THE LISTS: My top 10 perennial must-watch Christmas movies

Posted by · 9:18 am · December 23rd, 2008

Bill Murray in ScroogedTis the season, no?

I found it rather perplexing that, with In Contention being on the scene for three Christmas seasons already, we’ve never set about putting together the obligatory “best Christmas films” list.  Well, I’m setting out to amend that oversight this holiday week with such a collective, but I don’t have the heart to call it a “best” list per se, so I’m giving it a different angle.

Every year I have a few staples of the season that make their way into my DVD player or, in some instances — gasp! — my VCR, like new friends come home to visit before going back on the shelf for another 12 months stretch.

Typically, I just can’t feel right about the holiday season without taking in the films on this list at least once.  They’ve slowly gelled into my “must-watch” Christmas movie list for various reasons: reminiscence, unavoidable television programming, uniqueness in the face of the typical seasonal film glut, etc.

While there are a handful of classic, well-made staples that would be agreeable to the masses as far as quality is concerned, I think everyone’s list would be different when it comes to this kind of thing.  With that in my, my list of the top 10 perennial must-watch Christmas movies should give you some insight into who I am.

Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story10. “A Christmas Story” (Bob Clark, 1983)
Chalk this one up in the “can’t escape it because of TNT” category.  I love the film, though.  I really do.  It’s a childhood favorite that took on many different, nuanced meanings over the course of my life, but I certainly don’t own it so I certainly don’t seek it out to give it a look.  It just comes to me, begs for my attention with repeat viewings, insists on catching me at whatever inopportune time it might be and forces me to sit an enjoy, because what else can you do?  If “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a nag for all the wrong reasons, “A Christmas Story” is a nag for all the right ones.

Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa9. “Bad Santa” (Terry Zwigoff, 2003)
I wasn’t an immediate admirer of Terry Zwigoff’s irreverent take on the season beyond the usual and expected gufaws that Billy Bob Thornton’s work induces.  But over the past four years, I find myself itching to see it again this time of year, so I finally grabbed a copy on DVD last year rather than blowing a couple of bucks on a rental each time out.  We need more films like this, really, efforts so unapologetically brazen that don’t even seem to be trying, unlike other films of the sort.  It’s genuine in its fuck it all candor and really, this time of year, don’t we all eventually find ourselves in a “fuck it all” frame of mind eventually?

Bill Nighy in Love Actually8. “Love Actually” (Richard Curtis, 2003)
It’s the hopeless romantic in me, but I have to pull this one off the shelf annually and delight in the gooey center of Richard Curtis’s love letter to love.  Part of it is the ensemble, a clever mingling of a talented cast around a simple, yet paradoxically complex theme.  Another part has to be the music, used in such a way as to chip the ice away from the coldest of hearts.  But mostly, it’s for the Liam Neeson storyline and a pathetically adorable kid stumbling upon “the total agony of being in love.”  It makes me hide that Grinch inside for just a few short hours and hey, the girlfriend likes it too, so what can you do?

Bill Murray in Scrooged7. “Scrooged” (Richard Donner, 1988)
Probably one of the more under-appreciated Christmas films of all time, Richard Donner’s spin on Charles Dickens was a hell of a vehicle for a late-1980s Bill Murray and a delightfully creepy alternative to Frank Capra.  When I think Christmas movies, one of the first things that pops into my head is the “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” singalong over the closing credits, a nice fourth-wall-crashing moment that puts a big bow on this charmer.  BUt I have to say, even as an adult, I’m a bit freaked out by whatever is going on under the Ghost of Christmas Future’s robe.

Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone6. “Home Alone” (Chris Columbus, 1990)
An instant classic.  I remember Chris Columbus’s “Home Alone” seemed unwilling to ever leave theaters back in the fall of 1990, and with those box office receipts, the reasons are obvious.  Macaulay Culkin had such promise and it seemed the casting directors deserved medals of honor for their pitch-perfect vision of a intriguing cast of characters.  But the real stars of the franchise quickly became Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, a screen duo for the ages that made for a brilliant antagonist troupe to root against.  Also, it’s impossible to leave it without mentioning John Williams’ score, a scaling wonder that instantly recalls the season.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns5. “Batman Returns” (Tim Burton, 1992)
The least “Christmas movie” of the bunch, Tim Burton’s follow-up to 1989’s “Batman” is a snow-covered carol of the twisted sort.  I still think it would have been a stroke of brilliance if Warner Bros. had released the film some time between November and December, given the atmosphere of the film, but then the studio would have missed out on some major summer dollars.  Still, crowding into a sultry theater on a June afternoon in 1992 just didn’t seem right with all the glimmering snow and ice-marching penguins.  But that’s okay, because now it gets an annual visit to my DVD player right around Christmas time!

Andreas Wisniewski  in Die Hard4. “Die Hard” (John McTiernan, 1988)
In many ways, it’s the ultimate Christmas movie, packed with family squabbling, yuletide fireworks (of a different sort) and the sounds of Dean Martin on the soundtrack.  But this ain’t your father’s Christmas flick, in case the terrorists didn’t tip you off.  Yes, John McTiernan’s game-changing action extravaganza earned a spot on this list with bullets, bravado and Bruce friggin’ Willis.  I even refrain from giving it a look throughout the year because I know I’ll be spoiling my holiday appetite.  And really, let’s face it.  “Now I have a machine gun.  Ho, ho, ho” is the greatest Christmas movie line ever.  Period.

Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York3. “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (Chris Columbus, 1992)
I don’t know if I’m ready to call “Home Alone 2” a superior film to the original, but I do know I prefer it.  It has less to do with quality than the overall atmosphere the film evokes.  New York is the most fetching of Christmas settings and moving the story there was probably the only call to make, but taking Kevin McCallister on a tour of the Big Apple is exciting for any kid.  Again, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern serve as a brilliant pair of villains, perhaps offering more laughs than their work in the original, which is an accomplishment to say the least.  Tim Curry and Rob Schneider add plenty of yuk-yuks as well.

Howie Mandel as the voice of Gizmo in Gremlins2. “Gremlins” (Joe Dante, 1984)
It’s the TIm Burton film Tim Burton never directed, but it’s also one of the most brilliant sci-fi-horror-comedy flicks of all time with a hell of a cast of creature characters and a nice anchor for the tale in Zach “What Happened to that Guy?” Galligan.  Howie Mandel’s vocal incantations made Gizmo a delightful character for the kid in us all, but I’ve always been taken by the creativity of his San Francisco Chinatown origins, to the point that it’s difficult to walk down Grant Avenue without the sounds of Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable score thumping in my brain.  A modern classic for the movie lover in us all.

Chevy Chase in National Lampoon\'s Christmas Vacation1. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989)
Nothing makes me laugh harder than any number of instances and one-liners from this, the very best of the “Vacation” series.  Cousin Eddie’s lewd antics, Uncle Lewis’s cigar flame-out, Aunt Bethany’s quip about “Grace,” the haughty-taughty Chesters next door, a dazzling Christmas lighting display, a sight gag minutes removed from the snowsled race sequence it references, and indeed, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, kiss my ass, kis his ass, kiss your ass.  Happy Hanukkah.”  I spit out my eggnog every time.  Just do yourself one massive favor: avoid the sequel at all costs.  You’ll thank me later.

Have your say!  What are your favorite films to watch this time of year?

→ 49 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

49 responses so far

  • 1 12-23-2008 at 9:28 am

    Anthony said...

    Love Actually is probably one of the weakest, yet most watchable and enjoyable films I can remember.

  • 2 12-23-2008 at 9:35 am

    McGuff said...

    Fun list. Both Home Alones are necessary around this season, as is Christmas Vacation. With a girlfriend, Love Actually has been seen each of the last four Christmases. I do like Bad Santa, but I’m not sure if it would have made my list.

    A movie I saw recently for the second or third time that I really enjoyed, and I say this with complete knowledge that it might take away any credibility I have left, is “Elf.” I was once a big Will Ferrell fan, but in recent years, outside of his “Landlord” sketch on, his shtick has become very worn. I didn’t like him as Ricky Bobby, as Jackie Moon or in Step Brothers. I enjoyed him a touch in Blades of Glory and in Old School, and I love him in Anchorman.

    But watching Elf the other day, it really is Ferrell at his best. His brand of comedy totally works in the family comedy genre; it’s a type of idiotic innocence that I think plays perfectly. The silliness of Elf just works, and toss in that it’s Zooey Deschanel at her absolute cutest, and the movie works.

    “Buddy the Elf! What’s your favorite color?”

  • 3 12-23-2008 at 9:38 am

    N8 said...

    That’s a fantstic list, and although I know it’s a lame film, I can’t let christmas pass by without watching “The Muppets’ Christmas Carol” (I know, I’m weak!)

  • 4 12-23-2008 at 10:13 am

    Adam G. said...

    I do the same thing with Die Hard. Do not open before Christmas Eve.

  • 5 12-23-2008 at 10:15 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    McGuff: I find myself in the vast minority on “Elf.” When I saw it in the theater four years back, I knew instantly that I did not care for it. Part of it was my extreme distaste for overwrought Will Ferrell comedy, part of it was that I just didn’t find it all that unusual or creative.

    It was on TV just the other night (which is when I decided to start hammering out this list), so I gave it another look, figured I was missing something. And yet, I still feel the same way. I dunno. I guess I missed that boat.

  • 6 12-23-2008 at 10:22 am

    Drew Roddy said...

    Have you seen “Black Christmas”? If not, check it out ASAP. It’s all kinds of creepy/hilarious and GRETCHEN WEINERS IS IN IT!

  • 7 12-23-2008 at 10:28 am

    Walter Klemmer said...

    Eyes Wide Shut.
    Batman Returns of course.

  • 8 12-23-2008 at 10:29 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Drew: You know, I’ve never actually seen it. Always meant to.

  • 9 12-23-2008 at 10:29 am

    McGuff said...

    Kris, I would have thought I was in the minority, until I checked Rotten Tomatoes and saw the 84% stamp of approval. Didn’t expect that at all, and among the cinephiles that hang around here, I totally expect to be in the minority. But man, that Deschanel gets me everytime…

  • 10 12-23-2008 at 10:42 am

    SY said...

    I always try to catch ‘Catch Me If You Can’ since its release a few years back, something very solemn yet fun and reflective about that movie during Christmas.

    Also, the traditionalist in me needs to watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.

  • 11 12-23-2008 at 10:45 am

    Dan S. said...

    I can’t go a holiday without listening to Phoebe Cates’ character tell that story about her dad getting stuck in a chimney. Love Gremlins.

  • 12 12-23-2008 at 11:05 am

    Speaking English said...

    “A Christmas Story” is 1983, not 2003. And “Bad Santa” IS 2003 rather than the 2004 you have.

    My Christmas movie is “The Lord of the Rings,” considering I’m not Christian and those movies remind me of winter and magic more than anything else.

  • 13 12-23-2008 at 11:14 am

    Scott Ward said...

    Eyes Wide Shut – Very nice Walter, very nice.

    I don’t know if I’m the only one, and I’m sure nobody cares once they read it, but for me the only one is, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Which is all the more suprising since I’m about as close to a modern day Scrooge as you will find, and I also usually don’t care much at all for uplifting films witth happy endings.

  • 14 12-23-2008 at 11:27 am

    Emily said...

    Elf should be on this list. I’ve met like…two people in my entire life he didn’t enjoy that film. It’s the first movie I ever saw more than once in theaters!

    Also, Love Actually and Die Hard…Alan Rickman times 2. :)

  • 15 12-23-2008 at 12:52 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Weird typos on my part, English. Thanks.

    Emily: Well, make it three. And nah, it shouldn’t be on the list, since this is MY list. But I guess it should be on YOUR list.

  • 16 12-23-2008 at 1:10 pm

    colby said...

    love actually
    christmas vacation
    home alone (s)
    the muppet christmas carol
    jingle all the way (i know)
    elf (i never cared for it until a couple of weeks ago. i think it was zooey that put it over the top, because there’s a lot not to like)
    and then my list is incomplete without edward scissorhands.

  • 17 12-23-2008 at 1:15 pm

    Patrick said...

    “Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.” Originally broadcast on television in 1966, this later appeared as part of a theatrical release in 1969, “Trilogy.” Geraldine Page is outstanding in this quiet little recollection of one of Capote’s childhood holidays. Avoid the saccharine Patty Duke remake. Unfortunately, not available on DVD.

  • 18 12-23-2008 at 1:15 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Ooh, good call on Scissorhands. I haven’t seen it in a while, but this is certainly the time of year to give it a look.

  • 19 12-23-2008 at 1:31 pm

    michael mckay said...

    What…no Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas…what the hell??!!

  • 20 12-23-2008 at 1:33 pm

    John Foote said...

    Two for me — A Christmas Story is the warmest and most nostalgic Christmas film in existence, just love it and of course the 1951 A Christmas Carol with wonderul Alister Sim as Scrooge —

  • 21 12-23-2008 at 1:35 pm

    JAB said...

    It’s a Wonderful Life is far and away my #1. I watch it with the parents every christmas eve.

  • 22 12-23-2008 at 2:06 pm

    AJ said...

    I finally saw National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation last night. I didn’t like it. My friend’s pre-laughing didn’t help (they were giggling for like a solid minute before anything funny happened) but I just didn’t like it. I’m sure everyone’s love for the film comes from childhood nostalgia, not that it bothers me (I will defend Babe until I die). My time to fall in love with Christmas Vacation has long since passed. I kinda wish I loved it but I don’t. Oh well.

  • 23 12-23-2008 at 2:07 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Definitely a nostalgia thing I think, AJ

  • 24 12-23-2008 at 2:51 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    A lot of people think my choice may stink but I really love Trapped in Paradise with Nic Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey. What can I say? It’s a guilty pleasure.

  • 25 12-23-2008 at 3:00 pm

    Matthew said...

    I’ve never understood the vast amount of people who adore “A Christmas Story”. It’s not my cup of tea. I, like Kris on “Elf”, am in the minority. I rewatched Elf the other day, and I still really like that movie. Of course, I’m still a fan of Ferrel, but even more so, I love Favreau’s choice of the claymation, as well as Deschanel. Oh Zooey Deschanel. She is so wonderful.

    Oh and definitely one that I watch every year is A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. Michael Caine and Muppets, you can’t go wrong.

  • 26 12-23-2008 at 3:02 pm

    Matthew said...

    Just to clear up a few things in that last bit. I am in the minority because I hate “Christmas Story” not because I like “Elf”. I’m in the majority there, unlike Kris. Now all shall be understood.

  • 27 12-23-2008 at 3:10 pm

    Robby said...

    Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

  • 28 12-23-2008 at 3:37 pm

    JT said...

    …Christmas Vaction and Die Hard are 2 of my pics!

  • 29 12-23-2008 at 3:54 pm

    JC said...

    The Nightmare Before Christmas springs to mind….and you can watch that any time between Halloween and Christmas.

  • 30 12-23-2008 at 3:55 pm

    JC said...

    Oh yeah…

    Billy Wilder’s The Apartment…nothing like a suicide attempt to evoke the holiday spirit.

  • 31 12-23-2008 at 4:00 pm

    April said...

    “the girlfriends likes it” ? I hope that was a typo.

    Oh, and I second Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for sure. Though it doesn’t make me think of Christmas at all.

  • 32 12-23-2008 at 4:18 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Totally a typo!!

  • 33 12-23-2008 at 4:56 pm

    Emily said...

    Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is completely underrated. It barely qualifies for Christmas though..

  • 34 12-23-2008 at 6:12 pm

    John K said...

    I was glad to see you mention “Home Alone” without being even a little ironic. “Home Alone” has gotten a lot of hate over the years, but it’s a legitimately good movie, and I’m happy that someone recognizes that.

    The score is probably in the top five of John Williams’ best work. And maybe it’s an age thing, but I find that the ending “gets to me” more and more with each passing year.

  • 35 12-23-2008 at 10:08 pm

    southpaw said...

    Definitely tops on the Christmas List. My list would include all of those (though a change in the order of course). Glad to see obscure ones like Die Hard and especially Gremlins on there. One one my favorite Goldsmith. Strange that a movie that use to give me nightmares as a kid has become one of my top Christmas movies of all time.
    A very nostalgic list. Great job!

  • 36 12-23-2008 at 10:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    John K: Absolutely, I can’t imagine ever thinking the “Home Alone” flicks to be anything other than perfect whimsy. They work brilliantly, and yes, Williams’ score is in his top tier.

  • 37 12-23-2008 at 10:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Speaking of scores, anyone else ever catch themselves attributing the “Gremlins” score to Danny Elfman rather than Jerry Goldsmith?

  • 38 12-24-2008 at 5:44 am

    Chris said...

    On that note: a merry Christmas to Kris, Guy, John, Blake, Brian & Gerard and all the readers of this site!

  • 39 12-24-2008 at 9:49 am

    Zac said...

    I know it’s only fleetingly referenced at the beginning, but I have Almost Famous: Untitled on my Christmas movie list.

    The others:
    Die Hard
    National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
    Love Actually
    Die Hard 2: Die Harder
    In America
    Bad(der) Santa ( I want to get the director’s cut, but it’s never in stock at my local BB.)

  • 40 12-24-2008 at 2:01 pm

    just me said...

    I always see both Home Alones, E.T., Gremlims I/II and The Goonies at Christmas.Oh, and my mother LOVED that Sarah Jessica Parker/Rachel McAdams movie from 2/3 years ago.

  • 41 12-24-2008 at 2:07 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “The Family Stone.” You know, I love that film. It was on my top 10 list that year, actually — a weak year, but I found it to be a very smart script. Craig T. Nelson was also fantastic. Caught a lot of grief for it, but oh well — I loved it. That said, I haven’t watched it in a few years.

  • 42 1-07-2009 at 10:09 am

    coffee buzz said...

    die hard = best Christmas movie ever

  • 43 12-29-2009 at 4:04 am

    Sylva said...

    The Family Man. Tea Leoni’s luminous performance remains one of the unsung great works from an actress from this past decade…

  • 44 12-29-2009 at 8:59 pm

    Adrianna said...

    “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. As JC says, good for anytime between Hallowe’en and Christmas

    Both Hugh Grant Christmas movies, “About a Boy” and “Love Actually”

    “The Holiday” (Kate Winslet)

    Old favorites: “A Christmas Carol” (both Alistar Sim and Mr. Magoo), “White Christmas/Holiday Inn”, “Miracle on 34th Street” (Natalie Wood)

  • 45 11-29-2010 at 12:48 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Glad to see Die Hard so high on the list (actually, nice to see it on there at all). You listed several others I would include on my own list, though I’d also add The Royal Tenenbaums.

  • 46 12-11-2010 at 3:21 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Some great choices, though I’d also add The Royal Tenenbaums and The Godfather, among others.

  • 47 12-11-2010 at 5:09 pm

    Leone said...

    Best Christmas Movie Ever: THE REF

  • 48 12-11-2010 at 5:35 pm

    Hans said...

    I’m so glad you have HA2 over original. Don’t get me wrong, both are classics, but I oddly grew up with the sequel in the video cabinet and the original only on TV, and when Kevin McAllister takes a Christmas-filled tour of NYC, it always felt like I was there right alongside for the ride. I remember being surprised, floored even, when I was older to find out that HA2 had been not-so-warmly received by critics.

  • 49 12-25-2010 at 8:51 pm

    marlen said...

    Meet Me in St Louis…watch it every year, just a fun and beautiful-looking film featuring Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas, Boy Next Door & Trolley Song