Best Christmas Movies
Christmas movies have a special place in the hearts of many people because over the years they’ve incorporated them into the very fabric of their holiday season and Christmas gifts fever. So with that time of the year fast approaching we thought it only right to cobble together our own list of the 18 best Christmas movies ever made.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946
During its initial theatrical run, this Frank Capra film was a financial disappointment. A situation many now regard as arising from its seemingly unflattering view of small-town life as well as its occasional lapses into darkness. However, by the time the film lapsed into the public domain in 1973 and began being shown on TV every Christmas attitudes had changed. A new generation of viewers overlooked the supposed slights on rural America and focused instead on the very human tale at the center of the film as George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) struggles to justify his continued existence in the face of a series of personal and professional setbacks. In his darkest hour he’s rescued by an angel who sets out to show him that, far from being the failure he believes himself to be, his efforts have made a profound impact on the lives of innumerable people who then rally to his side in the film’s emotionally rousing conclusion.
2. A Christmas Story – 1983
A Christmas Story tells the tale of Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) whose fondest wish is that he’ll get an air rifle for Christmas. Set in the 1940s director Bob Clark immerses us in Ralphie’s reality as he sometimes deftly, sometimes clumsily navigates family politics and a seemingly impenetrable wall of adult resistance to his wish, manifested in the refrain, “You’ll shoot your eye out”. Charming, heartwarming, funny and insightful without ever being judgmental or devolving into postmodern deconstructivism A Christmas Story doesn’t so much make you think as much as it makes you feel. A regular on most lists of the top 10 Christmas movies.
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas – 1993
With The Nightmare Before Christmas Tim Burton creates a stop-motion world in which each holiday has its own hometown. One day Jack Skellington of Halloween Town accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and begins to suffer from holiday envy. He returns to Halloween Town no longer satisfied with its limited appeal and sets about devising a plot wherein he himself will return to Christmas Town and take on the role of St Nick. To say he does a less than stellar job would be an understatement. But, as is the case with most of Burton’s lead characters, the most important thing is that his heart is in the right place.
4. Miracle on 34th St. – 1947
In this 1947 classic Edmund Gwen plays Kris Kringle, a last-minute replacement Santa at Macy’s in New York. But Kris is no ordinary fallback Santa. In fact, he claims he’s the real deal. After some hand-wringing, the Macy’s marketing department decide the old codger is good for business but they’re soon overridden by the company psychologist who has Kris locked up in an insane asylum. A sanity hearing follows during which Kris’ lawyer stuns the court by claiming he can prove the old man is indeed Santa Claus. Starring Natalie Wood it’s become one of the Christmas movies to watch.
5. Batman Returns – 1992
Batman Returns is set during the Christmas season in Gotham where, to no one’s surprise, things aren’t going according to anyone’s plans. As he works tirelessly to keep the holidays safe from mean-spirited machinations of Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) Bruce and Batman (Michael Keaton) fall simultaneously in love with Selena Kyle and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Includes one of the most salacious under the mistletoe scenes in movie history: “No hard feelings?” “Actually, semi-hard, I’d say”. Merry Christmas indeed.
6. Die Hard – 1988
It’s Christmas in Los Angeles and that can only mean one thing: terrorists. Hans Gruber (the late great Alan Rickman) and his henchmen descend on a Christmas party being held on the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Corp headquarters. They take all the party goers hostage as part of their plan to break into the company’s safe and steal $600 million. Problem is one of their hostages just happens to be the estranged wife of a certain John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York cop who also happens to be in town for the holidays. Convinced the only way to secure the release of the hostages is to take matters into his own hands McClane shows what happens to boys who’ve made it onto Santa’s naughty list.
9. Home Alone – 1990
Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is supposed to spend Christmas in Paris with his parents. Prior to leaving he wishes everyone would just go away and leave him alone. Which is exactly what happens when they leave for France without him. At first, he believes his prayer has been answered and sets about to live a dream life of junk food and TV. But it’s not long before the house is targeted by a pair of B&E guys and grim reality sets in for Kevin. Even though it’s a bit inconsistent it does manage to convey a type of Wizard of Oz moral regarding the indivisible nature of family ties.0
8. Brazil – 1985
If you thought Batman Returns and Die Hard were off the beaten track Christmas movies you haven’t seen anything until you see Terry Gilliam’s bizzarro yet all-too-prescient masterpiece, Brazil. Set “somewhere in the 20th,” Brazil tells the story of Sam (Jonathan Pryce) a bureaucrat who yearns for a life of adventure amidst the technological police state he’s an active, though blissfully ignorant, part of. Over the course of the story, which takes place at Christmastime, his pursuit of a more fulfilling existence causes him to run afoul of the system with some very un-Christmas-like consequences.
9. Scrooged – 1998
This 1998 update of the Charles Dickens classic has Bill Murray playing a very miserly TV executive. Murray inhabits the role with his usual aplomb firing off one-liners and providing deadpan relish in the face of others’ misfortune. On Christmas Eve the ghosts of past, present and future descend upon him though and they’re in no mood to be messed with. As one after another of his spiritual crimes are revealed to him he undergoes a transformation and finally emerges a more generous man.
10. Elf – 2003
In Elf director Jon Favreau takes Will Ferrell and plugs him into the role of Bubby, a normal size guy who was adopted by Santa and raised as an Elf. When Buddy discovers that he’s not really an elf he decides to track down his biological parents. He eventually finds his real father who turns out to be a bit of a scrooge and wants nothing to do with him. Zany antics ensue. The whole thing seems like it shouldn’t work but somehow, through some kind of Christmas miracle, it does. And it’s widely regarded today as one of the ultimate movies everyone should see.
11. Gremlins – 1984
On Christmas Eve a father stumbles into a pet shop owned by an eccentric Chinese man (Keye Luke). He spots an unusual creature called a Mogwai who seems too cute to be true and insists on purchasing it. The old man refuses but his grandson takes the cash and slips the Mogwai to the man, although not without first issuing a warning: “Don’t expose him to bright light. Don’t ever get him wet. And don’t ever, ever feed him after midnight.” Of course, that’s exactly what happens and when it does all hell breaks loose on this most heavenly of holidays.
12. A Christmas Carol – 1951
If you’ve never seen this 1951 take on Dickens’ tale you’re missing one of the true classic Christmas movies. Alastair Sim takes the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser of epic proportions who is only too willing to allow the suffering of those he could help. On Christmas Eve he’s visited by the ghost of his former business partner followed by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. They paint a damming picture of the effects of his greed and selfishness which causes Scrooge to undergo a spiritual awakening and set about to redeem himself.
13. A Charlie Brown Christmas – 1965
The only reason Charles Shultz’s masterpiece resides at number 10 instead of number 1 on our list is that it technically isn’t a movie. It’s a TV special that first aired in 1965. In it, well-meaning but unappreciated Charlie Brown is pitted against the pernicious forces of holiday commercialization. Charlie stumbles into the role of director of the Christmas play but finds his thespian charges (save Linus) uninterested in the source material. In need of a break, he sallies forth with Linus to pick up a Christmas tree to festoon the stage. But when he returns with a lonely little sapling he’s roundly ridiculed. As despair overwhelms him the holiday spirit mysteriously enters the hearts of his tormentors who then provide him an ending worthy of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
14. Bad Santa – 2003
If outward appearances are any barometer Willie Stokes seems to have little by way of redeeming qualities. However, one day while working as Santa at a local department store (he uses the position as a launching pad for large-scale theft) Willie encounters an awkward, overweight boy and is struck by vague feelings of empathy. He takes the kid under his alcohol-soaked wing (at least as much as he’s able to) and along the way rediscovers the wee bit of his humanity that hasn’t succumbed to whiskey and cynicism. As comedy Christmas movies go it’s about as dark as they come.
15. The Polar Express – 2004
This 2004 effort by Robert Zemeckis has moments of surreal beauty and other moments of ghastly hallucinogenic power that will make you feel like someone dropped a few tabs of microdot into your eggnog. Overall though it’s one of the best holiday movies of the past 20 years. The story revolves around a boy who is being drawn to the dark side of Christmas by the forces of agnosticism. On Christmas Eve the mysterious Polar Express arrives and shuttles him to the North Pole where he learns the true meaning of the Christmas holiday.
16. How the Grinch Stole Christmas – 1966
Dr. Seuss wrote the book but the legendary Chuck Jones brought this very Scrooge-like tale to the small screen in 1966. The Grinch lives atop a mountain overlooking Whoville whose residents have the disagreeable habit of displaying joy and generosity on Christmas. After enduring many years of this insufferable behavior the Grinch finally hatches a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville by slipping in during the night and taking all their toys. Much to his surprise, his plan backfires and he’s given an unforgettable lesson in the true meaning of Christmas.
17. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – 1983
Not one of the most popular Christmas movies Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is an uneven effort to be sure. But for a holiday that seems tailor-made for outside perspectives, this tale of life in a WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp provides one of the most unique. Director Nagisa Oshima does not shy away from controversy nor does he blindly build a sentiment pyramid designed to pay off with some trite Christmas homily. The result is both thoughts provoking and strangely satisfying with a surreal performance by David Bowie.
18. The Santa Clause – 1994
When it hit the screens in 1994 The Santa Clause was recognized as little more than a star vehicle for Tim Allen. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cash register; the film turned out to have surprising emotional resonance and is widely recognized today as one of the top Christmas movies of the 90s. Allen’s character is a divorced businessman who is able to reconnect with his emotionally estranged son after an accident leaves him in charge of Santa’s sleigh. Tacky right? Except that the writers manage to effectively play the dark and the light off each other in a way that actually produces something like emotional resonance. No small feat that, which makes this a fitting end to our list of Christmas movies.