My family was one of those “alternative Christian” families who didn’t celebrate Christmas when I was growing up. So when other kids were going to church or caroling or opening presents, we didn’t really do anything besides watch stupid Hallmark Christmas movies and wonder what all the fuss was about. Even though I’m decidedly not Christian now, I LOVE Christmas. The trees, the presents, the lights, the carols, the peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Everything. I know that most of what we do during this season of the Winter Solstice doesn’t have too much to do with the birth of Christ, but that’s fine. It gives the season a sort of consistency across faiths, which makes the season EVEN BETTER.
Since I’ve begun celebrating the season, I’ve been slowly and steadily amassing a good collection of Christmas movies — old standards, new classics and offbeat movies that give one a well-rounded sense of the holidays. I’d love to hold a sort of film festival at the burrow at some point, have a few friends over every night to see one of these, but I don’t think that will happen this year. Instead, here’s my preliminary list of twelve movies that should be watched every holiday season.
These are movies (or cartoons in this case) that uphold the spirit of Christmas quite well. They’ve been around for long enough to be the go-to Christmas movies for an entire generation (or two) of people. While you might say these movies are overplayed, there’s a reason we see them all over the place around this time of year.
It’s a Wonderful Life
This is quite possibly the best Christmas movie ever. George Bailey, after doing his best to preserve the community of Bedford Falls, becomes despondent over what seems to be an insurmountable difficulty. Down comes Clarence the angel to show him what the town would have been like had he never existed, and the rest is Christmas magic. The very end, where the good townsfolk come together to get George out of his jam, is just one of the most touching and joyous scenes committed to film.
Miracle on 34th Street
I have to admit I’ve never seen this (cue outrage!), but even I know it belongs on this list. A man claiming to be Santa Claus is institutionalized until a lawyer takes his case to court, arguing that he really is St. Nicholas. Kris wants to advance the true spirit of Christmas over commercialism, and that’s a theme more relevant than ever these days.
A Christmas Story
Based on the memoirs of Jean Shephard, A Christmas Story follows young Ralphie through a rather eventful holiday in the American suburbs of the 1960s. Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun, and has to endure all kinds of humiliation and bullying for it. The reputation of the movie has only grown since it’s been on heavy rotation at TBS, but it’s also really, really good.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol/Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
These technically aren’t movies, but they’re the cartoons I remember always watching when I was a kid. One is a Disneyfied adaptation of the classic Dickens story, and the other is one of the most weirdly existential Christmas fables I’ve ever seen. Both are great when you’re young, but the layers reveal themselves as you watch them year after year.
These movies haven’t been around as long as the old standards, but they’re lovely movies just the same. Their modern sensibilities means they come at the Christmas spirit from slightly left-of-center, and that makes these movies a bit weirder, sweeter and relatable.
This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, and it really doesn’t have that much to do with Christmas. It’s more of a framing device than anything, but this movie celebrates love in its many and varied forms, as well as the silly, heartbreaking things we do for it. It’s very much a romantic comedy, but an incredibly solid one. There’s something for everyone here, and it leaves you filled with joy and compassion.
This is a very new movie, but it’s one of the best animated Christmas movies to come out in a long time. Arthur is the youngest brother in the Kringle family, and oddly enough still the one most excited about Christmas. Father Kris is about to give up his title to his eldest son, who wants to make the whole affair a technological marvel. When one kid’s present gets missed, Arthur has to deliver it the old-fashioned way. The movie is weird and sweet and funny, and incredibly earnest. A great family film.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
This movie has so many memorable moments it’s really hard to fit them all in here. The Griswold family lighting ceremony, Clark’s meltdown when he’s stiffed for his bonus by the company, the incredibly dysfunctional extended family — it all perfectly illustrates and exaggerates all the frustrations of the holiday. It’s also hilarious, easily the best of the Vacation movies.
I’ve seen a few versions of “A Christmas Carol”, and this is one of the most memorable. Bill Murray is at his snarky best as an executive for a TV network who casually wreaks havoc on the lives of his underlings. It’s a fairly solid update that works because of inventive effects, whip-smart writing, and a great supporting cast.
These are Christmas movies that generally don’t feel like Christmas movies, but are great fun regardless. Perfect for when you want to keep the season in mind without being too direct about it.
“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.” Die Hard comes from a time when blockbuster action movies could be released in December, and it’s a perfect high-rise disaster movie. Bruce Willis is Everyman John McClane, a NY police officer who comes to LA to reconcile with his wife. During her company Christmas party, the building is taken over by terrorists. The following battle of wills makes for incredibly entertaining stuff.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the worst mall Santa ever; it’s actually a cover to get into the mall, disable its security system on Christmas eve and loot the place. One year, he gets entangled in a relationship with a bartender and her naive son, which forces him to put just a little more effort into the role than usual. This is a wonderful black comedy, and the bitterness that Thornton brings to the movie makes it that much sweeter in its deliciously tart way.
Jingle All The Way
I’m pretty sure this is the movie I’m going to get the most trouble for, but you know what? It’s actually good. Arnold Schwartzenegger stars as a workaholic dad who tries to make up for his lack of presence with an over-abundance of presents. In order to get the last Turbo-Man toy for his son, he has to fight Sinbad tooth and nail. This sounds like it should fail horribly, but somehow it works. It’s weird and silly, and the supporting cast really shines through.
See, The Nightmare Before Christmas would be the Tim Burton movie most would go for, but that always struck me as more of a Halloween film. This feels more true to the Christmas tone; the title character is a strange loner with scissors for hand and an uncommon gift for the topiary arts. It has the typical flourishes of a Burton film but it’s also really beautiful. Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder have such great chemistry here.
So, that’s my idea of twelve movies to watch for the season. I’d LOVE to hear feedback from the rest of you. Are there any movies that I’ve unforgivably left out? Any other movies you’d consider a modern classic? What about more movies that aren’t Christmas movies? Gremlins immediately comes to mind…