One of my favorite Christmas pastimes is to sprawl out on the couch or in bed under a warm blanket and pop in some of my favorite Christmas DVDs. My Christmas movie collection has steadily grown over the years and I typically watch one movie per night. Originally done as a means of pure amusement to pass the time, I’ve adopted this tradition in the past decade as a way to fill up my Christmas spirit bucket leading to my favorite holiday of the year.
I’ve decided to compile a list of my favorite Christmas movies and rank them in order of most enjoyable. But before we get to the list, I need to define what I consider a Christmas movie. Some people refuse to acknowledge those movies that do not have a plot directly related to a Christmas theme. Others will include any movie that even vaguely mentions the holiday or shows a scene from it. I fall somewhere in between and say that a Christmas movie to me is one with a setting that takes place — for the most part — during Christmastime and has some kind of reference to the holiday.
Without further ado, here’s my list of top Christmas movies, ranked in descending order by a combination of humor, sentimentality, Christmas spirit, and the power to tug at the heart strings.
- The Family Man (2000)
Just recently added to my Christmas list this year, The Family Man is an enjoyable movie centered on the idea that the glitz and glamour of a high-paying successful job isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be, and that the power of the relationships in one’s life can have a greater effect. Starring Nicholas Cage and Téa Leoni, I’m sure this film has the potential to work its way up my list over the years.
- Jack Frost (1998)
Starring Michael Keaton as a recently-deceased lead singer of a band who returns to life in the form of a snowman built by his grieving son, Jack Frost is a heartwarming story about the bond between a father and son and the importance of prioritizing relationship with family above personal hobby and work.
- While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Here’s one of the first questionable movies as it does not have a central Christmas plot, but it contains a major Christmas setting. It stars Sandra Bullock as a lonely train station token collector who has eyes for a customer who frequents her booth. When he falls off the platform onto the tracks, she rescues him from an oncoming train, visits him in the hospital only to be mistakenly identified as the man’s fiancée. While he is stuck in a coma, she spends time with his brother and falls in love with him instead. Clearly a movie with the message that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan and something better can come along.
- Eight Crazy Nights (2002)
Wait … what? A Hanukkah movie? Yes, even though this adult animated musical comedy has a Hanukkah title and theme, it does have Christmas references throughout and has worked its way into my regular rotation. Adam Sandler provides the voice of the lead character, Davey Stone, plus several role players. It’s about a wayward loner who turned from a righteous life while struggling to cope with the loss of his parents as a young boy. While stubbornly being mentored by a goofy, naive old man, Davey softens his heart and learns to care about someone other than himself.
- The Holiday (2006)
Another movie that does not have a Christmas plot, The Holiday is a romantic comedy that details the love lives of four separate individuals, two in Los Angeles and two in England. Amanda, played by Cameron Diaz, recently breaks up and seeks to get away from her busy life as a movie trailer producer in L.A. She swaps houses with the lonely Iris (Kate Winslet) who is mired in an unrequited love for her coworker all the way in England. While in England and living in Iris’ house, Amanda meets and falls for Iris’ widower brother (Jude Law). Meanwhile, across the pond in Amanda’s L.A. home, Iris connects with Amanda’s recently broken up friend, Miles (Jack Black).
- Just Friends (2005)
Ryan Reynolds stars as Chris Brander, a successful Los Angeles record executive who was a former nerd in high school. While escorting pop singer Samantha James (played by Anna Faris) to Paris, the plane has to make an emergency landing near Chris’ hometown in New Jersey. While in New Jersey, he meets up with his former best friend — whom he had a love interest in — Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). Chris attempts to show Jamie what she was missing in high school and that he’s no longer the fat loser she once knew, but he winds up portraying himself more as one of the jerks that used to make fun of him in high school than the all-around “good guy” that Jamie knew growing up.
- The Santa Clause (1994), The Santa Clause 2 (2002) and The Santa Clause 3 (2006)
I’m listing these three movies together because I treat sequels as one continuous story unless there is a major break in character continuity (see Home Alone series later). This series of movies stars Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, a divorced man who is forced into the role of Santa Claus after the jolly fat man falls from his roof. In assuming that role, Scott must accept all that comes with the territory, including the beard and the bowl full of jelly. In the process of becoming Father Christmas, Scott grows closer with his young son. In the sequels, Scott discovers a clause that says he must get married or lose his job as Santa, so he pursues his son’s anti-Christmas school principal. In the final movie of the trilogy, Jack Frost (Martin Short), unhappy with his life and role in it, plots to unseat Scott as Santa so he can become Santa and do things his own way. It’s a very enjoyable series and I like the tried and true “race against the clock to save Christmas” common plot.
- Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)
I enjoyed growing up watching Ernest movies. He’s a peculiar man with oddities that make you laugh. As I’ve gotten older, there are some Ernest movies that are just unbearable to watch, but this one lives on. The late Jim Varney stars as Ernest P. Worrell, a dim witted, bumbling man with good intentions. As a taxi driver, he gives a ride to Santa Claus, who is in town to resign at his position and pass the job on to a new man. In yet another “race against the clock to save Christmas” plot, Santa must convince this new man to accept the job as Father Christmas before 7pm on Christmas Eve or else the spirit and magic of the season will die forever. Ernest must help get the job done and rekindles his spirit in the process.
- Deck the Halls (2006)
Matthew Broderick stars as Steve Finch, a local eye doctor and a lover of Christmas who fancies himself somewhat an expert of the season. He desires to keep alive certain traditions with his wife and two children, which they reluctantly go along with. When Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) moves in with his family across the street from Steve, the two men get off to a rocky start. Eventually, in an effort to do something big and spectacular that he’ll be remembered for, Buddy attempts to decorate his house with so many lights that it’ll be visible from space. When the townsfolk rally around Buddy, it wounds Steve’s pride and the two engage in a battle of one-upmanship which winds up driving away both men’s families.
- Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
John Grisham is perhaps my favorite novelist, and he took a break from his courtroom-themed genre to write a Christmas book in 2001 titled “Skipping Christmas”. This movie is based off of Grisham’s novel so, of course, I wanted to give it a chance. Tim Allen stars as Luther Krank, who becomes fed up with how much he and his wife Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) spend on Christmas. Additionally, the couple just watched their only daughter, Blair, depart for the Peace Corps and couldn’t imagine Christmas being the same without her. So Luther plots to “skip Christmas” by refusing to decorate, buy gifts, or spend any money on their usual Christmas expenditures, and instead use that money on a cruise for he and Nora. Their plan backfires thanks to upset neighbors and the surprise return of Blair. In the process, Luther learns just how tightly knit a community he lives in and lets go of his cruise ambitions.
- A Christmas Carol (2009)
Who doesn’t like Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol? The story has been made into numerous movies and plays and this is one of the latest adaptations. It’s a computer animated film with Jim Carrey voicing the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t need to recap the story because I’m sure you’re all well aware of how it goes. But I felt the animation was nicely done for this movie.
- Mixed Nuts (1994)
This movie sounds just as its title might imply. It’s a story about an odd cast of characters whose lives intersect. Steve Martin plays Philip, a suicide-prevention hotline worker who just breaks up with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, his coworker Catherine (Rita Wilson) is a lonely woman who lives with her mother and takes a liking to Philip. Their third coworker, Mrs. Munchnik, is a cranky old lady who is trying to get to her dead husband’s sister’s house for Christmas dinner but gets stuck in an elevator. The trio’s hotline office is in an apartment building and they find out they need to raise $5,000 or risk getting evicted and losing their jobs. Meanwhile, Juliette Lewis, Rob Reiner, Liev Schreiber, Garry Shandling, and Adam Sandler all play roles in this movie as the core cast members try to resolve their relationships and avoid the “seaside strangler” serial killer. Have I lost you? Don’t worry, it makes more sense when you see it, and the oddness of it is quite entertaining.
- Bad Santa (2003)
It’s crass, it’s vulgar, and it is not a family Christmas movie. But it is delightfully funny. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie Stokes, a lowlife criminal who poses as a mall Santa in shopping centers throughout the country in an effort to break in and rob the store safes at Christmas. Willie’s problem is he’s lost his zest for life and spends his days drinking away his sanity. Throughout the movie, there’s a hilarious collection of scenes where he shows up drunk to work, reluctantly befriends a goofy, bullied kid so that he can weasel his way into the kid’s house, and tries to stay sober enough to complete the heist.
- Fred Claus (2007)
Vince Vaughn stars as Fred Claus, the brother of Santa Claus, in this clever storyline. Fred grew to resent his brother, Nicholas, because their parents paid so much attention to “St. Nick” when the two were children. So Fred grows up hating everything Christmas-related and winds up in a job as a repo man — taking away things while his brother, Santa Claus, keeps giving. Fred, in an effort to open up an off-track betting shop, needs $50,000 to do so and turns to his brother Santa for the money because he knows Santa is a saint at heart and will likely give him whatever he wants. Santa makes Fred come work for him and Fred disrupts production at Santa’s workshop and nearly runs the North Pole into the ground. Kevin Spacey plays the role of Clyde Northcutt, an efficiency expert and hater of Christmas, who is desperately looking to give Santa three strikes in order to shut down his business. Fred finds his good conscience along the way and helps save Christmas — in yet another “race against the clock to save Christmas” plot.
- Four Christmases (2008)
Another Vince Vaughn Christmas movie, in this one he stars alongside Reese Witherspoon as a seemingly happy couple that refuses to get married or have children as both of them came from divorced parents and dysfunctional families. They plan a vacation during Christmas to avoid having to go see their families, but a dense fog cancels their flight and they have no choice but to make the holiday rounds. They wind up visiting each of their four parents on Christmas to celebrate in their own unique ways. Given the all-star cast that surrounds Vaughn and Witherspoon — including, but not limited to, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Kristin Chenoweth and Jon Favreau — this movie is packed with entertainment and good laughs.
- A Christmas Story (1983)
One of the all-time great Christmas movies, this film has worked its way into our popular culture, whether it be with the hideous leg lamp, the Red Ryder BB gun, the tongue against the frozen metal pole routine, or countless catchphrases and quotes, it’s difficult to escape the significance of this movie during Christmastime. This movie stars Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, a young boy who wants nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder BB gun. But as the holiday nears, he gets rebuked by his mother, his teacher, and a department store Santa Claus, who all tell him “you’ll shoot your eye out”. Christmas morning arrives and Ralphie does, indeed, get his coveted gift, only to hurt himself the first time he uses the gun.
- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
One of the great movies in the National Lampoon’s vacation series, Chevy Chase reprises his role as Clark W. Griswold, Jr., a hardworking, under appreciated family man who works in food additives. He wants nothing more than to provide his family a big holiday celebration at home. Along the way, he has extended family crash his house and offer him less than ideal company, he has trouble putting up and turning on his 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights, his Christmas tree burns down, a squirrel and a dog destroy his house, and on top of it all he doesn’t get the Christmas bonus he was planning to use on building a pool. One of my all-time favorite actors, Chevy Chase delivers another home run performance in a movie full of laughs and memorable quotes I still use to this day.
- The Polar Express (2004)
This is my Christmas morning movie and it’s quite moving. Directed by the legendary Robert Zemeckis with Tom Hanks providing voice work, this computer-animated musical film is about a young boy who begins to lose his belief in Santa Claus until Christmas Eve, late at night, an express train arrives in front of his house and takes him on a wild ride to the North Pole to see Santa Claus. Along the way, he befriends another boy and girl and the three of them take a ride through Santa’s village before meeting the jolly fat guy in person. The little boy, who still doesn’t believe in Santa, can’t hear Santa’s sleigh bells jingling because of his lack of belief. But when he finally believes and hears the bells ringing for the first time, it’s quite an emotional moment.
- Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2 (1992)
This is a classic Christmastime movie (or set of movies) and they are the first ones I watch each year. Like The Santa Clause trilogy, I lump these two together because it’s a continuing story. Other Home Alones were made, but I do not include those because they are with a different cast. By now, everybody should know the story of Kevin McCallister, played by Macaulay Culkin, who was sent up to the attic as punishment and forced to sleep up there the night before he and his large extended family were scheduled to fly to Paris for Christmas. A storm that night knocked out the power and the family overslept. When they awoke, they hurried to get out of the house and to the airport on time to not miss their flight, accidentally leaving Kevin home alone in the middle of the hysteria. Kevin, scared and confused, learns to develop self-reliance and even goes so far to defend his house with his toys and his father’s tools against two bumbling robbers. The second movie is much the same plot except Kevin winds up in New York alone, and rather than prevent his house from being robbed, he’s instead protecting himself in his uncle’s house from the same two robbers.
- Elf (2003)
This movie is one of my favorites of all time due to the comedy delivered by Will Ferrell and because of the touching climax to the story. To be honest, as goofy as it sounds, I’m a lot like Buddy the Elf (Ferrell’s lead character). No, I was never in an orphanage, adopted by Santa, or raised by Elves at the North Pole. But Buddy, like myself, is just a child at heart with a passion and love for Christmas. He wants so desperately to be of good use and help deliver Christmas cheer. In yet another “race against the clock to save Christmas” movie, Buddy must help repair Santa’s sleigh, which is malfunctioning due to such low Christmas spirit, so Santa can fly and deliver the presents. Buddy goes to New York to meet his real father and is met with resistance. His father Walter (James Caan) is a workaholic who puts his job before his family and he rebukes Buddy. But by the end of the movie, Walter’s heart softens and Buddy saves the day, flying away into the night on the back of Santa’s sleigh while waving to his girlfriend, Jovie. Very touching moment.
- Jingle All the Way (1996)
I’ll go on record as saying I do not really believe this is the best Christmas movie; it’s just my favorite and holds the most sentimental and entertainment value. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the role of Howard Langston who — surprise, surprise — is a workaholic who doesn’t pay enough attention to his family. As a result of his neglect, he forgets to pick up his son’s most desired Christmas present, a Turbo Man action figure, the hottest selling toy ever. Due to the fact that it was Christmas Eve, finding that toy was impossible, despite Howard’s efforts to drive all over town (including to the Mall of America) to find it. Along the way, Howard runs into Myron Larabee (played by Sinbad), an unstable postal worker (go figure) who is in the same dilemma as Howard, trying to find a Turbo Man for his son. The two get into a battle to get their hands on the action figure and hilarity ensues. Eventually, Howard stumbles his way into a Christmas parade featuring Turbo Man, and winds up in the costume of his son’s beloved hero. Unbeknownst to his son that he’s behind the costume, Howard presents a limited edition model of the action figure to his son upon the parade float. Myron then jumps on the float dressed as Turbo Man’s archenemy and the two battle it out. After safely securing his son from harm’s way, Howard reveals his identity to his son and wife (played by Rita Wilson) and Howard promises he no longer will neglect them. The film has a very touching ending and it’s special to see the bond between father and son.
In addition to my Christmas movies, I also watch a few animated short films, which I did not want to include on the list because they are not full featured films. These include: A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated one, not the one with Jim Carrey), Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Muppet Christmas Carol.