Top 7 holiday movies set or filmed in Minnesota, from campy to Christmassy 

Three adults stand around a Christmas tree, two in pajamas.
"Patti Rocks" (1988) starring, left to right: Chris Mulkey, John Jenkins and Karen Landry, directed by David Burton Morris.
Courtesy of David Burton Morris

Minnesota seems like a natural setting for a Christmas movie. We have snow, we have Fraser fir Christmas trees that naturally dot the land, we even have reindeer — one of the nation’s largest reindeer farms is just outside Mankato.

And we have had our share of holiday films, some great, some not and some odd:  Minnesota was the setting for 2011’s “Beethoven's Christmas Adventure,” the direct-to-video seventh sequel to a film about a mischievous Saint Bernard. This version included Santa as a character. 

Many of our holiday films are duds, like “Beethoven,” but the North Star state has had a selection of films that are notable, memorable, and sometimes excellent. If you’re looking for a Minnesota holiday film this weekend, take a peek at the list below.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary Grant, radiating charisma, played an angel here. He’s supposed to assist the bishop of a failing regional church. Instead, he and the bishop, played by David Niven, spend a lot of the film bickering, while Grant unsubtly falls in love with the man’s wife. 

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The film features a justifiably famous scene in which Grant and the bishop’s wife, played by a quietly unhappy Loretta Young, ice skate around a pond. The scene is also the subject of a persistent rumor that it was filmed in Minneapolis’s Loring Park.

In fact, a film crew did come to Minneapolis in the year before the film’s release, resetting Christmas lights on Nicollet Avenue and hiring a local lawyer to act as David Niven’s body double. None of this footage seems to have wound up in the movie, which was almost entirely filmed in a Hollywood studio.

Nonetheless, press from the time identifies the film as being set in Minneapolis, and, even though this fact is never mentioned in the film itself, it still makes this list.

Airport (1970)

Like “The Bishop’s Wife,” “Airport” is a bit of an edge case. It’s never explicit that the film is set at Christmas, although the story’s frantic airport bustle during a growing snowstorm will feel familiar to anyone who has traveled during the holidays (especially just now). Neither is “Airport” set in Minnesota, but instead at a fictional Chicago airport. So why mention it?

Because “Airport” was filmed in Minnesota, or, at least, the runway scenes were. The filmmakers hoped to take advantage of our state’s notorious winter and set up shop at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

And here I must bust another rumor — it’s popularly believed that Minnesota proved to be typically temperamental in matters of weather, and filmmakers were forced to import plastic snow to complete shooting. In fact, there was plenty of snow (51 inches had fallen that winter). Plastic snow was used, but for matching shots lensed at the California Universal studio.

The film earns its place on this list for sheer entertainment value. Although critics at the time pooh-poohed the film, it’s the mixture of slumming movie stars (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset), campy plotlines and pricey practical effects (including a mid-air explosion) that set the template for an entire decade of disaster films in the 1970s. 

Patti Rocks, 1988

In 1975, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of David Burton Morris and Victoria Wozniak helped kickstart Minnesota’s independent film scene with “Loose Ends,” a low-budget independent film about two youngish mechanics in Minneapolis.

Morris revisited the characters in 1988 with “Patti Rocks,” bringing back the film’s two stars, Chris Mulkey and John Jenkins, along with actress Karen Landry as the title character. All four are credited as having contributed to the script, which is an uproarious if frequently foulmouthed evisceration of what we now call toxic masculinity.

Mulkey, whose career had progressed considerably since “Loose Ends” (including a number of showy television and film roles), is the roiling center of this story. He’s an aggressive — and aggressively sexual — blowhard who one Christmas bullies a perpetually weary Jenkins into driving him from Minneapolis to La Crosse, Wis., to address an unwanted pregnancy. 

Most of the film is a long, wickedly vile road trip, culminating with the appearance of Landry. She was then, and long remained, one of the Twin Cities’ most beloved stage actresses.

She instantly steals the show from Mulkey, whose shallow bluster melts before her easy confidence. (The two, incidentally, were longtime husband and wife.) The film rarely screens and isn’t streaming anywhere, and badly needs a revival.

Grumpy Old Men, 1993

Hastings-born writer Mark Steven Johnson created arguably the most Minnesota holiday film on this list, as his “Grumpy Old Men” screenplay tells of two older, feuding ice fishermen in Wabasha. 

The film benefits greatly from its cast, reuniting screen legends Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and having them compete for the affections of Ann-Margret. But the “Grumpy Old Men” is also shot through with a bittersweet sense of regret that prevents the story from tipping too far into crass sentimentality or pure slapstick. 

Untamed Heart, 1933

This is one of two films Marisa Tomei made in Minneapolis in the early 1990s — the other, “Equinox,” is an oddity by Alan Rudolph about identical twin gangsters that seems to have been filmed in about a three-block area of the North Loop. 

This means Tomei may have spent more time in Minneapolis than Vince Vaughn, who was born here and almost immediately moved to Illinois but nonetheless has a star on the Minnesota Walk of Fame in front of the State Theatre in Minneapolis. This is not a criticism of Vaughn’s star, mind you, but perhaps we could make some room for Tomei.

“Untamed Heart” is a charming if lukewarm diner romance between Tomei and Christian Slater, who then specialized in playing brooding weirdos. As was often the case in 1990s romances, Slater’s romantic behavior is often questionable, including secretly following Tomei home every night and sneaking into her bedroom to set up a Christmas tree while she is sleeping.

But the film has its pleasures, including a typically quirky performance by Tomei and a genuine sense of place. The film is mostly set in the real, now razed, Jim's Coffee Shop & Bakery in Marcy Holmes, and much of the action takes place in the neighborhood

Jingle All The Way, 1996

This is likely the most notorious of Minnesota’s holiday films, thanks to being a recurring punchline on Conan O’Brien’s show for years. “Jingle All the Way” stars Arnold Schwarzeneggeras a beleaguered father desperately trying to buy a present for his son on Christmas Eve.

The film opened to unfavorable reviews but impressive returns (it eventually grossed $129 million), and the film has a knockabout, chaotic quality that is fitfully, but genuinely, entertaining.

As a Minnesotan, it can be puzzling to watch, as the filmmakers seem to have no grasp of Minnesota geography or even that Minneapolis and St. Paul are separate cities. One moment has Schwarzenegger and costar Sinbad exit Mickey’s Diner in downtown St. Paul and arrive at the KQRS studios, located 8 miles away in Minneapolis.

A Simple Plan, 1998

The bleakest of the Minnesota Christmas films, “A Simple Plan” is a neo-noir film that tells of two brothers in snowed-in Wright County who discover $4.4 million in a crashed airplane. 

It’s never a good idea to abscond with strange money in this sort of film, and so things get bad, and then they get worse, and then they get much worse. Director Sam Raimi, usually one of Hollywood’s most bombastic directors, approaches this film with a steady, mournful sensibility.

The film’s leads, Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, are similarly known for the bigness of their performances, but instead turn in subtle, finely detailed characterizations. Thornton, in particular, brings exquisite pathos and a canny intelligence to his character, who initially seems to be slow and brutish. 

It’s a grim Christmas film, and it barely even gestures toward Christmas – there is a tree strung with beer cans, but that’s about it. But if you’re in a bad, pessimistic mood this Christmas, this is the right film for you.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.