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The 50 best Christmas movies of all time

From silly Santas to shoot-outs in the snow, here's our pick of the best Christmas films ever

Edited by
Andy Kryza
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In the last few years, the Christmas movie has made a comeback. Netflix has made a cottage industry of the season, following in the well-polished shoes of Hallmark. New favorites compete with the classics on television and streaming services. Vanessa Hudgens is making a play to become the queen of Christmas, with a third Princess Switch set for release. We are up to our eyeballs in holly, jolly entertainment. 

Still, not all Christmas movies are created equal. Netflix might be unleashing a dozen new holiday movies this year, but will Love Hard really be able to hold a candle to It's a Wonderful Life? Doubtful. To help you separate the coal from the good stuff, we’re counted down the most charming, entertaining and occasionally even terrifying festive movies of all time. From demonic Santas and home-invading thieves to feelgood fireside frolics, Christmas songsice-skating escapades and enough hot chocolate to drown an elf, our cinematic sack is bulging with treats.

Best Christmas movies

The Santa Clause (1994)

Tim Allen stars in this festive comedy about an ordinary man who must step into Santa’s shoes after an accident. A trip to the North Pole follows, along with various comic scenarios as he physically morphs into Santa in front of his disbelieving ex-wife (Wendy Crewson). The film spawned two sequels with diminishing results, but the original remains a holiday classic for ’90s kids. 

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The Holiday (2006)

Everything about this Christmas movie in which Jude Law romances Cameron Diaz in a cutesy country cottage shouldn’t work. And yet there’s something deeply charming about this festive romantic comedy. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been bullied into submission by numerous viewings; or perhaps it’s the secondary LA-set plot, which features Kate Winslet on peak form as a scorned British reporter who flirts with Jack Black and befriends a forgotten but famous screenwriter from the Golden Age of Hollywood (played by the late Eli Wallach). Either way, like a tub of Quality Street, it’s irresistible.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

47. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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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The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis sprinkled his family-friendly magic on this performance-capture animation starring Tom Hanks in multiple roles, including narrator, train conductor and Santa Claus. This one ticks a lot of boxes for Christmas fanatics, including reindeer, elves and a whole heap of snow. Zemeckis would later revisit the uncanny valley of the holidays with the Jim Carrey-starring Disney’s a Christmas Carol, but for our money this first crack at mo-cap holiday cheer is the perfect holiday heartwarmer.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

45. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Loved for her columns about her wholesome husband and family in Connecticut, Elizabeth (Barbara Stanwyck) is actually a single New Yorker. When asked to host a Christmas dinner by her boss, she must head to Connecticut and keep up the pretence. Romantic complications follow.

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Black Christmas (1974)

44. Black Christmas (1974)

An early slasher with an undeniable impact on future landmarks like Halloween and Friday the 13th, this cult essential from Bob ‘A Christmas Story’ Clark 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.

Love Actually (2003)

The film that single handedly turned Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ into a cultural juggernaut, Richard Curtis’s sprawling London ensemble piece is so sticky sweet that it’s easy to forget that each bit of holiday cheer is counterbalanced with characters destined for the naughty list. From Alan Rickman’s philandering editor to Hugh Grant’s assistant-seducing Prime Minister and Andrew Lincoln’s borderline stalker, most vignettes balance the sugar with some truly bitter spice. No matter. Like Bill Nighy’s ageing rocker says: Christmas is all around it. And it takes a bit of naughtiness to make the nice shine through anyway. 

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The Family Stone (2005)

Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes and Rachel McAdams star in this American comedy-drama about an uptight guest (Parker) in the liberal Stone household, where matriarch Diane Keaton rules supreme. Watchable Christmas fluff with a delightful mean streak.

Lethal Weapon (1987)
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All hail Shane Black, the king of the fast-quipping buddy comedy-thriller, and a man who seems incapable of writing a screenplay without somehow involving Christmas. We’ll meet him again later in our list, but this is where it all started: with two bickering cops on a mission to take down drug dealers. At Christmas.

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Ghostbusters II (1989)
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The holiday season sees an influx of spirits to New York City, so who you gonna call? This sequel may not have wowed like its predecessor but it reunited the charming cast in a suitably festive setting. Who can resist the Ghostbusters charging around in Santa hats, eh?

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The closest any horror-comedy has gotten to the yuletide mania of Gremlins, Mike Dougherty’s Krampus pits a squabbling family led by Toni Collette and Adam Scott against the Scandinavian anti-Santa: A deranged goat-like demon who devours kids (and adults) on the naughty list. And while it doesn’t reach the derange heights of Joe Dante’s classic, it does include a particularly toothy killer clown sure to keep the kiddies awake well into Christmas morning. 

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Klaus (2019)
Image: Netflix

38. 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 set-up sounds cynical, worry not: Icy hearts melt, fast.

White Christmas (1954)
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Christmas may have been white, but this time Irving Berlin’s musical was in Technicolor. Inspired by Holiday Inn, this follow-up could not be more Christmassy if it tried (and try it probably did). Snow, shows and romance all added up to a massive festive box office hit that would run and run on TV. When Clark Griswold famously promised the ‘hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny (expletive deleted) Kaye,’ he was talking about this gloriously old-fashioned musical 

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Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
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This Oscar-nominated Disney short film casts Mickey as Bob Cratchit and Scrooge McDuck as his selfish boss, while Goofy, Jiminy Cricket and other familiar characters morph into the various ghosts. A nifty blending of Disney favourites with the Dickens classic.

Babes in Toyland (1934)
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Laurel and Hardy go family-friendly in this fairytale mash-up featuring characters from the stories of Mother Goose, Little Bo Peep and others. The duo play the Toymaker’s Apprentices in this slapstick heartwarmer, which was a Christmas TV favourite throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Just be wary of the horrifying 1986 version starring young Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore. 

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A Christmas Tale (2008)
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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)
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The finest Christmas comedy of them all? Only Bad Santa rivals it for sheer, berserk laughs, as Chevy Chase and his extended family suffer a series of unfortunate, unlikely and often downright gruesome seasonal setbacks. Chevy’s madcap speech at the dinner table is an all-time classic. ‘Hallelujah, holy shit, where’s the Tylenol’ indeed.

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Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
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‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas,’ sang Judy Garland in this cockle-warming musical set against the backdrop of the 1904 World Fair. The breakout song wasn’t originally so cheery, but Garland and her co-stars objected to the cynical tone in lyrics such as: ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past.’ Cheery.

About a Boy (2002)
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  • Comedy

Christmas plays a central part in this charming British comedy: grumpy Will (Hugh Grant) is living off the proceeds of the Christmas song his father wrote, and discovers the value of family Christmases through his friendship with young Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Not as schmaltzy as it sounds: This is a Nick Hornby adaptation, after all. And one of the best at that. 

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Christmas Evil (1980)
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  • Horror

Before Silent Night, Deadly Night, there was another horror movie about a psychopath donning a Santa costume and going on a killing spree. This is that movie. John Waters is such a megafan, he even recorded a feature-length commentary for the movie’s Blu-ray re-release in 2014.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)
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Sandra Bullock is at her most loveable in this smart, thoughtful romcom about a lonely Chicago subway worker who rescues the man of her dreams from an oncoming train only to fall in love with his bad-tempered brother. Witty, sweet and festive – if a little stalker-y – it’s the kind of movie Hollywood has always excelled at.

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Die Hard 2 (1990)
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‘How could the same shit happen to the same guy twice?’ Sure, it’s bigger, pricier and more bloated than the one that came before it – but that’s what Christmas is all about! Once again, Bruce takes down a terror gang to the tune of twinkly seasonal carols, this time in an airport.

Holiday Inn (1942)
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This musical is the ultimate ’40s cheerer as Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby sing and dance their way into the ladies’ hearts. The set up is pure Broadway: they’re a musical troupe who only perform on holidays, from Easter to Christmas. The film scored an Oscar for the now iconic song ‘White Christmas’.

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A Christmas Carol (1938)
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This early version of Charles Dickens’s much-told story remains one of the finest, with Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge and Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit. There’s something oddly comforting about watching snow fall in black and white.

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  • Action and adventure

It’s Christmas every day for Arthur, son of Sant. Sarah Smith’s humorous animation sees the clumsy kid leaving the North Pole on a mission, complete with reindeer and comedy elves. James McAvoy and Jim Broadbent provide voices.

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Trading Places (1983)
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  • Comedy

If you’re keen to learn the harsh realities of the global economy but can’t be bothered to trawl through a textbook, this comic satire should do the trick. Eddie Murphy is the streetwise hustler who switches lives with Dan Aykroyd’s preening Wall Street moneybags, only to find himself the victim of a cruel joke played by a pair of vicious aristocrats. 

You’ve Got Mail (1998)
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Nora Ephron’s remake of The Shop Around the Corner is a fairytale about warring booksellers is both a dreamy ode to New York’s Upper West Side as it is to the power of love. The melancholic Christmas scenes set to Harry Nilsson's ‘Remember’ will make you want to go out ice skating or gift a bunch of children’s books, while the chemistry between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks transforms a cheesy into a classic. 

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  • Film
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Hideous Christmas jumpers weren’t always considered cool like they are today. So we can’t blame our protagonist Bridget Jones’s (Renée Zellweger) less than pleasant reaction when she sees her potential love interest, Mark Darcy (a wonderfully stuffy Colin Firth), wearing a sweater with a giant reindeer face on it. It does, however, kick off this sharp romantic comedy-drama about navigating twenty-first-century dating and the pitfalls of having an affair with a caddish, dashing Hugh Grant.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
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There’s something incredibly lovely about first-rate stop-motion work, and this gorgeous musical about a botched Halloween-Christmas merger ranks up there with the old Rankin/Bass Xmas toons. Who else but Tim Burton, the project’s patron producer, could have come up with such appealingly macabre mayhem?

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Carol (2015)
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It’s already become a Christmas classic for especially forward-thinking 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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The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
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This festive masterpiece by German-expat genius Ernst Lubitsch about the struggles of a coterie of neurotic, underpaid, underloved department store clerks is an immaculate conflation of his sprightly shooting style, expertly layered wisecracking and bracing realism, all topped off with a romantic subplot that offers a nakedly joyous celebration of young, serendipitous love. 

In Bruges (2008)
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  • Comedy

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 picturesque festive backdrop contrasts neatly with Ray’s bored cynicism and the increasingly splattery, sweary mayhem that spills across the fairytale setting of Martin McDonagh’s breakout hit.

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
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The ultimate in cuddly Christmas afternoon movies, this original stars Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, who must prove he is in fact Santa Claus – not least to a young girl (Natalie Wood) who has lost the true meaning of Christmas.

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8 Women (2001)
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Singing, dancing, over-emoting on Christmas, whatever: When those eight women happen to be Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Virginie Ledoyen, Firmine Richard, Fanny Ardant and Ludivine Sagnier, they’re welcome to do whatever they damn well please.

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Christmas-themed ‘comedies’ like ‘Fred Claus’ not enough of a lobotomy for you? Here’s the flabby, smug, overextended SNL skit that made such movies fashionable in the first place. Still, it must be said that Bill Murray is perfectly cast as a smug corporate TV exec in store for some ghostly comeuppance.

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Batman Returns (1992)
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Tim Burton’s second stab at the Caped Crusader is actually a slight improvement on his original 1989 blockbuster, mainly due to Michelle Pfeiffer’s uncommonly fierce performance as Catwoman (the finest work she’s ever done). If you forget, Gotham is dusted with a layer of snow and in the process of crowing its Ice Princess. It doesn’t go well for the beauty queen, or anyone, really, in this especially downbeat Christmas.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
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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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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
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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 complications as belly laughs, while Michelle Monaghan puts in a break-out turn in a sexy Santa costume.

The Snowman (1982)
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Raymond Briggs’s book came to life once a year throughout many childhoods, as the animated film was shown on British TV with religious precision. Nominated for an Oscar, the short film tells of a boy whose snowman magically becomes real – but not forever. Add the haunting song ‘Walking In The Air’ and you have a true Christmas classic.

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  • Fantasy

One of the first Johnny Depp performances to suggest he was more than just a set of cheekbones, the actor’s gothed-out title character is a study in pain and pathos. Tim Burton’s suburban fantasy wouldn’t be nearly as touching without Depp’s sad-eyed hero at its center – or its context of Christmas, a time of acceptance, charity and Winona Ryder dancing around ice sculptures.

A Christmas Story (1983)
Photograph: MGM

7. A Christmas Story (1983)

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 hilarity.

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Home Alone (1990)
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  • Comedy

John Hughes penned this rollicking holiday classic that essentially plays like Straw Dogs for children. No matter that everybody’s on the naughty list here, from Catherine O’Hara’s woefully neglectful mom to Macaulay Culkin’s sadistic moppet and Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci’s vindictive crooks. Once the John Williams score kicks in, even the coldest hearts will warm and the most life-altering concussions will heal. 

Gremlins (1984)
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  • 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 traumatised Phoebe Cates tells the saddest Christmas story ever.

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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 St Nick is the furthest thing from a saint. 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 goodwill to all men – is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

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As bad Christmas Eves go, few are worse than the one had by NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), whose reconciliation with his estranged wife in an L.A. skyscraper is interrupted by a bunch of machine-gun-toting terrorists. Filled with killer set pieces and a memorably hissable villain (Alan Rickman), John McTiernan’s crowd-pleasing action film is the hard-R gift that keeps on giving.

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  • Film

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 story cherishes holiday cheer; in a genre that’s become generically saccharine, this is one modern Christmas movie that’s genuinely sweet.

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