19 Underrated and Unexpected Holiday Films

Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah: underrated films for the holidays!
Odin Odin (98)
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The winter holidays are ancient and powerful.

Back in our dim prehistory, we told stories while the firelight glinted in the eyes of huddled listeners. The cold months bring us back to this distant past, despite all our gadgetry and modern conveniences; the holidays exist as a bastion from the ice outside. In their embrace, we connect with friends and loved ones, sing songs and play games, and set out candles as reminders that light shines the brightest in the darkest of times.

As a lover of film, one of my favorite ways to connect with the ancient holiday spirit is through the storytelling medium of cinema. There are always a few films that I come back to again and again, every year; but I’m also continually searching for new gems to add to my holiday collection.

The most underrated holiday films

My goal is to curate a list that appeals to everyone: no matter your background. The winter holidays are a powerful and important time, and we can all find something joyful, introspective, and profound in the films that explore tales of this time.

From lesser-known renditions of great classics, to films lost among the drifting snowflakes of media history, I present to you the most underrated holiday films.

As always, with these articles, I love hearing your feedback in the comments section, or on Twitter @indubitablyodin. Let me know what your favorite films of the decade were, which ones you think I should have included, and which you hope I’ll mention in one of my next articles!

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An American Tail (1986)
An American Tail (1986)
Director Actors
Don Bluth Phillip Glasser, Amy Green, Christopher Plummer

Spielberg’s big break into producing animated works, this is the story of the Mousekewitzes, a Russian-Jewish family of mice. When an anti-Jewish attack occurs and destroys the home of the Jewish humans the Mousekewitzes live with, they set out as refugees for America.

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An American Tail (1986)

An American Tail (1986) there isn’t a specific holiday focus in this one, but the story does begin during a Hanukkah celebration.

Switchmas (2012)
Switchmas (2012)
Director Actors
Sue Corcoran Elliott Gould, Elijah Nelson

Ira J. Finkelstein wants nothing more than to celebrate Christmas, but there’s one problem: his family is ardently Jewish. When they send him on a winter vacation to Florida, however, he meets Mikey Amato, who wants nothing to do with his vacation destination: Christmas Town. The solution is obvious: switch places!

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Switchmas (2012)

Switchmas (2012) is an endearing if quite simplistic film. It’s not going to win any Academy Awards, but it does offer a bit of holiday cheer with its over-the-top hijinks.

Gremlins (1984)
Gremlins (1984)
Director Actors
Joe Dante Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates

There are three rules: don’t expose the mogwai to sunlight, don’t let it get wet, and whatever you do… don’t feed it after midnight.

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Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins (1984) is basically the classic Christmas horror comedy you probably didn’t know you needed. I remember watching this as a kid and absolutely loving it; there’s something extra-great about the way the creatures come alive through practical effects.

Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006)
Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006)
Director Actors
Vadim Jean David Jason, Marc Warren, John Franklyn-Robbins, Michelle Dockery, Ian Richardson

The Discworld is a magical, strange place. When the Hogfather vanishes, only one “person” might be able to fill in for him and keep all the little kids from being sad on Hogswatch morning when presents are supposed to arrive. That “person” SPEAKS LIKE THIS, and his name is Death. Meanwhile, Death’s granddaughter is busy tracking down the disappearance of the Tooth Fairy, which might just unravel reality altogether.

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Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006)

Terry Pratchett's Hogfather (2006) if you want something that touches on all the great holiday vibes, but avoids real-world holidays altogether, there is absolutely no better story than The Hogfather. Terry Pratchett was one of the world’s greatest wits and cleverest minds, and this delightful satire provides mystery, mayhem, holiday cheer, and a dab of horror.

Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard (1988)
Director Actors
John McTiernan Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman

Detective John McClane just wants to reconcile things with his wife at her corporate Christmas party, but when terrorists take over the whole building and hold everyone hostage (except McClane) his holiday gets a whole lot more complicated.

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Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard (1988) hits all the lists because it really is a superb Christmas film, even though it might be the last film you’d expect to find yourself watching for the holidays! Try it out, though, I bet you won’t be disappointed. (Besides: Alan Rickman!)

A Christmas Carol (1999)
A Christmas Carol (1999)
Director Actors
Peter Barnes Patrick Stewart

Scrooge is not a kind man. Obsessed with his capitalistic routine, he drives away everyone who cares about him, damages the lives of all whom he encounters, and blackens even the cheeriest of holiday moods. But there is something supernatural waiting for him this Christmas Eve, and it might be more than a bit of undigested beef or a fragment of underdone potato.

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A Christmas Carol (1999)

A Christmas Carol (1999) is one of the best-loved Christmas tales for a reason… if only all the people who hoard money and make profit from people’s suffering would get the message. Dickens’ message is as loud and clear now as it ever was, but this version of the classic that stars Patrick Stewart has a delightful edge that makes it a repeat watch for me almost every year.

Noel (2004)
Noel (2004)
Director Actors
Text Penélope Cruz, Susan Sarandon, Alan Arkin, Robin Williams

A Christmas-themed anthology film, it splits through four different stories, trying to explore themes of love, loss, and the meaning of being human.

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Noel (2004)

Noel (2004) is not the best film ever, but there’s a certain charm to how it plays into its various storylines: the question at the heart of the film is definitely: what brings meaning to our lives? The young couple are a bit much in my opinion, but it’s great to see Sarandon and Arkin play off each other.

Is it a Grade-B film? Absolutely (possibly even Grade-D), but it fills a niche in the holiday viewing, especially if you’re not in the best of moods.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Director Actors
Bharat Nalluri Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce

A biographical comedy-drama about Charles Dickens’ as he discovers the story to A Christmas Carol in the world around him.

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The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) is actually a pretty solid film for what it is, balancing good moments of humor through some top-notch acting and a delightfully funny story.

“Jingle All The Way” (1996)
“Jingle All The Way” (1996)
Director Actors
Brian Levant Arnold Schwarzenegger

A wacky comedy where two rival fathers desperately compete to find the perfect toy for their kids on a last-minute shopping spree just before Christmas.

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“Jingle All The Way” (1996)

“Jingle All The Way” (1996) is a perfect holiday film: silly, zany, and ridiculous. It’s got Arnold doing what Arnold does best.

Bad Santa (2003)
Bad Santa (2003)
Director Actors
Terry Zwigoff Billy Bob Thornton

Produced by the Coen brothers, this dark comedy is a fried nugget of gold for anyone who needs a bit of a boost this holiday season. Willie T. Soke and Marcus Skidmore are thieves who work malls during Christmastime by gaining access as employees: specifically, as Santa and his helper!

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Bad Santa (2003)

Bad Santa (2003) is unreasonably funny considering how crude and lewd it is, and, as the sequel suggests, this is due to some sort of magic combination that defies comprehension.

Joyeux Noël (2005)
Joyeux Noël (2005)
Director Actors
Christian Carion Benno Fürmann, Gary Lewis

Based on the true story of Christmas Eve ceasefire during WWI, called not by the leaders of the warring nations, nor the commanders of the armies, but by the men of the front lines themselves. For one brief moment in history, all the hatred fear and carnage was pushed aside—before warmongers and those with interest in maintaining the slog of death pushed things back towards the brink of doom.

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Joyeux Noël (2005)

Joyeux Nöel (2005) is a sentimental film, but a hopeful one. Its sentimentality is more poignant, too, in the face of the real historical fact that this ceasefire did take place, and that most of the people we’re watching dramatized here died shortly afterward.

In Bruges (2008)
In Bruges (2008)
Director Actors
Martin McDonagh Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

A rookie Irish hitman draws too much attention during a hit gone wrong, and he and his mentor are sent to Bruges in Belgium to hide out for a while, but things have a way of catching up with you, and cabin fever is a hard thing to break.

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In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges (2008) offers something for those of us who sometimes hit a dark spot during the holidays—a truly normal occurrence! The dark of winter is, after all, a time of death in nature… so it makes sense to dive into a dark satire about two hit-men. One of my all-time favorite films, it might help turn things around.

As always, if you or someone you know is dealing with thoughts of depression or suicide, know that help is just a call away. Here’s a list of all the suicide hotlines over the world where good people are ready to listen..

Santa's Apprentice (2010)
Santa's Apprentice (2010)
Director Actors
Luc Vinciguerra Jack Versace

Based on the series SantApprentice, this sweet film follows young Nicholas, an orphan boy who believes in Santa with all his heart. The Council of Retired Santas wants Santa to pick an heir, and Nicholas is it. Things keep going wrong, of course, and Nicholas’s best friend Felix becomes homeless (he lives in America, of course). But with a little holiday magic, even the biggest disasters can be solved.

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Santa's Apprentice (2010)

Santa's Apprentice (2010) it’s actually a super sweet and silly little film, with a lot of heart. Wouldn’t it be nice if all homeless people could just be given a home by Santa? Or, maybe there could just be fewer for-profit developers.

My preference: the original show is better, and the original French is better than the English dubbing

The Snow Queen (1957)
The Snow Queen (1957)
Director Actors
Lev Atamanov Barbara Goodson, Mona Marshall

This Soviet-produced version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. When a young boy named Kay angers the Snow Queen, she curses him, and it is up to his best friend Gerda to set forth on an epic quest to save him.

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The Snow Queen (1957)

The Snow Queen (1957) proved to be a major influence on Hayao Miyazaki, who found himself enthralled by its dialog, compositions, animation, and themes.

The Black Candle (2008)
The Black Candle (2008)
Director Actors
M. K. Asante Maya Angelou (voice-over)

Exploring the triumph and struggles of black communities through the holiday of Kwanzaa, this documentary features a wonderful narration and poetry by the incomparable Maya Angelou. Kwanzaa, first celebrated in 1966, is a modern constructed holiday that borrows from various harvest traditions throughout Africa. It is held from December 26 to January 1st.

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The Black Candle (2008)

The Black Candle (2008) finding films that center on Kwanzaa has never been easy, but back when I worked in a video store, I remember directing customers toward this new release. It’s a documentary, but an excellent one, and a solid film to help you explore the roots of the holiday.

Frozen (2013)
Frozen (2013)
Director Actors
Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Snow Queen", Frozen follows two royal sisters, one of whom possesses the power to control and create ice and snow. But, following an accident where her powers nearly kill her sister, Princess Elsa hides her power away and vows never to use it again. Only, some things are meant to be free.

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Frozen (2013)

Frozen (2013) is a great counterpoint seasonal film because the action itself takes place in summer! But, since the magic of the ice has covered all the land, there’s a wonderful atmosphere of dark winter. Add to that the wonderful themes of family and love, and you’ve got a hallmark holiday movie for the whole family (one that will reignite the desire to sing “Let it go…” once more).

The Willows in Winter (1996)
The Willows in Winter (1996)
Director Actors
Lorraine Marshall Rik Mayall

An adaptation of William Horwood's unofficial sequel to Kenneth Grahame's original novel, the story follows the classic characters as they struggle through a harsh blizzard and must content with the incorrigible nature of Toad—who might just be their best hope when the storm strands them all!

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The Willows in Winter (1996)

The Willows in Winter (1996) is actually surprisingly good, though I’ve yet to find a version of Wind in the Willows that really does the story justice. Too often, important parts are cut out, or the delightful reverence of the story is snuffed in favor of abstract tomfoolery. Still, this film, and the earlier adaptation of the original book produced by the same company, handle things relatively well.

The Snowman (1982)
The Snowman (1982)
Director Music by
Dianne Jackson Howard Blake

Based on a picture book by Raymond Briggs, the main story is totally wordless, save for the glorious lyrics of the main song. Only in the momentary live-action original introduction does Briggs briefly speak.

"I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snow I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day… and it was on that day I made The Snowman."

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The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982) features one of the most hauntingly beautiful scores of any piece of cinema I’ve ever encounter, aside from, perhaps, this Beatrix Potter series. Interested in something strange and fun? Have a look at the version where David Bowie introduces it.

The Snowman (1982)
The Snowman (1982)
Director Music by
Boris Stepantsev Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

While cleaning the household after a Christmas party, the young maid discovers a damaged nutcracker and kisses it, feeling sorry for the poor thing. He comes alive and recounts the tale of how, as a child, a curse turned him from a human into the nutcracker she now sees before her. A story with a past not as far distant as he seems to think.

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The Snowman (1982)

The Nutcracker (1973) this follows the same ideology as the ballet: all voiceless, with only the musical score to bring the world to life.

Precious Find (1996)
Precious Find (1996)
Director Actor
Philippe Mora Rutger Hauer

The year is 2049, the place is the Moon. A young hotshot desperate for work, a washed-up old garbage runner, and a slick-ex-CEO con discover what could be the motherload of asteroid mining, but they're going to face some stiff competition on the way there. Luckily, one beautiful spaceship captain might be there to give them a hand.

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Precious Find (1996)

This film totally blew me away. I mean, I love all Rutger Hauer's films, he's probably my favorite actor, but this started out so totally low-budget that I had to wonder if it would be worthwhile.

Then I realized: it's a Christmas movie! It also dawned on me, in the most pleasurable way, that the writing is actually pretty good. And the whole cast is surprisingly solid. Once you step back and allow yourself to just enjoy it, this becomes one of the best little science fiction Christmas films conceived.

You can thank me later in the comments' section below, or over on Twitter @indubitablyOdin. For now, just go watch this and have a fun time.

'90s cartoons were the best!
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‘90s cartoons were the best. They were funny, the art was epic, they were child-friendly (most of them at least), and they taught us millennials fundamental lessons that made us who we are today.