I have fond memories of Christmases at home with my family when I was a kid. I associate this time of year with having plenty of good food and drink, catching up with friends and family and having an opportunity to reflect on the year that was. And one of my favourite ways to unwind during the festive season is to watch Christmas movies.
I’m pretty flexible on the type of Christmas movies I like to watch. There are some golden oldies on this list, a couple of animated films, a mixture of British and American fare and genres spanning everything from horror comedy to musicals.
A quick note on a couple of notable omissions on my list. There’s no Love, Actually on here. I have seen the film and never much cared for it. I’m glad that there’s finally a bit of backlash against the film calling it out for some of its super creepy scenes.
Secondly, I haven’t seen Elf which seems to be quite popular. In 2003, Australian director Peter Weir directed a stunning adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander based on his critically acclaimed Aubrey-Maturin literary series. It was an exquisite and lavishly produced motion picture that should have catapulted O’Brian’s series into cinema superstardom and opened the door to movie adaptations of his nineteen other novels. Instead the film was crushed at the box office by Elf! For that reason I’ve always held a bit of contempt for both Farell, his dumb face and his stupid Christmas movie. Twelve years later I think I’m finally ready to let bygones be bygones and I might watch Elf this Christmas.
Those two films not withstanding, I think I’ve seen every other major Christmas movie there is to watch. Here’s a list of my ten favourite.
10. Bernard And The Genie 
Director: Paul Weiland
Cast: Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, Rowan Atkinson
“I’m as happy as Michelle Pfeiffer’s underpants”
Bernard and the Genie is a made-for-TV Christmas movie from the early Nineties that seems to have completely dropped off the radar ever since it aired. It didn’t find a major audience at the time, nor has it attracted a cult following in the years after. Sadly, no one seems to remember this delightful slice of cheese despite its wonderful cast including the likes of Alan Cumming and Rowan Atkinson.
Cumming plays the eponymous Bernard, a meek and good natured jobsworth whose Christmas turns sour when he gets fired by his evil boss (Atkinson) for being too philanthropic in his job and soon after he learns his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. Bernard looks like he’ll be spending a miserable Christmas alone until he discovers a magical genie who will grant him unlimited wishes. He uses these wishes to gain a measure of revenge on his crappy boss and then he uses the rest of his wishes to enjoy unlimited McDonalds and KFC.
I loved Bernard and the Genie as a kid and watched it a million times over on VHS. Tonally, it is all over the place. Bernard is a character designed to appeal to children but the challenges he faces are completely unrelatable to a young audience. But I love this goofy film all the same. It is very much a product of the early Nineties where blatant fast food product placement was a-okay.
The notion of a man coming to terms with his divorce by enjoying unlimited buckets of fried chicken with his magical genie friend is hilariously absurd but I have seen this film so many times over I can’t help but love it for all its weird idiosyncrasies.
9. The Nightmare Before Christmas 
Director: Henry Selick
Cast: Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens
“Haven’t you heard of peace on earth and goodwill toward men?”
How great was Tim Burton in the Eighties and Nineties? Although he gets derided nowadays for his repetitive casting choices (Depp, Carter) and overly familiar art design (Frankenweenie, Corpse Bride), the Tim Burton from two decades ago was creatively firing on all cylinders creating classics such as Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood.
My appreciation for The Nightmare Before Christmas has only grown since it first released in 1993. As a kid, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I found it rather creepy and unsettling. As I’ve grown older, I’ve very much warmed to the film’s delightfully off kilter aesthetics, the catchy musical numbers and Jack Skellington’s anarchic approach to Christmas.
To this day it remains one of a kind – a stop motion horror comedy musical about Christmas.
8. Gremlins 
Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates
“First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.”
Director Joe Dante had a terrific pedigree leading up to the production of Gremlins. He directed the camp horror classic Piranhas as well as a handful of episode of Naked Gun! Files From Police Squad.
Gremlins would go on to become his most beloved and enduring film. It tells the story of a young boy who is gifted a strange furry little creature known as a Mogwai which he names Stripe. He is told of three golden rules for looking after Mogwai. Do not expose them to bright light. Do not get them wet. Do not feed them after midnight. You know what happens from here.
There’s a lot to like about Gremlins. The Mogwai are a fantastic bit of creature design and they are memorably brought to life with the use of puppets and animatronics. The film is wildly creative and is an exciting genre mash up of horror, comedy and Christmas caper.
For a children’s Christmas film, Gremlins is very rough around the edges by modern standards and features a number of scenes that probably wouldn’t make the cut if it were produced today. The film can be scary, surprisingly dark and rather crude in its political incorrectness. They don’t make them like this anymore but for any children of the Eighties, it’s hard to go by Gremlins when you think of Christmas movie staples.
7. Holiday Inn 
Director: Mark Sandrich
Cast: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire
“She was sort of a medium build, medium height. With a nice evening gown on with a belt in the back. She’s sorta built like the girl I knew from the corner drugstore who used to play pinball. Conshwella Schlepkiss.”
Irving Belling’s Holiday Inn must surely be one of the most enduring and influential Christmas films of all time. It was the film that gave us the famous Christmas carol White Christmas which was performed by Bing Crosby and went on to sell a monstrous 100 million copies making it one of the best selling singles of all time. Oddly enough, in all my years of watching the film, it never occurred to me that the film predates the existence of the hotel chain which, looking it up on Wikipedia, appears to have its name directly inspired by this film.
The film stars two Hollywood screen legends – Bing Crosby (as Jim Hardy) and Fred Astaire (as Ted Hanover) – showbiz friends and occasional rivals who perform a song and dance routine together. When Hardy’s attempt to retire from performing turn pear shaped (life on a farm involves backbreaking labour, his fiancee leaves him for Ted), he decides to open Holiday Inn, a lodge that is only open on public holidays.
One thing leads to another and before he realizes it, Hardy begins to develop feelings for one of the performers Linda but things are complicated by the return of Hanover who may steal Linda away from him and back to full time show business.
The film’s plot is wafer thin but its all a perfect set up for a dozen lavishly choreographed song and dance numbers with Crosby and Astaire. The film endures a measures of notoriety for having a minstrel show in which Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds don blackface and perform a song about Abraham Lincoln. I believe it to be a ‘product of its time’ although further reading suggested that even in 1942 they ‘should’ve known better’.
Holiday Inn is high up on my list because the musical performances of Crosby and Astaire are absolutely spectacular and the film inspired arguably the most popular Christmas song of all time.
6. It’s A Wonderful Life 
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
“Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”
Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was a Christmas film that released to commercial indifference in the Forties and then enjoyed a surprising resurrection when it turned into a staple of free-to-air TV programming in America during the Seventies. It was both Frank Capra and James Stewart’s favourite film.
It’s A Wonderful Life is a parable that has the opposite trajectory of A Christmas Carol where a mean spirited curmudgeon discovers the true meaning of Christmas. In Its A Wonderful Life, George Bailey is a good natured and charitable man who falls into a state of dispair as his life crumbles around him before he is saved by a Christmas angel.
Capra and Stewart had teamed up to make a film with this sort of starry eyed, unabashed moralizing once before with Mr Smith Goes To Washington. It’s the sort of soap box goody two-shoes grandstanding that shouldn’t work and yet somehow it does – largely due to Stewart’s affable everyman charms.
Part of the enduring legacy of the film’s saccharine and sentimental screenplay is that many of its lines – “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”, “Merry Christmas Movie House!” – remain a part of popular culture nearly seventy years later.
Its soppy stuff, but the best kind.
5. A Charlie Brown Christmas 
Director: Bill Melendez
Cast: Peter Robbins, Ann Altieri, Bill Melendez
“You do think I’m beautiful, don’t you, Charlie Brown? …You didn’t answer me right away. You had to think about it first, didn’t you? If you really had thought I was beautiful, you would’ve spoken right up. I know when I’ve been insulted. I KNOW WHEN I’VE BEEN INSULTED”
No one will be happier than I if the upcoming Peanuts Movie manages to introduce Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang to a new generation of young viewers. I’ve been a life long fan of Charles Schulz’ seminal comic strip and the animated films made by Bill Melendez and scored by Vince Guaraldi are classic children’s films in their own right.
In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown and Linus rail against the commercialized nature of Christmas and decide to organize a school pageant to help restore the true meaning of Christmas.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has all the ingredients of a classic Peanuts tale. Charlie Brown receives no Christmas cards as a cruel reminder of his plight as a loveable loser. There’s a scene with Lucy Van Pelt’s ‘5 cent’ psychiatric booth. Snoopy seems to exist in a world of his own imagination. Linus walks around, clutching his security blanket and struggling to calm his nerves. The film perfectly captures the thoughtful and melancholic tone of the comic strip.
Though the story is short and sweet and pretty standard fare for a ‘Christmas Special’, A Charlie Brown Christmas is elevated to greatness thanks to Vince Guaraldi’s memorable jazz score which includes the likes of Linus and Lucy and O Tannenbaum.
4. Home Alone 2: Lost In New York 
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Macaulay Culkin, Daniel Stern, Joe Pesci, Tim Curry. John Heard, Catherine O’Hara
“Do you know how the TV works?”
“I’m 10 years old. TV is my life.”
In the early Nineties, the whole world was enamoured by the antics of a little boy who would constantly get left behind by his negligent parents at Christmas. The boy tortured and tormented two hapless would-be burglars and won the hearts of audiences the world over.
Home Alone and Home Alone 2 are like the Evil Dead 1 & 2 of Christmas films. They are both very, very similar structurally but everyone has their favourite thanks to key differences in the cast and individual moments in the film.
In favour of the original film you’ve got John Candy, the Angels With Dirty Faces scene and Scary Snow Shoveller Guy With A Heart of Gold. For the sequel you’ve got Tim Curry, arguably better tricks for foiling the Sticky Bandits and Creepy Pigeon Lady With A Heart of Gold.
For my money, Home Alone 2 is the better film by a smidge. Just a personal preference for the location, the sound track and that Tim Curry/Grinch transition tip the scales in its favour. But either film is a solid choice if you’re looking for some festive fun to watch in the lead up to Christmas.
A strange bit of personal trivia on the original Home Alone: it was the last film I ever saw in the cinema that had an intermission break.
3. Die Hard 
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Starting in the late Eighties, director John McTiernan cemented himself as one of the all time great Hollywood action movie directors giving the world Die Hard, Predator and The Hunt For Red October all in an extraordinary three year output of work. He would have a couple of great films left in him in the Nineties (Last Action Hero, Die Hard With A Vengeance) before his career had a dramatic slide in fortune.
Die Hard remains his and Bruce Willis’ greatest contribution to cinema and it is rightfully recognized as one of the best Christmas movies ever made.
Alan Rickman plays charismatic criminal mastermind Hans Gruber who, aided with a dozen terrorists, takes over the Nakatomi Plaza during their Christmas party. Unfortunately he happened to plan his caper on the night that off duty New York cop John McClane was visiting his estranged wife Holly.
A hostage situation develops. McClane begins to take out Gruber’s goons one by one, whilst firing off catchy one liners. Gunfire is exchanged. Explosions happen. Fights break out. One of the most iconic action movie heroes of the modern era is established. The rest is history.
2. Bad Santa 
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Lauren Graham
“You know, I think I’ve turned a corner. I beat the shit out of some kids today. But it was for a purpose. It made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life or something, I dunno, like I accomplished something.”
“You need many years of therapy. Many, many fuckin’ years of therapy.”
Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa is dark, nihilistic and has a soul that is black as coal. It’s also hands down one of my favourite comedies of all time. Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, an alcoholic chain smoking mall Santa who cracks safes and lives off his ill gotten gains for the other eleven months of the year. His accomplice is a long suffering, foul mouthed midget named Marcus who performs as an elf in their Christmas shows. Willie and Marcus meet up for their annual heist of a non-descript Mid West shopping centre but this year their plans become complicated when Willie begins to be stalked by a strange, overweight orphaned boy named Thurman (although Willie never bothers to remember his name and just calls him The Kid).
Bad Santa is one of the funniest movies of all time. It’s incredibly dirty, inappropriate and the jokes continue to make me laugh even though I have seen them many times over.
A lot of films on this list are timeless classics because they have universal themes celebrating the generosity and warmth of humankind. I think I will still be watching Bad Santa twenty years from now because it has crass sex jokes and Billy Bob Thornton’s exasperation at having to deal with The Kid and Marcus never ceases to make me laugh.
1. White Christmas 
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen
“I want you to get married. I want you to have nine children. And if you only spend five minutes a day with each kid, that’s forty-five minutes, and I’d at least have time to go out and get a massage or something.”
White Christmas is Irving Belling’s spiritual successor to Holiday Inn.
It takes the original film’s premise of having a holiday lodge as its location, uses the White Christmas song for one of its show piece musical numbers and has a central performance from Bing Crosby as an unlucky-in-love music performer who meets the girl of his dreams during the festive season.
Where White Christmas improves on Holiday Inn is by replacing Fred Astaire with Danny Kaye who puts in a larger than life performance as Crosby’s show biz partner. I admire Astaire for his incredible talent for dancing but Kaye was always the better all round talent for me. He can dance, he can sing and he can steal the show with his comedy routines and thats exactly what he does in White Christmas.
The film also wisely ditches the controversial blackface segment from Holiday Inn and instead incorporates a moving subplot about war veterans coming together to help the retired Major Waverley whose holiday lodge is struggling for business.
White Christmas has everything you’d want in a Christmas movie. It has comedy, romance, big time song and dance numbers, Christmas carols and plenty of snow. It’s my favourite Christmas movie of all time and one that I make time to watch every year. If you haven’t seen it before, do yourself a favour and check it out this holiday season. It’s one of the all time greats.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
The Polar Express
Miracle on 34th Street
A Muppet Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol
Ernest Saves Christmas