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The best Christmas movies that aren't really Christmas movies

Rooney Mara in Carol
(Image credit: IMDb)

Does festive cinema not have more to offer than Elf and Love Actually? We know that question may seem blasphemous to some, but it does sometimes cross our minds when December rolls around. We’re not asking “is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” either, don’t worry (we all know it is).

If you want to spice things up this December, refresh your Christmas viewing by revisiting some old favourites (or watching them for the first time) and looking at them in a new light. We’ve compiled a list of alternative Christmas movies, ranging from Orson Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane to Greta Gerwig’s wholesome period drama Little Women

Some of these movies capture that warm, cosy essence of the holiday season, while some are set around Christmastime or have an iconic Christmas scene. Read on to see our picks of the best-Christmas-movies-that-aren’t-really-Christmas-movies.

Little Women

Little Women

(Image credit: IMDb)

There’s not one, but two Christmas scenes in this movie, plus it was released in cinemas on Christmas Day in 2019 – what more do you want? Little Women is just a barrage of festive wholesomeness. Of course, there’s the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder too, but we’re talking about the Greta Gerwig adaptation. The small ladies in question are played by Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen and Emma Watson, with Laura Dern as Marmee. Plus, the two Christmas scenes aren’t just nice to watch, they also highlight the changes in the March family over time, so they’re vital to the plot.

Carol

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol

(Image credit: IMDb)

Okay, so it’s not the jolliest Christmas movie, we’ll admit. But Carol is set around Christmastime, so it definitely counts as one. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the movie is set in 1950s New York City and follows Therese (Rooney Mara) and her infatuation with a glamorous older woman called Carol (Cate Blanchett). Therese, an aspiring photographer, is working in a department store to pay the bills, and the two meet when Therese helps Carol pick out a Christmas gift for her daughter. 

When Harry Met Sally

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally

(Image credit: IMDb)

Maybe this one’s more of a New Year’s Eve movie than a Christmas movie, but there’s never a bad time to watch When Harry Met Sally – it’s the definition of a comfort watch. The classic Nora Ephron-scripted romcom stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the title characters, two will-they-won’t-they friends who’ve known each other since college. There’s snow-covered Central Park, the city decked out with lights, and the scene where Harry helps Sally carry a Christmas tree back to her apartment. Plus, it ends with the most iconic New Year’s Eve party in romcom history.

Paddington

Paddington

(Image credit: IMDb)

Who wouldn’t want to spend the most wonderful time of the year with a kind and polite little bear? Both Paddington movies encompass everything good about the holiday season – kindness, generosity, family; they emanate warmth. The titular bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw, with a supporting cast including Julie Walters, Sally Hawkins, and Peter Capaldi, while Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant take on the role of villain in each respective movie. The first instalment follows Paddington as he travels from Peru to London, where he’s taken in by the Brown family. Wholesomeness ensues.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Image credit: IMDb)

Wes Anderson’s films generally have pretty cosy vibes, and as The Grand Budapest Hotel also primarily takes place amidst snowy mountain scenery we think that’s reason enough to watch it at Christmastime. The movie stars Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, and Saoirse Ronan. Fiennes plays Monsieur Gustave H, who’s the concierge at the famous titular hotel in a fictional European country – that is, until he’s framed for murder. Anderson’s trademark kitsch aesthetic and warm pastel colour palette makes this movie a delight to watch. 

You’ve Got Mail

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail

(Image credit: IMDb)

Another Ephron and Ryan collab – sorry (but not really). There are definitely some fundamental issues with the central love story of this movie (if a script written by Nora Ephron can’t make a love interest played by Tom Hanks seem likeable then you’ve really created a monster…). Like every other romcom Ephron gets her hands on, You’ve Got Mail is full of the cosy vibes you want during your festive viewing. Plus, arguably the most pivotal moments of the movie occur over the holiday period.

Hustlers

Hustlers

(Image credit: IMDb)

Hustlers is a Christmas movie because it has a great Christmas scene. Also, J-Lo is in it. Case closed. The movie about strippers dealing with the fallout of the 2008 financial crash stars Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, with an all-star ensemble including Keke Palmer, Lizzo and Cardi B. Hustlers’ festive scene is one of the last happy moments for the women before things turn sour and their elaborate scams get the better of them. Come for J-Lo’s fantastic fur coat, stay for the complex and touching bonds between the central female characters.

Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

(Image credit: IMDb)

Eyes Wide Shut is set at Christmas, therefore it’s a Christmas film. Stanley Kubrick’s final film before the filmmaker’s death in 1999 stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who were married IRL at the time) as Bill and Alice, a couple whose relationship is strained after Alice admits she has considered cheating on Bill. This results in Bill embarking on a night-long escapade, which includes infiltrating a masked sex party held by an unnamed secret society. Standard Christmas fare, we think you’ll agree.

Pride & Prejudice 

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice

(Image credit: IMDb)

Hear us out: Pride & Prejudice is a Christmas film. Why? Because period dramas just feel inherently Christmassy. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen are Elizabeth and Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s iconic novel. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, Elizabeth and Darcy are one of the OG romcom pairs; an 18th-century Harry and Sally. Come for the beautiful costumes and set design, stay for the chaste sexual tension and emotional repression that makes the climactic pay-off so damn satisfying.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

(Image credit: IMDb)

If you incorporate Citizen Kane into your festive viewing schedule, you can watch Mank (David Fincher’s film about the movie’s screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz) afterwards for the ultimate film nerd’s Boxing Day double bill. The movie is about Charles Foster Kane, a media tycoon based on William Randolph Hearst who, despite his wealth and power, struggles to process the events of his childhood. Christmas is key to Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, although it may not seem so from the outset – the all-important Rosebud sled is a childhood Christmas gift from Thatcher to Kane, and without Rosebud there’d be no story. 

I’m an Entertainment Writer at GamesRadar+, covering everything film and TV-related across the Total Film and SFX sections – I help bring you all the latest news and the occasional feature, too. I’ve previously written for publications like HuffPost and i-D after getting my NCTJ Diploma in Multimedia Journalism.