Better Than the Yule Log: 12 Less-Than-Traditional Christmas Tales

Johnny Depp in ‘Edward Scissorhands’/Photo © Twentieth Century Fox
Johnny Depp in ‘Edward Scissorhands’/Photo © Twentieth Century Fox

If yet-another showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes you reach for the spiked eggnog -- or the remote -- take heart: Signature has found twelve unconventional Christmas flicks that can satisfy your wish for laughs, action, or romance ... and that might even put you in a holiday mood.

"The Ref" (1994)

Possibly the only movie where characters bicker while wearing candlelit wreaths on their heads, "The Ref" turns a burglar (Denis Leary) into an unlikely mediator after his getaway driver strands him on Christmas Eve with a fractured married couple as hostages. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis play the spouses, whose relatives drop by during the dark shenanigans. Critics praised the sharp script, and Rolling Stone called Spacey and Davis “combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense.”

"Die Hard" (1988)

Empire magazine readers in 2010 voted this their favorite Christmas movie. This summer blockbuster that launched Bruce Willis as an action hero does, in fact, take place on Christmas Eve as New York police officer John McClane stumbles upon a hostage takeover while trying to reconcile with his estranged wife. Based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, "Die Hard" boasts great action sequences as well as amusing use of holiday trimmings: "Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho."

"Bad Santa" (2003)

Writer/director Terry Zwigoff created this twisted comedy featuring Billy Bob Thornton as the drunk, foul-mouthed, hedonistic curmudgeon Willie T. Stokes, who works as a mall Santa each year in order to rob the mall after hours. His plans -- and red-suited behavior that inspires years’ worth of coal -- change in spite of himself once he meets an outcast of a little boy. Critics called it demented, yes, but also a hoot.

"About a Boy" (2002)

Roger Ebert called this “a comedy of confidence and grace.” It follows Will Freeman (Hugh Grant), who lives comfortably off royalties from his late father’s hit Christmas song, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” After the childless Will cruises for dates in a single-parent support group, he meets twelve-year-old Marcus, who sees through his façade. The two embark on an unlikely friendship while Will enters more uncharted territory: wooing Rachel Weisz.

"Edward Scissorhands" (1990)

When her granddaughter asks where snow comes from, an old woman spins a bedtime story about a gentle young man named Edward (Johnny Depp), whose inventor’s untimely death left him with scissors for hands. Most of this Tim Burton-helmed tale follows the misunderstood Edward through sunny suburbia, but it hits its emotional stride around Christmas, when Edward creates the effect of falling snow while carving an angel in ice. You’d have to be really hard-hearted not to get teary by the finale.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)

Directed by Henry Selick, this stop-motion animated musical treat introduces Jack Skellington, the king of Halloweentown, who becomes enchanted by the electric lights, delicious smells, and good cheer of neighboring Christmastown. “There are children throwing snowballs here instead of throwing heads,” he marvels. Jack decides to take over Christmas without quite understanding the concept, resulting in the kidnapping of “Sandy Claws” and plenty of tricks before the holidays return to rights.

"Home Alone" (1990)

Parents might cringe over the machinations that leave eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) by himself at Christmas when he misses his family’s flight to Paris. But kids of a certain age still get a kick out of Kevin fending for himself, especially when he foils two burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) in the slapstick fashion of Looney Tunes cartoons. Bonus points for using The Drifters’ “White Christmas.”

"Scrooged" (1988)

Bill Murray plays cynical television executive Frank Cross, who receives a sobering look at his life from three ghosts while producing a live broadcast of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Karen Allen, John Forsythe, and Carol Kane (as the Ghost of Christmas Present) are all good, but this is Murray’s show, with wry humor that rings oh-so-true: “It's Christmas Eve!” he says. “It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!”

"The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992)

The second Dickens adaptation on our list sounds like the wackiest, with Gonzo quoting Dickens, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, wise-aleck rats as bookkeepers (“Our assets are frozen!”), and an additional dead business partner named Marley so they can be played by hecklers Statler and Waldorf. Yet the wonderful Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge keeps it grounded with an affecting performance and convincing redemption.

"Elf" (2003)

A fairly recent entry in the wealth of Christmas movies, this tale of a human named Buddy who was raised as an elf at the North Pole and sets out to meet his biological father deftly mixes comedy and heart. Even in tights, Will Ferrell radiates the earnestness and sincerity needed to pull this off, ably supported by Zooey Deschanel as a department-store elf, James Caan as his father, and Bob Newhart as Papa Elf.

"A Christmas Story" (1983)

Hard to believe this twenty-four-hour Christmas Eve cable-TV staple received less-than-favorable reviews upon its release. Based on Jean Shepherd’s novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, this series of 1940s vignettes connect through young Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The affection it inspires comes from its incredible quotability (“Fra-geel-ay… Must be Italian!”), as well as the relatable scenarios and characters played by Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin.

"Christmas Vacation" (1989)

This screwball comedy has been called a modern Christmas classic, albeit one with PG-13 profanity and humor. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) lands in one mishap after another as he pursues a good, old-fashioned family Christmas. From a wrapped Jell-O mold to an electrocuted cat to cousin Randy Quaid emptying a chemical toilet in his bathrobe, it’s absurd, hilarious -- and sprinkled with just enough sentiment to be oddly uplifting.