The winter timed holidays are nothing if not a collection of traditions. Some are religious themed festivals, each with their own distinct practices, while others celebrate the aligning of the earth with the sun. Everyone has their own beliefs and traditions but no holiday has as many traditions like Christmas. Some countries honor St. Nicholas (who was the inspiration for Santa Claus), while others teach their children to fear the young’n stealing Krampus. The English like wearing paper crowns and eating gross deserts, while Americans like getting drunk on eggnog, gifting fruit cake to people we hate and going overboard on presents and decorations.
However you celebrate it, I think we can all agree that there are few things that fill one with the Christmas spirit quite like a Christmas movie. Whether they’re about mayhem creating monsters, a kid wanting a gun for Christmas or a lone cop trying to save the day, films set on or about Christmas are as synonymous with the holiday as decorated tree corpses surrounded by a mountain of presents or stockings hanging over a fireplace. This list is a celebration of cinemas best depictions of the holiday. The good, the bad and the ugly.
This is The Greatest Christmas Movies Of All Time (and The Polar Express).
08. Die Hard (1988)
Directed by: John McTiernan
Plot: A lone cop must take on an entire building of thieves in this action packed thrill ride that is definitely a Christmas movie.
Duke’s Take: Die Hard isn’t just a great movie, but a great Christmas movie. John McClane (Bruce Willis) risks his life to stop the bad guy and save his estranged wife! Not only did the film gift us with the iconic “Yippee-Ki-Ya Motherfucker” but it showed us that anyone can kick ass if they have the right resources and a high tolerance for pain. Christmas doesn’t really factor into the plot (save for the holiday party, “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho,” and the odd Christmas song here and there, but dammit it counts.
Sailor’s Take: Whether this is a Christmas movie or not, is a ridiculous debate. The real debate should be whether or not this is the greatest action movie ever made. It is. End of debate.
07. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Directed by: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Plot: The Griswold family’s plans for a big family Christmas predictably turn into a big disaster.
Duke’s Take: Featuring an early role for a pre-Seinfeld Julie Louis Dreyfus and a pre-Big Bang Theory Johnny Galecki, Christmas Vacation is pure comedic bliss. Some of my favorite bits involve the greased to the max sled and the blinding lights on the house. Of course, the film takes time to stop the comedy in favor of some more lighthearted moments such as when Clark gets trapped in the attic and watches old footage of him as a kid on Christmas. The Vacation films have always managed to throw the Griswolds into new and exciting situations and Christmas Vacation is no different.
Sailor’s Take: Cousin Eddie is my spirit animal.
06. A Christmas Carol (1951)
Directed by: Brian Desmond Hurst
Plot: Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by ghosts and even the spirits of Christmas themselves to teach his greedy ass the true meaning of the holiday.
Sailor’s Take: There must be a law that states that if you’re English, depending on your gender, you have to play either the queen or Ebenezer Scrooge at least once in you’re lifetime. A Christmas Carol has had about a billion adaptations over the years and while most are good, none have surpassed the 1951 version. Every version is nearly identical to one another, so it really comes down to who is portraying the greedy old miser and Alastair Sim gives the definitive performance. He starts off as unrepentantly indifferent to the plight of others, almost to a malevolent degree but slowly, over the course of the film, you begin to sympathize him. The character has one of the best arcs in all of storytelling and Sim nails every single one of them. You detest him, you have sympathy for him and then you eventually love him. It’s a great time travel story, it’s a great redemption story and it’s easily the best Christmas story ever written.
05. A Christmas Story (1983)
Directed by: Bob Clark
Plot: A kid just wants a fucking BB gun for Christmas in this delightful coming of age film.
Duke’s Take: I think it’s a tad overrated, but the editing in this film flows like you wouldn’t believe. For a film that doesn’t really have that much of a plot, it moves along quite nicely. Each segment has its own special moments from the tongue stuck to the pole to that god awful leg lamp to beating the snot out of the bully to the bunny pajamas to the Red Ryder gun to the kid dropping the ole f-bomb in front of the the dad (I really felt for him there). There’s something for everyone to like in A Christmas Story.
04. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Directed by: Chuck Jones, Ben Washam
Plot: A grumpy hermit hatches a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville.
Duke’s Take: It’s definitely the classic Grinch tale. I think the 2000 Grinch did a good job expanding the children’s book into a full-blown feature-length film, but sometimes it’s best to just get it done in a thirty-minutes. Without this special the Grinch wouldn’t be green and we might not have that killer song. There’s only two people that come to mind when you think of characters that hate Christmas (but then soon learn to love it): Scrooge and the Grinch.
Sailor’s Take: Dr. Seuss created the single best Christmas icon not tied to folklore and the animated special will always be the best adaptation of his story. Fun fact: did you know there are two sequels to this? One where he fucks with the Cat in the Hat and one where he tries to take over Halloween? There’s also a 1992 version in which Walter Matthau narrates. Oh and there’s also a Jim Carrey one that sucks.
03. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Plot: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.
Duke’s Take: I watched this for the first time this year and I have to say I was surprised at how late in the film the most famous aspect came into play: the “If I had never been born”. I talked to DryButSoupy (who wrote a great review on the film for AFI 100) about this and we both agreed that we found it really strange considering that it is essentially the most well-known part of the film. It’s a Wonderful Life was actually a box-office misfire, but, thanks to countless replays on television, it grew into the Christmas classic we all know-and-love.
02. Home Alone (1990)
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Plot: Due to a crazy series of events, a young boy must fend off a pair of cat burglars when he’s left home alone on Christmas.
Duke’s Take: When Sailor and I were putting this list together we talked about what this list should represent. We both agreed that it was time to shakeup the usual Top 5 of the Christmas Movies and update it for the modern times. Our #2 and #1 picks represent two holiday classics that will continue to live on through our TV screens each year. Home Alone (and to a lesser extent its 1992 sequel) are must-watches. The film shot Macaulay Culkin into child actor stardom and cemented Chris Columbus as a directing threat. Sure, Kevin might be a sadistic kid who needs some serious psychiatric help, but I think we all wanted to booby trap our house like he did after watching the film.
And that aftershave scene is all you need to do in charades to get the correct guess, FYI.
01. Elf (2003)
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Plot: After inadvertently wreaking havoc on the elf community due to his ungainly size, a man raised as an elf at the North Pole is sent to the U.S. in search of his true identity.
Duke’s Take: I always tend to view Christmas movies (and to a lesser extent films or TV specials set at any holiday) to be a huge cash grab. The studios know that as long as the film is relatively good it will live on for the next ten-plus years on TV screens. With that in mind, Christmas films are a dime-a-dozen. The Hallmark Channel pumps out at least 50 a year, so the quality skews way lower. So when a Christmas film is actually good, it’s going to stick around for a long time. Case in point: Elf. This film has only been around fifteen years, but it’ll be around for another fifteen easy. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and Home Alone, it has become the defacto Christmas movie for that generation. The snowball fight. Syrup on spaghetti. Getting drunk in the mail room. Singing with your crush while she takes a shower (okay, that last one is a bit creepy). Buying your Dad lingerie (Okay, also a tad creepy). Anyway, all these scenes have humor and heart. Also, Ed Asner makes for a pretty good Santa Claus.
That’s our Top 25 Christmas Movies. What did we get wrong? How would you have ranked the Top 10? Merry Christmas!