Christmas is not just a season; it’s a feeling. It’s that time of the year when the air is filled with a sense of warmth, joy, and nostalgia, irrespective of the chilly weather outside. What better way to immerse yourself in this festive spirit than by revisiting the 20 best Christmas movies of all time? These films are not just about Christmas; they are about the emotions and experiences that define the holiday season.
From heartwarming tales that reinstate the magic of Christmas to action-packed adventures set against a holiday backdrop, each movie on this list offers a unique perspective on what makes Christmas so special. Whether it’s the comedic antics of Buddy the Elf, the unexpected twists of Gremlins, or the heroic resilience of John McClane in Die Hard, these films have something for everyone.
So, grab your hot cocoa, snuggle up under a cozy blanket, and let’s embark on a journey through the best Christmas movies ever made. These cinematic gems are not just entertaining; they are a testament to the enduring charm of the holiday season, capturing the essence of Christmas in ways that are both profound and delightful.
“Gremlins,” a film directed by Joe Dante and written by Chris Columbus, released in 1984, is an unconventional blend of comedy, horror, and action that has become an unexpected holiday classic. Featuring the voice of Howie Mandel as the adorable Gizmo, “Gremlins” takes a darkly humorous look at the consequences of breaking the rules of pet care.
Set against the backdrop of a picturesque, Norman Rockwell-esque town, the movie unravels into chaos when the cute and seemingly harmless new pet spawns mischievous and malevolent creatures after its owner fails to adhere to the crucial guidelines for its care. The film cleverly uses the holiday season to contrast the mayhem unleashed by the Gremlins, emphasizing the importance of responsibility and the unexpected repercussions of neglect. “Gremlins” stands out for its unique take on holiday themes, combining the joys of the season with the terror and comedy of a creature feature. Its blend of genres and its satirical approach to the holiday season make it a distinctive and memorable entry in Christmas movie canon.
Batman Returns (1992)
“Batman Returns,” the action-packed sequel to Tim Burton’s “Batman,” released in 1992, stands out for its distinctive take on the superhero genre, infused with a touch of holiday spirit. The film introduces new villains Catwoman, portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, and The Penguin, played by Danny DeVito, who join forces to challenge Batman, once again played by Michael Keaton.
While the central plot of “Batman Returns” revolves around the classic superhero vs. villain dynamic, the film is set against a festive backdrop that adds a unique dimension to the story. The wintry, atmospheric Gotham City is adorned with holiday decorations, including extravagant parties and a Rockefeller Center-style Christmas tree. The film cleverly integrates Christmas elements, such as Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle (Catwoman) discovering each other’s secret identities under mistletoe. Despite its primary focus as a continuation of Burton’s Batman franchise, “Batman Returns” manages to evoke a sense of holiday atmosphere, making it a memorable entry in the realm of Christmas-themed movies.
A Christmas Story (1983)
“A Christmas Story,” inspired by Jean Shepherd’s writings, is a delightful comedy that captures the essence of childhood holiday excitement. The film follows young Ralphie Parker in his quest to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Ralphie’s adventures, from dealing with a school bully to his fascination with Christmas advertising, are both heartwarming and hilariously relatable.
The film’s greatness lies in its ability to evoke laughter and nostalgia, reflecting the simple joys of childhood. Its narrative style is both detached and observant, perfectly capturing the quirks of family traditions. The old-school aesthetic of the movie complements this, making “A Christmas Story” a quintessential piece of pop culture and a holiday favorite for many.
Bad Santa (2003)
“Bad Santa,” released in 2003 and directed by Terry Zwigoff, is a dark comedy that takes a cynical look at the holiday season. Written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the film follows Willie, a conman played by Billy Bob Thornton, and his partner Marcus, who each December pose as Santa and his elf to execute mall heists. The narrative takes an unexpected turn when they form a bond with a troubled eight-year-old boy, leading to unforeseen complications in their criminal plans.
At the time of its release, “Bad Santa” was notable for its stark contrast to traditional holiday films, featuring profane language and dark humor. However, at its core, the film is a story of redemption. Thornton’s portrayal of Willie is nuanced, capturing the character’s disdain for the world while subtly revealing his desire for love and a fresh start. The film challenges the conventional holiday narrative, offering a raw, unfiltered take on the season’s spirit. “Bad Santa” is a unique and bold film that, despite its rough exterior, delivers a surprisingly heartfelt message.
Home Alone 2 (1992)
“Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” released in 1992, is the sequel to the beloved holiday classic “Home Alone.” The film follows the adventurous Kevin McCallister, portrayed by Macaulay Culkin, as he inadvertently boards a plane to New York City while his family heads to Florida for a Christmas vacation. Despite the somewhat far-fetched premise, including the coincidental reunion with the Sticky Bandits, Marv and Harry, from the first film, the sequel delivers its own magic.
Directed by Chris Columbus, “Home Alone 2” expands the world of its predecessor by showcasing Kevin’s resourcefulness and wit in the bustling city of New York. The film captures the city’s holiday spirit, from the snowy skyscrapers to the lavish Trump Tower and the poignant moments with the Pigeon Lady. Columbus’ talent for portraying the diverse facets of a big city during winter creates a backdrop that is both epic and enchanting. The film balances humor, adventure, and the warmth of the holiday season, making it a delightful continuation of Kevin’s escapades and a cherished Christmas movie.
‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ (1992)
“The Muppet Christmas Carol,” released in 1992, is a delightful and inventive adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale. This version of “A Christmas Carol” is given a unique twist with the inclusion of The Muppets, alongside the acclaimed actor Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. The film manages to breathe new life into the familiar story, making it appealing even to those who might feel weary of another adaptation.
This Muppet rendition infuses the classic Christmas story with a blend of comedy, whimsical musical numbers, and heartwarming moments. Despite the playful and humorous approach, the film does not shy away from the original story’s deeper and more serious themes. Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is notably sincere and compelling, adding significant dramatic weight to the film. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” strikes a balance between entertainment and emotional depth, making it a charming and engaging film for viewers of all ages.
In “Elf,” Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, a human raised by elves in the North Pole who travels to New York City to find his biological father. His journey is filled with humor and heart, as his naïveté and elfin upbringing clash with the realities of the big city, spreading Christmas cheer along the way.
What makes “Elf” so special is Ferrell’s performance as the endearing and enthusiastic Buddy. His character’s love for Christmas and elf culture, combined with an unyielding joy for life, makes the film a delightful watch. “Elf” masterfully blends humor and emotion, capturing the true spirit of Christmas in a story brimming with optimism.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
“The Long Kiss Goodnight,” a film directed by Renny Harlin and released in 1996, is a thrilling blend of action and holiday ambiance. Starring Geena Davis as Samantha Caine, a suburban schoolteacher with amnesia, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mitch Hennessey, a private investigator, the film takes the audience on a journey of self-discovery and high-octane action.
The movie begins with the trappings of a classic Christmas film, set during the holiday season and showcasing Samantha’s attempts to enjoy a normal life with her family. However, the festive atmosphere takes a sharp turn as Samantha begins to recall her past life as a lethal government assassin. This revelation propels the narrative into a series of intense action sequences set against a snowy backdrop, including gunfights on ice skates and explosive confrontations. “The Long Kiss Goodnight” masterfully combines the warmth of the holiday season with the excitement of an action thriller, making it an unconventional but captivating Christmas movie experience.
Trading Places (1983)
“Trading Places,” directed by John Landis, is a standout comedy that has become a holiday favorite. Released in 1983, the film stars Dan Aykroyd as a wealthy investor and Eddie Murphy as a street-smart con artist. Set in Philadelphia, the story revolves around a devious bet made by two millionaires, leading to Aykroyd and Murphy’s characters swapping lives, resulting in a series of comedic and insightful events.
What makes “Trading Places” so great is not just its status as a Christmas guilty pleasure, but its place as one of the quintessential comedies of the 1980s. The film was a box office success, grossing over $120 million. The performances of Murphy, Aykroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who won a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role, are particularly noteworthy. The film was also recognized at the 56th Academy Awards with a nomination for Best Original Score and received two Golden Globes nominations for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical and Best Actor for Eddie Murphy. This film remains a testament to the comedic genius of its era and continues to be a beloved Christmas classic.
Miracle On 34th Street (1994)
The 1994 fantasy comedy-drama “Miracle On 34th Street” revolves around a department store Santa who claims to be the real Kris Kringle. His story, though heartwarming, faces skepticism and the threat of institutionalization. However, a single mother and her daughter, Susan, become his staunchest allies in a legal battle to prove his identity.
This remake of the 1947 classic captures the same sweetness and charm. The movie’s focus on simple beliefs, faith, and the joyous spirit of Christmas makes it a delightful watch. It’s a film that emphasizes the importance of maintaining a sense of wonder and belief, perfect for holiday viewing with family.
Love Actually (2003)
“Love Actually,” directed by Richard Curtis, is a beloved romantic comedy that has become a staple of the holiday season. Released on September 7, 2003, the film features an ensemble cast including Bill Nighy, Gregor Fisher, Rory MacGregor, Colin Firth, Sienna Guillory, and Liam Neeson. Set in London during the weeks leading up to Christmas, “Love Actually” weaves together eight different storylines, exploring various facets of love including romantic, platonic, and familial relationships.
What makes “Love Actually” so captivating is its ability to balance heartwarming moments with genuine emotional depth. The film is more than just a collection of love stories; it’s a celebration of love in all its forms. Far from being just another cliché rom-com, “Love Actually” invites its audience to connect deeply with its characters. Its blend of humor and poignancy creates a cinematic experience that resonates with viewers, making it a cherished film during the holiday season.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, is the third movie in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series. Released on November 30, 1989, it stars Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, and Diane Ladd. Based on John Hughes’s short story “Christmas ’59,” the film follows the Griswold family as they attempt to orchestrate a perfect family Christmas, a plan that inevitably goes awry.
The movie received deservedly mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert giving it only two stars, but “Christmas Vacation” has become a beloved holiday cult classic. Chevy Chase’s performance as the well-meaning but often exasperated patriarch, Clark Griswold, is a bit much, even though it captures the humorous frustrations of family holiday preparations. The ensemble cast, including memorable appearances by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, adds to the film’s charm and comedic appeal. Grossing over $73 million, it was the highest-grossing film in the series until the 2015 reboot, solidifying its place as a Christmas comedy staple.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
The 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” starring Alastair Sim, is a quintessential Christmas movie. Sim’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge is masterful, capturing the essence of a man transformed by the holiday spirit. The film stays true to Dickens’s novella, presenting a dark yet hopeful tale of redemption.
This adaptation stands out for its balanced mix of gothic aesthetics, humor, and warmth. Sim’s performance brings a human depth to Scrooge, making his transformation from a miserly businessman to a generous soul both believable and deeply moving. The cinematography and the film’s overall ambiance beautifully evoke the era, making it not only a nostalgic piece but also a poignant reminder of the enduring power of kindness and change.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a stop-motion animation masterpiece that beautifully blends the worlds of Halloween and Christmas. The film follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, as he discovers Christmas and decides to bring his own twisted version of the holiday to life.
Selick’s use of gothic elements and the charmingly eerie characters, like Sally the rag doll, create a unique and captivating world. The film explores themes of identity, change, and the importance of understanding and embracing differences. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a visual and narrative delight, resonating with audiences of all ages. Its message of embracing change and recognizing the beauty in differences is as relevant today as it was at the time of its release.
Die Hard (1988)
“Die Hard,” directed by John McTiernan, is an action movie masterpiece that has cemented its place as a Christmas classic. The film follows John McClane, an NYPD officer played by Bruce Willis, who finds himself in a high-stakes battle against terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper. What begins as an attempt to reunite with his estranged family for the holidays turns into a harrowing fight for survival.
What sets “Die Hard” apart is its ability to blend relentless action with a heartfelt narrative. McClane’s character, with his gritty determination and sharp wit, redefined the action hero archetype. The film’s Christmas setting adds an unexpected layer to the story, juxtaposing the festive atmosphere with intense action sequences. Willis’s performance is iconic, effortlessly combining humor, vulnerability, and toughness. “Die Hard” is more than an action movie; it’s a compelling story of a man fighting against all odds to protect those he loves, making it arguably the greatest Christmas action movie ever made.
Directed by Sergio Pablos, “Klaus” is a relatively recent addition to the Christmas movie landscape, potentially on its way to becoming a well-loved classic. Released in 2019 and available on Netflix, this animated film may seem primarily aimed at a younger audience, but it holds a charm and humor that can be appreciated by adults as well.
The story revolves around Klaus, a reclusive carpenter and toymaker, who forms an unexpected friendship with a young, inept postal worker assigned to a remote town. The narrative follows typical themes of children’s movies and Christmas tales, focusing on the growth and collaboration between the two main characters. “Klaus” stands out for its unique animation style, heartfelt storytelling, and emotional depth. The film is not just a delightful watch for children; it’s a heartwarming experience for viewers of all ages, filled with charm and the spirit of the holiday season.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” stands as a pinnacle of his cinematic creativity, arguably rivaling even his “Batman Begins” for its deeply personal narrative. This film tells the poignant story of an unconventional outcast, Edward, a creation of a scientist, exploring themes of acceptance and belonging. As Edward ventures from his isolated castle into the societal fold, he encounters a world unprepared to embrace his uniqueness.
The film’s charm is amplified by Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, whose on-screen chemistry is palpable. Depp’s portrayal of Edward is both haunting and endearing, marking this role as one of his most memorable. The production design, Burton’s meticulous direction, and the exceptional supporting performances, particularly by Alan Arkin and Dianne Wiest, contribute to making “Edward Scissorhands” a timeless classic. It’s a film that resonates deeply with its audience, exploring the dichotomy of isolation and community in a way that’s both visually striking and emotionally stirring.
Christmas, Again (2014)
“Christmas, Again,” a microbudget film released in 2014, offers a poignant and realistic portrayal of the holiday season that diverges from the typical festive narratives. The film is set in New York and centers around a Christmas tree salesman, played by Kentucky Adler, who navigates his loneliness and routine in the midst of the holiday bustle.
Set largely in a makeshift alleyway tree stand, the story follows the salesman’s mundane yet introspective life as he works, sleeps in an on-site RV, and grapples with personal struggles. The film takes a turn when he assists an intoxicated woman, leading to a brief entanglement in her life. However, “Christmas, Again” is not a film about dramatic conflicts or climactic resolutions. It’s an anti-Hollywood portrayal of Christmas, offering a stark contrast to the typical joyous and romanticized holiday films. This movie resonates with those for whom Christmas is just another day, devoid of significant family gatherings or romantic encounters. It’s a film that provides comfort in its honesty and relatability, acknowledging the quieter, more solitary experiences of the holiday season.
“Scrooged,” released in 1988, offers a modern-day comedic spin on Charles Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carol.” Directed by Richard Donner, the film stars Bill Murray as Frank Cross, a TV executive who embodies the Scrooge archetype. On Christmas Eve, Cross, much like Dickens’s original character, is visited by three ghosts, with David Johansen portraying the cab-driving Ghost of Christmas Past and Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Despite challenges during production, including Bill Murray’s reported dissatisfaction with the process, “Scrooged” was a box office success, grossing over $100 million and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup. Murray’s portrayal of the sarcastic and cantankerous Frank Cross divided audiences and critics at the time. However, the film has since been recognized as one of the greatest Christmas comedies, appreciated for its unique take on a classic story and Murray’s standout performance.
‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005)
“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” released in 2005, is a film that brilliantly combines elements of Christmas, buddy comedy, action, and crime thriller. Directed by Shane Black, known for his affinity for incorporating holiday themes in unconventional ways, this film stands out as a unique entry in the Christmas movie genre.
The movie marked a pivotal moment in Robert Downey Jr.’s career, showcasing his talent in a role that predates his iconic performance in “Iron Man.” Downey Jr. plays a fast-talking, unlucky man entangled in a complex film noir plot. He is paired with Val Kilmer, who delivers one of his most memorable performances. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” unfolds during the holiday season, adding a festive backdrop to its engaging mix of comedy, mystery, and crime thriller elements. The film’s blend of sharp wit, intriguing plot, and Christmas setting makes it a distinctive and entertaining neo-noir experience.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by Frank Capra and released in 1946, is more than just a movie; it’s a timeless testament to hope, resilience, and the impact of a single life. The film tells the poignant story of George Bailey, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart, a building and loan manager who faces despair and contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve. An angel intervenes, offering George a glimpse of what the world would be like if he had never been born.
This film stands out as a quintessential Christmas classic, balancing its uplifting message with an exploration of darker, more serious themes. It’s a narrative that delves into the depths of human despair only to emerge with a renewed appreciation for life and community. Stewart’s performance as George Bailey is deeply moving, capturing the character’s journey from hopelessness to a profound realization of his worth and the love surrounding him. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is celebrated not only for its holiday spirit but also as one of the earliest Hollywood films to address mental health issues. Its simple yet powerful message about the value of each individual life resonates profoundly, especially during the festive season.
‘Arthur Christmas’ (2011)
“Arthur Christmas,” released in 2011, is a modern family Christmas movie that has quickly gained recognition as a new classic. The film is notable for being one of Aardman Animations’ first forays into predominantly computer animation, diverging from their traditional claymation style. This transition marked a significant step in the evolution of the studio’s storytelling techniques.
The story revolves around Arthur Claus, one of Santa’s children, who discovers that one child has been accidentally missed in the Christmas Eve gift delivery. Determined to correct this oversight and uphold his father’s legacy, Arthur embarks on a mission to ensure that every child receives their present. “Arthur Christmas” combines a heartwarming plot with Aardman’s distinctively charming and humorous style of animation, resulting in a delightful and engaging Christmas film. It captures the spirit of the holiday season with its compelling narrative and impressive visual storytelling.
‘The Silent Partner’ (1978)
Directed by Daryl Duke, “The Silent Partner” is a Christmas movie that stands out as one of the most underrated and subversive films of the holiday genre. Released in 1978, this film deviates from the typical family-friendly Christmas narrative, offering a mature, gritty, and darkly humorous story.
The film centers around a bank heist orchestrated by a robber disguised as Santa Claus, exploring the ensuing consequences. “The Silent Partner” is a crime thriller filled with unexpected twists and turns, effectively utilizing its Christmas setting to heighten the tension and drama. The story, largely set in the days leading up to Christmas, blends the holiday backdrop with a thrilling plot. While it may be unsettling at times, the film’s subversive take on the Christmas theme makes it a memorable and distinctive classic.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
“You’ve Got Mail,” directed by Nora Ephron and released in 1998, is a romantic comedy that, while spanning from October to spring, finds its most compelling scenes set during the Christmas season. Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the film explores the complex relationship between Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), who are business rivals in real life but unknowingly develop a close connection through online correspondence.
The film, a modern take on the classic “The Shop Around the Corner,” captures the essence of New York City and the era’s burgeoning internet culture. Ephron’s skillful direction weaves together elements of humor, romance, and the charm of the holiday season. The chemistry between Hanks and Ryan is palpable, even as they interact primarily through digital messages. “You’ve Got Mail” showcases Ephron’s signature style, including witty dialogue, memorable side characters, and a deep appreciation for the small, beautiful moments of everyday life. It stands as not only one of Ephron’s best directorial efforts but also as an enduring classic in the romantic comedy genre.
‘Holiday Inn’ (1942)
“Holiday Inn,” released in 1942, is an iconic film in the realm of classic Hollywood musicals, particularly noted for its Christmas elements. While the film spans various holidays throughout the year, its memorable opening and conclusion during Christmastime have strongly associated it with the festive season.
The plot of “Holiday Inn” revolves around a group of dancers and entertainers at a resort that opens only on holidays. The narrative is simple, focusing on romantic entanglements and professional rivalries, but serves as a backdrop for showcasing an array of spectacular musical numbers. The film stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, both legends in the musical film genre, whose performances are a highlight. While “Holiday Inn” is celebrated for its musical excellence and holiday charm, modern viewers might find some aspects dated or less palatable by today’s standards. Despite this, the film remains a significant piece in the history of Christmas movies, cherished for its classic Hollywood glamour and festive spirit.
Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)
“Mon Oncle Antoine,” directed by Claude Jutra and released in 1971, is often hailed as one of the greatest Canadian films ever made. This poignant and introspective film delves into themes of family, small-town life, and the journey from childhood to adulthood. Set against the backdrop of the holiday season, it tells the story of a young boy, Daniel, who experiences a series of eye-opening revelations and life lessons during one transformative Christmas.
The film captures the enchantment and magic traditionally associated with Christmas, yet contrasts this with Daniel’s awakening to the complexities and realities of adult life. As he discovers his father’s affair, assists his uncle in retrieving a corpse for burial, and becomes aware of the socioeconomic disparities in his town, Daniel’s journey represents the end of his innocence and the onset of maturity. “Mon Oncle Antoine” is not only a coming-of-age story but also a beautifully shot film that offers an honest and nuanced portrayal of the loss of childhood innocence. Its visual storytelling and profound narrative make it a captivating and timeless piece of cinema.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” directed by Ron Howard and released in 2000, is a film adaptation of the beloved Dr. Seuss story, featuring one of Jim Carrey’s most dynamic performances. The movie reimagines the tale of the Grinch, a green outcast living on a mountain, who plans to ruin Christmas for the inhabitants of a nearby village, with his dog Max reluctantly by his side.
Upon its release, the film faced mixed reviews, with criticism focusing on its perceived overproduction and deviation from the simplicity of the original story. However, over the years, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has undergone a critical reappraisal and has become a holiday favorite. The film’s vivid production design, imaginative costumes, and remarkable makeup effects have been recognized for their creativity and artistry. Carrey’s physically intensive portrayal of the Grinch, combined with the film’s unique visual style, creates a whimsical and engaging adaptation of the classic story. Howard’s literal interpretation, along with the cast’s physical performances, brings the whimsical world of Dr. Seuss to life, making it a distinctive and memorable Christmas movie.