It’s a proven fact: December’s deluge of Christmas music and aggressive ads can suck a man’s holiday spirit dry. And it’s all too easy to forget the whole “peace on Earth and goodwill towards men” thing when you’re getting trampled by a sadistic soccer mom at your local big box store.
But sometimes, when you get that quiet moment to settle back in your recliner with a hot cup of cocoa (damn right there’s whipped cream and marshmallows in that thing), and you find that one classic movie you’ve been watching since you were a kid, the magic of the season comes rushing back to you.
In coming up with this list, we made the painful but necessary choice to leave out any movie that did not see a release in theaters. That means Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown will have to wait for another list, another day. But if you’re looking for the cream of the theatrical holiday crop, this is it. Enjoy our list of the 25 best Christmas movies of all time, in no particular order, and make yours a merry one this year, won’t you?
It’s A Wonderful Life
The godfather of all holiday movies, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is simply one of the most beloved films of all time. The ultimate everyman, Jimmy Stewart, plays the suicidal George Bailey, who needs a few lessons from his guardian angel (Henry Travers) to see just how much his life is worth living. Nearly 70 years old, the film is firmly entrenched as a cherished holiday tradition.
A Christmas Carol
There are more versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol then there are Santa’s reindeer, but we’re gonna go with this one from 1951 as our favorite choice that doesn’t involve the Muppets or a CGI Jim Carrey. Alastair Sim turns in the definitive Scrooge, and Kathleen Harrison’s performance as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s charwoman, is also a standout. It’s faithful to the classic story, and keeps it nice and brief at under an hour and a half.
Miracle on 34th Street
If there was ever any movie that could stoke the fires of belief in Santa Claus, even in a fully-grown adult, it’s Miracle on 34th Street. This Christmas classic tells the story of a department store Santa who insists he’s the real thing, then gets locked up because of that belief. Edmund Gwenn won the 1947 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Kris Kringle, and there’s still never been a better Santa.
The Polar Express
In the hands of Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, a short but captivating children’s book was turned into a 21st century Christmas classic. There are some great messages here about believing and being kind, and the music is really strong (aside from that misplaced Aerosmith song). Instead of being knocked for its use of imperfect CGI and motion capture technology, we actually find that to be a plus of the film. Maybe it’s the gamer in us.
A Christmas Story
It didn’t do much business in theaters, but thanks to home video and the endless marathons on TBS, A Christmas Story has grown to become one of the most loved holiday films. Ralphie’s (Peter Billingsley) quest for a Red Ryder BB gun resonates with just about any boy who’s longed for something special under the tree, and it’s that captured essence of seeing Christmas through a child’s eyes that makes the film so special. And the tongue on the pole scene.
It’s always a gamble when a Saturday Night Live cast member decides to leave the show for a career in Hollywood, but Will Ferrell hit the jackpot with this one, his first movie post-SNL. It’s a playful and light-hearted story about a man-elf’s search for his biological father, and though there are plenty of laugh-worthy scenes, Ferrell in that green getup alone is worth a repeat viewings.
Take a pair of immortal talents (Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire), the best-selling song of all time, and some fanciful choreography, and you’ve got the recipe for a yuletide classic. The plot, about a singer and a dancer vying for the attention of an up-and-coming performer, plays second fiddle to the song and dance numbers, and of course, the big screen debut of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” tune.
In an effort to recapture the magic of Holiday Inn, White Christmas was supposed to be the big reuniting of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but Astaire said no thanks after reading the script. Danny Kaye stepped in instead, and though it’s a little on the soft side, White Christmas still lands on our list thanks to its sentimental soundtrack and ease with which it goes down. Also noteworthy for being the first movie released in VistaVision, Paramount’s wide-screen process that featured twice the surface area of standard 35mm film.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Yes, it’s the same old story here, but come on, it’s with the Muppets! Plus this was the first Muppet film released after the deaths of Muppets creator Jim Henson and fellow puppeteer Richard Hunt, making the film history even more bittersweet. Michael Caine delivers a perfectly cranky Ebenezer Scrooge, and if you’re gonna introduce the young ones to A Christmas Carol, this is the way to do it.
This one flew slightly under the radar for a lot of people, and that’s too bad, because Arthur Christmas is surprisingly full of excellent 3D animation, witty dialogue, and fun action. The story about Santa’s clumsy son Arthur and his quest to deliver one girl’s present also has just the right amount of feel-good vibes you want in a holiday movie.
It’s quite easy to overdose on the avalanche of syrupy sweetness that spews from every TV, radio, and computer in December—we know this. That’s why movies like Bad Santa are necessary. A grumpy as F conman (Billy Bob Thornton ) and his pint-sized partner (Tony Cox) rob department stores on Christmas Eve, and while director Terry Zwigoff thankfully avoids a clichéd happy ending, it’s upbeat enough to satisfy. The film is also notable for being the great John Ritter’s last film appearance before his death.
This one goes out to all the ladies out there. Of course, Love Actually is very much a “highly engineered puffball” as one critic so eloquently put it, but puffballery and Christmas go hand in hand, right? Plus, the soundtrack is diverse and since there are so many different plotlines going on, it makes the typical rom-com routine much more palatable.
The Bishop’s Wife
If there’s any month where romantic comedies can be called “appropriate,” we’ll sheepishly admit it’s December. The Bishop’s Wife stars the always charming Cary Grant as a guardian angel who helps a bishop (David Niven) raise money for a new church. While maybe a little too sweet for its own good, you can’t hate it for taking a page from It’s a Wonderful Life.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Part Halloween movie, part Christmas movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a fearlessly original, weird, and poignant stop-motion masterpiece. Jack Skellington is king of Halloween Town, but once he discovers Christmas Town, his world is changed forever. It’s not exactly great for toddlers, but if you crave something offbeat, you can’t top this.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Christmas Vacation gets more credit than it deserves, but that’s probably because it’s one of those ultra-rare Christmas movies that we can honestly laugh at. And it’s seemingly always on TV. Chevy Chase and company (‘cept for the new kids, as usual) reprise their roles as the hard luck Griswolds in this slapstick-stuffed fan favorite. We dig the title song too.
The slapstick king of Christmas movies, Home Alone rides as much on the cuteness of Macaulay Culkin as it does on the asinine antics of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. The plot centers on a parent’s worst nightmare and a child’s dream come true: little kid left alone in a massive house. Best enjoyed as a kid.
A Christmas Carol
There are clearly two camps when it comes to CGI movies like The Polar Express and 2009’s A Christmas Carol: the people who are creeped out by the “lifeless eyes” and the people who, since they likely grew up on video games, enjoy seeing this brilliant technology at work. With Jim Carrey leading the way Robert Zemeckis (who also directed The Polar Express) crafts a sometimes scary, sometimes too action-packed, but ultimately enjoyable ode to the Dickens classic.
This French film about the World War I Christmas truce of December 1914 looks at how, even in the middle of war, the flames of brotherhood and humanity can spark. The film is told through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers, and while the international cast doesn’t always gel, its poetic story carries it through to a sentimental conclusion.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Of course it pales in comparison to Chuck Jones’ 1966 animated adaptation of the story, but if you need a live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this one gets it done. Yes, it’s over-the-top and too long, but it’s undoubtedly a spectacle to behold, and sometimes that’s all you need in the background as you wrap gifts for your friends in Whoville.
Babes in Toyland
Director: Gus Meins and Charley Rogers
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Comedy legends Laurel and Hardy star in this holiday classic, which somehow also goes by the titles Laurel and Hardy in Toyland, Revenge Is Sweet, March of the Wooden Soldiers and Wooden Soldiers. While it’s not really a Christmas-themed film, this enduring musical has still been a holiday tradition for ages due to its charming nature and comedy chemistry.
Yep, it’s another interpretation of A Christmas Carol. But this one at least veers far enough off the path (some might say too far) to carve its own identity. Bill Murray plays a ruthless television executive whose nastiness demands a few visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Cool cameo: Jazz great Miles Davis and late night music leader Paul Shaffer as street musicians.
The Best Man Holiday
This sequel to The Best Man – that not many people asked for – came out 14 years later, and while it’s certainly predictable, it also offers some much-needed grownup fun. The ensemble cast is easy on the eyes and full of charm, the soundtrack is solid, and there’s even a surprising amount of emotional punch to it as well.
The Santa Clause
A breezy bit of modest fun for the whole family, The Santa Clause stars Tim Allen as regular joe who mistakenly causes Santa Claus to fall from his roof on Christmas Eve, and is then thrust into the role as jolly St. Nick. If you keep your expectations grounded, watch it with a youngster, and avoid the sequels, and you’ll be fine.
OK, so we’re kinda sneaking this one in here as a Christmas movie. But remember this about Die Hard: the terrorists’ takeover happens at an office Christmas party, it’s full of Christmas music, and Bruce Willis as off-duty cop John McClane delivers more miracles than Santa ever could.
Director: Joe Dante
Purchase: Amazon DVD | Amazon Download | iTunes
Fine, so we’re stretching it again here, but hey, Gizmo was a Christmas gift. This light horror-comedy about the mysterious and dangerous mogwai was executive produced by Steven Spielberg and features the always lovely Phoebe Cates, with Howie Mandel providing the cute and cuddly Gizmo.