There are, at last count, about 18,372 Christmas movies. That’s actually about 3,582 more than there are movies period. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but suffice it to say that no holiday has been covered quite as extensively as Dec. 25. In honor of that, I’m counting down the top 10 best Christmas movies ever.
We’re not talking the best movies that have Christmas elements or scenes, or are set primarily during Christmas but don’t otherwise have a ton to do with the holiday. (Otherwise, we’d be talking about such inclusions as Brazil, Meet Me in St. Louis, All That Heaven Allows, Eyes Wide Shut, and the first segment of the 1972 horror anthology Tales from the Crypt.)
We’re also leaving out holiday specials, which means no A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Rankin-Bass collection, or even stuff as outre as Pee-Wee’s Christmas Special, A Claymation Christmas, or the underrated PBS adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
With those restrictions in mind, here is our cinematic yuletide countdown.
- Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)
As a kid watching the movie, I remember my supreme impatience waiting for the Looney Tunes cartoon violence to begin against the “wet bandits” played by a very game Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It was all the previews featured and doesn’t really even kick into high gear until the movie’s final half hour. As an adult, I’m sort of bummed when it finally does, because it overshadows the movie’s underlying point that holidays without family are nothing (especially if your family includes Catherine O’Hara). A half-great film for each generation.
- Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, 1942)
Most people cite White Christmas, but this is the original that an entire chain of hotels was named after. The formula’s fresher here, and the results are significantly less bloated than in the movie’s headlining follow-up/remake. And while Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby are in fine form, the true MVP is of course composer Irving Berlin. (Note: The film does feature a routine incorporating blackface, which I mention as a warning but also to acknowledge the film’s place as a product of its time.)
- Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003)
Modern day Christmas-related entertainment practically began with the words “Bah humbug.” But Ebenezer Scrooge in his worst nightmares probably never imagined scraping the depths plundered by Billy Bob Thornton in this anti-holiday classic. Thornton and merciless director Terry Zwigoff put up a magnificent tantrum, but deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down in the movie’s cold heart beats if not empathy than at least a tired, resigned magnanimity. Right? Otherwise people wouldn’t love it as much as they do.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993)
Is it a Halloween movie or is it a Christmas movie? Can’t it be both? Need I remind you that Christmas actually falls during the darkest time of year in the northern hemisphere? Guiding creative force Tim Burton already perfected his benignly gothic sensibilities in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (itself a bit of a Christmas movie), but Henry Selick and a tireless team of stop motion animators brought an irrepressible dose of cheer to the darkness, one that just about blows away the Island of Misfit Toys.
- Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988)
Scrooged, a network TV-era rework of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, remains one of Bill Murray’s most underrated efforts, with strong comedic support from Robert Mitchum, Bobcat Goldthwait and Alfre Woodard. (“Mom, when can we get a real tree?” “When they FREE!”) You could argue that Murray is just so great at conveying the sort of self-loathing attitude that would cause him to give his only brother a towel for Christmas, the eleventh-hour redemptive climax comes off as the height of insincerity. But Murray was already digging deep, a full decade before Rushmore.
- Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
Everything cute and cuddly about Steven Spielberg’s middle America is here shown to be anarchic and destructive. And vice versa. Credit Joe Dante for bringing a nasty, metallic edge to Spielberg’s Norman Rockwell side. It’s hysterically shocking enough to see mom turn into Rambo against gnashing monsters in her own cookie kitchen. But, during the hap-hap-happiest time of year, the movie’s love interest morosely explains not just why most people commit suicide during the holidays, but how she came to find out the truth about Santa Claus. Even Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Stokes would be taken aback.
- Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
The history of Christmas horror movies is long and proud, with entries ranging from both the ridiculously sublime (Gremlins; Christmas Evil) and the repulsive (Silent Night, Deadly Night; Silent Night, Deadly Night 2). But only one can be said to have invented an entire genre. You might thing that the slasher movie began with John Carpenter’s Halloween, but actually, Bob Clark’s ice-cold haunting Black Christmas got there first … and, arguably, best. There’s just something about holidays that brings out the darkest thoughts in some people.
- A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
Even more widespread than yuletide horror flicks are Christmas movies centered around the, shall we say, eternal struggle of dealing with your extended family through the holidays. For some, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation takes the cake, while others cotton to Home for the Holidays or The Family Stone. For me, the glorious chaos of a large family gathering — with its infinite variety of resentments, betrayals and, yes, isolated pockets of love that make life worth living — is best captured by French director Arnaud Desplechin in this sprawling ensemble piece. His invigorating style pushes this one above even the first magnificent segment of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander.
- A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
Only one director gets two slots on this list, and they are a delicious study in contrast. Whereas Black Christmas was so chilly and bleak that one poor character’s death could go all but unnoticed for the movie’s entire running time, A Christmas Story is warm and acerbic in equal measure, laced with as much nostalgia as the holiday allows. Jean Shepherd’s warm, humorous narrative interjections resonate with the retroactive respect for what our parental figures are really thinking during our formative years. And, as Ralphie’s parents, Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin give indelible performances.
- It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
I get it. You think you’re sick of this movie. Before TBS started running A Christmas Story in 24-hour marathons every Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life was the undisputed king of holiday movies run into the ground via excessive TV showings. Tough. Watch it again with fresh eyes, if you can. Frank Capra’s movie is not just its final five minutes. The two hours leading up to that bell ringing and that angel getting its wings constitute one of the most hard-bitten, embittered looks at the American initiative (i.e. let me get mine before I worry about yours) in Capra’s or anyone’s filmography. George Bailey’s faith is tested, and no one (not even his scatterbrained guardian angel Clarence Von Deus Ex Machina) actually tells him his real-life situation isn’t bad, or denies that he’s been ground up within the gears of small-town commerce. George learns the hard way the fact of life that a friend earned is a penny saved, that you won’t die by your community’s hand, but you also may not live without it. The finale, which looks downright saccharine out of context, seems exceptionally queasy following the purgatory that is the rest of the film.