14 secret Christmas movies you need to watch again

What do you think of when we use the phrase, 'Christmas movie'? Does it call to mind James Stewart joyously running around Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life? Kevin McAllister discovering that he is, in fact, Home Alone? Or something else entirely?

Naturally, we've already compiled our Cineworld blog list of classic Christmas movies. But what about those big screen hits that had a hidden festive theme? We're not talking about those movies that flag up the season of goodwill. Rather, the ones that quietly inserted the odd shot or sequence to establish a Yuletide context.

Well, we've done all the hard work for you. Scroll down to discover our list of the secret Christmas films that you need to watch again this year.

 

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

George Lazenby's sole outing as James Bond is one of the best in the series. On Her Majesty's Secret Service dares to imagine 007 as a human being vulnerable to love, and the heartache that comes with it. This is teased out by Bond's romance with, and eventual marriage to, Tracey Draco (Diana Rigg), one of the few women in the series to have truly captured his heart. The gut-wrenching finale is perhaps the boldest decision ever made in the series, and makes us lament that Lazenby didn't build on his potential in more films.

At the same time, Majesty's has to satisfy the Bond quotient of set-pieces, exotic locations and nefarious villains (although the use of gadgets is refreshingly minimal). Bond is once again locked into a conflict with his nemesis Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who has relocated to a mountain-top hideaway in Switzerland to threaten the world. He's planning to unleash a group of brainwashed women, each possessing a deadly chemical agent, and 007 must rumble the plan before it's too late.

Majesty's is also one of the rare Bond movies to take place at Christmas. This is evident during the decor of the scenes set at Piz Gloria, Blofeld's unique hideaway (in real life, a restaurant that was purchased by the production and kitted out in the manner of a lair). It also becomes apparent when Bond skies away from the place and finds himself chased through a local ice-skating rink, with the song 'Do You Know How Christmas Trees are Grown?' playing in the background of the tense scene. It was written by Bond veteran John Barry (whose Moog synth-led score is almost certainly his best in the franchise) and performed by Danish singer Nina.


2. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Here's possibly the most paranoid Christmas movie of them all. Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor is a defining film of the 1970s, encapsulating (along with the likes of All the President's Men and Marathon Man) the post-Watergate tension that had engulfed America. 

Adapted from James Grady's book of the same name, the film casts Robert Redford as a CIA bookworm drawn into a deadly conspiracy. When his co-workers turn up murdered, Redford's character Joe Turner, codename 'Condor', is forced into a cat and mouse battle of wills with Max von Sydow's assassin Joubert. Redford is on effectively sweaty form as the ordinary Joe (literally) in over his head and with the odds seemingly stacked against him.

So, why is it a Christmas movie? Well, three classic carols are variously heard during the movie: 'Good King Wenceslas', 'Joy to the World' and 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'. The first of those is perhaps the most chilling, acting as an ironic contrast to Joe's discovery of his murdered colleagues. The juxtaposition of wholesome Christmas sentiment with the escalatingly tense storyline makes for an intriguing mixture, and certainly helps us look at the movie in a completely new light.


3. Rocky IV (1985)

Not simply a testosterone-fuelled ode to macho pride the world over, Rocky IV is also a Christmas movie. The fourth, and possibly cheesiest, Rocky movie pits Sly Stallone's plucky pugilist Rocky Balboa against the might of Communist-era Russia, embodied by Dolph Lundgren's towering Ivan Drago. Talk about a movie that was made for its time: the Americans are rugged and noble, and the Soviets are diabolically evil, starting with Drago's fatal takedown of Rocky's enemy-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

In a movie packed with several memorable training montages, the best comes when Rocky decamps to snowy Siberia to psyche himself up. This involves felling trees and carrying massive logs on his back. So far, so eighties, but where does the Christmas connection come in? Well, have you forgotten that Rocky's pivotal match against Ivan actually occurs on Christmas Day? That means he's separated from his wife Adrian (Talia Shire) when they need each other the most, but tenacity (and pure muscle) prevails when Rocky finally obliterates his foe. Is there a message about goodwill hidden in there somewhere? Who cares – this movie rocks.


4. The Princess Bride (1987)

It doesn't take much to flag up a movie as having a Christmas theme. Rob Reiner's deliriously subversive fairy tale comedy is framed by a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a story to his ill grandson (Fred Savage). The boy is assured that it's not a kissy story, and what unfolds is a classic satire wrapped around a sweet love affair, adapted by William Goldman from his own bestselling book.

Centrally, it's about brave Wesley (Cary Elwes) setting out to claim the heart of the beautiful Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) but the assortment of odd characters they meet along the way brilliantly skewers the traditional notion of the folkloric fairy tale. (And this was years before Shrek.)

Look carefully in the background of the Falk/Savage scenes and you'll spot Christmas decorations on the boy's bedroom cupboard. Yes, that makes The Princess Bride a Christmas film first and foremost. Years later, in 2018, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) got in on the act and made the connection more explicit in Once Upon a Deadpool, kidnapping Savage and replicating the structure of The Princess Bride by reading him a new tale. 


5. Lethal Weapon (1987)

Writer-director-actor Shane Black adores Christmas. If you don't believe us, then let us say this: Lethal Weapon is one of four Black movies featured on this list. In fact, Black has been called out on his love of the festive season in an interview

Of course, he didn't direct Lethal Weapon – that responsibility fell to Richard Donner. Nor did he make a supporting appearance a la Predator. Instead, acting duties fall to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as sparring chalk and cheese cops Riggs and Murtaugh. But Black was responsible for the lively screenplay, and this is where his hallmarks come in, a mixture of snappily hilarious banter with sudden eruptions of violence. 

The Christmas connection comes in early, during the opening sequence, in fact, when a woman plunges to her death from a skyscraper to the sound of 'Jingle Bell Rock'. Another scene later on sees Rigg's loose cannon character bust a drug deal in the middle of a Christmas tree farm. This is what makes Lethal Weapon so great: although it's the grittiest and most grounded movie in the series, paradoxically there's also a comforting air as reinforced by the festive imagery and the slow-burn friendship between Gibson and Glover.


6. While You Were Sleeping (1995)

This hit Sandra Bullock rom-com begins on Christmas Day as her character Lucy averts a tragedy. When she rescues Peter (Peter Gallagher) from a collision with the Chicago 'L' train, it throws her life into disarray in classic Hollywood fashion.

Mistaken for Peter's fiancee, Lucy is forced to spend Christmas with his family, while contending with the fact that she's long had a crush on him. These feelings developed over a long period of time, Lucy having regularly commuted on the same train as him. However, she then starts to develop feelings for Peter's brother Jack (Bill Pullman), causing complications when the former wakes up and is now an amnesiac.

Buoyed by Bullock's typically likeable screen persona, not to mention her gentle chemistry with Pullman, this sweet-natured movie from director Jon Turtletaub proved to be a huge hit for its leading lady (more than $180 million worldwide). Christmas is the catalyst for change in this story, and the movie has a sentimental, old-fashioned view that everything will turn out for the better in the end.


7. L.A. Confidential (1997)

We mentioned that Christmas was a catalyst for positive change in While You Were Sleeping. That's also true of gripping neo-noir thriller L.A. Confidential – but we have to wade through a labyrinth of corruption, betrayal and violence before we see light at the end of the tunnel.

Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's novel is one of the best films of the 1990s. It focuses on three wildly different 1950s Los Angeles cops who are drawn into a wide-ranging conspiracy after a Christmas booze-up gone wrong. The film begins with the infamous 'Bloody Christmas' incident, in which the L.A. police force violently brutalise a group of Mexicans who have attacked their own.

The incident is splashed all over the papers and establishes the destinies of the three central characters. Guy Pearce's calculating politician Ed Exley uses it as a snitching opportunity, and gets promoted in the process. Russell Crowe's hulking Bud White refuses to rat out his partners, and is subsequently drafted by devious captain Dudley (James Cromwell) into violently interrogating other prisoners – off the books, naturally. And narcotics detective-cum-TV-celebrity Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is blackmailed into playing ball at the risk of his image getting tarnished.

It's a superbly engrossing mixture of multi-threaded character drama, police procedural and period piece, immediately establishing three memorable individuals and their interlinking fates during an increasingly violent narrative. The ramifications of this particular Christmas loom large as the dark machinations of the Los Angeles police force become increasingly apparent.


8. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick's final movie is an obsessive and typically disturbing story of paranoia and sexual longing. 1990s golden couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman synergise (perhaps uncomfortably so, in hindsight) with their characters, a New York doctor and his wife whose relationship is steadily coming apart at the seams. This results in Cruise's character going on a dark odyssey through the secretive byways of the Big Apple, resulting in a ceremonial orgy scene that's at least as creepy as anything in The Shining.

Christmas is a dominant theme in the background of this sterile, fiercely controlled movie, Kubrick mining a great deal out of the contrast between the wholesome lights and decorations and his chilly character study. There's not a great deal of goodwill to be found in Eyes Wide Shut – the irony is that the two central characters appear to be switched off from any notion of seasonal cheer, making this an anti-Christmas movie (but also, perversely, a Christmas movie) in every sense of the term.


9. Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Renee Zellweger's endearing singleton Bridget Jones made her big screen debut in 2001, and her messy love-life is bookended with scenes of Christmas. We begin with her festive visit to her parents (scene-stealers Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones), which results in that cringe-inducing meet-cute with Colin Firth's Mark Darcy. Let's be honest though, if anyone can sport a cheesy Christmas jumper and emerge with their dignity intact, it's Firth.

This blockbusting Richard Curtis-scripted romcom (adapted from Helen Fielding's bestseller) hit the jackpot with its acute and hilarious study of messy singlehood. Bridget drifts in and out of romance, including a dalliance with editor Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant on fiendishly entertaining form). But, in the manner of a classic Hollywood fairy tale, it takes a snowy scene in central London the following Christmas to bring everything full circle, and restore Bridget to happiness.

This is where she and Mark finally smooch, and so charming is it that we don't question the implausibly wintry setting. (How often does London look like that at Christmas?) The film's sense of goodwill is so overwhelming and the performances so good that we go with it, all the while wishing for our own Christmas redemption story.


10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The first Harry Potter movie kicked off one of the biggest film franchises of all time. Before the battle with the evil Voldemort took centre stage, the early Potter films, adapted from J.K. Rowling's novels, were relatively more innocent and sprightly, tracing Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) first steps into the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. That's not to say that the films were without their darker moments, but given the younger, pre-adolescent age of the characters, things were certainly less doom-laden and apocalyptic.

The Hogwarts depicted in The Philosopher's Stone positively glows with a golden hue, a far cry from the shadowy edifice depicted in the likes of The Deathly Hallows. Director Chris Columbus goes all-out with the visual effects and A-list appearances to wrap us in a comforting atmosphere, showing how young orphan Harry has found his place alongside the likes of Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint).

The enticing atmosphere continues during the film's all-important Christmas sequence – who can resist the sight of the Hogwarts banqueting hall lined with towering Christmas trees. It embodies our notion of what a classic Christmas ought to look like: gleaming, fantastical and wondrous, but it's the focus on character that really sells it, especially the lovely moment where Harry receives his first-ever festive presents. Take that, Dursleys.


11. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black movie #2, and the first film he ever directed. This meta black comedy revels in all manner of fourth-wall-breaking and twisty revelations, offering a juicy pre-Iron Man role to Robert Downey Jr. who, at this point, was trying to re-assert his Hollywood credibility.

He's on sparkling form as Harry Lockhart, a man with a story to tell – and it's certainly a strange one. Black clearly enjoys subverting the traditional noir tale, lacing it with the classic trope of the unreliable narrator as the fast-talking Harry snaps into focus in front of our eyes. Or does he? He's a petty thief who is mistaken for a method actor, subsequently flown to Hollywood to screen test for the role of a private investigator. While attending a Hollywood party, Harry meets 'Gay' Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer, showing excellent comic chops), an actual detective who will school him in the art of investigation.

From then on, the story only becomes more convoluted but Black keeps things barrelling along and the performances are excellent. So, what about that all-important Shane Black Christmas theme? Well, the entire story takes place during Christmas time (made obvious when Michelle Monaghan's character Harmony appears in a Santa hat). There are decorations in the background of many scenes. And it's revealed at the beginning of the movie that Harry robs a Christmas toy store.


12. Prometheus (2012)

Not all Christmas movies have to be Earthbound. Ridley Scott's controversial Alien prequel sends a research crew into deep space to discover the origins of human life itself. What they find are the remnants of an alien civilisation, and a deadly parasitic organism that portends the carnage to come in the chronologically later Alien movies.

This can't be a Christmas movie, can it? After all, the emphasis is on technological hardware and much portentous talk about the nature of mankind. Well, there's a deleted scene in which Idris Elba's Prometheus captain is spotted adorning a Christmas tree. It's clearly supposed to be ironically humorous, a way of establishing human traditions in the midst of a far-flung and dangerous expedition.

One can sense that Scott is trying to reclaim that sense of a tactile, plausible environment populated with relatable characters. That's one of the reasons why the first Alien movie, and its gloomy ship the Nostromo, was so convincing. However, potentially character-building moments in Prometheus are eventually drowned out by inexplicable decisions, like running away from a rolling spaceship in a straight line rather than, you know, running to the left or right. 


13. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Shane Black again, and this time he's making his first excursion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Not even the might of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) can escape the lure of Christmas, even when he's threatened by diabolical terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

Black's controversial, though entertaining, Iron Man 3 stripped Tony of his technology and cast him out into the wilderness, forcing the billionaire to rely on his wits. To the ire of fans, he also re-fashioned the alleged Mandarin as a bumbling British actor named Trevor Slattery – the real mastermind is Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian, whom Stark had spurned at a turn-of-the-millennium party.

Such self-deprecating humour has long been a hallmark of Black's work. But whether it meshed with the expectations of Marvel fans is another matter entirely. Either way, the filmmaker stays true to his Christmas roots by invoking the holiday season during the final battle. And if you needed more proof, Marvel themselves have confirmed that Iron Man 3 is a Christmas movie on their own website. We think that's pretty definitive.


14. The Nice Guys (2016) 

We're resolving our list with none other than Shane Black. His riotously funny buddy noir comedy The Nice Guys pairs Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to brilliant effect, which makes it a shame that the film didn't do well at the box office.

Gosling's hapless private eye Holland March unites with Crowe's enforcer Jackson Healy for a seventies-set story that exposes the seedy side of Los Angeles. Gosling, in particular, is a hoot as March, clearly enjoying the opportunity to play a complete doofus. (The toilet stall scene still kills us.)

The final scene of the movie, clearly designed to set up a sequel that never arrived, takes place at Christmas. It's evident from the decor and choice of soundtrack, not to mention the fact that Crowe's character is liberally tucking into the booze. Yet Gosling and Crowe themselves are the central elements holding our attention, reminding us that all Christmas movies, whether obvious or subtle, are made or broken by their character interplay.


Have we left out a secret Christmas movie that you particularly enjoy? Tweet us your suggestions @Cineworld.