The 20 Best Christmas Movies of All Time
Now that November has passed and the holiday season is finally upon us, it’s socially acceptable to put up your Christmas tree, string your house with lights, and turn on your favorite holiday flicks as you snuggle up next to the fireplace. Whether or not you believe in Santa Claus, the holiday season will make you wish you did.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” sang Andy Williams, and with so many Christmas movies to choose from, it sure does feel special. With serious dramas, period pieces, and comedies galore, there’s enough holiday cheer to go around. So to get you in the holiday spirit, we’ve put a list together of the best Christmas films sure to get you in the festive spirit.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Probably the most famous Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life is often heralded as one of the greatest Christmas films of all time, and for good reason. The story follows George Bailey (James Stewart, Rear Window), a man down-on-his-luck on Christmas Eve who attempts suicide only to be given a second chance by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers, Shadow of a Doubt), who shows Bailey what the town of Bedford Falls would have been like without him.
A heartwarming tale of goodwill and generosity, It’s a Wonderful Life really lives up to its title, forcing Bailey, and in turn, us, to realize how blessed his life really is and how much he means to his friends and family. While this one is a more traditional Christmas tale, don’t let the old black and white scare you, it’s a classic for a reason and will have you bawling near the end when Bailey realizes he is truly the “richest man in town.”
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
It wouldn’t be Christmas without the Griswolds! John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) brings us one of the most hysterical Christmas classics with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase (Fletch) stars as the festive obsessed Clark Griswold who’s determined to capture the perfect Christmas with his family, alongside Beverly D’Angelo (American History X) as his wife, Ellen, and Randy Quaid (Independence Day) as crazy Cousin Eddie, who clearly needs help.
Christmas Vacation reminds us that we’re all in misery during the holidays by giving us a complex and frustrating family dynamic that everyone can relate to on some level. This one is a bit wacky, but that’s really part of its charm. Never failing to disappoint, Clark Griswold will stop at nothing to ensure this is the best Christmas in the history of all Christmases.
3. Elf (2003)
Maybe the most famous Christmas movie of modern times, Elf follows Buddy (Will Ferrell, Step-Brothers), a human who lives with the North Pole elves only to realize he isn’t an elf at all. As he travels to New York City in search of his real father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan, The Godfather), he not only meets his new family but also falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel, New Girl), a Gimbles worker who isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about Christmas as he is.
Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) probably didn’t realize how important to the holiday season his quirky little Christmas comedy would become, but it’s one of the greatest for a reason. Of course, Ferrell steals the show with his performance which he has been unable to top ever since. Thanks, Buddy!
4. A Christmas Caroll (1938)
While this may not be the most faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novella, the 1938 A Christmas Carol still holds the core message of his story tight. Reginald Owen (The Miniver Story) is the original Ebenezar Scrooge, a man haunted by his own selfishness who is visited by three spirits, and the ghost of his old business partner Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll, North by Northwest), who attempt to turn him from his wicked ways.
Clocking in at slightly over an hour, A Christmas Carol reminds us that peace and goodwill towards all men are to be cherished above any other worldly possessions. Scrooge’s slow turn from hating the Christmas season to embracing it is a welcome one that will warm your heart just in time for December 25.
5. Love Actually (2003)
A Richard Curtis (About Time) masterpiece, Love Actually is actually pretty great. Set mostly in London, this Christmas-themed romantic comedy follows 10 (yes, 10) separate love stories – many of which are interlinked – that span across the five weeks leading up until Christmas, with an epilogue that takes place a month later. If you’re looking for some romance leading up to December 25, look no further than this one.
With a stunning cast, including Hugh Grant (Notting Hill), Liam Neeson (Taken), Alan Rickman (Die Hard), Emma Thompson (Cruella), Kiera Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Bill Nighy (About Time) among others, there’s a lot going on here, but it’s all worth it in the end. Plus, there’s a made-for-TV short film sequel called Red Nose Day Actually, which is also pretty great!
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6. Home Alone (1992)
While there are some bad sequels (and at least one good one), the original Home Alone will forever be a holiday classic. Macaulay Culkin (Richie Rich) is at his absolute peak here as Kevin McCallister. Left home alone after his family forgets him on their Christmas vacation (that must’ve cost an arm and leg), McCallister is forced to defend his home from two criminals out to rob him.
As Kevin valiantly defends his home from Harry (Joe Pesci, My Cousin Vinny) and Marv (Daniel Stern, Dilbert), he also comes face-to-face with the mysterious loner Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom, The Last Temptation of Christ), who might not be quite as bad as everyone thought. Also, McCallister’s homemade traps are ridiculously cool!
Home Alone may be every parent’s worst nightmare, but it’s every child’s dream.
7. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Another John Hughes holiday classic (is he secretly Father Christmas?), Miracle on 34th Street is a remake of the 1947 film of the same name that follows a lawyer, Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott, Law & Order), and a young girl, Susan Walker (Mars Wilson, Mrs. Doubtfire), as they attempt to prove that a strange old man (Richard Attenborough, Jurassic Park) is actually Santa Claus himself!
This New York-based Christmas tale is just as delightful as the original, with wonderful performances, including Elizabeth Perkins’ (About Last Night) role as Dorey Walker, the director of special events at the fictitious Cole’s department store (since Macy’s refused to sign-on). Hughes once again continues to wow holiday audiences everywhere!
Miracle on 34th Street has proven itself to be a tasteful remake of a beloved tale that can only be told once a year.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
A half-Halloween, half-Christmas feature, this Tim Burton (Batman Returns) produced animated dark fantasy musical (say that three times fast) is everything your goth sister and emo brother would love during the traditionally colorful holiday season. Jack Skeleton (Chris Sarandon, speaking voice, Danny Elfman, singing voice), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town, where he decides to be the famed “Sandy Claws.”
What makes this one so unique, besides the stop-motion animation, is the unique blend of horror, fantasy, and holiday spirit. Jack’s desire to take a step back from Halloween Town in favor of the joy that Christmas brings is an interesting look at the holiday from an undead perspective. Plus, the musical numbers are to die for!
The Nightmare Before Christmas is an excellent Christmas film that will keep everyone glued to your TV screen.
9. The Santa Claus Trilogy (1994, 2002, and 2006)
Before Tim Allen (Toy Story) was Buzz Lightyear, he was Santa Claus. In The Santa Clause, after accidentally killing Santa, Scott Calvin slowly becomes Father Christmas himself. While it may look from the outside like he’s having a mental breakdown, inwardly he’s becoming a much jollier man, although the threat of losing his son hangs in the background.
The sequels are just as exciting, with The Santa Clause 2 introducing Mrs. Clause and forcing Calvin to be married before Christmas or risk losing his position as Santa. Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost) stars here as Charlie’s Principal Carol Newman and Santa’s love interest, and as always, is on point. The third film, The Escape Clause, sees Jack Frost (Martin Short, Only Murders in the Building) try and take the position of Santa for himself.
The Santa Clause trilogy is a lot of family fun, which is why it tends to be marathoned every holiday season.
10. Scrooged (1988)
Speaking of A Christmas Carol, Billy Murray (Ghostbusters) stars as Frank Cross in this cracked-out modernized retelling of Dickens’ classic carol. Here, Murray is a selfish television producer in New York City who has completely lost his Christmas spirit, only for three wacky holiday ghosts to appear and try to change his mind. This one gets really weird, folks, but it’s a blast the whole way through.
Scrooged was definitely ahead of its time and director Richard Donner (Superman) clearly put his all into the production. In Murray’s first role since the overwhelming success of Ghostbusters, he knocks it out of the park; you’d never even know that he took four years off acting! But what really sells this one is Cross’ fondness for his assistant’s young son, a Tiny Tim stand-in whose muteness quickly wins our hearts.
Scrooged might be one of the most oddball films on this list, but it’s a must-see for fans of Christmas or Billy Murray.
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11. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) really outdid himself with his live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Starring Jim Carrey (The Truman Show) in the titular role, this film is a masterpiece set in the truly odd-looking town of Whoville (the worldbuilding here is fantastic). Carrey’s Grinch quickly became the standard for the green hairball, making this Seussian creature the role he was clearly born to play.
As the Grinch’s twisted past is slowly unraveled by the innocent Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen, Gossip Girl) and he comes to terms with his own hatred for the holiday festivities, the Grinch begins to wonder if there’s more to Christmas than what comes from the store. And since you probably already know the rest, let’s just say that this one is absolutely the best version of Seuss’ story out there.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a hilarious joyride through the town of Whoville that will remind you what Christmas really is about.
12. The Family Man (2000)
A strange combination of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, this Nicholas Cage (Con Air) led film is a must-see for those who wish to jump into the holiday spirit this December. The story follows high-flying Wall Street executive Jack Campbell (Cage) who wakes up one morning to find himself in a world where he married his college girlfriend Kate (Tia Leoni, Madam Secretary), had two kids, a dog, a mortgage, and now works as a tire fitter at his father-in-laws business.
Possibly one of the most underrated Christmas movies, The Family Man is almost an inverse of George Bailey’s struggle from It’s a Wonderful Life. While Bailey attempts to escape his life, filled with family and friends, Campbell actually finds it in the fantasy, learning that the best things in life don’t come from his wallet or bank account, but from his potential family.
The Family Man is almost a cautionary tale, but one that celebrates the Christmas spirit like none other.
13. Jingle All the Way (1996)
The ultimate last-minute Christmas shopping extravaganza, Jingle All the Way is one of those Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator) comedies that’s a little on the cheesy side but still worth a look. As Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) searches for a new Turbo-Man action figure (“it’s Turbo time!”) for his son Jamie (Jake Lloyd, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace), a host of trouble awaits him on Christmas Eve.
As Langston encounters Santa conmen, Twin Cities police officers, a reindeer named Ted, and an almost postal postman played by Sinbad (Good Burger), he soon realizes that the gift his son really wants is his father’s time and affection. Jingle All the Way is hysterical and will have you laughing so hard at times that you’ll cry. Well, you’ll be laughing at least.
14. The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
Netflix’s very own action-packed Christmas classic, The Christmas Chronicles is a fun and moving story about two estranged siblings on the first Christmas after the death of their father, who discover that Santa Claus (Kurt Russell, Tombstone) is real. Not only that, but they learn that Santa actually needs their help! Well, actually, it’s kind of their fault that he needs their help in the first place, but nevertheless, it’s a magical time.
As Kate (Darby Camp, Big Little Lies) and Teddy (Judah Lewis, The Babysitter) work together to track down Santa’s elves, reindeer, and bag of presents, they grow closer to not only saving the holiday but their own family as well. But regardless of how this one ends, Christmas wouldn’t be saved for long as The Christmas Chronicles 2 was released last year to the excitement of fans.
15. White Christmas (1954)
It wouldn’t be Christmas without the vocal talents of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, and thus it wouldn’t be Christmas without the musical White Christmas. These four legends star in this wonderful tale about two soldiers-turned-performers (Crosby and Kaye) who slowly fall in love with a sister act and team with them to save the failing Vermont inn of their former Commanding General.
A Christmas miracle, White Christmas is an exciting number that will make you yearn for the days of Old Hollywood. A newer rendition of the title song is performed by Bing Crosby, appearing only eight years prior in the somewhat-problematic Holiday Inn, though this rendition is a much deeper, more heartfelt, tune.
White Christmas is the kind of Christmas musical you quickly grow to love and is a fanciful tale of love and charity.
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16. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Everyone loves A Charlie Brown Christmas. If there’s one thing the classic Peanut gang can do, it’s make a good holiday-themed special. If their Halloween and Thanksgiving features are pop culture icons, then their Christmas special is the holy grail. At just over 25 minutes, there is absolutely no excuse for this one not to end up on your holiday watchlist this year. And yes, it’s that good.
As Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) struggles to find joy in the holidays, Lucy (Tracy Stratford) encourages him to direct a neighborhood Christmas play, only to be mocked after finding the smallest and most pathetic-looking Christmas tree. Here, Linus (Chris Shea) speaks to the true meaning of Christmas and the birth of Christ, as they all band together to celebrate.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is absolutely a must watch this holiday season.
17. Fred Claus (2007)
Did you know that Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti, Big Fat Liar) had a younger brother? Meet Fred (Vince Vaughn, Dodgeball), a repo agent in Chicago who hates the entire holiday season because his brother, Nick, is the one always in the spotlight. After some money (and personal) troubles of his own, Fred decides to spend the holidays at the North Pole with his brother and their family, only for a host of problems to be heaped upon them.
With the looming threat of the efficiency expert Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey, Baby Driver) hanging over Santa’s head, Fred cranks the North Pole up to 11 as he slowly starts to destroy the assembly line his brother created. There’s a lot of heart here too. Fred’s young orphan friend Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson, 30 Rock) and girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) bring a lot of touching moments to an otherwise zany picture.
Fred Claus is great. The brotherly banter between Fred and Nick really sells it, with lots of laughs and drama to boot.
18. A Christmas Story (1983)
Often considered one of the great Christmas films, with countless TV marathons to its name, A Christmas Story has been beloved by many since its release, reminding us of simpler times. Set in 1940s America, a young boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, Death Valley) does his best to convince his parents, teachers, and even Santa that a Red Rider BB gun is the best possible gift he could receive for Christmas.
There are a lot of little Christmas traditions and memorabilia that resulted from A Christmas Story, such as the infamous leg lamp, but what we love most about this festive period piece is the various vignetted stories that result (especially involving licking frozen poles). Oh, and don’t forget about the Lifebuoy soap.
A Christmas Story is simply that, but it’s a classic so don’t forget to give it a whirl this festive season.
19. Four Christmases (2008)
Another Vince Vaughn Christmas classic, Four Christmases follows Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) as they attempt to visit all four of their divorced parents on Christmas. This nigh-impossible task proves to be pretty destructive to their own relationship as they fight to avoid the same cycle their own parents went through. While it seems like an impossible task, these two do their best to see it through.
The odd thing about Four Christmases is that, unlike most Christmas classics, Brad and Kate don’t really learn anything by the film’s end (the final gag shows them making the same mistakes they made last Christmas), but the ride there is worth a holiday watch. Especially the first Christmas they attend at Brad’s father’s home. It gets pretty crazy, pretty quick.
Four Christmases is wild, and while the rom-com elements might be a turn-off to some, there are still some great bits that keep it flowing.
20. Bad Santa (2003)
A Christmas black comedy, Bad Santa pretty much lives up to its name. Featuring Billy Bob Thornton (Armageddon) as Willie T. Stokes and Tony Cox (Return of the Jedi) as his assistant Marcus Skidmore, this film follows these two con men as they pose as Santa and his Little Helper in order to rob department stores on Christmas Eve, only for them to befriend a troubled kid in need of some guidance.
While this is probably not one of the first movies you’d think of when you think of Christmas (or maybe it is), Bad Santa is one of the most interesting holiday features on this list. While it might not be this author’s cup of tea, this crudely hilarious take on the Christmas season is one that will help many find something to laugh about.
Bad Santa is the Christmas film for you if you’ve finally gotten sick of all the family-friendly holiday features.
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