Whether you’re a millennial who was born in the ’80s, a Gen X-er who came of age in the ’80s or a Baby Boomer who had a kid or two in the ’80s, this decade likely resonates with you for SOME reason on some level, especially at this time of year. What do Christmas traditions have in common with the ‘80s? Well, both are totally awesome for starters. As proof, here are the top 10 Christmas movies from that totally rad decade. And yes, we’re including films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon in the mix. Why the hell not?
10. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
So bad it’s good, this slasher pic answers the question: What grown man in his right mind shoves himself down chimneys while stuffed into a sweltering red suit? The answer “No one in his right mind,” as here the iconic Saint Nick is co-opted as a symbol of pure depravity.
9. Prancer (1989)
This children’s fantasy drama was inspired by the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and the famous editorial “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” but it’s also been described as “Heidi meets Meet Me in St. Louis.” (Personally, I think the best Prancer elevator pitch is “Charlotte’s Web meets Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”) It tells the story of a determined young girl who befriends a possibly-magical reindeer when her family falls on hard times. With a top notch cast that includes Cloris Leachman, Sam Elliott and Abe Vigoda, the film’s earnest sincerity wins over Christmas fans young and old.
8. Better Off Dead (1985)
“I gotta go, the Christmas tree is on fire.” If you like your Christmas comedies as black as a charred Douglas fir, then this high school rom-com starring John Cusack as an unpopular suburban everyteen is the holiday flick for you.
7. Gremlins (1984)
There’s long been debate over whether Gremlins is comedy or horror, but it also doesn’t get enough credit for being a bona fide Christmas flick. (For those of you who don’t remember, the titular Gremlins are introduced when a down-on-his-luck inventor finds one in an antiques store while looking for a Christmas present for his son.) Gremlins is even set in an idyllic town called Kingston Falls — a blatant reference to the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life, shown on TV in the background of one scene — where the townspeople act out a sort of picture-perfect merriment that, as the movie progresses, is revealed as a sham. Phoebe Cates’ monologue about (spoiler alert!) her father dying while trapped in a chimney dressed as Santa Claus still ranks as one of the bleakest and most shocking moments in any Christmas movie ever.
6. Lethal Weapon (1987)
It can’t be mere coincidence that the only acting ever done by Darlene Love, the powerhouse voice behind “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” came in the Lethal Weapon franchise as the wife of beleaguered L.A. cop Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). Likewise, it’s no coincidence that this ultimate buddy-cop movie ends with Murtaugh and partner Riggs (Mel Gibson) bonding at the former’s family Christmas celebration. As Lethal screenwriter Shane Black has said, “At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, take stock of where their lives are at Christmas.”
5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
If you’ve ever had a holiday gathering go off the rails (and who hasn’t?), then this movie feels less like slapstick and more like cinema-verité. “Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas,” Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) insists in this underrated gem from the National Lampoon franchise. “We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f**king Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white a** down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of a**holes this side of the nuthouse.” Merry Christmas, goddammit!
4. Scrooged (1988)
Only an acerbic icon like Bill Murray could play the biggest holiday curmudgeon ever and make him even meaner. In this update on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is now Frank Cross (Murray), an arrogant TV exec who forces his staff to work on Christmas Eve. These days, Murray is renowned for underscoring his role with a relatable kind of pathos; his performance in Scrooged, while borderline crazy, hinted at that inner tenderness to come.
3. Trading Places (1983)
Sometimes the best kind of Christmas movie is the subversive kind, the kind that isn’t primarily about Christmas but, since it’s set during the month of December, cleverly co-opts the spirit of the season in sly and unexpected ways. When some old coots at a Philadelphia brokerage firm decide to settle the nature vs. nurture debate by toying with the lives of street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and family heir Louis Winthrope III (Dan Aykroyd), the survival-of-the-fittest set-up sure doesn’t sound like the true meaning of Christmas. But really, Trading Places shows that giving and receiving help from others is the only way we all succeed. Plus, as it takes place in and around Christmas and New Year’s, we’re treated to the sight of Aykroyd in a Santa suit.
2. Die Hard (1988)
As great as Trading Places is, there’s no better example of a subversive Christmas movie in the ‘80s (or maybe any decade) than Die Hard, Bruce Willis’ 1988 action masterpiece. The plot is set in motion when New York cop John McClane (Willis) tries to surprise his wife, not coincidentally named Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), at her office Christmas party in L.A. on Christmas Eve. And the soundtrack is holiday-heavy with both classic (“Winter Wonderland”) and contemporary (“Christmas in Hollis”) hits. For those of us who like our holiday fare on the wry side, McClane’s “Yippee-ki-yay” is the Yuletide equivalent of Saint Nick’s “Ho-ho-ho.”
1. A Christmas Story (1983)
Why is the holiday season so bittersweet? Perhaps it’s because living through that November-to-January stretch is like experiencing nostalgia in real time. There’s a strange deja-vu quality to Christmas, one that feels familiar but a little unsettling all at once. I think that’s why A Christmas Story has unquestionably become the most beloved holiday movie of the modern cinematic era. It marries the hope and happiness of our childhood Christmases to the Yuletide wistfulness we all start feeling as we age. The film may be told through the eyes of 9-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), focused single-mindedly on the Red Ryder BB gun he pines to see under the tree, but it never forgets the perspective of his harried parents (Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin) who work tirelessly to manufacture the picture-perfect family Christmas. When that image literally goes to the dogs during the film’s climax, their hasty backup plan (Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant!) reminds us all that nothing matters except having fun and laughing a lot with the people you love.
Photo Credit: Public domain image of Nancy Reagan and Mr. T circa 1983.