The 20 Best Christmas Movies of All Time
Genuinely outstanding Christmas movies should capture the spirit of the occasion. Since everyone has their own customs, Christmas movies can arrive in a variety of chestnut-roasting, Jack Frost-nipping shapes, including relentlessly upbeat musicals, hazy religious dramas, resolutely gloomy horror movies, and joyfully offensive comedies. We don’t want to assume anything about your family or friends; they might all be claymation figures. But battling terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza is certainly not the best way to celebrate the holiday season.
Therefore, the Christmas Movies you are about to read about are genuinely about Christmas—with all the delights, concerns, and shocks they bring—with our sincere apologies to John McClane and fellow “put your action thriller on Christmas” fan Shane Black. We’re preparing a list, just like Santa Claus, but we’re checking it more than once because, really, this is crucial. Who just double-checks a list once? We also include information about where you can view them right now, with a focus on subscription-based streaming services, however, you can typically rent the majority of these Christmas Moviesfrom sites like Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, and YouTube. (Or, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, locate the ancient VHS copies hidden somewhere.)
See our selection of the top Christmas movies available on Netflix this year for additional holiday entertainment.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The holidays are frequently a time for gloomy self-reflection due to the large number of family members, forced happiness, and spiked eggnog. Therefore, it seems to reason that the most well-known and highly adored Christmas film is about a suicidal man named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who metaphorically loses his ass to the forces of capitalism embodied by a wealthy, balding banker who enjoys giving things his own names. Only a lowly angel sent from above, having seen a celestial recap of George’s life, is able to save him. It’s a Wonderful Life is a frequently gloomy parable that poses uncomfortable problems and offers few conclusive solutions, despite its upbeat title. Right, ho ho?
Yet every holiday season, we choose to watch this film. Why? The small-town charm of Bedford Falls, Frank Capra’s assured direction, and Donna Reed’s moon-lassoing allure as Mary Bailey are just a few examples. However, Jimmy Stewart’s shadow-strewn visage is what matters most. Stewart personifies everything joyful and depressing about the holiday season in a performance that shifts from teenage swagger to adult sadness with uncomfortably ease. He represents both the excitement of Christmas morning and the inevitable melancholy at night. He personifies Christmas with snow in his hair, bells jingling in his ears, and a twinkle in his eye.
2. A Christmas Story (1983)
A Christmas Story works as a horror film as well, despite its reputation as a happy, nonstop yuk-fest. Few kid-centric comedies capture the terrifying terror of growing up. In order to find silly laughter, touching scenes, and dark horrors, director Bob Clark, who oversaw the only slightly more cruel holiday slasher picture Black Christmas, explores writer Jean Shepherd’s nostalgic recollections of growing up in Indiana. All of the scenes—the leg lamp, the pole-licking, the visit to Santa in the mall, and the eye-shooting finale—have a slightly macabre, David Cronenberg/Norman Rockwell feel to them. Ralphie is battling for his life, not just for a Red Ryder BB pistol.
3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
In this 1947 classic, the War on Christmas is still raging but has been stopped. George Seaton’s fantastical tale of Kris Kringle and the trial to establish his veracity is a homage to the transforming power of having a strong belief in something good. Subliminal pro-marketing Macy’s be damned. Despite the movie’s star power (including a young Natalie Wood as Susan, the girl who wants to believe), Edmund Gwenn’s performance as Kris remains so sincere and upbeat that by the end you might actually start to think he is Santa Claus. Even though the courtroom drama Miracle on 34th Street is ranked with To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men as one of the greatest courtroom dramas, you won’t ever consider it to be one since you’ll be caught up in the magic of the film.
4. Home Alone (1990)
KEVIN! Only John Hughes, the king of suburban wish fulfillment, could have created such a bizarre, slapsticky, greeting card-style movie about Dennis the Menace. Hughes crams Home Alone with oddball details like Buzz’s tarantula, that greasy pizza dinner, Harry’s gold tooth, the exhilarating fake gangster flick Angels with Filthy Souls, the shovel guy, and all of the traps in the elaborate madhouse in the grand finale, and he rips through them like a child on Christmas morning. In his role as Kevin McCallister, Macaulay Culkin channels all of Tom Hanks’ charm and joy from Big (minus three feet), and as his mother rushes home in parallel, his smile ages just so. Who knows how Hughes came up with this film, but Home Alone is an absolutely flawless idea.
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
It’s Michael Caine’s performance, looming over and yelling at Jim Henson’s innocent, felt cast, that feels the most timeless and Christmassy despite a century’s worth of Ebenezer Scrooges grumping around the movie history books. The Muppet Christmas Carol breathes new life into the Victorian classic while adding an ornate sense of wonder thanks to the original songs by The Muppet Movie composer Paul Williams and Gonzo (as Charles Dickens) in the narration. A spot on the Christmas tree is due for the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present. In historical clothing, Kermit comes closest to bringing life to E. H. Shepard’s paintings for Wind in the Willows. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a warm, funny, and magnificent tribute to Jim Henson’s accomplishments. His son Brian, who directed the movie shortly after Henson passed away, dedicated it to his late father.
6. Elf (2003)
It’s difficult to recall a period when Will Ferrell wasn’t among the biggest names in comedy. He became a favorite in dorm rooms thanks to Anchorman, but Elf was the movie that made him into a candy-eating, box office-dominating juggernaut. James Caan’s oily smarmy portrayal of Buddy, an adult who grew up believing he was an elf, is performed by Will Ferrell. Buddy journeys to New York to discover his biological father. Director Jon Favreau weaponizes Will Ferrell’s crazy energy for a Christmas movie that is sweeter than a candy cane but doesn’t leave you with a headache after the sugar rush by drawing on the childlike sense of mischief inherent in his best SNL characters. It’s the ideal stocking stuffer because it’s kind, humorous, little, and it’s not a pair of socks.
7. The Apartment (1960)
The majority of Christmas movies focus on families, but there is one aspect of the holiday season that is frequently overlooked: the drunken business party. Fortunately, there is Billy Wilder’s witty comedy The Apartment, about a dreary insurance company drone (Jack Lemmon) who falls for a delightful elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) who works in the same Manhattan high-rise. Infidelity, loneliness, and drinking to Mad Men levels follow. Is it a typical Christmas film? No, not quite. However, its depiction of self-destructive, whip-smart city folk looking for love is the ideal Santa-free story for those of us who spend too much time lingering around the punch bowl.
8. A Christmas Carol (1951)
This gloomy rendition of A Christmas Carol—which deservingly earned the name Scrooge—was released in the UK. Alastair Sim, who has a dark heart, embodies Ebenezer to the hilt, perfectly embodying the original description by Charles Dickens: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” Sim is a Shakespearean thespian who takes the hopeful story as seriously as any of the Bard’s tragedies, but few shrink next to the Ghost of Christmas Present or melt from hardened misery into youthful giddiness when the sun rises on Christmas morning like Sim.
9. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
You’ll miss the joyous message that demonstrates why Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s macabre, stop-motion cartoon is both a “Halloween movie” and a “Christmas movie” if you waste your time discussing whether it’s one or the other. Jack Skellington becomes persuaded that there is a “proper” way to live after crossing over from his world, a horrifying nightmare locked in constant trick-or-treat mode, into the snow-covered Christmas Town. The Pumpkin King of Halloween Town manages to insert the beating heart of Christmas into the chest cavity of his ghastly existence with a little assistance from his Frankensteined girlfriend Sally, his spectral dog Zero, and even Santa Claus. It might be time to view The Nightmare Before Christmas again if Danny Elfman’s sinister original tunes don’t strike you as festive carols.
10. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
What the original Vacation did for road trips with the family, this threequel accomplishes for the holiday season and all the tension, masochism, confusion, and pleasant feelings any extended clan gathering ignites like a match thrown in a shit-filled sewer. Here, Chevy Chase’s Clark fights valiantly to make his home the best-lit one on the planet, get his year-end bonus, fix the newel post, keep cousin Eddie at bay, and on and on. However, his struggles serve as a warning to viewers that getting too involved in holiday shopping too much can cause nerve damage. The third Vacation movie holds smarmy gags in sitcom-style wrapping paper, earning its spot on the naughty list.
11. Bad Santa (2003)
Is there a Christmas movie that is more memorable? The Crazy Stupid Love writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (with uncredited punch-ups from the Coen brothers) have created a script that is a masterwork of baroque obscenity, vicious insults, and wanton cruelty. But what really brings it to life is the combination of fun and melancholy that Billy Bob Thornton imbues into the role of the unfortunate Santa. You ain’t going to crap right for a week is a line that no other actor could turn into such beautiful Christmas poetry.
12. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Even if Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor musical were merely a two-hour loop of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” it would be included on this list. But there’s so much more to this movie: swoon-inducing romance, phony snowmen, ball gown-filled dances, and a surreal Halloween scene that ought to be covered in every film school in the nation. In the same manner that modern movies look back on the 1950s and 1960s, the drama sheds a nostalgic tinge on the beginning of the 20th century by following a Missouri family as they prepare for the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a snow-globe-type of movie, ideal for marveling at as the fire roars in the distance.
13. Trading Places (1983)
Although this John Landis comedy isn’t the most “Christmasy” on the list, its absurdist tone and iconic Santa costume make it the perfect holiday watch. Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd play arrogant billionaire Louis Winthorpe and attractive con guy Billy Ray Valentine in this fable that updates Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper for the Reagan era. When their fortunes are reversed, all hell breaks loose. Although Jim Belushi, Ralph Bellamy, and Jamie Lee Curtis all make appearances, this is the Aykroyd and Murphy show—a schlock-filled, chaotic extravaganza with two master comics at the height of their game.
14. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
This polite romantic comedy by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch served as the inspiration for the film You’ve Got Mail. The narrative of leather salesman Alfred (James Stewart) and Klara (Margaret Sullavan), the coworker he can’t hate and the secret metaphor he’s gone head over heels for, unfolds with snickers and melancholy but with a certain wintery serenity that’s missing from most Yuletide offerings. A movie that will inspire you to sit down with a pen and paper and mail your loved ones a letter.
15. The Santa Clause (1994)
Forgive me if I offend any Wild Hogs fans, but Tim Allen has never quite found his groove as an on-camera movie actor. But he found the ideal sleigh-like vehicle for his stern comic tendencies with The Santa Clause. The Home Improvement star provides enough humorous grunts, sardonic skepticism, and genuine cheer to the role of a divorced ad executive who has take on the role of Santa after the big guy falls from his roof to elevate this above kiddie movie schmaltz. Ask Santa for a new funny bone the following year if you don’t laugh when supporting actor Judge Reinhold finally receives his weenie whistle.
16. Gremlins (1984)
It’s simple to overlook how spooky filmmaker Joe Dante’s widely imitated creature feature can be in a post-Furby world. Gizmo may be adorable, but the gremlins themselves are grotesque little demons that wreak delighted devastation, trying to kill Billy’s mother before being brutally executed with Pop-Tarts. The film has the wit, mayhem, and sense of mischief that distinguished Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in the 1980s, thanks to a clever script by the future Home Alone director Christopher Columbus; an aesthetic that more recent films like Jurassic World have attempted to revive with varying degrees of success. Nothing, it turns out, surpasses the original, so avoid watching this after midnight.
17. A Christmas Tale (2008)
A Christmas Tale, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, is 150 minutes long, making it longer than even the heartiest holiday supper. Although it has a long running time, this depressing French drama makes the most of every minute by diving deeply into the fractious dynamics of the Vuillard family, a chaotic family of competing egos headed by Catherine Deneuve’s cunning matriarch Junon. Few movies manage to convey the strange intimacy of adult siblings visiting their childhood homes with such clarity, compassion, and humor—often with wild romantic partners and barely disguised chemical dependencies. It’s a vast, cerebral thrill.
18. Arthur Christmas (2011)
Aardman, a studio most renowned for its claymation films like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, only ever attempted to create computer animation in the Pixar style. The black-sheep son of Santa did not rise to the occasion of the Claus business in Arthur Christmas, which was missed by American spectators. Santa’s workshop in the film is caught between modern technology and Luddite tradition. Only Arthur has any remaining Christmas cheer and the idea to unite his divided family. Arthur Christmas is a contemporary masterpiece that is one of the best, boasting fantastic action, gorgeous cinematography, and a British sense of humor.
19. The Ref (1994)
Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis’ portrayal of a married couple in this dark comedy may be the worst love paring to ever appear in a holiday film. You’ll come to admire your own annoying family because of them. The movie becomes even more acidic and spiteful when the two are taken hostage by a roguish thief (Denis Leary, fresh off his 1993 No Cure for Cancer stand-up special), ending in a ludicrous dinner sequence that will have you going back for more. Only watch this one after the kids have gone to bed.
20. Joyeux Noël (2005)
This mixed-language video in French, British, and German, which details the real truce that took place in December 1914, finds warmth in the World War I trenches. Despite the odds and the wishes of senior superiors, soldiers disarmed to make the German frontlines a giant no-land. man’s Joyeux Noel is a history buff’s new favorite Christmas movie since it excels at both combat scenes and festive sentimentality (thanks to a cast that includes quality actors like Daniel Brühl and Diane Kruger).
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