The 12 best holiday movies of all time, according to our editors
Nothing brings a family together like a good holiday movie. Well, maybe a judge's orders. Or a bucket of KFC. Or, like, gravity or whatever. But the point is: every December, you probably fired up a Betamax/VHS/LaserDisc/DVD/illegally torrented .MOV file/Netflix password on your TV, kicked back with loved ones and your step-uncle, and let warm waves of cheery nostalgia transport you back to simpler times.
We sure did, and holiday season after holiday season, certain festive flicks became personal must-watch traditions of their very own. These are them: 12 holiday movies that Thrillist's writers & editors hold very -- at times, irrationally -- dear, and insist on viewing with friends & family every December. And now that we've shared, tell us yours in the comments.
Many say Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie... that it’s just set during Christmas. Well, yippie kay ay NAY, motherf*****. Die Hard is basically It’s A Wonderful Life, except instead of Clarence the Angel it has Carl the Winslow, who guides John McClane through a very real scenario that looks a lot like what life would be like if he didn’t exist. His wife is a high-powered businesswoman who pretends to be single. His kids barely know him, and are being raised by a stranger. So McClane’s forced to face his demons and self-worth while also facing legions of Eurotrash terrorists, with Hans Gruber playing Mr. Potter by stealing all those bearer bonds. What’s the moral of the story? The best way to realize the importance of your life is to save those you love through reckless property destruction. No angels get their wings, but Carl the Winslow sure gets his police cred back. By shooting a terrorist. Ho ho holy crap is it amazing.
Moreover, we need Die Hard in our holiday diet of stop-motion “classics”, message movies. Those are important too, but Die Hard's like your awesome uncle who blows into the Christmas party stinking of aftershave and Black Velvet, drops the f-bomb in front of Grandma, and hits on your new girlfriend while bumming her smokes. That uncle’s the best. Die Hard is that uncle in movie form. And dammit, it wouldn’t be Christmas without them. - Andy Kryza, associate senior editor, Food & Drink
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas1977
Here’s a story of a poor darling Otter -- first name Emmet -- who just wants to gift his widowed Ma a decent piano for Christmas. But innocent Ma wants to buy Emmet a guitar. Trouble is, neither can afford the other’s gift unless they win the Christmas Eve talent contest, which won’t happen without sacrifice. Stakes are high, $50 is on the line, and The Riverbottom Nightmare Band poses some serious competition, not least because of Howard Snake. He plays bass. There’s a lil’ Gift of the Magi-type spin, because most worthwhile Christmas movies are derived from that tale (not sure if you’re familiar with Christmas Eve on Sesame Street), but the whole thing is just so refreshingly wholesome. I do not have enough words to express how much I adore this goddamn charming OG Muppet Christmas musical. This story is now over. - Carrie Dennis, associate editor, Thrillist
Did you guys know I went to the same high school as Petyrion Dinklannister? Well, I did. Not at the same time, obviously, but it still counts for something. And that something is: irrational support of all his endeavors, "local guy makes good"-style! Elf is tremendous for a variety of reasons -- at least six of which are related to Zooey Deschanel dressed as a department store sprite -- but as far as I'm concerned, Dinklage's brief appearance as a wunderkind children's writer is the film's finest moment. Not just because he went to Delbarton, and is now incredibly famous from Game of Thrones, and I occasionally attend alumni events with the sole purpose of befriending him. It has nothing to do with that. - Dave Infante, senior writer, Food & Drink
First off, my name is Kevin. When Home Alone first came out, I was 9-years-old. Kids told me “Kevin, you are such a disease”, and “Kevin, you are what the French call les incompetent” six to seven times a day. And when that didn’t happen, someone would just yell, “KEVIN!” and everyone would laugh, because, you know, that’s also something people said in Home Alone. So basically, what I’m trying to tell you is, this movie is great because it reminds me of when I WAS A STAR.
But aside from the personal gains, it’s really the perfect childhood fantasy: your parents go away, you can eat all the pizza and Crunch Tators you want, you get to jump on beds, go shopping for various sundry items, and when thieves come to rob your home and murder you, fool them with a series of Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, plus a spider, and, when all that fails, a series of violent interactions with an old man’s shovel. No other holiday movie teaches children about the highs and lows of living on your own, of petty shoplifting crimes, and of forcing your Mom to pawn her jewelry and ride in a van with a preeminent polka band. No other holiday movie really identifies that cheap uncle everyone has, or the dynamics of having a bullying older brother with an ugly girlfriend. And no other movie made me, for just a fleeting moment during Christmas of 1990, feel so damn famous. Suck it, White Christmas. - Kevin Alexander, executive editor, Food & Drink
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang2005
I love Muppet Christmas Carol as much as the next guy, but the best holiday movies are watchable any time of the year. Shane Black certainly agrees -- he's built a career out of making action-packed movies exclusively set during Christmas. And his best one by far is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a bizarre masterpiece that’s funnier than anything dumb old Ralphie ever said or did (EDITOR'S NOTE: false).
It’s an amazing spoof of film noirs, if you’re into that sort of thing. (I sure am. Double Indemnity 4 lyfe.) It makes multiplication jokes, ficus jokes, and even incredible adverb jokes without being the least bit insufferable. And just when you think it’s getting a little too clever for its own good, bam: balls humor. The whole thing is a dark, manic delight that doesn’t give a damn about the fourth wall or plot structure, and it really saddens me to my core that more people haven’t seen it. Change that this Christmas. - Kristin Hunt, staff writer, Food & Drink
You know Love Actually is a damn fine holiday movie because it’s great any time of year, but approximately 12,000 times better during the actual holidays. And also because Hugh Grant dancing. I have to admit that my love of this movie began when I was a mere, hopeless romantic middle-schooler who used to call cute things “fuzzy”, but even having grown into the cynical, hardened person I’ve become, I still want to watch this movie every damn year at the seasonally appropriate time. Seriously, though, in what other movie will you find a storyline with Hugh Grant adorably dancing to “Jump!” AND multiple lobster characters in a nativity play? Where else will you find a seemingly-romantic-but-actually-pretty-creepy guy from The Walking Dead?
I’m not gonna say that I, at one point, wished someone would hold up a sign professing that I was perfect, but I, at one point, wished someone would hold up a sign professing that I was perfect. Then you have the great tragedy of Sarah and Karl, which is actually intensely depressing, and you kind of wish she would just hang up on her handicapped brother already, but then you find yourself questioning if you’re actually a terrible person who just needed to watch Love Actually to have this sort of self-revelation in time for the new year. But, again, I mostly just like watching Hugh Grant bust a move. - Rachel Freeman, editorial assistant, Food & Drink
The Muppet Christmas Carol1992
Statler and Waldorf are the Marleys. Gonzo -- and Rizzo the Rat, sort of -- are Dickens. Beaker is a fancy dude trying to convince Scrooge to give money to charity. Link Hogthrob is in it, somewhere. Everyone I loved from The Muppet Show, and from The Great Muppet Caper (still my favorite Muppet film of all time) gets into the mix, and they do what muppets do best: they sing, and dance, and make clever and sometimes sardonic comments that somehow appeal to every single age group that watches them. The Muppets never try and speak down to kids, or wink at adults too knowingly, they’re too busy inhabiting their own world of weird wonder, which is amazing alliteration to say aloud. Plus, at some point, the Muppet rat-bookkeepers who work for Scrooge all put on hula skirts and dance. - Kevin Alexander, executive editor, Food & Drink
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation1989
Among my family's Christmas traditions, one of the most long-running and cherished is hearing my Dad laugh maniacally from the other room and knowing that National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is on, and Clark Griswold is RUINING Elaine Benes' life. Despite being the third installment in the franchise (more often than not a bad sign), Christmas Vacation remains my favorite chapter in the saga of this star-crossed family with kids whose appearances and ages vary inexplicably from movie to movie. Aunt Bethany's patriotic take on grace, Cousin Eddie's s****** being full, Cousin Eddie's leisure suit, Cousin Eddie's everything else -- naming all the classic moments would keep us here until 2015. Yet underneath all the farcical shenanigans is a humanity anyone can identify with -- wanting nothing but the best for your family during the holidays, even if some of them might drive you insane. - Matt Lynch, senior editor, Cities
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer1964
The nostalgia is powerful with this one. A friend of mine once stumbled onto it while flipping through channels in college and burst into tears (in front of her then-boyfriend) for reasons she couldn't quite articulate. It taps into so many things: what it feels like to be an outsider, the thrill of rooting for the underdog/under-deer, and the fact that rudimentary stop-motion constituted serious special effects back in the '60s. But its place in the Christmas canon is undeniable, serving as spiritual predecessor to everything from Elf (that Burl Ives-esque snowman wasn't an accident) to "Joel the Lump of Coal". Christmas would still exist without it, but it would feel a bit less magical. Also: less holly and jolly. - Matt Lynch, senior editor, Cities
The Santa Clause1994
You know that uncanny feeling you get when you recognize an actor in a totally different context than the one in which you first encountered them? That's what happened to me when I finally got around to watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High and realized that Judge Reinhold could play characters other than his dweeb-shrink stepdad role in Santa Clause. I like that feeling, but I like Disney's heartwarming tale of Tim Allen's rocky divorce so, so much more. Obviously, you've got Reinhold being a colossal turd, which is killer. But you've also got Home Improvement-era Allen cracking wise about drinking brown liquor with his kid, important chimney physics explanations, and some fairly compelling CGI elf shenanigans (remember when those dudes in the green jumpsuits fly out of the workshop?!). Best of all, Santa Clause teaches the youth about the binding nature of contracts, which is just good knowledge to have generally. - Tuck Danbridge, contributor, Food & Drink
“Acid rain, drug addiction, international terrorism, freeway killers. Now, more than ever, it is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas.”
That's how ruthless TV exec Frank Cross (Sir Bill Murray) markets his $40 million live-action Christmas Carol holiday special starring the Solid Gold Dancers and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. Cross is a self-proclaimed widow of business, when he wants a wife, he's going to buy one. He sets his watch based on how fast it takes security to kick out a fired Bobcat Goldthwait (4:40!). He sends his only brother a bath towel as a present. A bath towel! Dude needs some Christmas spirit.
Murray plays Cross like an '80s version of Phil from Groundhog Day, but instead of learning empathy by way of a time loop, he gets it via a literal kick in the balls from the Ghost of Christmas Present. It humbles ol' Scrooge, and we're not talking 2k14-style #humblebrag, we're talking old-school, two minute-long '80s monologue about the true-true meaning of Christmas. In the immortal words of Frank Cross, you'll love the Dickens out of it. See what he did there? - Dan Gentile, staff writer, Food & Drink
First of all, this is one of the best movies of all time period. It has Akroyd and Murphy at the height of their careers, and one of the great topless dancing scenes of the '80s. Plus, it actually effected real change in the regulation of the stock market. But it's also an infallible Christmas movie. Some of Trading Places' most critical scenes (that don’t involve decade-defining topless dancing) take place on or around the holidays, including Akroyd's suicidal-Santa salmon theft, and the culminating New Year’s train party (Side note: how much do you want to attend a New Year’s train party? So much, right?). Also, it's important to note that it’s nearly impossible to get through a December without this airing on Comedy Central. Go ahead, just try it. Trading Places fills me with such holiday cheer that I often find myself belligerently sauced and alone, eating smoked fish on a SEPTA bus. It really is that good. - Andrew Zimmer, editor, Thrillist New York