Christmas is a time marked by tradition. For every family that celebrates the rituals are different, yet some things are close to universal: a tree strung in lights and ornaments; a house shining bright; and perhaps a candle in every window. Plus, there are the movies.
Christmas movies are as ubiquitous as ornaments these days, with streaming services like Netflix turning them into a virtual cottage industry. However, we all have our own personal favorites that tend to be made of longer lasting stuff–the kind that are almost their own ritual we revisit every new Yuletide season.
Below our staff has offered some of their own personal favorites that are perhaps largely off the more beaten track that defines the obvious classics… but each offers their own kind of Christmas magic every December.
It’s not Christmas until I watch… Scrooged (1988)
It is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Your life might just depend on it. Scrooged! is a perfect way for any TV junkie to open the season. Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, the youngest network president in the medium’s history. He’s spent so much time in front of the small screen, his most cherished memories are the opening credits of his favorite shows. Given the chance, he will spend the next 15 years on his ass watching more.
“Garden slugs got more out of life than you,” he is told, and it’s a fear we can all relate to. But one fateful night, he finds his heart—something a disgruntled, shotgun-wielding ex-employee keeps missing between reloads—and changes the channel. And it all begins with one amazing cab ride.
Played by either David Johansen or his alter-ego Buster Poindexter, New York City’s Ghost of Christmas Past is a doll of a cabbie who knows all the quickest routes to redemption. He doesn’t just drop you at the cross-streets, but stops on your floor, as long as the meter’s running. Johansen and Carole Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present capture the excitement of the dark eve before the happy holiday in a way that feels like I’m opening the perfect hastily-wrapped gag gift. They steal this movie like they’re mugging a department store Santa for his charity kettle.
This is not an easy task when it’s Murray playing the scrooge as everyman, hooked on the lowest common denominator. He’s the worst of the worst, at the bottom of his emotional barrel, selling his soul for ratings, and looking the other way while they do it. In the end, the lesson is ambiguously universal, and conditionally uplifting: “You can always change tomorrow if you want to.” – Tony Sokol
It’s not Christmas until I watch… National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Sorry to say that I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to Christmas movies. I enjoy the holiday and time of year just fine. Who doesn’t appreciate fresh snow, giving gifts, and general holiday cheer? But most Christmas films are a bit too insistent on hammering the twee joy of those concepts home, and my body just naturally rejects them. Who are you to say that I should enjoy Christmas, Elf? Let me do my own thing! Am I being detained? AM I BEING DETAINED???
Still, there is a movie that I feel compelled to kick off the holiday season with every year. And that’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. National Lampoon’s third entry into its Chevy Chase-starring Vacation franchise checks all the boxes one would want from a Christmas movie. It’s reliably funny, reasonably inoffensive, unapologetically Christmas-y, and it’s always accessible on a streaming service, cable channel, or a warped VHS tape in someone’s basement.
Most importantly, it’s the one Christmas movie that seemingly everyone in my life can agree on. From my parents to my brother to my spouse to my in-laws to my friends, everyone seems down to watch Christmas Vacation precisely one (1) time per year—no more, no less. And when that day comes, it’s a treat to laugh at the exact same jokes in the exact same way that I’ve done for decades. – Alec Bojalad
It’s not Christmas until I watch… A Christmas Story (1983)
Believe it or not, there was a time when A Christmas Story was not an undisputed holiday classic or an inescapable, nonstop, unavoidable presence on TV (depending on who you ask… and for the record, I am firmly in the former camp). In fact, if you’re an ‘80s or ‘90s kid, A Christmas Story was very much the “cool” Christmas flick to watch. In those days, the movie in endless rotation on broadcast TV and basic cable was It’s A Wonderful Life, which every adult was sick to death of and no kid would bother to watch (it’s been fun watching the cultural pendulum rightfully swing back in favor of It’s A Wonderful Life in recent years, in part because of its relative scarcity, but I digress).
A Christmas Story was a movie that maybe you caught in bits and pieces on HBO when you were home sick from school. Here was a film that told a truly timeless story that any kid could relate to: one of parents who don’t understand that only a child can know the true, greedily commercial meaning of Christmas. A movie that’s knowing but never cynical, that features a rousing underdog fight scene, and portrays adults as the well-meaning but ultimately clueless dopes every kid knows them to be. Except, of course, when they’re not clueless at all.
I loved (and still love) A Christmas Story for all of those reasons, but it’s also a little more personal for me. I was about Ralphie’s age when I first saw it, and the movie’s 1940 setting always felt weirdly natural to me. My father was born in 1937, so at an early age I inherited his love of stuff from that era like old radio dramas, movie serials, and vintage toys. My dad loved A Christmas Story in part because he delighted in how perfectly it recreated the decade he had his own favorite Christmases, and also because, cynics be damned, it’s just a wonderfully crafted film. I can’t watch A Christmas Story without being transported back to my own childhood, and it will always remind me of my dad. – Mike Cecchini
It’s not Christmas until I watch… Little Women (1994)
When Columbia Pictures’ executive class circa 1994—which is to say a group of all men—were rustled into an early screening of Gillian Armstrong’s new adaptation of Little Women, they were grumbling among themselves. According to the director, they even lamented they had to watch “this little girl’s film.” Yet after viewing that rough cut, they were so floored that they offered Armstrong more money for additional on-location photography and for a lusher musical score—the latter of which became a timeless and incredibly Christmas-y masterpiece by composer Thomas Newman. To this day, Armstrong marvels that she got the resources to finish what became a classic because the story of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War made “that room full of men cry.”
Nearly 30 years later, Armstrong’s Little Women still remains the best adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, and one that will make you cry, sure, but also laugh, reminisce, and believe in the Spirit of Christmas despite being viewed through a 150-year-old prism. While the film tracks several crucial wonder years in the lives of the March Sisters, Jo (Winona Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvaredo), Beth (Claire Danes), and Amy (first Kirsten Dunst and later Samantha Mathis), much of the film is built around a genuine Yuletide warmth that is impossible to ignore each December. Whereas previous adaptations (all directed by men, by the by) could be cloying or saccharine in its treatment of the material, there is a natural affection and self-awareness to Armstrong’s intimate epic, which tracks childhood domesticity and travails with all the grandeur of an actual war picture.
The ensemble assembled is also an embarrassment of riches, with Ryder still capturing Jo’s defiant joie de vivre better than any actor before or since, and Dunst easily being the best childhood Amy by simple virtue of being the first child actor (and a terrific one to boot) cast in the role. Beyond the sisters though, Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, and an unusually ebullient Christian Bale as Laurie, the boy next door, do some of their best work with a slightly understated grace.
The reason this movie became such a touchstone for children of the ‘90s, myself included, was because of the way the film captures the sentimentality, as well as the bitterness, of an adolescent experience that is as true for children of the 1860s as it is in the 2020s. The reason it is a great Christmas movie is because it invites you into the March family’s home for candlelit parties and piano recitals that make you laugh, and cry, over the ghosts of Christmases Past, and the ones who will haunt the Yuletides Yet to Come. – David Crow
It’s not Christmas until I watch… Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Returns is a deliciously mean Christmas treat from director Tim Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters. Killer clowns pop out of giant presents to spray the streets with bullets, an army of cute little penguins march into the town square armed with rocket launchers, the city’s children are kidnapped and caged like animals, and Batman spends Christmas Eve alone after watching the woman he loves commit murder-suicide (Selina’s fine in the end though). It’s easy to see why parents were so shocked by this “superhero” film back in 1992.
Burton’s second Gotham outing plays less like your standard comic book sequel and way more like a monster movie, anchored by a truly terrifying performance by Danny DeVito as the grotesque Oswald Cobblepot, flippers and all. And if scaring children in theaters weren’t enough, there’s also the matter of Michelle Pfeiffer’s… suggestive performance as Catwoman, which was considered too risqué for the target audience back then and wouldn’t make it into an MCU movie now.
That’s not to say there isn’t any holiday cheer in the only live-action Batman movie set during Christmas. There are tree lightings and toys, and Santas galore, but in this movie they all blow up or burn. Thirty years later, it still puts a smile on my face. – John Saavedra
It’s Not Christmas until I watch… A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
It’s never been about Christmas movies for me. I love the holiday and the season, and I like a bunch of holiday movies just fine, but I don’t seek them out to get me in the seasonal spirit (same thing with Halloween: I watch horror movies year-round, so October is no different than any other month).
No, for me, it’s always been about the TV specials: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town … when I was a very small child, their annual appearance on television was the signal to me that Christmas was coming. And the one special out of all of them that touched me the most—and still moves me to this day, now that I’m much, much older—is A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The first animated TV special based on Charles M. Schulz’s legendary Peanuts comic strip, it remains one of the most iconic holiday staples of all time. Its simple premise—Charlie Brown is depressed over the commercialization of Christmas and yearns to find the holiday’s true meaning—is beautifully rendered by Schulz’s witty script, Vince Guaraldi’s stirring, jazzy music, Bill Melendez’s uncluttered direction, and the wonderful cast of child voice actors. I’m not religious at all, yet the show’s heartfelt yearning for spirituality and kindness still rings true, now, it seems, more than ever. – Don Kaye
It’s Not Christmas until I watch… Gremlins (1984)
The only thing I love more than Christmas is to see a lovely fictional Christmas turn to complete shit. As long as it’s not me burning the roast, forgetting to defrost the prawns, or leaving the price tag on my family’s gifts, and it’s someone else messing things up for a change, I’m all for it. There are a fair few excellent Christmas movies that do the job (surely someone will have mentioned Bad Santa or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang somewhere on this list), but nothing beats Gremlins for pure holiday carnage in my eyes.
A middle-aged man takes on a new family pet and his large son marvels at its cuteness but is completely unable to handle basic rules for its care. Tale as old as time, but then a new race of awful creatures emerges from their casual mistakes and a small town Christmas is ruined. One of them goes in a blender. One of them explodes in a microwave. One of them has a white shock of hair so you can tell it’s the Really Bad One. They kill a mean old lady. They eat like demonic goblins. We stop everything to hear a monologue about a decaying corpse in a chimney. That is cinema to me. Kirsten Howard
It’s not Christmas until I watch… Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Does Shane Black make Christmas movies? Once asked why many of his films, including Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3, are all set at Christmas time, the writer/director responded, “If you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience. There’s something at Christmas that unites everybody and it already sets a stage within the stage, that wherever you are, you’re experiencing this world together.”
In the case of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the Christmas-time setting adds an extra layer of sunny artifice to the Hollywood-set noir tale about powerful men treating women as disposable. Classic holiday stuff!
Okay, so not exactly a Christmas movie. However, why does a movie need to be explicitly about Christmas to evoke feelings that you associate with the holiday? And why do the feelings that I associate with Christmas have to be the same ones that are universally accepted? The reason I come back to Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang during the holidays is that I find it to be an immensely engaging hangout movie, featuring misfits like Robert Downey Jr.’s petty thief turned wannabe actor, Val Kilmer’s above-it-all, no-nonsense P.I., “Gay” Perry van Shrike, and Michelle Mongahan’s girl-next-door turned L.A. burnout.
Downey and Kilmer in particular have crackling chemistry, making Black’s dialogue sing like the snarkiest Christmas carol that you’ve ever heard. There’s something about this trio coming together to solve a classic hardboiled mystery that reminds me of the family that we perhaps begrudgingly humor around the holidays and the found family that we excitedly build new traditions with. It also reminds me that sometimes there are more complicated things swirling around in folks’ heads during the season than just visions of sugar plums. Christmas lights don’t just automatically erase darkness, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang recognizes that.
I’m also particularly fond of this film because it was the first time I really took notice of Downey. I instantly became a super-fan and was beyond thrilled a few years later when news broke that he was cast as Iron Man. Watching Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang always reminds me that I figuratively bought Downey stock right as it was back on the rise! If you’re like me and like your holiday watches to be a little less on-the-nose, a Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang/Iron Man 3 double feature is the perfect way to unwind on a cold December evening. – Nick Harley
It’s Not Christmas until I watch… Whatever This Year’s Terrible Netflix Christmas Movie Is
Here’s what you do: Clear everybody out of the house (you don’t want witnesses), sit on the floor inside a rudimentary fort of gift wrap, scissors, Sellotape (multiple rolls, because some will be lost), and the unique presents (15 bottles of Baylis & Harding Sweet Mandarin and Grapefruit bubble bath) that you’ve lovingly selected for your family. Switch on Netflix and pour yourself a dur-ink.
Ideally, you won’t need to choose this movie; it will simply rise towards you like Excalibur in the lake. This movie will be set at Christmas. This movie will feature a Golden Retriever. This movie’s credits will roll over an exclusive song by Jessica Simpson and/or The Chipmunks. These are the only criteria.It’s important to clarify that you will not be watching the movie, you’ll simply be breathing the same air as it. Your verbs are only to wrap and to drink. You wrap, you drink, you wrap, you drink, and you look up occasionally when you think you hear the voice of Edward James Olmos. It will not be the voice of Edward James Olmos. Merry Christmas. – Louisa Mellor