Forty Holiday Movies Worth Watching
By Darren Nelson, feature writer for My Local Utah
Nothing says “holidays” like curling up under a blanket with some hot cocoa and enjoying a holiday-themed movie. Usually, this involves a movie we’ve seen before. A favorite flick that delivers warm memories of holidays past. We thought it would be fun to make a list of some of our favorite Christmas classics. The criteria for making the list is very open to interpretation—basically anything that relates in some way to the holiday season. That means action movies like DieHard can make the list. Excluded from our list are very recent releases, horror movies with a Christmas theme (sorry, Krampus), and the library of Hallmark channel Christmas movies (they are kind of their own genre). They all would make a good “snuggle up by the fire and watch during the holidays” experience.
The following are the movies we chose. I have included a very brief (spoiler-free) synopsis and other interesting information about each film on the list. The films are listed in no particular order. Let us know in the comments below what would be your favorite Christmas movie, or what would make your list.
A 1990 classic, written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, made child actor Macaulay Culkin a household name. Culkin plays Keven, an eight-year-old bold who protects his home from burglars when he is accidentally left alone during Christmas. The villains played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, Harry and Marv are burglars bring non-stop comedy to this film. John Candy also makes a memorable appearance in this one.
Santa Clause Is Coming to Town
A stop-animation classic from the Rankin/Bass production team, this heartwarming origin story of Santa Clause first aired in 1970. It features voice acting from Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney. If you ever wondered how reindeer could fly and why Santa uses the chimney, then this charming tale is for you. The Burgermeister Meisterburger is a classic Christmas villain to our protagonist Kris Kringle and his penguin friend.
The Santa Clause
The original Tim Allen classic from 1994 about a man who inadvertently makes Santa fall off his roof, and finds himself recruited to take Santa’s place. This box-office smash hit is a funny and heart-warming retelling of the Santa Clause story.
Miracle on 34th Street
This is one title, but many movies. The original classic from 1947 starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and child actor Natalie Wood is probably the most classic of the films. Though the 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and young Mara Wilson gives the original competition for “most favorite” version. There is also a 1959 and a 1973 version if you really want to immerse yourself in the story of how a lawyer and a little girl must prove Santa Clause is the real thing. The story has comedy and Christmas spirit at its core. This is a holiday favorite. So, pick your favorite version or watch them all!
A Christmas Carol
Like Miracle on 34th Street, this title has been retold several times. Based on the Charles Dickens literary classic, each telling of the story examines how the heart of bitter old miser Ebeneezer Scrooge changes through his visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. There is a 1984 version starring George C. Scott, a 1938 version with Reginald Owen and Gene Lackhart, and a 1951 version starring Alastair Sim and Jack Warner is considered the definitive version by man. Other versions included an animated film in 2009 from director Robert Zemeckis starring Jim Carrey, and a Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992 starring Michael Caine and all your favorite Muppets. There are literally dozens of feature-length movies made with this title. Some go back to the silent era of film.
Scrooge and Scrooged
There are some adaptions from Dicken’s classic, that don’t carry the title: A Christmas Carol. This includes Scrooged, a more modern and comedic retelling from 1988 starring Bill Murray. And an award-winning musical version Scrooge from 1970 starring Albert Finney and Alec Guiness.
Another off-the-beaten-path movie. A jewel thief takes refuge—and hostages—at a dysfunctional family home on Christmas Eve. When the extended family arrives for dinner, the night takes some unexpected and humorous turns. This R-rated 1994 Film stars Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, and Denis Leary.
Harry Potter movies are not Christmas movies, but each one in the series features Christmas scenes. Plus, the movies were originally released in theatres during the holiday season, making seeing Harry Potter films a holiday event. These films are fun adventures of young kids coming of age at Hogwarts, a school for wizards. If you haven’t seen the Harry Potter movies, what are you waiting for?
The Bishop’s Wife
This 1947 classic starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven is a classic for delivering the true spirit of Christmas. A debonair angel, played by Cary Grant (who else) helps a bishop and his wife raise money for their new church.
Jingle All the Way
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad team up in this comedy about a dad finding his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. Released in 1996, the film also stars the late Phil Hartman of SNL fame, Rita Wilson, and Jim Beluschi. If you are looking for action and comedy this holiday season, check out this flick.
“Buddy the Elf. What’s Your Favorite Color?” This humorous classic from 2003 stars Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, and James Caan. Follow the adventures of Buddy the elf in New York City. Raised at the North Pole, Buddy is to find his biological father in New York where and finds a job, a girlfriend, and a little brother while delivering some Christmas spirit along the way.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Another made-for-tv stop-motion animated movie from Rankin/Bass Productions. Originally aired in 1964, this classic has enjoyed repeated viewing on network television for nearly 60 years. Follow the story of the outcast reindeer with a shiny nose, the dentist-wanna-be elf Hermey, and the mining prospector Yukon Cornelius and their adventures at the North Pole.
The plot for this one is two women with relationship problems swap homes in each other’s respective countries, where they make new friends and relationships that change their lives. This 2006 film stars Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, and Jack Black. Actor Eli Wallach, who plays elderly neighbor and scriptwriter Arthur, steals every scene he is in. This movie tops many people’s lists of favorite Christmas movies. If you have not seen it, check it out.
Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen star in this 1945 classic about a song and dance team who join forces with a sister act to save a failing Vermont Inn. If this is not on your Christmas bucket list already, it probably should be.
Funny, heartwarming, and romantic, this R-rated movie from 2003 has an all-star ensemble cast with Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, and Hugh Grant. Follows the lives of eight different couples during one frantic holiday month in London England
A Christmas Story
The story of Ralphie and his quest to get a Red Ryder Range 200 Shot BB gun for Christmas,
Set in the 1940s and based on the novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” by Jean Shepard, A Christmas Story has become a Christmas classic and a modern meme generator. From “You’ll shoot your eye out,” to Old Man Parker’s Major Award, A Christmas story is part of our Christmas culture.
Christmas in Connecticut
A funny and heart-warming tale about a food writer deceiving her boss about her traditional home life. A tale of a traditional family Christmas like no other. This classic from 1945 stars Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, and Sydney Greenstreet.
The Polar Express
Based upon the award-winning children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, director Robert Zemeckis introduces us to a new image-capture animation that brings this story to life. Tom Hanks is the primary voice actor in this story where a boy catches a magical train to the North Pole. Released in 2004, this classic has a lot of kid-friendly action and music.
Frosty the Snowman
The magic hat, the snowman, Professor Hinkle, and Karen are still here for this holiday classic. Based on the popular song, this made-for-TV movie from 1969 features music and narration by the legendary Jimmy Durante. This family-fun story gets going when Frosty utters his famous line “Happy Birthday.”
This Irving Berlin classic from 1942 gives us Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in co-starring roles. If you are in the mood for some Christmas music and the dancing feet of Fred Astair, then this flick is for you.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
This is a two-for-one movie classic. The original animated classic from 1966 with narration by Boris Karloff and the live-action movie from Director Ron Howard starring Jim Carrey released in the year 2000 is a fun watch. Both stories tell us about everyone’s favorite, green-colored Grinch and his plans to ruin Christmas in the town of Whoville. Watch it again, to see if the Grinch’s heart still grows.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
An animated classic from 1965. We follow Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the whole Peanuts gang through their holiday season celebrations. The infamous “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” still needs a lot of love and attention after all these years. This made-for-TV special focuses on the deeper meaning to Christmas. Fun for the whole family.
We must travel back to 1988 for this one. This rare film is hard to find but was executively produced by Robert Redford and Stars Patrick Dempsey and Jennifer Connely, this movie has a definite Christmas feel to it. In the film, we follow Michael (Patrick McDreamy himself) up to French Quebec to spend the Christmas break with his girlfriend’s eccentric family. When I say French Quebec has a Christmas vibe to it, you know what I mean. This R-rated tale is a humorous story about different kinds of love and the memories left in their wake.
Ok, not technically a Christmas story, but so much of the story centers around the holiday season. This is specifically the case with the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale. The literary tale of Jo March and her sisters in Concord Connecticut during the Civil War era will deliver heartwarming vibes for the holidays.
It’s A Wonderful Life
This Frank Capra classic tops many a list of holiday classic movies. Originally released in the summer of 1946, this movie earned classic status through repeated tv broadcasts. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, we follow the life of George Bailey and the lesson he learns about what the world would be like if he never existed. Plus, we get to learn how every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.
Christmas with the Kranks
This 2004 movie starring Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Aykroyd is a laugh-out-loud comedy. Luther and Nora Krank decide to skip the Christmas holidays since their daughter Blair is out of the country. Blair’s unexpected return forces the Kranks to put together a last-minute Christmas celebration.
National Lampoons Christmas Vacation
Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo reprise their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold for what is technically the 4th sequel in the National Lampoons Vacation series. This 1989 offering is arguably the best of the Vacation series. Of course, Randy Quaid’s appearance as Cousin Eddie steals the show. If this is not part of your family holiday tradition, it should be.
Deck the Halls
This 2006 film about two neighbors warring over Christmas decorations is humorous Christmas fun. Starring Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristin Davis, and Kristin Chenoweth this film is memorable.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Not a Christmas movie, but a Thanksgiving movie. This 1987 film starring comedy legends Steve Martin and John Candy will bring a smile to your face. Chicago ad man Neal Page is struggling to get home for Thanksgiving with his unexpected and unwanted traveling companion Del Griffith, a curtain rod salesman.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
If you are looking for a little macabre with your Christmas, look no further than this 1993 classic stop animation movie from director Tim Burton. Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, discovers Christmas and tries to bring some Christmas cheer back to Halloween town. Visually stunning and humorous, The Nightmare Before Christmas is fun for all ages. Is it a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie? You decide.
Released the year prior to National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, this 1988 film also stars Chevy Chase, who plays a character who closely resembles the one he plays in Christmas Vacation. If Chevy was not already the foundation character of the National Lampoon series, I would say they cast him for Christmas Vacation from his role in Funny Farm. Chevy plays a sportswriter turned novelist, Andy Farmer, who takes the advance payment for his first book and moves to the picturesque country town of Redbud. Andy and his wife Elizabeth soon discover that the town of Redbud is not what they were expecting. The closing half of this movie takes place during the Christmas holidays and is filled with a humorous and scenic Christmas spirit.
Released in 2019, this movie stars Emilia Clarke, Emma Thompson, and Henry Golding in a movie that has its own Christmas Carol vibe to it. The characters and the story are very endearing in this British romantic comedy. Yes, the title comes from the George Michael Christmas song, and there is a George Michael-centric theme to the soundtrack. This movie will make you laugh and feel good at the same time.
The Family Stone
If you want to laugh and cry in the same movie, this one is for you. The plot of our story is an uptight businesswoman accompanies her boyfriend home for Christmas. There she finds that she’s a fish out of water in their free-spirited way of life. This PG-13 movie has some light adult themes but delivers laughter and tears in the right spots. Released in 2005, the film stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney, Rachel McAdams, Craig T. Nelson, Claire Danes, Luke Wilson, and Diane Keaton. Parker holds this film together with her uncomfortable portrayal of the uptight outsider. If you have not seen this film, give it a watch.
If you like Vince Vaughn in comedic roles, you’ll like Four Christmases—a lot. This 2008 film stars Vaughn next to Reese Witherspoon as a couple that is forced into visiting their four divorced parents for Christmas. The film also stars Mary Steenburgen (who is in a lot of Christmas movies), John Favreau, Kristen Chenoweth, John Voight, Dwight Yoakam, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Duvall.
The Night Before
This R-rated irreverent comedy from 2015 stars Seth Rogan, Anthony Mackie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Franco, Tracy Morgan, Mindy Kaling, and Jillian Bell. The plot of this one is three lifelong friends searching for the greatest of Christmas parties in New York City.
While You Were Sleeping
We are throwin’ it back to 1995 for this classic starring Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Jack Warden, Peter Gallagher, and Peter Boyle. A token collector for a transit train in Chicago is mistaken for the fiancée of a coma patient. This romantic comedy takes place in during the Christmas holidays.
The Shop Around the Corner
This 1940 classic starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan is a story about two employees of a gift shop that barely tolerate one another while also falling in love as anonymous pen pals. If that sounds familiar, the reason is it is the same plot as the 1998 film, “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This original has more Christmas spirit to it, but both are worth a watch.
This surprising film from 2020 tells the story of the emotions tied to wanting your family’s acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas by revealing secrets. This PG-13 movie has some light adult themes (non-binary characters) but has some genuine humor and emotions to it. The film stars Kristen Stewart, Mary Steenburgen (again), Aubrey Plaza, and a scene-stealing Dan Levy.
Home for the Holidays
Released in 1995 and directed by Jodie Foster, this holiday film focuses on a family Thanksgiving. The story focuses on Claudia Larson (played by Holly Hunter) who has lost her job and returns home to her dysfunctional family for the holidays. Making things worse, her daughter will join her but instead spends the holiday with her boyfriend. A funny movie with a lot of heart. In addition to Hunter, the movie stars Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Claire Danes, and Dylan McDermott.
Meet Me in St. Louis
This 1944 classic is about a turn-of-the-century family moving from their long-time home in St. Louis to New York. Events of the film surround the 1900 World’s Fair. The film stars Judy Garland, child actor Margaret O’Brien (who won an Oscar for her role), and silent film star Mary Astor. The movie is known for its original song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” performed for the first time by Judy Garland. The song takes place during a sad scene in the movie. The original lyrics of the song were sad too: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.” Judy Garland requested they change the lyrics to happier ones. She sang the more familiar and happier lyrics in the movie but sang it with teary eyes giving it more impact. Vincente Minnelli directed the film and fell love with Judy Garland on the set and later married her. Their only child from the marriage was Liza Minnelli, an award-winning singer, and performer in her own right. The Minnelli family is unique in that the father, mother, and daughter have all won Oscars.
Well, That’s it. That’s our list of good-to-classic Christmas movies. Did we miss some? What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.
OK, if you have read all the way to the end to see if it is really here, here it is:
This action classic movie cleared a small hurdle to make our list. Some people insist this is a Christmas movie. It does fit one criterion for our list, it takes place during the Christmas season, and the setting is an office Christmas party. So, there you go. This R-rated action classic stars Bruce Willis as John McClane, a cop stopping terrorists from blowing up a building. Alan Rickman plays one of the most memorable movie villains ever—Hans Gruber. Not sure if this is a great Christmas movie, but it is a great movie worth watching.
If you are waiting to see if the Ben Affleck classic action-heist/Christmas film “Reindeer Games” made our list, you’re barking up the wrong Christmas tree.