Traditions are what makes a celebratory holiday extra special. Between finding the present that will bring that long-awaited smile on a loved one’s face, creating a new playlist for the occasion filled with timeless tunes ranging from Baby, It’s Cold Outside to Mariah Carrey’s All I want for Christmas (don’t deny it, you’ve listened to it, and you liked it!) and Googling for the 100th time the recipe for those delicious ginger bread cookies, (re)watching Christmas movies is indisputably one of the most pleasurable season rituals (together with dipping those cookies into warm, creamy hot coco, naturally).
Which is why we don’t expect that you won’t already have a mental list of films you just can’t wait to get started with. But with cliché productions (seriously, have you seen Netflix’s A Christmas Prince?) and family comedies’ sequels surfing on the holiday spirit for all the wrong reasons (Daddy’s Home 2, Bad Moms 2) pretending to be true Christmas tales bourgeoning at an alarming rate, we thought it would be wise setting the record straight on holiday movies that heartily convey the essence of what Christmas is all about.
So, here we go…
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
It’s about: Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) loves Christmas. And this year, he wants it to be a perfect, old-fashioned family holiday as he welcomes everyone to his and his wife Ellen’s (Beverly D’Angelo) big house in Chicago. But what started as a very optimistic plan will soon turn into a huge disaster from which will surface the true meaning of the annual celebration.
A gratifying seasonal treat, John Hughes’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, based on his National Lampoon magazine short story, Christmas ’59, is a family comedy that, even after watching it a thousand times, will still make your inner child giggle. One of the most popular National Lampoon productions, the film was deemed by critics “the ultimate family holiday film, playing on both the heart strings and the horror to capture a genuine Christmas spirit.”
Home Alone (1990) (+ Home Alone 2)
It’s about: After a fight with his mean brother that rapidly escalated into ruining everyone’s evening, 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has one wish for Christmas: That his unpleasant family could disappear. The next morning, his parents mistakenly forget Kevin who was grounded in the attic for the night as they fly to Paris to spend the holiday. The young boy wakes up alone in his huge house with no one to tell him what to do. What could possibly go wrong?
As kids, we’ve all pictured ourselves in Kevin’s shoes, not so much for the abandonment part, but for the total freedom of not having reprimanding parents around! Adding to the story the threat of 2 dimwitted burglars about to break into his home, the script, also penned by John Hughes, transformed the simple tale of a child’s dream come true into a heroic adventure in which its main character comes to realize the importance of having and protecting the family he repudiated in the first place.
Best of all, Chris Columbus – who directed – and Hughes pulled off the difficult challenge to make a sequel to the movie just as exciting and endearing as its predecessor 2 years later with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
Love Actually (2003)
It’s about: In the month leading up to Christmas, a group of men and women who struggle with love find themselves in various situations that could considerably change their lives for the better.
A gift-wrapped reminder that love is what truly matters at Christmas (and pretty much the rest of the time, too), Richard Curtis’s star-studded rom-com is a pleasure for the eyes and mushy hearts. It’s already been 14 years audiences around the globe have fallen for the clumsy, charming British characters from the now classic comedy, and still, they continue to be impossible to resist. So much that the cast reunited for the annual charity event Red Nose Day this year in a lovely short film offering some sort of closure as to where they all ended up in their respective lives. And it was perfect, actually.
It’s about: Buddy (Will Ferrell) has always felt different from the other elves in his community. Much taller, he has a hard time performing tasks to help make toys for Santa. One day, he learns by accident that he’s human and that he was brought to the North Pole by mistake when he was just a child. He’s also told by his father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) that his real dad is Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a children’s book publisher in New York City who, due to his selfishness and greed, appears to be on Santa’s naughty list. Buddy then sets out to visit the Big Apple in order to help his real father redeem himself.
Take a grumpy old man who doesn’t believe in magic or generosity and put him in a room with an optimistic and happy character who will forever change the way he sees the world and you’re close to getting a classic Christmas miracle! That’s what Elf, directed by Jon Favreau, is all about. A story in many ways reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s legendary A Christmas Carol in which a self-centered, bitter business man begins a journey through self-redemption.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
It’s about: All the residents of Whoville are excited to celebrate Christmas to the point that they obsess over every little detail in order to make sure it remains the best, most important annual celebration of the year – expect one. The Grinch (Jim Carrey) hates Christmas so much that he lives as a recluse on top of a mountain from where he plans with his best friend Max dangerous and harmful practical jokes to pull on the Whos. One day, he meets Cindy Lou (Taylor Momsen), a young, hopeful little girl who thinks her family and neighbors have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas and believes the Grinch is a much nicer person than he wants everyone to believe.
Talking about grumpy, Dr. Seuss’s story about The Grinch, created in 1957, is the quintessence of how the Christmas spirit can transform and help redeem lost souls. Plus, the movie adaptation’s decors and characters are cute and often funny (Jim Carrey at his best), carried by a magical score from James Horner.
A Christmas Carol (2009)
It’s about: Christmas Eve – Following the death of his business partner Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a miserly old moneylender, gets back to his home in London, refusing to be charitable to the poor and passing on the offer to spend Christmas day with his nephew and his family. That night, he is visited by the ghost of Marley who advises him to repent his wicked ways or he will be condemned in the afterlife like him, and warns the old man that he will be visited by 3 spirits who will guide him out of his misery.
There are so many choices when it comes to appreciating Charles Dickens’s enchanting piece of work (the book, of course, remaining your best option), but with his animated version of the holiday tale, Robert Zemeckis managed to channel, with visually breathtaking images, the magic of the legendary writer’s story to perfection. A true chameleon, Jim Carrey portrays Scrooge with grace, offering him a touch of emotionality that makes the famous character even more endearing and entertaining.
Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005)
It’s about: Based on a true story, Joyeux Noël recounts the events of the World War I unofficial Christmas truce during the winter of 1914 on the Western Front. On Christmas Eve, French, British, and German soldiers agree on a ceasefire after being brought together by the visit of the lead singer of the Berlin Imperial Opera company. Uniting for the celebration, the enemies will learn about each other’s lives in what reflects a moment of sincere humanity about to change everything.
Beautiful Christmas stories aren’t always fictional. By bringing the extraordinary event that occurred during Christmas 1914 at a WWI battlefront to the screen, Joyeux Noël sheds light on the madness of war and reminds that no matter our beliefs, disputes, or origins, we’re above all capable of compassion.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s about: George Bailey (James Stewart) had high expectations for his life, planning to travel around the world after graduating. But his father’s death and many more unexpected events will lead him to remain in his small town of Bedford Falls. One day, thinking he just hit rock bottom and angry at the universe for taking away his hopes and dreams, George contemplates suicide when his guardian angel (Henry Travers) appears to show him what life would look like if his wish of never being born would come true, revealing a much darker fate for his hometown and family.
Topping the list of the most loved Christmas classics of all time, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie that boasts powerful themes like love, generosity and dedication. The perfect package to awaken your holiday spirit. Not just a worldwide Christmas favorite, it’s also one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
It’s about: When the king of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, discovers the existence of Christmas Town, he strives to bring the latter’s traditions to his home, which creates a lot of confusion among its residents.
Although at first glance it looks nothing like it, Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated musical dark fantasy offers an original take on the magic of Christmas and its effect on life’s monotony. Focusing on pretty uncommon characters, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a perfect choice for children as well as adults in search of a poetic piece of work that will arouse their imagination.
Die Hard (1988)
It’s about: NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) visits his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) in Los Angeles during her office’s Christmas party with the hope to reconcile. Later that evening, a group of terrorists led by German fanatic Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) takes everyone hostage, except McClane who manages to slip away. He will then make use of his impressive set of skills to save his wife and counter the criminal’s plan.
Definitely not a Christmas film in the classic sense, Die Hard remains a holiday top choice – and not just because the story takes place during Christmas. The action movie that began the series of too many sequels explores, without the whole sentimental dimension that often inhabits holiday productions, the struggling relationship between a husband and his wife facing marital challenges, followed by a pretty intense proof of love and redemption in the shape of ass-kicking heroic actions.
Believe it or not, Die Hard ranks on top of some critics’ list of all-time best Christmas movies!