10 offbeat — but still spirited — holiday movies

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Let’s face it, you can only watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” so many times.

Just as you can only watch “Elf” and “Home Alone” so many times.

But there are plenty of holiday movies that are a bit more offbeat. In fact, disaster, dysfunction and destruction seem to flourish in a holiday setting. Just consider the original “Die Hard,” in which terrorists take over a company Christmas party. Ho-ho-ho.

For those searching for holiday movies with some oddball twists, where carols may be playing in the background while shots ring out in the foreground, or mayhem breaks out around the family dinner table, here’s a list of 10 holiday movies from the past three decades or so that may break with tradition, but still deliver the holiday goods.

“Gremlins” (1984): A cute little live gremlin named Gizmo is given to a boy as a Christmas gift. Unfortunately, that gift comes with some rules that can’t be broken. Of course, they get broken and Gizmo starts sprouting fellow gremlins, but these ones aren’t so cute — in fact they can be downright murderous. Director Joe Dante’s horror comedy was not only a huge hit that spawned a sequel, it was also one of the reasons the PG-13 rating was invented. (PG)

“Lethal Weapon” (1987): There’s a writer (and now director) named Shane Black who has literally made a career out of setting violent action films against a holiday background. The thing is, he’s really good at it, so he’s on this list a lot. This teaming of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as mismatched cops out to bring down a drug kingpin turned into a franchise, but none of the sequels were as good as the original, which featured a smiling-cool Gary Busey as an albino assassin. (R)

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993): Based on a poem Tim Burton wrote, this stop-motion animated musical has the denizens of Halloween Town discovering Christmas Town. Eventually, three bad eggs from Halloween Town kidnap Santa Claus. Only Tim Burton could conceive of the kidnapping of Santa Claus. With a film score by Danny Elfman, of course. (PG)

A young Denis Leary, left, plays a kidnapping cat burglar trapped at a family dinner in “The Ref.”

“The Ref” (1994): A young Denis Leary plays a cat burglar who, after his partner abandons him, is forced to take a married couple hostage. Unfortunately for him, that couple consists of the acid-tongued Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, who have nothing but Christmas daggers for one another. Things get even worse when a bundle of nasty relatives, including Christine Baranski, arrive for a holiday dinner. (R)

Geena Davis says goodbye to her holiday domestic routine in the “Long Kiss Good Night.”

“The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996): Shane Black again. This time Geena Davis plays an amnesiac small town mom who hires a private eye (Samuel L. Jackson) to help her find out who she was. As it turns out, she was an expert assassin, and the more she remembers, the deadlier she gets. Certainly the best use ever of Christmas lights in a gun battle and the buddy chemistry between Davis and Jackson crackles. (R)

“Pieces of April” (2003): A punkish girl (Katie Holmes) invites her dysfunctional, bickering, estranged family over to Thanksgiving dinner at her small, downscale apartment. Then she finds out her oven is broken, while her family is in transit with her cancer-stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson at her best, and that’s saying something), and her boyfriend tries to find a suit so he can impress the family. Derek Luke plays the boyfriend, Oliver Platt is the dad and Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr. are siblings, and they’re all quite good, but Clarkson, who earned an Oscar nomination, is breathtakingly funny and touching. (PG-13)

We’ve all had a few “Bad Santa” experiences. Billy Bob Thorton, left, and Tony Cox star.

“Bad Santa” (2003): Billy Bob Thornton plays a wonderfully awful misanthropic con man who takes a job as a department store Santa just so he can rob the store. Along the way, he somehow becomes attached to a chubby loser kid and hooks up with a tart Lauren Graham, while being eyed warily by store security man Bernie Mac. Flies directly in the face of traditional holiday cheer. (R )

“Millions” (2004): Director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) helmed this wonderfully eccentric film about a 7-year-old boy who’s obsessed with saints and their stories. As a result of a train heist, a giant bag of money lands on his playhouse and he has to figure out what to do with it. He shares some with his brother, but mostly gives it away naively, but with the best of intentions. This is one you can watch with Grandma. (PG-13)

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005): Back to Black; Shane Black that is, writing and now directing. Robert Downey Jr. plays a minor thief who’s mistaken for an actor and taken to Hollywood where he runs into the childhood girl of his dreams (Michelle Monaghan) and gets tangled up in a murder mystery with a gay private detective (Val Kilmer), all against a backdrop of Tinsel Town at tinsel time. (R )

“Iron Man 3” (2013): True, this Marvel hit from a couple of years back is mainly memorable for Gwyneth Paltrow’s abs and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious turn as the Mandarin, but it did indeed take place at Christmastime. Why? Because it was directed and co-written by none other than Shane Black. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (PG-13)