Tis the season for sitting in front of the TV and watching maudlin movies while we pretend that eggnog isn't disgusting. Christmas is one of our more thematic holidays, as there is a whole cottage industry of Christmas films, unlike no other holiday. Most other holidays are lucky to get one or two films, while Christmas has a diverse cornucopia of options.
Before ranking the greatest Christmas movies of all-time, we must first deal with the Die Hard problem. Is Die Hard a Christmas film? No. No, it isn't. As far as I can tell, these are the following reasons to call Die Hard your favorite Christmas movie:
1. You're trying to be funny. I appreciate the attempt, and I hate to be the one to tell you this, but... you're not. The joke is over twenty years old, and it wasn't a real knee slapper the first time someone told it. This is the equivalent of answering "Yes" in the box on a form labelled "SEX". Stop it.
2. You're trolling. It's okay you don't like Christmas movies. Not everyone likes everything in the world. But how about we just sit this one out instead of acting on the belief that if you don't like something, then no one else should. Only two kinds of people think like that: children and assholes. If you're a child, you'll grow out of it. If you are not a child, well...
3. You're scared. If you admit to liking a movie that does not have a certain percentage of its runtime dedicated to explosions or people shooting each other, no one is going to call you "gay" or revoke your Man Card. I know our emotionally distant fathers withholding affection stunted our emotional development, but I swear to you that it is okay to like a movie about family, love, or giving without bursting into flames.
4. You don't understand what a Christmas movie is. Just because a movie is set during Christmas, that does not make it a Christmas movie. For example, just because Napoleon Dynamite is set in American West, it does not make it a Western. Plenty of movies are set during this time of year and are not Christmas movies: Eyes Wide Shut (which, by the way, would work MUCH better as the punchline than Die Hard), The Apartment, Go, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, Meet John Doe, Trading Places, Gremlins, The Ice Harvest, In Bruges*, etc. Actually, Gremlins and The Ice Harvest have pretty decent cases, as they do deal thematically with Christmas. The rule of thumb is that if you transported the movie to a different time of year, does anything in the film substantially change?**
*If we're going the route of "non-traditional Christmas movie as favorite Christmas movie," then put me down for In Bruges. The movie veers brilliantly back and forth between black comedy and deeply depressing existentialism. It's wonderfully quotable, beautifully shot, and has a high degree of re-watchability.
**The exception to this rule is if a movie has so fundamentally become a part of the Christmas experience, it is now a Christmas movie. Frank Capra has two great movies which have their climaxes during the holiday season: It's a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe. Both are great films, but only one is a Christmas movie, because only one of them has been played a billion times on TV during the Christmas season so it has become a part of the fabric of the holiday. Sucks for Meet John Doe, too. You should go rent it, it's pretty great.
Glad we cleared that up. Die Hard is still the second greatest action movie*** ever made, despite its increasingly terrible sequels (which are also not Christmas movies). Hans Gruber is great. I love that movie. It's just not a Christmas film.
***It used to be the best, but then Mad Max: Fury Road came out.
#10 White Christmas
It's got Bing Crosby doing Bing Crosby things, and Danny Kaye at the peak of his powers. Sure, it's fundamental plot is "Let's put on a show!" but what a show it is. Vera Ellen was a classic Hollywood starlet and George Clooney's aunt really could sing and dance. A neat throwback to a different era of entertainment.
#9 Joyeux Noel
What better way to honor Christmas than watching one of the most singularly depressing war films ever made? The World War I Christmas truce has reached the place of legend, but it really did happen. During the first Christmas of the Great War, the soldiers really did put their weapons down, sing Christmas songs together, and exchange gifts. Then they went back to killing each other the next day. This fictionalized account is gut wrenching. I'm not spoiling anything when I say that a World War I movie ends poorly for its characters.
#8 The Ref
Originally a Denis Leary vehicle made during the peak of his popularity, the movie has endured because of the bickering couple held hostage, played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. Their bickering is right up there with the best screwball comedies, and the stress of the situation eventually allows them to find what they loved about one another in the first place. Besides, the movie cuts to a core truth: being held hostage would be awful, but not as bad as being held hostage with your extended family.
#7 A Christmas Carol
I'm a fan of the Alastair Sim version, but your mileage may vary. Perhaps you prefer the George C. Scott version, or maybe even the Muppets. As long as it's not the Jim Carey version, there's no wrong answer. The classic Dickensian Christmas tale, there's few more affecting moments than when the camera lingers on Tiny Tim's empty chair. It even could make Scrooge's heart soften.
#6 A Christmas Story
Beginning to suffer a bit from overexposure, it has become the new Christmas classic. I'm not sure any movie can withstand the 24-hour marathons we get every year, but this one comes pretty close. Nearly every scene is a classic, and has at least one laugh out loud moment. It also wonderfully shows what the season is all about from the perspective of a kid: getting cool gifts.
Sure, it's just A Christmas Carol repackaged, but it is different enough to qualify as its own entry. Besides, Bill f'n Murray. No one plays cynical, self-absorbed jerks better than Murray, and he just oozes sleaze throughout the film, before finding it in his heart to make a proper Christmas special. It lacks a Tiny Tim character, instead jolting Murray back to humanity by killing off a homeless man (in an alternate timeline, it's dark but not quite that dark). But this is the most slapsticky of Christmas movies, especially Carol Kane getting to beat the hell out of Murray with a toaster and Bobcat Goldthwait shooting Murray, or at least attempting to.
#4 It's a Wonderful Life
Man, this film is bleak. It is a total accident this movie is a Christmas classic, as it became part of the canon because the film fell into the public domain and UHF channels, desperate for cheap programming, played the movie almost non-stop in the 80s. There's an old adage that Frank Capra always gave you a happy ending, but he made you work for it. Boy, there is a lot of work in this one, as George gets run through the ringer before earning his Christmas miracle.
#3 Bad Santa
The movie begins as a cynical, anti-Christmas movie, delighting in outrageous shocks and a virtual contest between the actors of who can say the dirtiest string of words. Some of Billy Bob Thornton's streams of filth are pure poetry, man. However, the film morphs into something else in its third act, and it proves a truism about cynics: they are romantics who got their hearts broken. This film attempts to mend that broken heart on its own terms, and get back to the true meaning of Christmas. But mainly, it's funny as hell.
The role Will Ferrell was born to play. He's just so spectacularly over-the-top as Buddy the Elf that you sort of do believe he was a human child raised at the North Pole. Faced with the knowledge that his real dad is on the Naughty List, Buddy sets about trying to light the spirit of Christmas inside him, even if it means destroying everything. The film is like Buddy's spaghetti, covered in syrup and achingly sweet.
#1 Miracle on 34th Street
The definitive Christmas film. The real Kris Kringle gets offended by the sub-rate Santa Macy's hires for its parade, so he takes the job himself and then accidentally gets Macy's to launch a goodwill campaign to help out beleaguered Christmas shoppers. Eventually, an enterprising young lawyer must prove Kris is the one true Santa Claus to prevent him from being sent to Bellevue, which really speaks volumes about modern society. But the film's best moments are its small moments, like Kris teaching a young Natalie Wood how to pretend to be a monkey. And if you don't tear up at least a little bit during the final scene on the drive home from the Christmas party, then you are a heartless monster.