First published on 7 Dec 2011. Updated on 11 Dec 2013.
You may think Christmas movies are all about snow, Santa and saccharine sentiment, but from cosy suburbia to outer space, from gangsters to Grinches, from Charles Dickens to Charlie Brown, there’s a whole world of entertainment to be had come the holiday season. We round up the 100 best (and worst) festive flicks, handily categorised, alphabetised and delivered straight down your digital chimney. Ho ho ho!
A is for Animation
Cartoons and Christmas are a perfect fit, which is presumably why every year the festive DVD shelves are stocked with knock-off, keep-the-kids-quiet sludge about magic reindeer and happy elves. But rising above the mire is a brace of classic titles, chief among them the original animated take on Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), and, of course, the perennially awesome A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), one of the sweetest, most beautiful films ever made for children. Christmas scenes pop up in a fistful of Disney flicks – from Lady and the Tramp (1955) to Toy Story (1995) – but if your family is of a darker turn of mind, there’s always Tim Burton’s stop-motion freakfest The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
B is for Brian
Not a Christmas film per se, but we would be remiss if we didn’t flag up the Pythons’ sidelong tilt at the life story of the guy who kicked the whole thing off. No, not Jesus Christ, but his Nazarene neighbour, Brian Cohen. Unhinged, irreverent, uproarious and entirely respectful of Christian ideals, Life of Brian (1979) is the perfect festive comedy for those of a certain bent. Trapped in Paradise (1994) is another skewed Yuletide treat that witnesses Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey as bank robbers stuck in a schmaltz-drenched snowglobe of stifling small town values that reduces them to tears of frustration, anger and disappointment. Similar sentiments swirl through the purported comedy of baffling Christmas-set Harrelson/Snipes shouting match Money Train (1995) – but for entirely different reasons.
C is for Capraesque
Love it or loathe it, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is one of the key Christmas movies, its themes of brotherhood, generosity and forbearance in the face of adversity striking a chord with viewers worldwide. So it’s hardly surprising that the film has proved a massive influence on Hollywood depictions of the festive season through the ages. Movies as diverse as Miracle on 34th St (1947) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) either celebrate or satirise Capra’s twinkly all-American aesthetic, but the fondest and most savage Capra pastiche is undoubtedly Gremlins (1984), in which director Joe Dante takes all those cosy small-town clichés and has them torn to shreds with sharp little teeth.
D is for Dickens
When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol (just one of over 20 seasonal stories he published), how could he possibly have known what a world-conquering monster he’d created? The internet lists no less than 21 straight adaptations of Dickens’s story – but considering that list doesn’t even find space for sarky, sour-pussed Bill Murray comedy Scrooged (1988), we can safely assume there are many more. Among the favourites, the ever-so-cosy 1951 version starring Alastair Sim stands out, though not literally, unlike Robert Zemeckis’s slightly-too-slick 2009 3D version with Jim Carrey. But without doubt the maddest, most entertainingly off-the-book version has to be the woolly and wonderful The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – more of which later in the list.
E is for Elves
Considering the sweatshop conditions and arctic temperatures they have to endure, it’s no wonder that elves are, in the main, a feckless, unruly bunch. Big-boned manchild Will Ferrell is the exception that proves the rule as the winningly credulous hero of Jon ‘Favs’ Favreau’s Elf (2003), but not even he can balance out the scales. Marcus, the drunken, foulmouth turncoat elf of 2003’s X-rated Xmas classic Bad Santa is closer to the norm. Vicious, materialistic and greedy he may be, but elfing is seasonal work and the little man has to afford his cocaine and Filipino mail order brides all year round. But lest we start feeling too sorry for Santa’s Little Helpers, consider the murderous critters in unnecessarily Nazi-themed cheapjack slasher Elves (1989), who bring a whole new meaning to the term White Christmas.
F is for Families at War
For every film that holds Christmas up as a frosted prism through which to glimpse the cloying ideals of twinkly fireside sentimentality, there is another that is all too eager to present it as a rusty barometer with which to gauge all that is wrong in our lives. Simmering familial spite-fiestas as disparate as Kramer vs Kramer (1979), Icelandic gem 101 Reykjavik (2000) and The War of the Roses (1989) – previously described in these pages as ‘possibly the most gleefully unhinged and dark-hearted mainstream film to have ever been served up as a comedy by a major Hollywood studio’ – all feature memorable Xmas episodes. But King Boss Daddy of them all is The Ref (1994), in which burglar Denis ‘Yo-Ho-Ho!’ Leary forces bickering yuppies Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey to enjoy the festive season. At gunpoint. Sometimes that’s what it takes…
G is for Gangsters
Tipsy singalongs, grossly overelaborate sit-down eating rituals, teary admissions, the overarching threat of irrevocable interfamilial violence – the checklist of any suburban Christmas Day already sounds like the plot of a Mafia movie, so it’s no surprise that so many gangster films embrace the festive season. Brando’s Don Vito gets plugged while buying some Christmas apples and oranges for the little 'uns in The Godfather’ (1972), Irish pugs Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson take in the high Yuletide of the Low Countries in the peerless In Bruges (2008) and Ice-T goes postal in Abel Ferrara’s Christmas kidnap caper ‘R Xmas’ (2001). But while it might be a lower league cinematically, perhaps the pick of this badass bunch is the unfairly maligned Ben Affleck thriller Reindeer Games (2000) which features a crack team of Santas robbing a casino – surely the true and eventual culmination of the entire American Dream if there ever was one!
H is for Horror
What is it about the festive season that makes folks want to slash and kill? Or should we be surprised that more Christmas films don’t involve psychos on the rampage? Holiday horror first surfaced with Ealing portmanteau piece ‘Dead of Night’ (1945), as an upper-crust family soiree is visited by the ghost of a murdered child. The subgenre really hit its stride with Black Christmas, the film which singlehandedly invented the holiday-themed slasher, and spawned not just an cheapo ’80s Santa-based knockoff – Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) – but a duff 2006 remake. The best film in the nightmare-before-Christmas canon has to be Gremlins (see C), but keep an eye out for oft-overlooked serial killer thriller Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) (1980), the story of a man whose realisation that Santa doesn’t exist drives him to murderous madness.
I is for Insanity
Other than a memorable scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and the lingering suspicion that Robin Williams’s dangerously pent-up corporate douche in Hook (1989) is actually clinically insane rather than joyously in touch with his inner child (cf It’s a Wonderful Life), the insanity of Christmas is best highlighted in Nora Ephron’s woeful 1994 Michaelmas madness misstep, Mixed Nuts (based on a 1982 French film titled ‘Santa Claus is a Bastard’). Such top-notch talents as Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis, Garry Shandling, Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber – among many, many others – all over-egg the comedic nog to an embarrassing degree in what might well be cinema’s one and only high-octane suicide-helpline farce.
J is for Joyeux Noel!
If you, like us, have long cherished the belief that Christmas is only celebrated in English-speaking countries and was invented by Charles Dickens as a way to boost his underperforming taffy concession, then cinema tells us otherwise. It seems that Continental types enjoy the festive season as much – and possibly even more – than the Toys R Us charge-card holders of the US and the UK. Just look at Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), in which the Swedish chattering classes of the early 1900s come together to gorge on sweet meats, prance around the house and fart in each others’ faces. Italian director Ermanno Olmi covers that horrendous spectacle of the Christmas office party in his brilliant 1961 film Il Posto. The brutality of Japanese PoW camps even gets a Yuletide sheen in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), as Takeshi Kitano’s draconian prison guard yells out the film’s title as his only words of English. Or what about Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008), in which the festering grudges of an extended French family only bubble to the surface after the kids have put on a little Nativity and the olds are using Super Soakers to spray port and lemon over each other.
K is for Kermit the Frog
Even more than traditional cartoons, there’s something about puppetry and stop motion which just yells ‘festive’. Perhaps it’s the link to childhood toys, perhaps it’s their fuzzy-blanket exteriors, but the Muppets do Christmas better than just about anyone else, as a fistful of marvellous TV specials and their timeless, riotous, utterly sacreligeous 1992 cracker The Muppet Christmas Carol conclusively prove. Elsewhere, it’s slim pickings: The Nightmare Before Christmas is a favourite but it’s hardly a heartwarmer, while ‘The Wrong Trousers’ (1993) may be a British seasonal classic, but there’s no mention of Christmas in it. But keep an eye out for Rankin/Bass’s loveably old-school ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)’, in which Father C is memorably voiced by the great Mickey Rooney.
L is for Lampoon, National
With respect to the many other fine, fine films in this rundown, we felt it was only fair to accord the magnificent National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) a section all to itself. After detonating the American Dream (Vacation, 1983) and pummelling the Old World into submission (European Vacation, 1985), the universal away day of Christmas seemed like the only institution for Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold and his squawking family of reliably mutinous materialistic brats left to ruin. Rowdy in-laws, mind-of-their-own decorations, incinerated trees, four-letter tirades, exploding Santas, imploding turkeys, improbably salty nog, supercharged sledding and overflowing septic tanks add up not only to ‘the jolliest bunch of assholes this side if the nuthouse!’, but also make for the one truly seminal modern Christmas movie.
M is for Musicals
One suspects that, apart from in ‘Eastenders’, the era of the Christmas sing-song is a thing of the past: try and pull off a few verses of Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’ now and you’ll no doubt be banished to the bottom of the garden so everyone can soak up the nightmare karaoke of ‘The X Factor’. But it wasn’t always like this: Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St Louis (1944) contains one of the greatest Christmas sing-songs ever, as Judy Garland laments her impending departure from her hokey hometown with a stirring rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. And what about Albert Finney’s musical-minded take on the miserly anti-hero of Ronald Neame’s Scrooge (1970)? But if there’s one man in cinema who is unable to keep his wild enthusiasm for Christmas under wraps, it’s Bing Crosby, star of the one-two punch of Holiday Inn (1942) and White Christmas (1954). Both films are as saccharine and gloopy as an eggnog tsunami, but that’s exactly what you want on a cold December morn.
N is for Naughty or Nice?
There are as many different movie depictions of Saint Nick as there are a-lords a-leaping. For drunk, intransigent and sociopathic, try Bad Santa (2003). Ancient, pustulent and montrous: see Rare Exports (2010). Bleach-balding amnesic pro-wrestlers saving an orphanage: Hulk Hogan’s ‘Santa With Muscles’ (1996) should cover it. Psychopathic bank robbers: meet Christopher Plummer in softly-softly Canadian crime curio The Silent Partner (1978). For a schlubby Jewish Santa, call Paul Giammatti in Fred Claus (2007). Dangerously reckless vice cop: Gene Hackman’s lunatic turn as a street-legal Santa in the opening scenes of The French Connection (1971) might fit the bill. A Satan-baiting Mexican redsuit from another planet: 1959’s Tex-Mex camp classic ‘Santa Claus’. Space-rocked Oklahomans celebrating mankind’s first Noel on the Red Planet? Surely it’s time for The Flaming Lips’ ‘Christmas on Mars’ (2008). And… well, you get the idea…
O is for Once Upon a Time...
It could be argued that most Christmas movies are fairytales of one kind or another, but there are a few which get the kid-friendly pitch just right. The best of these is undoubtedly ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (see A), but you also can’t go wrong with Miracle on 34th St, a cosy old charmer in which Santa gets banged up for… well, being Santa, the implication being that fantastical figures have no place in the real world. It was convincingly remade in 1994, with a twinklier-than-thou Richard Attenborough in the lead. Perennial Stateside favourite A Christmas Story (1982) has never really made a splash on these shores, unlike Robert Zemeckis’s slightly creepy but nonetheless popular CG romp The Polar Express (2004). For slightly older kids, Home Alone (1990) never fails to get ‘em up and screaming, while those with a thirst for mayhem will go for Gremlins every time.
P is for Poverty
‘Jingle bells don’t jingle when you’re poor,’ sang headline-ripping folkster Phil Ochs, and the movies don’t intend to let us forget it. Depictions of seasonal poverty begin with Dickens and A Christmas Carol, whose Bob Cratchit is the ultimate festive pauper. But Cratchit’s antecedents have popped up in many forms, from a burly rugby player in This Sporting Life (1955) to a mealy-mouthed boxer in Rocky (1976), from the struggling auto-plant workers in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989) to the snowbound poverty-line heroines of US indie masterpiece Frozen River (2008). But if you’re looking for the most heartbreaking single image of Christmas on the breadline, check out Trading Places (1983), in which Dan Aykroyd’s former Wall Street exec wanders the mean streets of Manhattan clutching a pistol, suicidal in a Santa suit.
Q is for Quests and Journeys
Ever since Bing Crosby warbled ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’, we’ve been inundated with images of families struggling to make it back – or, indeed, get away – over the festive break. The best home-for-the-holidays movie – Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – is actually set over Thanksgiving, but for a suitable alternative, check out Renny Harlin’s delirious action comedy The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), in which Geena Davis’s voyage home involves wiping out half the CIA. Those looking to avoid family ties should go for either The Sure Thing (1985), in which John Cusack heads for LA in search of nookie, or The Holiday (2006), a saccharine-sweet guilty pleasure romcom in which Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz find unexpected love in foreign climes.
R is for Romance
Christmas is a time for families rather than couples, but that specific sense of loneliness which descends on the lovelorn over the festive period can add a certain spark to the most average romcom – case in point Love Actually (2003), a reprehensible slice of Britcom treacle in which Bill Nighy’s sad Christmas rocker is the only palatable portion. Many great romances visit Christmas fleetingly – see When Harry Met Sally (1989) or Annie Hall (1977) – but the most successful festive schmaltzathon must be While You Were Sleeping, (1995) a deeply drippy, wholly loveable Noo Yoik love story in which Sandy Bullocks falls for subway crash victim Peter Gallagher, only to realise that she should be with his 100 per cent less comatose bro, Bill Pullman.
S is for Suicide
Those who view the classic Hollywood Christmas canon as an endless wasteland of sugar and schmaltz should take another look. In the real world, Christmas is a time of loneliness and loss for many – a fact reflected in a fistful of the finest holiday flicks: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Apartment (1960) and Trading Places (1983). Think of Jimmy Stewart staggering on to the bridge, willing himself to jump, or Jack Lemmon bursting into his bedroom to find Shirley MacLaine passed out on his bed on Christmas night following an overdose of sleeping pills. These are some of the most shocking scenes in cinema – but they also display a deep understanding of human pain, and what it takes to survive it: love, companionship, warmth. And what could be more Christmassy than that?
T is for Terrorists
‘Now I have a machine gun. Ho… Ho… Ho…’ Yes, it’s time for the shootiest, smashiest, sweariest of all the great Christmas movies: Die Hard (1988), in which Bruce Willis plays Bad Santa to Alan Rickman’s gang of gun-toting Eurotrash terrorists, slipping down the chimney and filling ‘em full of lead. But these aren’t the only armed revolutionaries looking to misbehave on the holiest night: a pair of dystopian shockers show exactly what could happen if you mess with Jesus’s birthday. In Twelve Monkeys (1995), the bad guys have already won, subjecting the world to a killer virus which strikes over the festive season, while in Brazil (1984), Jonathan Pryce must deal not only with his own insecurities, a psychotic best mate and a terrorist bombing campaign, but the fact that every bugger he meets wants to palm him off with this year’s special executive Christmas gift.
U is for Unwanted Visitors
There’s a fifth wheel at many a Yuletide gathering. But spare a thought for the drunken, interloping chancer at the office Christmas party or the sob story from the pub that you end up inviting back for a turkey dinner, because they, like Jim Carrey’s bitter, twisted, hairy green spoilsport in Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), are probably decent enough at heart. The same can’t be said for undead Eurotrash gatecrasher Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II (1989), who wants to spoil the party by turning the streets of Manhattan into rivers of malevolent karmic slime. And lastly, spare a thought for Billy Crystal in ‘Rabbit Test’ (1978) (directed by, yes, you guessed it, Joan Rivers) who spends Christmas in the full bloom of male pregnancy. Now THAT’S what you call an unwanted guest!
V is for Violence
Just because it’s the season of goodwill doesn’t mean human nature is about to improve. We’ve already covered some of the finest festive shoot ’n’ beat-em-ups elsewhere on this list – Die Hard, The Long Kiss Goodnight, R Xmas – but there are so many more to choose from: check out the wonderful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), in which Robert Downey Jr’s struggling actor must solve a murder mystery – and stay alive – over a sweltering LA Christmas season. Festive cheer is also notable by its absence in the likes of Zodiac (2007), in which the first murder takes place shortly before the big day, Eastern Promises (2007), which opens with a slap-up Russian Orthodox feast, First Blood (1982), in which Sly Stallone goes bugnuts batshit in true holiday style, and of course the terrifying Home Alone, in which a miniature maniac on a sugar jag tears seven strips off two hapless burglars.
W is for War
They say war is hell. They also say that hell is Christmas. Therefore Christmas must – at least for the purposes of this waning metaphor – be WAR! It’s certainly the case in Spielberg’s engorged slapstick folly 1941 (1979), a jabbering aria of unhooked militaristic lunacy taking place in the aftermath of the December bombings of Pearl Harbor. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 Deutsche U-boat classic Das Boot also contains some memorable festive sequences, as does Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953). And while the midfield truce of Battle of the Bulge armistice near-miss A Midnight Clear (1992), starring Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon and Gary Sinise, elicits genuine feelings of détente, let’s not forget the seasonal sci-fi sports day promised by Cold War fever dream Rocky IV (1985), in which Sly Stallone decides Christmas isn’t spicy enough already and so schedules a title fight with godless Russian killing machine Ivan Drago for the big day. Insert your own Boxing Day zinger here.
X is for Xmas or Christmas?
Commerce or Christianity? Carol service or boozing session? The Life of Brian or The Ten Commandments (1956)? Jingle All the Way (1996) or It’s a Wonderful Life? It’s the eternal festive debate, and the movies haven’t reached any kind of conclusion as yet. Indeed, most Christmas flicks try to have it both ways, following the template set by the venerable Charles Dickens: 90 minutes of aggro, rampant consumerism, familial strife, supernatural hi-jinks and general misery followed by five minutes of sappy sermonising, hugging, learning, growing, nog-sipping and appreciating the Baby Jesus. Well, he was pretty brilliant.
Y is for Youth on the rampage
When you’re young, innocent and parentally unsupervised, Christmas is yours to make of it what you will. Painfully well-adjusted munchkin Macaulay Culkin treats his parents’ disappearance over the festive period as a golden ticket to pranks and jinks in ‘Home Alone’, but poor little Thurman Merman in Bad Santa isn’t quite such a livewire and his holiday season has descended into an cheerless, unchaperoned mire of corn dogs and snot. The tearaways of Doug Liman’s all-but-forgotten teen-Tarantino workout Go (1999) have put away childish things to indulge in a night of speedy debauchery in Vegas, while the ageing juveniles of Diner (1982) spend Christmas realising that the carnival is over and the drear fog of adulthood is pulling them into the night. Blub!
Z is for Z-grade
While the above films are, for the large part, a decent clutch of serviceable movies – with the odd iced gem (Trading Places, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Christmas Vacation) twinkling like fairy lights above the rest – it would be disingenuous of us not to admit that most Christmas movies are very, very bad indeed. Blame TV: most festive films aren’t made for the multiplex, but for endless rotation on the telly while everybody’s too busy, distracted or drunk to care, as long as there’s the occasional glimpse of snow, a rosy-cheeked oldster in a red jumpsuit or an animatronic reindeer every time they look up from wrapping presents, butter-balling the turkey or emptying the drinks cabinet. So we get the likes of Michael Keaton’s grossly misjudged and sinister reincarnated snowman caper Jack Frost (1998), Martin Freeman wading through the primary school treacle of Nativity! (2009) and killer Christmas tree howler Trees 2: The Root of All Evil (2004). But though we reserve a special category of dread for bizarro Jewsploitation misfire The Hebrew Hammer (2004) – starring Andy Dick as a Santa bent on destroying Hanukkah – the bottom of the barrel must surely be reserved for hideously overextended shopping mall infomercial Christmas in Wonderland (2007), which treats the festive season like a punching bag full of vomit. Happy viewing, folks!