Christmas is such big business, it’s no surprise Hollywood has managed to make an entire genre out of it – and a shockingly varied one at that. Christmas means something different to everyone, so it makes sense that you can find a Christmas movie for pretty much any taste. You’ve got your traditional biblical stories, unrelentingly sentimental romances, cheery musicals, and unconventional black comedies, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, most Christmas movies make for poor cinema, which might explain why only two movies set at Christmas – Going My Way and The Apartment – have ever won Best Picture. Those of us who care about such things don’t want to waste our time sitting through lame Netflix holiday features written by an algorithm (apologies to all the A Christmas Prince fans out there). With that in mind, here are 10 unforgettable Christmas movies to watch over the holidays that don’t suck.
Note: We’ve decided to limit this list to movies that are about Christmas, and not just set in late December. As great as films like Die Hard and Iron Man 3 are, it’s a stretch to call them Christmas movies (even if it’s perfectly acceptable to have them in your holiday rotation). Make sense? Okay, onto the list!
10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Released in November 1944, Meet Me In St. Louis was a sugary sweet dose of comfort for Americans still fighting in World War II overseas. Since then, Vincent Minelli’s musical has become a revered classic and a popular holiday viewing tradition. The movie follows a Missouri family in the leadup to the 1904 World’s Fair so in a way, it’s only partly a Christmas movie.
Then again, it’s pretty much impossible to doubt the Yuletide merits of a film that features Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. More importantly, Meet Me in St. Louis is simply a great piece of classic cinema, albeit one best enjoyed sitting next to a roaring fire on Christmas Eve.
9. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Upon release, Ron Howard’s live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas was met with decidedly mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. Two decades later, it’s easier to take Howard’s film on its own terms and what’s there is both funny and creative.
Jim Carrey’s manic performance as the Grinch is a delight, all goofy one-liners, and bonkers facial expressions. Meanwhile, the set design is simply immaculate, with Whoville feeling like a living, breathing world filled with (mostly) annoying denizens devoted body and soul to the commercialization of Christmas. That being said, the film is needlessly long and doesn’t quite capture the magic of the 1966 animated TV film. But we’d still choose it over the mediocre 2018 computer-animated adaptation any day.
8. Bad Santa (2003)
Who said Christmas movies have to be wholesome? A black comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as a thief posing as a department store Santa Claus, Bad Santa can be easily written off as a crass and offensive comedy. It certainly is both those things, but it’s also a surprisingly heartfelt film that (thankfully) never descends into treacly sentiment.
Thornton has made a career of playing disgruntled misanthropes and he’s as good as ever here. But the unreal supporting cast is no slouch either, with hilarious turns from Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, as well as the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac. Bad Santa probably isn’t the kind of Christmas movie you’re going to put on for the whole family to watch (unless your family is truly warped), but it’s a welcome reprieve from empty calorie Hallmark drek.
7. Elf (2003)
Elf succeeds by taking a funny set-up and somehow extending it across a full film without letting it run out of gas. Released at a time when Will Ferrel was about to become one of the world’s biggest comedy stars, Elf lives and dies on the back of its lead actor. So if Ferrell’s brand of hyperactive comedy isn’t your thing, you probably don’t have Elf on regular rotation in December. For the rest of us, Elf has emerged as a modern Christmas classic, telling the story of a man who grew up thinking he’s an elf and dropping him into the real world on a quest to find his biological father (a reliably smarmy James Caan).
It’s a classic fish out of water story, only this fish eats syrup-covered spaghetti for breakfast and thinks every mall Santa is the real deal. Elf succeeds because outside of the Christmas trappings, it’s just a solid comedy movie at its core and one worth revisiting again and again.
6. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Is it a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? This question has dominated the discourse surrounding Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas for so long that it’s easy to overlook that the film is, at its heart, an ode to both holidays. Jack Skellington’s bungled quest to transplant Christmas to his home of Halloweentown is a macabre delight, brought to life by some of the greatest stop-motion animation work in cinematic history.
However, it’s Danny Elfman’s original songs that have truly helped solidify The Nightmare Before Christmas as an unconventional Christmas classic. It may be sung by a ghoulish skeleton, but that hasn’t stopped “What’s This?” from becoming an essential part of the holiday music canon.
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted Christmas stories of all time, and there’s no shortage of excellent film adaptations to choose from. While the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is arguably the most faithful adaptation, you just can’t compete with the Muppets. Released in 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppets film to be produced without creator Jim Henson, who passed away in May 1990. As such, Henson’s son Brian was under a lot of pressure to not only live up to his father’s legacy but to bring a fresh vision to a very familiar story.
Fortunately, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a warm, wonderous film elevated by its charming cast of Muppets and a standout performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge. Come for the Muppets, stay for the catchy songs and surprising meta-comedy (Gonzo and Rizzo’s narration is the cherry on top).
4. A Christmas Story (1983)
There’s a reason A Christmas Story (1983) is considered the holy grail of Christmas movies for Gen X and older Millennials. Yes, the fact the movie airs in marathons every December has certainly helped burnish its reputation. But the real reason A Christmas Story is a mainstay is that it’s a direct injection of American nostalgia.
Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) desire for a Red Ryder BB gun continues to resonate with adults who associate their childhood Christmases with warm, fuzzy feelings. As a piece of filmmaking, A Christmas Story is rather slight, as it’s a bit too meandering to be considered a “great film”. But when watched at a particular time of year, A Christmas Story might just be perfect.
3. Home Alone (1990)
Home Alone or “Straw Dogs For Kids” is a pretty dark movie if you think about it for long enough. 8-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is abandoned by his neglectful parents (yeah it was an accident, but how do you forget to bring your kid on a plane with you?!) and must defend his home from a pair of thieves all alone on Christmas Eve. It’s all very absurd, but that’s part of Home Alone’s charm.
Written and directed by John Hughes, Home Alone succeeds by tapping into some powerful wish-fulfillment – what kid hasn’t dreamed of living parent-free in their own home? – and having as much fun as it can with the idea. The house of horrors finale showdown between Kevin and the bad guys (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, both perfectly cast) is a highlight, but it’s the little details – the fictional gangster movie playing on the TV, that delicious-looking pizza – that have helped establish Home Alone as one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever made.
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
No film better encapsulates the stresses and anxieties of getting the family together for the holidays than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This eminently rewatchable gem follows Clark Griswold’s (Chevy Chase) quest to host a perfect family Christmas at his home and mines much of its comedic gold from thwarting Clark’s plans at every possible turn. Christmas Vacation works as a comedy of errors, as the Griswold Family Christmas’ descent into hell is often uproariously funny (Chevy Chase’s unhinged rant about his boss is an all-timer).
Yet, this film endures because amid scenes of cats getting electrocuted and Christmas trees being set on fire, there’s a heartfelt honesty at play. The Griswolds are a dysfunctional mess, but whose family isn’t? Maybe we don’t all have a cousin we’d like to drive to the middle of nowhere and leave for dead, but the sentiment is relatable. Dealing with your family can be hard, especially during the holidays but Christmas Vacation argues that, in the end, they’re worth it.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
We have this idea that Christmas movies (at least the popular ones) are overly sentimental and sweet. After all, Christmas is associated with doing good (giving generously, reconnecting with loved ones), so it makes sense that we expect the media we consume to reinforce these messages. It’s a bit ironic then that the most popular Christmas movie of all time follows a suicidal man who had his dreams crushed by the harsh realities of living in a capitalistic society.
Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t all doom and gloom. The film heartily endorses being grateful for what you have and that you don’t need to be rich to live a full life. And this gets at why the film continues to resonate with us more than 70 years after it was first released. By paying lip service to the best and worst aspects of the holiday season, It’s a Wonderful Life reflects our culture’s push and pull between the overcommercialization of Christmas and our desire to reclaim it as a sacred, uncorrupted tradition.