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Riley’s Top 10 Best Christmas Films

By Riley Webster · December 15, 2013


T’is the season to watch warm and syrupy movies involving lots of snow, presents, and a big fat guy in a red suit.  There have been plenty of awful Christmas movies over the years, attempting to cash in on the happy feel-good’s  (remember Surviving Christmas?  Christmas With the Kranks?  Fred Claus?  No, nothing?).  But there’s been plenty of good-to-great ones that keep the spirit alive, and that I can’t help return to every year.

First, as usual, a couple stipulations.  These are the ones that I, personally, try and watch every season.  Chances are, some of these you might think are terrible, but if I grew up with them, then they hold a special place in my winter-time heart.  And then there’s a lot of gooders that are set at Christmas that I don’t really count as a “Christmas movie”, like Eyes Wide Shut, Fanny & Alexander, and Nightmare Before Christmas, not to mention some that are well beloved but I’ve never been able to sit through all of, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Scrooged.

And now, for an Honorable Mention:

Honorable Mention: Santa’s Slay (2005)

This may very well be the worst movie ever made, but damned if it isn’t also one of the funniest.  In the opening scene, James Caan, Chris Kattan, and Fran Drescher are eating a Christmas feast, when Santa (played by WWF star Bill Goldberg), comes down the chimney and starts stabbing, burning, and generally massacring every one of them.  The film is dreadful, and not one I’ve ever been able to watch more than once, but it’s truly one of the funniest “bad” movies ever made, and if you’re feeling a little saucy this holiday season, it’s worth hunting down.

10. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

The original Miracle of 34th Street has long been considered a penultimate Christmas classic, often cited as one of the very best.  I find it charming and cute, but not a lot more; it’s placement on this list at all is really only because the lead performance by Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle is probably my favourite of all Santa performances.  He not only looks the part, he captures the spirit of Santa Claus absolutely perfectly, and that lets me forgive and ignore the film’s endless plot, character, and dialogue problems.  This isn’t an especially well-written film; it’s full of holes and improbabilities, even for “just” a family seasonal flick from the 40’s.  But Gwenn is just so damn good…I can’t be a total Scrooge, right?

The story, which has been remade several times, follows a nice old man who gets a job in a large shopping store, only to run afoul with the bosses, and the law, when he insists he’s actually Santa Claus.  It follows his relationship with a young woman and her child, with varying degrees of effectiveness (to be honest, I find the little girl a complete brat, even in her final “happy” scenes).  But the film’s courtroom sequences, that make up most of the final act, are still pleasant and warm to this day, and again, Gwenn is just a fantastic Saint Nick.

9. Home Alone (1990)

For a time, Home Alone was the biggest money-maker of not only any Christmas film, but any film comedy period.  The power of its popularity was very puzzling to critics today, and even now I watch the film and wonder…”how the hell did that make almost 500 million worldwide?”  Not that it isn’t a good movie; certainly I appreciate it more than critics at the time did, and enjoy watching it during the holiday season.  No, it’s peculiar merely because the movie itself is so, well…weird.  For a Christmas film, there’s not a lot of warm n’ fuzzies, and the plot goes completely off the rails in the last half hour, becoming a live-action Looney Tunes episode with a shocking amount of violence for a kid’s flick.  And yet, that last act is what made Home Alone so popular.

The legacy of Home Alone was felt in Hollywood for years after.  Suddenly every comedy had to involve bungling crooks that get the shit beaten out of them with elaborate traps.  The only sequel that starred the original cast, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, is essentially a beat-for-beat remake (and not as good, either).  Still…there’s something very fun about the original Home Alone.  Macauly Culkin wasn’t exactly a great actor, but he was great at being a kid, and that’s what was important.  The script by John Hughes also remembers a lot of the typical stuff of what it’s like being home alone, such as the mix of “I can do anything I want!” with being scared of the basement.  It’s not a perfect Christmas movie, but it’s an easy one to return to.

8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 and 2000)

Strange how so many of our most beloved Christmas classics revolve around a cranky asshole in the lead role.  I guess the spirit of Christmas focuses around redemption so much that it makes sense — or maybe everything’s just copying the success of A Christmas Carol and The Grinch.  The original Dr. Seuss tale was a lovely little thing; as usual with him, it was tight, focused, short, and delightful.  The original cartoon, narrated by none other than Boris Karloff, is much the same.  Running a scant 25 minutes, The Grinch barely elaborates on the world Seuss created, and it became an instant Christmas staple.

Ron Howard was in charge of making the live-action, feature length remake, and Jim Carrey starred as The Grinch buried under mountains of make-up.  Is it a great film?  Absolutely not.  But do I enjoy watching it every year?  You bet.  I can certainly understand the criticisms that were leveled at it upon its release — Howard shot everything, for some reason, in creepy, muddy, fuzzy filters, and the story obviously has to spin it’s wheels a bit in order to pad out the running time.  But I think Carrey does an excellent job with what he has, and the story of little Cindy LooWho is still touching.  It’s a slightly undervalued movie, and quite fun in its own silly, bizarre way.

7. The Santa Clause (1994)

A totally personal choice, given that Tim Allen’s surprisingly funny turn as an unwilling Santa Claus is one of the most watched holiday films of my life, and I do believe that tape we recorded this movie from was spun through 20 times as a kid.  Watching it again this week, though, I must be honest and say that Santa Clause has held up better than I expected; maybe the dreadful sequels soured the whole thing, or maybe the fact that the movie took Christmas quite seriously, with themes of faith, divorce, and visitation rights resulting in Santa Clause not being as beloved as many other Christmas flicks.  But for me, it’s well worth the re-watch, every year, and Tim Allen is actually just great in this.

The “clause” of the title appears when Allen unwittingly murders Santa (one of the many dark, hilarious jokes of the film), reads his card, puts on his suit, and therefore assumes the responsibilities of the Big Guy, regardless of whether he wants it or not.  The movie has a lot of fun with kids’ expectations of Santa, as well as looking more deeply than you’d think into the father/son relationship in a fractured home.  I’m not saying the movie is full of philosophical depth, but it certainly tried harder than most (including, again, the crap sequels), so that alone makes it worthwhile.  There’s a lot to nitpick about The Santa Clause, but much more to enjoy and savour.

6. Elf (2003)

One of Jon Favaeru’s last features before his life changed forever by directing Iron Man, Elf is goofy, adorable fun.  Recently I interviewed about 20 people at the local theatre about what their favourite Chrismtas movie was, and 80% of them said Elf, no hesitation.  It’s not hard to see why; the movie is gently enchanting, funny as hell, and one of those rare species of PG rated comedies that can appeal to kids, teens, and adults.  It helped propel Will Ferrell into the superstar stratosphere, and he deserved it with this surprisingly heart-felt and endearing performance as the titular elf, Buddy.

The movie follows Buddy, a human raised among Santa’s elves, who travels to New York to befriend his estranged father (played by James Caan, in an inspired bit of casting I must say).  His adventures in a strange new land are consistently funny, regardless of how often you see the film; I’ll still crack up even just thinking about the line “You’re sitting on a throne of lies!”  It’s a simple story well told, with solid performances not just including Ferrell’s, but also Mary Steenburgen as his new mother, and Zooey Deschanel being adorable and quirky before that was the only note she was allowed to play.

5. A Christmas Carol (1951, 1992, and 2009)

I knew some adaptation of A Christmas Carol was gonna be on this list, but….which one?  Do I go with the classic 1951 adaptation with Alastair Sim, or the most recent Robert Zemekis mo-cap one with Jim Carrey, or my childhood favourite A Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine and Kermit?  Ultimately…I went with all of them.  I couldn’t pick a real favourite, especially since this story has probably been adapted ten million times, many of which are actually really good.  The 50’s version (often simply titled “Scrooge“) is a classic, with Sim giving a terrific, cold, calculated performance as Mr. Scrooge.

But hey, I also really enjoyed Zemekis’ animated version — as with his wonderful Polar Express, the film didn’t find a ton of critical love, but I thought the innovative camera work and fantastic effects more than made up for a rather clunky screenplay.  And more than any other adaptation, the Muppets is the one I long for every year.  Michael Caine gives my favourite performance as Scrooge, and handles the redemption aspect perfectly (I saw him in a live interview a few years ago, and he mentioned that singing with the Muppets is one of his most treasured film memories).  It’s creepy as hell for a kid’s movie (the Ghost of Christmas Future scared the beejesus out of me as a youngster), but it’s a really well-done version.

4. Die Hard (1988)

Watching this again last night, I remembered why I consider it a Christmas movie when, in reality, a violent 80’s action film starring Bruce Willis should be anything but.  Sure, it’s set on Christmas Eve, and it has some trees, but the real reason it’s a Christmas movie for me is the music, by Michael Kamen.  Unlike most action scores, this one is filled with jingling Christmas bells, the occasional holiday carol, and tinged throughout with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, which I now often hear classified as a Christmas song when really it never was before.  Die Hard might be a stretch to label as a holiday film, but y’know what?  I’m the one making the list, and I say that a season without hearing “Yippee ki-yay mother fucker!” is a season wasted!

Die Hard made Bruce Willis into the major star he still is today, as well as containing the debut film performance of Alan Rickman, who delivers, in Hans Gruber, one of the seminal “classy villain” movie roles, one that deserves comparison to Hannibal Lecter.  Unlike the sequels, which made John McClane more of a superhero, Die Hard shows us a “working class”, every-man kind of hero, who smokes, swears, and forgets to wear his shoes.  Willis plays him perfectly, and the screenplay is far more clever than it had any right to be, creating a constant string of twists and turns, all within one major setting.  The other Die Hard films are fine (with the exception of the horrible Good Day to Die Hard), but the original still sings, and to me, it sings “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow”.

3. A Christmas Story (1983)

Who knew that one of the best holiday films of all time would be a black comedy from the director of Porky’sA Christmas Story bombed when it was first released, but over the years has grown a massive cult following, one that’s possibly more rabid than for any other Christmas feature (there’s entire stores and museums dedicated to the film, and it isn’t exactly hard to find a sexy Leg Lamp come the winter season).  The misadventures of young Ralphie as he tries everything he can to get a Rid Rider BB Gun for Christmas has charmed audiences for decades, and is easily the funniest seasonal flick around.  I make sure to watch it every single Christmas Eve; yes, it’s often a little dark and morbid, but isn’t that what childhood is like?  As the narrator himself says: “Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

Ralphie is played by Peter Billingsley, who has mostly stayed behind the camera in recent years, (he helmed the terrible Couple’s Retreat), but I honestly think he gives the greatest child performance in cinema history.  Too often kid actors are made to act like adults, taking everything so seriously, but Billinsgley perfectly captures what it’s like to be a kid.  The film is set in the 40’s, but the nostalgia is apparent for anyone of any age; so much of this movie is specific to the time frame, and yet reminds me exactly of my own younger days.  It’s also refreshing to see a Christmas movie focus on what kid’s care about the most with the holiday — presents!  It doesn’t neglect the warm magic, either, but looks at it in a skewed and hilarious perspective.  A Christmas Story is a true winner, filled with classic moments and incredibly funny lines (my favourite still being “Nadafinga!!!”)

2. The Polar Express (2004)

Possibly the most divisive flick on this list, Polar Express is one of those films I try and explain to people why I love it so, and half the time I get a smile and a nod of agreement, and the other half I get confusion and “are you friggin’ serious?”  Because not only do I think Polar Express is one of the great Christmas films, but I’d place it in my top 30 films of all time, of any genre.  Oh yeah.  I really, really dig it.  Perhaps it’s simply a personal aspect — it came out at a time where I didn’t feel much Christmas magic anymore, but then a girl I really liked saw it, loved it, told me to go, and I went, sitting in an empty theatre, and just giggled the whole way through like a little kid.  I left that theatre knowing two things — I was gonna love this movie forever, no matter what anyone said (I will) and I was gonna ask that girl out (I did, and 9 years later we’re engaged).

Robert Zemekis’ woefully underrated fable is a beautifully animated adventure about a young boy who goes on a mystical journey to the North Pole on the Pol-Ex, hosted by Tom Hanks as the Conductor (who also plays several other roles, due to the motion capture quality of the animation).  Many people hated the mo-cap work; frankly, it was years ahead of its time (Avatar kinda ripped off a lot of the technology Zemekis had been already using since this movie), and I think that despite it’s somewhat creepy nature, Polar Express looks and sounds absolutely terrific.  Is the story a little basic?  Sure, I guess, as any “quest” movie must be.  But it fills me with invigorating Christmas joy, and if it’s a little intense and creepy — so what?  The best children’s films are.  Adding to the grand visual experience is Alan Silvestri’s best musical score and a whole lot of warm fuzzy feelings.  Again…I really, really dig it.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Frank Capra’s glorious film has become a cultural landmark, something that almost everyone of any age can, has, and will enjoy, for as long as movies are watched.  Despite being a box office disappointment upon its mid-40’s release, Wonderful Life’s salvation is an interesting tale — the film slipped under the copyright cracks and entered the public domain, which meant television stations didn’t had to pay a dime to broadcast it.  So, in the spirit of the season, most stations went with the free option, which meant millions of people every year watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and soon it became not only a Holiday tradition, but one of the most beloved films of all time, almost by accident.  But it deserves every ounce of its praise.

The movie is just a joy to experience, one that you will continue to treasure as you get older (I quite liked it the first time I saw it, but now, maybe 15 times later, I cry like a baby in the end, more so every year than before).  James Stewart gives one of his finest performances as George Bailey, a man who nears the end of his rope one Christmas but is visited by an angel, and shown how badly life would’ve gone for everyone around him had he not lived.  The plot is well known now, but what’s surprising when you watch it is how little of that fairy-tale magic exists in the film (perhaps only the final 30 minutes deal with it).  Most of the movie is spent simply living with these characters, growing with them, sharing in their hopes, dreams, and romances.  Sometimes I think I know George Bailey better than I know some of my actual friends.

It’s a Wonderful Life is just plain a wonderful movie, and one of the few Christmas films I could actually watch at any time of the year.   It’s beautiful, heart-warming, life-affirming, and practically perfect.