The historical or religious context of the holiday notwithstanding, Christmas is usually about sitting in front of the TV with the people in your life and eating your weight in buffet food. Sure, there's the gift-buying side of things, but it's really about what you watch (and put into your mouth) that matters on the day itself.
Unsurprisingly, there are lots of bad Christmas movies – you won't find Last Christmas on this list, we can tell you that much – but naturally, there are also a handful of bona fide classics worth catching every year, too.
Below, we've rounded up 12 of our festive favorites. From obvious picks to a few left-field choices you might not have seen in years, these are the best Christmas movies to add to your watchlist this holiday season.
It had to be here, didn't it? Will Ferrell is delightful as Buddy in Elf, a human raised by (you guessed it) elves who travels from the North Pole to New York in an effort to reunite with his biological father (played here by Godfather alumni James Caan). It comes from director Jon Favreau, who would go on to direct Iron Man and the live-action adaptations of The Jungle Book and The Lion King, so this isn't your usual throwaway Christmas comedy. Both silly and moving, Elf is the kind of Christmas movie that everyone in the family can enjoy.
Here's how to watch Elf this year.
The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992)
Is there any famous story that can't be improved by The Muppets? This one remains the undisputed peak of the Muppets canon, an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic with Michael Caine sincerely giving it his all as Scrooge. Most of the other characters, meanwhile, are Muppets. What's not to love? An essential watch during the holiday period, it captures the spirit of its source material while blending in the much-loved brand of Muppets humor with ease.
Here's how to watch Muppet Christmas Carol this year.
Die Hard (1988)
Every year, in the run-up to Christmas, people continue to ask the very easy-to-answer question: is Die Hard a Christmas movie? The answer, obviously, is yes. Bruce Willis stars as John McClane, a New York cop who travels to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with the family he's separated from. While visiting his wife's Christmas party in the Nakatomi Plaza, a group of terrorists take the building under siege, and it's up to hard man John to save everybody. A definitive action classic, Die Hard sits alongside Lethal Weapon as one of the best holiday-set action movies ever made.
Here's how to watch Die Hard this year.
Bad Santa (2003)
Billy Bob Thornton isn't your ordinary Santa. In fact, the guy he plays here is a total scumbag in pretty much every sense of the word – which is what makes him so hilarious when dealing with impressionable children! Things start to change (slightly), though, when he meets a troubled kid who could do with a role model. Crass and not for the easily offended, Bad Santa is the perfect Christmas movie for people who hate Christmas movies.
Home Alone (1990)
The film that (briefly) made Macaulay Culkin a star, Home Alone is one of the most fun and inventive Christmas movies ever made. When the McCallister family accidentally leaves him at home for the Christmas holidays, Kevin (Culkin) thinks all his wishes have come true. Though he initially loves the absence of his annoying family, that joy is short-lived – a pair of burglars called the Wet Bandits have designs on robbing his home, and Kevin must get creative and booby trap the place in order to keep them out. Given the recent release of the abysmal Home Sweet Home Alone on Disney Plus, the original Home Alone remains in the rudest of health in 2021.
Here's how to watch Home Alone this year.
White Christmas (1954)
Starring the legendary entertainer Bing Crosby, you'd be forgiven for thinking that his classic song, White Christmas, was made for this film. In fact, that song was released 12 years earlier, showing just how much of a lasting impact it has enjoyed since its release in 1942. A wonderful musical comedy for the whole family, White Christmas is the very definition of a festive classic.
A newer entry on this list (particularly compared to the films listed above and below it), Klaus is an animated English-language Christmas adventure from Spanish director Sergio Pablos. Produced by Netflix, this one tells an alternative origin story of Santa Claus by following the journey of a postman in a remote island town who befriends a reclusive toymaker (the titular Klaus). It's funny, beautifully animated and became the first Netflix animation to be nominated for an Academy Award (it eventually lost out to Toy Story 4). Klaus has earned its status as a modern Christmas classic, and deserves to be enjoyed by viewers young and old.
Check out our list of other Netflix Christmas movies to watch, too.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Considered one of the greatest films of all time, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is perhaps the most beloved Christmas movie of the lot. James Stewart plays a depressed businessman who wishes he'd never been born at all. An angel hears his wish, and decides to show him what life would be like for his family and friends if he'd never existed at all. At once terribly sad and tremendously heartwarming, It's a Wonderful Life is impossible to dislike.
Here's how to watch It's a Wonderful Life this year.
Love Actually (2003)
The Brits are great at Christmas-set romantic comedies (see The Holiday), but their best and most memorable is arguably Love Actually, which comes from the mind of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill director Richard Curtis. The film follows eight different couples living in London in the lead up to Christmas, each with their own love-based entanglements to deal with. A hilarious and sweet Christmas flick. Watch it this one with someone you love.
Here's how to watch Love Actually this year.
Not every Christmas movie is a jolly ol' time! On the contrary, some people want their holiday movies tinged with horror. For those unfamiliar with the folkloric figure known as Krampus, this half-goat, half-demon is like the opposite of Santa Claus, in that he punishes naughty children by eating them. Starring Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding), Krampus does have a slight comedic tone at times, but don't be fooled – this is one scary flick with a killer ending. Maybe send the kids to bed before watching.
Here's more Christmas horror movies to watch this year.
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
The stories of Dr Seuss hold a special place in the hearts of many generations, and this adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a spot-on take on this classic material. As the titular Grinch, Jim Carrey gives one of his most memorable performances under an enormous amount of makeup (and in a huge furry green costume). Though the Grinch spends his time trying to make the citizens of Whoville miserable, a young girl (Taylor Momsen) attempts to befriend this monster to melt his frozen heart. A fantastic and family-friendly Christmas movie.
Here's where to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas this year.
Jingle All The Way (1996)
Largely panned by critics, Jingle All The Way focuses on the rampant commercialism of Christmas in a lot of ways, but it's also an Arnie comedy film from the mid-'90s that's loads of fun. Arnie plays a dad who's trying to acquire a toy called Turbo-Man for his son, played by future Anakin Skywalker Jake Lloyd. The late, great Phil Hartman co-stars as the annoying neighbor trying to hit on Arnie's wife (played by Rita Wilson). It's not a masterpiece, but it has just the right amount of silly for a Christmas movie.
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