Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals! It’s the last day of A Sacred Wall Christmas, and as a special treat for you all, it’s time for a very special list: the Top Ten Greatest Christmas Movies of All Time!
To qualify for this list, there’s a very basic set of rules: you have to capture the spirit of the season, of giving, goodwill towards man, and a love for something greater than yourself. If you can’t accomplish that, you have to capture the sense of nostalgia that we feel when we look back at wonderful (mostly) times with our family, when our childlike innocence reflected a warmth of the season, before we grew up and experienced our first Black Friday sale (why yes, I have worked in retail, why do you ask?) And before I begin, a few disclaimers. First, there are several great Christmas films that I have not actually seen, and therefore will not appear on this list at this time. My apologies, I can only see so many films a year. These classics include Scrooged, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bishop’s Wife, The Bells of St. Mary, The Holiday, and Bad Santa. Also, this list will not include any bad Christmas movies, or films that are actually awful, but we keep pretending they’re good for some reason. This includes Love Actually (that cue card scene makes me want to vomit) and Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (hot garbage). As for the Honorable Mentions, I have four that were considered, but did not make the list. They are Christmas With the Kranks (not great, but it has a certain sense of charm), Prancer (childish and creepy, but a classic, nonetheless), The Santa Clause (back when Tim Allen was funny, and he may still appear here yet), The Nativity Story (very nice and well-constructed, but overall nothing that we haven’t seen in the beginning of Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told) and The Polar Express (groundbreaking, and I appreciate the sentiment, but my God the Uncanny Value is creepy as hell).
And finally, allow me to address something: Die Hard is a great movie. Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies ever. It’s one of the best years of the 1980s. Die Hard is NOT a Christmas movie. I don’t care if it takes place at Christmas, that means nothing. Star Wars takes place a long time ago, that doesn’t make it nonfiction. So don’t come at me with this nonsense, and don’t @ me. Now that we’ve settled that, here’s the list of the Ten Greatest Christmas Movies Ever!
10. Joyeux Noel
Why don’t we start off with a lesser-known film by the French, Joyeux Noel. Equal parts a spiritual film, a historical film, and an anti-war film, Noel is based on one of the greatest urban legends in history (while no historical evidence or accounts exist of the incident, we’d all like to believe that it’s true), the film explores why we’re willing to go out and kill each other when deep down we all believe and want the same thing: love and companionship. After a brilliant opening sequence showing children in each country being taught to hate the enemy in their own language (French, German, English, Danish, etc.), we see soldiers on the front lines being sent out to the trenches of World War I, on all sides. We see Germans, British, French, Scottish, and more, all being sent out to try and shoot and kill each other. No one really understands the war, they just know that they need to support their country. However, as Christmas approaches, and each man feels that longing for the season, and things really kick off when one soldier begins singing “Silent Night.” Then another, then another, and then the Scots pull out the bagpipes, and soon the soldiers have crossed the demilitarized zone, shaking hands, sharing booze, and celebrating mass with the local chaplain. As the generals get madder and madder, it is the lower ranks who understand the true meaning of the season: the love and bond between men, and its victory over the arbitrary nature of border lines that has pitted us against each other time and time again.
9. The Santa Clause 2
I’ll admit that The Santa Clause is the smarter film, and the one most people consider the “greater” of the trilogy, but let’s be honest: The Santa Clause 2 is the better film. Sure, it’s a bit more childish, but there’s an inherent charm that makes it the more appealing film. Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin has finally settled in as Santa, but things haven’t gotten any easier. Not only is their a loophole that he has to find a Mrs. Claus before Christmas (ok, it’s dumb, but you’re willing to go with it), but he has to help his son, Charlie, get off the naughty list. What follows is a comedy of errors of someone trying to find love after divorce while also being Santa. Sure, that’s every Hallmark movie now, but at the time, it was novel. And these sequences of comedy actually work, a rarity in a children’s film. My personal favorite of these scenes involves Molly Shannon drunkenly singing a Christmas version of “I Feel Like a Woman,” horrifying Calvin. However, the film is also incredibly sweet, mainly in the handling of Scott’s fairly natural relationship with his son’s principal, played by the underrated Elizabeth Mitchell. The highlight of the film comes from their date to the faculty Christmas party, where he uses his magic to give a group of sad middle-aged people their favorite toys from childhood. It’s a touching, magical scene of Christmas magic, and it can break the heart of anyone of any age. And I haven’t even gotten to the cameos and supporting roles by talented comedic actors David Krumholtz, Kevin Pollak, Aisha Tyler, and Peter Boyle. Hell, even Judge Reinhold feels more natural and funny here, settling into a latter career that would cement him as the lame stepdad. It might not be the greatest Christmas movie of all time, but it more than makes up for its faults with enough sweet, sentimental moments to earn a spot on the list.
8. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Hey, look, it’s the only film that could successfully earn a spot on the Christmas list and the Halloween list! Yeah, that’s not common. However, there’s an inherent charm to The Nightmare Before Christmas that helps earn it a spot as both a Halloween film and a Christmas film. The story of Jack Skellington’s quest to find the true meaning of Christmas despite only knowing how to scare people is heartfelt and unironic, showing a good-hearted skeleton desperate to finds something more than his usual lot in life. It’s something we can all relate to, and part of the reason we love the holiday. Whenever we feel stuck in a rut, or overwhelmed, or like we’re only good for one thing, Christmas comes along to make us feel like we’re a part of something bigger, and to remind us of the feeling of goodwill and cheer that makes the season great. Of course, there’s some comedy along the way. Watching Jack try to explain Christmas to his friends is humorous enough, as they struggle to see past what they’ve always known (i.e. the pageantry and creepiness of Halloween) to find a time of goodwill and cheer. And then there’s the “Making Christmas” sequence, with the gruesome abomination of their ill-advised combining of both holidays. In the end, Jack becomes downhearted, after being shot down as an imposter Santa and accidentally getting the real Santa kidnapped alongside his love interest. However, at the last minute, he realizes the true meaning of the season: to take what you’re good at, and what you love, and to combine it with the warm feeling that Christmas brings you in order to bring cheer and goodwill to the world around you. It’s a warmhearted, fun film for the entire family, and it’s one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
7. Home Alone
Arguably the first movie families watch together on Christmas, this film is proof that Chris Columbus and John Hughes know how to craft a solid kids’ movie. Every kid feels like Kevin McAllister on Christmas, forgotten and ignored in the middle by a loving, but overwhelmed family. And this film takes it to the extreme, giving him his angry wish by leaving him home alone throughout the season. At first Kevin lives the dream, watching R-rated movies, eating junk food every meal, and rummaging through his mean older brother’s things. However, pretty soon, he begins to miss his family, the comfort they bring, and the security that protects him from the outside world (in this case, two bumbling burglars). However, the most heartwarming part of the film is whenever we cut back to Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mother, who goes to great lengths to get home to her son, proving that no matter what things were said or done at the beginning of the film, there is no force greater than a mother’s love. She takes several flights, sleeps in the airport, and drives home with a polka-playing John Candy, in order to make it home to make Kevin’s Christmas wish come true. Along the way, Kevin learns some valuable lessons. He learns the importance of family. He learns not to trust people by their appearance, as he did with his kindly neighbor who appeared sinister thanks to years of sadness and aging. And he learns how to properly booby trap his house to ward off thieves, like some sort of kid-friendly Straw Dogs (warning: do not show Straw Dogs to children). The climax of this film is one of the most iconic in film history, showing young Kevin setting up a series of traps to maim, injure, and even potentially kill the men invading his domain (yeah, that’s right. It’s all fun and games until Marv gets a Staph infection from that nail in the foot). However, while this is the most memorable, humorous scene in the film, the heart comes from the beautiful finale where Kevin learns the importance of family on the holidays, and two families are reunited for Christmas – both his and the neighbor, who sees his estranged daughter for the first time in years. It’s a charming movie, and it well earns its place as one of the greatest Christmas movies.
6. Miracle on 34th Street
I kind of find it weird that Miracle on 34th Street has gotten the short shrift over the years, considering it’s a stone-cold classic of both Christmas and fantasy. Perhaps it’s the fact that, while it was a hit at the time, and it did win an Oscar for Edmund Gwenn’s heart-warming portrayal of Kris Kringle, it has spent the past several years battling the powers that be: it’s been condemned by HUAC as being a Communist plot, and it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for years for portraying divorce too positively. However, once you get away from the controversy (for a 1947 film, no less), you’re left with one of the most enjoyable Christmas films of all time. The idea of an old man who thinks he might be Santa (and may be! Who knows?) is clever enough, and like the next film on this list, the fish out of water angle here is what sells the movie. Watching a man who is filled with joy and goodwill wandering a cynical, depressed world is just a joy to watch, from the very opening where he has to take over as Santa in the Macy’s Day Parade because the original was blackout drunk. After that, things only get better, as he balances a job as Macy’s with his friendship with a young skeptic, played affectionately by Natalie Wood. There’s plenty of whimsy and satire in these sequences, ranging from the magic of seeing Kris speak fluent Dutch with a young girl who can’t speak English (speaking to the universality of Santa), as well as a wonderful take on corporate greed, as Kris’ insistence on getting the customer the best deal on toys horrifies his bosses while making loyal customers out of the parents he helps. However, things really become entertaining in the finale, when Kris is put on trial for being mentally unfit. Each twist of the trial is humorous, from putting the prosecutor’s son on the stand to testify that Santa is real to the famous sequence with the letters. However, it’s the famous final shot that makes this one of the most joyous Christmas movies of all time. This is a warm-hearted film, one that remembers that Christmas is about love and giving, not buying and making money, and it rightfully earned an Oscar for Gwenn. See it if you haven’t. Don’t let McCarthy win.
It’s been years since we’ve gotten a truly great Christmas film. I think that this is because Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell set the bar so high in 2003, with the wonder that is Elf. Like 34th Street, Elf is a fish out of water story designed to contrast the wonder of Christmas with the cynicism of the real world. However, it works for two reasons. The first is that it is incredibly charming, spoofing the over-the-top goodness of Christmas (the characters at the North Pole are Rankin-Bass stop-motion characters, and Buddy’s ridiculous optimism is rampant throughout) while also highlighting it against the negativity of Jovie (an act) and Walter (who has lost his way, and is first introduced stealing books from nuns). The second, and most important strength the film has is Will Ferrell. Ferrell commits himself to the role wholeheartedly, ratcheting it up to 11 and never frowning in the entire run. His wonder at the world around him is refreshing, and the lengths he goes to understand the world around him and spread Christmas cheer is so wonderful that you can’t help but smile along. However, beyond a happy film with a simple message (“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear”), it is actually a truly funny film. Buddy battling the fake Santa is humorous, the juxtaposition of the 6’3” Ferrell alongside the forced perspective elves earns some laughs, and the snowball fight is just solid comedy. Beyond Ferrell, we get great performances from surprisingly-unquirky Zooey Deschanel, solid straight man James Caan, and a star-making turn by Tyrion himself, Peter Dinklage. Elf is a Christmas movie so great, they stopped making them. And it’s one of the best comedies of recent years.
4. White Christmas
Easily the best Christmas musical, White Christmas strikes the right balance of naïve charm and warm-hearted sentiment. Basically written as a chance for Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire before Astaire realized he didn’t want to work with Crosby again, the movie was essentially just a cash-in on the success of Bing’s signature song. However, there’s a reason this film has endured while, say, Holiday Inn has not (I mean, other than the latter’s rampant blackface). And that’s because it’s got a simple story, great filmmaking, and actors having fun. From the get-go, we’re entertained by the prospect of Crosby and Danny Kaye as showmen, and Kaye immediately embraces the role of the banana as opposed to Crosby’s straight man, delivering a solid joke involving a WWII arm injury. From there, the plot is a series of setups to build to the big “Put on a show” trope; however, unlike other, more “selfish” films, the goal here isn’t to raise money or save their own business. Instead, they wish to put on a show to demonstrate to the man who got them through WWII, who helped them beat the Nazis, and who was then shunned by a society that has never cared about its veterans, that he is still valued, loved, and cherished. That is just about as heartwarming as it gets, and watching tough man Dean Jagger hold back tears at the end will break your heart three ways to Sunday. In the meantime, the two showboys fall in love with two showgirls (the great singer Rosemary Clooney and the great dancer Vera-Ellen), and romance reigns supreme (even in spite of a pretty convoluted obstacle put in the way). In the end, everyone gets their dream to come true and they kiss under a White Christmas, but it’s really the journey that sums up what the season is about: love, giving, and goodwill. And the musical numbers are wonderful, from the campy Minstrel Show/Mandy to the fantastically danced choreography (Vera-Ellen’s foot tap is iconic) to the performance of “Sisters” (both the girls’ show tune version and the improvised Crosby/Kaye drag version). Everything about this film works, and it maintains itself as your mother’s favorite Christmas movie, now and forever. You should give it a watch, too.
3. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
#3 and #2 both represent something of a realistic take on the holiday season. As opposed to showing the emotional meaning behind the season, or the spiritual meaning, these films demonstrate what the season is like for the family, in all its chaos, hijinks, and ultimately, love. One of the better films to do this is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a film that takes all of the hijinks of forty years of Christmases and boils them down into one hilarious heaven and hellscape. Everything about the season is ratcheted up to its extreme, from buying the tree (“Look kids, a deer!”) to the need for a bonus to pay off the gifts, from struggling with the lights to trying to please the in-laws, there’s something relatable about each moment. Chevy Chase is pitch perfect as Clark Griswold, the put-upon father trying to put together the greatest Christmas the family has ever seen. He struggles with the lights and puts together the greatest display he can. He puts up with abuse from the in-laws while trying to give his mother the Christmas she always dreamed of. And he tries to keep his elderly aunt and uncle in check (“Is Rusty still in the Navy?” they ask about his twelve-year-old son) while dealing with the surprise visit of the cousins no one wants there. Speaking of which, is there any relative as accurate as Randy Quaid, the cousin no one wants to invite and yet would feel bad about ignoring? Every line out of his mouth is comedic gold (“Merry Christmas! Sh*tter’s full!”), and even subtle moments, like his dickey or when he puts the dog food on top of the light bulbs are pitch perfect. This is a funny movie, from Clark on the sled to the abuse of neighbors Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But there’s also some heart to it, like the sequence where Clark, trapped in the attic and wrapped in his mother’s old clothes, watches old videos of his childhood Christmases and grows teary-eyed at the thought of his past (I believe this was the first time I’ve seen my father cry). Christmas Vacation was wrongly maligned upon its release, but as it continues to work its way into the canon with nonstop television showings throughout December, it earns its place as a modern Christmas classic.
2. A Christmas Story
Meanwhile, if Christmas Vacation represents what we expect at Christmas as adults, A Christmas Story is the nostalgia of Christmases past. An amalgamation of childhood experiences throughout the Christmas month, Jean Shepherd’s nostalgic take on the holiday season is one of the most beloved of all-time. By visually showing us images of the past while Shepherd narrates with his adult, over-the-top musings, they manage to capture the overwhelming scope of the minute details of childhood. Everything ends up feeling big, from the art of the double dog dare to the delivery of a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. We know that, in the long run, these things won’t matter, and that death and taxes are all that await us, but it reminds of a time when this was our primary focus, and we could focus on the joys of being a kid. Peter Billingsly is the perfect Ralphie, a well-meaning troublemaker that wants to be good, and is good, even if he gets into a little mischief along the way. We root for him in his quest to get that coveted Red Ryder BB gun, a symbol of that one gift we wanted as a kid and would do anything to get, and we empathize with him along the way. We too remember when we first slipped up and swore in front of our parents, or got into a fight with the neighborhood bully (ok, maybe these were wish fulfillment, but hey, that’s ok too). And we too remember how abusive that mall Santa could be (even if David Sedaris did this better), or how proud our father was of the tackiest piece of decoration ever. And speaking of the dad, how perfect Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as the parents? McGavin captured that perfect balance of scary, goofy, and caring that we all remember in our parents from childhood, and Dillon is the secret weapon, keeping everything together so the house runs smoothly. We don’t see them together too often, but when we do, we see the love that we all hope to remember between our parents, and hope we still see today. A Christmas Story is a warm, wholesome film that captures the spirit of the season, and of the hopes and tribulations of childhood, and it makes perfect sense that it is run 24 hours straight every year on TV.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life
This is a no-brainer. There is only one film so warm, so joyful, and so perfect for the Christmas season as that one about a guy trying to commit suicide. I jest, but honestly, I don’t know how you do better than It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. A flop on early release, and condemned for being a “Communist plot” (it’s almost like people threw that word around willy-nilly back then without understanding it), the film truly captures the season of Christmas, in a spiritual, emotional, and physical sense (it takes place on Christmas, even if they do sing “Auld Lang Syne.” For an hour and a half of its 2:10 runtime, we are shown the life of George Bailey, played perfectly by Jimmy Stewart, a man we know from the beginning is about to commit suicide, and only the bumbling Clarence can save him. We see George’s desire to escape from his hometown of Bedford Falls to see the world, only to constantly fail and get dragged back into community squabbles, led by the sadistically evil banker Henry Potter. How evil is John Barrymore’s Potter, and why is he considered the equal of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector without having killed a single person? Simple: because no one in all of film history has ever done anything as evil as to emotionally break a man and then give a lecture about how the world would be better off if he killed himself (“You’re worth more dead than alive.”) He’s the worst example of individualistic capitalism, and he’s the perfect Christmas villain. However, George continuously tries his best to do good and live a good life, taking care of his mother after his father dies, staying behind to give loans to the poor immigrants of the town to help them achieve the American Dream, and eventually settling down with a girl who, if we’re being honest, is actually way out of his league. Seriously, though, Donna Reed is the best actor in this film, and I will fight you if you say otherwise. In the end, George declares that everyone would be better off if he’d never been born, and this is where the Christmas magic occurs: angel Clarence shows him a world where he wasn’t around to do goodwill towards man, to share love in the face of evil, and to generally be a good man. We see the horrors of this world, through impoverished townsfolk, a world of sin, several dead from neglect or worse, and so on. We see what those little acts of kindness that George (and the audience) took for granted truly meant to the world around him. And when the town comes together to show him how much he means to them at the end, bringing thousands of dollars to bail him out, it’s probably the most triumphant, tearful moment in the history of cinema. Christmas is about love, about sacrificing so we can make others happy, and about being generally good people in the face of tyrants who feed on greed, power, and dominance. And by showing us the true effects of good over evil, along with clever, touching cinematography, editing, and heart, Frank Capra made one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, one of the most inspiration films of all time, and quite frankly, one of the greatest films of all time, period.
Well, I wish you all a Merry Christmas! I hope you and your families have a wonderful day, and as a special treat for you all, here’s Jimmy Eat World performing “Last Christmas.” We’re back to Oscars and reviews, tomorrow, so stay tuned!