For many families, the TV is the hearth we gather around after holiday meals. But if the onslaught of distinctly American Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix movies inspire eye rolls in your guests, impress them with some farther flung holiday films they likely have not seen.
From zombie Santas to the famous Christmas Day truce of World War I, here are some holiday movies to watch from around the world that are sure to bring new flavors to those festive year-end gatherings.
Christmas in Japan looks a bit different than it does in the U.S.—it’s considered a secular holiday for couples and KFC is the go-to dinner. The beautifully animated film Tokyo Godfathers, from acclaimed anime director Satoshi Kon, takes place on Christmas Eve in Japan, but no fried chicken is involved. It centers around family, and more importantly, a chosen family. The heartwarming film follows three homeless folks—a middle-aged alcoholic, Gin; a transgender woman named Hana; and a runaway teenager named Miyuki. Digging through a dumpster in search of a holiday meal, they are surprised to come across a newborn baby. Hana insists that they try to find the baby’s parents and they spend the rest of the night combing the backstreets of Tokyo for clues to her identity. The film is uplifting in the spirit of many holiday films, but with a unique story unlike any you’ve seen before.
Watch it on: Apple TV and Hoopla
The major holiday in India isn’t Christmas, it’s Diwali. Known as the five-day Festival of Lights, Diwali is a celebration of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil. The 2001 Hindi-language film Khabi Khushi Kabhie Gham is set during this important holiday and follows a family squabble after a wealthy father disowns his adopted eldest son for marrying a woman of lower status. The entire saga starts at a Diwali party with Bollywood-style singing and dancing. The cast is filled with big-name Bollywood stars, which certainly contributed to its lasting popularity in India. If you like musical family dramas, then Khabi Khushi Kabhie Gham (or K3G, as it’s called among Indian cinema fans) might be right up your alley.
Watch it on: Netflix and Prime Video
In case you don’t know the true story that serves as the basis for this film, on Christmas Day in 1914, during the height of World War I, French, British, and German soldiers laid down their arms and crossed trenches to exchange seasonal gifts and food with each other. This spontaneous celebration, known as the Christmas truce, is the premise of the French war drama Joyeux Noel (which translates to “Happy Christmas”). The film itself includes a number of fictionalized characters (who were most likely based on real people) as the soldiers from various infantries leave behind their nationalistic forces and choose to celebrate peace. Despite having a dark ending (in the spirit of its anti-war message), Joyeux Noel is uplifting and serves as a reminder that even in times of bloodshed, we can still be there for one another.
Watch it on: Apple TV
In the tradition of so-bad-they’re-good horror Christmas movies (a la Silent Night, Deadly Night) Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale serves up a few scares involving a not so jolly old St. Nick. This Finnish flick from 2010 begins with a team of archaeologists in Lapland who are trying to dig up Joulupukki, a pagan figure who is said to have been an early form of our modern Santa Claus (the name literally means “Yule goat”). When one boy unintentionally traps a strange, naked old man and the village children start to go missing, it’s pretty clear they’ve unleashed an ancient force somehow connected to the legend of Santa, but with a much darker purpose. What follows is a perfect blend of horror and dark comedy that includes zombie elves, zombie reindeer, and a new take on the classic tale of Kris Kringle.
Watch it on: Hulu
If you wish more holiday movies had a sci-fi twist, then 2046 is for you. An international venture between Hong Kong, France, Italy, China, and Germany (talk about the spirit of peace and goodwill), 2046 centers around the complexities of relationships, love, and time. Award-winning filmmaker Wong Kar-wai originally conceived it as a sort of sequel to his previous film In the Mood for Love. The non-linear story follows sci-fi novelist Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) through different periods of his life as he writes a fictional story about a train that takes passengers to a mysterious room numbered 2046. In reality, Chow lives in room 2047, and has a series of affairs with the various women who occupy the room next door. As time goes on, he begins to blur reality with fiction. Much of the film is set at Christmas time, though Christmas is not central to the plot. Don’t expect a warm ending—this is not a film interested in sentimentality.
Watch it on: Pluto TV
Although this film isn’t technically set around a holiday, it does discuss two different religions and the complexity of identity—topics that do turn up around the holidays. Set in London, this British film follows Mahmud, who is not exactly the most devout Muslim, but loves his family. When his son wants to marry, the couple needs the approval of her very devout Muslim father, so Mahmud tries to become more devout for the sake of appearances. In the meantime, while cleaning out his deceased mother’s house, he discovers that he was actually adopted, and that his birth parents were Jewish. Mahmud decides to learn about Judaism, but various mishaps ensue. While the film is hilarious at times, it also focuses on how religion can divide us and how, with a bit more understanding, we can learn to become friends. The Infidel was such a hit that it was made into a musical in 2014.
Watch it on: Peacock and Tubi
If your family or friends start up the traditional argument about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, you can always change the subject by showing them the South Korean version, the 2012 action film The Tower. Although it might actually have more in common with The Towering Inferno, it does take place on Christmas Eve inside a luxury skyscraper, so it fits the holiday bill. The residents of Tower Sky are full of merriment at a fancy-pants Christmas party until two helicopters crash into the building. Then it’s up to a team of firefighters, plus a few brave hotel workers and guests, to save the day. The film doesn’t have as many iconic lines as Die Hard, but there are just as many explosions and a considerably higher body count. Don’t expect this film to go easy on its victims, Christmas or no.
Watch it on: Apple TV and Prime Video
And if you’re the sort who enjoys a good horror movie at Christmas (we know you’re out there), we also have some international picks from Halloween to tide you over.