Merry & Bright: Top 12 Christmas Movies to Help Get You Into the Holiday Spirit

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why: 'cause Santa Claus is coming to town! It feels as though Halloween and Thanksgiving weren't so long ago! Now it's time to trim the tree and hang the stockings with care, don some ugly sweaters, make fudge, wrap gifts, sing carols—you get the idea. It's Christmas!

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Although I get it, not everyone is overjoyed with the thought of Yule Tidings (I'm currently listening to Frank Sinatra's version of "Jingle Bells" as I write this). If you're feeling a little Grinch-y this season, take a gander at this list of Christmas flicks. Whether you're into traditional nostalgia, updated classics, or generally wholesome storytelling, this list of Christmas-themed movies is guaranteed to help get you into the holly, jolly mood and stay off of Santa's naughty list. I've even included a few curveballs for those of you who still can't stand the sickeningly sweet cheerfulness of the Whos down in Whoville.


Wishing you all a safe and happy holiday season to you and yours.

 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers & Lionel Barrymore

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Prime Video | Youtube

It's a Wonderful Life (1986)
"It's a Wonderful Life is one of the oldest Christmas films Hollywood has ever produced and belongs on any Christmas movie list!

It's a Wonderful Life features George Bailey, a man who has so many problems he is thinking about ending it all—and it's Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he rescues his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn't been for all of his good deeds over the years.


DYK? Films made before It's a Wonderful Life used cornflakes painted white to simulate falling snow. However, the dialogue had to be dubbed in post-production because the cornflakes were so loud. Director Frank Capra wanted to record the sound live, so a new snow effect was explicitly developed for the film using "foamite," soap, and water. About 6,000 gallons of this mixture was pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the silent falling snow throughout the entire film. This technique was so successful that the RKO Effects Department received a Class III Scientific or Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy for developing the new film snow.

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Director: George Seaton

Starring: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne & Natalie Wood

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Hulu | Prime Video | YouTube

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
As a 90s kid, I grew up on the 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, and Mara Wilson. Still, there's something about the original film that is so endearing.

In this Christmas classic, an old man named Kris Kringle (Gwenn) fills in for an intoxicated Santa in Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade. Kringle proves to be such a hit that he is soon appearing regularly at the chain's main store in midtown Manhattan. When Kringle surprises customers and employees alike by claiming that he really is Santa Claus, it leads to a court case to determine his mental health and, more importantly, his authenticity.


DYK? Unbeknownst to most parade watchers, Edmund Gwenn played Santa Claus in the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade held November 28, 1946. He fulfilled the duties of most parade Santas, including addressing the crowd from the marquee of Macy's after the parade was over. He was introduced to the public by Philip Tonge (who played Mr. Shellhammer in the movie). He later unveiled the mechanical Christmas display windows to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." This gesture symbolized the opening of the Christmas shopping season at the department store.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Director: Maury Laws & Larry Roemer

Starring: Burl Ives, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, Stan Francis, Alfie Scopp, Janis Orenstein, Paul Kligman, Carl Banas, Corinne Conley & Peg Dixon

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Prime Video | YouTube

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was always a staple in our house growing up. When I taught English to elementary school students in Japan, Rudolph was always one of their favorite Christmas movies I'd show them. Oddly enough, they also really liked the 1974 TV special "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

In this stop-animation classic, Sam the Snowman (Ives) tells the story of a young red-nosed reindeer who was ousted from the reindeer games because of his beaming nose. Rudolph teams up with Hermey (Soles), an elf who wants to be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, the prospector, to run away from the North Pole. However, when Santa can't drive his sleigh through the foggy night, Christmas is saved by the very thing that makes Rudolph so unique.


DYK? In the original TV broadcast, Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon Cornelius visit the Island of Misfit Toys and promise to help them, but the Misfits are never mentioned again. However, after it aired, producers were inundated with letters from children complaining that nothing had been done to help the Misfit Toys. In response, Rankin-Bass produced a new short scene at the end of the film included in every broadcast during the holidays. Led by Rudolph, Santa and his reindeer land on the Island of Misfit Toys to recover the lost toys and find new homes for them.

 

A Christmas Story (1983)

Director: Bob Clark

Starring: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb & Zack Ward

Where to Watch: Apple TV | HBO Max | Prime Video | Youtube

A Christmas Story (1983)
Careful, kid, you'll shoot your eye out!

Based on the humorous writings of author Jean Shepherd, this beloved holiday movie follows the wintry exploits of youngster Ralphie Parker (Billingsley). Ralphie spends most of his time dodging a bully (Ward) and dreaming of his ideal Christmas gift, a "Red Ryder air rifle." He is frequently at odds with his cranky dad (McGavin) but comforted by his doting mother (Dillon), but Ralphie struggles to make it to Christmas Day with his glasses and his hopes intact.

DYK? For the scene in which Flick's—played by Scott Schwartz—tongue sticks to the flagpole, a hidden suction tube was used to safely create the illusion that his tongue had frozen to the metal.

 

Home Alone (1990)

Director: Chris Columbus

Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard & Roberts Blossom

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Disney + | Prime Video | Youtube

Home Alone (1990)
Growing up, my sister and I loved this movie so much that we would ask to eat macaroni and cheese for dinner every time we watched it. And we watched this movie a lot. Even now, as an adult, I think of Kevin McCallister every time I make mac and cheese!

When bratty 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Culkin) acts out the night before a family trip to Paris, his mother (O'Hara) makes him sleep in the attic. After the McCallisters mistakenly leave for the airport without Kevin, he awakens to an empty house. Kevin assumes his wish to have no family has come true. But his excitement sours when he realizes that two con men (Pesci, Stern) plan to rob the McCallister residence and that he alone must protect the family home.


DYK? The picture Kevin finds of Buzz's girlfriend was a picture of a boy made up to look like a girl because director Chris Columbus thought it would be too cruel to make fun of a girl like that. The boy used in the photo was the art director's son.

 

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Director: Brian Henson

Starring: Michael Cain, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson & Frank Oz

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Disney + | Prime Video | YouTube

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
"The Muppet Christmas Carol" is a fun way to share Charles Dickens' classic cautionary tale. Plus, who doesn't love the idea of Michael Cain and Kermit the Frog sharing the screen?

The Muppets perform the classic Dickens holiday tale, with Kermit the Frog playing Bob Cratchit, the put-upon clerk of stingy Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine). Other Muppets—Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, and Sam the Eagle—weave in and out of the story, while Scrooge receives visits from spirits of three Christmases—past, present, and future. They show him the error of his self-serving ways, but the miserable old man seems to be past any hope of redemption and happiness.


DYK? Before production began, Michael Caine told director and producer Brian Henson, "I'm going to play this movie like I'm working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink; I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role, and there are no puppets around me." Henson allegedly replied, "Yes, bang on!"

 

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Director: Henry Selick

Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page & Edward Ivory

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Disney + | Prime Video | YouTube

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Call it a Halloween movie, a Christmas movie, or a Spookmas movie; in my opinion, this stop-animation cult-favorite belongs on every list.

This film follows the misadventures of Jack Skellington, Halloweentown's beloved pumpkin king, who is tired of the same annual routine of frightening people in the "real world." When Jack accidentally stumbles upon Christmastown, with all of its bright colors and warm spirits, he discovers a new lease on life. Jack plots to bring Christmas under his control by kidnapping Santa Claus and taking over the role. However, Jack soon finds even the best-laid plans of mice and skeleton men can go seriously awry.


DYK? Tim Burton wrote a three-page poem titled "The Nightmare Before Christmas" when he was a Disney animator in the early 1980s. Burton was inspired by television specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), as well as the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas." On the 15th anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD release in 2008, Christopher Lee narrated the poem with a new animated visual accompaniment.

 

The Santa Clause (1994)

Director: John Pasquin

Starring: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz & Peter Boyle

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Disney+ | Prime Video | YouTube

The Santa Clause (1994)
"The Santa Clause" was another staple in our home growing up. And if you can't get enough of Tim Allen as Old Saint Nick, there are two sequels in this franchise.

Scott Calvin (Allen) is distressed to learn that his ex-wife Laura (Crewson) and Charlie's psychiatrist stepfather Neal (Reinhold) have told their son that there is no Santa Claus. While a sullen Charlie (Lloyd) visits his dad on Christmas Eve, a noise on the roof brings them outside, where Scott startles the intruder, who tumbles to the ground. It turns out that there is a Santa after all, and Scott has just accidentally killed him. Scott inherits the jolly old elf's job due to a legal technicality known as "the Santa clause." As the next year passes, Scott rapidly gains weight, grows a white beard, and meets the elf Bernard (Krumholtz)—who is the one who really runs the North Pole—while Charlie regains his Christmas spirit. However, Neal becomes concerned about Scott's sudden change in appearance and insistence that he's Santa and forces him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.


DYK? During his first workshop tour, Scott (Allen) tries out a tool belt then shakes his head to indicate that tools aren't for him. This is a reference to Tim Allen's then-hit TV show, Home Improvement (1991), where his character's life (Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor) revolved around tools.

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin & Molly Shannon

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Prime Video | YouTube

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Whether you prefer the original 1966 TV special, the 2000 live-action version, or the 2018 animated version, the story of the Grinch and how he learns to let love into his life is timeless.

In this live-action adaptation of the beloved children's tale by Dr. Seuss, the reclusive green Grinch (Carrey) decides to ruin Christmas for the cheery citizens of Whoville. Reluctantly joined by his hapless dog, Max, the Grinch comes down from his mountaintop home and sneaks into town to swipe everything holiday-related from the Whos. However, the bitter grump finds a hitch in his plans when encountering the endearing Cindy Lou Who (Momsen).


DYK? The Grinch costume is covered in yak hair dyed green and individually sewn onto a spandex suit. According to make-up artist Rick Baker, Jim Carrey's prosthetic make-up took about two hours to apply and one hour to remove. It is rumored that Carrey felt so confined and uncomfortable in the latex skin that he sought counseling from a CIA agent who taught him torture-resistance techniques.

 

Elf (2003)

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel & Daniel Tay

Where to Watch: Apple TV | HBO Max | Hulu | Prime Video | YouTube

Elf (2003)
Personally, I'd rather have a Buddy than your typical "Elf of the Shelf" type of Santa's little helpers any day. This film is fun, funny, and just the right touch of whimsy, perfect for the holiday season.

Buddy (Ferrell) was accidentally transported to the North Pole as a toddler and raised to adulthood among Santa's elves. Unable to shake the feeling that he doesn't fit in, the adult Buddy travels to New York, in full elf uniform, searching for his real father. As it happens, this is Walter Hobbs (Caan), a cynical businessman. After a DNA test proves this, Walter reluctantly attempts to start a relationship with the childlike Buddy with increasingly chaotic results.


DYK? On the final day of shooting in New York City, director Jon Favreau, Will Ferrell, and a cameraman spent the day driving around the city looking for locations to shoot. They would jump out and ask pedestrians if they would be willing to be extras for some quick cash while Ferrell paraded around acting like Buddy. When Buddy first arrives in New York City, much of the montage was filmed then, such as getting his shoes shined and jumping between traffic.

 

The Night Before (2015)

Director: Jonathan Levine

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon & Mindy Kaling

Where to Watch: Apple TV | Prime Video | YouTube

The Night Before (2015)
This bro-heavy comedy offers the saccharine antidote for everyone who is "over" the classic feel-good Christmas flick.

For the last ten years, lifelong buddies Ethan (Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen), and Chris (Mackie) have gathered on Christmas Eve to celebrate the holidays with a bang. As Isaac prepares to become a first-time father, the friends realize that their annual tradition is coming to a sad end. They plan a night of debauchery and hilarity by searching for the Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York, to make it as memorable as possible.


DYK? Despite being a holiday film, portions of this movie were filmed in August. The cast said they were roasting in the Christmas sweaters they had to wear outdoors in summer.

 

Happiest Season (2020)

Director: Clea DuVall

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber & Mary Steenburgen

Where to Watch: Hulu

White Christmas (1954)
The most recent film on this list, "Happiest Season" was a surprise hit for me personally last holiday season.

Meeting your girlfriend's family for the first time can be challenging. Planning to propose at her family's annual Christmas dinner—until you realize that they don't even know she's gay—is even more complicated. When Abby (Stewart) learns that Harper (Davis) has kept their relationship a secret from her family, she begins to question the girlfriend she thought she knew. Happiest Season is a holiday-appropriate romantic comedy that captures the range of emotions tied to wanting your family's acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas.


DYK? The "Candy Cane Lane" featured in the film's opening scene is a real place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The neighborhood's residents agreed to keep their holiday displays up for a few extra weeks into January 2020 to accommodate the production.