There are movies that are ABOUT Christmas, and then there are movies that FEEL like Christmas, even though they’re about other things. These are the non-Christmas Christmas movies—the films only adjacent to holiday dealings. For every Elf or Love Actually there’s a movie that imparts the vibes of Christmas in an indirect way. We asked The Ringer staff to submit their favorite entries in this subgenre—here’s what they came up with. (Note: Movies like Die Hard, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns were not included due to their Hall of Fame status … and because we’re tired of arguing whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
I mean, sure, this is a movie about a boy learning about his wizarding background and fighting off an archvillain who once killed his parents and attempted to kill him (said archvillain lives on the back of a stuttering man’s head, by the way). It is not a Christmas movie.
And yet! A three-minute stretch in Sorcerer’s Stone has so much holiday cheer that the whole movie is appropriate for Christmas viewing. There’s Hagrid dragging that massive pine tree through the snow toward Hogwarts; Harry and Ron wishing each other a “Happy Christmas” and opening gifts together. It’s a turning point for Harry—not only because one of his gifts is the invisibility cloak, but because it’s one of the first times in his entire life that he senses that he has a real family. The joy on his face when he realizes that he also has a gift from Mrs. Weasley—and his excitement compared to Ron’s nonchalance—is what the holidays are really all about. I don’t care what you say—Sorcerer’s Stone is a Christmas movie. —Andrew Gruttadaro
If we’re being honest, Carol might be too overtly Christmas-y to really belong on this list. There’s no overlooking its many holiday elements– beyond the name alone, there’s the classic holiday shopping meet-cute, choosing a tree amid flurries of snow, sexual tension while wrapping presents, and the famously festive clandestine glove lunch, all set against a muted red-and-green color palette in 1950s Manhattan. “We’re not ugly people, Harge,” Carol (Cate Blanchett) famously rages at her husband amid her love affair with Rooney Mara’s timid shopgirl—objectively true, and part of the reason the movie remains such a fun rewatch despite its melancholy tone. What more do we want, at Christmas, than to watch beautiful people in fabulous clothes fall in love? —Kate Halliwell
Mean Girls is ostensibly a movie about teens trying to navigate the social hierarchies of high school, but it’s also a poignant tale of how the stress of the holidays can forge new bonds—and shatter old ones.
Christmastime influences a large portion of the Mean Girls plot, including one especially pivotal scene. Yeah, you know the one: Cady, Regina, Gretchen, and Karen don skimpy red-and-white outfits and hit the talent show stage to perform a dance to “Jingle Bell Rock.” This two-minute sequence is important to the plot—Cady saves the day when the performance goes south, thus endearing herself to Regina and threatening Gretchen’s place in the clique—but it’s made iconic because of two reaction shots. First: Look at Cady’s dad’s face after a rather sexually explicit dance move.
And then, of course, there’s Regina’s mom (Amy Poehler), whose work with the camera even inspired a Kris Jenner cameo in an Ariana Grande music video.
But that’s not all. There’s also the secret story of how Gretchen got really expensive white-gold hoops for Hanukkah but Regina wouldn’t let her wear them, and the Candy Cane Gram incident in which Damian dresses up like Santa and delivers a fake message to Cady from Regina that says how much she values their friendship. (“And none for Gretchen Wieners. Bye!”)
All in all, Christmas is largely used as a device for shiftiness and subterfuge in this movie, which means Mean Girls pretty much gets the reason for the season. —Megan Schuster
Catch Me If You Can
Under normal circumstances, the holidays are about spending time with friends and family. But what if the former is in short supply and the latter is even more elusive? In Catch Me if You Can, FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) chases after Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenage con artist who alternately masquerades as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer and becomes a prolific paper hanger in the process (midcentury bureau speak for counterfeiter). The case is going nowhere fast when, one Christmas night, Hanratty gets a call in his office from Abagnale—and realizes it’s because the kid has no one else to call. Of course, Hanratty is just as alone as the criminal he’s working so hard to collar, and so begins their odd holiday tradition of chatting on Christmas. It all builds to Hanratty eventually getting his man in a tiny town in France—on December 25, naturally. “Merry Christmas!” Abagnale exclaims when Hanratty finds him as phony checks shoot out of a printing press and shower the room like snow. “How is it that we’re always talking on Christmas, Carl?” By then, they both know the answer. —John Gonzalez
The Apartment makes my short list of the best movies, period, so it was a cinch to appear on this specialized list. Billy Wilder’s 1960 dramedy/rom-com, which won five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), stars Jack Lemmon as Bud Baxter, a lowly insurance clerk who hopes to climb the corporate ladder by loaning out his apartment to facilitate his superiors’ affairs. Baxter is crushing on office elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), so he’s dismayed to discover that she’s one of the women his philandering boss has been taking to the apartment. Hijinks and deep, life-endangering depression ensue. The premise for the film would have worked at any time of year, but its festive Christmas–New Year’s backdrop provides the perfect contrast for its characters’ heartbreak. The movie makes time for some of the best Christmas traditions (decorations, office Christmas parties) as well as some of the worst (fruitcakes, also office Christmas parties). And while the story seems to have a happy ending—which makes it more appealing as a holiday watch—it doesn’t shy away from what for many are sad staples of the season: melancholy, loneliness, and a desperate desire for some kind of connection. —Ben Lindbergh
You don’t think Prometheus is a Christmas movie? Let me stop you right there with an image that’s, frankly, hornier than anything Aubrey Plaza does in Happiest Season:
Humans are allowed to celebrate Christmas in space, and besides, what is Prometheus if not the story of a bunch of scientists (wise men of their era) following a map in the stars (shout-out elaborate cave paintings) to a planet where an infertile woman has an inexplicable (OK, completely fucking horrifying) birth? I suppose in this convoluted metaphor that would make the Hentai-adjacent creature that emerges from Noomi Rapace the equivalent of Jesus Christ, but that wouldn’t be the strangest thing to come out of Ridley Scott’s mind as the Alien franchise made the startling pivot from “ruthless killing machines would like to hatch eggs in your chest in outer space” to “LOL what if the creators of our species hated us and looked like your average fan of the Joe Rogan Experience?” From the doomed crew of the Prometheus to you and yours, Merry Christmas, and make sure your eggnog doesn’t get spiked by Michael Fassbender. —Miles Surrey
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
I don’t know if this is my favorite Shane Black private-eye buddy comedy (choosing between Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys is like picking a favorite child, only harder), but it’s definitely the more Christmas-y of the two. And even then, the connection is tenuous—the series of events that leads Harry to Los Angeles begins with him stealing a Christmas present for his son, plus there’s Michelle Monaghan’s Santa’s little helper dress and the extremely fucked-up reindeer lady at the party.
It’s just a great movie. It’s clever and quippy enough to be titanically quotable, it has more adverb-based humor than any other film in the genre, and it reintroduced Robert Downey Jr. to Hollywood and set him on the path to becoming Iron Man. But more than anything, it’s a vehicle for Val Kilmer to insult RDJ relentlessly for an hour and 43 minutes. It turns out there is nothing in God’s creation funnier than watching Iceman, as the fast-talking, heavily sideburned, Mercedes-driving investigator Gay Perry, hurl florid invective at his costar: telling him what he’d find if he looked up “idiot” in the dictionary, questioning his ability to do fractions, and telling him about a talking monkey. (“Nasty sucker. Came here from the future. Only says, ‘Ficus.’”) There’s never a bad time to watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but Christmas is as good a time as any. —Michael Baumann
Iron Man 3
The far and away best non-Christmas Christmas movie ever made is, of course, a tentpole blockbuster. Iron Man 3, made by a small indie company called Marvel Studios, kicked off Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in May 2013. Helmed by MCU newcomer Shane Black, who is no stranger to non-Christmas Christmas movies, it takes a character and franchise we had gotten comfortable with and turns everything on its head. After just nearly avoiding death at the end of The Avengers, Tony Stark comes back and nothing is really the same. His near-death experience, mixed with the resurgence of old demons, forces Tony to reshape his relationships with Pepper and yes, himself and the Iron Man armor. Long gone is the man who felt his armor was the only shield the Earth needed against anyone that might harm her. When he takes the shrapnel out of his chest, it isn’t to say he isn’t Iron Man—it’s to say he will no longer be defined by Iron Man. The rest of the story holds up, too. Throw in the scene when every Iron Man suit imaginable comes through and you have a nearly perfect non-Christmas Christmas movie. You want to know how I know you agree with me? Because we’re connected. —Jomi Adeniran
So many classics have become associated with Goodfellas: “Gimme Shelter.” “Sunshine of Your Love.” “Layla,” of course. These tracks punctuate big, loud moments in a movie full of them, and help develop the Scorsese soundtrack aesthetic. But the song that backs the moment everything truly begins to go wrong isn’t by the Stones or Clapton, and it isn’t explosive, either. It’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the Darlene Love classic produced by Phil Spector. It plays softly as Jimmy’s paranoia over the fallout from the Lufthansa Heist grows—by this point, he’s basically the Grinch, taking the mink coat off the back of one wiseguy’s wife and ordering another to return his brand-new Cadillac.
It’s subtle—zone out for a moment and you’ll miss it—but “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” remains a perfect choice for the scene. My colleague Chris Ryan wrote beautifully in 2014 about why the song is so resonant: It captures heartbreak and triumph at the same time. (More recently, another colleague, Rob Harvilla, broke down the song extensively while deconstructing Mariah Carey and Christmas music on 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s.) It’s a song about being so close to what you want and yet so far away. For Darlene Love, that thing she wants is her man. For Jimmy and his crew, it’s something else entirely. But in both situations, it’s not like Christmas at all, even as the snow’s coming down. —Justin Sayles