The 40 Best Christmas Movies of All Time
Trim the tree, stuff the stockings, and watch one of these classics movies filled with holiday cheer.
BY ESQUIRE EDITORS
NOV 26, 2018
There's no more festive time of year than Christmas, which over the years has been the backdrop for plenty of old-school classics and modern favorites that have gifted moviegoers with an abundance of warm-and-fuzzy cheer. When the trees go up, the lights start twinkling. And when the egg nog starts flowing, there are a lot of opportunities to to get in the Christmas spirit by revisiting (or checking out for the first time) our choices for the 40 best Christmas movies.
Here's a collection of reverent holiday fare that have brought joy for generations, plus some picks that skewer the traditions (either through irony or, say, murderous Clauses). Avoid thinking about all you have to do to get ready for the holiday (such as saving up for presents) and instead embrace the joy and cheer as we head into the Christmas season.
40. A Christmas Prince
A Christmas Prince was one of Netflix’s first forays into the Christmas genre, and upon first glance, it’s full-on Christmas garbage. But if you really sit back and let go of the fact that you can call literally every twist and turn, then you come to realize that A Christmas Prince is actually the perfect Christmas movie. There’s no plot to follow or anything: it’s just full on Christmas spirit, bottled in the story of a journalist and a rogue prince in a country that isn’t even real.
39. One Magic Christmas
Before there were Netflix holiday movies, there was this forgotten 1985 Disney release, which flopped at the box office, in which the iconic Harry Dean Stanton plays an angel who watches over a struggling working-class family whose matriarch, played by Mary Steenburgen, experiences some close calls as she learns the true meaning of Christmas. It has the rare mix of grit and sentimentality, borrows heavily from It’s A Wonderful Life and, call us crazy, contains shades of Groundhog Day, which wouldn’t come out for another eight years.
38. Last Holiday
Queen Latifah kills it (pun intended) as a terminal patient mistakenly diagnosed by a faulty MRI machine. What ensues is a woman who has always played it safe taking her savings and embarking on a European vacation to meet her culinary inspiration. The problem with all of that is, when you don’t have a terminal disease and spend all your money, what comes next? You have to watch.
37. White Reindeer
Right before Christmas, Suzanne's world is turned upside-down when her husband Jeff dies unexpectedly. But things are thrown into even more upheaval when she discovers that he had been having an affair with a stripper—in whom Suzanne finds an unlikely friend (if potential bad influence), turning this indie feature into a sweet, sad, and raunchy sex comedy.
36. Office Christmas Party
T. J. Miller and Jennifer Aniston play feuding siblings who have different perspectives on how to run the company they inherited. Tasked with winning the business of a high-stakes client, Miller's Clay sets out throw the office Christmas party to end all office Christmas party—an event so debauched that it might end their company, too.
35. The Night Before
The Night Before is messy in the way you’d expect any Seth Rogen movie to be, but it’s also the stoner-Christmas movie that’s worth putting on your list. It’s also a perfect story for those guys you know who just refuse to grow up and eventually have time come and kick them in the ass to remind them that they’re not kids anymore, and if they were, Santa would absolutely not be stopping at their houses.
34. Batman Returns
Sure, it's the kind of action movie that isn't really about Christmas despite being set during the holiday season. Tim Burton's second chance at a Batman film has all of the trimmings of his similarly gothy Christmas tale, The Nightmare Before Christmas—only this one is violent, dangerous, and sexy (we dare you to name a more memorable mistletoe moment on screen).
33. Happy Christmas
Christmas gets the mumblecore treatment with Joe Swanberg's indie feature, which sees the flighty young Jenny (Anna Kendrick) descending upon her brother and his wife's idyllic, grown-up life and creating a fissure in their tight-knit domestic bliss.
32. The Holiday
Nancy Meyers is the Queen of Cozy, and this Christmas-set romantic comedy might be her most warm and snuggly film yet. Two women—one in London (Kate Winslet), one in Los Angeles (Cameron Diaz)—face simultaneous romantic disappointments, which leads to them swapping apartments over the holidays and, in turn, finding new men to swoon over.
31. Love Actually
Richard Curtis's star-studded ensemble romantic comedy is probably equally beloved and reviled. Even if you're a hater, you can't deny the multi-narrative film's influence on holiday-centered comedies over the last decade—and it's as cheesy of a Christmas movie as you can get on the big screen.
30. The Family Stone
It’s an all-star cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, and Diane Keaton. And that list is leaving some reasonable star power out. If you’ve ever been a part of a family (or even known one) who was hostile to outsiders, you’ll understand where the Stone family is coming from. But what starts as a tense family comedy about kicking Sarah Jessica Parker out of the family takes a serious turn for a heartfelt twist by the end.
Whit Stillman's debut feature follows a tony crowd of Upper East Siders (infiltrated by a young man from the opposite side of the park) as they banter and schmooze over the holiday debutante season in late-'80s Manhattan.
28. Silent Night, Deadly Night
Doing its best to sully everything good about Christmas, this notorious slasher film—which, due to its subject matter, was pulled from American theaters—concerns a psycho who goes on a murder spree while wearing a Santa suit.
27. Edward Scissorhands
Johnny Depp's pale, leather-suited, scissor-handed Edward stands out amidst the colorful suburban Christmastime landscape of Tim Burton's 1990 fantasy, although his story is one that ultimately proves perfectly in tune with the season's spirit of open-hearted inclusiveness.
26. A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas
John Cho and Kal Penn's stoner buddies find themselves at odds after the latter destroys their Christmas tree, leading to an all-night adventure of holiday madness in the best of the duo's big-screen outings.
25. Die Hard
Ho-ho-ho, he's got a machine gun—Bruce Willis's John McClane, that is, while battling terrorists in John McTiernan's peerless one-against-many action classic.
24. While You Were Sleeping
If Die Hard gets to be a Christmas movie, so does While You Were Sleeping. After Sandra Bullock saves a man pushed in front of an L train on Christmas Day, she finds herself in quite a predicament. After admiring the man from afar from some time, she mutters, “I was going to marry him,” which a nurse mistakes as meaning that she’s his fiancee. Soon after she befriends his family who welcomes her with open arms. The only problem is, she ends up falling for the man’s brother.
23. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Writer-director Shane Black sets virtually all of his films around Christmas (see also: Lethal Weapon and Iron Man 3), although none embrace the season quite as heartily as the filmmaker's 2005 neo-noir comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer as a thief-turned-actor and a private eye, respectively, who wind up partnering on a case.
There's far more naughtiness than niceness on display in Joe Dante's terrific 1984 horror comedy in which a cute, mystical Chinese creature known as a "mogwai" named Gizmo—when fed after midnight, or touched by water—gives bubbling birth to mischievous monsters.
21. The Shop Around the Corner
Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are employees at a Budapest leathergoods shop who can't stand each other—even as they're falling in love as anonymous pen pals—in this memorable romantic comedy set during the holidays.
20. A Christmas Tale
French auteur Arnaud Desplechin crafts a sprawling, spellbinding portrait of familial dysfunction—and, ultimately, reconciliation and togetherness—with this 2008 drama about a clan reuniting, uneasily, at Christmas–only to learn that their matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) is dying of leukemia.
19. Black Christmas
Bob Clark's 1974 gem (starring Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Margot Kidder, and Keir Dullea) is the granddaddy of modern slasher movies, recounting the gruesome tale of a group of sorority girls who are preyed upon by a mysterious, psychotic killer.
18. Eyes Wide Shut
It may be better known for its other elements–like, say, that unforgettable masked-participant orgy–but Stanley Kubrick's final feature is, at heart, a study of individual desires and marital tensions encased in a velvety Christmastime atmosphere.
17. The Best Man Holiday
Director Malcolm D. Lee reassembles the cast from his 1999 feature, with his group of old friends reuniting for the first time after 15 years for Christmas, which serves as a backdrop for various interpersonal issues.
16. Meet Me in St. Louis
Vincente Minnelli's 1944 musical is comprised of vignettes set during a variety of seasons, but none are as famous as the one featuring star (and Minnelli's future wife) Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
15. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph is a legend, and as an adult in these trying times, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer feels a bit like the underdog story we need. There’s clearly some social justice themes going on, but at the core of this story of Rudolph and his dental-savvy friends is a time-tested tale that proves that being different isn’t something to be ashamed of—it’s something to embrace.
14. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Listen. Charlie Brown is an institution, and can you really say it’s the holiday season if the Peanuts theme hasn’t played in a Starbucks near you? After finding himself in a bout of seasonal depression (relatable), Charlie Brown tries to put together a Christmas play before Linus reminds him what the true meaning of Christmas is.
Will Ferrell is a clownish orphan raised by Santa and his elves in the North Pole who journeys to New York City to locate his biological father–a cynical book publisher played by James Caan–in this absurd (and surprisingly sweet) fish-out-of-water fantasy.
12. The Apartment
A single man (Jack Lemmon) lets his co-workers use his residence for their affairs—but then falls in love with his boss's mistress (Shirley MacClaine). Billy Wilder's 1960 comedy won the Academy Award for Best Picture, with good reason: It's one of American cinema's all-time greats. And that, in turn, makes it one of the all-time great Christmas movies as well, given that its tale of loneliness and love takes place on and around December 25.
11. The Nightmare Before Christmas
It’s a debate for the ages: is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? For the sake of this conversation, we’re going with Christmas. The Tim Burton specialty is a masterful work of visual tricks and treats, in a creepy way that only he can accomplish. As long as he’s as charming at Nightmare is, we're okay with a skeleton Santa showing up on Christmas.
10. A Christmas Carol
Still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens' legendary tale, this superb 1951 feature charts the familiar Christmas Eve ordeal of nasty miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim), who's visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.
9. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Jim Henson died during pre-production of this 1992 film, but his spirit lives on in its seamless blend of zaniness and heart–both of which help make this musical Dickens adaptation an underrated triumph.
8. Bad Santa
Billy Bob Thornton's thieving department store Santa injects some nasty deviancy into the Yuletide season in this uproarious black comedy from director Terry Zwigoff.
7. Miracle on 34th St.
You can't go wrong with this perennial Christmas staple about the trial of a man claiming to be Santa Claus (the original is great, but the 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson is pretty good, too).
Riffing on Dickens, Bill Murray is an arrogant and thoughtless TV executive who, while planning to stage a live production of A Christmas Carol, winds up living out a crazed variation of that very story in Richard Donner's amusing update.
5. Home Alone
Macaulay Culkin is forgotten by his family and forced to battle a couple of dimwit thieves (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) around Christmas in this enduring children's adventure from director Chris Columbus and writer John Hughes.
4. White Christmas
Featuring a new version of the song from which the film gets its title (and which was originally sung by star Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn), this 1954 musical features Crosby and Danny Kaye as music-act partners who team up with two sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) to help their former military commander save his Vermont lodge.
3. A Christmas Story
Nine years after Black Christmas, director Bob Clark made another holiday classic—albeit of a very different sort—with this beloved nostalgia-soaked saga of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), who wants nothing more for Christmas than an air rifle. If you have cable, it'll no doubt be playing on a 24-hour loop on some Turner network this December 25.
2. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Rarely has a series' third installment been the equal of its two predecessors, but such is the case with this threequel involving Clark (Chevy Chase), Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo), Audrey (Juliette Lewis), and Rusty Griswold's (Johnny Galecki) mishap-besieged family get-together.
1. It's a Wonderful Life
Few films define Christmas like Frank Capra's 1946 fantasy starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, who, on the verge of committing suicide, is visited by an angel who shows him the true importance of his life.