The Best Christmas Movies of All Time

From 'Die Hard' and 'Home Alone' to 'It's a Wonderful Life,' here's a roundup of the best Christmas movies to ensure you get (and stay) into the holiday spirit.

Will Ferrell stars in 'Elf'

Image via New Line Cinema

Will Ferrell stars in 'Elf'

Let’s keep it a buck: At this point in pop culture, damn near any sign of Christmas makes a film a “Christmas film.” There are also tons of them; what started out as catching classics like A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve (or even Christmas night!) has turned into Hallmark and other like-minded content providers churning out dozens of films annually, giving Christmas movie lovers varying degrees of mid-to-decent Christmas flavor. With all of these films out there, it begs the question: What Christmas films stand out?

Which ones are certified classics? Do the classics hold up to the modern holiday hits? Has the holiday film been perfected? Hardly, but out of that sea of Christmas cheer are these standouts. Movies that embody the Christmas spirit in their own unique way and give us a reason to get festive, regardless of what time of year it is. Here are some of the best Christmas movies of all time; debate this with Santa Claus (or a certain Mr. Skellington).

'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)

View this video on YouTube

Directed by: Frank Capra

Stars: Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore 

Where to Stream: Tubi

WARNING: Make sure you watch the black and white version and not the garish colored version that was commissioned in the ‘80s. 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. 

'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947)

View this video on YouTube

Director: George Seaton

Starring: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood

Where to Stream: HBO Max

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.

'White Christmas' (1954)

View this video on YouTube

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.

'A Christmas Story' (1983)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Bob Clark

Starring: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon

Where to Stream: HBO Max

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.

'Gremlins' (1984)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Joe Dante

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton

Where to Stream: HBO Max

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.

'Die Hard' (1988)

View this video on YouTube

Director: John McTiernan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime Video

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.

'National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation' (1989)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid

Where to Stream: HBO Max

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.

'Home Alone' (1990)

View this video on YouTube

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 ‘90s 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.

'The Muppet Christmas Carol' (1992)

View this video on YouTube

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.

‘Batman Returns’ (1992)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken

Where to Stream: HBO Max

Some will balk at this inclusion, perhaps even by arguing that this sequel to Burton’s franchise-launching 1989 original isn’t actually a Christmas film. These people would be wrong, of course. Not only is the holiday season integral to the film’s plot but its very subject matter has been argued by some to be a sly commentary on capitalism, particularly during this time of the year. From here, WB’s first Batman franchise went in a markedly different (and decidedly nipplier) direction and notably one that Burton himself did not enjoy.

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Henry Selick

Starring: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey

Where to Stream: Disney+

Despite is relatively brief running time, this endlessly rewatchable Henry Selick megaclassic contains within it an entire universe one is unlikely to ever want to leave. Jack Skellington, at once contagiously dapper and unintentionally diabolical, takes us on a ride that at first appears to see the usual Christmas happenings being reshaped to more Halloween-leaning tendencies worldwide. An important personal lesson ensues, however, as does a blossoming romance. Lest we forget, this still-omnipresent stop-motion gem also later inspired one of the most widely cited blink-182 lyrics ever penned by the pop-punk trio.

‘The Santa Clause’ (1994)

View this video on YouTube

Director: John Pasquin

Starring: Tim Allen, Eric Lloyd, Wendy Crewson, Judge Reinhold

Where to Stream: Disney+

If this Tim Allen-led blend of quickly shelved divorced dad woes and undeniably effective holiday magic-conjuring is already in your annual viewing repertoire, then you no doubt have a few choice lines that you may or may not hurl at the screen after an Eggnog or three. For this writer’s money, two stand out: “He’s naked somewhere!” and “I don’t care what Neil’s doing.” Without viewing-required context, they probably mean nothing, so be sure to remedy that in due time. As for the plot, well, the film’s title should offer you some non-spoilery context.

‘Jingle All the Way’ (1996)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Brian Levant

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson

Where to Stream: STARZ

Jingle All the Way isn’t alone in its trajectory from critically panned family comedy to deeply beloved cult classic, but it does stand in a class of its own thanks to an undeniably remarkable cast. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman (RIP), and Rita Wilson are all in rare form in this almost gleefully ridiculous romp. Notably, Schwarzenegger’s seemingly-out-of-place disposition in a number of scenes only adds to the laughs, while the late Hartman’s appearance as a pesky, cookie-savoring neighbor is another reminder of the comedian’s skills.

‘Jack Frost’ (1998)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Troy Miller

Starring: Michael Keaton, Kelly Preston, Joseph Cross, Mark Addy, Henry Rollins

Where to Stream: HBO Max

To say that Jack Frost didn’t exactly stick its landing with critics upon its release would be an understatement. However, like several entries in the larger holiday canon, the underlying weirdness of this Michael Keaton-starring box office bomb has resulted in it earning a new generation of appreciators. First off, almost anything with Michael Keaton in the proverbial driver’s seat is going to be worth one’s time, not to mention the fact that this particular snow-drenched slab of often bizarrely delivered sappiness also boasts the utilization of a magic harmonica and the added presence of none other than Henry Rollins.

‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ (2000)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski

Where to Stream: HBO Max

At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know “how” this film’s title character goes about his thieveries. Many, understandably, will also largely opt for the 1966 TV special instead. But in doing so, one is missing out on a Jim Carrey performance that must be seen to be believed. Say what you will about the film itself, particularly its almost compelling insistence on not glossing up its presentation and instead going for a surprisingly dark take in terms of set design, but Carrey clearly put everything he had in him at the time into this performance. 

‘The Polar Express’ (2004)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Daryl Sabara, Jimmy Bennett​​​​​​​

Where to Stream: HBO Max

When The Polar Express first rolled into the station, its distinctive animation style was not without its detractors. Still, the film has only expanded its fandom in subsequent years. Tom Hanks fans, of course, have much to work with here due to the prolific actor taking on multiple roles. The film’s tone is also noteworthy for striking a careful balance between a very particular kind of creepy and an equally particular kind of sweet. But don’t take our word for it. In the words of the late Roger Ebert, Express possesses “a deeper, shivery tone” not often found in—again in Ebert’s words—“the mindless jolliness” of other holiday fare.

'Elf' (2003)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan

Where to Stream: HBO Max

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.

‘The Night Before’ (2015)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Jonathan Levine

Starring: Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie

Where to Stream: AMC+

A quick scroll through the YouTube comments on old trailers for this underrated comedy show that appreciation is only continuing to grow for what it offers to the holiday lineup. In short, the escalating hilarity begins with a gift to Rogen’s character (Isaac) from his wife Betsy, played by Jillian Bell. The gift, quite thoughtfully, is a box full of every drug known to man in questionable quantities. Mix this with a longstanding group of best friends finally scoring invites to the party of their dreams, not to mention a laugh-out-loud appearance from a pre-The Rehearsal Nathan Fielder and a scene-stealing turn from an angelic Michael Shannon, and you have the makings of a modern Christmas classic.

‘Happiest Season’ (2020)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Clea DuVall

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Dan Levy

Where to Stream: Hulu

Happiest Season, among numerous other praiseworthy qualities, simply feels really good to watch. That’s not to say there aren’t palpable moments of tension—there are plenty, in fact, and each of them serve the story in expert fashion—but it’s a testament to the well-crafted sentiment at the center of this story about love, expectations, and unjust family pressure. When the three collide, you’re often surprised by the characters’ collective and individual revelations.

‘It’s a Wonderful Binge’ (2022)

View this video on YouTube

Director: Jordan VanDina

Starring: Eduardo Franco, Dexter Darden, Zainne Saleh, Marta Piekarz, Danny Trejo

Where to Stream: Hulu

As a rare example of a sequel that matches (and in some ways exceeds) its predecessor, Hulu’s It’s a Wonderful Binge—a sequel to the Vince Vaughn-featuring The Binge—stands as, by far, the newest entry on this list. Not unlike fellow entry The Night Before, the consumption of various enjoyment-boosting substances plays a pivotal part in this loudly hilarious, quietly charming tale of love and friendship. And while this arguable Christmas instaclassic isn’t short on jokes that more than stick their landing, there are also a few valuable lessons sandwiched between the laughs, including (but not limited to) a reflection on the inherent mystery of hot tub bubbles.

Latest in Pop Culture