It’s Christmas Eve, and if you haven’t managed to get in the Christmas spirit yet, there’s still time! And I know no better way to shake the Scrooge and bring on the Buddy the Elf than a Christmas movie marathon. As for those of you born with that unshakable Christmas craze, you already know the value of a good holiday flick, so crank it up a notch with a re-watch of one of the picks below and be sure to weigh in with your favorite Christmas movie in the comments section below. While there are dozens of Christmas films to choose from and even more Christmas-ish movies at your disposal, here is the definitive, all-time best Christmas movie list:
The Santa Clause (1994)
Narrowing down this list to just 10 movies wasn’t easy, and if I’m being completely honest, I struggled with cutting some classic Christmas films out for The Santa Clause. After all, The Santa Clause has single handedly ensured the vast majority of my Facebook friends can’t spell “Claus,” missing the play on words the movie so clearly points out. However, the film’s almost clever premise makes up for the Clause/Claus nightmare. Scott Calvin, played by Tim Allen, a single father struggling to co-parent his 6-year-old son with his ex-wife and her new husband, accidentally kills Santa Christmas Eve and, in doing so, is magically, contractually obligated to fulfill the role of Santa Claus. The film is a magical look into what becoming Santa must be like—the challenges, the joy, and, surprisingly enough, the sacrifices. But what I most loved about this movie growing up was how the divorced parents didn’t reconcile romantically but learned to respect and appreciate one another post-divorce. There’s nothing more Christmas-y than that.
Only 12-years-old, Elf is the newest film to make a list that relies heavy on nostalgia. But, nonetheless, Elf cements its place as a most quotable, feel-good, family fluff Christmas movie…and is probably the only film Will Ferrell is tolerable for a full 90 minutes. Buddy the Elf, a human raised as one of Santa’s elves in the North Pole, returns to New York City to find his birth family. His desire is never to fit in but to love and radiate happiness, especially to those who need it most, which is a good message for us all. It’s Buddy’s unwavering optimism and Christmas cheer that remind even the biggest Scrooges among us of the exuberance of being a child on Christmas morning.
Die Hard (1988)
There are two kinds of people: people who believe Die Hard is a Christmas movie and people who are too afraid of the aforementioned people to argue it’s not. Die Hard’s inclusion on this list was initially for my own safety. While I somewhat stand by my original notion that there are more qualifications for a Christmas movie to meet than simply taking place during Christmas, Die Hard it is. But Sean Fallon’s summation of the film may have inched me in the other direction ever so slightly. Even though it was released in the summer of ’88, at its core, the film is about family and making amends, amid lots of ridiculously amazing fight scenes, which is Christmas category-worthy. Plus it’s one of the greatest action flicks of all time, so the more “best” lists it lands on, the better. And if you brutes want to know where How the Grinch Stole Christmas is, John McClane replaced it.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
While I firmly believe The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie, and so does its director, since it takes place on Christmas, and I’ve allowed Die Hard a spot by similar logic, The Nightmare Before Christmas it is. The king of Halloweentown, Jack Skellington, bored of repeating the same dark holiday every day, stumbles upon Christmas Town and finds himself trying to find a place in a world where he doesn’t quite fit. Though not the most family-friendly movie on the list, as I always found that Santa scene particularly bothersome as a kid, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a story about redemption, identity, and, of course, love.
Home Alone (1990)
I’ve been to a few Christmas gatherings where Home Alone ends up on TV, quietly playing in the background. What begins as a few passive viewers, without fail, becomes the majority of the party piled in the living room, mesmerized by the familiar Christmas classic. Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, played by Macaulay Culkin, is accidentally left home alone from his family’s Christmas vacation, leaving him to defend his house against persistent burglars, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Sure, the film has a couple glaring plot holes and some fairly brutal scenes for a family movie, but there’s something inherently captivating about the story of a kid who is left to fend for himself, and does just fine. You know, like we all would have done. The film held the record for most lucrative live-action comedy for an astounding twenty-one years and continues to enthrall kids and adults alike.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Ah, A Christmas Story. Like many movies on this list, it wasn’t always considered the classic it is today, and I personally couldn’t even stand it until a few years ago. Maybe it was the twenty-four hour loop that plays on TBS Christmas day that softened me to the film. Maybe it was growing up enough to seek a movie that didn’t idealize childhood Christmases the way most do. Regardless, I’m now proudly Team A Christmas Story. The movie is set in 1940s American suburbia where Ralphie’s entire Christmas rides on convincing every adult in his life, including Santa, that he needs a Red Ryder B.B. gun. The movie appeals to the kid in all of us, who may or may not have gotten our own version of a Red Ryder B.B. gun one Christmas, and the adult who not only knows better but also finally understands the tears shed over the devoured turkey. “Fa Ra Ra Ra Ra Ra Ra,” indeed.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is a must-see, and is the epitome of a classic Christmas film. But it wasn’t always highly revered; its own director, Frank Capra, famously proclaimed his embarrassment over the movie. The concept of the film, though dark, is universally understood. Who hasn’t wondered what the world would be like if they didn’t exist? George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is on the brink of suicide when Clarence, his guardian angel, shows him the grim reality of a world where George was never born. It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that money isn’t the only measure of wealth.
White Christmas (1954)
White Christmas is one of the few exceptions to my no musicals policy. It’s just that good. Two old army buddies, Wallace and Davis, played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, are a successful, established song-and-dance duo when they meet two up-and-coming singers, sisters Judy and Betty, played by Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney, on their way to a booking in a Vermont inn. When Wallace and Davis follow the women to their next show, they find themselves in their old commanding general’s failing inn, determined to help him bring in crowds to the vacant establishment, snow or not. White Christmas is full of catchy musical numbers and that must-have, feel-good Christmas spirit about it.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Not only is there no better rendition of A Christmas Carol than the Muppet’s, there are few Christmas movies better than this. I reread Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol nearly every year, and trust me when I say there are few adaptations more faithful than the one with Kermit the Frog. This was the first film made after creator Jim Henson’s death, and great care was taken to continue his vision for the Muppets. Michael Caine stars as Scrooge in truly one of my all-time favorite performances of his. The classic tale of a bitter, selfish old man visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future urge him to change his ways before it’s too late. Gonzo narrates as Dickens himself, Statler and Waldorf are the perfect Marley and Marley pair, and although Cain is one of the few humans in the movie, he somehow makes it easy to forget he’s singing to puppets. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a witty, warm, whimsical film that should be a staple in every holiday movie lineup.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
I’m prepared to defend this one till the death: there is no greater Christmas movie than Christmas Vacation. Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, is no stranger to disastrous family events. But nonetheless, he’s determined to have “the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye,” despite familiar family annoyances, unexpected visitors, unruly Christmas decorating struggles, and his Christmas bonus check on the line. The scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, even upon repeat viewings, and there are few greater scenes in existence than Clark’s, “last minute gift ideas,” meltdown. It’s iconic, and a cult classic. It wouldn’t be Christmas without repeat viewings of Christmas Vacation. Halleluiah. Holy shit. Where’s the Tylenol?