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The 50 best Christmas movies

We rank and review our all-time favorite Christmas films, from silly Santas to shoot-outs in the snow

Bad Santa

‘Tis the season to make ranked lists (that's what December is all about), so we thought we’d take the reindeer by the horns and sift out the best Christmas movies of all time, the ones that give you a lump in the throat. Naturally, our list includes both the naughty and the nice—you’ll find Jimmy Stewart on it, but he might have to wait in line behind Bad Santa’s Billy Bob Thornton. Some of these are action movies, some are blockbusters, all will give you that special winter feeling. One small note: We simply had to add in classic TV specials, not technically movies yet often superior to them. Seasons greetings from Team Film, and may your Netflix queue be stuffed with goodies.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Christmas in New York

Best Christmas movies: 50–41

50

Love Actually (2003)

Either unbearable schmaltz or a heart-warmer, depending on who you ask. Love is certainly all around in this ensemble drama set during the holiday season: Even a school nativity play is an opportunity for romance. Comic standouts include Bill Nighy as an aging rock legend who’s reduced to competing in the race to land Britain's coveted Christmas No. 1.

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49

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

A Japanese POW camp is the less-than-festive setting for this David Bowie-starrer in which an eventful Christmas Eve has an impact on both prisoners and guards. One to make you feel grateful for your holiday turkey.

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48
Joyeux Noël (2005)

Joyeux Noël (2005)

The WWI Christmas truce of 1914 is the poignant setting for this snowy heart-warmer in which Scottish, French and German soldiers drop their weapons and agree on a ceasefire. Daniel Brühl and Diane Kruger costar.

47
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Beloved 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 appearances. Romantic complications ensue.

46

The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis sprinkled his family-friendly magic on this performance-capture animated movie starring Tom Hanks in multiple roles, including narrator, train conductor and Santa Claus. The film ticks a lot of boxes for Christmas fanatics, including reindeer, elves and a whole heap of snow.

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45

The Holiday (2006)

Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz swap houses for Christmas and conveniently meet Jack Black and Jude Law, respectively. There’s romance, there’s an unfeasibly large country cottage and there are light laughs from an attractive cast. This is the kind of slushy movie you can get away with watching simply because it’s Christmas.

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44

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

While actually a Thanksgiving-themed comedy, John Hughes’s film has a festive, family feel that’s made it a Christmas favorite. Pitting Steve Martin’s uptight traveler against John Candy’s optimistic salesman, it blends slapstick and innuendo with classic character humor. Just the thing for an egg-nog-saturated afternoon.

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43

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Opening with “Jingle Bell Rock” and ending with a family gathering around the Christmas tree, Lethal Weapon has a Christmassy start and finish, book-ending a tale of drug busts, suicide and torture. There’s even a shootout in a Christmas-tree lot.

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42
Prancer (1989)

Prancer (1989)

A girl finds one of Santa’s magical reindeer in this cute live-action kids’ film starring Sam Elliott as the gruff, grieving father of eight-year-old Jessica (Rebecca Harrell), who’s obsessed with Christmas. Jessica’s optimism will teach the town a thing or two about the true spirit of the season.

41

Holiday Inn (1942)

This musical is the ultimate ’40s feel-good flick as Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby sing and dance their way into 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 a Best Song Oscar for the now iconic “White Christmas.”

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Best Christmas movies: 40–31

40

White Christmas (1954)

Christmas may have been white, but Irving Berlin’s musical was in Technicolor. Inspired by Holiday Inn, this follow-up could not be more Christmassy if it tried (and it probably did). Snow, singing and romance all add up to a massive box-office hit that would run forever on TV.

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39
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

This Oscar-nominated Disney short 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 favorites with the Dickens classic.

38
Babes In Toyland (1934)

Babes In Toyland (1934)

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, a TV favorite throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

37
’R Xmas (2001)

’R Xmas (2001)

Back in the early 2000s, the great New York director Abel Ferrara couldn't get arrested in Hollywood—which might explain why hardly anyone knows about this intense, gritty but surprisingly festive gangsta thriller starring Ice-T and The Sopranos Drea De Matteo.

36

About a Boy (2002)

Christmas plays a central part in this charming British comedy: Grumpy Will (Hugh Grant), living off the proceeds of the Christmas song his father wrote, discovers the value of family through his friendship with young Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Not as schmaltzy as it sounds.

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35

Christmas Evil (1980)

Or, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and It Turned Me Into a Raving Psychopath. This genuinely odd, compelling and subversive low-budget 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.”

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34

While You Were Sleeping (1995)

Sandra Bullock saves the life of stranger Peter Gallagher on Christmas Day. While he’s comatose, she lets his family continue under the misapprehension that she’s his fiancée. Meanwhile, his brother (Bill Pullman) smells a rat. Cute chemistry and family cheer.

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33

Trading Places (1983)

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. Heavy stuff for a comedy, maybe, but told with a light touch and a big heart.

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32

Brazil (1985)

Yes, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian cult classic is indeed set at Christmas—there’s even a scary Santa Claus in this Orwellian nightmare, which stars Jonathan Pryce as a man who goes in search of the woman of his dreams.

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31

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

Bridget (Renée Zellweger) thinks she might have met the man of her life (Colin Firth), but spots him wearing a hideous Christmas sweater. This seasonal wardrobe error plays a pivotal part in a sharp romantic comedy, one that also features fellow festive favorite Hugh Grant.

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Best Christmas movies: 30–21

30

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Michael Caine as Scrooge, Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit—just three of many reasons to love this witty, warm-hearted take on the immortal story. Despite the presence of Muppets, it is (believe it or not) one of the more faithful versions of the book.

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29

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Another terrific alternative to your traditional Christmas fare, this action-thriller sees soccer mom Geena Davis suddenly recalling her past as a trained assassin and racing into danger with private investigator Samuel L. Jackson—all against a snowy festive backdrop.

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28

In Bruges (2008)

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 picturesque, festive backdrop contrasts neatly with Ray’s bored cynicism.

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26

8 Women (2001)

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.

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25

Scrooged (1988)

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.

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24

Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s foray into the Batman franchise is a crisp, darkly comic 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. Some hope.

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23

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

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.

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22
The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982)

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.

21

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

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, with Danny Elfman’s score, has a magical festive feel: just picture Winona Ryder dancing around that ice sculpture.

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Best Christmas movies: 20–11

20

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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.”

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19

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Better known 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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18

3 Godfathers (1948)

Outlaws John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendáriz must deliver an infant to the frontier town of New Jerusalem on, yes, Christmas Day. Only John Ford could successfully channel the holiday spirit through a horse opera, and his retelling of the magi parable—in which the Duke brings Christianity to the Wild West—is an underrated gem.

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17

Home Alone (1990)

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 family-begone! fantasies.

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16

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

They previously leveled the American 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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15

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Martian children complain about not celebrating Christmas. So their parents do what any self-respecting extraterrestrials would: kidnap the jolly old elf. This so-bad-it’s-great Z-movie has become a seasonal camp classic, but its message that the holiday’s appeal is literally universal resonates despite all the ridiculousness.

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14

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Forget that ten-ton lump of coal starring Jim Carrey: This Chuck Jones–directed, Boris Karloff–narrated animated special is the only worthy adaptation of the Dr. Seuss fable about a cave-dwelling sourpuss trying to ruin the holidays for all the Whos down in Whoville.

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13

A Christmas Tale (2008)

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.

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12

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

A television special, sure, but one that’s impossible not to include, Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion adventure wrings tears from nostalgic adults and wonderment from even the youngest viewers. The island of misfit toys will make your wrapping-paper-strewn floor seem like magical terrain.

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11

Die Hard (1988)

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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Best Christmas movies: 10–1

10

Elf (2003)

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.

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9

Gremlins (1984)

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.

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8

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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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7

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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.

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6

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Charles Dickens’s classic tale has been adapted into everything from a musical to a star vehicle for the Muppets. This British film featuring the incomparable Alastair Sim as converted humbug Ebenezer Scrooge, however, is the definitive version. We dare you not to get a lump in your throat when Glyn Dearman’s Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, one and all.”

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5

Black Christmas (1974)

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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4

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Tinged with magical passages, buckets of good will and an alternate plotline with the disturbing kick of a Twilight Zone episode, this tribute to the efforts of a small-town do-gooder (James Stewart, in his most beloved role) cements the idea of Christmas as a time for giving.

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3

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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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2

Bad Santa (2003)

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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1

A Christmas Story (1983)

The yuletide movie to top them all tells the timeless tale of a suburban boy in the 1940s who only wants a Red Ryder BB gun from Santa—parental protestations (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) be damned. Though filmed with a good-ol’-days nostalgic glow, director Bob Clark gives the gut-busting proceedings their fair share of tongue-on-flagpole edginess.

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Comments

8 comments
Donald S
Donald S

Are the four of you on drugs? Or are you just trying to annoy people and create controversy. We here in the real world take our "Top Christmas Movies" lists VERY seriously. You apparently did not. "Eyes Wide Shut" does not belong on a top movie list of ANY kind, let alone a Christmas movie list. Kubrick should not have come out of his 12-year hiatus for that awful film. Not having "The Family Man" on the list is an affront to Christmas movie lists. I actually suspect that the four of you secretly hate Christmas.

HelenHighly K
HelenHighly K

C'mon; how can you not include "Miracle on 34th St."?  It's classic AND it's New York. And "Shop Around the Corner" is so beloved it's been re-made a bunch of times; even Tom Hanks wanted to be Jimmy Stewart in that story. Plus, there's "An Affair to Remember," which is universally considered to be one of the most romantic movies of all time, and its big dramatic ending is on Christmas.


And one of the best parts of these (and other) classic Christmas movies is the way they engrave on our hearts and make magic of mere objects: Thanks to them, the shining toy train and the pair of ice skates or the beautiful, hand-woven scarf have come to represent Christmas Joy itself.


To those who also love these old classics: Check out this gift guide to holiday shopping in the movies. It's an entertaining read and tells where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive: http://helenhighly.com/gift-guide-to-holiday-shopping-in-the-movies

Debra E
Debra E

How can you not include The Ref, starring Denis Leary and Kevin Spacey? Hilarious!

Jonathon C
Jonathon C

@Debra E Thank you Debra.  I was just going to mention "The Ref", which is infinitely preferable to "Bad Santa".

Lisa C
Lisa C

For the old movie heads #38 is also known as the March of the Wooden Soldiers.  

Cladrite R
Cladrite R

REMEMBER THE NIGHT should be top five on any such list. That it didn't make the cut at all is mind-boggling. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, directed by Mitchell Leisen. It was written by Preston Sturges, for pete's sake. 

I can only presume that the staff behind this list has never seen it, which they can rectify on December 18, when it airs on TCM at 11:30 pm ET. One wonders, too, if they've seen THE BISHOP'S WIFE, HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and on and on.

Honestly, including TV specials (which are fine, but are NOT movies) on the list even as you leave out these all-time classics is mind-boggling.

Jo L
Jo L

The top 10 are not there.  :(

emma b
emma b

Awesome list of Movies... Love it