It should be obvious, this week before Christmas, that festivities will be on my mind. Hence, it’s about time that I put down definitively and unequivocally what I determine to be the best Christmas movies of all time. As I detailed in my “Best Christmas-Adjacent Movies” list last week, I am kind of a stickler when it comes to determining what is and isn’t a Christmas movie. But there is a clear reason why I’m very picky as to what I call or don’t call a Christmas movie, and that ultimately comes down to what I call the “Christmas Eve” test.
Basically, every Christmas Eve, after going to church and the kids have gone to bed, I put in a movie or two to ring in Christmas day. Watching a Christmas movie on Christmas Eve has been my tradition ever since I found myself away from home one Christmas Eve and stumbled upon Alastair Sim’s A Christmas Carol on local TV and for a brief respite was cured of my homesickness around the season. As you can imagine then, there are a select few movies that get that hallowed Christmas Eve viewing spot. And more importantly there is a specific type of movie that gets that Christmas Eve slot. So in order to be one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it has to have a puncher’s chance of occupying my Christmas Eve slot (although lets be honest, at this point in my life the top three are nearly set in stone).
I highlighted the qualities of a Christmas movie briefly last Friday, let’s get into it deeper here:
- Christmas Themed – Beyond the exterior trappings of Christmas, there are general themes that play primacy in this season. Hope, love, joy, and peace tend to be in abundant supply this season and should be the themes that win out in Christmas movies, even if it is sometimes set against a world or place where those things may be in short supply (the best movies are the ones that approach these themes honestly).
- Non-Christmas season appropriateness (or inappropriateness) – A true Christmas movie is one that is going to feel weird to watch outside of the Christmas season. This will be the biggest knock contributing to Die Hard’s exclusion from this list.
- Family friendly – Admittedly this is a quality that has become increasingly relevant to me as my little ones grow up, but the fact is that ideally, Christmas is a time for family. Especially here in Canada, the weather grows cold, people move indoors, and the chance for everyone to pile up on the couch with blankets, hot cocoa, and some sugar-laden treat is one of the few pleasures of winter. And in that vein, an R-rated romp through the seedier parts of L.A. like in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just not something that’s going to cut it in the family-friendly department.
- Crowd-pleasing – I include this here not as a someone resistant to depressing endings or difficult themes. After all, sometime next year I’m planning on doing a Ingmar Bergman retrospective, so I’m well versed and naturally drawn to those kinds of movies. But there also needs to be a place for something that has ambitions to merely leave a broad smile on your face. And given the general difficulty that can often accompany the season, I have no qualms stating that maybe our Christmas movies – which we generally seek for entertainment purposes – could be a little easy.
- Christmas setting – Snow, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, jingle bells… You know what? I really shouldn’t have to explain this one.
Of course even with these strict rules, we still have a swath of possible Christmas movies. And more importantly we have a huge swath of bad ones too. So consider this my public service if you find yourself, like me, contemplating exactly what movies get to fill your own vaunted “Christmas movie” slot, whenever you may choose to watch it.
Honourable Mentions (As in, I won’t judge you if you choose to watch these movies on Christmas Eve)
Elf – Years from now, the only reason the general public will know who Will Ferrell will be because of his seasonally-appropriate turn as Buddy the Elf. The only reason this movie doesn’t make the top-10 is some unfortunate running-out-of-steam right at the end.
The Muppet Christmas Carol – I had one unwritten rule when it came to putting together this list and that was that I would only allow one adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella onto the list (and how my wife wishes I would impose a similar rule for how many “A Christmas Carol” adaptations I watch per season). As such the second best adaptation misses out, mostly because while it’s a great “Christmas Carol” movie it’s only a decent Muppet movie.
Christmas in Connecticut – Barbara Stanwyck has, between this movie and Remember the Night, cemented herself as a key fixture of Christmas movies and I really regret not being able to include this fantastic screwball comedy on the list. But the cuts have to come from somewhere!
Home Alone – Had I made this list ten years ago I would’ve had this in my top five easily. But somewhere between turning thirty and having kids, the movie started to sour on me just a little bit as I started to find the violence not nearly as funny as I used to. In other words, this just might be my “it’s not you, it’s me” movie on this list.
White Christmas – Perhaps a little bit too rah-rah about the military for a Christmas movie, but there’s no denying that it’s a fun, breezy movie musical that piles on the Christmas cheer and features one of the most iconic Christmas songs. What more could you ask for?
The entire Rankin-Bass canon (but mostly Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer) – I realize that it’s slightly in vogue to dump on Rudolph lately, and most of it is unwarranted. But there is no denying that compared to modern views of children and child-raising the Rankin-Bass canon just comes across as a little sour. Still they are classics.
And now to the actual Top 10:
10. A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) dir. Bob Clark
This is a movie that I’ve come to appreciate more and more the older I get. The brilliance of A Christmas Story is that it is set in 1940, which is in many ways the age in which the modern conception of Christmas was born. It is a time enshrined by many of the Christmas songs that we sing and our nostalgia tends to make us view this “ideal” period of Christmas through rose-colored glasses. And while A Christmas Story does play up that nostalgia, it also shatters this same nostalgia by showing that the Christmas of 1940 looks ever so much like the Christmases that have followed since. The 1940s were not free from the general stress of the season, of the lure of commercialism, of overt (and covert) racism, or from boorish patriachal figures. Every year, A Christmas Story gets to remind us in funny ways that things were not decidedly better in the good ol’ days.
9. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) dir. Ernst Lubitsch
For as long as there have been Christmas movies, there have been romantic comedies about Christmas and The Shop Around the Corner is simply one of the best. The setup is as classic a romantic comedy setup as there has ever been: Two employees (played by Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart) work in the same store. One is the top salesman of the company, the other a new upstart employee. And they can’t stand each other, trading barbs at regular intervals with each trying to one-up the other. And without realizing it, the two end up falling for each other in time for Christmas. The difference between this and every other Hallmark Christmas movie is that in the hands of Ernst Lubitsch it becomes a sumptuous feast of witty repartee all the while deftly keeping the film from becoming either a farce or a serious romance. In other words, a simply perfect Christmas romance.
8. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) dir. Tim Burton
It is now time for me to put forth my argument that not only is The Nightmare Before Christmas NOT a Halloween movie, it is also a proper Christmas movie. While the movie has all the externalities of a Halloween movie, what makes this a Christmas movie is the heart of the plot. It is about Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, who in a desperate search for inspiration tries to impart the spirit of Christmas (although given the inclination of Halloweentown’s citizens results in a macabre Christmas indeed). It is a story about a jaded Halloween-er becoming rejuvenated and revitalized by Christmas. It is a movie where the soundtrack has jingle bells in it! Jingle bells! And the climax of the movie is Jack’s quest to save Santa from the Boogieman so that Santa can save Christmas. If that is not a Christmas movie plot, then I’m not sure what is. Besides, Halloween gets plenty of oddball and macabre-looking movies. Just let Christmas have this one.
7. TOKYO GODFATHERS (2003) dir. Satoshi Kon
Admittedly Japanese anime is not where you’d typically go to find Christmas fare. And by far the story is the most adult oriented of the movies here. But if you are willing to try something a little bit left-field for a moment, I promise it will be worth it. Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless people in Tokyo who stumble upon an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and their quest to try and figure out what to do about it. While Hollywood might take that premise and play it for farce, the director Satoshi Kon instead weaves a humanistic, heartwarming, redemptive, and ultimately miraculous tale that echoes so much of the Christmas story, warts and all. My list does not include a traditional Christmas retelling (mostly because all of the ones I’ve seen really aren’t that good). But this story, about a child’s unexpected arrival and the hope she ultimately brings to everyone who comes in contact with her, is not a bad substitute.
6. MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947) dir. George Seaton
Sometimes on Christmas, you need something that’s sweet and bordering on treacly, something completely uncynical, something that might be even a little sappy. And for that occasion, this story about Kris Kringle melting the hearts of a bunch of cynical New Yorkers is the perfect solution for you. It employs so many of the tropes that the Hallmark channel would eventually do to death: the overworked woman who has no time for the silly frivolity of Christmas; the young girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus; the bachelor who is desperate to end his loneliness and the emptiness of his career; the cynical miser who tries to end all Christmas cheer; and finally Kris Kringle in disguise who conjures up all his magic to save the season and in turn bring everyone (sans miser) together. But if this movie is overly sentimental it gets a pass from me because it did it first, and it did it extremely well. If you can’t muster a single grin from this adorable little movie, then maybe you should take a lesson from the next picture on this list.
5. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) dir. Chuck Jones, Ben Washam
No, not the Jim Carrey adaptation (I cannot stress this enough). But the original made-for-TV special adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book is brilliant for so many reasons. First, it is narrated by Boris Karloff who manages to infuse the story with gravitas and menace when necessary. Next it is animated by one of the greatest animators of all time in Chuck Jones and he truly lets loose in this story of weird angles, deliciously expressive faces, and visual gags galore. And finally, as the title of the special might suggest, it is a Dr. Seuss story, which means it is creative and weird and imaginative and poetic, all while wrapped up in a story warm enough to help any Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.
4. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011) dir. Sarah Smith, Barry Cook
An embarrassingly underrated film about the Clauses and their work shift before Christmas. Tackling head-on the issue of nostalgia and how it ruins the present, this story focuses on a (possibly) retiring Santa Claus and his two sons who stand to take the mantle on the night before Christmas when they realize that they have missed delivering one present on their flyaround the world. Along the way the film does a marvellous send-up to the awkward family holiday dinner, lampoons everything from the digital age to the “back in my day” sentiments while maintaining in young Arthur Claus a warm uncynical core that represents everything you could want from a story about Santa. It also helps that the story is British.
3. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) dir. Brian Desmond Hurst
One of the most remarkable things about the Christmas season is just how prevalent Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is to the season. It is also remarkable that there have been so many adaptations of his work, and so many of them have been faithful retellings of that work (in a medium well-known for butchering literary work to fit it onscreen). All this to say that there were theoretically an enormous amount of adaptations for me to choose from, but in reality there was never really going to be any competition. Alastair Sim’s Scrooge has been the gold standard for more than half a century for good reason. Most people who play Scrooge fall into one of two categories. Either they are so menacing that they can’t fully transition into joviality in the final act or they are ultimately too warm to play such a cold-hearted person convincingly. Alastair Sim’s Scrooge however was able to skirt that thin line so that both the darker aspects of the story and its brighter moments shine equally.
2. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965) dir. Bill Melendez
Contrary to the antics of his silly dog or its status as an animated made-for-TV cartoon is the fact that this is easily one of the more profound Christmas stories out there. At the heart of this movie is the melancholy over the commercialism that inevitably ruins or at leasts dampens the spirit of Christmas. And even though this was made over fifty years ago, it’s amazing how much that message still resonates. And I believe its because that the message of this movie is simple: commercialism can’t be eradicated from the season, but it can be overcome. And it can be overcome because the act of stripping away all the external frivolities of Christmas does not leave behind an empty core, but in fact reveals a rich and sustaining heart that shines through the darkest nights of the year. And unlike some unnamed faith-based movies that try to preach the same message, Charlie Brown and his gang manage to do this without rubbing our faces in it which makes it a great accomplishment indeed. Plus it’s soundtrack is required listening for the season.
1. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) dir. Frank Capra
Yes, I understand that all but the final third of this movie does NOT happen during Christmas. And that this movie is an obvious (almost cliche) choice. But there is a reason why this story of a scrappy man who never leaves his town because he’s incapable of not doing the right thing is a story that has endured all these years. And I think it’s because that the story is, despite its warmth and humour, surprisingly dark. For almost the entire runtime doing the right thing does not seem to do George Bailey (James Stewart) much good, and in fact in the climax threatens to ruin him leading to him being willing to kill himself. But it is this movie’s willingness to embrace this darkness that makes the ultimate climax of this film, when he does come to see the impact of his selflessness and altruism, all the more powerful. And this is what leaves me and countless others every year a blubbery mess without fail every Christmas.
(Blog note: And like everyone else around this time, I’m going to be taking a little bit of a break. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in the New Year (or close to it!). Merry Christmas or whatever seasonally appropriate greeting suits you best!)