Holiday films are an important American pastime. However, such a genre requires skill to execute. One must include all of the important ingredients, namely two cups of heart, a dash of fantastical whimsy and a good ole spoonful of yuletide rejuvenation, in order for a traditional holiday film to work. With that in mind, we here at Collider decided to compile a “best of” list – of sorts. Included within are personal favorites of the staff, or the films we all grew up watching during those festive afternoons when school was canceled due to winter storms, or during Thanksgiving or Christmas break. At their best, these films represent a merry tradition, one honored in most American households – these are the films we believe soundly capture the spirit of the holidays. They may not be the most critically acclaimed films (sorry Holiday Inn), but they provide the aforementioned ingredients plus one additional key element – nostalgia, or a remembrance of youth. A time and place when we believed Santa and his reindeer could fly; and that wishes could come true. Hit the jump to see the list.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Say it with me: “I want an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.” The quintessential Christmas movie if there ever was one, A Christmas Story remains a proverbial favorite in many a holiday household. Who doesn’t love little Ralphie Parker and his attempts to nab the ultimate Christmas gift – in this case a Red Ryder air rifle? Apparently most people upon their initial viewing – even my family didn’t think much of Bob Clark’s film the first time we saw it way back in the mid-80s (audiences and critics were divided upon its original release). The tone of the film takes some getting used to – part slapstick farce, part grungy (even edgy) 1970s comedy – but once you do, the results are ultimately rewarding.
Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker) steals the show as Ralphie’s “old man,” nabbing many of the film’s best lines (“Fruh-jill-ee – that must be Italian,” he says upon opening a box labeled “fragile”). Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) provides warmth and gravitas as the mother of the household. While ultimately standing in the way of her son’s Red Ryder (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”), she also casually demonstrates many of the same genial qualities that I’m sure many of us remember from our own mothers – a simple moment in which she flies to Ralphie’s aid, sparing him of his father’s “death sentence” after an incident with the local bully, remains heartwarming, simple and touching. And then there’s little Peter Billingsley, terrifically naive as Ralphie, a young boy with a dream, and little awareness to the world around him. He captures the innocence of youth, but also the eye opening experiences life sometimes unexpectedly affords.
TNT runs A Christmas Story 24/7 on Christmas day, and my family watches it all day long – if you haven’t discovered this gem yet, I urge you to take the time to do so as soon as possible. Just make sure you watch it twice.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
You can’t go through the holidays without experiencing George Bailey’s unexpected, even bizarre, holiday awakening. James Stewart plays Bailey, a down-on-his-luck denizen of small town Bedford Falls, a place he longs to escape, yet can’t quite get away from. That’s because, despite many an opportunity to leave, incidents ultimately force his hand to stay and save the town from the spider-like cruelty of evil business tycoon Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). One Christmas Eve, circumstances prompt Bailey to attempt suicide, wishing that he had never been born. Much to his surprise, a happy-go-lucky angel (Henry Travers) arrives and grants Bailey’s wish, allowing him to see a world in which he never existed. This experience opens Bailey’s eyes and heart as he discovers the true value of life, and the importance and ultimately rewarding qualities of friendship.
Despite the presence of the lovely Donna Reed (as Bailey’s forever-patient wife), and solid direction from Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life remains Stewart’s film – a stunning high-point in a remarkable career full of great performances. Largely ignored by audiences (and critics) when released back in 1946, Life has since become a perennial holiday favorite. Intriguingly, the most memorable part of the film doesn’t arrive until nearly 90-minutes into the production; yet, it’s worth the wait, providing an inspiring, heart-warming finale that remains one of the greatest Hollywood endings of all time.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
A holiday list must always include at least one adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal Christmas classic. Of all the big screen versions to grace the silver screen, none has been quite as charming as the Muppets’ take, featuring Michael Caine (The Dark Knight) as Scrooge, and Kermit the Frog as his lowly assistant Bob Cratchit. Some may balk, but Brian Henson’s adaptation remains the most accessible to mainstream audiences (especially children), one filled with wonderful sights and sounds, and memorable songs. Narrated by Gonzo and his assistant Rizzo the Rat, Dickens’ tale is told with panache and occasional bursts of gut-busting humor (Miss Piggy has never been better). The finale, involving a singing and dancing Caine, may be forgettable, but the remainder of The Muppet Christmas Carol is both warm-hearted and spirited.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
I love this movie. Steve Martin and John Candy are brilliant as two travelers attempting to reach their homes for Thanksgiving. Predictably, chaos ensures a less than merry holiday for the pair. It doesn’t help that Candy plays a hapless buffoon (he sells shower curtain rings), one whose personality significantly contrasts against Martin’s uptight businessman. The results of their misadventures, including the complete annihilation of their car, an awkward hotel experience (“Those aren’t pillows!”), and a catastrophic freeway mishap involving semi-trucks and Candy’s brief transformation into Satan himself, provides the basis for the comedy. Yet, it’s the wry, often delicate, and sometimes even touching camaraderie between the two leads that makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles a winner. Of course it helps to have John Hughes in your corner, especially in the height of his career, on hand as both writer and director, supplying terrific one-liners and the type of hilarious situational comedy that has long since become a staple of holiday cinema.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
What’s Christmas without the Griswold? Chevy Chase is in fine form as the ever-relatable Clark Griswold, this time forced to spend the holidays with his in-laws. Chase does some of his finest work, but “Best in Show” belongs to Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, a horrific redneck concoction if there ever was one (“I had to have [the metal plate] in my head replaced, because every time Catherine revved up the microwave, I’d piss my pants and forget who I was for about half an hour or so,” he casually tells Clark). Highlights include a ridiculous, over-the-top Christmas light display (which requires nuclear power to maintain); a sled-ride from Hell; and an intruding, terrifying squirrel incident. As in all the Vacation films, situations continually spiral out-of-control, mainly due to Clark’s sky high expectations: “We’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapped dance with Danny fucking Kaye” – classic.
The Polar Express (2004)
Creepy kids aside, it’s hard to deny Zemeckis a place on this list. The Polar Express remains a holiday favorite in the Ames household – primarily because, as one character in the film states: “It’s just so Christmas-y.” Indeed, Zemeckis outdoes himself here, adapting the equally gorgeous Chris Van Allsburg children’s book of the same name to amazing, sometimes stunning results. Tom Hanks (with the help of mo-cap technology) plays just about everybody in the film (even the main “Hero Boy”), but his presence never feels excessive; in fact, quite the opposite. His portrayal of Santa remains the film’s high point; a masterfully executed performance that perfectly embodies the spirit of St. Nick. The same could be said of the film, which captures the hypnotic, sometimes eerie essence of Christmas right down to the docile sounds of holiday tunes playing over the radio. Alan Silvestri’s terrific score, meanwhile, adds an extra dose of magic to the already spellbinding scenery.
Home Alone (1990)
Another slapstick farce – you might say the one that started it all – Chris Columbus’ original Home Alone has heart, big laughs, and a yuletide John Williams score consistently driving it home. The oft-remembered sequence involving a pair of bumbling robbers (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) provides solid laughs, but it’s the build-up to that moment in which little Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), accidentally left behind by his family during the holiday rush, must fend for himself over the holidays, that catapults Home Alone into the echelon of near-classic status. Kevin undergoes a transformation of sorts: he learns to look past his fears and love the creepy neighbor (Roberts Blossom), wash dishes, and buy groceries at the local supermarket (alone!); he even watches Johnny Carson. Kevin’s adventure begins and ends long before the goofy slapstick comes into play.
Still, there’s no denying the presence of Pesci and Stern, who rise above the material and provide big laughs at the expense of themselves. Look for a brief cameo from John Candy (re-teaming with John Hughes, who scripted) as a meager Polka player who provides Kevin’s desperate mother (Catherine O’Hara) with the transportation she needs to get home. Three sequels have since followed Columbus’ megahit, each with diminishing box office returns (the fourth film went directly to TV). Home Alone 2: Lost in New York offers similar (if not better) laughs, but there’s no denying the original 1990 blockbuster is a holiday classic in the finest sense.
Will Ferrell sings and dances his way through Jon Favreau’s goofy, even rambunctious comedy, as sugar-loving elf Buddy, who flees his North Pole sanctuary (where, at 6’3, he towers over the other elves) in an attempt to bond with his New York-based father (a very bored James Caan). Along the way he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, lovely as ever), a jaded, yet quirky store employee with whom he instantly falls in love. The plot revolves around Buddy’s endeavors to save his dad from Santa’s naughty list, whilst integrating into a new, cynical society – one that frowns upon the good will carried at all times on Buddy’s sprightly shoulders.
A love of Ferrell is definitely required to enjoy Elf. The comedian has played insane before, but never to such a degree. Imagine, if you will, those SNL cheerleading sketches, only splashed with a gallon of sugar, with an extra kick of caffeine added for good measure. Like most of Ferrell’s work, the routine eventually grows tiresome, but not before ample amounts of laughter – most of which is quite side-splitting. You’ll walk away from Elf pleased, if not slightly exhausted. Still, it’s one of the better Christmas comedies out there, and the ginormous box office haul helped Favreau make a little film called Iron Man. The opening bits, featuring Bob Newhart as Buddy’s adoptive father, and those nods to the stop-motion Christmas classics of yesteryear, are terrific; as is the chemistry between Ferrell and Deschanel. The site of Ferrell adorned in a green suit with yellow tights never grows old; too bad the elf shtick doesn’t follow suit.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Another holiday favorite, Miracle on 34th Street stars the endearing Maureen O’Hara alongside a very young Natalie Wood, and Oscar-winner Edmund Gwenn, who won the award for his charming portrayal of Kris Kringle. The film follows the genial St. Nick and his dealings with Christmas outside the North Pole, where he encounters cynicism and disbelief. As one might expect, Kringle performs inspiring miracles – he installs good faith between feuding store owners (namely the heads of Macy’s and Gimbels), secures a romantic relationship between O’Hara’s feisty event director Doris Walker and her attorney/neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne), and even has time to endure a court trial in an effort to prove himself the real Santa Clause. However, the heart of the story lies within his attempts to persuade the young Susan (Wood) of his identity, something he goes to great lengths to accomplish – Kringle creates/buys (I was never sure) a house for the young girl. If anything, Miracle steadfastly holds true to the tradition of Santa Clause, right down to his warm-hearted and honest nature. Contrived, to be sure, and slightly overrated – if you ask me – Miracle on 34th Street remains a must-watch holiday event.
Scrooged (1988)/Bad Santa (2003)
I’m gonna cheat a little here and place both Scrooged and Bad Santa on the list if only because both films provide similar doses of hilarity, raunchiness and vestigial amounts of heart. Richard Donner’s Scrooged has tamed over the years; and remains lopsided and drastically uneven. Yet, Bill Murray shines through it all; delivering a go-for-broke performance that ultimately deserved a better (and darker) film. Bad Santa, likewise, never quite settled as nicely with me as it did with others. I liked Billy Bob Thorton’s performance, even if the role of drunk-foul-mouthed-lunatic-with-a-tinge-of-warmth has worn out its welcome in lesser fare such as 2005’s The Bad News Bears and 2006’s School for Scoundrels.
So why, you ask, are these two films on this list? Because, for all of their shortcomings, Christmas just isn’t the same without Frank Cross (when asked how to keep a pair of antlers atop a little mouse’s head, Frank responds: “Have you tried staples?”) and Willie the department store Santa (“I’m an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santa Claus”). Both men have their faults, but more or less receive their comeuppance (and then some), and even (to some degree) give way to the tenderness of the holiday season. Probably not the best couple of hours to spend with the family, but your friends are gonna love it.
Related: The Best Christmas Movies on Netflix