There’s a strange, unspoken rule about holiday movies: They don’t have to be good to become so-called “classics,” or even to make money. All a holiday movie has to do, really, is overlay a Christmas-themed backdrop with something, and magically, millions of people will watch it over and over again, as if bid by some unholy demon.
That’s not to say there aren’t any good holiday movies. Of course there are! Just imagine the kind of cheerless nightmare-scape we would we be living in if it weren’t for It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Story, or Elf, or The Miracle on 34th Street, or The Muppet Christmas Carol. What would extended-family holiday gatherings look like without the impeccable standard set by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? How would we know where to meet people if not for Meet Me in St. Louis? But outside of a handful of wonderful films, many holiday flicks are lumps of coal wrapped in paper so glittery it blinds us all to the truth.
Which is why we’ve gone ahead and created this list of currently streaming holiday films that don’t suck, films you should watch instead of the films you might have otherwise watched, which are kind of terrible. And before you accuse us of being Scrooges (or worse, noncompletists,) remember: This is by no means a comprehensive list of good holiday movies — we’ve just included what’s streaming for free across every major service, since you never can tell what the streaming situation at your parents’ house might be. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal (yes, of course that one’s on here).
(If these don’t do the trick, Vulture’s What to Stream guide should have you covered for non-holiday binge-watch recommendations.)
All right, let’s all take a deep breath: I know this one’s controversial. But goddammit, I love Love Actually. This isn’t to say I don’t read and enjoy every single scathing, hilariously accurate takedown of this film. Love Actually is ridiculous! But at times it’s also charming (Liam Neeson and his kid imitating that scene from Titanic — I mean, come on), tragically romantic (I’ll literally never forgive you for that Karl bullshit, Laura Linney), and surprisingly moving (if you don’t cry when Emma Thompson stands in her very comfortable formalwear and cries to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, you are a monster). And no one can say it doesn’t fully deliver on its central premise, which is that love actually is all around us. It’s cleaning your house. It’s organizing your prime minister’s schedule. It’s in your airport, threatening national security. It’s standing next to you beneath a hot light, simulating porn.
Watch it instead of: The Holiday. This choice pained me because these are both Christmas movies that I enjoy and that are regularly subjected to mountains of undeserved shit. But I am sacrificing The Holiday so that Love Actually might live. The Holiday is dying for Love Actually’s sins.
Many a holiday film deals directly with familial drama as it unfolds on Christmas. Few do it better than Happy Christmas, which centers on the complexities of becoming an adult while surrounded by other burgeoning, confused adults (… at Christmas). The family at the heart of Joe Swanberg’s film — Melanie Lynskey and Swanberg are a married couple, Anna Kendrick is Swanberg’s shitshow of a sister, and Jude Swanberg is the Actual Best Baby Actor on Earth — isn’t fully dysfunctional or falsely happy, like many Christmas films might force them to be. They’re just humans who sometimes hate each other and other times smoke lots of weed together. Come to Happy Christmas for the lessons about love and compromise; stay for the scene in which Jude stuffs his face full of Cheerios.
Watch it instead of: Christmas With the Kranks, which follows another family trying to figure out their shit over the holidays. In this one, though, an entire town is utterly scandalized by Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis (why, guys?) because they decide to skip Christmas for financial reasons. This movie is straight dumb.
Whoever first conceived of the idea behind this film — in which Billy Bob Thornton gets to smoke, drink, steal, and verbally abuse an adorable child and emerge both unscathed and sleeping with Lorelai Gilmore — is a genius. Bad Santa is unapologetically offensive, profoundly misanthropic, and, essentially, a giant “fuck you” to every other holiday movie on Earth. As such, it is a rare treat. If you want to understand why Angelina Jolie wore Billy Bob’s blood around her neck for so long, look no further than this film. But if, for some reason, you want to understand the true spirit of Christmas, look elsewhere.
Watch it instead of: The Santa Clause, which follows a Less-Bad Santa, I guess, but isn’t nearly as witty or memorable. This paper-thin film rests its entire premise on the notion that stepping into the discarded suit of a dead person means you must take over his career. (Whoa, I just understood the title’s pun.) There’s also a lot of uncomfortable stuff in here about divorce and its effects on children and women in general. (Again, Tim Allen, why?)
Eyes Wide Shut
A universally recognized Christmas classic for all ages, Eyes Wide Shut follows a young, affluent New York couple (Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise) as they go to fun parties around the holidays! Critics have long mused about why Stanley Kubrick shifted his adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story from Mardi Gras to Christmas; some think it was for lighting/mood purposes, others believe the film is inherently anti-consumerist. Either way, there are a lot of Christmas trees in this movie, which makes it a Christmas movie, and which you can stare at whenever you’re feeling uncomfortable about watching Tom Cruise hit on everyone.
Watch it instead of: Four Christmases. Another tale of a young, affluent couple (Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) going to parties around the holidays, Four Christmases is similarly filled with scenes of marital strife. Unfortunately, it’s also pat, predictable, and generally irritating. If only Stanley Kubrick had gotten his hands on this one.
The Hebrew Hammer
As a Jew with a giant sparkly tree in my living room right now, I don’t have much ethos when it comes to complaining about the oversaturation of Christmas Cheer and the underrepresentation of Hanukkah Happiness. But Adam Goldberg’s Hebrew Hammer does! This is one of the only holiday films I can think of that has a vibrantly Jewish protagonist, and absolutely the only holiday film that centers on a Certified Uncircumcised Dick whose express purpose is to destroy Santa and save Hanukkah. Plus, Judy Greer gets a leading-lady role here, which rarely happens, for some absurd reason. Shabbat Shalom, motherfuckers.
Watch it instead of: Eight Crazy Nights. Adam Sandler is absolutely the lesser Jewish Adam.
One of several made-for-TV stop-motion Rankin and Bass movies available on Amazon Prime right now, Jack Frost is getting the recommendation here because it’s the only one narrated by a groundhog named Pardon-Me Pete (voiced by Buddy Hackett). Jack Frost tells the sweet, weird tale of a freezing-cold fairy (Robert Morse) who falls in love with a human (Debra Clinger), then tries to permanently transform himself so that he might spend a lifetime with his lady. ABC Family plays this one 400 times a day during the month of December, but it’s still worth watching, if only to silence your younger cousins for a while so you can nap.
Watch it instead of: Jack Frost or Jack Frost. It’s important that you steer clear of all other movies entitled Jack Frost. The 1998 version is about a murderous snowman. The 1997 version is about Michael Keaton dying and turning into a snowman, wreaking havoc on his young son’s psyche. Be careful out there, guys.
The Bells of St. Mary’s
This is one of those movies you should turn on when you want to remember why people were once really down with the Catholic Church. It’s a pleasant story about a young, beautiful nun (Ingrid Bergman) and a less-young, charismatic priest (Bing Crosby) who spar and subtly flirt with each other while simultaneously saving an inner-city church. Crosby boosts a young girl’s confidence through the power of song; Bergman teaches a little boy to box. The whole thing is charming and low-key feminist, and it includes a scene depicting the most adorable Christmas pageant of all time. The Bells of St. Mary’s will leave you with holly in your blackened heart.
Watch it instead of: It’s a Wonderful Life, another 1940s film starring Henry Travers. Don’t get me wrong — It’s a Wonderful Life is lovely and fully deserving of its “classic” tag. But it’s also kind of long, and you’ve seen it so many times, you’ve memorized the exact intonation of, “She’s about to close up the library!” Branch out and get your Bing on.
You’ve likely never heard of Christmas, Again, Charles Poekel’s gloomy 2014 indie about a Christmas-tree salesman (Kentucker Audley) struggling with what seems like a pretty severe case of SAD while peddling manufactured cheer to the masses. And that’s a testament to its innate sense of Christmas chill. Inspired by Poekel’s own experiences selling trees to Brooklynites, Christmas, Again doesn’t offer any easy answers to the problems of consumerism, seasonal depression, or heartbreak, but it does offer several mellow, naturalistic moments between Audley and his customers — one in particular, played with sorrowful beauty by Hannah Gross, gets under his skin for a bit and helps shift his perspective on life. Christmas, Again is decidedly unsentimental, but still touching, which is rare in a holiday film.
Watch it instead of: Jingle All the Way, a substantially more insane film about Christmas and retail that flies directly in the face of every authentic moment in Christmas, Again.
HBO Go/HBO Now:
Yes, you already know Home Alone is the best. I’m just here to let you know that this classic ‘90s Christmas caper is streaming on HBO Go/Now, as are its two sequels. The first one is clearly the best of the three, what with its dark messages about American excess and lax parenting, but the latter two have their charms, too. Fine, just the second one. The third one is not good. When you’re done watching however many of these movies suits you, be sure to check in with adult Kevin McCallister, who’s not doing very well.
Watch it instead of: The Nutcracker, starring Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker. This version of the classic ballet is pretty and nostalgia-inducing, but includes an extremely bizarre Culkin performance. As Rogert Ebert put it in his 1993 review, all Culkin does, “mostly, is smile, in closeup, where he seems to be wearing more lipstick than the ballerinas.” (Wait, that last part is fine! You do you, Macaulay.)
A Little Princess
While not technically a holiday film, Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 drama has everything a good Christmas movie should: childlike wonder, magic, and scenes involving snow that will make you sob uncontrollably. In this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, Liesel Matthews — who’s actually a member of the Pritzker family and now a badass philanthropist — stars as Sara Crewe, a well-dressed little rich girl whose soldier father (Liam Cunningham) is declared dead, leaving her to fend for herself under a cruel headmistress at a fancy boarding school. Fortunately, Sarah’s got friends to help her out, including but not limited to a mysterious older Indian man (Errol Sitahal) who lives across the street. This is a small, beautiful movie that doesn’t get any less moving with age. Did I mention it will make you sob hysterically?
Watch it instead of: Love the Coopers, another tale featuring a mysterious May-December friendship (albeit between Amanda Seyfried and Alan Arkin), now in theaters. Somehow, a movie that’s directed by the fabulous Jessie Nelson, narrated by Steve Martin, and stars Diane Keaton and John Goodman as the parents of Ed Helms and Olivia Wilde falls mostly flat. It doesn’t help that said narrator is the family dog. Or that the film ends in the most awkward dance sequence this side of Spider-Man 3.
George Miller, the fevered brain behind Mad Max: Fury Road, is also responsible for this tale of singing, dancing penguins, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, not to mention the hearts of everyone in America back in December 2006. Strange, beautifully wrought, and filled with kid-friendly messages about everything from environmental responsibility to not being an asshole, Happy Feet is proof that cute, animated animals can fix everything that’s wrong with the world. And further proof that George Miller is a total enigma. George, what’s your deal, man?
Watch it instead of: The Polar Express, in which Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis singlehandedly redefine the Uncanny Valley. Pure nightmare fuel.
A Christmas Tale
Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale is the darkest, French-est take on Christmas the world may ever know. Catherine Deneuve is Junon, the matriarch of the Vuillard family, who’s just discovered she has leukemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant. Before her adult kids (Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, and Melvil Poupaud) — two of which haven’t spoken to each other in years — gather around her to celebrate Christmas, Junon asks that they and their own children get tested to see if they’re a match and can save her life. It all sounds very bleak, and it is, but it’s also blackly hilarious and totally strange, a Fanny and Alexander–esque portrait of a flawed but loving family who inexplicably refer to Angela Bassett on more than one occasion and swap beds more casually than the cast of the Real World.
Watch it instead of: The Family Stone. Both feature a sick mom, maladjusted siblings, and a love interest passed back and forth between family members, but where Christmas Tale is lived-in and poignant,The Family Stone is manipulative and straight-up depressing.
Meet John Doe
If you can, suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine a world in which Gary Cooper is an “average man.” That’s what’s up in 1941’s Meet John Doe, a sweet Frank Capra film with a premise that seems anything but: Barbara Stanwyck is Ann Mitchell, a ruthless reporter who, desperate to spike readership and hold on to her newspaper job, writes and publishes a fake note from an anonymous man explaining that he’s going to jump off a building on Christmas Eve because the world has gone to shit. When the public likes Mitchell’s story a little too much and demands to meet the suicidal social-justice warrior, she hires a hobo (Cooper, yes, playing said hobo) to take on the role of John Doe, then falls in love with him. Naturally, things spiral totally out of control. A meditation on materialism, idealism, and America, Meet John Doe is overly simplistic, jingoistic, and a little confused about its own politics. But Cooper and Stanwyck sell the hell out of it.
Watch it instead of: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Neither Ron Howard nor Green Jim Carrey can save this film, which similarly tries to capture the OG, antimaterialist spirit of Christmas and, um, sell it to kids and adults alike. Dr. Seuss’s original message of love and acceptance gets lost in a sea of vaguely terrifying costumes, strange innuendo, and overacting. You (and any kids in the vicinity) will get more from Capra’s confident storytelling than you will from Carrey’s manic screaming.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Okay, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does actually suck, but it sucks so much that it loops back around on itself and becomes completely fantastic. I believe some refer to this phenomenon as “camp.” The 1964 sci-fi comedy presciently foretells the scourge of Snapchat by several decades, centering on the silver-faced, morose children of Mars, who’ve all grown up too quickly thanks to “information fed into their minds via electronic machines in a constant stream.” The Martian adults — the ultimate helicopter parents — decide to remedy their kids’ tech-based malaise by kidnapping Santa from Earth and bringing him to their planet so that he might teach their children how to be cheerful, capitalist Americans. Once they’ve captured Santa, though, the Martians spend most of the film fixated on how fat he is, and trying to become him and murder him by ejecting him into space. Roast a few, uh, chestnuts before watching this one.
Watch it instead of: There is no correlative to this batshit movie. Just watch it.