From ‘White Christmas’ to ‘ Love Actually': Best Holiday Movies to Binge-Watch

Forrest Hartman


Next to warm eggnog and dazzling Christmas lights, few things can get one in the holiday spirit faster than a movie celebrating the season. That is, after all, why Hallmark has carved out a niche based entirely on the Christmas-movie genre. With this in mind, I’ve compiled some holiday favorites that look beyond Hallmark’s more-is-better approach. In short, all the following are great movies any time of year, but they play especially well in late December.


“It Happened on Fifth Avenue”: This one isn’t purely a holiday movie, but it is set during the season, and a key scene takes place on Christmas Eve. The 1947 dramedy from director Roy Del Ruth tells the story of some down-on-their luck folks who start squatting in the seasonal home of the world’s second-richest man, Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles). After some unlikely twists, O’Connor lets his daughter convince him to live with the squatters without revealing that he owns the place. The story is dated, but it’s also sweet and makes us believe in a world where people, even the very rich, place humanity above material wealth. The great cast also includes Victor Moore, Don DeFore, Gale Storm, Alan Hale Jr., Edward Ryan and Ann Harding.



“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”: Although director Ron Howard’s live-action adaptation of this Dr. Seuss story often overshadows the 1966 animated short by directors Chuck Jones and Ben Washam, it’s the latter that makes my heart grow three sizes. Howard’s movie – although visually gorgeous – is overblown and too focused on Jim Carrey’s hamming. The Jones-Washam version, on the contrary, is sprightly, beautifully narrated by Boris Karloff and appropriately focused on the Grinch’s realization that Christmas is about more than presents. All other readings are unnecessary attempts to improve perfection.



“It’s a Wonderful Life”: Many assembling a list of holiday films would skip director Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday staple. Of all the movies included here, “Wonderful Life” is the one that can most easily be labeled cliché. But there’s a reason this film has played religiously during the holiday season throughout my lifetime. Most everyone – regardless of age – knows the premise, and it’s excellent. When down-and-out George Bailey (James Stewart) is treated to a look at how bleak the world would be without him, each of us can imagine what our absence would mean. The film is a reminder that we all matter, and we should use our time to make the things better.    


“White Christmas”: Arguably, the Irving Berlin title track – initially written for another film (“Holiday Inn”) – is more famous than the movie that bears its name. But, if you’ve never seen the 1954 gem, do yourself a favor this season. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play former military men who become a popular song-and-dance duo. When they discover their former general is having money problems, they devise the perfect solution. The story is sweet; there are several excellent song-and-dance numbers; and the wonderful Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Dean Jagger round out the cast.



“A Christmas Carol”/”Scrooged”/”Spirited”: Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” has been entertaining audiences for more than 150 years, and we have seen so many adaptations and variations, it’s impossible to pick one. There are a number of solid, traditional readings of the story about bitter Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by three ghosts and coming to recognize the joy of Christmas. The 1951 version starring Alastair Sim is sometimes held up as definitive, but we’ve also seen readings featuring Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart and many others. Pick your favorite. But don’t forget the many variations and spinoffs of the story. “Scrooged,” a comical, 1988 update starring Bill Murray is a personal favorite, and you can do considerably worse than the new Apple TV+ film “Spirited,” starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell.


“The Nightmare Before Christmas”: Is this a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? I say both. Tim Burton’s singular vision has been entertaining audiences for decades, and this 1993 stop-motion animated picture has all his dark, twisted hallmarks. The story revolves around Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, who kidnaps Santa Claus so he can roll out his own, improved version of the Christmas holiday. If you enjoy Burton’s works, this one is a must-see.



“Die Hard”: I used to argue that this is not a holiday movie, but – as the saying goes – “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The plot centers on a New York City police officer (Bruce Willis) battling terrorists who upstage his wife’s company Christmas party. Other than the fact that the action takes place on Christmas Eve, viewers don’t get much holiday cheer. Still, this is one of the greatest movies ever introduced into the action-adventure genre, and it’s always fun to watch in December -- as well as the other 11 months.  


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Rankin/Bass): Despite legitimate complaints that Caitlin Flanagan details in an article for The Atlantic, I have always enjoyed the Rankin/Bass take on Rudolph, an outcast reindeer who winds up saving Christmas. This may be sentimentalism because the program was hammered into the brains of children from my generation. We didn’t have the endless content choices provided by on-demand streaming, so we were treated to ”Rudolph” and a handful of other classics season after season, and watching became tradition. Flanagan notes that the 55-minute movie has dark elements, but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. Darkness is part of life, and we all know the holidays aren’t nonstop joy for everyone. Besides, “Rudolph” isn’t depressing when taken in context. This is an underdog story, meaning the protagonist needs to face obstacles, and the stop-motion animation is beautiful even 57 years after its creation. Also, who doesn’t love the Burl Ives songs that are heavily featured?



“The Polar Express”: When director Robert Zemeckis’s animated version of the Chris Van Allsburg children’s book hit theaters, it was groundbreaking. The film used new performance-capture techniques so the work of live-action actors (most notably Tom Hanks in multiple roles) could be easily converted to animation. The story focuses on a boy who – beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus – is treated to a wild train ride all the way to the North Pole, and it's a great movie to watch with younger family members. 



“Love Actually”: What would the holidays be without love? This star-studded extravaganza tells the interconnected love stories of a wide range of characters. Watching 19 years after it was released, it’s hard not to think, “Wow, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley look so young!” It’s also hard not to appreciate how great it is to have all these performers (and more) in one delightful film.


“A Charlie Brown Christmas”: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang has been entertaining audiences since 1950, and several of the characters’ animated adventures have become classics. Although each of the Peanuts holiday TV specials are fun, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is arguably the best. The anti-commercialism storyline is powerful; the animation is great; and the jazz portions of the soundtrack – by the Vince Guaraldi Trio – are exceptional.



“Elf”: This Jon Favreau-directed comedy tells the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human raised as an elf at the North Pole. When he travels to New York City to meet his birth father, he finds himself ill prepared to navigate our world. The film is imperfect and a bit schlocky, but that combination works with holiday films. Ferrell is particularly good here, and he’s supported by an outstanding cast that includes Peter Dinklage, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen and Zooey Deschanel.


Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman is Highbrow Magazine’s chief film critic.


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