Empire’s 30 greatest Christmas movies
It’s the most wonderful time of the year and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the seasonal movies we all know and love. Empire asked its readers to vote for their favorite festive films.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Robert de Niro, Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Bob Hoskins, Katherine Helmond, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Kim Greist
Tis the season of dystopian futures, harried technocrats and secret police! Terry Gilliam’s reality-twisting masterpiece sees a pawn in an Orwellian nightmare world, a simple bureaucrat, abandon the safety of his normal life to follow a woman who’s literally from his dreams. Once off the beaten path, he meets rebel freelance plumbers and becomes a suspected terrorist himself. What has all this to do with Christmas? Well, it takes place at that time of year – allowing a few bonus swipes at the commercialism the film decries – and also features cinema’s most shocking visit from Santa Claus, as armed police take his place. Not your average turkey-fest.
29. Home Alone 2
Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern
A sequel that doesn’t shame the original, so something of a rarity right off the bat, Home Alone 2 inevitably tries to up the stakes of the previous film by stranding our hero away from home rather than in his house. While that does make a lie of the title, it gives him a bigger canvas to play on and, in a major New York department store, a lot more tricks and weapons to turn against would-be thieves Pesci and Stern. At this point, however, we do think that parents Catherine O’Hara and John Heard should be arrested for negligence. To lose a child once may be a misfortune; to lose him twice looks like carelessness.
28. The Polar Express
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Leslie Zemeckis, Peter Scolari
Robert Zemeckis’ first feature-length effort in performance capture, The Polar Express may get a lot of grief for dead eyes and its plunges into the uncanny valley, but it does have some rather thrilling action scenes (especially in 3D on the big screen) and some moments of beauty aboard the magical train that takes children to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas. It also gives Tom Hanks the chance to play six different characters, which may not be quite up there with Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets but it’s a worthy attempt.
27. Jingle All The Way
Director: Brian Levant
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson, Jake Lloyd, James Belushi
For many stressed-out parents, this story of a man desperate to get his son the must-have toy of the season must ring uncannily true, which is presumably why this has placed so high on the list. The difference is that most parents lack Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ability to take direct and sometimes violent action in pursuit of said so-hot-right-now plaything while still finding the energy to quip occasionally (“Put that cookie down NOW”), and most parents don’t have to compete with Sinbad to get them. Which, on reflection, is probably a good thing. Without this film, Jake Lloyd might never have amassed the acting experience to land a starring role in The Phantom Menace – and there’s another thought to ponder.
26. How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard, Bill Irwin
Despite labouring under about three feet of latex, Jim Carrey still comes across loud and clear in this adaptation of the Dr Seuss poem. While it takes a few more liberties with the story than the 1966 animated version, that’s compensated for by the stunning design and make-up (which won Rick Baker a well-deserved Oscar). And it’s also rather funny – Carrey improvising away despite all the big-budget shenanigans going on around him. Fun fact: adorable moppet Cindy Loo Hoo grew up to be Gossip Girl rock chick Taylor Momsen. Guess she got used to wearing lots of make-up on set.
25. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Director: Bill Melendez
Starring: (voice) Peter Robbins, Bill Melendez, Chris Doran, Christopher Shea, Katherine Steinberg
Like The Snowman, this one was made for TV but that hasn’t stopped it winning a place in everyone’s hearts over nearly 50 years. Charlie Brown finds himself depressed as the Christmas season approaches and can’t figure out why he isn’t onboard with the decking the halls and the being jolly. After consulting Lucy (in her psychiatrist mode) he gets involved in directing the school nativity play, but still gloomy, and with the other children running wild, finds things rather difficult. In the end, however, everyone rallies round, helping Charlie to decorate his tiny, real tree (he rejects the fake, tinselled ones) and remembering what Christmas is really all about with a singalong to Hark The Herald Angels. Heartwarming stuff.
24. The Santa Clause
Director: John Pasquin
Starring: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Wendy Crewson, Peter Boyle
We’re assuming that our younger readers feel nostalgic about this one, because there’s little else to explain its entry given that horrendous pun in the title. Still, Tim Allen manages to inject some pathos into the tale of a divorced father who can’t seem to get things right for his son until the day when he accidentally knocks Santa off his roof and finds himself forced to take Father Christmas’ place. While the set-up and characters are as clichéd as it comes, there’s still some fun for fans in Judge Reinhold’s stepfather figure and David Krumholtz’ elf.
23. Love Actually
Director: Richard Curtis
Starring: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santoro, Thomas Sangster, Andrew Lincoln, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley, Martin Freeman etc.
The third beloved Christmas movie to emerge from the 2003 season, Richard Curtis’ sprawling ensemble piece is best watched at this time of year, when you’re bound to find at least one storyline among the several million on offer that you like. Perhaps it’s the porn star stand-ins finding a tentative, awkward sort of romance, or Colin Firth’s fumbling attempts to woo a woman with whom he doesn’t share a common language. But for us it will always be the sad stories here that ring truest, with Laura Linney’s devotion to her brother and Emma Thompson’s quiet heartbreak really hitting home.
22. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Director: Jalmari Helander
Starring: Per Christian Ellefsen, Peeter Jakobi, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Onni Tommila
The good news is that Santa exists. The bad news? He’s much more concerned about punishing naughty children in nasty ways than with providing rewards for those who have been good. This Finnish cracker sees the big man disinterred from the grave he’s been trapped in for centuries by ill-advised scientists, only to escape and go on a reindeer-killing spree. A family of local reindeer herders manage to trap the monstrous Kris Kringle – but what about when his loyal elves come to look for him? A very recent release, this goes straight onto the list and is bound to climb higher as more people catch up with it.
21. Meet Me In St Louis
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake
This is not so much a Christmas film as a Christmas scene: faced with moving away from their beloved St Louis, Missouri, Tootie Smith (yes, they really called people “Tootie” back in 1904) is distraught. Her older sister Esther (Garland) tries to comfort her, and sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, but Tootie refuses to be mollified and runs outside to vandalise the snowmen she’d built earlier in the day, the little hooligan. Still, there’s a Christmas miracle when their father sees this outburst, realises that his family is not entirely onboard with his plan to move to New York and decides to stay in St Louis after all. Hurrah!
20. The Snowman
Directors: Dianne Jackson, Jimmy T. Murakami
Starring: Peter Auty, David Bowie, Raymond Briggs
It’s less than 30 minutes long, wordless apart from a song sung by a boy soprano, and features a frankly weird David Bowie introduction (in some versions), with the Goblin King wearing a scarf covered in snowmen. And yet, despite or because of all these things, this is as necessary for Christmas as mince pies and binging on Quality Street. The pencil-drawn animation is gorgeous, the music unforgettable and the story much less schmaltzy-happy than you might expect for the season. In fact, it’s likely to move small children, and indeed grown men, to tears. Still, it has to be watched or you’re not allowed your Christmas dinner; that’s just the rules.
19. Mickey’s Christmas Carol
Director: Bunny Mattinson
Starring: (voices) Alan Young, Wayne Allwine, Hal Smith, Will Ryan, Eddie Carroll, Patricia Parris
Probably the least scary version of A Christmas Carol out there, this has a certain nostalgic appeal for those who grew up on it – and boasts Scrooge McDuck as Ebeneezer himself which, it turns out, is a good thing. Oh sure, he’s no Michael Caine, but something about the combination of Scottish accent and wizened old duck beak fits Dickens’ famous character rather well. And you have to admit that making Bob Cratchit a mouse fits his personality too. Perhaps this is best seen as an entry-level Christmas movie for the very, very small.
18. White Christmas
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes
The song had been used before, in 1942’s Holiday Inn, but what with that being a wee bit racist around the edges, it got upcycled into this rather better and thoroughly Christmassy romp instead. Crosby and Kaye play soldiers-turned-entertainers, who travel to their former commanding officer’s inn to put on a show, help him out and romance a couple of sisters with their own musical act. Cue skating, singing, romantic entanglements and one of the best Christmas songs ever. Sure, it’s sappy, predictable and a little OTT, but the Irving Berlin songs are good enough, and the energy high enough, that you won’t really care.
17. Miracle On 34th Street
Year: 1947 / 1994
Director: George Seaton / Les Mayfield
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood / Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Richard Attenborough, Mara Wilson
You readers didn’t specify whether you meant the 1947 original or the 1994 remake, but in fact either is a worthy addition to the list. The original manages to conceal some of its cutesiness behind black-and-white photography and a sheen of age, but the remake is entirely respectable despite its yuppyish edge, thanks to Richard Attenborough’s spot-on Kris Kringle. Sure, it sometimes plays like a Christmas special Ally McBeal episode with a child star lead – but as it turns out that’s better than it sounds.
16. A Christmas Story
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz
This film – yet another ’80s effort – is barely known in the UK, but it’s massively popular in the US, where the adventures of young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) are a fixture of what they like to call “the holiday season”. The 1940s-set story basically chronicles Ralphie’s attempts to convince his parents, his family and/or Santa Claus that a BB gun is an appropriate Christmas present for a 9 year-old. Everyone, from his teacher to Santa himself, is convinced that Ralphie will “shoot his eye out”, but he remains determined that it’s the only possible present. A great reminder of what it was like to be a kid and obsessed with the presents you’d requested.
15. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, Randy Quaid, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Anothers ‘80s cracker, and the second John Hughes scripts on this list, this one sees family man Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) try his damndest to provide the perfect family Christmas and continually fall foul of his own expectations, his nasty neighbours, his parsimonious boss and his rowdy relations (top honours, of course, to Randy Quaid’s none-more-redneck cousin). The plot is essentially a demonstration of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, does go wrong. The moral of the story, we believe, is that one should always kidnap the boss if your bonus isn’t up to scratch, and that squirrels and Christmas trees are a bad combination.
14. Edward Scissorhands
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Vincent Price, Alan Arkin, Anthony Michael Hall
The framing device of this entire story is a grandmother telling her grandchild why it always snows at Christmas – so while the images that linger in the memory are mostly sundrenched and pastel, as you’d expect of the 1950s California setting, the beginning and end, and one of the most emotional scenes on the way through, are snow-covered and Christmassy. Edward’s finest hour sees him sculpting ice for the girl he loves, producing a shower of snow in which she dances – and when it emerges, at the end, that he’s continued to make snow for her every year despite their long separation, well, you’d be forgiven for having a bit of trouble with something in your eye.
13. Lethal Weapon
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Mitch Ryan, Tom Atkins, Darlene Love
Of course it’s a Christmas movie: it opens with Jingle Bell Rock, includes a scene in a Christmas tree lot and finishes with the family around a tree on Christmas day. And like all good Christmas movies it’s a morality play, with Riggs learning the value of continued existence over suicide and Murtaugh learning not to judge crazy cops by appearances, or to unquestioningly trust old friends. It also has one of the most moving Christmas present selections ever: Riggs gives Murtaugh the bullet he had intended to use to commit suicide. Admittedly, we’re not sure where he’s going to put that or whether he wouldn’t have preferred a nice new pair of socks, but it’s the thought that counts.
12. Home Alone
Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci , Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara, John Heard
Basically a live-action cartoon with a John Hughes script, Home Alonemay not be big or even clever but it’s a lot of fun and, in its own way, emphasises the importance of love and family just as much as It’s A Wonderful Life. As in Capra’s tale, being deprived of family and safety makes little tyke Macauley Culkin realise how much he needs them, and fending off burglars all alone gives him a unique appreciation of the Christmas spirit. Also, he gets to drop a hot iron on someone’s face, so that’s nice.
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenbergen, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart
A recent entrant onto the Christmas chart, but one that went straight to the top of everyone’s affections and deserves to be there. When it screened on British TV one Sunday this December it trended worldwide on Twitter, such is its popularity and extraordinary quotability. Buddy the Elf is, along with Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s finest comedy creation. You’d have to be a cotton-headed ninnymuggins not to love this one.
10. Bad Santa
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter
Santa: we all know him, right? Jolly, fat, basically decent even if he does break-and-enter every Christmas night. Except that here he’s a swearing, hard-drinking, bullying, self-loathing, chain-smoking, rogering, safe-cracking, store-robbing bastard. And, as it turns out, he’s more loveable than ever. Billy Bob Thornton was born to play the role of a curmudgeon who’s slowly won over, not by a cute and perky child, but by the weirdest, fattest little boy in history. If he learns anything, it’s mostly by accident, and if he adopts the Christmas spirit it’s largely in self-defence, making this perfect viewing for those who consider themselves immune to the season.
9. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen, Dash Mihok
Admittedly, apart from Michelle Monaghan’s Santa outfit this isn’t an enormously Christmas-centric movie. But then again, for many viewers that fur-trimmed little red number is the very essence and spirit of Christmas in one neat package, so perhaps that’s good enough. Also, judging by the box-office figures you probably haven’t seen this one, and it’s worth seeking out Shane Black’s twisted, delirious take on the film noir, as thief-turned-actor Downey and private eye Kilmer investigate a murder in Christmas time LA and trade insults like most people trade presents. Both funny-peculiar, in that there’s nothing quite like it out there, and funny ho-ho.
8. Batman Returns
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough
Why yes, it’s a Christmas movie! Tim Burton’s second Batman outing manages the difficult trick of juggling multiple villains and some Yuletide greetings, and teaches us the useful lesson that mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it (although a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it). Batman, Catwoman, the Penguin and Max Schrek tussle through a Gotham nestling under a snowy Christmas blanket and even use the decorations against each other when necessary. Christmas trees: a handy hiding place for bats. Who knew? It’s also a hugely underrated action / comic book romp, which deserves far more love just for the way that Michelle Pfeiffer purrs.
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Alfre Woodard, Robert Mitchum
There have been many spins on A Christmas Carol – but in movie terms at least this is the best. Ebeneezer Scrooge is transformed from cold-hearted businessman into yuppie TV exec, and made almost likeable despite his obnoxious behaviour by Bill Murray, on sardonic and sarcastic form. It’s so good that we don’t even mind the fact that it finishes up with a singalong song. MVP, apart from Murray, goes to Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who has the delightful habit of hitting her charge with a toaster when necessary. And even when not.
6. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Director: Henry Selick
Starring: (voice) Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens, William Hickey, Greg Proops
The wonderful thing about Henry Selick’s stop-motion classic, based on Tim Burton’s story, is that you can legitimately watch it any time from Halloween on, which enables you to cope with those early Christmas cravings (it can’t be just us, right?). What’s more, as Pumpkin King Jack Skellington learns about Christmas, Selick and Burton manage to both undermine all the cutesiness and underline the bits of Christmas that really matter – like the bit where your toys don’t bite you or turn into snakes. That bit’s really important.
5. Trading Places
Director: John Landis
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliot
It’s a Christmas-set story where a couple of evil old bankers get their comeuppance, but the Frank Capra comparisons end there. After all, George Bailey never hung out with hookers, nor did he have the fast-talking street-slang of Eddie Murphy in his prime. Still, this is a morality tale, and while it doesn’t all take place over Christmas, that marks the low point in the fortunes of disgraced stockbroker Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) after his bosses, the Duke Brothers (Ameche and Bellamy) ruin his life on a whim. And that alone makes a nice change from some films’ ultra-happy Christmases.
4. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Director: Brian Henson
Starring: Michael Caine, Frank Oz, Steven Mackintosh, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson
Michael Caine singing to a bunch of puppets: it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The Muppets slot perfectly into Charles Dickens winter’s tale, but bring their own anarchic comedy stylings with them (“Light the lamp, not the rat!”). Gonzo, who clearly has no place in the 19th century, does a creditable job as narrator, using language lifted directly from the book for the most part, and Caine somehow keeps a straight face to give us one of the most faithful movie Scrooges, and one who always convinces as he undergoes his transformation from miser to mensch.
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Corey Feldman, Jackie Joseph
Gremlins roasting in an open microwave, gremlins nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by gremlins, and folks screaming and running for their lives. Er, something like that anyway. This most festive of monster movies has great fun ripping the trappings of Christmas to pieces and cackling gleefully all the way. It also has one of the great monologues about the tragedy of fathers who try to mimic Santa Claus, but let’s not dwell on any strange smells coming from the chimney, eh? Just be careful of any new pets you receive this year, and don’t feed the little blighters after midnight.
2. It’s A Wonderful Life
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell
Frank Capra’s perennial classic may not make the top spot here, but it remains essential Christmas viewing. The story of George Bailey, a man trying to do the right thing and finding his options gradually reduced to nothing, is genuinely tough watching at times during the first hour or so, and it’s made even tougher when we see the nightmare of life without his well-intentioned efforts, thanks to angelic intervention. So that happy ending, when it comes, feels earned rather than fluffy, and Christmassy rather than schmaltzy.
1. Die Hard
Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedalia, Reginald VelJohnson
Arguably the greatest action movie ever made, and now the greatest Christmas movie ever made, too. Bruce Willis’ John McClane may seem like an unlikely Santa Claus – he doesn’t have enough hair for one – but what better Christmas present is there than the gift of terrorists getting taken down as they try to take Nakatomi Plaza hostage during a Christmas party in order to carry out an elaborate theft? Not for Empire readers the cutesy Christmas trees of other Christmas movies, or the sight of people in ill-advised knitwear drinking eggnog. For you guys, nothing says deck the halls like jumping off a roof tied to a fire hose, and nothing says season of goodwill like a machine gun. Ho ho ho.