A great Christmas movie will not only make the grade for the test of time, but it can become a beloved part of a person’s life. Ask 15 people which is their favorite holiday film, and you may get 15 different titles. Our photo gallery focuses on the 15 titles we believe are the best of all time. Scroll through the gallery, read our descriptions, and debate with us the order, ranked best to worst, and which ones you think are missing.
Our list is led off by the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart, a film that was deemed a box office bomb when it was first released. It was the relentless airings on television over the past few decades that made it a favorite for many families. Stewart is also featured in the lesser-known but still wonderful “The Shop Around the Corner.” While that movie is uplifting, other funnier flicks that made our cut are “A Christmas Story,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and “Elf.” What else is a holiday classic in our gallery? Take a tour now to see the full list of selections.
1. It’s A Wonderful Life – 1946
Frank Capra’s holiday classic about the power of one person being able to affect the lives of many others, is one of only a handful of films that are considered beloved. By now, most everyone knows the story of George Bailey (Stewart), who has forfeited his dreams so that he could be there for other people and, reaching the end of his rope, contemplates committing suicide on Christmas Eve. He is stopped by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows how much worse off his town and the lives of those close to him would have been had George not been alive.
2. Meet Me In St. Louis – 1944
Vincente Minnelli‘s musical depicting one year in the life of a St. Louis family leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. In the film’s most memorable sequence set at Christmas, the sheer unhappiness that the move has upon the family is manifested when the Smiths’ youngest daughter Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) suddenly smashes the heads off their backyard snowmen and must be comforted by older sister Esther (Judy Garland) by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
3. A Christmas Story – 1983
The years (and round-the-clock cable televising of the film every Christmas Eve) have only added to the the reputation of “A Christmas Story,” and the marathon TV airings have become a holiday tradition in many American households. Set in a small Indiana town in the early 1940s, the film focuses on the Christmas travails of the Parker family — nine-year old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), whose only desire in life is to get a Red Ryder BB gun.
4. Miracle On 34th Street – 1947
When a shopper named Kris Kringle (Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn) complains to Macy’s event director Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) that their department store Santa is drunk, she persuades Kris to replace him. But instead of telling parents to shop for Christmas at Macy’s, he has no trouble suggesting to go to arch-rival Gimbels if they can get a better deal there.
5. The Shop Around The Corner – 1939
Alfred (Stewart) is a sales clerk at a top leather goods shop in Budapest, who has been sending romantic letters anonymously to a woman he found in a newspaper ad and to whom he is drawn to without ever knowing her name. The film’s third act is the mad shopping rush at the store for Christmas, which only intensifies the pressure for these lovers to finally reveal themselves to each other.
6. Love Actually – 2003
Richard Curtis has interwoven 10 stories set in London in the five weeks before Christmas. Part of Curtis’ achievement here is how deftly he incorporates characters from one story into others, weaving a tapestry illustrating how the spirit of the Christmas season can move unlikely romantics to experience all aspects of love.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas – 1994
Based on a poem by producer Tim Burton, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a stop-motion fantasy musical that is often shown at Halloween but is, at its heart, a Christmas movie. Its hero, a skeleton named Jack Skellington who, tired of the same-old, same-old in his home of Halloween Town, finds portals to new holiday lands and seems most intrigued with the brightness of Christmas Town.
8. Home Alone – 1990
10-year-old star Macaulay Culkin plays young Kevin McCallister who, after wishing that his family would just disappear, gets his wish when he awakens on the morning that his family had been scheduled to fly to Paris and finds that his family has already departed, and he has been left home alone. What’s worse is that he overhears a conversation between Harry Lime (Joe Pesci) and Marv Merchants (Daniel Stern), known as The Wet Bandits, that they intend to rob Kevin’s house, and to young Kevin, that will not do.
9. Elf – 2003
As a boy, Buddy (Will Ferrell) stowed away in Santa’s sleigh and was taken to the North Pole where he was adopted by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). When Buddy eventually learns that he is human, he decides to leave Papa Elf and Santa Claus (Edward Asner) to travel to New York to find his biological father Walter (James Caan).
10. The Santa Clause – 1994
After a fall from a roof by the real Santa Claus, everyman Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) becomes the new Santa Claus, all because of that pesky card he finds which evokes “the Santa clause.” Don’t bother looking for subtexts or hidden themes here — “The Santa Clause” is simply designed for entertainment, and audiences liked it that way.
11. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – 1989
Once again, it is the hapless Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase), making every conceivable wrong move, from cutting down a tree without a tool to calling out his boss for his cheapness that leads the chaos along with the antics of his wife, daughter and son. This time Ellen’s cousin and dopey husband Eddie (Randy Quaid) crash the holiday festivities.
12. The Polar Express – 2004
Robert Zemeckis chose to tell his story using human actors who become animated figures by utilizing live-action performance technique, a widely-debated approach to filmmaking that nonetheless has been used more widely after Zemeckis’ film. Here, a young Santa skeptic named Billy who boards a mysterious train en route to the North Pole. Zemeckis is helped no end by his longtime colleague Tom Hanks, who portrays six different roles (and undoubtedly brought moviegoers into the theater) that helped to bring “The Polar Express” enormous popularity worldwide.
13. A Christmas Carol – 1951
No, not the Jim Carrey version. This one’s the real deal, the one with the great British character actor Alistair Sim, who forever laid definitive claim to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge with his performance in this adaptation of the famed novella by Charles Dickens. It takes a long time for Sim’s Scrooge to come to the realization of how his selfishness has negatively impacted people, but once he does, his turn to generosity appears genuine and well-earned.
14. Die Hard – 1988
“Die Hard” as a Christmas movie? Wha…? Well, believe it. As odd as it sounds, “Die Hard” is a definitive example of the Christmas action movie. Much of Act 1 is devoted to NYC Police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) trying to reconcile with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at Christmas time by accompanying her to her company’s holiday party. As Christmas joy prevailed, suddenly Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his buddies show up for mayhem.
15. Holiday Inn – 1942
What most moviegoers remember about Mark Sandrich‘s 1942 musical film “Holiday Inn” is that it introduced the Oscar-winning perennial holiday song “White Christmas,” immortalized by Bing Crosby. The plot of the film is less memorable — a three-person act (Crosby as Jim, Fred Astaire as Ted and Virginia Dale as Lila) is about to break up because Jim and Lila are planning to get married and retire.