1. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
With all the family, forced cheer, and spiked eggnog, the holidays are often a time for maudlin self-reflection. So it only makes sense that the most popular and universally beloved Christmas movie is about a suicidal guy named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who gets his ass metaphorically beaten by the forces of capitalism personified by a rich, bald banker who likes naming things after himself. Only a second-class angel, sent down from the heavens after viewing a celestial recap of George's life, can save him. Despite its cheery title, It's a Wonderful Life is an oft-depressing parable that asks unpleasant questions and provides few definitive answers. Ho ho ho, right?
And yet, this is the movie we turn to every holiday season: Why? Well, for one thing, there's the small-town sweetness of Bedford Falls, the even-handed assurance of Frank Capra's direction, and the moon-lassoing charms of Donna Reed as Mary Bailey. But mostly, it comes down to Jimmy Stewart's shadow-strewn face. In a performance that glides from teenage swagger to adult despair with discomforting ease, Stewart personifies everything hopeful and dreary about the holiday season. He's the joy of Christmas morning and the gloominess that inevitably arrives at the end of the day. With snow in his hair, bells ringing in his ears, and a glint in his eye, he's Christmas incarnate. -- Dan Jackson
Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, VUDU, and YouTube