Overlooked Christmas Movies You Should Be Watching
It's time to update your collection of Christmas classics.
You’ve probably heard this question posed before: “Is ‘Die Hard’ a Christmas movie?” The debate over “Die Hard” may rage on forever, but there are also a number of other underrated, obscure or nontraditional Christmas movies that aren’t mentioned as frequently on lists of great movies to watch during the holiday season.
Expand your viewing lineup this year beyond “Elf,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” with these overlooked holiday movies.
This charming film by “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle rarely makes “the best Christmas movie” rankings, yet it deserves to be on the top of your Christmas viewing list.
The 2004 film focuses on two motherless British boys who stumble on a bag of stolen cash and must decide what to do with it, smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season. BuzzFeed called it “the great lost Christmas film,” and that couldn’t be more true!
‘A Muppet Family Christmas’
Not to be confused with “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992), “A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” (2002) or “A Muppet’s Christmas: Letters To Santa” (2008), it’s time to reintroduce 1987’s “A Muppet Family Christmas” to a new generation of kids.
This was the rare Jim Henson movie to bring together puppet characters from all four of Henson’s original creations: “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” “Fraggle Rock” and “Muppet Babies.”
The movie focuses on muppets and puppets invading Fozzie’s mother’s country house for Christmas. It’s a family-friendly romp filled with Christmas songs. Jim Henson even makes a cameo at the end of the film. “Careful of the icy patch!”
‘The Bishop’s Wife’
It’s more likely you’ve seen “The Preacher’s Wife” starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington than its predecessor, “The Bishop’s Wife.” This 1947 film is in turn based on a novel and follows Cary Grant as an angel sent to help a local Protestant bishop. Loretta Young plays the title character.
“The Bishop’s Wife” homes in on keeping our priorities straight. The film has a fascinating backstory too, including the fact that Grant was originally slated to play the bishop.
‘The Family Stone’
“The Family Stone” has an all-star cast and polarizing reviews. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an uptight New Yorker meeting her boyfriend’s dysfunctional family, the Stones, for the first time when she goes home with him for Christmas.
Some are turned off at how horrible everyone can be to each other in this film, but I prefer to think of it as the type of movie that grows on you with every repeated viewing. Ignore the odd plot points and savor the great acting, zany family dynamics and poignant moments.
In this 1949 movie, a war widow, who is supporting herself and her little boy as a mystery shopper, starts to fall for a sympathetic store clerk — but she already has a serious beau! What will she do?
Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum make the sweet and sappy plot sing. And Gordon Gebert is a scene-stealer as Leigh’s onscreen son, who just really wants a train for Christmas — and for his mom to be happy.
“Holiday Affair” is an understated Christmas film that should not be missed.
Steve Martin headlines a great ensemble cast in the lesser-known 1994 Christmas comedy, “Mixed Nuts.”
Esquire posits that the movie was just ahead of its time, and that’s why it didn’t get much love when it was released, nor did it get much traction with audiences thereafter.
“Even for a Christmas comedy, it’s blasphemous — delightfully so,” writes Paul Schrodt for Esquire.
‘Fanny And Alexander’
This film is set at the turn of the 20th century, and the first part of the movie focuses on a large and wealthy Swedish family celebrating Christmas.
“Fanny and Alexander” was originally meant to be a five-hour television miniseries but received a three-hour theatrical release instead. Director Ingmar Bergman had big goals for the 1982 film, and the Criterion Collection describes it as combining Bergman’s “trademark melancholy and emotional intensity with immense joy and sensuality.”
‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’
File this one under the “Jim Henson makes awesome Christmas movies” category. “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” has become a cult classic largely because it received such a limited release on TV.
This was one of Jim Henson’s first productions, released in 1976 after the first season of “The Muppet Show.”
“It’s a charming, quiet holiday special, it isn’t big, flashy, and filled with pop culture references,” Joe Hennes, co-owner and editor-in-chief of ToughPigs told Smithsonian magazine. “It’s like Jim Henson was testing himself to see if he could make a Christmas classic without the typical ‘Muppet Show’ craziness and explosions.”
‘A Claymation Christmas Celebration’
The California Raisins dance their way through “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Dinosaurs debate the pronunciation of “wassail.” A dim-witted bell can’t ring in time with his bell chorus. And doo-wopping camels steal the show from the Three Wise Men.
In a series of short, clay animated holidays interspersed with narration, “A Claymation Christmas Celebration” manages to be quirky, funny and timeless.
‘A Mom For Christmas’
The 1990 TV movie “A Mom for Christmas” focuses on Jessica, a motherless preteen, whose workaholic father is still mourning his late wife and spends little time with his daughter.
Olivia Newton-John (in her first TV movie role) plays a mannequin who comes to life thanks to Doris Roberts’ fairy godmother-like character who grants Jessica’s wish for a temporary mom for the holidays. Corny plot? Yes. But it’s heartwarming nonetheless.
In this vaguely named 1938 film, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are smitten with each other. The only problem is that Grant’s character is engaged to Hepburn’s character’s sister.
Fun fact: “Holiday” is actually a remake of a 1930 film of the same name. But the original didn’t have the dazzle of Grant and Hepburn sending snappy quips flying.
‘We’re No Angels’
Three convicts escape prison just before Christmas in the 1955 comedy “We’re No Angels.” They plan to rob a store, but have a change of heart and instead decide to help out the beleaguered store manager and his family. When the greedy owner of the store and his nephew come to town causing trouble, the convicts step in again.
Along the same lines as “Die Hard,” this 1980s action classic is arguably a great Christmas movie because it is set during the holiday. Plus, key plot points have Christmas written all over them. So you may be “too old for this” stuff but you’re never too old to rewatch “Lethal Weapon.”
‘Meet John Doe’
Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe” stars Barbara Stanwyck as a journalist who creates a fake person and then hires a man (played by Gary Cooper) to play him. Several key scenes have a Christmas moment. And Frank Capra (who made “It’s A Wonderful Life”) can’t make a bad Christmas movie, really.
‘Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey’
This 1977 happy-sad cartoon falls along the same storylines as Rudolph. Nestor, the title character, is chastised for his overly long donkey ears. But when he is able to help the Virgin Mary, he comes out the hero. It’s a short, sweet story that might be a little too sad for young children.
‘I’ll Be Seeing You’
Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten play strangers hiding secrets in this 1944 movie, which also stars Shirley Temple. Since the two main characters meet while traveling around Christmas, this one fits the “obscure holiday film” category.
“The picture may overstretch its boundaries in some ways,” Turner Classic Movies writes. “But it’s also brushed with shadows of melancholy, a story about people facing radical personal challenges, even as their country is changing radically, if quietly, around them.”
‘The Christmas Toy’
For years after seeing the 1986 TV movie “The Christmas Toy,” we may have imagined that our toys came to life when we left the room
Speaking of toys coming to life when their owners aren’t around, there are a lot of parallels between “The Christmas Toy” and “Toy Story.” A toy worries about being replaced with a new one at Christmas. The new toy: a galactic space warrior. We could be talking about either film. “The Christmas Toy” is just a little darker because toys that are found out of place from where their owners last left them can no longer come to life.
As Decider put it, “The world is a dark place full of terror and discord. ‘The Christmas Toy’ posits that it’s only by appreciating love, kindness, friendship, and joy that we can find a way to plow through it all. It’s more important to be steadfast and kind than it is to be the most popular toy under the tree.”
‘It Happened On Fifth Avenue’
A depressed young rich girl finds out that a homeless man and his motley crew of fellow down-on-their-luck folks have moved into a wealthy family’s home while the house is empty for the winter. The young woman falls for one of the vagabonds staying there, and as the story progresses, her wealthy family learns some important lessons. Sounds like a perfect Christmas tale, but this is still one of the lesser-known holiday film classics.
Vince Vaughn plays Santa’s brother in “Fred Claus,” a movie that some people hate while others think it was made to “sour people on Christmas.” Just don’t overthink it and enjoy Vince Vaughn being Vince Vaughn.
‘Santa Claus: The Movie’
Dudley Moore and John Lithgow star in this 1985 holiday film. The A.V. Club thinks it hasn’t become a cult favorite like “A Christmas Story,” “not because the movie isn’t full of enough Christmas cheer, but because it takes that cheer a little too seriously.” However, the Amazon reviews of the film are largely positive. Maybe it’s on its way to a revival in popularity?
Michael Keaton plays a musician who misses out on time with his wife and son while on the road. Then he dies in a car accident. But he gets a chance to be “the world’s coolest dad” when he comes back to life as a snowman. Admittedly, he’s a slightly creepy-looking snowman, but one with the best of intentions.
‘Babes In Toyland’
“Babes in Toyland” from 1961 stars Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello and it’s set in the world of Toyland. It has lower production values than many Disney movies but there are some memorable songs and scenes.
The 1986 Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves version of “Babes in Toyland” is another cult classic worth watching at Christmas time.
When a burglar holds a bickering couple hostage, he gets more than he planned for, including their family coming over for Christmas dinner. This dark comedy starring Denis Leary is one that more people should see.
“This is a grown-up film that delights in undermining Christmas cliches,” read the New York Times review of the film when it was released in 1994. “Some of us are bound to love a movie in which watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ leads to a minor calamity.”
‘While You Were Sleeping’
You may love this movie as a romantic comedy, but it’s even better at Christmas time. Sandra Bullock’s lonely Lucy has to work Christmas Day when she saves a handsome man named Peter after he’s pushed onto the El tracks. While Peter is unconscious in the hospital, his family accidentally thinks Lucy is his fiancee — and she doesn’t exactly correct them. She’s invited to join the family’s Christmas celebration and soon Lucy finds herself falling in love with Peter’s brother.
When their normal holiday getaway falls through, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon have to split Christmas between each of their four divorced parents. The couple learns a lot about their relationship while getting vomited on and crushed by wrestling brothers.
‘Better Off Dead’
It snows on Christmas because of Edward Scissorhands. So, even though the entire movie isn’t set in the Christmas season, the holiday is at the heart of this Tim Burton film starring a young Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder. There might even be some parallels between Edward-the-outcast and the original Christmas story.
‘A Garfield Christmas’
Pies. So many pies. A chili powder showdown over the sausage gravy. Odie making Garfield a back scratcher. The “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” song. And sweet love letters that Odie and Garfield find to cheer up a lonely grandmother.
There are so many great scenes that make up the short TV movie “A Garfield’s Christmas.” And you don’t need to be a child of the ’80s to appreciate it today.
‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’
Although the movie takes place over the span of a year, key scenes happen at Christmas or are reminiscent of the holiday season, such as the ugly Christmas sweater’s debut at a party, and Bridget’s mom peddling products on TV at Christmas while Bridget and her dad sadly watch. And don’t forget that kiss in the snow!
‘Remember The Night’
A prosecutor takes pity on a shoplifter he’s supposed to bring to trial and brings her to his Christmas celebrations. The two fall in love. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray starred in several movies together. But they are never sweeter than in this film.
Like the fire burning at Nakatomi Plaza, the debate over whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not continues to rage. (Bruce Willis says no, the movie’s screenwriter says yes). But whichever side you choose in this perennial cinematic argument, the quality of “Die Hard” as a movie stands.
And on the side of “Die Hard” being a heart-warming Christmas classic, we offer these points. The movie takes place at Christmas party on Christmas Eve. “Now I have a machine gun, HO-HO-HO,” is a classic line. There is a key scene involving a gun stuck to John McClane’s back using “Season’s Greetings” wrapping tape. It “snows” paper. Christmas music is scattered throughout. Even one of the terrorists shouts “Merry Christmas!” during a scene.
Which of these alternate Christmas movies do you want to watch?