Originally posted 12/08/2017. Updated and re-posted 12/02/2018. Re-edited 11/26/2019. Updated and re-posted again 11/27/2020.
As with Christmas music, I love Christmas movies. Unfortunately, it seems there aren’t quite as many good Christmas films as there are Christmas records, but there’s still a lot of good stuff out there. Following are a few good, fun, Christmas movies to watch, some of them guilty pleasures but most of them legitimate favorites.
Side note: You won’t see Die Hard or anything like that here. Die Hard is one of my top five favorite action films of all time. However, I don’t think of it as a Christmas movie. To me, a Christmas movie is a film that presents and represents the themes and ideas of Christmas and/or has Christmas as an essential part of the story plot. Die Hard has neither. It’s not about the idea of Christmas, and it could easily exist outside the season. Plus, if I go down that route, I will just have to start listing movie after movie after movie, so I must draw the line somewhere. All that being said, I do watch Die Hard every holiday season, if I get the chance.
Also, I’m not saying all of the following films are great movies. Some definitely are. Some certainly aren’t.
Without further ado, here are a few of my favorite movies to watch at Christmastime.
Jingle All the Way
Directed by Brian Levant (The Flintstones, The Spy Next Door)
Released in 1996
Let me be clear. This is completely a guilty pleasure choice. Jingle All the Way is a crappy movie, maybe one of the worst films in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.
Back in the day when Roger Ebert reviewed it, he gave it a generous 2.5 out of 4 stars, saying, “I liked a lot of the movie, which is genial and has a lot of energy, but I was sort of depressed by its relentlessly materialistic view of Christmas. . . Audiences will like it, I am sure, but I have to raise my hand in reluctant dissent and ask, please, sir, may we have some more goodwill among men?” Well, Mr. Ebert, as I’m sure you would have suspected, this movie has aged poorly, and I’m willing to bet the majority of people who enjoy it still just like it in a mocking sort of way. They watch it ironically, because it is just plain fun. I am in that group.
It’s a major guilty pleasure. Where else do you get to see Arnold give a man stalking his wife the dieting advice, “Put the cookie down!” Where else do you get to see the mighty Schwarzenegger punch a reindeer square in the face then share a beer with it? Yeah. That’s why Jingle All the Way is on my list.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
Directed by Bill Clark (Starfish)
Released in 2007
A mother and boy who have lost someone and moved to the country; a grumpy, old man cut off from the world; a quaint town and a friendly girl. . . Many bad Christmas movies are sappy, saccharine, and corny, often featuring overly-idealized characters either overreacting to overblown situations or underreacting to terrible situations. In some ways, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey is one of those movies, yet—somehow—it works for me.
Maybe it’s the honest earnestness of the story and filmmaking. Maybe it’s the solid acting, especially from Tom Berenger, Joely Richardson, and a young Saoirse Ronan (in her second film credit). Maybe it’s the incredibly charming sound stage environments. Maybe it’s because these things, along with a pure wholesomeness, remind me of Christmas movies from the ’40s. Maybe Christmas makes me unusually receptive to the sort of sugary sweetness that would generally turn me off. Whatever it is, this is one movie my family and I enjoy, and it’s warming.
If you projectile vomit at the mere thought of the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas movies, you probably won’t be able to get through this. If you only loathe those cheap flicks, like I do, then you should give this a try.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Cinderella Man)
Released in 2000
If you want to see a truly good version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you’ll have to watch the excellent twenty-six minute special from 1966, featuring superb voice work from Boris Karloff and iconic singing from Thurl Ravenscroft, directed by Looney Tunes veterans Chuck Jones and Ben Washam. It was even produced by Dr. Seuss himself. It’s a classic for sure.
However, I must say, I still enjoy the 2000 Ron Howard version. Here’s why:
I don’t necessarily think of this How the Grinch Stole Christmas as quite a guilty pleasure for me, but it’s very close. The over-the-top silliness; the odd, dark, blurry, clay-colored palette choices; the Dutch angles; the unnecessarily jumbled, illogical, and distracting plot and pacing; loads and loads of annoying exposition, even if much of it is from the esteemed Sir Anthony Hopkins; ugly makeup and costuming for all the Whos down in Whoville; and a good, cute performance from a child actress who got the short shrift by her character being made into little more than a charming plot device.
On the flip side, Jim Carrey is great as the Grinch, and his makeup and costuming is excellent. The practical sets are big and intricately designed, and some of the set pieces are clever and funny. And when the movie attempts to explain the Grinch’s history, it makes sense and helps us care where, surely with this flick, we wouldn’t have cared at all. Those are types of things that can’t be said for all Christmas movies.
This Grinch is fun. Maybe it’s a product of my forgiving Christmas nature to like it, but I do, and that’s that.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Directed by Larry Roemer (Return to Oz, The Ballad of Smokey the Bear)
Released in 1964
This Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated TV special is a Christmas classic, so much of a classic that it’s basically taken for granted, for good reason. Burl Ives’s soothing voice is quite comforting, the songs are good, the stop-motion work is top-notch, and the story and characters—cheerfully strange—inhabit a weird and wonderful fantasy world. There are some great voice actors too. If only the folks involved had known how legendary this special would become, maybe they wouldn’t have tossed away so much of the memorabilia from the project. Regardless, I think we’ll always have this transcendent little work.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Directed by Bill Melendez (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant)
Released in 1965
A Charlie Brown Christmas effortlessly encapsulates the Christmas spirit in an endlessly entertaining way that both children and adults can understand. Interestingly, many of the things that make it so timeless were results of the folks involved having to produce this special quickly and on a shoestring budget: The producers hired child actors instead of adults to voice the characters; the score is composed of jazz pieces from Vince Guaraldi; the animation is unpolished in a way that emulates the Peanuts comics; and the production forewent creating a laugh track. Could it have turned out better? I think it’s perfect.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon, Tall Tale)
Released in 1989
Christmas Vacation could have easily turned out to be a forgettable venture. It was the second sequel to the 1983 National Lampoon’s Vacation, the director’s only other decent film is Benny and Joon, and these movies were already starting to trend toward being empty Chevy Chase vehicles. However, like the Vacation original, Christmas Vacation was based on a National Lampoon short story, and John Hughes, writer and producer here, was still interested. So, instead of getting yet another tired sequel, we got a Christmas classic.
But how? On the surface, Christmas Vacation is all silly, slapstick, high-energy antics. Part of it is, I think, due to the ability of John Hughes to take something that is, on its surface, for shallow entertainment only and turn it into something with a bit more meaning and resonance.
Christmas Vacation successfully taps into the frustrations we all feel at times around the holidays and how restless the whole affair can make us. It also points out how fundamentally odd the holidays and getting together with relatives of many different sorts can be. And it does this in a whimsical way that, in the end, affirms the need for and the benefit of family and tradition. Merry Christmas!
Directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r’ Treat, Godzilla: King of Monsters)
Released in 2015
Christmas horror films are a fascinating subgenre of flicks. They’re usually super low budget too, because few studio executives are ever willing to finance such a venture, despite how much sense it may make thematically, because, well, how will audiences respond to such a film?
That’s why it’s so surprising to me that Krampus has actual movie stars in it and a budget. The movie stars aren’t A-listers, granted, but a few of them are recognizable, including Adam Scott, who was Ben Wyatt on Parks and Recreation; the always-hilarious comedian David Koechner; and Toni Collette, who many will know as an amazing actress in movies like The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine, and Knives Out. As for the budget, it was only $15 million reportedly, but for a movie like this, that’s pretty high. Krampus works as a dark comedy fantasy, and that’s largely due to having good actors and a decent budget to pull off the story, as well as a director who effectively uses his resources.
The story starts out with a Christmas Vacation-style set-up, annoying relatives coming to stay with the main character’s family for Christmas, and it also goes with the trope of our main character losing his belief in the good of Christmas, but then the movie takes a completely unusual path in that the loss of faith in Christmas conjures figures from Austro-Bavarian folklore, Krampus and his evil helpers, who teach our main character that you ought to be careful what you wish for.
The movie isn’t extremely scary, but it is both weird and a lot of fun.
If you seek further Krampus Christmas movie fun, I recommend another guilty pleasure favorite of mine, the bizarre Finnish fantasy flick from 2010 Rare Exports, and I will say no more about it.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef)
Released in 2003
Here’s another movie that shouldn’t have worked and yet turned into a movie that many families view every single Christmas season. Many people, upon hearing about and seeing trailers for this movie, must have assumed Will Ferrell would be a grating man-child, there would be lots of crappy special effects, it would feature a corny romance, and the film as a whole would turn Christmas cheer into yellow snow. As most of you know, that’s not the case.
Elf is a delightful film filled with joy and optimism, and it speaks to many of the Christmas anxieties of the time. Will Ferrell is iconic as Buddy, the human raised by elves at the North Pole who goes on a hunt to find his real dad in New York. The filmmakers forewent grotesque special effects, and the romance between Ferrell and Deschanel is wonderfully sweet.
This movie is funny, smart, hilarious, and full of heart. And it’s directed and paced excellently, until the end at least, where I’ve always felt it stumbles slightly. The movie is not all Ferrell either. Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, Faizon Love, and Peter Dinklage all do marvelous work too. It’s endlessly quotable, as well, and that always helps make a classic.
Directed by Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
Released in 1990
Home Alone was directed by Chris Columbus, quite a director in his own right, but it has all the trademarks of writer and producer John Hughes (Home Alone is a similar situation to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in that Hughes wrote and produced the picture but, for one reason or another, didn’t direct it.) It has Hughes’s humor, his energy, his wit, his quirks, and his heart. It also has his young characters distrusting adults, like usual, but, hey, everyone gets back together in the end, and they’re one big, happy family, for real.
It would be an interesting enough story if this were a movie about the terrific antics of an eight-year-old accidentally home. And, for a while, that’s what it is. Then, of course, the Wet Bandits enter the scene, the incomparable Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, and the action turns up to eleven, as MacAulay Culkin defends his home against the pair of incredibly stupid criminals. It’s all slapstick and fun.
But why am I describing this movie to you? You’ve probably already seen it hundreds of times! If you haven’t, or if you’ve only seen Home Alone 2 for some reason, as I’ve found some people have, you need to remedy that!
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
Directed by Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline)
Released in 1993
Though people debate whether The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween flick or a Christmas movie, it is actually both.
The story itself is, of course, about Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, a benevolent ruler of Halloween Town who creates Halloween celebrations better than anyone else in history but is tired of doing so. He gets the idea to give Santa a break and take on something new—heading up the celebration of Christmas—when he accidentally stumbles upon a portal to Christmas Town and thinks this is the holiday to make all his dreams come true. Thus ensues a fun adventure that also offers something more, a look into depression, artistic desires, and the order of things, as well as the usual but worthy lesson of cherishing those who love us and appreciating the things we have.
The film is a technical marvel as well, presenting an original, fully-realized world with excellent stop-motion animation and a rich use of color. Tim Burton conceived the story and produced the film, but he found other skilled artists to help him bring his vision to fruition. The end result is a classic.
Watch it at Christmas, Halloween, or in between!
A Christmas Story
Directed by Bob Clark (Black Christmas, Porky’s)
Released in 1983
If you haven’t seen A Christmas Story yet, or if you haven’t seen it since you were a kid, you really must watch it. I’ve found that a surprising number of people have never seen this great film, and that’s a shame. Yes, it is on TV non-stop at Christmastime, but you might be surprised by the number of young people who don’t watch actual TV, cable, etc. at all these days.
A Christmas Story isn’t loud and rambunctious like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas Vacation, or Home Alone. Instead, it’s a movie about the simple idea of childhood. It’s not overly sentimental, overblown, or sappy. And it effectively taps, entertainingly and quietly, the heart of human nature and what being a kid is like. It’s timeless, made up of moments, short yet memorable, of which sort we look back on in our own childhoods. Family time. Punishments for saying bad words we’ve heard our parents say. Bullies who just won’t leave us alone, and brief times when we stand up for ourselves. Evil neighborhood dogs, mall Santa Clauses, and getting your tongue stuck on something metal in the cold.
Of course, it’s also a snapshot of a time and place in America that doesn’t exactly exist any longer. Yet even if things seem more complicated than they did back then, people are still the same.
A Christmas Carol
Directed by Clive Donner (The Guest, Old Dracula)
Released in 1984
My family always made it our tradition to have A Christmas Carol involved somehow in every Christmas season. Sometimes it was reading Charles Dickens’s original novella. Other times, an audio dramatization. Occasionally, it was the 1951 British movie version, sometimes referred to by the title Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim, which I also highly recommend.
Other times, we watched one of the other versions of the story. But my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, by far, has always been the 1984 film starring George C. Scott.
Despite pedestrian direction and cinematography, the 1984 version is the one that has aged the least. And Scott’s performance is at least as good as Sim’s. He’s cold-hearted, for sure, but even from the beginning, it seems more like he’s suppressed the goodness inside him rather than lacking it completely. And I just love to see Scott chew scenery, which he always does magnificently, this being no exception. I also like that, at times, this version leans effectively into the horror elements of this ghost story, and an old-fashioned ghost story is what A Christmas Carol is, in addition to it’s socio-economic commentary.
If you’re only going to watch one version of A Christmas Carol, I think it should be this one, unless you’re watching with small children, in which case you should probably settle for The Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Released in 1946
What can I say about It’s a Wonderful Life that hasn’t already been said? I can tell you it’s one of my top 10 favorite movies, and it is. I can tell you as a child it changed the way I viewed and thought about movie storytelling, and it did. I can tell you this should be your entry point into the filmographies of James Stewart and Frank Capra, and it should be. I can tell you that, despite its saturation in our culture, this movie has touched countless people’s lives, and you already know this.
It’s a Wonderful Life, simply put, is a beautiful film about life, faith, family, reality, dreams, and the effects we can and should have on other people’s lives. And it’s not as sappy or corny as many may remember. Indeed, it doesn’t shy away from darkness, at times, and, for all its optimism, it shows people, honestly, for what they are. In a movie with angels, people aren’t angels, but they are something even the angels can’t quite comprehend, for bad and good.
I love It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t know if I would care about film as much as I do without it.
So those are some of my favorite Christmas movies. What are some of yours? Sound off in the comments below! I’d love to hear about them. I think spending some of your Christmas with good, quality movies is a great way to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.
P.S.: I know I did not list any movies specifically about the birth of Christ here. To some, specifically Christians as I am, this may seem an intolerable bit of negligence. Unfortunately, there aren’t many great movies about that greatest of historical events. However, the one I can at least somewhat recommend is Catherine Hardwicke’s meticulously researched and well-performed The Nativity Story from 2006.