As we all know by now, the glorious onset of the Christmas season comes with many beloved Christmas rituals: the adrenalin rush of last-minute gift buying; the delightful sight of shopping mall Santas ringing bells at frightened children; deciding whether to go with an artificial tree or a real one; and, of course, spending those many cherished hours with the family trying to untangle last year’s box of Christmas tree lights. What joy.
Then there is the watching of Christmas movies, a genre that grows by the hundreds each year as studios and streaming platforms pump out more Christmas-themed films than you can shake a chocolate-stuffed Christmas stocking at. Tap “Christmas” into the search field of any streaming service and you’ll be deluged with a veritable blizzard of choices.
Yet, when it comes to sitting down with the children to bask and rejoice in the spirit of Christmas before passing out in a food coma, it’s the classics people turn to.
In this special selection of the best Christmas movies let’s use a Christmas tree to rate each film’s appeal: those suitable for the whole family sit in the top tier; films aimed at pleasing maturing, angst-ridden teens occupy the middle; while those Christmas films designed strictly for adults reside oh-so-merrily at the bottom.
There’s no argument that at the very top of the tree is A Charlie Brown Christmas (AppleTV+), the low-budget 25-minute 1965 TV special that has become a Christmas viewing tradition.
Why is this so? The animation has dated terribly, it looks cheap, the story is cynical and thin, and things get preachy as Linus quotes from The Bible.
Yet it’s the bit at the end when Charlie Brown chooses the saddest little Christmas tree in the shop and gives it new life. Nothing since has nailed the Christmas spirit of hope and renewal so perfectly. If anything, the giant legacy of this little film owes much to its humility – a key part of the Christmas spirit.
The 1983 family-friendly satire A Christmas Story (Apple, $2.99), directed by Bob Clark, is a must-see for anyone yet to enjoy its delightfully snarky tale of a kid who wants nothing more in life than a pellet rifle for Christmas, even though everyone tells him he’ll shoot his eye out – including the department store Santa.
Though it didn’t hit big in 1946, Frank Capra It’s a Wonderful Life (Stan; Prime) has long been a universally adored favourite thanks to its touching story of a suicidal family man (James Stewart) who is reminded about how valuable he is to others. It’s a film that refuses to grow old.
It’s also one of many classics inspired by A Christmas Carol, the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens that just doesn’t stop giving, with scores of adaptations. Among the best are: Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a beautiful 26-minute 1983 cartoon; the digital animation with Jim Carrey; and, how could we neglect, The Muppet Christmas Carol (all on Disney+). Yet it is 1938’s A Christmas Carol (Prime, $2.99) with Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge that is most likely to bring a tear to the eye.
Probably the best film about the spirit-sapping commercialization of Christmas came in 1947 with Miracle on 34th Street (Disney+) as a man who believes he is Santa Claus enters the life of a cynical corporate woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her equally cynical daughter (a young Natalie Wood). The pretty good 1973 made-for-TV remake is on YouTube; please ignore the 1994 version with Richard Attenborough.
Other family-friendly films with a well-earned perch in the upper branches include: The Polar Express (Netflix; Binge; Stan), though the digital work has dated, making the characters look a little creepy; The Grinch (Prime; Stan), with Jim Carrey’s wonderfully over-the-top performance; Will Ferrell at his man-child best in Elf (Binge; Paramount; Foxtel; Stan); the politically incorrect violence-is-funny home invasion romp Home Alone (Disney+); the over-produced, big-budget, yet strangely watchable box-office bomb Santa Claus: The Movie (Stan); and the underrated Unaccompanied Minors (Prime, $2.99), the film Paul Feig made before Bridesmaids and one of many to pay homage to the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
And for a somewhat eccentric treat, hit YouTube and look up Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the 1964 el-cheapo sci-fi film that has since become a cult fave amongst bad movie aficionados. You don’t need to watch the whole film, just listen to that opening song for an earworm that’ll last till well into the New Year.
For the middle branches of the tree, you can’t ignore the comedy Christmas chestnut Love Actually (Stan; Binge), the multi-storied romantic charmer that has just turned 20. Some purists regard the film as a sappy, overly sweet rom-com but to quote Christopher Walken from another mid-tier Christmas film Batman Returns (Stan): “Have a heart. Give The Constitution a rest. It’s Christmas.”
Nor can you dare overlook the 1988 action classic Die Hard (Disney+), a prime example of a film that never intended to be a Christmas classic, even though it is ultimately about redemption – a key Christmas theme. And consider this: is villain Hans Gruber (the brilliant Alan Rickman) the ultimate Grinch? After all, who else would pull off a multi-billion-dollar heist right in the middle of an office Christmas party?
Also sharing the mid-tier branches are such Christmas staples as: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Binge), the best film ever about nightmare relatives; Scrooged (Prime; Binge), the Yuppie Era adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray on point as the soulless, Christmas-hating Scrooge; Jingle All the Way (Disney+), the massively underrated 1996 comedy in which Arnold Schwarzeneggar plays a dad trying to acquire a sold-out toy; Bad Santa (Prime; Binge; Paramount+), the 2003 black comedy hit in which Billy Bob Thornton set the tone for all the cynical movie Santas to come; A Sunburnt Christmas (Stan), a very good, if gritty 2020 modern-day Aussie take on the biblical Christmas story. If you’ve never heard of it, sit back for a very pleasant surprise.
Special mention must go to The Nightmare Before Christmas (Disney+), Tim Burton’s strangely beautiful stop-motion musical film from 1993 that continues to speak to anyone who has ever had a dark thought about Christmas and all of its associated cheeriness. The film’s appeal to Emo and Goth kids is boundless.
Now, to the lower branches of the tree where sit those Christmas movie treats that are unsuitable for parents, grandparents or legal guardians to enjoy with any family members below drinking age.
As an entrée, snack on the snarky delights of Black Adder’s Christmas Carol (Stan), a 43-minute jape from 1988 that clocks in as one of the funniest, most subversive adaptations of the Charles Dickens story. Or, for one of the most deranged takes on the Santa myth, try the 2010 Finnish action horror comedy Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Prime, $4.99), which posits how Santa Claus isn’t a person, but a species. Weird stuff.
For the ultimate Christmas movie song, Monty Python’s eternal 1983 comedy The Meaning of Life (Apple, $4.99) has Graham Chapman singing Christmas in Heaven at the end of the team’s second funniest film, after Life of Brian (Netflix), which could be considered a Christmas movie if you stretch the rules, but is really more of an Easter film, to be honest.
The late, great Stanley Kubrick would likely go giddy with glee at the suggestion that his final film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut (Stan; Paramount+), is a Christmas movie. Its surreal tale of a couple (Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman) whose marriage hits the rock is sprinkled with fairy lights, Christmas décor, and controversial sexual content.
And here’s a Christmas gift for those souls forever obsessed with decoding the film: Cruise and Kidman play a rich couple – but only one of them is successful. Think about that while watching it for the 68th time.
When it comes to Christmas curmudgeons, Mel Gibson’s performance as a cynical, business-minded Santa in Fatman (YouTube; Binge) is right on target as a disgruntled kid hires a hitman to take him out.
For grown-ups who like their Christmas with lashings of horror, the blood-spattered 1974 classic Black Christmas is just the ticket as a killer spoils the communal vibe in a sorority house. Remade in 2019, this underrated film actually set the tone for the new wave of Hollywood horror four years before Halloween took more credit than it deserved.
The fun fact about the film is that its director was Bob Clark, who would later give the world A Christmas Story. And to top it all off, it’s available on YouTube – for free!
Good tidings to all.
Helpful hint: Suggestions about how to see this selection of Christmas films is far from exhaustive. For more viewing options just tap any title into justwatch.com, Amazon or YouTube, which has a huge catalogue. That’ll sort you.