While the holiday season is going to look a little different this year, your ability to watch classic holiday films from the safety of your residence prevails. Here’s what the Arts & Pop Culture editors have to say about their favorite holiday movies:
Hear me out: it’s cold outside, the tree is decorated and there’s a toasty fire in the hearth. You’re wrapped in a warm blanket and have fuzzy socks on. Maybe there’s hot cocoa or cider — up to you! All cozy, you decide to watch something nostalgic. There are plenty of films to choose from, but you’ve already laughed at “Elf” (2003) and done your best “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) impressions. What you need now is a film that’s just simple plots and immaculate vibes. A few key things come to mind — beautiful animation, gorgeous classical music and Mickey Mouse in a big, blue hat. While not a traditional holiday choice, “Fantasia” is the perfect film for your evening. The iconic Disney production sets animated stories to various classical music pieces — think Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1897) and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” (1867). Each portion of the program is animated and colored to develop its music’s mood, which means you’ll get to experience a variety of emotions. Some favorites include the seasonal dances in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” (1892) and the comedic ballet of the ostriches and alligators in Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” (1876). But few things top the chaos and drama of Chernabog in “Night on Bald Mountain.” It’ll transport you to different worlds, where you’ll hum while enjoying splendid stories.
“White Christmas” (1954)
Shrouded in snow, Transatlantic accents, rousing musical theatre numbers and Christmas cheer, “White Christmas” is a must-watch this holiday season. Featuring the talents of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, this timeless holiday classic follows the story of performance duo Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye), both World War II veterans, in their rise to stardom and budding “friendships” with sister-act Betty Haynes (Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen). The quartet elects to spend the winter months at a failing Vermont inn (which happens to be run by Wallace and Davis’ former commanding general), where they look forward to experiencing a white Christmas up north. As Judy puts it, “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year … all that snow!” Thanks for that observation, Judy. With nostalgic humor and a bevy of equally nostalgic songs composed by the noteworthy Irving Berlin, “White Christmas” is as much a Christmas classic as it is a little bit of history. The film was also Paramount’s first to be released in VistaVision, a then-state-of-the-art high-resolution film format that defined Paramount’s releases for the latter half of the 1950s.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)
How many other films on this list deal with anxieties about the commercialization of Christmas? Okay, but how many of them also have Snoopy and a Vince Guaraldi soundtrack that absolutely slaps?
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” while only twenty-five minutes long, doesn’t sacrifice depth for its short, perfectly-snackable length. It’s the kind of movie you put on in the background of making cookies you saw on Pinterest, the kind of movie that then wraps you in a hug as said cookies inevitably come out looking nothing like the picture.
While Snoopy’s dance on the piano, Linus’ “meaning of Christmas” speech and that pathetic Christmas tree that falls over are classic moments from the special, honestly, Lucy is the queen we all need and no one can convince me otherwise. I will die on this hill. This girl always says what she thinks, she’s got her own psychiatric stand where she rattles off phobias like a boss, her “I’ve been kissed by a dog” outburst is hilarious and when asked what she wants for Christmas, she responds that while she always gets toys or a bike or something, what she really wants is “real estate.” What more could you ask for from a Christmas special?
“Home Alone” (1990)
When you think of iconic Christmas movie characters, Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) from “Home Alone” must be at the top of the list. His devilish and brilliant antics have captured the hearts of audiences for 30 years and there are no signs that his charm will wear off any time soon. Like all great Christmas movies, Kevin defeats the burglars and good trumps evil, which is all anyone can really ask for in the feel-good time of the holidays. “Home Alone” has something for everyone in the family with humor that will entertain audiences of all ages. If you are getting a little tired of the original scenes, Culkin reenacted some of the most iconic ones from the film. This just stands to show the timeless nature of the movie, since people are still getting Culkin to reenact scenes. A final reason that “Home Alone” is the best Christmas movie of all time is that Kevin’s mother is played by Catherine O’Hara. The fact that the eventual Moira Rose, of “Schitt’s Creek” (2015–2020) fame, is featured surely warrants some bonus points.
“Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992)
Don’t allow the charlatans to deceive you, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” is, without a doubt, the superior “Home Alone” film. While some may call the sequel “a retread” or “the same movie twice,” to them I would say “yes, and I love it.” The sequel is essentially a carbon copy of the first but takes the “‘Saw’ for children” premise up to eleven as a young boy continuously tortures Oscar-winning actor Joe Pesci in a montage of traps so devious that they not only outdo the first, but they inspire fear in children and adult viewers alike.
In all seriousness, the film is very much a formulaic sequel, but the fun that every actor, from Pesci to a delightfully hammy Tim Curry, are all clearly having with the cartoonish premise really carries what very well could have been a yawner of a sequel. While not as novel as the original, it is worth a watch if your family has finally grown tired of the first.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843) has been adapted plenty of times — the story of the ghosts who visit Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve exists in theater, live-action films, animated films and television. It’s perhaps one of the most famous holiday works ever. And that makes perfect sense. The idea of a cold-hearted man being changed into a Christmas-lover is an embodiment of the holidays as a time of jolliness and giving.
But no adaptation has matched the hilarity and absurdity of “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” One might call it a touchstone in “The Muppets” franchise — the crown jewel, if you will. Narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo, the film’s Scrooge (Michael Caine) interacts with all of our beloved Muppets as he changes into a fan of the holiday season. The Muppet casting is pretty incredible. Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy portray Bob and Emily Cratchit. Fozzie Bear is Fozziwig (a brilliant play on Dickens’ Mr. Fezziwig). Beaker is there and is hilarious. It’s the Muppets being the Muppets. You can’t go wrong with this one.
“Love Actually” (2003)
In such a hard year, it is necessary to make time for “Love Actually” this holiday season. The film’s distinct type of chaos complements 2020’s chaos quite well. The movie follows the lives and love crusades of eight different couples, all in the frantic month before Christmas. Loosely yet wonderfully tied together, viewers pop in and out of each storyline, watching as the plots interact and their attachment to the characters grows. Its incredibly stacked cast includes Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Kiera Knightley and even a few scenes with Rowan Atkinson.
Completely bizarre yet perfectly designed, you get scenes of groovy Hugh Grant dancing through an empty house as Prime Minister, Colin Firth’s Portuguese housekeeper jumping into a lake to save pages of his manuscript and a children’s Christmas play of Jesus’ birth featuring an octopus and lobster, all with the backdrop of a washed-up rock star’s themed cover of “Love is All Around” (1994). Its lyrics, “I feel it in my fingers/I feel it in my toes/Christmas is all around me/and so the feeling grows,” live rent-free in my head and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The film’s layered plot doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing every scene to bring smiles and joy. And if joy is what you’re craving to add to your life this year, take two hours and sixteen minutes out of your day and feed your soul with this bizarrely perfect concoction of a holiday film.
Before becoming a Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay and creating the pop culture hit “The Mandalorian” (2019-), director Jon Favreau took a crack at something a little different: a Christmas movie.
The resulting 97 minutes became one of the most beloved holiday films in history. “Elf” stars human Will Ferrell as Buddy, who was adopted at birth by Santa and raised to be one of his elves. Upon finding out who his biological dad is, he enters the real world for the first time as a Will Ferrell-sized adult.
Additionally, there’s a bit of a love intrigue with Zooey Deschanel’s Jovie. What’s not to love?
It isn’t anything groundbreaking — most of the New York Christmas scenes will likely blur in your head with the countless other holiday films set in the Big Apple. But between Ferrell’s just silly enough performance, the heartwarming characters we meet and the constant hilarity along the way, “Elf” is cemented in both Christmas and comedy film history.
“The Polar Express” (2004)
“The Polar Express” is distinctly remembered for a few reasons: it’s one of the most celebrated holiday films of all time, it was a pioneer in motion-capture technology and it was absolute nightmare fuel for the children who watched it.
I mean, what was this movie? Yeah, Tom Hanks had some of the best vocal performances of his career, and yeah, the architecture of the train was created masterfully. But that random rugged fellow who kept helping the main character? The scenes of the two riding on top of the train? It also kind of becomes a musical halfway through? And Tinashe was the motion capture model for the protagonist’s friend on the train? Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on here either.
At the end of the day, it’s a holiday classic that will surely live on cable for as long as cable exists. It’s an experience that is worth having, and, in that sense, it’s a must-watch. Just don’t think too hard about what is actually going on.
“Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale” (2007)
If you ever changed the channel to Cartoon Network at a random afternoon hour while home for winter break, you’ve probably already seen “Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale.” It’s simply one of the cat-and-mouse duo’s best performances. Following Jerry and his nephew Tuffy as they explore a magical winter wonderland where toys come to life, the film is partially adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (1816). And yes, it includes excerpts of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s gleeful and robust score.
What works so well about “A Nutcracker Tale” is that it can be enjoyed by multiple generations of audiences. Grandpa can watch from the recliner, Grandma’s able to look up and laugh while she knits, Mom and Dad can enjoy the cartoon while checking the turkey in the oven and younger siblings can use their toys to reenact the scenes once it’s over. Everyone’s happy!
“Office Christmas Party” (2016)
What makes “Office Christmas Party” special? Absolutely nothing. I won’t begin to convince you that this is the best holiday movie on our list (my votes are for “Love Actually” and “Elf”) but it certainly deserves a mention. From the makers of “Blades of Glory” (2007) and “The Hangover” trilogy (2009-2013), “Office Christmas Party” will probably shock you. Plus, it’s impossible to watch this film without secretly hoping for a stunt like this to be pulled at your own office. The party which the title refers to is one of the best on-screen holiday gatherings and is certain to bring about fond memories of off-limits celebrations of years past.
This party has everything. It features an eggnog luge, water coolers filled with a variety of hard alcohol, a live-action nativity scene, a slushy slip and slide and even snowmen sumo wrestling costumes.
Then there are the odd, but somehow likable, characters: Jennifer Aniston as the Scrooge, Kate McKinnon as the multi-denominational holiday sweater-wearing, parrot-loving HR rep, Jason Bateman as the recently divorced and witty manager and T.J. Miller as a trust-fund kid who invests his time in improving his employees’ social calendars. There are broken ribs, photocopying of body-parts and an exhausting amount of tinsel, but it’s a fun watch nonetheless. I’ll warn you, the end is cliché (and doesn’t really make sense), but with Pitbull’s “Time of Our Lives” (2014) as the closing song, what more could you expect? Happy viewing!