Staff Picks: Our 10 Favorite Holiday Films

While holiday tunes are lovely to crank during parties or decorating sprees, there’s nothing quite like snuggling in to watch your favorite holiday flick. Here are our 10 favorites; be sure to leave yours in the comments!

1) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Picked by: Emma

I don’t care how cliche it is, I absolutely love this movie. I love it every time I see it. Frank Capra was called over-sentimental and cheesy, and initially, It’s a Wonderful Life was not very successful, but people were wrong. I don’t think I have to detail the story, since years in the public domain have drilled the plot into everyone’s heads. There are so many great points to the film: the subtleties; the all-around great acting including Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), who was such a method actor, he was constantly drunk on set; a director who really knew how to work with people (eat your heart out, James Cameron); and a captivating plot told in a poetic and well-paced style. It’s a comedy, a drama, a romance, a philosophical piece, and above-all, the greatest holiday film of all time.

2) White Christmas (1954)

Picked by: Carey

Some people will tell you that White Christmas is inferior to its predecessor, 1942’s Holiday Inn. Those people are wrong. White Christmas may be burdened with a plot that somehow manages to be both convoluted and paper-thin, the Army backstory, fake engagement, and “Let’s put on a show” shenanigans are all just a backdrop for the incredible cast (Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in romantic crooner mode, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen showing off their fancy footwork and comedy chops) and the lush music of Irving Berlin. Songs like “Sisters” and “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” have nothing to do with Christmas, but it wouldn’t be the holidays for me without them — or, of course, without the classic title song.

3) A Christmas Story (1983)

Picked by: Allison

For me, Christmas is just not Christmas if I can’t actively watch a decent chunk of the TBS 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. I think I’ve probably seen it so many times I could quote it front-to-back. (Not to brag.) From the moment it comes on Christmas Eve, it’s on my television — through last-minute present-wrapping, present-opening, morning coffee — and only gets turned off once we leave for a relative’s house or someone sneakily changes the channel. What is it about this pretty innocuous (not to mention unsuccessful upon its initial release) period piece from 1983? It is its endless quotability? (“Not a finger!!”) Is it the leg lamp? (“Fra-gee-lay…”) Is it my own hometown pride that most of the film was shot in Cleveland, Ohio, and the opening shot of Public Square and Higbee’s always brings a tear to my nostalgic eye? I’d like to think it’s all of the above, plus the family’s rad Christmas tree, Chinese turkey, and, of course, the Pink Nightmare. (On a side note, I bought this sweater yesterday and I. Cannot. Wait. To. Wear. It.)

4) The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Picked by: Rick

It’s Christmas and Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is having problems as he tries to raise money to build a new church and deal with the strained relationship with his wife (Loretta Young) as a result of his focus on funds and not family. He prays for help and asks God, “Can’t you help me, can’t you tell me what to do?” So God sends an angel to help — Cary Grant! Grant plays Dudley, a handsome, debonair, affable angel who seems to be an answer to the bishop’s prayers — or is he? Unfortunately, in true Cary Grant-style, Dudley charms everyone from the town gossips to the bishop’s own family, and as a result, Henry actually feels jealousy for the first time in his life. The problem is, after living with Henry and Julia, Dudley has decided he no longer wants his existence as a angel, telling Henry, “When an immortal finds himself envying the mortal entrusted to his care, it’s a danger signal.” This is a great film on so many levels, and Grant is superb as always.

5) Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Picked by: Jim

A perfect distillation of the wonder of Christmas told in a daring new form.  Three folks, not necessarily that wise at the start of the film, are gifted with a child on Christmas.  Like many folks with gifts they’re not so sure about, they attempt to return it; their adventures as they take responsibility for their care allows them to come to terms with their pasts as they do the right thing.  One of Satoshi Kon‘s more vital works from his all-too-short career, though I dare anyone to tell me which of his works are not vital.

6) A Christmas Carol (1984)

Picked by: Erika

Call me Scrooge, but the truth is, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas movies. Most of them are so cloying and saccharine that they just kinda make me count the days until December 26th (bah-humbug!). But this one — this one — is simply amazing. It’s one of those fantastic British films cast almost exclusively with Shakespearian actors, so the realism sucks you in from the first moments. And unlike a lot of movies filmed around this time, it doesn’t have that tell-tale 1980s feel. From the sets to the costumes to the music, the Victorian setting is Downton Abbey-quality authentic, and even the special effects are convincing. (Marley is freaking terrifying!) George C. Scott, a Shakespearean actor himself, is a masterful Scrooge and his performance just carries this movie; his transformation is so human and full of joy, it makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Even an Ebenezer like me can’t help being filled with the true spirit of Christmas after seeing this film.

7) The Ref (1994)

Picked by: Pam

My favorite Christmas movie is an unusual one that you probably haven’t heard of, much less seen: The Ref. A comedy by the late director Ted Demme, it stars Denis Leary as Gus, a cat burglar who has made one last score in a Connecticut town on Christmas Eve, which he hoped would be his ticket to retirement. Unfortunately for him, he botches the robbery and finds himself on the run. His second mistake is taking a squabbling husband and wife hostage — Lloyd and Caroline Chausseur — played brilliantly by a pre-American Beauty Kevin Spacey and Australian actress Judy Davis.

To say the couple is on the brink of divorce is an understatement; you know your marriage really sucks when the start of your Christmas Eve begins with an appointment in couples’ therapy. While stopping off at the local convenience store on the way home, Gus hops into the back of their car and forces them to take them to their home, where he’ll hide from the cops until he can sort out a getaway plan with his dimwitted assistant. Further hilarity ensues when Gus masquerades as the couple’s therapist in front of their family which includes the couple’s blackmailing son, Lloyd’s stuck-up, tightwad mother, and Christine Baranski as his sister-in-law. All must put up with a spread of despicable sounding Swedish Christmas delicacies that Caroline has prepared, along with wearing St. Lucia wreaths complete with actual candles. Watch carefully and you’ll notice the candles on their heads shrink and grow throughout the scene. Ah, but that lack of continuity is a small gripe in an otherwise underrated movie. While I can’t promise you’ll laugh out loud at every humorous line, the best zingers in this film were definitely delegated to Leary, especially when he proclaims “Jesus Christ, I kidnapped my parents!” The chemistry between the three lead actors crackles. Bonus: the soundtrack was composed by none other than Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Ask Santa to slip this DVD under your tree this year. You won’t be disappointed.

8) Trading Places (1983)

Picked by: Sharon

I think one of the most thrilling interviews I’ve ever done was back when Trading Places finally made it onto DVD, and I got to talk to director John Landis about its release (luckily, he was still just as excited about the film as I was). That’s because this movie was one of my childhood favorites: my brothers and I would watch it over and over and could recite lines from it and sometimes still do even now. And just in case you’re wondering, it is indeed a Christmas film: it’s set over the holiday as two old, dastardly billionaire brothers make smug successful banker Dan Aykroyd homeless and penniless while raising up fast-talking hustler Eddie Murphy (back in his absolute prime) to so-called respectability all for a measly bet. Of course they get their comeuppance and there’s a great feel-good ending, as all Christmas films should have, but sentimentality takes a backseat to laughs, and the sight of Aykroyd as a bedraggled, drunken Santa driven to crime is more festive to me than any of your typical Christmas fare.

9) Die Hard (1988)

Picked by: Liam

Don’t you just hate it when you fly all the way across the country to spend Christmas with your kids and try to patch things up with your estranged wife, only to find yourself tasked with single-handedly taking down super-villain Hans Gruber and his highly dangerous sect of pony-tailed Eurotrash terrorists using nothing but your wits and years of experience as a street-smart NYC cop? Oh, and you have to do it totally barefoot to boot? If you answered yes (and honestly, who wouldn’t?), then pour yourself some eggnog, settle down by the fire, and pop in Die Hard this holiday season. Yippie-Kay-Yay indeed.

10) Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Picked by: Sarah

I’m not usually a fan of remakes, but this is the exception. Although I also love the original 1947 version, this is the one I always sat down to watch every Christmas as a child. Richard Attenborough, who sadly died earlier this year, gives a heartwarming performance as Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who claims to be the real thing. Mara Wilson plays Susan, a six-year-old girl who has been raised by her mother to not believe in Santa. Their paths cross and it falls to Susan to help Kris prove he’s the real Santa, while reclaiming her own belief. For me it’s the perfect Christmas film: a reminder that sometimes we all need something to believe in.

What’s your favorite holiday film? Let us know in the comments!

  • ajobo

    Woah, woah, woah — Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis? I NEED to see ‘The Ref.’

    • GoRetroPam

      Let me know when you do!