The Best Holiday Films to Watch With the Fam
With the holidays fast approaching, it's a great time to queue up some of the season's best-loved movie classics. The holiday movie genre never suffers a slump — there is always a glut of seasonal films released each year in theaters and on television. With so many holiday films to choose from, however, it’s sometimes hard to tell which will hold the interest of the entire family and which will become annual favorites.
We'd like to think we've taken out some of the guesswork with our list of classic holiday movies for your family. Some are old and some are new, but all stand a serious chance of being loved generation after generation.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
This Frank Capra–directed classic is the bellwether by which all holiday movies are made, and 70-plus years after its release, “It's A Wonderful Life” is the “Citizen Kane” of the genre. The story follows a suicidal man named George Bailey, played by the legendary James Stewart, who decides to end it all on a snowy Christmas Eve after losing his life's savings. His attempt is thwarted by an angel who will win his wings if he gets Bailey to appreciate the life he has.
Ironically, the film didn't do well at the box office when it was first released, and it was nearly forgotten about — so much so, that its copyright lapsed by 1974, and the movie was in the public domain. This was a boon for networks and local affiliates who needed cheap holiday programming. The film showed on repeat on many stations over the next 20 years. By 1994, the free ride was over, but the movie was finally recognized as a classic, and today, it's not only one of the best holiday movies of all time, but one of the best films ever made. Its simple message of kindness, love and holding on in the face of adversity still resonates.
A Christmas Story (1983)
“A Christmas Story” had a similar beginning to that of “It's A Wonderful Life” — it, too, had a short run in theaters, disappearing within few weeks of its initial 1983 release. But in the years since its debut, it has become such a staple during the holidays that TNT runs the movie on a 24-hour loop every Christmas.
The story takes place in 1940 in in the fictional town of Hohman, Ind., and revolves around nine-year-old Ralphie's quest to get his dream Christmas gift: a Red Ryder BB gun. Of course, there are obstacles that the young boy must face in making this dream come true, and he fears he may never see his beloved BB gun. Lucky for him, Santa may have a thing or two up his sleeve.
A Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
“A Miracle on 34th Street” is as much a classic as “It's A Wonderful Life,” and like its contemporary, continues to capture the hearts and minds of audiences some 70-plus years later. The film follows a skeptical mother (Maureen O'Hara) who raises her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), not to believe in Santa Claus. They are both put to the test when they intersect with the real thing (Edmund Gwenn) working at New York City’s Macy’s department store.
After a jealous fellow employee frames old St. Nick for an assault he didn't commit, Kringle faces time in a mental hospital. Mother and daughter, along with their lawyer neighbor, attempt to defend Santa's existence in a court of law. “A Miracle on 34th Street” continues to transcend the genre with its universal themes of generosity and faith, which never go out of style.
What if one of Santa's elves was adopted? That's the question “Elf” attempts to answer, as Buddy (played by Will Ferrell) has grown to realize he is indeed human and leaves the comfort of Santa and his elf brethren at the North Pole in search of his birth father (Ed Asner) in New York City.
As an elf in the Big Apple, clad in tights and a green velvet suit, you guessed it — hilarity ensues. But it's not all slapstick with no message. “Elf” offers audiences a touching look at abandonment, love and what's at the root of the real spirit of Christmas: family.
Home Alone (1990)
How could the McCallister family forget young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) at home in their mad dash to go on holiday to France? This John Hughes–directed movie was an instant classic, thanks in large part to the charm and acting chops of Culkin. His character has to fend for himself all alone in the family home and against two bumbling burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) that are casing homes in his suburban Chicago neighborhood.
At times, the film has a good amount of slapstick, and the premise of a young boy left behind may sound scary and uncomfortable on paper, but Culkin is adorable, and it looks like Kevin is having fun making the best of a bad holiday situation.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
The animation team of Rankin/Bass released 19 Christmas specials, but the one that became a cultural milestone is the story of a misfit reindeer with a bright red nose who wasn't readily accepted by his peers. Rudolph and his friend, Herbie, an elf who has a dream of becoming a dentist, leave the North Pole to fight the Abominable Snowman and crash land into an island of misfit toys while on their journey, which, at its core, is about self-love and accepting who you are for all your flaws.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has aired every holiday season since its release in 1964 and holds the record for the longest continuously running Christmas TV special in history. It's such a big part of the cultural lexicon that postage stamps featuring Rudolph were issued by the postal service in 2014!
Do not expose a gremlin to bright lights, which could kill it. Do not let it get wet, and never, ever feed it after midnight. These are the rules of owning a gremlin which most people remember. But do you remember the movie took place at Christmas?
While “Gremlins” could, in theory, be set during any other time of the year, it has the holiday season written all over it, from the Christmas lights and carolers on down to the fact that it is pretty much an homage to “It's A Wonderful Life.” There's considerable dark humor to the gremlins' terrorizing of the town, but they aren't the only problem. The town’s destruction had been set in motion by greedy bankers, much like in — you guessed it — “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Also, in a kinder, gentler nod to the earlier film, “Gremlins” also emphasizes the importance of family. And what ’80s kid did not want a Mogwai of their very own?
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Christmas is made for dysfunctional get-togethers, and “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation” takes a loving, hilarious look at all things that can go wrong (and right) in making the holiday season special.
Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold attempts to create the perfect Christmas vibe for his family in the form of 25,000 lights, too many relatives and oversized gifts with disastrous results. John Hughes also wrote the screenplay for this guilty pleasure, and the cult classic continues to resonate with everyone who spends the holidays with family.
A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
A movie that works for two holidays, Halloween and Christmas, this stop-motion classic has just turned 25 and is more popular than ever. The Henry Sellick stop-motion animated film tells the story of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweentown who is bored with scaring people and finds a door to Christmastown. He kidnaps Santa and causes chaos in all the holiday towns as a result.
With its memorable Danny Elfman soundtrack and awe-inspiring animation, “A Nightmare Before Christmas” endures. An interesting side-note: Story creator Tim Burton said the Christmas specials from Rankin/Bass were hugely influential on “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and said that he had hoped it would be an annual holiday staple. It looks like he got his wish!
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
What is the true meaning of Christmas? That is the question that plagues melancholy "Peanuts" character Charlie Brown throughout “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” as he attempts to find happiness in the holiday. His friend, Lucy Van Pelt, suggests he direct the Christmas play, and that's where he eventually finds the holiday’s true meaning via friendship, acceptance and love.
And let's not forget the tree — the scrawny stick with one bulb hanging from it that came to be the voluminous physical manifestation of the spirit of Christmas. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was so popular, it affected the sales of aluminum Christmas trees permanently, as viewers refused to get fake trees in the years following its initial airing.
There have been many versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, from animated films to musical movies and from theatrical versions to those that only aired on TV. But the version released in 1988 was updated for modern audiences to features a workaholic television executive (played by everybody’s favorite funnyman Bill Murray) tasked with producing a live Christmas Eve broadcast of “A Christmas Carol,” and managing to miss the point of it entirely.
Like every Scrooge before him, he’s visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who teach him an invaluable lesson. “Scrooged” is set apart from the other adaptations in that it plays for laughs, but its original message remains intact.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Dr. Seuss' Grinch character has, like Scrooge before him, spawned several remakes, but the oldest version of his story remains the best. Seuss and Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones (of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Road Runner fame) had teamed up once before, in World War II on Warner Bros.’ Private Snafu training cartoons.
The added addition of Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) as the voice of the Grinch adds to the character's gleeful depravity, which ceases only when he hears the joyous caroling of the Whos, who show him the spirit of Christmas does not depend on material things.
An American Tail (1986)
Hanukkah is an underrepresented holiday in film and television, but there are still some classics worth checking out. “An American Tail” follows a young mouse, Fievel Mousekevitz (replete with a blue hat, a Hanukkah gift from his father) and his family as they emigrate to the U.S. to escape anti-Jewish riots by the Cossacks, realized here as an army of cats.
Once the family gets to New York City, Fievel gets separated from his family and is helped in finding them by mice of both Irish and Italian descent. “An American Tail” is a sweet story of immigration and the American dream, which continues to resonate to this day.
Frosty The Snowman (1969)
Another Rankin/Bass–produced Christmas special, “Frosty the Snowman” involves a friendly snowman (voiced by comedian Jimmy Durante) that is transformed into a living being by a magic hat.
When Frosty is in danger of melting, the neighborhood kids attempt to spirit him away to the North Pole before he melts, but he sacrifices himself for them instead. But all is not lost, as Santa explains, Frosty will come back once again when the temperature drops.
The Polar Express (2004)
Like many before him, Billy (Hayden McFarland) is struggling to believe in Santa, but he gets a second chance at it when he's visited by a magical train and its conductor (voiced by Tom Hanks) in the middle of the night. The train promises to take him, and others like him, to the North Pole for a visit with Santa himself.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film received tepid reviews upon release but is now seen as a true holiday classic. It’s also based on Chris Van Allsburg's modern holiday novel of the same name.
The Hebrew Hammer (2003)
Hanukkah is in jeopardy, and there’s only one way to save it — with the help of tough-as-nails crimefighter Mordechai Carver, aka the “Hebrew Hammer.”
Made in the style of Austin Powers and ’70s Blaxploitation films, the Hammer (played by Adam Goldberg) joins forces with his friend Mohammed, head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, to topple Santa’s evil son (played by Andy Dick) to save Hanukkah and Kwanzaa for future generations of kids.
Love Actually (2003)
It’s pretty much impossible to get Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” song out of your head after seeing this movie, but why would you want to? This feel-good movie about love and relationships will put everyone in the holiday spirit.
While it wasn’t the biggest hit at the box office, network television and Netflix has made it so easy to watch that it’s the gift that keeps on giving every holiday season for anyone who appreciates a good rom-com.