This story was originally published in 2018 and is being republished in the spirit of the season.
The holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time to put away our differences in the interest of peace on earth, goodwill toward others, etc., etc., and kick back with a great Christmas movie, a filmmaking tradition that dates back to the 1898 film Santa Claus. In that one, Santa slides down a chimney, stuffs some stockings, and promptly disappears into the ether; the whole film runs just over one minute long.
No one would argue that that early effort was anything but a Christmas movie, but these days, the question comes up frequently: What exactly is a Christmas movie? Is merely being set at Christmas enough? Or is there some elusive other element that makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie? It’s the old, now tired, “Does Die Hard count?” debate.
Well, does it? Opting for a big-tent definition of what constitutes a Christmas movie, this list of the greatest Christmas movies ever made argues, yes, it does, very much so. And not just because it takes place at Christmas. The story of a man trying to repair his life, earn redemption, and keep his family together, Die Hard engages with some key Christmas-movie themes. More than twinkling lights and gift-making elves, we looked to these elements when putting the list together.
Also, the movies on this list have to be good. There’s a cynical reason to make a Christmas movie: The demand is high, even for the bad ones, every holiday season, when cable plays them ad nauseam to satisfy Christmas-crazed subscribers. So, sorry, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — just because you’re unavoidable doesn’t earn you a spot on the list. Another qualifier: We stayed away from the world of made-for-TV movies, though some direct-to-streaming titles did make the cut. That means Hallmark Channel Christmas movies about young people who don’t like each other but then end up liking each other a lot weren’t considered. The list is mostly feature films but with a few shorts thrown in as well.
We also opted to include a wide variety of Christmas movies, ranging from established classics to cult horror movies. Not every title will be for everyone, but there should be something for everyone here, whether you want Jimmy Stewart welcoming the season or Santa’s demonic counterpart threatening a dysfunctional family. In the spirit of the season, we erred on the side of generosity.
The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
The streaming era has produced many forgettable movies that disappear from memory almost as quickly as they appear under the “Top Picks” header. But some have stuck around, like this goofy, endearing Netflix movie starring Kurt Russell as a gruff but good-hearted (and hunky) Santa who spends one busy Christmas Eve helping out a family of troubled kids escape a series of mishaps. Think Adventures in Babysitting, but with St. Nicholas and a musical cameo from Steven van Zandt and his band. A sequel followed in 2020 that, while not quite as good, does expand on Goldie Hawn’s last-minute appearance as Mrs. Claus at the end of the original.
The Great Rupert (1950)
A true Christmas oddity, this is the only holiday movie featuring Jimmy Durante as a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian forced to part ways with his trained squirrel as Christmas approaches. That’s the heartbreaking premise of The Great Rupert, but it’s all a set-up to a happy ending in which Durante is reunited with his four-legged friend, the poor get rich, and the rich learn a lesson (a story element that pops up a lot in the flood of Christmas movies released in the years immediately following World War II). The plot lags at times, but Durante’s always fun, and so is Rupert, the delightful creation of producer George Pal, the stop-motion wizard behind Puppetoons.
Christmas horror films are their own subgenre (there will be more ahead), using the most wonderful time of year as the backdrop for some ugly, scary business. This 2015 horror comedy doesn’t always get the scares-to-laughs balance right, but its tale of a squabbling family visited by the demonic spirit of Krampus, a kind of anti-Santa sent to punish the naughty, benefits from a great cast (Toni Collette, Adam Scott, Allison Tolman, David Koechner) and some truly inventive monster designs. Collette heads a family that is not feeling the holidays — and winds up falling prey to murderous visitors, including some gingerbread men determined to bite back.
The Ice Harvest (2005)
Between this movie and another one a little higher on the list, Billy Bob Thornton has carved himself a nice space in the seamy-underbelly-of-Christmas subgenre. Holiday cheer provides an ironic backdrop for this overlooked-but-quite-good Harold Ramis thriller, starring Thornton and John Cusack as a pair of seedy characters looking to get the hell out of Wichita after ripping off their boss. Unfortunately, they haven’t factored in the possibility that bad weather (to say nothing of double crosses and other unforeseen bits of adversity) will get in their way. Thornton and Cusack make for a great pair, but it’s Oliver Platt who steals his every scene as a drunken lawyer in a film that provides the perfect antidote to the season’s excessive amounts of good cheer and faith in one’s fellow man.
The Silent Partner (1978)
There’s been no shortage of scary Santas in movies — see above and below for examples — but few as terrifying as Christopher Plummer in this sometimes brutal thriller. Plummer plays Arthur Reikle, a psychopathic criminal who poses as a mall Santa while scheming to rob a Toronto bank. When a clever clerk (Elliott Gould) gets wise and schemes to rob the robber, a battle of wits ensues. The action plays out across several months, but it’s the early scenes that will make you look askance at any stranger in a Santa costume, no matter how jolly-seeming.
Christmas Evil (a.k.a. You Better Watch Out and Terror in Toyland) (1980)
Or, if The Ice Harvest isn’t a strong enough antidote, check out this truly twisted slasher about a toy-factory employee who goes on a Yuletide killing spree. Christmas Evil has a premise similar to the much better known Silent Night, Deadly Night, which sparked protests in the streets when it was released four years later. But Silent Night, Deadly Night is just a standard slasher movie in Christmas drag. Christmas Evil plays like a demented piece of outsider art that takes the idea of a killer Santa to some pretty extreme places — including an ending that has to be seen to be believed. John Waters is a fan, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
The Insects’ Christmas (1913)
Before The Nightmare Before Christmas, before Rankin-Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, before even The Great Rupert there was The Insects’ Christmas, from Russian animator Ladislas Starevich. Starevich made a series of films using dead insects as his stars. His Christmas movie expands the cast to include Father Christmas and an animated doll. But insects remain, as the title suggests, front and center in an inventive, enchanting, if a little unsettling, look at how a bunch of bugs (and one frog) celebrate Christmas that climaxes with Santa, a grasshopper, and assorted other bugs skating on a frozen lake. счастливого Рождества to all!
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
As Christmas approaches, all is not well for Henry Brougham (David Niven), a Protestant bishop trying to raise funds for the glorious new cathedral of his dreams — a project that’s led him to neglect his wife, Julia (Loretta Young), and daughter and cause him to lose sight of his roots as a minister to the needy. Enter Dudley (Cary Grant), an angel determined to set Henry on the right path. The only trouble: He finds himself increasingly wanting to spend time with Julia instead. The film’s a bit pokily directed at times, but Young and Grant’s chemistry smooths over some rough patches — particularly when Grant gets a wistful look in his eyes suggesting that he might call heaven his home but he knows he could find even greater happiness on earth with Young’s character by his side. (The Preacher’s Wife, the 1996 remake starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, is also worth a look.)
What is Scrooged trying to say, anyway? You can watch the film over and over — easy to do if you have a cable subscription in December, when it plays all the time — and never quite figure it out. Is it a pitch-black comedy about the commercialization of Christmas? Is it a cynical send-up of our once-a-year celebration of kindness and selflessness? Is it a sincere depiction of a man being transformed by the holidays? It’s a tough film to pin down, probably because the darkly comic sensibilities of star Bill Murray and writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue often seem at odds with that of blockbuster director Richard Donner. But what makes this Reagan-era update on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — in which Murray plays a cold-hearted TV network president visited by Christmas spirits — flawed also makes it fascinating, and Carol Kane is especially fun as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Worth noting: Dickens’s classic looms large over the Christmas-movie genre, making this just one of many A Christmas Carol adaptations to make the list. Others include …
For a more tuneful version of the Dickens tale, there’s this 1970 musical starring Albert Finney as the eponymous miser. Finney holds nothing back as Scrooge, truly living up to the moniker “the Meanest Man in the Whole Wide World” given to him in “Father Christmas,” one of many earworm-y songs written by Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory songwriter Leslie Bricusse. Highlights include Alec Guinness as a spooky Jacob Marley and a truly scary Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It’s a big, occasionally tacky, but quite fun take on the familiar story.
Little Women (1994) and 34. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Both these movies raise a question: How much Christmas does a movie need to be a Christmas movie? Both are great films that set key scenes at Christmastime, but is it fair to call them Christmas movies? In the generous spirit of the season, let’s include them (but let’s also rank them a little lower than some others because so much of their narratives don’t take place during the holidays). You could include virtually any adaptation of this Louisa May Alcott classic on the list, but Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation gets the nod for the moving way it stages the moment when Beth (Claire Danes) receives a piano for Christmas (and Danes’s heartrending expression of overwhelming joy). Vincente Minnelli’s classic 1944 musical spans a year in the life of St. Louis’s Smith family, but it’s a year in which a Christmas ball plays a pivotal role and features Judy Garland debuting “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” now a Christmas standard (albeit one no one has performed more heartbreakingly than Garland).
The Holiday (2006)
With her follow-up to Something’s Gotta Give, Nancy Myers seemingly set out to ask the question, If I cast four actors who really have no business appearing in a soft-edged romantic comedy in my next movie, could I make it work anyway? The answer: kind of? Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet play, respectively, a tightly wound editor of movie trailers and a British newspaper reporter who decide to swap houses shortly before Christmas. This leads Winslet’s character, now in L.A., to befriend an aging screenwriter played by Eli Wallach and (eventually) fall for a kindhearted composer played by Jack Black. Meanwhile, Diaz’s character, installed in Surrey, unwittingly hooks up with the brother of Winslet’s character, played by Jude Law. It’s a somewhat shapeless movie that goes on too long, but it also has an undeniable, nap-friendly, tryptophan-like charm as four beautiful people overcome the ridiculously small hurdles keeping them from getting together in two photogenic environments. (Also, Wallach’s a lot of fun.)
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Bob Hope didn’t so much play characters as variations on the Bob Hope persona, a wisecracking coward with a tendency to get in way over his head then make matters worse for himself. Hope’s not the most obvious fit for a Damon Runyon adaptation, much less a Christmas-themed Runyon adaptation with a deep sentimental streak, but their sensibilities end up meshing pretty well anyway in this 1951 comedy. Hope plays the eponymous character, a con artist who has to flee Florida for New York in order to pay off a debt to a gangster. The ensuing scam involves criminals dressed as Santa and a fake retirement home for “Old Dolls.” The inspired slapstick bits reportedly come from the brilliant animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin, but it’s Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell’s performance of the then-new “Silver Bells” that’s ensured the film its spot in the Christmas-movie canon.
Home Alone (1990)
Nostalgia and holidays both have a way of warping emotions. Combined, they’re hard to resist, especially when it comes to movies that won us over when we were younger. That’s why it’s impossible not to include Home Alone — the John Hughes–scripted, Chris Columbus–directed hit in which Macaulay Culkin finds himself unexpectedly left behind when his family mistakenly flies to Paris without him. But it would be unfair to rank it any higher. Have you watched it? Lately? As a grown-up? Like, watched it all the way through from the shrill opening filled with obnoxious kids to the leadenly staged slapstick climax? It’s a much rougher ride than you might remember. Still, Culkin’s charming, and the sentimental ending works every time. Just ask George Costanza.
Love Actually (2003)
Few movies have been embraced and rejected, rejected and embraced with the ferocity of Richard Curtis’s 2003 holiday smorgasbord of new love, old love, dying love, Prime Minister love, and porn-movie love. It’s unabashedly corny and sometimes annoyingly smug and simplistic in its take on love, but there’s just so much going on in the movie that it’s hard to reject it wholesale. Don’t like the silly story line in which some luckless Brits fly to America to test the theory that their accents will make them a hit with women? Just stay tuned for a wrenching tale of infidelity starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Plus, it features the quintessential Bill Nighy performance as a washed-up rock star made miserable by his success, a true present any time of year.
Holiday Affair (1949)
Janet Leigh plays Connie, a war widow who unexpectedly becomes the center of a love triangle when her longtime suitor Carl (Wendell Corey) meets an unexpected rival in the form of Steve (Robert Mitchum), a veteran trying to figure out his place in the postwar world. Steve finds himself infatuated with Connie after they meet-cute in a department store — he’s a clerk, she’s a Christmastime undercover shopper — then starts a hard sell, asking him to dump Carl and take a chance on him. Mitchum’s tough-guy demeanor serves him well here, giving an odd energy to the love story. His character is sometimes written as too pushy, but the scene in which he declares his intentions over Christmas dinner, a moment where there’s no room for lies, is downright electric — and the final scene is a stunner.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Shane Black often sets his films against a Christmas backdrop, but where Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3, and others feel like films that happen to take place at Christmas, Black’s directorial debut feels like it could only take place at Christmas thanks to its themes of redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth. Here it’s New York thief Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) in need of a new start, which he gets when he’s mistakenly asked to audition for a role in a Hollywood movie. Once there, he falls into a mystery tied to his own past when he reconnects with a childhood friend (Michelle Monaghan) and reluctantly partners with a private eye (Val Kilmer). The twists, rapid-fire banter, and love of seedy crime fiction are familiar Black trademarks, but the concern for Harry’s happiness and connections with others — brought to life by the performance that cemented Downey’s comeback — make this Black’s most heartfelt script.
Sometimes the right actor in the right role is pretty much all you need. This pleasant, goofy film stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human who’s grown up at the North Pole living under the mistaken impression that he’s an elf, despite developing into a lumbering adult with little skill for elfish endeavors such as toy-making. Eventually, he has to find his way in the human world when he travels to New York in search of his birth father (James Caan). As a cynical department-store employee, Zooey Deschanel provides a fun contrast to Ferrell’s wild-eyed enthusiasm. The film’s more winning the less it relies on wild antics, but Ferrell and others make sure it stays heartfelt throughout.
Arthur Christmas (2011)
Aardman Animations, the studio behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts and Chicken Run, brings its own particular whimsical sensibility to a holiday tale with this playful look inside the inner workings of the North Pole, where the latest in a long line of Santas (Jim Broadbent) seems reluctant to give up his post to one of his sons. Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie), who’s been running the operation for his dad with military precision, seems the obvious successor, but it’s the bumbling Arthur (James McAvoy) who best embodies the Christmas spirit, as evidenced by his mad rush to make sure the one kid who mistakenly got the wrong present doesn’t wake up disappointed on Christmas morning. The film mixes clever ideas — dig that high-tech North Pole! — with real warmth, making it feel like nothing less than the future of Christmas itself rests on Arthur’s shoulders.
A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The first big-screen Muppet project after the 1990 death of Jim Henson, A Muppet Christmas Carol features some terrific Paul Williams songs, and smartly slots the always charming Muppets in the familiar Dickens roles. (Kermit and Piggy play the Cratchits, naturally, yet it’s details like the Swedish Chef as a party cook that make it a particular delight for longtime fans.) In the end, though, what makes the movies is Michael Caine’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. Caine plays it straight, as if he doesn’t even realize he’s surrounded by puppets, ensuring that the movie works as a moving Dickens adaptation first, and a Muppet movie second.
Blast of Silence (1961)
A true cult classic, this low-budget noir directed by Allen Baron unfolds against the backdrop of a New York decked out for the holidays. Yet it’s anything but a merry Christmas for Frank Bono (also Baron), a Cleveland hit man who’s in town to do a job. Mixing gritty location shooting with lyrical narration, it mixes pulpy themes with a feeling of existential loneliness. The movie would work if it weren’t set at Christmas, but the holiday cheer ratchets up the sense of alienation and despair. Not everyone is destined to have happy holidays. Some might not even make it out alive.
Black Christmas (1974)
Arthur Christmas too heartwarming for you? Then try Bob Clark’s classic horror film, in which a mysterious killer starts picking off members of a sorority house one by one during the lead-up to Christmas. Shot on and near the University of Toronto campus, it’s secretly one of the most influential horror films of all time, inspiring Halloween and all the slasher films that followed. Beyond its odd cast (Margot Kidder! SCTV’s Andrea Martin! Romeo and Juliet star Olivia Hussey! 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea!), it’s notable for using Christmas trappings to unnerving effect, including a truly memorable final scene. (Clark, who’d later go on to direct Porky’s, would return to Christmas with a much different movie less than a decade later.)
Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Is this a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie? Why choose one when it’s obviously both? The Nightmare Before Christmas has become such a Halloween marketing bonanza — with images of protagonists Jack Skellington and Sally becoming unavoidable every October — that it’s easy to forget it’s at heart the story of a kindhearted ghoulish spirit learning the true meaning of Christmas. (That its most famous song repeats the words “This is Halloween!” over and over again probably doesn’t help.) Directed by stop-motion wizard Henry Selick from a story and designs by Tim Burton, it plays like a sweet-creepy take on a Rankin-Bass Christmas special, building an elaborate mythology out of the holidays and populating it with endearing characters with lessons to learn and adversity to overcome.
Much like Nightmare Before Christmas, Joe Dante’s enduring horror favorite Gremlins plays like someone wanted to see how badly a bunch of little monsters could screw up the setting of another Christmas classic. The answer: pretty badly! Set in an idyllic American town straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life — its name, Kingston Falls, even hearkens back to that movie’s Bedford Falls — Gremlins features a cuddly little creature whose evil offspring run amok all over a sweet burg as it gets ready to celebrate the Christmas season. As usual, Dante mixes mockery with celebration, and the film evolves from a horror movie into a freewheeling send-up of both the holidays and the Hollywood movies that celebrate them.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Neither Disney animation nor its biggest star, Mickey Mouse, were riding high in the early ’80s. Disney had suffered a string of disappointments and setbacks, and though he remained an inescapable icon, Mickey hadn’t been seen in movie theaters since the ’50s. But this adaptation of the Dickens story suggested there might be life in both yet. Running just 26 minutes — and originally serving as the opener for a rerelease of The Rescuers — Mickey’s Christmas Carol offers a brisk, moving take on the familiar story. Scrooge McDuck (who else?) assumes the Scrooge role, but it’s Mickey and Minnie’s turns as the Cratchits that give the lovingly animated film its heart. After years of cutting corners and coasting on past triumphs, it provided an early sign that Disney was trying again — almost as if the studio has been visited by spirits reminding it what really mattered or something.
Remember the Night (1940)
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck famously co-starred in Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir Double Indemnity, but that’s just one of four films to pair them together. They first teamed up for this 1940 Christmas romance in which Fred MacMurray plays John Sargent, a hard-charging DA who, through a misunderstanding, comes to spend the days before Christmas with Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a small-time jewel thief he’s prosecuting. They start to fall in love during a road trip to Indiana, a sojourn that almost allows them to forget that John still has to try to send Lee to jail when they get back. Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a Preston Sturges script, Remember the Night begins as a broad, brisk comedy but shifts moods as John learns about Lee’s difficult past. In a classic holiday-spirit turn, he comes to realize the advantages his loving family have bestowed upon him once he sees how appreciative Lee is after sharing the first warm Christmas morning of her life with his family.
Reve De Noel (The Christmas Dream) (1900)
French cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès’s contribution to the Christmas-film canon offers little in the way of narrative, just an abundance of turn-of-the-century Christmas imagery as a pair of sleeping children imagine a winter wonderland filled with frolicking musicians, holiday revelers, and, of course, Père Noël himself. It’s a lovely, whimsical short film that captures the inventive director in a festive mood, and immortalizes on film ways of celebrating Christmas that otherwise might have faded from memory.
White Christmas (1954) and 16. Holiday Inn (1942)
A song of yearning for holiday togetherness the singer suspects he’ll never find again, Bing Crosby’s recording of the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas” became a runaway hit in 1942 as America adjusted to the loss and separation of World War II. Its success was spurred on by the August release of Holiday Inn, a musical conceived by Berlin that starred Crosby and Fred Astaire as collaborators who break up and reunite over the course of a year, all against the backdrop of a country inn only open on holidays. (All the better to showcase Berlin’s knack for crafting holiday-themed hits.) With Danny Kaye subbing in for Astaire, Berlin and Crosby teamed up 12 years later for White Christmas, another holiday musical set at an idyllic getaway.
Both films have become Christmas staples, and both have much to recommend them. Featuring top-drawer Berlin songs and one memorable scene after another — Astaire tap dances while smoking and setting off fireworks in one — and elegant direction by Mark Sandrich, Holiday Inn is the better film by a good measure, but watching it means grappling with an ugly blackface number mid-film. (To make matters worse, skipping the scene altogether would result in missing an important plot point.) White Christmas, on the other hand, features fewer songs and a sleepy, low-stakes plot as Crosby and Kaye romance (sort of) a sister act played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Still, its aggressive, Technicolor pleasantness has its own charms.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton clearly has a fondness for Christmas that extends beyond A Nightmare Before Christmas. Batman Returns, for one, uses the holiday to memorable effect. But Burton’s Edward Scissorhands goes even further, treating a sensitive, lab-created man with scissors for hands (Johnny Depp) as a Christ-like, too-pure-for-this-world figure who descends on an American suburb where he’s celebrated, then persecuted. The first collaboration between Burton and Depp, a team-up that would become less welcome as the years piled up, is a lovely celebration of outsiders that captures the Burton sensibility in its purest form, elevating his sympathy for monsters and a disdain for the “normal” world into a moral drama filled with arresting images.
3 Godfathers (1948)
Not unlike Scissorhands, John Ford’s 3 Godfathers similarly uses echoes of the story of Christ to tremendous effect. A rare Christmas Western, the film stars John Wayne as one of a trio of bank robbers who agree to care for a newborn child while fleeing the law in Death Valley. Ford’s biblical echoes aren’t subtle, nor are they intended to be, but Wayne keeps the film, and its themes of redemption and rebirth, grounded with one of his most sensitive performances.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
A great Christmas movie that not enough people talk about, It Happened on Fifth Avenue opens with the homeless sage Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor More) moving, as he does every Christmas season, into the luxurious Manhattan home of vacationing tycoon Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles). From there the film keeps piling on the complications as it breaks down the divide between the haves and the have-nots. McKeever is soon joined by a displaced World War II vet (Don DeFore) and O’Connor’s daughter Mary (Ann Harding), who doesn’t let on that she’s loaded and knows the house even better than those squatting there. The house grows more crowded, new loves get kindled, old loves get renewed, and O’Connor is forced to do a Scrooge-like about-face when he gets reacquainted with those less fortunate than him. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, who took on the project after Frank Capra decided to make It’s a Wonderful Life instead, It Happened on Fifth Avenue earns its warmth honestly, tethering a tale of fresh starts and changed hearts to the real difficulties faced by those reaching for the American dream in a postwar era that was supposed to bring prosperity for all.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
In a film as sexy as it is funny, Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a magazine columnist who risks being exposed as a phony if she can’t create the perfect Christmas at the Connecticut home she’s writing about as part of a PR stunt to reward recuperating GI Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), who’s been dreaming of tasting her recipes while serving in World War II. The only problem: There is no Connecticut home, and she can’t cook. The farcical complications pile up from there, and Stanwyck deftly balances Elizabeth’s mounting sense of panic with wry humor as she reckons with her unexpected desire for Jones — a desire that has popped up just after she’s decided to give up on love in return for a marriage of convenience. Director Peter Godfrey keeps the action fast and light while trusting Stanwyck to excellently bring her character’s dilemma to life, even if it involves changing a diaper as if she’s never seen a baby before in her life.
Peace on Earth (1939)
Produced as the planet descended into another World War, this 1939 short, like many animated films, depicts a world populated by wide-eyed cartoon animals. The difference: They’ve inherited the Earth from humanity, whose habit of making war has led to its destruction. Directed for MGM by the influential animation pioneer Hugh Harman — who, with his partner Rudy Ising, had already logged stints working for Walt Disney and Warner Bros. — it’s a masterfully downbeat vision of the future; the cute protagonists, with their enthusiasm for keeping Christmas traditions alive, do little to offset the short film’s depictions of the horrors of war and the ways we fail to live up to our noblest principles. When Fred Quimby, William Hanna, and Joseph Barbera remade it 16 years later as the also-great Good Will to Men, they had to change little beyond the addition of nuclear war and other up-to-date threats.
Comfort and Joy (1984)
The end of the year can be a confusing time of reflection for those who feel they don’t have anything to celebrate. That feeling is captured beautifully in Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s tale of a Glasgow DJ (Bill Paterson), who finds himself unexpectedly alone when he’s dumped by his girlfriend shortly before Christmas. Adrift, he finds himself drawn into a turf war between two rival ice-cream vendors, a conflict that might offer him a chance to start over, or might drive him to the brink of madness. Paterson beautifully depicts a man who’s quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, experiencing a nervous breakdown as the world around him grows stranger and more absurd. That it all somehow builds toward a hilarious moment of reconciliation involving an unexpected new ice-cream product is just one of many little miracles in a Christmas movie that takes a roundabout way to celebrating the season’s possibilities of renewal and rebirth, but still gets there all the same.
It takes time for a film to emerge as a Christmas classic, and while this one may not end up being shown in constant rotation alongside A Christmas Story and Home Alone, let’s stake an early claim for Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a film that follows the Christmas spirit into some unexpected corners. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor co-star as, respectively, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, a pair of transgender sex workers living on the fringes of Los Angeles. Released from jail on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee is driven to frustration when she learns that her pimp/lover Chester (James Ransone) is cheating on her as Alexandra prepares for a musical performance. Chaos mounts as day turns into night in the hours before Christmas.
Baker’s film, co-written by Chris Bergoch, alternates laughs and shocks, but it keeps circling back to how this particular Christmas has become a crossroads for its central characters, and how much they need each other if they’re going to make it through another year. It all ends with an image that, in its own way, is as warm and generous as Charlie Brown’s friends reviving a seemingly hopeless tree.
You might have noticed that this list — some notable exceptions aside — is dominated by stories of prosperous white families. Among its other virtues, Tangerine serves as a corrective to that tradition, serving as a reminder that Christmas isn’t limited to the land of picket fences and neatly trimmed trees. It’s a film as vital, alive, and in touch with the holiday as more traditional entries — an invitation to other filmmakers to redefine what a Christmas movie can be, and as much a story about the importance of human kindness as the one that tops this list.
Like Comfort and Joy, Todd Haynes’s Carol depicts the holidays as a time of possibility and peril as an intense, forbidden romance plays out against the backdrop of the 1952 Christmas season. The film stars Cate Blanchett as the eponymous unhappy housewife, a woman who unexpectedly falls for Therese (Rooney Mara), a store clerk. But their relationship seems doomed before it really begins once it threatens Carol’s ability to see her child, leaving her with an impossible choice. Inspired by Brief Encounter and adapted from a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, otherwise best known for pitiless crime fiction like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Carol uses its holiday setting as more than a backdrop: Haynes bathes the films in Christmas lights, sure, but he also captures the spirit of a season through Carol and Therese’s relationship. The passing of one year gives way to a potential new beginning of the next — for those who can make it to the other side.
Die Hard (1988)
Odd as it may sound, many of the same qualities in Carol also make Die Hard a great Christmas movie, no matter what star Bruce Willis says. Yes, the John McTiernan–directed movie is one of the best action movies ever made; yes, it’s endlessly quotable; and, yes, it transformed Willis from that guy on Moonlighting who occasionally put out music under a different persona into a full-fledged movie star. But it’s also a story of loss and renewal in which Willis’s New York cop John McClane has to navigate the strange world of L.A. and take down a bunch of Eurotrash pseudo-terrorists in order to repair his marriage. And that’s no small part of the movie. Reconciling with his wife in time for the holidays is McClane’s mission. The rest is just a sidetrack, though neither goal will be easy. Still, he guns down the bad guys and emerges from the confrontation bloody and with a sense of forgiveness. Merry Christmas to all!
Bad Santa (2003)
A proudly mean-spirited black comedy seemingly at war with the Christmas spirit, Bad Santa somehow loops all the way back around to being a heartwarming Christmas movie about one man’s redemption. It’s a weird trick, pulled off in large part thanks to star Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as a hard-drinking con artist who uses his work as a mall Santa as a setup for grand larceny. Actually, “hard-drinking” doesn’t begin to describe Thornton’s Willie Soke, who spends much of the film in a near-stuporous state yet still manages to form an unlikely makeshift family with a misfit kid (Brett Kelly) and a bartender (Lauren Graham) with a thing for Santas. With able support from Bernie Mac and John Ritter, director Terry Zwigoff keeps the humor dark without losing sight of his characters’ humanity — however deep they might sink into a drunken haze.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Making his second appearance on this list with a much different Christmas movie, director Bob Clark’s venerable 1983 film adapts storyteller and radio personality Jean Shepherd’s tales of growing up in Hammond, Indiana, while cutting nostalgia and sentiment with just the right amounts of broad, occasionally dark, comedy. (And, it has to be noted, some pretty unfortunate racial stereotypes toward the end.) The episodic film follows Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) in the days before Christmas, when he wants nothing more than a Red Ryder air rifle — and seems destined not to get one. Narrated by Shepherd himself, it mixes big comic moments, like a kid getting his tongue stuck to a stop sign, with affection for family life and days gone by. Clark renders the memories of growing up in a particular time and place so well that Shepherd’s Hammond — its name changed to “Hohman” — becomes an idealized stand-in for any time and every place.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
There are many great romantic movies set at Christmas, but somehow The Shop Around the Corner still stands above them all. Maybe it’s the irresistible premise: A pair of feuding co-workers don’t realize they’re falling in love with one another via anonymous letters. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Nora Ephron drew on the same source material — the Miklós László play Parfumerie — for You’ve Got Mail.) Maybe it’s a cast headed by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan and filled out with colorful character actors. Maybe it’s because few directors have balanced lightness and romance like Ernst Lubitsch. Whatever the case, it’s both a peerless romantic comedy and one of the great Christmas movies, weaving themes of forgiveness and second chances into a love story that reflects the season in which it takes place.
A Christmas Carol (a.k.a. Scrooge) (1951)
What makes an adaptation of A Christmas Carol great? Above all, it’s the actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge. There have been many memorable movie Scrooges (take a look at the multiple entries above), but few as memorable as Alastair Sim. He’s not just terrifyingly convincing as a pitiless miser in the film’s early scenes but also heartbreakingly affecting as a changed man in its closing moments. Not that Sim doesn’t get help from director Brian Desmond Hurst, who whisks the action along while surrounding his lead with lushly realized Victorian trappings and an able supporting cast. But the film rests on Sim’s shoulders, and it’s not hard to see why he’s yet to be supplanted as the definitive Scrooge.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Here’s a question: What was going on that led to so many great Christmas movies being released in 1947? That year saw the release of The Bishop’s Wife, It Happened on Fifth Avenue (see above), and offered most viewers their first chance to see the greatest Christmas movie of all time (see below). It also produced this lovely story of a girl (Natalie Wood) whose mother (Maureen O’Hara) unwittingly hires someone who may be the actual Kris Kringle as a department-store Santa at Macy’s. What follows is part fantasy, part romance (as O’Hara’s character starts to fall for a charming neighbor), part indictment of commercialism, part defense of letting children be children as long as they can, and part legal thriller (well, sort of). Mostly, the film, written and directed by George Seaton, is an irresistible bit of Christmas whimsy made unforgettable by Edmund Gwenn’s turn as the man who might be Santa.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
What else? Really, what other film could top a list of the greatest Christmas movies of all time? Frank Capra’s enduring classic stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the unwitting savior of Bedford Falls, a man whose goodness and generosity has touched more people than he realizes. In fact, as one bleak Christmas looms, he doesn’t realize it at all and is ready to commit suicide — until an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) arrives to show him the error of his ways.
Though it’s become synonymous with holiday cheer, Capra’s film works because of its willingness to go to some dark places, and because of Stewart’s ability to play a gregarious goof one moment and a man whose world comes crashing down the next. Curiously, the film didn’t go into wide release until after Christmas in January of 1947, which might have contributed to its underwhelming box-office performance. But it received a second life thanks to relentless airings on local television in the ’70s and ’80s, where its depiction of one man’s dark night of the soul (and a nightmarish vision of what unrestrained greed looks like without those interested in fairness and justice to stand in the way of the Mr. Potters of the world) connected with a new generation.
It’s not hard to see why. It’s grounded in details of the times that inspired it — the Depression, World War II — but its vision of holiday kindness, and of the sort of country most of us would want to live in and the values of kindness and generosity most of us share, remains timeless.