People love lists. They’re clean, concise, and create order to chaos. Conceptually. Where we run into a little bit of trouble is when that list prioritizes subject matter that is subjective by its very nature. Lists of the best actors, best album, best Quarterback, etc. Everyone has an opinion. Each opinion is formulated based on criteria important to the individual. So how do you win the debate? How can you possibly make a list and convince the masses that your list is ‘correct’? You make the rules.
Any person can win any debate if they control, and more importantly comment to the strengths of the parameters. This is exactly what I plan to do. In all of my travels and interactions with people of all walks, I have never met anyone as crazy for Christmas as me. I start in late October and don’t stop until early February. I’ve also had a career where the ability to argue the point is key (not a lawyer). Add just those two things together and it’s not a stretch to say, I’ve had this debate a few hundred times. Nothing I mention here, will be the first time I’ve considered that thought. I’m not saying that my list is correct. What I am saying, is that if you play by my rules (guidelines really) there is no what that you or anyone else could possible discredit the validity of my list.
Every good debate needs guidelines, so here are mine.
1. Subject Matter. The movie in question HAS TO BE about Christmas first and throughout. This one will almost assuredly knock out anyone with an agenda to promote a good movie through a loophole. There is always someone who wants to play the Die Hard card. Die Hard is an action movie about a visiting cop that single-handedly saves his wife and everyone she works with from a terrorist. Die Hard is not about Christmas. It is an action flick that coincidentally happens in late December at a company Christmas party. It is not about Christmas. For a movie to make my list, it has to rely on Christmas imagery, Christmas themes, Christmas should have some relevance to the plot, etc.
2. Specials don’t count. Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty, Miser Brothers, etc are specials. Normally thirty minutes in duration. While all of the above most certainly qualify for Subject Matter, they are specials and not movies.
3. No extra credit for scale. Whether we’re talking about Miracle on 34th Street or the latest Hallmark original, a movie should not move up the list because it was a theatrical release. Good is good and ticket sales should have no bearing on that.
4. Themes Count. Beyond the obvious imagery (Christmas trees, mistletoe, snow, etc) there should be some significant themes to what the holiday is supposed to mean. Consider the Ebenezer Scrooge angle. He’s an old crank but in the end he finds value in the time spent helping others and so on. You can have a movie about two people falling in love if the themes and tones reflect the ideals of the holiday.
5. Older is not always better. If a movie has been done repeatedly, I do not subscribe to the notion that the oldest one is the best one. This will come up with A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street. And in the case of The Grinch, we have a two-fold problem. One would be that you can’t give it to either the 1966 version or the Jim Carrey version based on age alone. And two, the 1966 version is a special not a movie.
6. The fast forward effect. An excellent movie and my compulsion to want to fast forward the awkward, boring, or unimportant part are inversely but directly related. Maybe it’s just a personal quirk, but awkward moments or impending doom are two things I can do without. To review, the more I feel compelled to fast forward through the less likely a movie is to rank high.
With the rules out-of-the-way I would like to put out a disclaimer. The following is only the opinion of one. I happen to believe that the majority of this list should be, would be accurate for most. Not because of arrogance, but because I’ve watched all of the movies a minimum of 20 times. I’ve had the conversation of best Christmas movie countless times. I have applied parameters and logic to the ranking. While I am open to the idea that someone could present an argument that could change my rankings, it would have to be a compelling argument. My hope is that this list might spark an actual debate over the positioning of these movies.
Also, I hesitate to say ‘of all time’. I could very well call this the Top 25 Christmas Movies of All Time, but if I did many would be compelled to weight older movies greater than newer ones on principle. Instead, let’s think of this list as the “Top 25 Christmas Movies I’d Watch If All Christmas Movies Were Available”. Case in point. The original White Christmas starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye is widely considered a classic and without question would belong on a top 25 list. I personally just don’t enjoy it as much as some. Beyond a shadow of a doubt and can say with confidence, that there are 25 Christmas movies I’d rather spend my time watching. For anyone thinking that I have a bias against older movies, I do but not like you’d think. There are a number of old (black and white even) movies that I love, Christmas or otherwise. I just don’t subscribe to the notion that older automatically means better. Without any further delay, the list.
25. The Polar Express. Full disclosure, my three-year old son is fanatical about trains. Everyday, at least once a day he asks to watch the train movie. I have probably seen this one 50 times, this year alone. Putting that aside, let me hit the negatives. The animation technique is questionable. The intention is to apply animation to live action, thus making it extremely realistic looking. The problem is that the realistic look adds a creepy factor to each character. The one exception of course is that of Tom Hanks. Hanks plays 8 major characters in this film and his characters seem to be the only ones missing the creepy factor. That’s it. That’s my major complaint. If The Polar Express was done today, ten years after it actually was made, I think the result would be much better. That said, The Polar Express is a lovely story for children. A massive magic Christmas train comes to pick up skeptical kids and take them to the North Pole to witness first hand the send-off festivities of the real Santa Claus. There is an absolute sense of whimsy with this film and there is no question why children gravitate to it. The bottom line is that regardless of order, The Polar Express cannot be left of a list like this one.
24. The Santa Clause. I hope this isn’t where I start losing people. I assure you there is a logic to the order. Twenty years ago, The Santa Clause was the go to movie for families of any age. The likeable Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin. A single dad struggling to connect with his son. The real Santa falls off the roof, Calvin reads the ‘clause’ and over the next calendar year becomes the real Santa. If that’s the entirety of the synopsis, The Santa Clause would be top 10 and an argument could be made for top 5. The issue with this one is that the movie spends too much time dealing with the drama associated with two divorced parents trying to raise a child who is adversely affected by the family dynamic. In other words, the bulk of this movie is about family issues. If you took that out or at least diminished that story line considerably, this would be an incredible Christmas movie. The big issue here is the fast forward effect. I tend to fast forward through about 70% of this movie. You have the first 10-15 minutes when Santa falls off the roof and the reindeer take father and son to the North Pole. Then from the time the E.L.V.E.S. come to break Santa out of the clink on is great. There is just such an attempt to make this movie a story of conflict and real life situations. The beauty of most Christmas movies is that they are almost never ‘too real’. The Santa Clause spends too much time telling a story that has little to nothing to do with Christmas.
23. Santa Jr. I know, a lot of you are probably confused right now. Santa Jr is a low-budget made for TV movie that stars Nick Stabile as Chris Kringle Jr. An actor that to be fair, doesn’t have a lot on his resume that the average person would recognize. However, Stabile is corralled by notable actors and a notable comedian to pick up the slack. And honestly, Stabile does a nice job on this film. I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen him in more stuff. Not phenomenal, but not solid. Alongside Stabile is Lauren Holly, Judd Nelson, comedian George Wallace and well-known little person actor Ed Gale as Junior’s elf companion. Although he’d say, he is his own elf. This movie is a completely different, maybe even new approach (new in 2002) to an age-old Christmas movie theme. Skepticism over the sincerity of the Holiday.
22. Chasing Christmas. Chalk this one up to, I just really enjoy it. Tom Arnold is a single parent because his wife cheated on him during his daughter’s Christmas pageant. He reviled Christmas because of it. The idea here is that there is a department that works under Santa Claus to execute the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future in an attempt to save one wayward soul each year. To say it’s like A Christmas Carol would almost be disrespectful to Dickens’ classic story. It’s more of a loose guideline. Yes the three ghosts are involved and have a similar task before them. Yes, the Scrooge character figures it all out in the end. But that’s about where we have to draw the line as far as similarities.
21. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No slight intended to Ron Howard and Jim Carrey. They face the uphill battle of trying to success in the face of unheard of popularity from the original animated Christmas special from 1966. In a vacuum, this is as good a live action adaptation as can be expected. The problem is most of us know the story by heart. All of the makeup and acting chops in the world cannot overshadow the story. They did a phenomenal job creating Dr. Seuss’ Whoville. Incredible, but for the most part you already know the “what and where”. Now they did do a very good job filling in the gaps. The events that forced the young Grinch to exile himself. A love interest we never knew of. And of course the Jim Carrey humor sprinkled in making it his own. All positive things. But I knew the story before I ever saw the movie. Kudos to Ron Howard, Jim Carrey and the rest of the actors behind this movie, but it was a losing battle from the jump.
20. Holiday in Handcuffs. Chances are good that if you saw this movie sitting on the shelves at your local retailer, you would never give it a chance. Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez in what had to be a move to jump-start their respective careers actually works. There is a leap of faith however. Any time I tell someone about this movie, I have to say, “yeah, in what reality does Clarissa end up with AC Slater”. Hart’s character is almost the black sheep of the family and is expected to bring her boyfriend to Christmas. She gets dumped the day they are to leave to meet up with her family. She then kidnaps Mario Lopez. He of course resists, but eventually…and so on. This is one of those cute, heart warming, type of made for TV movies that you come to expect to find this time of year. Since the first time I saw it, not a season has passed where I haven’t made time for it at least once.
19. Elf. Another movie that violates the fast forward effect. Will Ferrell as a human who believes himself to be an elf that travels to New York should be enough for instance classic status. Like The Santa Clause, there is too much emphasis on trying to create a compelling story with conflict. When Buddy is being Buddy, the movie is great. Even the pre New Girl Zooey Deschanel is charming in an awkward way. Short of the scene involving Peter Dinklage in Walter Hobbs’ office scene, I could do completely without the Walter Hobbs story line. And that’s James freaking Caan we’re talking about. He does a great job with the role, but if you change the synopsis to read “Buddy travels to New York to find love” (making it about Ferrell and Deschanel) instead of “Buddy travels to New York to meet his biological father” the movie would be dramatically improved. Lots of fast forwarding in ELF.
18. Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage. Not going to lie. There’s a healthy amount of fanboy affection in this one. 1) Thomas Kinkade is probably my favorite painter who was alive while I was. 2) Young Kinkade is played by Jared Padelecki and there is no secret about how NJATVS feels about Supernatural. 3) Ed Asner, who looks eerily like my late Grandfather will always perk my interest. Considering the scope of this movie, it has a very respectable cast. Loosely based off of actual events in Thomas Kinkade’s life, this is the story of two college brothers working to save their family home and unexpected support they get from their community. It also may be the last movie I saw Peter O’Toole in before he passed. It tells a great story and sheds some light into the life of, in my opinion, the greatest contemporary American painter.
17. Call Me Claus. Whoopi Goldberg is chosen to replace the sitting Santa. There is something compelling about a Christmas movie that intentionally defies convention. Whoopi plays a TV producer with a fictional rival of the Home Shopping Network. I’m not kidding. Her associate producer is played by Victor Garbor. Seriously, I’m not making this up. The real Santa has been putting off selecting his replacement. As we all know, the sitting Santa serves his 200 year term and passes the torch to the next Santa (in my most sarcastic voice). This Santa comes into the station to speak to Whoopi and gets suckered into an audition to play the network’s TV Santa. Naturally because he is the real Santa, he gets the job. Keeping him within close proximity to Whoopi. Its unconventional. Its silly at times. But in the end, the message is solid and the story is fun.
16. The Christmas Wish. This may be a little too serious for some. Neil Patrick Harris plays a high riser on Wall Street who has to come home because his Grandfather has died. His parents died long before this, thus making the Grandfather the patriarch of the family. He also is there to smooth the transition of the family business from Grandfather to someone else who will run it. Then NPH is set to go back to New York. In the first 15 minutes there is very much a make shift Its A Wonderful Life vibe happening. All the way down to the perception that this company and the ‘Ol Building and Loan’ were the same for their respective communities. Then Grandma drops the bombshell. She finds a passage in a diary that speaks of a ‘she’ that is not his wife. The lion share of the movie is NPH on a quest to unearth this other woman. The result of which is a very well delivered, emotional insight into the man the Grandfather really was. Good or bad? You’ll have to watch it.
15. Window Wonderland. When you think Christmas movie, especially made for TV, Window Wonderland is what you want from such a movie after you’ve exhausted the classics. Unlike The Santa Clause and Elf, Window Wonderland has no moment, no scene that needs to be fast forwarded through. Two ‘Macy’s-like’ employees are vying for the job of head window dresser for a prestigious department store in Manhattan. They could not be more opposite if they wanted to be. She’s uptight and prissy. He fun and witty. In the beginning they are adversaries, but eventually way eventually become something different. There is even a surprisingly enjoyable performance from Naomi Judd as the bathroom attendant mother. One really nice feature is that this is a Christmas story told from the perspective of the store employees and their friends and family as opposed to the perspective of the Christmas shopper. Even a reference to ‘Christmas Eve Eve’. I really cannot fathom anyone disliking this movie if they were to view it with an open mind.
14. Call Me Mrs. Miracle. Debbie Macomber is no stranger to family oriented Christmas books turned movies. For my money, Call Me Mrs. Miracle is far and away the best of the franchise (including Mrs. Miracle and this year’s Mr. Miracle). Doris Roberts is captivating in this role of half angel, half nice old lady. Macomber is good at intertwining multiple character’s story lines. Mrs. Miracle comes to help save Christmas for a department store. The store owner and son at odds over how to spend Christmas. The owner’s son finding love. But that love is at the mercy of ‘her’ taking care of her brother’s son while working for a wretched woman. There’s even a lovely nod to those service men and women who are not always able to spend the Holidays with their loved ones. This movie, as most on this list are intended, will give you the warm and fuzzies.
13. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. There’s a great joke from comedian John Mulaney about “How’d you get lost in New York? It’s a grid system”. As the Christmas movie debate goes, there are some who debate whether or not Home Alone 2 is better than the original. I am not one of those people. The first thing is the leap of faith. If it wasn’t difficult enough to believe that this little kid got left at home for Christmas and had to defend his home against two adults hell-bent on killing him. To believe it happened a second time to the same kid is a difficult stretch indeed. Tim Curry and Rob Schneider are nice additions, but not enough. It definitely deserves a spot on the list, but this is the area of the list that starts to feel iron clad. Home Alone 2 is a great Christmas movie. I’d go so far as to call it a new classic, but who am I willing to drop down to movie Home Alone 2 up? The answer is none.
12. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Make no mistake about it. For what it is, it may not get better than Wonderful Time. Henry Winkler as the beloved retired cop Uncle is the glue that keeps it together. There are relative peaks and valleys but nothing too serious. Uncle Ralph gets some assistance from a fellow traveler as he befriends at JFK airport. The friend’s (Morgan Derby) flight gets cancelled and Ralph convinces is niece (Jen) to let Morgan stay with them for a night. Truth be told, Uncle Ralph has an agenda. And as all the better made for TV movies, it has exactly the ending you’re hoping it’ll have.
11. Trading Christmas. Another Debbie Macomber gem. Trading Christmas is more of an adult twist to the Macomber blueprint. Trading Christmas takes two female friends and two brothers (mid 30’s plus) and follows them individually as they each embark on a very unconventional version of Christmas that they are accustomed to. The story quickly becomes four people creating two unlikely relationships, but it comes across as a good thing. It’s not overly mushy. There is an amount of subtle comedy sprinkled in. In addition to the obvious, this is like many of the movies on the top half of this list, you can watch repeatedly and never get bored with it.
10. Love At The Christmas Table. I am so not kidding. There is something throwback about this story of two people who grew up together from toddlers until they figure out that they belong together romantically. From the first scene, you know exactly where this movie will end (relatively speaking). This is a movie about the journey and not the destination. The bulk of the movie is us experiencing the same Christmas party year after year and how these to grow, change, grow apart, and eventually realize the inevitability of their situation. I have no problem admitting that the last 15 minutes of this movie gets me every single time. And if I counted every single time it would be north of 50 times.
9. A Christmas Carol. This may be the most done story of all the Christmas stories. Done so much in fact that there are movies like A Christmas Carol the Musical, Chasing Christmas, Its Christmas Carol, and so on. It’s done so much that it has become the source of themes applied to other movies. The question is which version is best. This is completely and without question subjective. I am willing to concede to almost any version in this spot. If you’re a George C. Scott person, great. You like the 2009 Disney version, that’s on you but ok. I personally, side with the 1999 made for and by TNT starring Patrick Stewart. If I’m honest, I don’t think any version is lacking a fast forward moment. And that is true for the 1999 version too. The thing about a story as done as A Christmas Carol is that we all know the story. The question is who tells the same story the best? And for me having Patrick Stewart playing Ebenezer Scrooge in 1999 after running his almost 30 different shows of his one man performance of Scrooge from stages in New York in 1989 to his ascension to London’s West End. Patrick Stewart for my money, does Ebenezer Scrooge as well if not better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Just like Stewart as Professor X or Captain Picard, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.
8. Home Alone. We all know the story. A young punk acts out, gets exiled to the attic, gets forgotten and defends his home against would be burglars. It is in no way realistic, but who cares. This is a story about a bratty kid who says something he shouldn’t in the vein of ‘careful what you wish for’. Then enjoys the first couple days of child independence and then quickly learns his lesson. And learns it with a sincerity that is more realistic than the overall premise. By the end of the movie, we’ve enjoyed a number of quotable scenes, action sequences, and a young boy learns to appreciate Christmas and his family. It has everything we look for in a classic. The only problem is as good as it is, it’s not better that the seven movies ahead of it.
7. Miracle on 34th Street. Like A Christmas Carol, I’m not going to corner anyone into one version of this story. I am partial to the 1994 George Attenborough reboot, but I can’t begrudge any other version I have seen. For 34th Street, it’s the story more than the actors or delivery in this particular case. If John Goodman wanted to play Santa in a 2015 version, it would also be good. Sometimes, the story is ageless and lives up to the hype each time.
6. Santa Claus the Movie. Okay. Full disclosure, this has been one of my favorite movies since I was a kid when it came out in the theaters. Call it a bias if you want to. But in my humble opinion, there might not be a better example of capturing the essence of the Holiday season. You get to the origin of Santa Claus. The majesty of the North Pole even pre-Santa. Then they infuse a new story to an age-old idea. It delivers the warm and fuzzies, it’s a solid Christmas story. As far as the rules go, this knocks it out of the park for subject matter. Themes are as dead on with this than any other movie. It’s more about Christmas at every turn than any other movie. And even if we’re not going to give extra credit for scale, this would be the first movie to consider doing so. Great for the whole family.
5. It’s A Wonderful Life. Say what you want. Some people will believe that any inclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life is a gracious or even condescending nod to the token ‘old film’. Here’s the rub though. I think anyone who’s seen the movie at least once, could fast forward through the first third of the movie. Then, knowing what happened before Clarence arrives, the remainder of the movie moves at a better pace. Look, it’s a long movie. Call it a slight violation of one of the rules, but everything else exceeds expectations enough to overcompensate for it.
4. Love, Actually. Some will applaud this choice and some will reject it. Let me put this in this simplest terms. In the last 3 weeks, anytime I watch a Christmas movie (which is pretty often), I ask myself if my time might not be better used watching Love Actually. Remove the fact that it is a Christmas movie. Remove the references, the decor, the exchanging of gifts, all of it and Love Actually is still a top flight romantic comedy and beyond. I actually ripped my copy of the DVD and chopped it up. Taking out the moments that I don’t NEED and what I cut was less than 7 minutes out of almost 2 hours. Love Actually is incredible and the more times you watch it the better it gets. As ensemble cast projects go, I’d say the best I’ve ever seen.
3. A Christmas Story. How is this not #1 is the question. Talk about the story carrying the weight of its success. Ralphie’s Dad is great, but the story is what makes it. Told from the perspective of a child is magical. Regardless of age, any person has to be instantly taken back to their experience from that relative age. A Christmas Story is so good that I refuse to watch it for 364 days. Then I watch it non-stop for 24 hours. On TBS on the living room TV, on the TV in the bedroom, on my tablet in the kitchen. I really can’t understand anyone who doesn’t love this movie.
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Hands down the best National Lampoon’s movie made to date. Arguably the most quoted of all of the Christmas movies. The story of a working family man who just wants to give his family the old-fashioned Christmas experience of his childhood to his own children and extended family, just to have it all crash and burn in a fiery heap. It is as classic as classic gets. It checks all of the boxes. No fast forward moments. Subject matter. Themes. It has everything you want in a Christmas movie with almost nothing you don’t. The scope is perfect and the character are all sympathetic to someone you’ve known along the way. I could watch Christmas Vacation a 100 times a year and not become bored with it.
This leads us to #1 and a claim that almost everyone I’ve ever told this to, took some level of exception to. NJATVS staff included.
1. Scrooged. I’m sure 90% of those reading this will disagree and feel in some way that this selection voids the entire list. Like Love Actually, Scrooged improves with frequency. Yes, at its core it is a contemporary version of A Christmas Carol. But this is Bill Murray in his prime, a cast that goes on for days, not one single minute of this movie is not meticulously and intentionally placed for meaningful effect. I’ve seen Scrooged so many times, that I cannot (believe me, I’ve tried) find a fault with it. Scrooged, in my humble opinion is the perfect Christmas movie. We have the transformation of Frank Cross, the journey with the three ghosts is more sympathetic and real as it is applied to concepts we remember as opposed to older version of the Dickens’ classic that are too far removed for impact. I could go on, moment to moment, but suffice it to say that after no less than 200 viewings, Scrooged is as close to perfect as we will ever get. Now what separates Scrooged from say Vacation and every thing behind it? The realization moment for Frank Cross is the best I’ve ever seen. Also it’s longer and has a gradual build that is nice. In that build, he embraces Christmas, rectified the wrong he perpetrated to a recently fired executive, reintroduced the former love back into his life, encourages other people to share his enthusiasm even if it means losing his lucrative job, actually invokes the “God bless us everyone” line out of an adorable child, makes everything right in the world and says the greatest line in Holiday movies, TV or specials in recorded history.
“For one night out of the whole year, we are the people we always hoped we would be.”
There it is, the Top 25 Christmas movies (or Top 25 Christmas Movies that I would enjoy spending time watching). Inevitably there will be some disagreements. As is to be expected. Even amongst our own staff, I expect some contradiction to the list as I see it. At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their opinion and for whatever reason lead them to it. I hope I’ve done an admirable job outlining my criteria and reasoning. I appreciate you taking the time to read this one, a very long article comparatively and let the debate begin.