Christmas is my favourite time of year.
It’s that magical season where you have loads of catch ups with friends and family, you eat and drink to your hearts content and it’s a chance to unwind and look back on the year that was. When you’re finished partying, opening presents and soaking in the festivities, there’s nothing better than sitting down and watching Christmas movies with some eggnog and fruit mince pies.
These are my twenty favourite Christmas films. I thought pretty long and hard about this list. Trust me, every single movie on here is a banger. Some of them are brand new, others are old favourites. The top ten films I rewatch every single year. The top five films I might even see two or three times in December. They’re that good.
Enough chattin’. Here we go! My list of the twenty best ever Christmas movies.
20. Elf 
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zoey Deschanell
“I just like to smile, smiling’s my favorite.”
Over time, I’ve come to really admire the incredible versatility of director Jon Favreau who in the seventeen years since Elf has gone on to helm a number of Marvel super hero films, make terrific low-key comedies like Chef, direct new adaptations of Lion King and The Jungle Book and reinvent Star Wars with The Mandalorian. All this from the guy who gave us Swingers and Made.
With Elf, Favreau shows he’s a solid hand at crafting a holiday season crowd pleaser too. Ferrell plays Buddy, a fish-out-of-water elf who visits New York to discover his true heritage. The gag here is that he has a ridiculous abundance of holiday spirit which of course is a perfect role for a guy like Ferrell to sink his teeth into.
Elf is as sweet-natured and big hearted as its goofy protagonist. A lovely modern Christmas movie.
19. Miracle on 34th Street 
Director: George Seaton
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood
“All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus.”
There are a lot of uniquely American qualities about Miracle on 34th Street. It’s a Christmas movie that features the famed department store Macy’s, Kris Kringle’s goodness and generosity is framed in its economic value to businesses and when people begin to suspect he might be the real Santa Claus, they take him to court.
I’m being flippant of course. Miracle on 34th Street is a beloved Christmas classic and with good reason. It is an earnestly told, warm natured tale that is uplifted by a fantastic cast of actors including Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man, The Parent Trap) and Natalie Wood (Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story).
To be honest, I was pretty torn over which version to include in my list. The 1994 remake with Mara Wilson and Richard Attenborough is also a delight.
18. Edward Scissorhands 
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest
“You see, the inventor was very old. He died before he got to finish the man he invented, so the man was left by himself… incomplete and all alone.”
Just a heads up that Tim Burton appears on this list a bunch. That man could seemingly do no wrong in the Nineties.
Edward Scissorhands is one of Burton’s finest films. A beautifully spun modern fable that wears its Frankenstein influence on its sleeve, the film cemented the careers of Depp and Ryder who are exceptional as the doomed, star-crossed lovers. Edward Scissorhands holds up very well thanks to the fine performances (Wiest is an underappreciated gem) and enduring themes about conformity, kindness and tolerance.
17. The Bells of St Mary’s 
Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have a dishonest face? For a priest, I mean.”
Here’s a bit of trivia to take away from this Christmas list: Bing Crosby is the only actor to receive two Best Actor nominations for playing the same character – Father Chuck O’Malley.
Leo McCarey was so pleased when he made Are You Going My Way that he basically decided to make the film twice with the same protagonist, the same premise and the same lead actor. But as with the likes of White Christmas and Home Alone 2, sometimes the remake can shine just as brightly as the original.
Such is the case with The Bells of St Mary’s, in which Bing Crosby reprises his role as Father O’Malley who is assigned to the St Mary’s parish, a rundown church with wayward kids that is on the verge of being shut down. O’Malley crosses paths with the steely and determined Sister Benedict (Bergman) who shares O’Malley’s wish to save the parish, but has wildly differing views on how to go about it.
This is a beautiful and humanistic film. You can enjoy Bing Crosby crooning as only he can (including with a kids gospel choir for Christmas), Bergman’s enchanting screen presence and a bittersweet ending that tugs at the heart strings. The Bells of St Mary’s is a Christmas classic to savour.
16. Batman Returns 
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito
“It’s the so-called “normal” guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me. Least they’re committed.”
As you will find out scrolling through this list, Tim Burton mixing his stylized gothic imagery with Christmas time is extremely my jam.
Batman Returns is the excellent successor to Batman, the modern day super hero film that is largely responsible for the omnipresent superhero blockbuster landscape we have with Hollywood today. Honestly, I think Returns is better than the original. Michelle Pfeiffer is incredible as Catwoman, DeVito is every bit as good as Jack Nicholson and this time Gotham is covered in snow and tinsel because its Christmas time!
I’ve found that recent Batman films take themselves a little too seriously for my liking and I long for a return to the campy Batman films we got in the Nineties. Batman Returns is the best of those films. The stars are larger than life, the action is bombastic and true to its comic book origins, and the heroes and villains trade with one another are absolutely absurd.
Batman Returns is probably the best super hero Christmas movie of all time. If it turns out that its the only super hero Christmas movie, then that’s probably a sign someone needs to make some more.
15. The Muppet Christmas Carol 
Director: Brian Henson
Cast: Michael Caine, The Great Gonzo, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy
“Mother always taught me: “Never eat singing food.””
Any Christmas movie list worth its salt is going to have an adaption of A Christmas Carol on it.
There’s plenty to pick from. Some people like Scrooged. A few weirdos like the Robert Zemeckis one with Jim Carey. For me, I think The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best adaptation of Dickens’ classic.
I think the key to what makes this film work (the first Muppet production since Jim Henson passed) is the Muppets get to deliver their material in their own inimitable style (Waldorf and Statler are a highlight of course) but Michael Caine plays it completely straight as Ebenezer Scrooge. His performance is what gives the film its emotional centre as his Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of past, present and future and he learns to atone for his selfish ways.
The Muppet Christmas Carol manages to walk the tightrope and be both funny and dark, a comedy and a tragedy. It is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of its source material.
14. Gremlins 
Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Mogwai
“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.
13. The Nightmare Before Christmas 
Director: Henry Selick
Cast: Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara
“Haven’t you heard of peace on earth and goodwill toward men?”, “No”
As a kid, I didn’t really know what to make of The Nightmare Before Christmas when I first saw 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 cheerfully anarchic approach to Christmas.
In recent years Tim Burton has copped some flak for having a homogenous quality to his films but in 1993 there really was nothing else like this – a stop-motion horror-comedy-musical about Christmas.
I think what makes The Nightmare Before Christmas such an enjoyable film to revisit is Burton’s eye for details. We can see every stitch and seam that holds together the denizens of Halloween Town and there are heaps of neat little details in the character and set design that adds immensely to their charm and presence. This is clearly a production that is a labour of love for all involved.
Danny Elfman’s musical numbers are a treat and I like the film’s confidence in blending what is traditionally children’s fare with Burton’s dark and creepy gothic sensibilities. It is a patchwork of many different genres and styles, a project that could easily have ended up a total mess, but instead it manages to hits the mark with aplomb.
12. Die Hard 2: Die Harder 
Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Bruce Willis, Reginald Veljohnson, Bonny Bedelia
“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
Poor Die Hard 2. Despite being a thoroughly entertaining and wonderfully explosive Christmas action movie, it was always going to be the red headed step child compared to the magnificence that is Die Hard.
But you shouldn’t sleep on Die Hard 2. It offers the vintage John McClane experience – he’s very grumpy, none of the cops ever listen to his advice and he gets shot at a whole lot. It’s not a John McTiernan joint (he would return for Die Hard With A Vengeance) but the sequel is in good hands with Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight). It looks and feels like a worthy successor to Die Hard.
11. Home Alone 2: Lost In New York 
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Macaulay Culkin, Daniel Stern, Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara
“Do you know how the TV works?”
“I’m 10 years old. TV is my life.”
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is a shameless cash-in but it’s the best kind of shameless cash-in. It is a film in which the producers perfectly understood why the original worked so well and they offer up a very welcome second helping.
Although it is a creatively bankrupt film – even eight year old me was surprised they rehashed the homeless man as homeless bird lady – the film is still absolutely watchable thanks to the affable charms of Culkin, O’Hara, Pesci and Stern. Tim Curry is also a welcome addition as the evil hotel manager (the transition shot between his face and the Grinch is a stroke of genius).
If there’s one thing I realized revisiting this film as an adult is that the violence inflicted upon the bandits is amplified tenfold. I guess the producers felt the need to “up the stakes” somehow as a point of difference to the original (especially when everything else is functionally identical).
Still, there are dozens of great lines, the bandits are still hilarious and Home Alone 2 is still a staple of my Christmas season viewing, all these years later.
10. 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.
9. 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”
I’ve been a life long fan of Charles Schulz’ seminal comic strip and the animated films made by Bill Melendez are classic childrens 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 because he’s a loser. Lucy Van Pelt doles out questionable advice at her ‘5 cent’ psychiatric booth. Snoopy seems to exist in a world of his own imagination. Linus clutches his security blanket and makes astute observational quips about society far beyond his years. 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.
8. 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. To be honest, this film is all over the place. Bernard is a character designed to appeal to children but the challenges he faces (unemployment, unfaithful partner) are totally adult in nature. But I love this goofy film all the same. The film’s bizarre tonal dichotomy places it squarely as a product of the early Nineties and its weird nostalgic charm still appeals to me all these years later.
7. The Shop Around the Corner 
Director: Ernest Lubitsch
Cast: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan
“Psychologically, I’m very confused… But personally, I don’t feel bad at all.”
The Shop Around The Corner might be the most critically acclaimed film in this list with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% and listings on both the BFI and AFI’s greatest films of all time. This warm hearted romantic comedy about the employees of a leathergoods shop in Budapest stars Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart.
Although the film follows similar story beats to most modern rom coms – a meetcute, miscommunication leading to a quarrel, argumentative tension giving way to romance – its worth remembering The Shop Around the Corner was made in the Forties and based on a play a decade earlier. And it still does it better than most of its modern contemporaries.
The fact that all this happens to take place against a Christmas season backdrop is the perfect cherry on top. It’s one of my favourite rom-coms bar none.
6. The Apartment 
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
“One doesn’t get to be a second administrative assistant around here unless he’s a pretty good judge of character, and as far as I’m concerned you’re tops. I mean, decency-wise and otherwise-wise.”
Bud Baxter is an insurance clerk who hops to climb the corporate ladder at his office. To grease the wheels, he lets senior executives use his inner city apartment as a meeting spot for their extramarital affairs. Things get complicated when Bud begins to fall for elevator operator Fran who is having an affair with Bud’s boss.
The Apartment is a showcase for the exceptional talents of Jack Lemmon, playing his first romantic lead role opposite Shirley MacLaine. It won Best Picture at the 1960 Academy Awards and if the film historians have it right, this is also one of the first ever films to blend comedy and drama.
I love the banter in this film which is exchanged at pace with plenty of zing. Director and screen writer Billy Wilder has a verbal trademark that I’ve noticed in his films where a character will say a line (“that’s the way it crumbles…cookie-wise”, “O-U-T, out!”, “be a mensch”) and then it will be repeated later on by another character, often in a completely different context. I can’t really put my finger on why, but I love that. It’s a technique that the Coen Brothers also use to good effect in many of their films, most famously in The Big Lebowski.
The Apartment is a refreshing film to watch because it isn’t quite like anything we have today. A modern producer would likely trim out the office politics or give Baxter a whacky best friend. We expect a romance between Baxter and Fran because that’s what we’re trained to expect with rom-com tropes but the two don’t share a single onscreen kiss. Instead the film is subversive, edgy and has observational humour about gender roles and office politics that feel surprisingly contemporary. Best of all, its one of the best exhibitions of what Jack Lemmon can do as an actor. He has the manner and appearance of an everyman, doing his best to get ahead, given an unexpected leg up on his career when he is too polite and meek to say no to his boss. It’s not an easy role to play but Lemmon is convincing in his portrayal of someone who means well but is in danger of being overwhelmed, both by Fran and the predatory managers at his firm. We like him and cheer for him to do the right thing. Lemmon puts in a memorable performance in a unique and thoroughly entertaining film.
5. Home Alone 
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Maclauay Culkin, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy, Daniel Stern, Joe Pesci
Chris Columbus’ Home Alone is the perfect modern Christmas movie. The benchmark by which all others are measured. There are a small handful of classic films (White Christmas, Holiday Inn) and films for an older audience (Bad Santa, Die Hard) that can hold a candle to Home Alone, but that’s it.
The film is a magical, serendipitous confluence of absolutely pitch perfect screen-writing, casting and production. Macaulay Culkin is the perfect wise-cracking, mischievous protagonist and this film made him the coolest kid on the planet for years. But equally its hard to imagine the film working nearly as well as it does without the supporting cast of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the ill-fated Wet Bandits and Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mum. To top it all off, it has one of the greatest Christmas soundtracks ever thanks to the talents of John Williams.
Home Alone is one the films I most anticipate revisiting in December. At this stage, every line of dialogue, every trap Kevin sets, every one-liner he fires off is indelibly imprinted into my brain. It’s just incredible how much of this film became rooted in popular culture thirty years later. And I’m happy that after all of his troubles as a child actor in Hollywood, Culkin appears to have come out on the other side okay.
4. 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.
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. And they are truly spectacular and some of the best of any holiday season film I’ve seen. And honestly, that’s as much reason as you need to check out Holiday Inn each Christmas. It doesn’t get much better.
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 movie history.
2. Bad Santa 
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Lauren Graham
“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.
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.