Only Will Ferrell, the master of manchildren, could create a character in the post-9/11 world with the earnestness to carry a Christmas movie. As goofy as Elf is, it’s a delicate stunt to pull off and deserves the title of “modern classic.”
14. A Christmas Carol (1938)
It’s possible that this 75-year-old adaptation is more entertaining than it was back ’38. The imperfect black & white and archaic stylings play directly into the Scrooge character. He’s crotchety and the movie is kind of crotchety. The transportive quality is there — and it may not have upon its first release.
13. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
It’s time to stop calling the animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Christmas story a “TV special.” Looney Tunes had a Christmas special. Garfield had a Christmas special. Grinch is a special film, and Whos down in Whoville would agree that it’s a vital part of the holiday, especially in the current age of snark.
12. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Let’s clear this up: This is not a Halloween movie. It’s about conformist Halloweeners breaking free of their chains to celebrate Christmas. Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s macabre stop-motion film continues to be unique (and a top Hot Topic seller) 20 years later – and for good reason.
11. Frosty the Snowman
We’re undoing Christmas cultural foundations here: The Rankin & Bass “specials” are also films, animated shorts that have burned images of carol characters into our collective consciousness. Jackie Vernon turned Frosty into one of the most gosh darn lovable anthropomorphic creepsters in movie history. He might be a grown man who hangs out with children, but we love him.
10. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Because it’s the first of the Peanuts cartoons, Charlie Brown Christmas also deserves “short film” recognition. Even if religion doesn’t factor into your Christmas, Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the rest of the gang’s realization of the over-commercialization of the holiday serves as a timeless lesson melodically enhance by the Vince Guardaldi Trio. As an important adult once put it, “WAH WAH WAH WAH WAMP WAH.”
9. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Christmas is filled with joy and it’s filled with nightmares. The third sequel to Vacation explores the latter. It’s pitch perfect. The uproarious sewer explosion is something we all now wish on our most annoying family members. “Merry Christmas, the shitter’s full!”
8. A Christmas Story
Don’t hate this movie because TBS insists on playing the movie for 24 hours straight. The cavalcade of familial horrors — that leg lamp, man — are still as punchy as ever. Being a kid sucks. A Christmas Story makes remembering that fact all OK.
7. Holiday Inn
Before Irving Berlin repurposed “White Christmas” for the movie of the same name, it debuted in Holiday Inn, a musical romp that hits all its major beats on Christmas. The stars aligned for Holiday Inn, with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire showing off their skills in full force.
6. Home Alone
Is it wrong that I still want to live a weekend by myself, Home Alone-style? Macaulay Culkin got his Christmas wish, eating ice cream and watching gangster movies while his parents lost their minds trying to get home over the holiday. It became our fantasy. Though the climax is what sells the movie — the epic Rube Goldberg death match between Kevin and the Wet Bandits — but every moment entertains. Kevin’s preparation for the showdown set to “Carol of the Bells” is iconic.
5. Babes in Toyland (1934)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s adventure through the fantasy world of Toyland may be one of the most uproarious movies of all time, Christmas-themed or not. You could plop the duo in a Judd Apatow movie today and their comedy would click — they’re that universal. Surrounding them is pure imagination, with costumes and sets ranging from horrifying to goofy. Laurel and Hardy at the top of their game.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life
Many will say the Frank Capra classic is too far down on the list, even at #4. The truth is, the redemptive story of George Bailey (James Stewart) is a great movie, not a brilliant movie. It takes it’s merry ol’ time getting to the juicy stuff, but when Bailey meets Clarence the Angel, the whirlwind of feelings begins.
3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Though Rudolph’s nose squeak is among the most heinous noises ever committed to film, the Rankin & Bass stop-motion cartoon is heartwarming, cheerful, and downright bizarre. I don’t know what recreational substances helped someone throw a dentist elf, misfit toys, and Burl Ives into one movie, but they did it and we’re grateful.
2. The Muppet Christmas Carol
The holidays are all about dropping cynicism to relish in the mushier spectrum of human emotion. The Muppets were born from those feelings. Pitting them against Michael Caine’s Scrooge, who never misses a cue when talking down to his felt costars, reinvents the time-honored classic. The music by Paul Williams and the framework of Gonzo as Dickens is pure magic. Despite being lauded by Christmas movie fanatics, Muppet Christmas Carol is still underappreciated.
1. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
There’s nothing like the original. The ’47 Miracle has the court room gravitas of 12 Angry Men, the otherworldliness of It’s a Wonderful Life, and manages to turn Santa into a humanistic star. It’s Christmas on trial and the holiday spirit prevails — could there be a better message?