Christmas movies are as much a part of the holiday as presents, stockings, and visiting Santa at the mall. It seems like every year adds at least a few to the vast Christmas film collection. This year, we welcome Love the Coopers (a typical family-gets-together-for-holidays-and-hilarity-and/or-kodak-moments-ensue) and Krampus (in the smaller but still notable Christmas horror subgenre, joining such luminaries as Black Christmas and Christmas Evil) to the family.
Some of the new ones are destined to be classics while others are better forgotten (I am looking in your direction, A Christmas Story 2). The only thing we know for sure is that the movies will keep on coming. It’s unstoppable and inevitable.
You could spend years watching them all, but if you’re like most people, you’ll want to select just the best for the weeks leading up to the big guy’s appearance on December 25. There’s nothing quite like watching a holiday favourite by the light of the Christmas tree. But ask five people for the “best” Christmas films, and you’ll get many different responses.
Enter the good people at Rotten Tomato. The film (and television) review aggregator has done the legwork for you. They compared every Christmas film in their database, looking at the Tomatometer score (percentage of approved professional critics who gave it a positive review) and converting that to an adjusted score that takes the uneven number of reviewers into the equation (a movie with only 2 reviews compared to a film with over 100, for example).
The result? They’ve created the definitive 25 Best Christmas Movies as part of their Holiday Guide 2015.
Unfortunately, their definition of “Christmas movie” seems to be a bit loose. Many of the films would not fall into that category for most of us (Lethal Weapon, Batman Returns, and Trading Places?). Just because a film takes place at or around Christmas does not necessarily make it a Christmas film, IMHO.
So, with a little whittling, preening, and pruning, I have knocked their list of 25 down to a list of the 10 best Christmas movies…and each one is a classic and worthy of a spot in your Christmas rotation.
See Also: Yule Cinema School: What Great Christmas Movies Can Teach You in the Workplace
Christmas movies generally fall into one of three categories: funny, touching, or dark. 2003’s Bad Santa definitely falls into the latter category, revolving around an alcoholic, safe-cracking Santa and his criminal accomplice (and elf) Marcus. Every holiday season, they work at a shopping mall, and then rob the place on Christmas Eve. This year, though, things get complicated when Santa meets a beautiful bartender, and an 8-year old looking for a miracle. It’s crass, crude, and very, very dark, but Bad Santa will make you believe by the time the credits roll. It has an adjusted score of 83.716% to claim the number ten spot (Tomatometer score of 78%).
The Bishop’s Wife
You may not have seen it (or worse, only saw the remake with Whitney Houston), but 1948’s The Bishop’s Wife should be on your festive radar. Cary Grant plays an angel-in-disguise, answering the prayers of a beleaguered bishop played by David Niven. He stays with Niven and his wife during the holidays and makes everyone find themselves and their way home once again. You’re going to feel great by the end of it. It’s has an 84.814% adjusted score (Tomatometer score 82%) for this stellar but rarely included holiday treat.
Buddy the Elf, what’s your favourite colour? If you don’t answer the phone that way starting on December 1, what’s wrong with you?! Released in 2003, Elf quickly established itself as a fan favourite and modern-day classic. It’s the story of Buddy, a human baby adopted and raised by elves at the North Pole. Needless to say, he adores Christmas and everything that goes with it. His world is thrown into turmoil, though, when he learns that he isn’t actually an elf (you would think his size would have been a giveaway), and he decides to journey to New York and find his biological father…who just happens to need a shot of Christmas spirit. It’s funny for adults and children alike, touching, and reminds us that the spirit of Christmas need not disappear with age. It’s well-deserved 88.889% (Tomatometer 84%) adjusted score places it squarely at number 8.
A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge)
The iconic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his night spent with the three ghosts of Christmas was written by Charles Dickens and first published in 1843. It’s been adapted for film, television, and theatre dozens of times since then, so finding the best is the subject of much debate (I myself am partial to The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine).
That said, 1951’s A Christmas Carol (originally called Scrooge) with Alastair Sim is widely considered the definitive version, and Rotten Tomatoes would seem to agree. It’s has a very strong 89.933% on the adjusted scale (86% on the Tomatometer), and an equal 89% on the Audience Score (percentage of users who have rated it a 3.5 stars or higher out of five). If you’ve never seen it – even if you’re seen many other versions – do yourself a favour and watch it this year. It’s fantastic.
A Christmas Story
The leg lamp. The Red Ryder BB rifle. And good old Ralphie. Released in 1983 (but taking place in the 40s), A Christmas Story is nostalgic and hilarious all at once, and if you’ve ever been desperate for one particular gift, you’ll connect with and appreciate Ralphie’s quest for the gun.
It’s a perennial favourite and guaranteed to be on television sometime before Christmas. Not only does is it have a solid 92.791% adjusted score (88% on the Tomatometer), but it’s “Certified Fresh”, too (a steady 75% or higher after at least 80 reviews). It’s an absolute must-see…just avoid the crappy, crappy sequel.
The first animated feature on the list, Arthur Christmas was released only 4 years ago, but it’s already so popular you’d think it’s been around forever. The title character is the second-born son of Santa, and he takes it upon himself to make one very special delivery on Christmas Eve.
Funny and heart-warming, it’s the kind of film perfect to watch with the kids (or without), curled up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate. It comes in at #5 with an adjusted score of 96.144% (Tomatometer score of 92%).
The Nightmare Before Christmas
It may not seem very Christmasy, but Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) gets to the heart of the holiday by the end. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King and coolest guy in Halloweentown, becomes bored with rocking Halloween year after year. Upon discovering portals to the other major holidays, he decides to kidnap Santa and model Christmas in his own image…with disastrous results. But don’t worry. Santa saves the day. It’s visually stunning, with quirky characters and catchy tunes. An adjusted score of 100.234% (Tomatometer of 94%, and “Certified Fresh”) makes it our number 4 slot.
Another that you may not have seen (but you’ve definitely heard of) is 1942’s Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and written by Irving Berlin. The film has amazing songs (including the amazing “White Christmas”), fantastic dance routines, and a story that revolves around a singer and a dancer vying for the affection of the new female performer at an inn only open for Christmas. If it sounds perfect, it’s because it is.
It’s adjusted score of 103.332% has an equally impressive Tomatometer score of 100% (!), and an Audience Score of 87%. People like it. They really like it.
Miracle on 34th Street
Coming in at number two with an adjusted score of 104.165% (Tomatometer of 96%, “Certified Fresh”, and an Audience Score of 87%) is 1947’s classic Miracle on 34th Street. Hired to play Santa at the local department store, Kris believes that he really is Santa Claus. Institutionalized for this belief, he’s forced to defend himself in a court of law…making believers of us all. The 1994 remake is decent, but the original is an unrivalled holiday favourite (with maybe one exception…;).
It’s a Wonderful Life
You know it. You love it. You’ve seen it 53 times (as has everyone else). It’s probably on television somewhere at this very moment. Released in 1946 (sheesh, the 40s were the golden age for Christmas films), It’s a Wonderful Life was originally a box office disappointment. Directed by the incomparable Frank Capra, and starring the incomparable Jimmy Stewart, the film didn’t achieve its legendary place among Christmas films until a filing error accidentally thrust it into the public domain.
As a result, television channels could broadcast it for free whenever they wanted, and it introduced the movie to a new generation of viewers. Since then, it’s become the uncontested king of Christmas. George Bailey is convinced his life doesn’t matter, and it’s not until he’s shown what life would be like without him by his guardian angel that he realizes his importance. The definitive feel-good film. It’s adjusted score of 104.852% (94% Tomatometer, “Certified Fresh”, and 95% Audience Score) just narrowly took the top spot over Miracle on 34th Street (in a perfect world, they would be tied, because they’re both nearly perfect).
There you have it. If you only watch 10 Christmas movies this year, make it this 10. As the highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes, you have an excellent sample and number of reviews to average it all out (unlike, say, just asking your BFF what you should watch).
Although, part of me can’t believe that 1989’s Christmas Vacation (a relatively low 64% on the Tomatometer, but a respectable 86% Audience Score…with lines like “Every time Catherine revved up the microwave I’d piss my pants and forget who I was for a half hour or so” and “Merry Christmas! Shitter was full”, it deserves a spot in the rotation) and 1988’s Scrooged (Tomatometer of 67%) didn’t make the cut. Both of those films have a place of honour in my top 10.
What’s your favourite holiday film? What would you add to the list here? Leave your suggestions in the comments below…