The 30 best Christmas movies of all time

(Clockwise from bottom left) Elf (Courtesy New Line Cinema), It’s A Wonderful Life (RKO Radio Picture/Getty Images), A Christmas Story (Courtesy of MGM), Miracle On 34th Street (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
(Clockwise from bottom left) Elf (Courtesy New Line Cinema), It’s A Wonderful Life (RKO Radio Picture/Getty Images), A Christmas Story (Courtesy of MGM), Miracle On 34th Street (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

This time of year always brings with it a feel-good movie or three. As families brave the snowy temps and the queues both online and at shopping malls for gifts and stocking stuffers, there’s nothing better than taking a break in the warm glow of the silver screen (or your TV). Well, that, and some popcorn. Lots of popcorn. This holiday season, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, and Santa Claus himself are on hand to make sure your yuletide is the best it can be. Here are 30 must-see films you should add to your Christmas watchlist.

30. The Santa Clause

The Santa Clause (1994) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The Santa Clause is the Christmas movie of the ’90s. It didn’t exactly have a lot of competition—Jack Frost probably traumatized far more kids than it uplifted—but it succeeded because it blends classic Christmas wonder with a modern family situation that a lot of kids could relate to. Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is a divorced dad who’s forced to take over as Santa after accidentally killing the previous St. Nick. Scott struggles to connect with and make time for his son, Charlie, and he’s initially dismissive of donning Santa’s duties. Of course, because this is a modern Grinch tale (and a kids’ movie to boot), Scott eventually realizes the error of his ways and embraces his new role. The Santa Clause was refreshing in its willingness to admit that the holidays aren’t always rosy, but its whimsical charm keeps things from getting too grim. [Jen Lennon]

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29. The Polar Express

The Polar Express | 4K Trailer | Warner Bros. Entertainment

While some fans of the movie still debate whether or not The Polar Express’ CG characters look creepy or cute, most agree that Robert Zemeckis’ first animated holiday film (based on the classic children’s book) offered a surprisingly heartfelt story for all ages for people looking to add a new movie to their Christmas playlist. Using then-landmark motion capture techniques, Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks (in multiple roles) teamed to tell a compelling story about a young boy’s journey to hold onto his holiday spirit in a world that could use more of it. [Phil Pirrello]

28. The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles | Official Trailer | Netflix

Kurt Russell as Santa Claus?! Yes, please. One of the newest entries into the must-watch Christmas movie canon, Netflix’s 2018 film The Christmas Chronicles follows two siblings—Kate and Teddy Pierce—as they accidentally crash Santa’s sleigh then team up with the big guy to save Christmas. How all this plays out is a genuine delight, with Russell delivering a full-throated Santa that ranks up there with some of the best ever brought to the screen. [Phil Pirrello]

27. Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo Godfathers [Official English Dub Trailer, GKIDS] - Blu-ray/DVD June 2

While this touching animated import from Japan may not seem like a Christmas movie at first glance, Tokyo Godfathers takes place on Christmas Eve, so it counts. It’s also about wandering around in search of a meager home for a newborn baby, which is about as old-school Christmas as it gets. The film follows three Tokyo street dwellers who discover said baby in a dumpster and spend a snowy winter’s night trying to find her parents while confronting the uncomfortable truths of their own fractured lives. If your knowledge of Japanese anime is limited to sci-fi and fantasy, Satoshi Kon’s down-to-Earth, heartfelt masterpiece will change your opinion of what the medium can be. [Cindy White]

26. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

Santa Claus is Coming to Town - 1970

The holiday season is a nostalgic time of year, and sometimes returning to the movies we watched as children is the best way to recapture a sense of Christmas spirit. So it is with the Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials like Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. Expanding upon the classic Christmas tune, Fred Astaire narrates the origin story of how Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney) became Santa Claus. It’s got adventure, romance, some semi-plausible explanations as to why Santa enters via chimney and has flying reindeer, plus great tunes of its own (“Put One Foot In Front Of The Other,” anyone?). Many movies have come up with their own Santa stories, but this whimsical one feels the closest to the magical myth that propels the season. [Mary Kate Carr]

25. Love Actually

Love Actually (2003) Official Trailer - Colin Firth, Emma Thompson Movie HD

Richard Curtis’ Love Actually became a beloved modern holiday classic thanks in large part to how well it wears its occasionally sappy, always enchanting heart on its Christmas sweater-y sleeve. With a narrative seemingly powered by the Christmas spirit itself, Curtis weaves together a compelling and complicated tapestry of relationships—both romantic and familial—that hinge on how the holidays often help us find that which we seek or didn’t know we needed. Love is indeed all around, as the movie convincingly argues. Even though a few of Curtis’ threads feel more problematic now than upon initial release—especially the way Andrew Lincoln’s character “courts” his best friend’s newlywed wife, played by Keira Knightly—the writer-director ties them all up in a heartstring-tugging finale that will have you reaching for tissues or hugging your closest loved one. [Phil Pirrello]

24. Happiest Season

Happiest Season - Trailer (Official) • A Hulu Original

Director and co-writer Clea DuVall gifted audiences with her inclusive Hulu rom-com that subverts “home for the holidays” movie tropes with a story that is equal parts funny and timely. Mackenzie Davis stars as a woman struggling to come out to her very conservative parents while visiting them with her new girlfriend, played by Kristen Stewart. The usual holiday movie shenanigans ensue, but with several welcomed and clever twists. Happiest Season walks a tonally difficult tightrope between drama and holiday comedy, but it makes it seem effortless. [Phil Pirrello]

23. Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas (1974) - Official Trailer (HD)

Arguably the ultimate expression of the Christmas horror film, Bob Clark’s 1974 classic Black Christmas is both a seasonal delight of macabre excellence and a vital ingredient in the formation of the slasher genre. The story of a group of sorority sisters who are menaced by a hidden killer over the Christmas holidays, it’s a wonderful juxtaposition of all-out terror and the kind of holiday warmth Clark would later apply to A Christmas Story. Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder are fantastic at the heart of a great ensemble cast, several of the kills are all-time classics, and if you find mystery phone calls creepy, you’ll definitely have a skin-crawling experience. [Matthew Jackson]

22. It Happened On Fifth Avenue

A New Home | It Happened on 5th Avenue | Warner Archive

One of Old Hollywood’s most rewatchable films, It Happened On 5th Avenue is as charming and effective now as it was when it first came out. A mix of rom-com and holiday drama, the movie centers on a rich businessman who discovers that a drifter has been living in his luxury New York townhouse. When the rich man’s daughter shows up—along with an unemployed veteran—a romance sparks that leads to one of Hollywood’s most inspiring Christmastime tales. [Phil Pirrello]

21. The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Amid the endless adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, we at The A.V. Club remain adamant that the Muppets’ version is the gold standard. What separates this 1992 instant classic from its ilk is the commitment to the source material; Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz’s wacky puppets provide a surface-level twist, but using Dickens’ exact words and rendering his morality tale with genuine heart reminds viewers why Scrooge’s story still resonates. Thanks to Michael Caine (dare we say career-best work?) as the miserly grouch, there’s pathos aplenty amid the silliness, making this annual favorite perfect for the whole family. [Jack Smart]

20. Scrooged

Scrooged (1988) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Richard Donner’s dog-eat-dog Dickens update Scrooged is a triumph of casting as much as anything else: Who better to play a kind, sharp-witted ex-love than Karen Allen? Bobcat Goldthwait as a pencil pusher on the edge? Carol Kane, as a nut-kicking, pixie-ish Ghost Of Christmas Present? And, at the bitter little heart of it all, Bill Murray, at his ’90s Bill Murray-est, as our modern Ebeneezer, TV executive Frank Cross. At its heart, Scrooged is a pretty traditional Christmas Carol riff. But it’s so buoyed by the visuals, and especially the performances, that you might not notice until “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” has already finished playing. [William Hughes]

19. Bad Santa

Bad Santa Official Trailer #1 - (2003) HD

In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton plays professional thief Willie T. Soke. Each Christmas season, Willie and his dwarf partner in crime get hired, respectively, as Santa and elf in a department store and then rob the place after hours. Willie is a misanthropic, foul-mouthed drunk who despises children, so it’s a Christmas miracle that he even lands the Santa gigs in the first place. The first movie features John Ritter, in his last live-action film performance, as an anxious store manager. Brett Kelly is hilarious as a hapless youth for whom Willie develops a soft spot. If you’re looking for the opposite of It’s A Wonderful Life, your search is over! [Robert DeSalvo]

18. Klaus

Klaus | Official Trailer | Netflix

Add this exceptional animated movie to your Netflix queue. One of the best holiday films in years, Klaus is full of beautiful moments and sometimes shocking visuals as it finds new ways to mine what Christmas really means and how the titular character serves as our guide through that journey. Klaus is a hopeful tale full of comedy and tears, and it’s a movie that only gets better with each passing year. [Phil Pirrello]

17. Remember The Night

Remember The Night 1940 Trailer

Written by Preston Sturges—his last script directed by someone other than him—Remember The Night is a must-see romantic comedy headlined by Barbara Stanwyck. She’s joined by Fred MacMurray in this excellent twist on a courtroom story. An ill-timed theft of jewelry leads to a trial with a jury drunk on the Christmas spirit, as well as an old-school road trip full of funny one-liners and endless romantic sparks between the lead actors. [Phil Pirrello]

16. Christmas In Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Official Trailer - Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan Movie HD

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan star in this 1945 Christmas rom-com about a single magazine writer who, while pretending to be a farm wife, falls for a war hero. English director Peter Godfrey grounds the sometimes farcical material on the very human romance at its core. And Stanwyck gives one of her best performances—one that’s worth viewing no matter the time of year. [Phil Pirrello]

15. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer - Original 1964 Promo

Easily the best and most beloved stop-motion-animated Christmas classic, 1964’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer has embedded itself into the cultural consciousness—enough to earn a USPS postage stamp at its 50th anniversary. Like fellow Rankin/Bass special Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, it’s a colorful, whimsical tale inspired entirely by the lyrics of a song; turns out Johnny Marks’ descriptions of Rudolph make for a fully fleshed-out origin story for this magical, mocked reindeer calf. The cherry—or glowing red nose?—on top are musical numbers like “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver And Gold,” sure to melt even the coldest hearts every holiday season. [Jack Smart]

14. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) - Trailer (HD)

The kind of TV special that rewards annual rewatching, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is proof that Christmas cheer is all the sweeter when it’s actually sour—or, as Thurl Ravenscroft sings in this film’s iconic tune, “a bad banana with a greasy black peel.” Charles Dickens understood that juxtaposition, gifting us A Christmas Carol’s Scrooge, but equally important in the curmudgeon canon is Dr. Seuss’ Grinch. As cuddly as a cactus, as charming as an eel, this green goblin with a heart deficiency continues to provide representation for the asocial and anti-commericalist among us. [Jack Smart]

13. The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Official Trailer #1 - Animated Movie

What’s this? The Nightmare Before Christmas appearing on another A.V. Club list? Why, yes it is! How could we exclude it from a list of the best Christmas movies ever? It’s got “Christmas” right there in the title! And it’s ultimately Santa who saves the day, after Pumpkin King Jack Skellington’s semi-hostile takeover nearly ruins everyone’s holiday (as Sally could have told him, if he’d only listened). The themes in this stop-motion classic of being true to yourself and finding new inspiration to rekindle old passions are relevant all year round. It works for Christmas, Halloween, and everything in between. [Cindy White]

12. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Christmas Vacation Official Trailer #1 - (1989) HD

Highly quotable (especially Cousin Eddie) and very entertaining, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation brings screenwriter John Hughes and one of his most successful contributions to cinema, the Griswolds, back for one of the best holiday movies and threequels ever made. This time, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold has his Christmas spirit tested when he insists on having all of the family over to celebrate the holiday. Part of Christmas Vacation’s considerable charm is how it finds the silver lining in all the messiness that comes from Clark’s myopic, but sincere, attempt to make December 25 special. From gift-wrapped cats to “Bing Crosby dancing with Danny Fu**ing Kaye,” Christmas Vacation keeps you laughing long after the end credits roll. [Phil Pirrello]

11. Carol

Carol Official Trailer #2 (2015) - Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett Romance Movie HD

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price Of Salt, Carol follows two women (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) as they fall in love over the Christmas season in 1952. It’s a classic Hollywood romance, but it doesn’t shy away from showing the societal repercussions gay women faced during that time. What makes Carol such a masterpiece, though, is that it still has a happy ending—and what’s more heartwarming than love conquering all? [Jen Lennon]

10. White Christmas

White Christmas (1954) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Few Christmas classics are more classic, or more Christmas-y, than 1954’s White Christmas. It represents the peaks of all four of its cinema icons, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, and catchy tunes that have endured in our cultural consciousness for a reason. Centered on a group of entertainers whose simple quest—spread the holiday spirit amid the tensions of World War II—involves delightful diversions of the romantic comedy variety, White Christmas has just the right amount of zippy comedy to cut the sentimental treacle that makes it an annual favorite. Fun fact: Crosby and Kaye’s comedic “Sisters” number wasn’t originally in the story, but was added with little rehearsal—the laughter between the two of them isn’t acting, they’re genuinely cracking each other up. [Jack Smart]

9. The Shop Around The Corner

The Shop Around the Corner Official Trailer #1 - James Stewart Movie (1940) HD

Jimmy Stewart is a holiday staple for other reasons (which can be found further up this list), but don’t discount this lovely winter romance, which predates Stewart’s other Christmas classic by six years. A predecessor to Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, The Shop Around The Corner sees Alfred Kralik (Stewart) unwittingly enter a rivalry with his own anonymous pen pal, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). They’re surrounded by colorful characters at a leathergoods shop gearing up for their big Christmas sale, but the chemistry between Kralik and Novak–plus a heavy dose of Stewart’s good-guy charm–propels this timeless treasure of a romantic comedy. [Mary Kate Carr]

8. Home Alone

Home Alone (1990) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Home Alone is easily one of the most enjoyable Christmas movies—and rewatches—of all time. There’s a reason, “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” is burned into our memory forever. The movie livens up with slapstick humor as an 8-year-old Kevin (an endearing Macaulay Culkin) traps two goofy thieves trying to break into his family’s house on Christmas. The ridiculous physical comedy paves the way for surprisingly saccharine moments (like Kevin in the church with his neighbor or when he reunites with his mother), proving that at its core, Home Alone is a cozy holiday movie, after all. [Saloni Gajjar]

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas | Trailer | NMPBS

Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang never disappoint with this timeless animated classic. For a story aimed at children, A Charlie Brown Christmas hinges on some very adult themes as Charlie confronts the commercialism that surrounds Christmastime by trying to find a deeper, more meaningful way to celebrate this special time of year. [Phil Pirrello]

6. Gremlins

Gremlins (1984) Official Trailer #1 - Horror Comedy

Christmas is chaos, and no film captures that haphazard tumult better than Joe Dante’s violent, cartoonish, and beautiful ode to literally the worst thing that could possibly happen if you don’t read the instructions on a last-minute present. (Remember, kids: Don’t give animals as gifts—especially not magical ones!) Nearly 40 years later, Gremlins remains a refreshingly nasty Yuletide celebration, while also still being irresistibly fun—just clock the scene of Dante’s tinsel-decked monsters losing their minds watching Snow White in a movie theater and see if you don’t catch some holiday cheer. And, of course, it contains one of the greatest monologues ever performed about the horrors of the holidays. Say it along with Phoebe Cates, folks: “The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas …” [William Hughes]

5. Elf

Elf | 4K Trailer | Warner Bros. Entertainment

Christmas movies don’t get much better (or funnier) than Elf. A pre-Marvel Jon Favreau teamed up with Will Farrell at the height of the comedic actor’s star power to deliver an endlessly rewatchable holiday comedy. Buddy the Elf’s silly enthusiasm for Christmas is rivaled only by his determination to find his father, a very cynical and grumpy New York book publisher (the late James Caan). Buddy’s search takes him from the North Pole to Fifth Avenue in truly hilarious and heartfelt ways. [Phil Pirrello]

4. A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983) Official Trailer #1 - Family Comedy

For a holiday primarily viewed through the eyes of children, it’s a strange thing to note that relatively few Christmas movies are—instead tending to focus on adults who rediscover the holiday’s meaning in later life. Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story, based on excerpts from Jean Shepherd’s hilarious In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, is different. Clark and Shepherd (who narrates the film to perfection) dial into what being a kid at Christmastime actually feels like: The anticipation and anxiety of a deeply craved present, the weird little family rituals that develop, the various humiliations and triumphs of simply being a kid. It’s a nostalgic touchstone that works because it doesn’t paint the past with rose-colored glasses. (Because, after all, you’re probably just going to shoot your eye out anyway.) [William Hughes]

3. Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The most successful holiday films are those that re-capture what it’s like to be a kid again, and the original Miracle On 34th Street pulls this feeling off effortlessly. When a man claims to be the real Kris Kringle and gets institutionalized for it, a young attorney struggles to prove not only the man’s innocence, but that he is the genuine article. If there’s a better last reel of a holiday movie, we don’t want to know about it. [Phil Pirrello]

2. A Christmas Carol (1951)

A Christmas Carol (1951) Trailer

This very British adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Scrooge tale is one of the finest takes on the well-tread material. Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, A Christmas Carol features Alastair Sim giving arguably the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge performance. He goes all-in with his portrayal of the miserable curmudgeon as Scrooge learns how wrong he is about Christmas being a waste of time. The third act contains zero surprises for those familiar with the tale, but the way Carol hits those tried and true beats are nonetheless still satisfying no matter how many times you’ve seen the film. [Phil Pirrello]

1. It’s A Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies

Frank Capra’s Christmas classic was initially (and undeservedly) a disappointment when it was first released. But thanks to endless holiday airings on TV, It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas staple, in large part because of its timeless story about the generosity of spirit and how easy it is to lose sight of it, even with Christmas around the corner. Jimmy Stewart delivers an all-timer performance as a fragile man who finds the true meaning of Christmas where it often resides: With those we love. [Phil Pirrello]

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