There are holiday movies that stand the test of time and remain as viewing staples for years to come. However, there are holly jolly films that should be pitched in the fireplace as kindling to ignite the yule log. The truth of the matter is that holiday movies are often formulaic, boiled down to a plot revolving around a protagonist facing an uphill battle against forces bent on sapping the holiday spirit from the fictional world the audience is bearing witness to. That is the dividing line between poignant, festive fare and oversaturated, sappy dreck. Bah humbug, indeed.
For every round of ridiculousness that exists, such as a Santa vs The Martians, there are gems that resonate wholeheartedly with universal audiences. However, not all holiday movies have to tug at the heart strings completely to sell you on their worth. Laughing, crying, and thinking are all appropriate reactions. Sometimes all three take place in the span of one holiday film to make for a well-rounded experience of emotions.
The ten films on this list are worthy of being added to your viewing queue this holiday season. All ten are on the list for various reasons but each has a holiday significance in some way, shape, or form. Each film may take a roundabout way of getting there, but they have rightfully earned their place on this holiday must-watch list. Order up these holiday related films and kick back, relax, and enjoy this holiday season.
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10 Die Hard
Wait a minute, you may ask yourself, why is an action movie on a holiday movie countdown? First, the setting of the Bruce Willis-helmed feature takes place at an office Christmas party. Not all holiday films have to follow the snowy, Norman Rockwell picture of togetherness to resonate as a Christmas movie. Die Hard takes the dreaded office party and throws it into the realm of suspense. Admit it, instead of making small talk with your co-workers, you wish that a heist would take place. That would beat having your ear talked off by your cubicle neighbor about their cat’s hairball issues.
9 Bad Santa
Billy Bob Thornton steals the show in this surprise hit as a gruff, heavy-drinking mall Santa Claus, who is in the midst of pulling off a heist of a department store. The late Bernie Mac and John Ritter also appear in supporting roles in this hilarious, subversive holiday comedy. Thornton and his elf accomplice are career thieves, taking jobs at department stores as Santa and his elf, respectively. All the while they are casing the place for a Christmas Eve robbery. Will Thornton have a change of heart in true holiday fashion or will he keep his end of the bargain with his partner? Add Bad Santa to your queue and find out for sure.
Will Ferrell is a comedic dynamo, full of boundless energy that is not matched or exceeded by many other actors today. The 2003 film Elf showcases Ferrell as a wide-eyed human adopted by elves, who leaves the North Pole in search of his father, played by James Caan. Ferrell plays the well-meaning oaf to a tee. You cannot help but care for Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf as he desperately tries to assimilate into a brand new world. He’s naïve, but in the end, he only wants his family, especially his father, to come around to sharing his spirit for the holidays. A heartwarming tale about togetherness, Elf is a modern mainstay in the holiday movie rotation.
Taking on another spin of the classic A Christmas Carol trope of spiritual enlightenment, Scrooged stars Bill Murray as a heartless television executive. Of course, Murray is taken for a ride of tumult across his past, present, and future in a true Dickensian pattern. However, this modern tale from the time of the “Me” generation is a study in anti-Gordon Gecko philosophy. Greed is not good. Peering into where he has been, is, and will go, Murray is tested by the respective three spirits’ selected moments in his timeline. Scrooged does a more than admirable effort at what is a tried and true holiday storytelling method.
If you have ever received a gift that turned into a nightmare, you may be able to relate to Gremlins. Imagine that your glitchy, electronic gizmo ran amok in your town, tearing it apart and terrorizing the community. This film takes place in a small town around Christmas time that starts with one small Mogwai purchased as a Christmas present. One simple set of rules: don’t get it wet or feed it after midnight. Neither rule is followed and the ensuing terror of multiplying monsters invades small town USA. No returns or exchanges can be made in this scenario. Gremlins is not your traditional Christmas tale as much as it is a commentary on consumerism. The fact that the film takes place at Christmas is no mere coincidence. Heavy undertones aside, Gremlins is one of the quintessential ‘80s films.
5 Trading Places
If you want to see Eddie Murphy in his comedic prime before he became a Disney/corporate shill, Trading Places is a shining example of how much of a force Murphy can be. Before he was the fast talking police officer in Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy was the wise cracking bum, who becomes a pawn in the sociological experiment of two billionaires. In what is a tale about how each side lives, the upper crust and the dirt poor, Murphy and Dan Aykroyd are a magnificent pairing of divergent personalities. The straight-laced Aykroyd is forced to find his way out of the gutter after a drastic role reversal. It is a classic storyline of socioeconomic clashes during what is supposed to be a joyous and harmonious time of the year. Tables are turned and hilarity ensues during this comedy classic.
4 National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Clark Griswald finds himself the reluctant, but "can do" spirited holiday host to his overextended family. Anyone who has ever had a crowded home full of holiday guests can feel Griswald’s pain. Chevy Chase is still at his “Sparky” best as the overly enthusiastic patriarch. The light display sequence alone epitomizes how far Clark is willing to go to make this particular Christmas spectacular. He tries so hard and often fails miserably. However, his charm comes from how he never gives up the ghost in pursuit of keeping everyone happy. In what is really a fool’s errand, Clark is a lovable holiday character.
3 Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Technically, it is a Thanksgiving movie, but the sentiment is the same. Steve Martin and John Candy play travel partners born out of circumstance in pursuit of arriving home in time for the holiday. Comparable to road movies of old, mismatched travelers are the core of the plot. This is beyond the armrest hog on your flight home. This is haphazard hi-jinks of the highest order. Murphy’s Law in its full form is more like it. The wrong way highway sequence is the pinnacle of this seemingly doomed trek. In the end, a film that encapsulates the spirit of companionship to the bitter end is the final result.
2 How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Besides poor, old Ebenezer Scrooge, there has never been a better embodiment of holiday nefariousness than Dr. Seuss’s Grinch. The animated version still holds up by comparison to the contemporary, live action version starring Jim Carrey because of its simplicity. The Carrey version can be an over the top, Hollywood special effects romp at times. The animated television special has a poetic feel to it, keeping true to the author’s unique turns of phrase. The Grinch is one of the foundational characters that writers look towards for every change-of-heart character in holiday lore. Look no further than the triple-sized heart of the former coal-hearted Grinch to see how much of the spirit of the season can affect even the most bitter and cynical.
1 It’s A Wonderful Life
A holiday standard that has endured for ages, It’s A Wonderful life is the quintessential holiday film. What is truly a wonder is that the film was a bomb at the box office. What made it a holiday immortal was an annual place on the Thanksgiving Day schedule. Beyond that, the Jimmy Stewart vehicle works because it is the perfect picture of how reflection is an affective storytelling tool. Literally on the edge of the abyss, Stewart is plucked from his darkest hour to see the light. Audiences have followed suit and made the film a viewing staple.
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