten the terror. Surprisingly, the movie also has its share of laughs without betraying the scares, and has more than it share of heart—and genuine holiday cheer—in spite of its unforgettable ending. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty also made the Halloween cult classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007).

The Night Before

(Rental - Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

19 christmas2 nightbefore Columbia Pictures

★★★☆☆

A trailer featuring best buddies Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie) tapping out Kanye West’s “Runaway” on the big floor piano in a New York City department store made Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before (2015) look like it was going to be a lot more amazing than it is, but it’s still worth a holiday viewing.

Years before, Ethan lost his parents right before Christmas and the other two took him out for a Christmas Eve night of debauchery and friendship. That evolved into an annual tradition, including bad sweaters and the search for an elusive, super-secret party, the Nutcracker Ball. This will be the final year, since real life has begun to intrude, and they are determined to make it to the party. The character arcs are a little thin, and the jokes never quite fully take off, but there’s a definite warmth and chemistry between the three pals; they love Christmas and they love each other. (Rogen and Gordon-Levitt had already bonded in Levine’s earlier 50/50.) Michael Shannon helps things immensely as a mysterious drug dealer who arrives by way of Dickens and Capra.

Better Watch Out

(Shudder)

20 christmas2 betterwatchout Well Go USA

★★★☆☆

Just when it seemed as if nothing more could be done in the subgenre of Christmas horror films, Chris Peckover’s clever, fun Better Watch Out (2017), which just began streaming exclusively on Shudder, displays enough bright ideas that it earned a surprising “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 12 year-old Luke (Levi Miller) is in love with his pretty 17-year-old babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). When his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) go out for the evening, Luke sets out trying to win Ashley, which includes popping a bottle of champagne, snuggling while watching scary movies, and protecting her from a scary masked intruder.

The movie starts with an almost ridiculous amount of cheery Christmas lights and decorations (Warburton is particularly proud of his loud holiday tie), as well as a hilarious opening line. All of it grows steadily darker as—ahem—other colors begin to take over the film’s palette. It all takes place in a world where horror movies exist, and the characters are smarter as a result, but it also offers up a sinister twist on an old Home Alone staple, and includes plot turns that I did not see coming.

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