The best Christmas movies of all time

Ready to get into the holiday spirit? These films are the classics that audiences will never get tired of seeing

A scene from the movie 'Home Alone'.
A scene from the movie 'Home Alone'.20th Century Fox
Alonso Martínez

Every year, at least three Christmas movies are released in theaters and many, many more are broadcasted on television or available to stream online. However, in practice, few of these films actually receive good reviews and even less will be remembered. Just a few become holiday classics that people see every year, standing the test of time and capturing the hearts of audiences across generations.

The following list includes some of those unforgettable movies which are still being quoted or discussed online, or having memes being created about them year after year.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland is usually considered the top Christmas movie of all time (at least according to Rotten Tomatoes), however, Miracle on 34th Street — which often takes the second place — has a bigger focus on the holidays, with Santa Claus as one of the main elements.

The film takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and follows a man who claims to be the real Santa while working in a department store. It won three Oscars, including one for Best Writing, Original Story and Screenplay. A remake was produced in 1994, however it lacked the magic of the original, which is still broadcasted on some TV stations each year.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

When It’s a Wonderful Life — loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — was first released in 1946, it wasn’t a big hit and received mixed reviews, as several critics weren’t impressed by the fantastic optimism of the tale. The film could’ve been forgotten as most of the films of the era. However, a clerical error turned it into a Christmas classic.

In 1974, National Telefilm Associates, the company who held the movie rights, failed to renew its copyright, which led to it becoming part of the public domain, which allowed it to be broadcast without licensing (although some royalties had to be paid). Hundreds of local television stations showed it repeatedly each holiday season, resulting in it becoming a staple of Christmas programming.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

A Charlie Brown Christmas was a staple of Christmas TV programming for more than five decades. After being critically acclaimed, it became an annual presentation, airing on broadcast television for 56 years before becoming exclusively available on Apple TV+ streaming service.

This animated movie was the first TV special based on the comic strip Peanuts, and it paved the way for a series of Peanuts specials and films. The story follows Charlie Brown, who is depressed despite the holiday season. After his friend Lucy suggests he direct a Christmas play, he tries — despite all odds — to create a special experience. One of the animators, Ed Levitt, told the director Bill Melendez: “This show is going to run for a hundred years.” After almost 60 years, it seems he was right.

Die Hard (1988)

A popular discussion on online movie forums is about the 1988 action classic Die Hard. While some don’t consider it a holiday film, others see it as a definitive Christmas classic.

Bruce Willis stars as John McClane, a NYPD Detective who — on Christmas Eve — has to attend a corporate party in order to meet his estranged wife. However, a terrorist group attacks the location, taking everyone inside hostage, except for McClane, who tries to stop the threat. Several Christmas songs are part of the soundtrack, which is enough for most people to consider this a must-see during the holidays.

Home Alone (1990)

Macaulay Culkin — who played the main character of Home Alone — has definitely moved on from this 1990 classic written and produced by the legendary John Hughes. However, audiences continue to revisit this film year after year because of his beloved performance as Kevin McCallister, who — after being left alone on Christmas by accident — ingeniously defends his home from two criminals.

This special story that stands apart from other Christmas tales is still being quoted and referenced in popular culture. It spawned a direct sequel and two others with a new main star in the following years. In 2021, Disney produced another version of this classic called Home Sweet Home Alone. However, it wasn’t well received and audiences have already forgotten about it.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Another discussion: is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween or Christmas movie? It definitely could be both, but it’s mostly a Christmas movie, because it takes place in the weeks prior to the holiday, and the main character, Jack Skellington, is trying to take over the celebration because he doesn’t want to wait a whole year for Halloween.

It is not only considered a Christmas classic but also one of the best animated movies of all time, and it represents the beginning of Tim Burton’s long and influential career.

Elf (2003)

Elf is one of the most beloved Christmas stories of the 21st century, mainly because of Will Ferrell’s endearing performance as a human man who was raised in Santa’s workshop, and who embarks on a journey to find his real father. The movie uses several tropes from Christmas films, but it stands on its own because of its humor and director Jon Favreau’s visual style. Several digital publications have ranked Elf among the greatest Christmas films, including Fandango and Digital Spy.

Love Actually (2003)

The romantic Christmas movie that wasn’t very romantic or Christmassy. Although some of the stories presented in this British classic have a traditional happy ending with exaggerated displays of affection, others reminded the audience that not everyone has a good time on the holidays. This honest contrast, along with a star-studded cast that delivers perfect performances, makes it a holiday favorite (although it’s been criticized for lack of diversity and some moments that haven’t aged well).

Un conte de Noël (2008)

Released as A Christmas Tale in the United States, this French comedy-drama follows a family with complicated relationships which gathers for Christmas dinner after finding out that the mother has been diagnosed with leukemia. Several American publications called it the best film of 2008, which is uncommon for Christmas-themed movies, especially in a foreign language. It remains as one of the best-rated holiday films on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

Anna and the Apocalypse mixes genres that audiences wouldn’t expect to see mashed-up: it’s a zombie film, but also a Christmas movie and a musical. Directed by John McPhail, it follows a group of teenagers who have to fight, sing and dance to survive a zombie apocalypse during — you guessed it — Christmas. Although it’s not as popular as other films on this list, the movie is quickly becoming a cult classic, and a must-see during the holidays.

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