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What defines a “Christmas movie”? It’s obviously more than just being set around the end of December, featuring decorated trees and public-domain carols in the background.

The following films are decidedly not Christmas movies in the traditional sense. Few people likely center holiday traditions around watching them, and some of the films have little connection to Christmas aside from taking place in late December.

The settings, however, render them a fun way to get into the seasonal spirit. With stories about family, friendship, romance, and remembering what’s important in life, these films demonstrate the fun, excitement, and heart of the season. Plus, they’re better than Hallmark’s annual output.

‘In Bruges’

Dark comedy is a surprisingly difficult balance. If you go too far, you risk alienating your audience and losing the humor. If too soft, any edge is gone, leaving a generic story relying on shock value that simply isn’t there. Few writers or directors understand this delicate interplay better than Martin McDonagh, whose films strike an ideal equilibrium between moving, smart, and hilarious.

“In Bruges,” McDonagh’s feature-length directorial debut, manages to perfect the required tone for a story about a suicidal hitman (Colin Farrell) who is on vacation in Bruges, Belgium, with his partner (Brendan Gleeson) after a job went wrong, while they await orders from their boss (Ralph Fiennes).

While the plot description sounds like a bleak, depressing affair, sharp writing, engaging characters, and a surprising comedic sensibility make the film wildly enjoyable and surprisingly heartfelt. Even if you take nothing else away from the film (which is doubtful), it will definitely leave you wanting to visit Bruges. Several sequences are dedicated to the central pair exploring the well-maintained medieval town, which is decorated for Christmas.

Although it is very different from Frank Capra’s masterpiece, and Farrell’s hitman is worlds away from the picture of self-sacrificing morality that is George Bailey, “In Bruges” has some surprising thematic similarities to “It’s A Wonderful Life,” especially in the ultimate message about taking responsibility and the importance of being alive.

‘Lethal Weapon’

“Lethal Weapon” is the film that perfected the buddy-cop formula, featuring perfectly-cast Danny Glover and Mel Gibson as mismatched partners in the LAPD. Martin Riggs (Gibson) is a death-seeking “loose cannon,” while Roger Murtaugh (Glover) is a cynical family man who is “too old for this.” This movie defined a now-clichéd genre, inspiring other classics while remaining an excellent film in its own right due to the fun dialogue by screenwriter Shane Black and surprising depth in well-developed characters.

The film even ends with a heartwarming Christmas dinner, as Riggs joins Murtaugh’s family to celebrate the holiday, affirm their newfound bond, and demonstrate Riggs’ rediscovered appreciation for life.

‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is an underrated neo-noir satire written and directed by the aforementioned Shane Black. The film stars pre-Marvel Robert Downey Jr. as Harry, a thief who, after stumbling onto a screen-test and accidentally getting cast in a major detective movie, is sent to Los Angeles to shadow a gruff private investigator named Perry (Val Kilmer). Harry reunites with his childhood crush (Michelle Monaghan), and the three uncover a major conspiracy.

While Christmas doesn’t factor seriously into the plot, important scenes take place at Christmas parties, the story is kicked off by Harry’s attempts at attaining a gift, and the atmosphere of the Christmas season permeates throughout.

The laugh-out-loud-funny script is supplemented by excellent performances and chemistry among the three leads. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” pairs a compelling mystery with hilarious characters to great effect, making an endlessly quotable and enjoyable film, and it contains some of the funniest fourth-wall-breaking narration ever put to film.

‘Batman Returns’

With a holiday setting, a villain called “The Santa Claus of Gotham,” and major action taking place on well-decorated streets, Tim Burton’s second and final Batman film should satisfy the Christmas cravings of any superhero fan.

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“Batman Returns” is an excellent outing of the caped crusader. Far from a perfect film, it faces serious tonal inconsistencies, particularly with the treatment of Penguin (Danny DeVito), who is presented as a remorseless child-murdering monster but is still handled with sensitivity and an odd degree of sympathy. These issues don’t harm the film’s enjoyability in the slightest, however. Burton created a charming yet sinister atmosphere. The omnipresent Christmas decorations across Gotham belie a darkness lurking underneath, both metaphorically and literally.

The cast truly shines. Michael Keaton is a phenomenal Batman, but the villains entirely steal the show. Michelle Pfeiffer is excitingly unhinged as Catwoman, making it abundantly clear to the audience why Bruce Wayne finds her equally unsettling and alluring. Despite the flawed writing choices for the character, DeVito is exceptional as Penguin, striking the ideal combination of repulsive and pitiable.

Featuring the definitive portrayals of two iconic villains, an exciting story, and an unsettling yet enthralling atmosphere, this is one Christmas film you don’t want to miss.

‘Joyeux Noel’

Across the Western Front during the first year of World War I, spontaneous ceasefires popped up in several trenches between the French, British, and German soldiers on Dec. 24, allowing a communal celebration of Christmas. Amid a brutal war, shared humanity won out, if only for two days, as purported enemies shared drinks, played sports, sang carols, and celebrated Mass together.

This beautiful testament to the power of Christmas is effectively captured in the 2005 drama, “Joyeux Noel,” which follows one such truce on Christmas Eve. The film effectively balances its earnest sentimentality by not shying away from the harshness of war.

Following several characters in each trench, the film likewise personalizes its broader themes. Audiences grow to care about a young Scottish soldier traumatized by the death of his brother, a French lieutenant who is waiting on news about his pregnant wife, and an opera singer attempting to arrange a performance for the German soldiers in order to see her conscripted husband.

A clear standout, however, is Daniel Brühl as the German lieutenant, who struggles between a desire to allow his men to celebrate the holiday and an awareness of the likely ensuing retribution. His bond with the French lieutenant is genuine and moving. The romance between the singers is a weak point of the film, with its frustrating lack of chemistry, but it does not detract from the overall meaning.

The movie contains dialogue in German, French, and English based on how the characters would be speaking, which strengthens the themes of challenging communication. It’s an excellent cinematic rendition of a powerful true story that truly captures the spirit of Christmas.

Paulina Enck is an intern at the Federalist and current student at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Follow her on Twitter at @itspaulinaenck



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