15 unconventional and off-kilter holiday movies

These seasonal movies and TV episodes buck traditional story lines and emphasize naughty over nice.

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Are you feeling naughty or nice this season?

We all know that there are two kinds of holiday entertainment: The kind you watch with your parents (or kids) and the kind you do not watch with your parents (or kids).

It’s that time of year again, and we're starting things right, with an all-new list of 15 slightly off-beat, slightly irreverent streaming holiday films and/or TV specials to help get you into the spirit; these have a little more emphasis on the “naughty” side and less on the “nice.” (For more suggestions, see our list from last year.)

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A Christmas Horror Story (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)


This horror-holiday hybrid of four short, scary stories is actually quite clever and bloody fun. William Shatner stars as a radio DJ, pulling a double shift on Christmas Eve and overseeing all the tales; he starts drinking eggnog laced with whisky, and then switches to straight whisky. The first story involves a documentary crew investigating a year-old murder, and the second starts with a trip into a forbidden woods to find the perfect Christmas tree. In the third, Santa Claus himself must defend his workshop against an army of zombie elves (“no elves were harmed during the making of this production,” the credits inform us).

Finally, following a car accident, a family finds themselves on the run from the evil Christmas spirit known as Krampus. Unlike many horror anthologies, A Christmas Horror Story (2015) doesn’t really have a weak link; all the segments pack the same sinister punch, all with impressive uses of colors, especially red. The solid editing cuts back and forth between stories at perfect moments, leaving cliffhangers, but without leaving holes in the plots. A few grim little Christmas tunes are a delight, but at the end of the day, it’s Shatner who steals the show.

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The Curse of the Cat People (Warner Archive)


What on earth does The Curse of the Cat People (1944) have to do with Christmas? Quite a lot. In 1942, RKO hired genius producer Val Lewton to make a “B” horror film called Cat People; he did, and he made it with uncommon grace and intelligence, and it was a huge hit. So the studio ordered a sequel. But Lewton did not want to make a sequel, so instead he came up with this incredible, sympathetic story of child psychology. The hero (Kent Smith) from the original film is now re-married and has a daughter, Amy (Ann Carter).

It’s Christmastime, and Amy has quite an imagination; so vivid that she even “imagines” seeing her father’s dead first wife, Irena (Simone Simon), the “cat woman” of the original movie. Her father has no patience for this nonsense and eventually he causes Amy to run away from home in a snowstorm. Future Oscar-winner Robert Wise made his directorial debut here, taking over from Gunther von Fritsch (fired for being too slow on a low-budget shoot), and he creates an adult story about a child, as well as a suburban wonderland, full of snow, beautiful decorations, and ghostly and spooky things.

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Gremlins (Amazon Prime)


Most fans of Gremlins (1984) know not to show it to children—or anyone—who believes in Santa Claus, because of the infamous monologue about a man trapped and expiring inside a chimney. Otherwise, it’s a gleeful, wicked comedy, bouncing back and forth between classic monster movies and Chuck Jones cartoons. Small town bank clerk Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) gets a “mogwai” named “Gizmo” for a Christmas present from his crackpot inventor father (Hoyt Axton); it comes with three rules, all of which are quickly broken. (Although, to be fair, how can you not eat “after midnight,” if it’s always after midnight, somewhere?)

Billy and his crush Kate (Phoebe Cates) must try to stop the ensuing chaos. Director Joe Dante is a master of ridiculing ludicrous human behavior underneath his zany, visual effects-laden stories, and this was one of the few times his work caught on with audiences (thanks in large part to Steven Spielberg’s name on the film as producer). Dante regular Dick Miller co-stars as local man Murray Futterman. Corey Feldman and Judge Reinhold also appear, and comedian Howie Mandel provides the voice of Gizmo.

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Iron Man 3 (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)


Screenwriter-turned-director Shane Black, best known for Lethal Weapon, includes Christmas in everything he writes; he once said that he loves the way the traditional idea of the holiday clashes with big city life, especially snowless cities like Los Angeles. His screenplays are usually full of clever contradictions, and different, often humorous ways of approaching and/or deconstructing the traditional action genre. After working with Robert Downey Jr. on the outstanding Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also a good Christmas movie), he was hired on to this superhero sequel, which became the most successful film of the Avengers franchise, after the two Avengers films.

His Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is shell-shocked after the events of The Avengers, and must face a villain called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who may not be quite what he appears to be. Additionally, Black plays around with the idea of shells, armors, disguises, and what they hide and what they reveal. Tony’s suit goes on and comes off several times during the story, and the movie climaxes with an intensely clever—and conspicuously telling—battle scene, populated by empty suits. Meanwhile, colored lights and holiday tinsel stand in for explosions. Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and original Iron Man director Jon Favreau co-star.

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Jingle Bell Rocks! (Fandor)


With this documentary, director Mitchell Kezin attempts to reconcile his obsessive love for Christmas music by interviewing several musicians and collectors and exploring this unexpectedly expansive subculture. Jingle Bell Rocks! (2013) isn’t just about Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley tunes; it goes much further into the bizarre, and sometimes depressing, such as Nat “King” Cole’s “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” Reverend Run talks about Run-DMC’s great “Christmas in Hollis,” as well as its inspiration, Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips discusses his beautiful song “A Change at Christmas.”

Meanwhile, filmmaker John Waters—who put together his own 2004 CD of strange Christmas music—is interviewed, as well as friends and colleagues of Kezin, many of whom spend countless hours putting together Christmas mix tapes to give out each year. But rather than making fun of odd and earnest attempts at musical holiday moods, Kezin’s movie turns bravely open and personal, exploring more deep-seated reasons for this obsession. In the end, the movie will surely inspire you to take a trip to the local record store (or Goodwill) to dig for yuletide treasures.

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Just Friends (Netflix)


This romantic comedy from director Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions, The Sweetest Thing) is, at best, a guilty pleasure, but its trio of stars work like gangbusters to keep up the energy and keep it from settling into the screenplays’ predictable, three-act romantic rut. In high school, Chris (Ryan Reynolds, in a latex “fat suit”) is in love with cute Jamie (Amy Smart), but when everything goes south, he disappears. A decade later, he has remade himself into a callous, chiseled representative of the music business, an expert at one-night stands.

At Christmastime, after acquiring a new pop sensation, Samantha James (Anna Faris), their plane bound for Paris is forced down in New Jersey, and Chris finds himself home for the holidays for the first time in years, with a second chance to be with Jamie. But he doesn’t know whether to be “sensitive” or “scoundrel.” Reynolds puts on his best cynical, snappy patter (the kind that would later win fans over in Deadpool) and keeps an edge when the script gets flabby. But the real treasure in Just Friends (2005) is Faris, ditzy and monstrous, swinging wildly from earnest to insane, and earning fresh laughs every time.

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Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus (Amazon Prime)


For viewers unaware of this brilliant TV series, which ran from 1988 to 1999, a little explanation is in order. A man (here played by Michael J. Nelson) is exiled to a satellite in space, where he and two robots (Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy) are forced to watch bad movies; their silhouettes are seen at the bottom of the screen, and they talk over the film and make funny comments. Occasionally, they take a break from the film for silly little sketches.

For this special Christmas episode, they take on an absolutely abysmal, bottom-shelf movie, Santa Claus (1959), produced in Mexico, about Santa in a battle with none other than the Devil. By itself, the movie is nearly unwatchable (though it apparently is shown regularly on television both in the U.S. and Mexico throughout the holiday season), but with the comedy commentary, Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus (1993) becomes a hysterical way to add some cheer to the holidays. “A pentagram, and reindeer laughing. You figure it out.”

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National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)


Chevy Chase’s accident-prone family man Clark W. Griswold had appeared in two other Vacation movies before staying at home in this holiday comedy sequel, and it became the second-biggest hit of all the National Lampoon films (after Animal House). (John Hughes wrote the screenplay.) In National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Clark agrees to host a big family Christmas while waiting for his Christmas bonus to come in; he wants to use it to pay for a swimming pool.

His brother-in-law Eddie (Randy Quaid) causes no end of embarrassment, and there are excessive holiday lights, rodents in trees, dry turkeys, and a kidnapping, as well as a memorable use of Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas Song).” Beverly D’Angelo is game as ever as Clark’s long-suffering, but loving wife Ellen, young Juliette Lewis plays daughter Audrey, Oscar-nominee William Hickey is the toupe-wearing Uncle Lewis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a yuppie neighbor, Brian Doyle-Murray is Clark’s heartless boss, and legendary voice actress Mae Questel (Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) is Aunt Bethany.

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Nothing Like the Holidays (Hoopla)


A great cast fills out this Christmas gathering of a huge, messy, aggravating, and loving Puerto Rican family. Nothing Like the Holidays (2008) is another guilty pleasure, one that deals directly in dreary soap opera mechanics, but also one that sidesteps them deftly with warmth and personality. Dad (Alfred Molina), who happily runs the family store, and mom (Elizabeth Pena), who cooks and pesters her offspring for grandchildren, are the hosts at their home in Chicago.

The grown children start to arrive. Buttoned-up and bespectacled Mauricio (John Leguizamo) comes from New York with his skinny, white wife Sarah (Debra Messing), the sexy, struggling actress Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) travels from Hollywood, and the family pride, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), flies home scarred but intact from Iraq. An uncouth cousin (Luis Guzman) shows up, as does Jesse’s former flame (Melonie Diaz). Someone wants a divorce, someone has cancer, etc. There are arguments and tears, but somehow, director Alfredo De Villa roots it all in something genuinely, emotionally tangled and wonderful, and it emerges as something closer to life than to soap.

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Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (Netflix)


Pee-wee Herman’s weird, wonderful kids’ show, which ran from 1986 to 1990, was unlike anything else; it entertained children but it also provided a subversive look at the world that has inspired a cult following as well as college papers and think-pieces. His Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (1988) is no different. It takes place during the Christmas season as Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) begins making out a gargantuan list of toys and things he wants from Santa Claus. When the big night comes, Santa informs him that he hasn’t any toys left for anyone else, and Pee-wee must make a hard choice.

Meanwhile, friends drop by all bearing the same gift: fruit cake. Featuring an almost comically brilliant roster of guests, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Little Richard, Cher, Charo, k.d. lang, the Del Rubio triplets, and Grace Jones, the show goes off in every conceivable direction, with a little Hanukkah, a little “Feliz Navidad,” and a classic Christmas cartoon. As ever, future Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne plays Cowboy Curtis. You could take a picture, but it wouldn’t last longer than this amazing show.

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Scrooged (Netflix)


When Richard Donner’s Scrooged (1988) was released—a year after Donner’s hit action movie Lethal Weapon—critics complained that it was violent, misguided, and sour. Saner heads have prevailed in more recent years, and Bill Murray’s take on Ebenezer Scrooge has become a holiday favorite for many. He plays a cynical TV executive, Frank Cross, who orders a very expensive, live, all-star Christmas Eve broadcast of a production of Dickens’s Scrooge, requiring thousands of people to work over the holiday.

Frank is mean to everyone, including secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) and underling Elliot (Bobcat Goldthwait) but soon he’s visited by three ghosts, including a taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) and a toaster-wielding Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane). He also gets help from an old girlfriend, the altruistic Claire (Karen Allen). This deluxe, prickly, glistening production takes a few short cuts, but it’s long on wicked laughs, and Murray’s transformation into a genuine human being is truly touching. The legendary Robert Mitchum co-stars, and the equally legendary Miles Davis can be seen as a street musician. (See also: Netflix’s A Very Murray Christmas.)

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Tangerine (Netflix)


This remarkable film rolled out of Sundance, riding a wave of hype about how it had been filmed entirely on three iPhone 5s smartphones (using certain apps, special lenses, and a steadicam mount). But watching Tangerine (2015), it becomes easy to forget about gimmicks and focus on its vivid characters. It’s Christmas Eve in Hollywood, but of course, there’s no snow, and the film’s color scheme is more orange and pink than red and green. Two transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), are chatting over a donut.

Sin-Dee has just been released from prison and has now learned that her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone), has cheated on her with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Thus begins a daylong odyssey across the city to find both the cheater and the girl. They pause for Alexandra’s “show” at a seedy club, and we occasionally follow Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who would rather engage Sin-Dee’s services than spend the holiday with his family. Director Sean Baker, who also made the excellent Starlet, creates a strong sense of community, with characters becoming very much a part of the space they occupy, as well as a touching lack of judgment toward their not-so-wholesome activities. The surprisingly touching conclusion elevates it to memorable alternative holiday viewing.

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A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (Amazon Prime/Vudu: Rental)


Like Clark W. Griswold, these two comic doofuses return for a third movie during the Christmas season. In A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011), Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are now estranged. Harold is married and making a go of being a suburban family man. His intimidating father-in-law (Danny Trejo) comes to visit, bringing a beloved family Christmas tree. Meanwhile, Kumar is getting over being dumped and is still living in a dump, smoking pot every day. A mysterious gift brings the boys back together, but results in the tree being burned down. So they must go on a comic odyssey into New York City on Christmas Eve night, find a replacement tree, and get it home before the family returns from midnight mass.

The comedy is rude and broad, but tightly constructed and hilarious; it helps that the movie occasionally veers into non-reality (including a stop-motion animated Christmas Special sequence), loosening the rules a bit, while Harold and Kumar remain at the center, constantly amused and amazed. And yet, it winds up showing a good spirit. Of course, Neil Patrick Harris returns as himself, putting on a spectacular Christmas pageant, and Patton Oswalt appears as a cheerful drug dealer with seasonal weed. The movie was originally presented in 3D, adding to its wild sense of holiday abandon. Sign me up for a “Wafflebot” this Christmas!

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A Very Murray Christmas (Netflix)


Director Sofia Coppola certainly has her share of detractors, perhaps because of her genes or her gender or both, but she’s one of the best filmmakers working today, and she applies her dreamy, dewy outlook to this traditional Christmas special turned sideways. A Netflix original, A Very Murray Christmas (2015) runs only an hour, and it’s occasionally slow, but it has a great deal of warmth. Its focus is more on heartfelt performances than on polished ones, and it has an appealingly relaxed, quiet pace that makes it a perfect antidote for a frenetic holiday season.

Bill Murray, star of Coppola’s masterpiece Lost in Translation, plays himself, preparing to put on a live Christmas special on Christmas Eve at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, but shut down by a snowstorm. So Murray, pianist Paul Shaffer, and several guests gather in the bar for a laid-back, loose, impromptu special of their own, with Murray crooning, “Nick the Lounge Singer”-style, on several classics. Chris Rock, David Johansen, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, and Jenny Lewis sing, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus appear in a dream sequence, and Amy Poehler, Julie White, Dimitri Dimitrov, and Michael Cera turn in funny little appearances. The French band Phoenix (whose lead singer is Coppola’s husband) appear as hotel chefs and also perform.

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The X-Files: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (Hulu)

Many “very special Christmas episodes” of TV shows don’t hold up well, either because the show has become dated, or because the events fall rigidly within a certain storyline, but I love this 1998 episode of The X-Files. It strikes me as spookily simple, allowing time to reflect on the meaning of the season, as well as memorably touching. Written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, The X-Files: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (1998) is a self-contained “Monster-of-the-Week” episode, and does not require viewers to remember what was going on in the show’s regular mythology.

On Christmas Eve, Agent Mulder (David Duchovny) calls his partner Scully (Gillian Anderson), ruining her Christmas plans by asking her to help him check out a creepy house, supposedly haunted annually by a couple who carried out a suicide pact. Inside, they experience all kinds of unsettling things, testing their relationship, and carried out by the ghosts of the dead couple (Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin). Of course, it’s Christmas, so everything is going to be okay.

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