It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That time of year when you look at the weather outside and decide that you are definitely staying out of the cold and watching some of your favorite holiday movies, because who wants to go out anytime that’s not spring or fall, anyway? You’re in luck because here at Complex we ranked the ten best Christmas movies ever made.
Now a Christmas movie is hard to describe sometimes. Some people don’t consider a movie a Christmas movie just because it takes place on Christmas. Other movies barely take place on Christmas and are still considered canonical favorites. A Christmas movie is more than just mere categorization, it’s based on a gut feeling and whether or not it’s something you want to watch while the lights on your Christmas tree twinkle in the background.
Christmas movies span every genre, from horror comedy to romantic comedy, and we’ve made a list that reflects that genre diversity. From absolute favorites to some more left-field picks, we’ve decided what are the ten best Christmas movies ever made. Pour yourself some eggnog and enjoy Complex’s list of the ten best Christmas movies.
10. Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson
Where to Stream: Crackle
The arguments over whether Die Hard is a true Christmas movie have been waged on the internet for several years now. We here at Complex consider it a Christmas movie because, well, it takes place at Christmas. Don’t believe us? Here’s proof. The thriller follows police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he jumps into action during his wife’s office holiday party when German terrorists led by the villainous Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) crash the party and take hostages. Not your typical Christmas movie, but Die Hard has plenty of festive elements to it, from the use of Run-DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” to the darkly comedic “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” scene. Beyond the explosions and heroics, Die Hard is a movie about realizing what’s most important to you during the holidays: family. Both McClane and Sergeant Powell (played memorably by Family Matters’ Reginald VelJohnson) get the job done so they can be with their families for the holiday. While not a traditional Christmas movie by any means, Die Hard will get you in the Christmas spirit in the most action-packed way.
9. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Director: Brian Henson
Starring: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire
Where to Stream: Disney+
The Muppets is one of the longest lasting pop culture franchises that’s still pretty popular and for good reason: their movies and TV shows are funny, family friendly, and timeless. One of their most underrated movies is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and ranks amongst the best adaptations of the book ever made. Like the book, The Muppet Christmas Carol follows miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) as his worldview is changed by the arrival of several ghosts on Christmas Eve. Michael Caine’s Scrooge is one of the best ever committed to the silver screen, which is even more remarkable when you consider he’s acting opposite puppets. The movie is also very faithful to the source material, and the original songs for the movie are catchy and memorable. On top of all of that, The Muppet Christmas Carol is very heartwarming and wholesome: if the ending doesn’t make you tear up a little bit you might just be a Scrooge yourself.
8. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid
Where to Stream: fuboTV
From the makers of the National Lampoon’s Vacation comes this Christmas themed sequel that’s rightfully become almost as popular as the original. Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen Griswold (Beverly D’Angelo) are back and have to face something even tougher than a family vacation: holiday with their family, which includes mishaps involving the Christmas tree, house lights, and of course, their dreaded family members. One of the more crass Christmas movies, Christmas Vacation succeeds because it satirizes many of the problems people tend to have with the holiday season, from excessive decoration to pretending to like extended family. Chevy Chase’s physical comedy is gold as usual, but Beverly D’Angelo shines once again as his long-suffering wife who does her best to keep her family together even in the most dire of circumstances. The running gags are fun, and the movie’s one F-bomb (spoken by Chase) is one for the ages. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a subversive, side-splitting classic.
7. Gremlins (1984)
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton
Where to Stream: Philo
Like Die Hard, Gremlins is also an unorthodox Christmas movie, but is tied to the spirit of the holidays in a specifically satiric way. The horror comedy follows Billy (Zach Galligan) as he receives a strange creature known as a cute “mogwai” named Gizmo for a Christmas present. He’s instructed to never expose it to water and bright lights or feed it after midnight. Naturally, both of those things end up happening, and soon the town is overrun with mogwais that have transformed into monstrous “gremlins”. Gremlins of course takes place during Christmas, but what makes it one of the best Christmas movies is its dark satire of consumerism: the mass production of gremlins and the immediate danger they pose to the town brings to mind the Reagan era capitalist business practices of the time. Plus, the idea that the perfect Christmas present for your kid is actually putting them in danger is a potent and funny one. Way before Baby Yodas and porgs, Gremlins was warning us that the cute thing you want to buy so badly may just be your worst nightmare if you’re not careful. Gremlins is the best Christmas movie that dares to examine the dark side of Christmas, with plenty of cartoonish violence and dark comedy to boot.
6. Elf (2003)
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan
Where to Stream: fuboTV
One of Will Ferrell’s most iconic roles, Elf has become a modern Christmas classic in the almost two decades since its release. The movie follows Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human raised by Santa’s elves who journeys from the North Pole to New York City to find his biological father and fill the cynical city with Christmas cheer. Released the same year as the decidedly not kid friendly but just as popular Ferrell comedy Old School, Elf quickly became one of his highest grossing and most popular movies. It’s easy to see why: Ferrell’s performance as Buddy is energetic and side-splittingly hilarious. From Ferrell shouting “SANTA” to him telling a mall Santa that he “sits on a throne of lies”, Elf is one of Ferrell’s funniest movies, which is saying something given his lengthy comedy career. Combine that with charming performances from Zooey Descahnel, James Caan, and a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage (who does not care for being called an “elf) as well as a healthy dose of self aware holiday spirit, and you have what’s easily the best Christmas movie of the new millennium to date.
5. White Christmas (1954)
Director: Michael Cudlitz
Starring: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney
Where to Stream: Netflix
White Christmas may be most famous for its title song (even though the song originated in the earlier Bing Crosby film Holiday Inn), but it’s a great Christmas movie overall, thanks to some classic Hollywood magic. The film follows Bob (Bing Crosby) and Phil (Danny Kaye), two aspiring song-and-dance performers who hit it big after the war and later become romantically involved with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). While “White Christmas” might be the most famous number from the movie, there are plenty of other catchy musical numbers, and seeing Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing and dance is Hollywood magic of the highest order. Their chemistry with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen is also perfect, enhancing the charm of an already charm-filled movie. White Christmas will charm you during the holidays whether it’s your first or hundredth time watching.
4. Home Alone (1990)
Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Pesci
Where to Stream: Disney+
The movie that wrote the book on live action children’s comedies for the past three decades, Home Alone is pure childhood Christmas nostalgia for many 90’s kids. The comedy follows young Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) as he discovers that he’s been left at home by himself after his family goes on vacation and loses his plane ticket. His mother (Catherine O’Hara) must now journey home to get back to her son, who must fend off menacing burglars Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern). Home Alone is a strange beast: it’s partly an anarchic action comedy when Kevin sets up various traps in his house in order to inflict pain on the intruders. The other part is good old fashioned sweet Christmas family movie, with Kevin’s mom genuinely caring for him and even a subplot in which Kevin’s neighbor yearns to be reunited with his daughter. Culkin is just precocious enough without being cloying, and Catherine O’Hara enhances what could be a typical mother role with her comedic prowess. Plus, you have an extended John Candy cameo, you can never go wrong there. Home Alone is a modern Christmas classic that never gets old.
3. It's A Wonderful Life
Directed by: Frank Capra
Stars: Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Where to Stream: Amazon Prime
Warning: Make sure you watch the black and white version and not the garish colored version that was commissioned in the ‘80s and is inexplicably also available on Amazon Prime. It’s A Wonderful Life is one of the best films ever made period, as well as one of the best Christmas movies ever made, and should be watched in the proper way it was first shown, in its beautiful black and white cinematography. It’s A Wonderful Life follows George Bailey’s (Jimmy Stewart) life and eventual suicidal contemplation on Christmas Eve thanks to an extraordinary bout of bad luck. It’s up to guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) to convince George that his life is worth living and prevent his suicide, in order to finally earn his wings. While the plot might not exactly scream Christmas and is in actuality a bit dark, It’s A Wonderful Life is ultimately an emotional, sweet affair that argues that we all matter, and every good thing that we do for others matters. Jimmy Stewart gives one of his very best performances as the personable George Bailey: someone who keeps on dreaming even when things get hard. Well acted, well directed, and quite funny, It’s A Wonderful Life really shines in its ending, which is one of the most heartwarming endings to a film ever: if you don’t tear up from joy at least a little bit you may just have a heart of stone.
2. A Christmas Story (1983)
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon
Where to Stream: fuboTV
Possibly the most popular Christmas movie of all time, A Christmas Story is impossible to avoid on television every holiday season, and for good reason. A Christmas Story centers on young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his experiences during the holiday season of 1940, including dealing with local bully Scut Farkus and begging his parents for a Red Ryder air rifle, despite their warning that he’ll “shoot [his] eye out”. What makes A Christmas Story so special is the pure, unfiltered nostalgia running throughout the movie. It just feels like Christmas to anyone who’s grown up with it, and many people have. It’s warm, heartfelt, and is frequently funny: the pink bunny pajamas never get old, and neither does Ralphie’s brother Randy’s “pig” eating with their mother. Despite a touch of unfortunate racism near the end of the film (which was smartly fixed in the recent live musical version), A Christmas Story is the perfect movie to watch every holiday season to get in the Christmas spirit.
1. Miracle on 34th Street
Director: George Seaton
Starring: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood
Where to Stream: Disney+
The second oldest on this list but the best Christmas movie of all time, Miracle on 34th Street is well, a miracle. The film centers on a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) who becomes a hit at Macy’s as a mall Santa after being hired by Doris (Maureen O’Hara). Problems arise, however, when Kris indicates that he thinks he’s in fact the real Santa Claus, leading to a court case that may result in his institutionalization. Miracle on 34th Street is essentially a story about belief that encourages imagination and wonder, especially towards children. The movie gives you equal reason to believe that this man may in fact be Santa Claus or just crazy, but in the end it doesn’t matter because of the goodwill and anti-commercialist sentiment he’s inspired in the people around him, especially Doris’ daughter Susan (Natalie Wood). Gwenn gives the definitive Santa Claus performance in this movie (sorry, Tim Allen), even earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance, and the inventive screenplay is a joy. Miracle on 34th Street succeeds thanks to its imaginative sense of idealism and its sense of pure Christmas cheer: it’s rightfully the best Christmas movie ever made.