Whether it’s Bing Crosby crooning about sleigh bells or Macauley Culkin beating a grown man around the head with a shovel, there’s something for everybody when it comes to Christmas movies.
Time-honoured classics featuring nostalgic melodies like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ get even the grumpiest of grinches tearing up, while joyous comedies and yuletide favourites are as successful as the sound of crinkly Quality Street wrappers in gathering the whole family round the TV.
With that in mind, The Telegraph has compiled a collection of the best festive films for every possible predilection. It’s time to wrestle for the remote, crack open the sherry and settle in for an evening of chortling, smiling and maybe even blubbering.
The best Christmas movies of all time
The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Ernst Lubitsch’s bittersweet classic makes the Christmas shopping season the occasion for a forlorn epistolary romance. Little does Margaret Sullavan know it’s her least favourite store-clerk, Jimmy Stewart, whose words she’s falling for. Grab that mistletoe.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Vincent Minnelli’s sumptuous musical about family love and romantic awakening gives us an entire year in the life of the Smith family. But it’s perfect Christmas viewing not only because it contains the melancholy beauty of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, sung by Judy Garland, but also because the values it displays amidst the comedy and the drama are ones you’ll want to cherish. And it snows in a satisfyingly deep manner.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
What Christmas needs is schmaltz and snow, and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has both by the hamperful. James Stewart is George Bailey, a businessman on the brink of suicide until a fat, elderly angel called Clarence intervenes to show him what a difference he’s made to his neighbours’ lives. Weeping guaranteed.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
America’s favourite Christmas movie stars English actor Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, a Santa Claus at Macy’s New York department store who may just be the real thing. It’s disarming and delightful, though hard-headed too, with extensive product placement for Macy’s and rivals Gimbel’s.
No performer, past, present or yet to come, can possibly hope to match Alastair Sim’s glorious turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in this deliciously shiversome adaptation of Charles Dickens’s festive ghost story.
White Christmas (1954)
This Bing Crosby musical is exactly the sort of thing they’d never make today due to the sheer conventionality of its premise. But it’s sweet nonetheless. Crosby and Danny Kaye are a musical double-act who fall for two sisters in their own musical double-act, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. The pairs must team up to prevent the closure of a snow-covered cabin in Vermont, putting on a musical performance so brilliant it’ll convince locals to stay at the cabin themselves. It’s a trifling, hokey pleasure.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The American equivalent to an EastEnders festive bloodbath, this adaptation of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic-strips has been shown on TV every year since it first aired, creating a gentle, sweet American touchstone in the process.
The jazz-soundtracked animated classic sees Charlie Brown growing disconcerted by the increasing materialism of the season, while his role as director of the school Christmas pageant goes terribly awry. It’s up to Linus to impart some Christmas wisdom as the big day approaches. Adorable.
Black Christmas (1974)
For something completely different, why not try this festive slasher film? Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder are among the sorority girls being menaced by an obscene caller who becomes increasingly murderous as the film goes on. It’s a little slow at times, but provides some decent festive chills.
Others in the Christmas horror sub-genre include Santa’s Slay, Christmas Evil, Santa Claws, Krampus and Silent Night, Deadly Night (which spawned four sequels). Some of them may have better titles than they deserve.
Trading Places (1983)
Eddie Murphy once topped a list of Hollywood’s most overpaid actors – calculated by dividing box office takings by the actor’s fee – but he certainly earned his corn in this Eighties role-swap comedy. Murphy, as penniless huckster Billy Ray Valentine, and Dan Ackroyd, as monied Louis Winthorpe III, end up swapping lives after their fortunes are made and dashed by dastardly millionaires the Dukes.
There are countless preposterous mishaps and misunderstandings, as Billy Ray makes it big on the stock market and Louis, dressed as a department-store Santa, is reduced to concealing a stolen fish in his false beard. Eventually, of course, the good guys win out and the Dukes are suckered by a scheme even more ingenious than theirs – all in time for Christmas.
Growing up in the Eighties, I had a strange obsession with this rambunctious creature feature: I had all the cuddly toys, all the figurines, and I even tried to name my cat Gizmo, after the deliriously cute furball the movie’s built around. Taking place on Christmas Eve, it’s a darkly funny celebration of toothy, green monsters behaving badly – and serves as the perfect antidote to yuletide sentimentality.
Die Hard (1988)
A hijacked skyscraper, epic detonations, Alan Rickman’s Mitteleuropean baddy, Bruce Willis’s barefoot Sir Galahad, and Beethoven’s Ninth reworked into a kind of warped celebratory festive jingle, all directed with real zip by John McTiernan. As Argyle, the put-upon chauffeur says, “If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year’s.”
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Now considered something of a holiday classic, this film, starring Chevy Chase and written by the late John Hughes, features well-meaning but hapless Clark Griswold’s attempts to provide “a good old-fashioned Christmas” for his odd assortment of family visitors. Of course, everything that can go wrong does, and it is impossible not to laugh while at the same time marvelling at Griswold’s unflagging enthusiasm in the face of one disaster after another.
Home Alone (1990)
With its high-concept-but-low-stakes charm, Home Alone feels characteristically John Hughes, but it also has a zippy urgency familiar to the time period in which it was released.
Macauley Culkin, in his breakout performance, is the plucky troublemaker Kevin McAllister, whose enjoyable freedom at home alone during the Christmas holidays quickly goes awry when two burglars show up. A Culkin-filled sequel arrived in 1992, followed by three lower-budget sequels each with a different kid pulling “Macauley face” on the cover art. You can avoid those.
Batman Returns (1992)
Some of the best Christmas favourites have little to do with the holiday: sometimes, the mere locale or snow-coated scenery conjure enough festive magic to become an annual rewatch tradition.
Batman Returns is one such movie, with Michael Keaton’s caped crusader facing off against Michelle Pfeiffer’s unflinchingly deranged Catwoman, a slippery, sleazy Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Christopher Walken as a megalomaniac businessman running for public office. It’s also a snowy, feline-filled Christmastime in Gotham, too.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This is one of those perennial 1990s classics, a musical adaptation of the Dickens tale complete with Muppets playing your favourite Christmas Carol characters. Michael Caine is an appropriately grouchy Scrooge, playing the role completely straight alongside his puppet co-stars, and Kermit a particularly adorable Bob Cratchit. Plus, is there any festive film song better than One More Sleep Till Christmas?
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Breathtakingly animated and featuring a collection of unbearably catchy songs courtesy of Danny Elfman, this is a dark Christmas classic.
Jack Skellington is our hero, a toothy resident of Halloween Town who accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town, where he finds himself oddly captured by the festive mood. A true one-off, and something to watch with the whole family.
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
While traditionalists might prefer the 1947 original, Nineties nostalgia freaks will probably get more from the 1994 remake. The legendary Richard Attenborough plays a department store Santa who insists he is the real deal, something New York’s children instinctively believe – all apart from a stubborn little girl played by kids’ movie queen Mara Wilson. It gets a little bogged down in legal mumbo-jumbo towards the end, but it’s a sweet Christmas diversion.
Serendipity barely made a dent on its initial release, but thanks to the copious Christmas Eve showings on BBC One and the dearth of genuinely heartfelt Christmas films in the past decade, it has become something of an under-the-radar festive classic.
Sentimental, metropolitan and wonderfully cheesy, it’s a New York romcom about chance and fate, and a couple kept apart by outside forces but unable to get one another out of their heads. Stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale have chemistry in spades despite barely spending time together on-screen; Beckinsale in particular is at her most glorious.
Bad Santa (2003)
Billy Bob Thornton is superb as Willie T Stokes, the drunken womaniser who works as a shopping-mall Santa. The movie was written and directed by Terry Zwigoff (with help from the Coen Brothers). Santa and his malevolent elf Marcus (played by Tony Cox) are con men who rob the malls they work in at Christmas; it’s darkly comic and strangely festive as oddball child Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) helps Santa understand the value of giving, in a very unusual tale of redemption. A sequel followed in 2016.
Love Actually (2003)
There’s lots to find irritating about Love Actually, with its stock Richard Curtis-isms, all the barbs at Martine McCutcheon’s expense, and the banal Now That’s What I Call Music soundtrack cuts – but it’s also frequently affecting.
Because of its format – 10 vaguely interconnected tales of love at Christmas – there are three or four particularly sweet subplots to balance out the horrible ones. There’s also an interesting darkness to aspects of the film, with stories that prove that love can be horrifying at times – namely Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln as two repulsive individuals screwing over poor Chiwetel Ejiofor just days after his wedding day.
2003 was an unusually good year for modern Christmas classics. Jon Favreau’s Elf applies traditional fish-out-of-water tropes to the holiday season, with Will Ferrell’s human elf impostor Buddy discovering his true origins and heading to New York City to meet his biological father.
Ferrell’s deer-in-the-headlights schtick is never better than it is here, while he’s supported by a game cast including Zooey Deschanel, Peter Dinklage, James Caan and Amy Sedaris.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows the trend of many of Shane Black’s movies in setting a series of madcap noir-infused adventures at Christmastime.
This buddy comedy, which propelled Robert Downey Jr back to the A-list, follows a private eye (Val Kilmer) and an actor accompanying him around LA for research purposes. The two witness a murder, leading to a night of increasingly bizarre interactions, an ever-deepening mystery, and some of the funniest lines of dialogue in 2000s comedy.
The Holiday (2006)
One of those films drummed into our brains as a “modern Christmas classic” in light of seemingly endless ITV2 repeats, The Holiday is twee romcom fantasy, but generally harmless.
Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz are bored singletons who decide to swap houses over the Christmas period, both flying overseas and straight into geographical stereotype-ville. Winslet is thrust into an enormous Hollywood mansion and dinner parties with movie stars, while Diaz is stuck in a picture-perfect English countryside cottage where her neighbour is a suave Jude Law. We’ve all been there, right?
This critically acclaimed transgender comedy is set in the streets of downtown LA on Christmas Eve, with trans sex workers Sin-Dee and Alexandra trying to hunt down Sin-Dee’s ex-boyfriend, who is rumoured to have cheated on her with a cisgender girl.
Shot entirely on an iPhone, but still one of the most visually sumptuous and exciting films in years, Tangerine uses Christmas more as a backdrop than a narrative focus, but its story of two social outcasts forced to make their own families during what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year is particularly affecting.
It might have taken until 2015 for a major studio to release a festive horror movie about the iconic German goat-demon, but in some ways it was worth the wait.
This spooky slasher, involving a family under siege by the titular beast days before Christmas, is weird and wonderful, with a dash of Henry Selick and a similar vibe to Stranger Things or a particularly intense episode of Doctor Who. Fun for the whole family! Toni Collette and Adam Scott star.
Arthur Christmas (2011)
Despite slightly vanishing upon its release in 2011 (it didn’t even get a Best Animated Film Oscar nod), Arthur Christmas has emerged as something of a modern classic, with that trademark Aardman wit and warmth, and a lovely voiceover performance from James McAvoy as Santa’s clumsy son Arthur, who decides to rescue a little girl’s Christmas when Father Christmas forgets to deliver her gift. Bill Nighy, Michael Palin and Hugh Laurie are among the rest of the cast.
A Christmas Prince (2017)
A so-bad-it’s-amazing Christmas movie that garnered a wave of press for its various shortcomings, A Christmas Prince stars iZombie’s Rose McIver as a terrible New York journalist sent to a press conference in the fictional European country of Aldovia to report on a “playboy prince”. While there she goes undercover as a tutor for the prince’s disabled sister, falls in love with the prince and unearths a royal scandal. It is, by all accounts, the greatest-slash-worst thing to exist, playing like The Prince & Me, Never Been Kissed and the Princess Diaries sequel tossed in a blender while a cheaper version of Natasha Bedingfield plays on the soundtrack.
A radical antidote to the all-American holiday cheese that makes up the majority of this list is Hector, a downbeat realist drama starring the great Peter Mullan. He’s the Hector of the title, a homeless Scotsman journeying down the country to get to a shelter in London that he plans to stay in for Christmas.
Dr Seuss’s The Grinch (2018)
Benedict Cumberbatch voices the grumpy, green-furred Grinch with a heart two sizes too small, who plots to steal Christmas from the residents of Whoville. Can six-year-old Cindy Lou change his outlook? This brightly coloured animation has family-friendly jokes and eye-popping visuals.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)
This Victorian-set musical fantasy sees Forest Whitaker play a toy inventor who lost everything when his dastardly apprentice stole his blueprints. Granddaughter Journey is determined to restore his legacy. Featuring plenty of Broadway-style razzle-dazzle, including upbeat dance routines by Kylie’s choreographer Ashley Wallen. Ricky Martin and Hugh Bonneville are also among the cast.