There’s nothing quite like settling down on the sofa, snacks to hand and watching a Christmas film to get you in the festive spirit. Yet which film to watch? With hundreds to choose from it can be hard to decide.
What even technically constitutes a Christmas film? Classic festive family comedy or nostalgia, an action-packed yuletide blockbuster or unusual tale that just so happens to be set at Christmas-time? (We’re looking at you Die Hard and Edward Scissorhands). Do you like your Christmas films predictably saccharine and romantic, or do you prefer a little more surprise (Gremlins anyone?)
We’ve gone through all the Christmas classics from throughout history to create a list of 15 Christmas films that we think are well worth a watch. Whilst some of these festive frolics would also be amongst the best Christmas films ever (in our opinion), there may also be some that you didn’t know much about – in which case, we recommend grabbing yourself a glass of mulled wine, raiding the chocolates and hunkering down to watch. (NB this list contains some spoilers!)
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
To some, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Voted as the ‘most inspirational film of all time’ by the American Film Institute, this compelling and moving film has become a staple of the festive season, yet its first reviews were decidedly mixed before it became the Christmas classic we know it as today.
The film’s story is well-known. James Stewart plays George Bailey, a businessman whose dreams are continually deferred by the demands of his family and national events. Facing financial ruin, on Christmas Eve, George is on the verge of attempting suicide but is saved by a guardian angel, Clarence, who is attempting to earn his wings. Clarence reveals to George the positive impact he has had on the lives of people in the town of Bedford Falls and the true importance of his life. With a new sense of optimism, George returns home to his family and discovers his neighbours have donated money to save his business.
Taking only $3.3 million at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life’s failure to recoup its $3.78 budget meant director Frank Capra was forced to sell his company to Paramount Pictures. However, in 1974, after the film’s copyright holder forgot to file for a renewal, the film entered the public domain. With no royalties to pay, television channels screened it again and again every Christmas period.
Despite postwar audiences rejecting the film’s sentiment, over the decades it became a festive staple, earning a place in the hearts of audiences who revelled in its nostalgia and quaintness, heartened by its uplifting messages about selflessness, generosity, and community spirit. It’s A Wonderful Life remains a staple fixture of the Christmas television schedules, and its poignant universal life-affirming message synonymous with the spirit of Christmas.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
In this classic Christmas film, an old man who calls himself Kris Kringle fills in for an intoxicated Santa in Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade. He proves to be such a hit that he soon starts appearing regularly at Macy’s main midtown Manhattan store. When Kris Kringle starts surprising both customers and employees by claiming that he is actually Santa Claus, it leads to a court case to determine his mental health – and indeed his authenticity. Kringle must then prove he is in fact Santa Claus, especially to a young girl (Natalie Wood) who has lost the true meaning of Christmas.
The 1994 remake of this film starring Richard Attenborough and Mara Wilson is a fantastic film too, but there’s something about the original that delivers a particularly warm festive and nostalgic message without being too sickly sweet.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
The 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale (originally Scrooge when first released) is considered the finest film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and is particularly noted for Alastair Sim’s performance as the curmudgeonly, miserly Victorian businessman and money lender Ebenezer Scrooge.
Famously Scrooge is not one for sentimentality or festivity, even at Christmas which he views as a waste of time. But after reluctantly allowing his clerk Bob Cratchit to have the day off to spend with his family, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve 1843, who warns him that he’ll be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, to show him the error of his ways. Each ghost takes Scrooge through different portions of his life, showing the consequences of his actions. Will these events inspire the crotchety old miser to embrace change?
The film was one of the most popular films in Britain in 1952 yet was a box office disappointment in America. However, it became a Christmas favourite on American television where it was broadcast regularly during the 1950s and 1960s, and is now considered the most faithful film adaptation of Dickens’ famous novel.
White Christmas (1954)
Inspired by Holiday Inn, Irving Berlin’s musical White Christmas is an unabashedly festive romp starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, who as music-act partners team up with two sisters to put on a show to help their former military commander save his rural lodge in Vermont.
Originally White Christmas was intended to reunite Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire, but Astaire declined the project. The film features a new version of its hit title song, originally sung by Bing Crosby over a decade earlier in Holiday Inn, and was a huge box office hit. It couldn’t be more cheerful and Christmassy if it tried, and is sure to get you in the Christmas spirit.
The Snowman (1982) / Father Christmas (1991)
Originating from Raymond Briggs’ children’s book, the beautiful Oscar-nominated animated short film The Snowman tells the story of a boy whose snowman magically comes to life one night and whisks him off on a short-lived adventure to meet Father Christmas.
Whilst its poignant theme of impermanence makes this a real tear-jerker, it is the film’s stunning wordless animation that makes this film a timeless Christmas classic – produced using traditional animation techniques, with pastels, crayons and other colouring tools drawn on pieces of celluloid, which were then traced over hand-drawn frames.
Part of the film’s magic is its hauntingly beautiful music, scored by Howard Blake, including the famous central song ‘Walking in the Air’ performed by Peter Auty, a St Paul’s Cathedral choirboy.
Although not widely known worldwide, in the UK the film is traditionally broadcast annually on Christmas Eve on Channel 4, usually followed on Christmas Day by Raymond Briggs’ other animated masterpiece, Father Christmas (1991). Starring Mel Smith at Father Christmas, this animation was created for Channel 4 and was first broadcast on Christmas Eve 1991. The story is an adaption of two books written by Raymond Briggs – Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. The story focuses on a down-to-earth Father Christmas living in contemporary Britain with his pets and reindeer, coping with everyday domestic chores, who recounts to viewers about a holiday he took before preparing for another Christmas – with all the work that entails.
Both these animations are a joy to watch and are truly Christmas classics. If you haven’t yet seen them, do so immediately.
Die Hard (1988)
Is Die Hard a Christmas film? Ahh the age-old debate. Well, despite it’s star Bruce Willis stating in 2018’s Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis that “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It’s a god damn Bruce Willis movie!”, it would be remiss not to include this festive favourite. Either way, this film is a stand-out classic in it’s own right and genuinely paved the way for a cooler genre of what constitutes as a Christmas film.
On Christmas Eve, visiting New York City policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) enters the high-rise L.A. high-rise office block where his estranged wife works for a Japanese-owned business, not realising that the building has already being taken over by a group of machine-gun wielding terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (a villain played perfectly by the late Alan Rickman). Inside the building, having taken McClane’s wife and her celebrating colleagues hostage, the gang tries to crack open the Nakotomi corporation’s computerised vault.
McClane establishes a chance radio link with a passing police patrolman and manages to use the building’s empty floors, lift shafts, and heating ducts to improvise diversionary tactics while help is summoned. Can McClane outwit the terrorists and save his wife and her colleagues in this perfect yuletide action film? Yippee-ki-yay!
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Dreading having your in-laws or extended family visit for Christmas? It surely can’t be as bad as it is for Clark Griswold.
As the festive season nears, perpetually optimistic Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to have the perfect “fun old-fashioned family Christmas”, so pesters his wife and children, trying to make sure everything is perfectly in place. This includes sourcing their Christmas tree, decorations, and covering his house’s exterior with 25,000 fairy lights. Things quickly turn out differently to his expectations when his hick cousin and his family arrive unannounced and start living in their camper van on Clark’s property. Along with Clark’s employers reneging on his much-needed Christmas bonus, Clark is in for a Christmas full of unfortunate and unlikely seasonal setbacks.
This Christmas comedy is full of laughs and is the third instalment in the National Lampoon magazine’s Vacation film series. It originated from a short story by writer John Hughes (who went on to write Home Alone) called ‘Christmas ’59’, and is a nice escape from your own festive disruptions.
Home Alone (1990) / Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
Over 30 years since its release, John Hughes and Chris Columbus’ beloved Christmas classic Home Alone has become as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and presents. Despite most of us watching this every year, we’ll never tire of watching Kevin McCallister foil the Wet Bandits with his inventive homemade – and surprisingly violent – self-defence techniques.
Set to spend Christmas in Paris with his parents and wider family, 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) acts out the night before the trip. His mother (Catherine O’Hara) makes him sleep in the attic, prompting Kevin to wish they’d all just disappear. After he is accidentally left behind the next morning by his preoccupied parents on their way to the airport late for their flight, Kevin gets his wish, gorging on junk food and getting up to all the things at home he’s always wanted to.
However, when a couple of burglars (iconically played by Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci) plan to rob the McCallister’s house, the reality of his loneliness and fear sets in. Kevin realises that it is up to him alone to defend the family home.
With an incredible performance by a young Macaulay Culkin, its heartwarming and magical John Williams musical score and the film’s comical plot (and relatable family chaos), Home Alone truly is an all-time perfect Christmas watch for all the family. It’s therefore no surprise that the film’s incredible success led to a sequel. Despite following almost the exact formula as the original, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is absolutely fantastic and could be a standalone Christmas classic in its own right.
Unsurprisingly given its title, this film sees Kevin McCallister’s family leave him behind again after an airport mix-up en-route to their Christmas holiday in Florida. This time Kevin ends up in New York City, where he encounters the Wet Bandits (now calling themselves the Sticky Bandits) once more, managing to outwit them with his inventive boobytraps at a relative’s empty townhouse that is mid-renovation. The festive New York scenery alone is an extra Christmas treat.
The film also features the same cast, with Macaulay Culkin as Kevin (they all mostly bowed out after this sequel – wise), as well as brilliant new additions including Tim Curry’s delightfully smarmy and hammy role as the Plaza hotel’s concierge. One other new ‘cast member’ was Donald Trump, who famously owned the Plaza Hotel at the time of filming, and allowed scenes to be shot in the hotel lobby in exchange for a cameo in the film (on top of the standard filming fee).
After this sequel, the Home Alone franchise went on for a further four films. Big mistake. However, this first sequel is brilliant.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Surprisingly, The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of the best and more faithful versions of Charles Dickens’ festive fable, courtesy of a bunch of puppets. Keeping the morals of the original story, the Muppet’s also bring some light-hearted fun.
As we know, Scrooge receives visits from the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who show him the error of his mean ways. This version sees Kermit the Frog play Bob Cratchit, the over-worked clerk of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (played brilliantly by Michael Caine). Other Muppets including Miss Piggy as Mrs Cratchit and Gonzo as the narrator, weave in and out of this musical Dickens story.
For his role as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Michael Caine apparently vowed to act like he was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, no matter what muppet antics happened around him – a strategy that resulted in a sincere, witty and heartwarming story, ideal for both young and old viewers alike. Muppets creator Jim Henson died during pre-production so never got to see the end result or the resounding success of this fun and much-loved family favourite.
The Santa Clause (1994)
This warmhearted tale of an overworked Dad rekindling his relationship with his family is a slightly weird yet enjoyable festive watch.
When a divorced businessman (Tim Allen) accidentally causes a man in a Santa suit to die on his property on Christmas Eve while he has custody of his son, he is magically transported to the North Pole, where an elf explains that he must now take Santa’s place before the next Christmas arrives.
Despite thinking it had been a dream, ten months later his hair turns white, he gains weight, grows a fluffy white beard and starts to be approached by children with their wish lists. Realising he should have read the small print before signing the Santa clause, he reluctantly becomes Santa’s successor – rediscovering the love of his son Charlie through this strange experience.
Tim Allen’s sarcastic and grumpy Father Christmas ensures the film has a nice balance of cynicism and wonder, and has helped make this film a firm festive family favourite.
The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
This comedy-drama is a remake of the 1947 film, The Bishop’s Wife (though this time including gospel music), which in turn was based on Robert Nathan’s book.
Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) is the pastor of a small struggling church in a poor neighbourhood of New York City. Facing pressure from a real estate developer to sell the church’s property, he has also become neglectful of his son and his wife Julia (Whitney Houston). Julia was once a popular nightclub singer and is now a star in the church choir, but also worried about their marriage.
When he starts to lose faith, Biggs is visited by a witty and debonair angel, Dudley (Denzel Washington). Intending to help the good reverend, Dudley is distracted by the cleric’s lovely wife. After realising he is falling in love, he instead turns his attention to helping Biggs, who has realised the importance of his family – just in time for the Christmas pageant. His work done, Dudley then erases all memory of himself from everyone he’s met.
This festive film features the legendary Whitney Houston’s impressive singing talents (her mother also stars in the film), reminding you of what an incredible singer she was. The film was nominated for Oscars for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score. Despite it’s fairly predictable holiday cheer, The Preacher’s Wife is reliably heartwarming and a must-watch.
This funny yet heartwarming film was released less than 20 years ago yet has quickly become a festive family favourite.
Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, a clownish human accidentally transported to the North Pole as a toddler who was then raised by Santa and his elves in the North Pole. Something tells him he doesn’t quite fit in, so he heads off to New York City (in elf uniform, naturally) to search for his real father. Child-like and innocent, he discovers his father is a cynical businessman. Reluctantly, his father attempts to start a father-son relationship with him, with inevitable chaotic consequences.
Will Ferrell’s funny and charming performance complements this film’s wonderfully absurd plot to create a Christmas film that is genuinely funny for both adults and children alike. While most Christmas films have become fairly generic and saccharine, Elf is actually surprisingly and genuinely sweet.
Love Actually (2003)
Richard Curtis’s star-studded ensemble romantic comedy follows the various intertwined love stories of 9 couples throughout the festive season, examining the complexities of love.
Alternately sentimental and silly, the film features an all-star cast including Keira Knightley and Colin Firth, but is perhaps most known for Hugh Grant as a newly elected Prime Minister (with hidden dance skills as it turns out) who falls for his junior staffer, Bill Nighy as an old rocker with a Christmas comeback single, and Emma Thompson’s genuinely touching and revered performance as the wronged wife of a man (Alan Rickman) tempted by his attractive new secretary.
Although Christmas really is all around in this film, each character’s story also features tough moments and the film cleverly shows love in many of its numerous forms, including the love and devotion of a women whose care for her mentally ill brother complicates her own love life.
Whilst the film divides opinion (even its director Richard Curtis has bemoaned the “uncomfortable” lack of diversity in the film) this Christmas film’s multi-narrative plot has influenced many other films over the last few decades and has quickly become part of the classic annual set of Christmas films.
Joyeux Noël (2005)
This French film set during the First World War is relatively unknown, but worth watching.
Joyeux Noel highlights the incredible true story of how in December 1914 on Christmas Eve, numerous sections of the Western Front called an informal (and unauthorised) Christmas truce, despite being aware that their superiors would not tolerate its occurrence. Front-line soldiers peacefully met each other in No Man’s Land to share a fleeting pause in the conflict, experiencing peace, goodwill – and some poignant humanity – despite the knowledge that many of them would sadly inevitably soon die after fighting resumed.
The film depicts a fictionalised account of an actual event that took place in one particular section of the trenches, when Wilhelm, German Crown Prince, sent tenor Walter Kirchhoff (the lead singer of the Berlin Imperial Opera company) on a solo visit to the front line to visit the 120th and 124th Württemberg regiments. His singing led French soldiers who had overheard him to stand up and applaud.
Seen through the eyes of French, British, and German soldiers, Joyeux Noel highlights how this truce allowed opposing soldiers to gain an insight into each other’s lives. Originally screened (out of competition) at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, the film was later nominated for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award in 2006.
If Christmas is truly meant as a time to encourage peace on Earth and goodwill to all, then this film certainly showcases humanity’s general desire for it.
The Holiday (2006)
This festive feel-good romantic comedy about a pair of house-swappers from opposite sides of the Atlantic that fall in love abroad is surprisingly charming.
Two women, one American (Cameron Diaz) and one British (Kate Winslet), swap houses for Christmas while getting over bad breakups with their boyfriends. One house is a Hollywood mansion, the other a quaint Surrey cottage. Somewhat predictably, each of the women finds romance with a local man (Jack Black, Jude Law) but realise that their imminent return home may threaten the end of the relationship.
As well as the central love stories, there are also some lovely moments from the friendship between the character of Iris (Winslet) – a scorned British reporter – and a forgotten but ageing screenwriter from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Eli Wallach).
Whilst relatively predictable, The Holiday is a sweet and touching film that will almost certainly get you fantasy house-hunting. It’s been called a modern Christmas classic, and is now considered one of the best holiday films of the 2000’s.
There are a huge variety of festive films out there from throughout the 20th and 21st century, from emerging modern-day classics (The Christmas Chronicles, 2018), romantic comedies (The Princess Switch, 2018) to antidotes to the sugary side of the festive season (Bad Santa, 2003). (…There’s also no shame in settling down to a straight-to-TV film where generally a singleton heads back to their hometown not feeling very Christmassy after a hectic time at work, falls in love with someone while helping out with a local Christmas crisis, then magically believes in the spirit of Christmas again. Sound familiar?)
Either way, whether you’re getting into the festive spirit or enjoying that weird ‘Crimbo Limbo’ between Christmas and New Year, there’s surely a festive film for everyone.