‘Tis the season to make ranked lists, so we thought we’d take the reindeer by the horns and sift out the best holiday movies of all time, the ones that give you a lump in the throat. Of course that means Christmas classics, but 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, but all will create the mood of a snowy December morning, the wrapped presents under the tree. One small note: We simply had to add in some TV specials, not technically movies yet often superior to them. Seasons greetings, from Team Film to your team.
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Best holiday movies of all time
The yuletide movie to top them all tells the timeless tale of a suburban boy in the 1940s who only wants a BB gun from Santa—parental protestations be damned (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”). Though filmed with a good-ol’-days nostalgic glow, director Bob Clark gives the proceedings their fair share of tongue-on-frozen-flagpole edginess.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bridget (Renée Zellweger) thinks she might have met the man of her life (Colin Firth), but spots him wearing a hideous Christmas sweater. The wardrobe error plays a pivotal part in a sharp romantic comedy, one that also features another holiday-movie favorite, Hugh Grant.
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.
A Japanese POW camp is the less-than-festive setting for this David Bowie vehicle in which an eventful Christmas Eve has an impact on both prisoners and guards. Apart from watching Bowie and Bing Crosby do “Little Drummer Boy,” this is the most Christmas-y way a Bowie fan can celebrate.