‘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.
Best Christmas 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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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, could have come up with such appealingly macabre mayhem?
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.