Hot Take Express: The Best Christmas Movies
Christmas movies are a staple of my December month each year. In fact, I’m convinced 90% of my superficial happiness around the holidays is tied up in movies from my childhood. While I accept mediocrity from holiday classics fairly easily, I’m still pretty opinionated when it comes down to it. Here’s my definitive list:
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
It’s the best, and it’s really not close. The only way you can dislodge this from the top spot is by setting the rules so Christmas specials don’t count as movies. (It’s only 25 minutes. I wonder what it would feel like scaled out to 90. Probably depressing.) There’s not much about it that isn’t perfect. It’s from the ’60s — the Christmas Golden Era. It’s got a timeless message. It has an incredible soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. The characters and animation are classic, and it has just the right amount of existential dread. (As an emo millennial, this is something I greatly appreciate in my Christmas media.) It’s also super charming. It’s the second oldest annually-running Christmas special (behind Rudolph). It was expected to be a total flop. All of the child characters were voiced by actual children. Some day, it’s going to stop airing on network television every year. I hope that day comes after I die.
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
It’s the funniest Christmas movie ever made by a comfortable margin. It’s also the most quotable. (All good Christmas movies should have quotes about heads sewn to carpet and nitroglycerin plants.) I think the biggest reason it’s so high on this list is how relatively new it is. In a genre saturated with original movies from the ’60s and remakes of old classics, an original movie made towards the end of the 20th century sticks out. This is the best original Christmas movie made in decades. As much as I love A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, those stories relate to my own life only loosely. Meanwhile, there is a lot in Christmas Vacation that I can identify with. Plus, I still think the animated title sequence is a nice touch.
3. A Christmas Story (1983)
I deserve some kind of medal for ranking the movie with the Cleveland connection all the way down in third place. Perhaps it’s the fact that the movie takes place in the ’40s, but A Christmas Story has always seemed much older to me. It’s only six years older than Christmas Vacation, but feels so classic, in comparison. Actually, there are a lot of similarities between the two. I’d imagine A Christmas Story inspired a lot of Christmas Vacation. It paved the way for a more modern, “edgy” genre of Christmas movies that featured lovable, rough-around-the-edges families in place of cookie-cutter stories with Sunday School morals. The characters in A Christmas Story are a little off-kilter, which makes them much more true to life. And yes, the fact that it was partly shot in Cleveland is a nice perk.
4. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Christmas purists will take issue with ranking the Jim Carrey version ahead of the ’60s television classic. However, the story was written by Dr. Suess, and the movie was directed by Ron Howard, starring Jim Carrey. That’s basically a foolproof recipe for success, at worst. While the movie does seem to settle for mediocrity at points, there is more than enough going for it. It’s one of many roles Carrey was seemingly born to play. It’s got some good musical numbers and it’s funny enough. Most importantly, it’s visually dazzling and flawlessly brings to life a fairytale world I spent my childhood imagining. Most negative reviews upon release came from crotchety old people who thought Howard ruined a classic by overproducing it and sucking out all of its Suessian charm. As someone who saw the movie in theaters as an 8-year-old, I’ll disagree. I was overwhelmed when I first saw it, and I still am to this day. It’s incredibly fun.
5. How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
While the Ron Howard’s version went maximalist, the ’66 television special was relatively sparse, by comparison. The stripped back animation is classic. The musical numbers are timeless, and it’s hard not to recall childhood when you hear the flawless Boris Karloff narration. Just forgive me for preferring my generation’s immersive experience over this holiday staple. Both are in my Top 5.
6. Polar Express (2004)
I was 12 years old when this came out. I loved it from the start, but I was jealous of kids who saw this for the first time at six or seven. Kids these days are spoiled when it comes to movies, and I think this was the first time I became aware of that. I remember actually being depressed that I’d never be able to ride the Polar Express to the North Pole in real life. The animation was revolutionary at the time, but looks pretty dated now. The characters are pretty lifeless and border on creepy. (Tom Hanks putting in work covers a lot of weaknesses in character design.) Flaws aside, the animation works flawlessly when it comes to the setting, which is what pushes this movie towards the upper part of my list. It’s also got a classic Christmas message and some good music.
7. Home Alone (1990)
Macaulay Culkin getting himself in and out of hijinks was a viable filmmaking formula in the early ’90s. Toss in writing from John Hughes and directing from Chris Columbus, and it’s honestly surprising this isn’t a better movie. Christmas or otherwise, it’s a childhood staple. Culkin is incredible, especially for a 10 year old. The supporting characters do a good job of being over the top without being completely outlandish, making Home Alone a fun movie that’s lovable and whimsical without being (overly) goofy and stupid.
8. Elf (2003)
I’m not sure if this will be a future generation’s Christmas Vacation, but I give it credit for getting closer than anything else made post-1990 has. It’s original, and occasionally hilarious. That being said, I think this one has moved down a slot every year for the past three or four. Ferrell pulls off Buddy better than anyone else could, but it borders on obnoxious at moments, and one viewing per year feels like overdoing it. I don’t see Elf having Christmas Vacation-type staying power. Maybe I’m just an old fogey.
9. A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
A Muppets take on a Dickens classic is hard to mess up, and this one delivers as such. Michael Caine impresses as Scrooge, and the puppets do a good job of softening the grim, depressing edge of the original. It’s probably the most palatable telling of this story, especially for children. I have some nostalgia tied up here, because my elementary school teachers turned to this VHS tape on more than one occasion on the final day of school before the much-anticipated Christmas break. This movie was a part of my childhood, but is easily the most underrated on this list, which is unfortunate.
10. The Santa Clause (1994)
This is one of those movies that I’ll stump for despite my knowledge that it’s not actually that great. I’ve seen similarities drawn to Mrs. Doubtfire, which is pretty fair. It hits some of the same marks. It’s cheesy and cliche, but there is plenty of early ’90s Tim Allen charm to go around, and December is the one month of the year when I give a pass to less-than-average movies that tickle certain childhood memories.
11. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
I’m a lover of ’60s television Christmas specials. Rudolph hits enough marks to come out ahead of most, but falls short of legendary pieces like Charlie Brown and The Grinch. The stop motion animation is iconic. To this day, Rudolph is the foremost stop motion film in my memory. (You say stop motion, I picture a reindeer with a glowing nose.) Burl Ives was destined to be a snowman. Despite the story being ingrained into children across America, it’s kind of comforting to know that the only movie we’ll ever need on Rudolph was made in 1964. The tale is ubiquitous, but they got it right the first time, and nobody has topped it more than 50 years later.
12. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Not to be confused with The Year Without a Santa Claus, which came out four years later, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town gave America a Saint Nick origin story. To be completely honest, I don’t know if there’s an “official” origin of Santa Claus. I also don’t know that it really matters, or if any child truly cares. I do know that I willingly adopted the one given in this movie without realizing it. If you ask me, Kris Kringle was an orphan who just wanted to deliver toys to the children of Sombertown. It’s got Rudolph’s classic animation without any of its classic music. Seriously, the musical numbers here are incredibly forgettable. Regardless, it gets points for being inventive and leaving a serious contribution to the American Christmas lexicon. Plus, hey, Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney.
13. Frosty The Snowman (1969)
I don’t know where the general public stands on this, but I see Frosty as far less of a Christmas icon than Santa or Rudolph, or even Scrooge or The Grinch. Frosty never did it for me, and while I certainly don’t mind his television movie from 1969, it’s definitely pretty low on my yearly watch list. Not to mention, this thing gets really sad and the antagonist (the magician) is oddly terrifying.
14. Home Alone 2 (1992)
Plus points for going back to the Home Alone formula, which still had life in 1992. Plus points for moving the story to New York City to cash in on that Big Apple Christmas magic. Minus points because sequels are inherently lame and because Culkin wasn’t quite as cute in 1992. I’ll visit Home Alone 2 in years I’m craving some extra ’90s nostalgia, but it’s on the outside of my essentials list looking in.
15. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic, and not just in the Christmas realm. It’s currently in the Top 25 on IMDB, and it deserves it. It’s a landmark movie, especially it its time. That being said, this thing is two hours and ten minutes long and manages to feel twice that. The crux of the movie is George Bailey getting a peek at what the world would look life if he were never born. It’s brilliant, but it takes an eternity in screen time to reach that point. Everyone needs to watch this movie once, if not annually, but I must admit that it sometimes feels like a chore to do so.
567. Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
In 2002, Tim Allen apparently forgot that his Christmas movie legacy had already been sealed when he went back to the Santa Clause well for a third time. By 2004, he completely sold out by deciding to do Christmas With The Kranks. It’s Scrooge without any warmth or lessons learned. It’s Santa Clause without any charm or nostalgia. It’s low-brow and stupid. This movie is absolute trash.
568. Jingle All The Way (1996)
Go figure that a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad isn’t a holiday classic, much less a palatable movie. I don’t want to see The Terminator go on a manhunt for an action figure. It’s just bad.
569. The Santa Clause 3 (2002)
The original Santa Clause is flawed, but lovable. Santa Clause 2 is not great, but forgivable. Santa Clause 3 is burn-it-to-the-ground awful. I hate everyone in this movie, including (especially?) Santa. I wish someone responsible held the rights to Santa Clause so the people who made this movie couldn’t have ruined him. Tim Allen had himself a nice little Christmas niche before he torched it with a series of terrible movies.