’Tis the season to be jolly – unless you’re being dragged to some awful, syrupy, schmaltzy festive flick. Luckily, we’ve got the antidote: every film on this list of Christmas movies is guaranteed to charm, entertain and in the odd case terrify. From psycho Santas and home-invading thieves to feelgood fireside frolics and cockle-warming cosiness, our cinematic sack is bulging with treats.
The best Christmas movies: 50-41
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).
Featuring the first instance of criminal misuse of the Santa suit in our list, this snowy thriller was released in some countries under the slightly less festive title of ‘Deception’. Ben Affleck stars as the released convict who robs casinos dressed as Father Christmas (tut, straight on that naughty list). Charlize Theron and Gary Sinise also appear.
This is either unbearable schmaltz or a festive heart-warmer, depending on who you ask. Love is certainly all around in this ensemble comedy-drama set in the holiday season: even a school nativity play is an opportunity for romance. Comic standouts include Bill Nighy as an ageing rock legend who’s reduced to competing in the race to land a Christmas Number One.
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.
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.
Cameron Diaz romancing Jude Law in a cutesy country cottage should spell pass-the-sick-bucket, but there’s something unbearably lovely about this festive comedy. It doesn’t hurt that the LA-set secondary plot features Kate Winslet on peak form and Jack Black at his most adorably goofy.
The best Christmas movies: 40-31
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-Christmas comedy starts out funny, and gradually becomes intensely, brilliantly moving.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The best Christmas movies: 30-21
“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.
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.
Or, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and It Turned Me Into a Raving Psychopath. This genuinely odd, compelling and subversive low-budget festive slice ’n’ dice, about a toymaker who takes revenge on those who betray the true spirit of Christmas, was named by director John Waters as ‘the best seasonal film of all time’.
“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.
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, it’s the kind of movie Hollywood has always excelled at.
It’s Christmas every day for Arthur, son of Santa, in the most recently released entry in our countdown. 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.
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.
Perhaps we’re stretching it here, but Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece does open with a poor family sitting around the Christmas tree, waiting eagerly for Santa. But when the ceiling caves in, it’s not a jolly fat man but a platoon of heavily armed cops, come to take Dad in for ‘questioning’. And it’s all downhill from there...
The best Christmas movies: 20-11
Bridget (Renée Zellweger) thinks she might have met the man of her life (Colin Firth) – but spots him sporting a hideous Christmas jumper. This seasonal wardrobe error plays a pivotal part in the sharp romantic comedy-drama, which also features fellow festive favourite Hugh Grant.
How Michael Caine kept a straight face playing miserly Scrooge opposite a hectic gaggle of frogs, rats, pigs and Great Gonzos is anyone’s guess. But the result is fabulous, a riot of songs, jokes and general silliness that, amazingly, still manages to respect Dickens’s story.
Jim Carrey puts in an exuberant turn as the grumpy green Grinch of the Dr Seuss books. A hermit who lives on a rubbish dump near Whoville, the Grinch takes a dim view of the consumerist little town – except for child Cindy-Lou, who might just be the one to melt his heart. A great family Christmas movie.
Another terrific alternative to your traditional Christmas movie, this action thriller sees soccer mom Geena Davis suddenly recalling her past as a trained assassin and racing away from (or should that be towards?) danger with private investigator Samuel L Jackson – all against a snowy festive backdrop.
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.
A cosy, child-friendly Christmas treat, this faithful adaptation of CS Lewis’s novel sees its young kids entering an eternally snowy Narnia through the wardrobe, and encountering Father Christmas – while the villainous White Queen (Tilda Swinton) is lurking with evil intent.
Eight women gather to celebrate Christmas in a snowy cottage, but all fall under suspicion when a man is found murdered. French filmmaker François Ozon’s dark comedy musical is a delight, with an impressive roll call of actresses including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart and Fanny Ardant.
The best Christmas movies: The Top 10
After the spectacular success of his first Batman, Tim Burton had carte blanche on this sequel – and boy did he go to town. As snow falls on Gotham, Bruce Wayne finds himself facing not just the creepy, grubby Penguin and his flippered minions, but a psychotic Catwoman and Christopher Walken in a crazy wig.
It’s only 25 minutes long, but this beloved cartoon manages to pack in more warmth, more wit and more honest seasonal spirit than most full-length Christmas movies. It’s largely down to Vince Guaraldi's flawless, jazz-tinged score, a key part of any self-respecting festive record collection.
Another hard-quipping festive shoot-’em-up from Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black, as Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer play a ham actor and a private dick on the trail of a missing woman while sleigh bells ring out over LA. The dialogue’s fast and funny, and somehow the constant gunplay never dents its Christmas spirit.
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.
Christmas is a time of both joy and fear for Edward (Johnny Depp) after he and his new host family are ostracised from the community. It’s a typically bittersweet story from Tim Burton which, with Danny Elfman’s score, has a magical festive feel: just picture Winona Ryder dancing around that ice sculpture.
Is there a more memorable soliloquy in the Christmas movie canon than Phoebe Cates’s tearful recollection of her father’s death – suffocated in the chimney, wearing a Santa suit? It’s the dark heart of Joe Dante’s timeless monster movie, a film that takes all those twinkly festive classics you loved as a kid and vomits – lovingly – all over them.
It’s a brilliant scheme: Billy Bob Thornton dresses as Santa, hires himself cheap to desperate shopping malls then robs them blind with the aid of his foul-mouthed elf sidekick. A flop that became a cult Christmas classic, ‘Bad Santa’ may be gleefully tasteless but it’s also brilliantly sarcastic, enormously funny and – in the scenes with Billy Bob’s goofy kid sidekick Thurman Merman – impossibly sweet.
A gift to Christmas TV programmers, this festive comedy makes full use of Will Ferrell’s man-child charm by casting him as a naive human raised by elves and thrown into a cynical modern-day New York. Highlights include a duet of Baby, It’s Cold Outside with an unwitting Zooey Deschanel as she sings in the shower.
A moving tribute to the power of the individual, Frank Capra’s snowy festive classic is a true delight, as entertaining as it is message-driven. James Stewart puts in the performance of a lifetime as a potential suicide who’s given a chance to look at life with fresh eyes. Merry Christmas George!