Christmas Movies Everyone Should See At Least Once
What would you add to this list?
When the time of year is right, the weather is just chilly enough and you are lucky to have a few days off work, there’s nothing better than watching a good Christmas movie. And there are so many to choose from: Countless movies over the years, of all genres — from feel-good musicals to gory slasher flicks — have used the holiday season as their backdrop.
Many of them are forgettable and loaded with cheap sentiment, but there are a few that would probably even put a smile on Ebenezer Scrooge’s face. Here are our picks for the Christmas movies that everyone should see at least once.
‘A Christmas Story’ (1983)
For recent generations, “A Christmas Story” has arguably replaced “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the most beloved movie of the holiday season. The blue-collar family it follows is unforgettable, the moments it recounts are almost universally relatable, and lines like “You’ll shoot your eye out” have become quotes we love to repeat.
For the uninitiated, “A Christmas Story” tells the tale of one memorable Christmas from the point of view of Ralphie Parker, a boy who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree, and the myriad embarrassing moments he goes through with his endearing family. There’s a reason both TBS and TNT show the film on a loop for 24 hours every Christmas.
‘A Christmas Tale’ (2008)
Provided you don’t mind reading subtitles, this French holiday dramedy is a great Christmas flick for people who consider themselves movie snobs. “A Christmas Tale” is about a large dysfunctional family who gets together at Christmas and learns some difficult news.
You’ll probably recognize a few of the actors from American movies and, unlike any other title on this list, “A Christmas Tale” was screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the best-reviewed Christmas movie in all of Metacritic’s history, edging out fan favorites “A Christmas Story” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
‘The Apartment’ (1960)
The only movie on this list to win best picture at the Oscars, “The Apartment” isn’t sappy by any measure but shows how the holidays can bring lonely people together and warm their spirits. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine star, and the great Billy Wilder applies his witty, realistic touch to the script and direction.
This is a serious movie that juggles some serious aspects of the human condition — all against the melancholy backdrop of the holidays in 1960s New York. It’s sort of like a long Christmas episode of “Mad Men” 50 years ahead of its time. The Independent called it the greatest Christmas film ever made.
‘Arthur Christmas’ (2011)
The newest movie on our list is this animated film with an A-list British cast. It follows Santa’s son, Arthur, who takes it upon himself to deliver a present to one little girl who got missed on Christmas night. James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy are just a few of the great actors in the cast.
“Arthur Christmas” has been described as gorgeously drawn, heartwarming and funny for all ages, meaning parents won’t need extra-strength eggnog to get through it. Rotten Tomatoes named it the best feature-length animated Christmas movie ever made.
‘Bad Santa’ (2003)
It’s certainly not for everyone, but “Bad Santa” is probably the best Christmas flick for people who like their comedies dark and loaded with f-bombs. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as a low-life thief who poses as a department-store Santa in order to rob stores from the inside.
The supporting cast is fantastic, including “Gilmore Girls” star Lauren Graham and late comedy heroes Bernie Mac and John Ritter. Thornton was basically born to play this role, and he puts every ounce of sleaze at his disposal into this performance.
‘Christmas in Connecticut’ (1945)
So many of the great American Christmas movies come from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including this zany comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck. She plays a popular newspaper food columnist who writes about her beautiful family and farmhouse in Connecticut while doling out delicious recipes — but in reality, she is a single woman who lives in New York and has the recipes given to her.
When her boss, who is unaware that her life isn’t really like what she writes about, suggests she host a Christmas dinner at her Connecticut home for a returning war hero, she has to figure out how to pull it off and not lose her job. A made-for-TV reboot was directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1992.
‘Die Hard’ (1988)
It’s long been debated whether or not “Die Hard” should be considered a Christmas movie but, in our opinion, it deserves to be mentioned alongside “White Christmas.” The story is essentially about a father trying to make it home to his estranged family for Christmas, and the villain just wants to ruin the holidays for everyone. Since it’s set in L.A., it’s not a snowy film, but the office Christmas party taking place inside the skyscraper that is taken over by German terrorists is loaded with festive imagery.
Entertainment Weekly even went so far as to say “Die Hard” is the perfect Christmas movie … though the story is a response to a poll in which a majority of voters said “Die Hard” is not a Christmas movie. We have a feeling we know how Bruce Willis’ character John McClane would respond to the debate: Yippee ki-yay! — followed by an expletive.
Dramas and action movies may be tough sells when the family gathers around the TV after Christmas dinner, but a silly comedy is just what Santa ordered. This recent classic gives Will Ferrell the rare chance to show how funny he is while playing a character who is really likable and sweet.
Ferrell plays Buddy, a human who was raised as one of Santa’s elves and spreads his unshakable holiday spirit among the bitter people of New York. It’s undoubtedly goofy but it will make even the grumpiest person laugh and feel good about Christmas. The all-star cast also includes Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, Bob Newhart and Ed Asner as Santa Claus.
‘Home Alone’ (1990)
Kevin McCallister is a hero to any latchkey kid — or anyone who doesn’t like robbers, for that matter. This ’90s classic follows that young boy, played perfectly by Macaulay Culkin, as he protects his house from two bumbling thieves after his family accidentally leaves him at home during an international Christmas trip.
“Home Alone” has tons of snow, awesome Christmas songs and lessons about the value of family. Plus, it was written by the immortal John Hughes and directed by the guy who did the first two Harry Potter movies. “Home Alone” still stands as the highest-grossing Christmas movie ever made.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)
In a write-up that declared “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Rotten Tomatoes said it’s also “one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.” Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a man on the brink of suicide on Christmas Eve before a guardian angel shows him the positive impact he’s had on the lives of people around him.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is so connected with Christmas in America that it’s almost a cliche at this point. Before “A Christmas Story,” this was the film that everyone watched on TV every Christmas — and millions still do every year. It just doesn’t get much more heartwarming than this one.
‘Jingle All the Way’ (1996)
OK, so it may not be as acclaimed as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but 1996’s “Jingle All the Way” is definitely worth a watch, especially for anyone who has felt the pain of trying to track down a must-have Christmas toy. This over-the-top comedy stars Arnold Schwarzenegger at his most silly, playing a workaholic dad who is tasked with finding his son’s dream gift, which happens to be sold out everywhere.
Critics trashed “Jingle All the Way,” but it has some of Schwarzenegger’s most quotable lines (“I’m not a pervert!”), and its cast is loaded with comedic talent, including Martin Mull, Jim Belushi, Laraine Newman and Harvey Korman. The film is worth watching if only for the last performance by Phil Hartman that was released during his lifetime.
‘Joyeux Noel’ (2005)
This is another under-the-radar Christmas film for people who like foreign movies. This French flick tells the true story of a Christmas Eve truce that developed between soldiers on the front lines of World War I. You’ll probably recognize actors like Diane Kruger and Daniel Brühl from the high-profile projects they’ve done in America. If you are someone who loves war movies and historical stories, this one should be on your holiday viewing list.
‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005)
A few years before he became immortal in “Iron Man,” Robert Downey Jr. gave one of his funniest performances ever in this dark comedy that’s also a great murder mystery set against the backdrop of the holidays. The dialogue is fast-paced, hilarious and R-rated, while the situations in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” just keep getting more twisted and bizarre as it goes.
This one is perfect for people who love hardboiled detective stories and quirky characters. It’s a deserving staple of lists of holiday films for adults, and Gizmodo called it “the Christmas movie you should be watching.”
‘Lethal Weapon’ (1987)
A year before “Die Hard” thrilled audiences with guns-blazing action set against an L.A. Christmas, “Lethal Weapon” did the same thing. This iconic buddy-cop film follows a pair of new LAPD partners who don’t see eye to eye but have to work together to shut down a heroin-smuggling ring.
It may not sound like your typical heartwarming Christmas fare — and it’s not — but to deny it a place among the all-time great holiday films is a crime. The chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover is palpable, and “Lethal Weapon” spends plenty of time showing how important family and friendship are at the holidays and even has a re-thought suicide attempt that resembles “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
‘Love Actually’ (2003)
This rom-com favorite arguably has more star power than any other movie on this list. A massive ensemble cast teams up to tell several intertwining stories of love that take place during Christmastime. Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Keira Knightley are just a handful of the incredible actors who play major roles in “Love Actually.”
Is it a bit sappy? No question — but sometimes that’s what you need as the snow is falling outside and you’re curled up on the couch in your warmest comfy clothes.
‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ (1942)
There’s some debate as to whether “The Man Who Came to Dinner” should be counted as a Christmas movie, but we’re giving this 1942 comedy gem the benefit of the doubt. It follows a sharp-tongued New York radio personality who slips on ice outside an Ohio family’s home and takes over their lives while staying with them and healing during the holiday season.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is almost like the anti-“Elf,” following a cynical city dweller who becomes a fish out of water in a slow-paced, idyllic Midwestern family setting. Out Magazine called the movie a “seminal gay film” due to the lead performance of Monty Woolley. Bette Davis also co-stars.
‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ (1904)
One of Judy Garland’s most beloved performances came in this MGM musical, which follows a wealthy St. Louis family for a year in the early 1900s. To be fair, only about 25 minutes of “Meet Me in St. Louis” are actually set at Christmastime, but those minutes are so iconic that they earn the film a spot on this list. Among the classic songs that were debuted in this movie was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Garland, of course, crushes.
‘Miracle on 34th Street’ (1947)
Another black-and-white favorite, 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” is the ultra-rare combination of Christmas story and courtroom drama. The movie follows a lawyer who sets out to prove a department-store Santa is actually the genuine article. The film was a big hit and even won three Oscars, which is rarified critical air for a Christmas movie. The courtroom scenes are full of holiday magic, and the performances of Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn and little Natalie Wood make it an immortal favorite.
‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ (1992)
Who doesn’t love the Muppets, Michael Caine and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”? This underrated musical gem is a telling of the all-time classic holiday story that’s perfect for little ones — and adults whose hearts aren’t too iced over. Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge and is one of the only human actors in the film, starring alongside Muppet icons like Kermit, Gonzo and Miss Piggy.
The original songs are equal parts funny and sweet. But you might want to have some tissues handy, because this one has some surprisingly touching moments with characters that you already love.
‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ (1989)
The 1980s truly were a great time for unconventional Christmas movies. This hilarious entry into the “Vacation” series follows the beleaguered father and husband Clark Griswold as he hosts a family Christmas that quickly gets out of hand. John Hughes wrote the script, which is loaded with memorable lines that anyone who’s seen the film more than once loves to quote non-stop every holiday season (“Sh—er was full!”). Chevy Chase might never have been funnier than when he opens that company Christmas “bonus” and stuns his entire family.
‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)
Disney’s greatest contribution to the Christmas movie canon is this stunning, stop-motion animated musical. Set in an imaginative universe where every holiday has its own world, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” follows the residents of Halloween Town as they put their own spin on Christmas after Santa Claus is kidnapped from Christmas Town.
The original songs are lively and memorable, and the visuals are still gorgeous, in that Tim Burton goth-fantasy way. Jack Skellington is one of the all-time great Christmas heroes.
‘The Polar Express’ (2004)
This 2004 blockbuster was polarizing (pun intended) among critics, but was a big hit and continues to earn new fans. Tom Hanks stars in six different roles, including as the conductor of a mysterious train that claims to travel to the North Pole. It closely follows the 1985 book by “Jumanji” author Chris Van Allsburg and was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who was responsible for favorites like “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future.”
Some critics slammed it for featuring animation that looked a little too lifelike, but Roger Ebert praised it with his highest score, a four-star grade. This one is great for older kids who are starting to question their belief in Santa Clause.
‘Remember the Night’ (1940)
This is another film that proves the 1940s was the decade to beat when it comes to Christmas classics. “Remember the Night” is a romantic drama about a woman who is caught shoplifting just before Christmas and begins an unlikely romance with the prosecuting district attorney. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray team up for the first of four films together and prove they have great chemistry. The premise is a little wacky, but the holiday spirit is warm with this one.
‘The Santa Clause’ (1994)
In 1994, Tim Allen was about as hot as a comedian could be, and he lent his star power to this live-action Disney film that became a Christmas hit and produced two sequels. “The Santa Clause” is about an overworked toy company executive who becomes Santa Claus after accidentally knocking the previous Santa off his roof. Allen’s character, Scott Calvin, is in denial about becoming Santa, even as he starts growing a big white beard that he can’t shave away and Santa’s infamous list of naughty and nice arrives at his house. The film was a massive box-office success, and it has plenty of broad laughs for kids and adults — and unabashed holiday spirit.
‘The Shop Around the Corner’ (1940)
The oldest movie on our list, this romantic comedy unfortunately gets forgotten as the “other” Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie. It’s about a pair of co-workers who don’t realize they are falling in love with one another as anonymous pen pals. You might know “The Shop Around the Corner” better as the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie “You’ve Got Mail,” but this original version boasts a rare 100-percent score at Rotten Tomatoes. The whole story builds to its romantic crescendo at Christmastime, making it delightful for holiday viewing.
‘Tokyo Godfathers’ (2003)
This animated film from Japan features a heartwarming, if unconventional, tale about three homeless people who find a newborn baby on Christmas Eve and try to find its parents. It’s been described as the type of animated feature that Disney wouldn’t dare tackle and has a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, where it’s described as beautiful, substantive and moving. Anyone who loves anime and Christmas needs to check this one out.
‘Trading Places’ (1983)
There might not be a Christmas movie with more laughs than “Trading Places.” This ’80s classic stars Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd as the unwitting subjects of an experiment pulled by two wealthy brothers who want to know what will happen when they try to switch the lives of a homeless man and a successful stockbroker. The whole film is set at Christmastime, and its soundtrack is loaded with carols. This one is R-rated, so it might not be appropriate for the whole family after a day of gift opening, but it’s perfect for the grown-ups.
‘While You Were Sleeping’ (1995)
This feel-good ’90s rom-com is perfect for anyone who counts “Love Actually” among their favorite holiday films. “While You Were Sleeping” stars Sandra Bullock as a woman who pretends to be the fiancée of a comatose man whose life she saved — until she legitimately falls in love with his brother. The film is set in Chicago around Christmastime and will warm you up, thanks to the charms of Bullock and co-star Bill Pullman. It made more than $180 million at the global box office and earned Bullock a Golden Globe nomination.
‘White Christmas’ (1954)
Another Irving Berlin musical that features Bing Crosby belting out the Christmas classics, “White Christmas” is an enduring piece of holiday entertainment. This sentimental film follows Crosby and Danny Kaye as a pair of entertainers who fall in love with a sister act and team up to help save a New England inn during a snowy Christmas. If you like your Christmas movies old-fashioned, it doesn’t get much more classic than this one.