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The 30 best holiday movies to watch this year

Whether you’re feeling holly jolly or bah-humbuggy, we’ve got a movie for you.

Edited by
Andy Kryza
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Holiday cheer is relative: One man’s big bowl of holly jolly fun is another’s bramble of humbug. That’s why Christmas movies come in every flavor, from schmaltzy Hallmark flicks and Netflix originals to rom-coms, yuletide horrors and action flicks in which the jingle of Christmas bells mixes with the jangle of shell casings hitting the floor. 

For this list of the 30 best holiday movies of the moment, we reached deep into our stocking to come up with a glorious mix of tried-and-true classics, alternative holiday yarns, cult films and overlooked gems. They might not be the all-time best Thanksgiving and Christmas movies ever made (and they’re certainly not all for children), but among their ranks you’ll find something for every taste once you settle in for a long winter’s movie binge. 

Best holiday movies of all time

  • Film

One of the US’s most beloved holiday movies, Bob Clark’s enduring and old-fashioned Boomer holiday favourite is an ode to consumerism, gun worship and family eccentricity told through the eyes of a kid who dreams of scoring a BB gun for Christmas. Black Christmas director Clark keeps the edges rough on this slice of Americana, foregoing the schmaltz for a healthy dose of gruff, blue-collar cheer and tongue-on-frozen-flagpole realism.

Bad Santa (2003)
  • Film
  • Comedy

He drinks like a fish, swears like a sailor and the less said about his sexual proclivities, the better. Billy Bob Thornton’s department-store Saint Nick is the furthest thing from being a saint, to say the least. The fact that Terry Zwigoff’s misanthropic comedy somehow turns this pathetic sad sack into a sympathetic hero – and the movie into a foul-mouthed ode to good will toward men – is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Will Ferrell’s overgrown-child persona hilariously complements this comedy about a guileless giant elf searching for his dad in NYC, but the film’s focus isn’t just on the funny bone. There’s an abundance of heart and soul in the way the film cherishes holiday cheer; in a genre that’s become generically saccharine, this is one modern Christmas movie that’s genuinely sweet.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  • Film

Might a Macy’s department store Santa (Edmund Gwenn) be the real thing? And will he survive his insanity trial? The vibe of this immortal studio favorite is snappy and comedic, but it also packs the wallop of an essential holiday truth: Christmas magic often requires us to rise to the occasion of being charmed.

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  • Film
  • Drama

It’s already become a Christmas classic for progressive families. Working for the first time with material developed by another screenwriter, director Todd Haynes transforms an underappreciated 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel about secret lesbian love into a universal romance. Once you’ve seen Rooney Mara in a Santa hat, there’s no turning back.

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Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
  • Film
  • Comedy

It’s a classic formula: Two guys are thrown together on an impromptu road trip. They hate each other on sight but gradually build up a grudging respect. Thanks to career-peak turns from Steve Martin and John Candy, John Hughes’s home-for-the-holidays comedy starts out funny, and gradually becomes intensely, brilliantly moving. Were it not for one manic barrage of f-bombs in one biting tirade by Candy, this would be a family classic rather than an R-rated after-hours affair. But hey, that’s why God invented the mute button.

Black Christmas (1974)
  • Film

An early slasher with an undeniable impact on future landmarks like Halloween and Friday the 13th, this cult essential takes place on a snowy college campus where sorority sisters find themselves targeted by a creep who lives in the attic. The mood is icy and ominous; it doesn’t lift even after you turn on the lights and warm the eggnog.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
  • Film
  • Animation

Trust Goth godhead Tim Burton and animator Henry Selick to concoct the perfect dose of alt-holiday fun in this musical comedy about the king of Halloween taking over yuletide festivities – with ghoulishly giddy results. For those who prefer to have themselves a scary little Christmas, this is the go-to movie.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
  • Film

By now as iconic as the story of Kris Kringle himself, this Peanuts-based perennial sends viewers into happy spasms of neck-tipped dancing year after year. Its most lasting achievement is Vince Guaraldi’s breezy jazz score – whimsical and lovely like a falling snowflake.

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Gremlins (1984)
  • Film
  • Fantasy

Plenty of Christmas presents come with instructions, yet none are as ominous as the following: Never expose to bright light, never add water and, crucially, never feed after midnight. Joe Dante’s horror-comedy turns a well-intentioned gift into a nightmare. Meanwhile, a traumatized Phoebe Cates tells the saddest Christmas story ever.

  • Film
  • Family and kids

Playwright David E Talbert enters the Christmas canon with this Netflix original starring Forest Whitaker as an aloof toymaker tasked with caring for his estranged granddaughter on Christmas. An old-school musical fantasy brought to life through new-school VFX and cutting-edge choreography, the film is extremely busy and a little unfocused – not that most viewers would notice. They’ll be too busy being dazzled by the explosive visuals and genuine heart at the core of the relentlessly affirming film.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the Nakatomi Plaza not a creature was stirring – apart from Hans Gruber and his not especially festive band of ruthless mercenaries and a barefooted, T-shirted John McClane. Die Hard remains an action classic, a Christmas staple and a cautionary tale about the perils of turning up to your work office party without a bazooka. Yippee-ki-yuletide!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
  • Film
  • Animation

Rankin and Bass’s stop-motion perennial drips with nostalgia, so much so that it’s easy to forget the cynical streak coursing through its short runtime: This is a North Pole where even Santa gets in on bullying Rudolph for his bright-red nose and a legion of elves displays a toxic amount of, um, dental-phobia toward a flamboyant would-be dentist. Throw in peppermint addict Yukon Cornelius, a whole island of misfit toys and a gnashing abominable snowman and it’s a wonder this hasn’t been revisited by Tim Burton. 

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A Christmas Tale (2008)
  • Film

Seething with long-held resentments, an extended French family gathers for the holiday and, as the booze starts to flow, out come the knives. Don’t expect figgy pudding and sentiment: Director Arnaud Desplechin is more interested in open wounds. Paradoxically, this is a great film to watch with your clan, who are undoubtedly in a better place.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
  • Film

They previously leveled the Midwest and Europe, so for the hilarious third installment in the Chevy Chase–starring comedy series, the Griswold clan plays it safe by staying home for the holidays. Disaster comes anyway, in the form of squirrel-infested Christmas trees, holiday dinner misadventures and Cousin Eddie’s overflowing septic tank.

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Home Alone (1990)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Accidentally left by himself for Christmas, precocious tyke Kevin McCallister (iconic child star Macaulay Culkin) protects his suburban home from a bumbling pair of thieves, in between binging on junk food and violent movies. With this surprise blockbuster, director Chris Columbus (and screenwriter John Hughes) fulfilled every eight-year-old’s fantasies of cheese pizza and a little of the old ultraviolence.

  • Film
  • Drama

Better remembered for its orgies and Cruise-on-Kidman psychodrama, Stanley Kubrick’s final film is also, distinctly, a perverse Christmas tale. Tinseled trees dot several interiors, the whole plot’s about wish fulfillment and the last scene takes place in a toy store.

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Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
  • Film
  • Drama

A film for all seasons, Vincente Minnelli’s classic drama about a year in the life of an early-20th-century American family has one of the most indelible yuletide scenes on film: Judy Garland cheering up a teary-eyed Margaret O’Brien with her soul-searing rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’

Edward Scissorhands (1990)
  • Film
  • Fantasy

Christmas is a time of both joy and fear for Edward (Johnny Depp) after he and his new host family are ostracized from the community. It’s a typically bittersweet story from Tim Burton which, along with Danny Elfman’s score, has a magical feel: Just picture Winona Ryder dancing around that ice sculpture.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Small-time crook Robert Downey Jr. hits Hollywood in this witty crime comedy featuring a memorable turn from Val Kilmer as a private investigator hired to give the wannabe actor background for a role. There are as many plot complications as belly laughs, while Michelle Monaghan breaks out in a sexy Santa costume.

Klaus (2019)
Image: Netflix

22. Klaus (2019)

This oddball origin story of Santa is the first animated feature from Netflix, and it's a doozy. Featuring Oscar-winner JK Simmons as a grizzled proto-Fat Man who loves toymaking but isn't interested in children, Jason Schwartzman as an incompetent postal carrier and Rashida Jones as a cynical teacher, the film’s eye-popping art direction scored the streamer a Best Animated Feature nomination. And if the setup sounds cynical, worry not: Icy hearts melt, fast.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Family dysfunction is as essential to Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie and gravy (not together, though). This Jodie Foster-directed comedy brings all the light squabbling to the table, with an ensemble featuring Robert Downey Jr, Holly Hunter, Claire Danes and Anne Bancroft delivering laughs and heart in a tale about a middle-class Thanksgiving reunion.

Batman Returns (1992)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Tim Burton’s foray into the Batman franchise is a crisply dark superhero classic with a striking turn from Michelle Pfeiffer as a slinky Catwoman. Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito are chief villains for Michael Keaton’s caped crusader, while Gotham just wants to have a normal Christmas. It’s a nice thought, anyway.

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  • Film

It’s unlikely that Bill Murray could ever have gotten through his career without playing a version of Scrooge. His deadpan delivery was made for this updated spin on Dickens’ festive moral tale, in which Murray's TV exec oversees a broadcast of A Christmas Carol.

In Bruges (2008)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Quaint Bruges isn’t exactly where hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) was planning to spend the holiday season, but the Belgian town is where he must stay, in the company of his older, wiser counterpart (Brendan Gleeson). The Christmas backdrop contrasts neatly with Ray’s bored cynicism and the increasingly splattery violence.

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Trading Places (1983)
  • Film
  • Comedy

A secret wager sees Eddie Murphy’s street hustler swapping lives with rich business man Dan Aykroyd, who is framed and rendered homeless in the run-up to Christmas. It’s heavy stuff for a comedy, but told with a light touch and a big heart.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

This surprisingly emotional, if unevenly episodic New York Christmas fable is so much more than a Seth Rogen stoner romp, though the sight of Rogen in the throes of a psychedelic freakout during midnight mass is worth the price of admission. At its heart, this is a story of friends stumbling into adulthood, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie rounding out a trio of buds on a quest to bury their worries in weed and alcohol en route to a legendary Christmas Eve rager. Bonus points for positing Michael Shannon as a creepily mysterious drug dealer who might be a modern version of It’s a Wonderful Life’s Clarence. 

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