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The best Christmas movies

Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. (Image credit: Hughes Entertainment)

The holidays may look different this year with social distancing, but movies are here to stay. Like presents under a decorated tree, Christmas movies offer something for everyone. There are festive films that feature unbearable family members, unconventional love stories, creepy creatures, and spirits meant to guide us when we stray. No matter what mood you’re in, there is a Christmas film to accompany it. And if there’s anything we all need this holiday season, it’s more cheer. Presented in no particular order, here are ten of the best Christmas movies to watch this holiday season. 

Home Alone  (1990)

Sometimes being alone sounds like a dream, but you have to be careful what you wish for. When eight- year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) wishes his family would disappear, he gets the whole house to himself with no family in sight. He enjoys eating junk and watching rubbish, but unfortunately has to fight off two burglars in the midst of his Christmas vacation. Director Chris Columbus’ film is a classic because it speaks to everyone’s inner child. There is a need for independence and respect that kids crave, but left to their own devices would be completely ridiculous. Sometimes it takes a tragedy (or traumatic experience with two criminals) to be truly valued and appreciate the family members that otherwise drive you crazy. Filled with classic pranks, memorable one-liners, and family friendly violence, Home Alone is a cinematic gift that keeps on giving. 

Little Women (2019)

Released on Christmas Day, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott instantly became a classic. This coming-of-age period drama chronicles the lives of the March sisters during the 19th century in Concord, Massachusetts. Fickle and independent writer, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), is in search of publishing her novel while her sisters chase their own dreams of love and family. The sisters are torn between what a woman is expected to do in society and following their heart. Poignant yet comical, Little Women is a refreshingly modern take on a truly timeless tale.  

Elf (2003)

Director Jon Favreau’s family friendly comedy follows the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human who was accidentally transported to the North Pole and raised by elves. Destined to find his biological family, Buddy embarks on a journey to New York City where he teaches those he meets the true spirit of Christmas. Elf is a fish out of water story with a lot of heart, wit and slapstick comedy. Farrell is hilarious as a naive Christmas fanatic who struggles to connect with his biological father, his newfound love interest, and adapt to everyday life in the big city. 

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Written by Caroline Thompson and directed by Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands is a fantasy tale about outsiders, love, and acceptance. The story starts off with an elderly woman telling a story to her granddaughter at Christmas. She explains that the reason why it snows is because an inventor (Vincent Price) created a man with scissors in place of hands. Starring Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, this 1990 gothic film has become a staple in holiday viewing. As Edward, Depp delivers a captivating performance by bringing a kind and docile approach to the character despite his intimidating exterior. The story’s sweetness is beautifully coupled with Danny Elfman’s angelic score along with the pastel palette of production designer, Bo Welch.

It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

Sometimes a brush with death makes us truly appreciate life. Director Frank Capra’s fantasy drama is a Christmas classic that plays every year. The story follows George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who has given up on his dreams and plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Divine intervention ensues and his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), comes down to show George just how many lives he has impacted and why his life matters. The American Film Institute recognized It’s a Wonderful Life to be one of the 100 best films ever made. 

Carol (2015)

Set in 1950s Manhattan, Director Todd Haynes’ romantic drama follows a woman who faces bigotry and social prejudices after quickly forming a bond and falling in love with another woman. Set against a holiday backdrop, Carol is a beautifully elegant love story. Cinematographer Edward Lachman cloaks the screen in a singular granularity that captures the emotional impact of the film. Utilizing muted color schemes compliments the sexual oppression that the women grapple with from their previous male partners and society itself. The film has received over 275 industry and critic nominations as well as over 90 awards and honors. It’s one Christmas story that can’t be missed. 

Scrooged (1988)

While there are several adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, none are quite as quirky and entertaining as Richard Donner’s dark comedy, Scrooged. Bill Murray stars as Frank, a stern television executive who forces his crew to broadcast a live production of “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve. The night before the show, he is visited by the ghost of his mentor who warns him that he will be visited by three spirits to help Frank avoid the same fate his mentor endured. Make-up artists Tom Burman and Bari Dreiband- Burman produce truly creepy characters and were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup. Both crude and sentimental, Scrooged is a holiday cult classic with Murray at one of his best performances.

Trading Places (1983)

Director John Landis’ comedy tells the story of an upper-middle class commodities broker (Dan Akyroyd) who trades places with a lower-class street hustler (Eddie Murphy). The switch is a result of two rich brothers who want to settle a debate over nature versus nurture. Murphy and Akyroyd play perfect character foils while one climbs the ladder of success, the other spirals into a downfall of failure before they both join forces at the end. The film’s theme of the have and have-nots has often been compared to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is on a mission to make Christmas as memorable as possible for his family. The best light display; a huge raise to buy a swimming pool; and a delicious feast for relatives visiting from out of town are all on his agenda. But like most things in the National Lampoon world (and life, in general), nothing goes as planned. The in-laws and cousins reluctantly arrive, bringing their own drama and confrontations and the household quickly falls into chaos. If you’re missing family this holiday season or worried about the pressure of having a perfect holiday, writer John Hughes and director Jeremiah S. Chechik will take the edge off with this Christmas comedy gem. 

Gremlins (1984)

Christmas has a dual nature. On the one hand, it’s a time of joy and peace. On the other, it can be a time of sadness and loneliness. Director Joe Dante explores this duality with his horror comedy in the form of adorable creatures called Mogwai and nasty green Gremlins. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) is given a Mogwai for Christmas, and he fails to follow three important rules: don’t get him wet; don’t feed him after midnight; and don’t expose him to bright light. As a result, Gremlins are born and wreak havoc on Billy’s town. It’s up to Billy and his crush, Kate (Phoebe Cates), to save the day. Chris Walas’ special effects are top-notch and Jerry Goldsmith’s score brings an eerie yet whimsical element to the film. Gizmo’s cuteness alone is enough to melt anyone’s icy heart over the holiday season.

Marisa Mirabal is an Austin-based writer whose work has appeared on FangoriaColliderBirth.Movies.Death.Eater Austin, and The Austin Chronicle. She is a News Writer for SlashFilm and occasionally serves as a documentary juror for local film festivals. Marisa has a penchant for horror, documentaries, and '80s sci-fi movies. When she isn't conjuring up film analysis or news articles, she can be found reading, spinning film scores on vinyl, and sipping whiskey deep in the heart of Texas. If you want to check out more of her work or random posts about film, books, retro technology, and her dog, Annie Oakley, then you can find her on Twitter and Instagram.