Unwrapping the best Christmas movies of all time

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Christmas movies are as ubiquitous during December as wrapped gifts and twinkling lights. While bound by their yuletide milieu, Christmas films run the gambit of genres. Some audiences prefer the soft glow of winsome family fare, while some enjoy observing the meanings of the season filtered through unexpected prisms, from drama and comedy to action and even horror.

For my tastes, here are 12 of the best Christmas movies. The list is immediately notable for the absence of perennial favorites like “The Polar Express,” “Love, Actually,” and any feature film involving the Grinch, all flawed films for their own particular reasons. Classics like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Chuck Jones’s version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” and the Rankin/Bass canon (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Frosty the Snowman”) aren’t here, either, since they were television shorts instead of feature films.

So slip on a warm robe, pour out some eggnog, and enjoy this roster of heady holiday helpings.

“Joyeux Noël” (2005): While too saccharine for some, this handsome French film is a fictitious retelling of the Christmas truce of 1914 between warring American, German, and French soldiers along the front lines of World War I. The historical war drama was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film.

“Black Christmas” (1974) and “Christmas Evil” (1980): You don’t typically think of horror flicks when you think of Christmas. But these two entries are suitably disquieting and have developed cult followings. Directed by Bob Clark (more on him later), “Black Christmas” is one of the earliest slasher films, utilizing the “babysitter and the man upstairs” premise to inspire later exemplars like “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and even the “Scream” series. “Christmas Evil” is best described as a Santa Claus version of “Falling Down,” as a fed-up schmo dressed as Santa goes mad in response to the increasing commercialization of Christmas.

“Home Alone” (1990): Yeah, this holiday classic has problems. But it’s one of the most popular Christmas films ever, and its overarching sentiment about the value of family fits squarely in the season.

“Elf” (2003): From its inventive premise to Will Ferrell’s terrific performance, this neo-Christmas classic is fun, funny, and charming. It’s a film that absolves anyone who wants to maintain their childlike view of Christmas.

“White Christmas” (1954): Although mawkish to the extreme, this is a Christmas movie at its most classic. You watch this for two main reasons: an all-star cast featuring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney; and a sterling score from Irving Berlin that includes the iconic title track.

“Arthur Christmas” (2011): The newest film on the list, this computer-animated film from Aardman Studios follows the dorky black sheep of the Claus family as he’s forced to step into his father’s formidable boots. This film is witty, charming, and presents the paradigm of Santa Claus as an evolving, hereditary monarchy. It also cuts to the heart of the tension between Christmas tradition and modernization.

“A Christmas Carol” (1951): Of the umpteen iterations of Charles Dickens’s classic novella, this 1951 production is the definitive version. It’s the most faithful retelling of Dickens’s story, and it features Alastair Sim’s superb rendering of Ebenezer Scrooge.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989): This film had to grow on me, but this zany third entry about the Griswold clan is one of the funniest and most quotable Christmas films.

“Die Hard” (1988): Yes, “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie. Beyond its exclusively yuletide setting and score, the film revolves around the evergreen themes of family and forgiveness. Oh, it’s also one of the best action movies in history.

“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947): This story of the department store Santa who claims to be real is one of the definitive Christmas films. It’s also really good, winning three Academy Awards, including Edmund Gwenn for Best Supporting Actor as Kris Kringle.

“A Christmas Story” (1983): Derided as grating hokem by some, this nostalgic portrait of pre-World War II midwest Americana directed by Bob Clark (the same director as “Black Christmas”) survives repeating viewings. It’s the rare holiday staple that holds something funny and even moving for kids and parents alike, harkening back to an increasingly bygone age of innocence.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946): No other film that could top this list. It has it all: a great director in Frank Capra, a great lead actor in Jimmy Stewart, and an engrossing yarn about a man who wishes he’s never been born and plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, who is then made aware by an angel of how his seemingly inconsequential life has positively impacted others. It’s the go-to movie every Christmas, and for good reason.

This review originally appeared in a 2019 edition of the News + Record.


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