12 Must-Watch Classic Holiday Movies to Watch This Year – Parade Magazine
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Eggnog? Definitely. Caroling? Yes, please. But for a holiday tradition the whole family can truly enjoy, nothing can top watching a Christmas movie. “We love them because we see ourselves in them,” says Jeremy Arnold, a Turner Classic Movies host and author of the 2018 book Christmas in the Movies. “We see the spectrum of love and warmth and togetherness and humor and good cheer and even loneliness. They really have become the whole package.” Best of all, these special presents—which span from the golden age of cinema to a Bruce Willis action blockbuster—can be opened again and again. So gather ’round as we celebrate our favorite classic Christmas movies.
An unmarried food writer (Barbara Stanwyck) lying about being a Martha Stewart–like housewife attempts to cover her deception when her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) and a returning war hero (Dennis Morgan) invite themselves over for a traditional family Christmas.
Why We Love It: Two words: pure joy. “You can’t watch it without putting yourself in a purely cheerful mood,” Arnold says of the screwball comedy. And with that quintessential Connecticut farmhouse at its center, “the fantasy becomes very appealing.”
Fun Fact: That farmhouse was the same one used in the 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby.
Modern Take? Yup! There was a 1992 TV movie on TNT starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson—and directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Famous Quote: “Where am I going to get a farm? I haven’t even got a window box!”
Related: A Gift Guide Dedicated to Our Favorite Holiday Movies
On Christmas Eve, a downward spiral of events leads despondent small-town businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) to believe that his friends and family would be better off without him. Enter guardian angel Clarence, who shows him why he’s so wrong.
Why We Love It: Director Frank Capra’s classic “is the ultimate Christmas movie,” Arnold says. “It fully embraces the highs and lows of the season. We tend to remember it for the joy, but it hits so many emotions. And realizing the importance of his family is so endlessly relatable.”
Fun Fact: The film flopped upon its initial theatrical release, leaving Capra $525,000 in the hole to the RKO movie studio. But it found new life on TV when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it royalty-free to anyone who wanted to air it. NBC finally bought the rights in 1994.
Modern Take? Sort of! Last year there was an online charity “table read,” with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson as George, to raise funds for the Ed Asner Family Center.
Famous Quote: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
A precocious girl (Natalie Wood) doesn’t believe Santa Claus exists—not even when she befriends a white-bearded old man (Edmund Gwenn) by the name of Kris Kringle who insists he’s the real deal.
Why We Love It: Face it, we’ve all doubted the authenticity of the man from the North Pole. “The brilliance here is that the movie embraces the skepticism and cynicism of the holiday,” says Arnold. “And what’s really fascinating is that the movie creates a fantasy even though we never see one frame of fantasy onscreen.”
Fun Fact: Gwenn delighted crowds when he appeared as Santa Claus in the actual 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan. Cameras were set up along Broadway to film the entire thing.
Modern Take? A remake in 1994 starred Dylan McDermott, Elizabeth Perkins and Mara Wilson.
Famous Quote: “I believe…I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.”
A bishop (David Niven) obsessed with raising funds for a new cathedral loses sight of what’s truly important. After praying for divine guidance, a man named Dudley (Cary Grant) appears and offers to help—though he fulfills his promise in unexpected ways.
Why We Love It: “There’s a message imparted here about treating others with compassion and kindness,” Arnold says. And don’t underestimate the appeal of a screen legend as a higher being: “Who wouldn’t want Cary Grant to be their guardian angel in real life? He’s saving babies!”
Fun Fact: The troubled production started in 1945 with Grant as the bishop and Niven as Dudley. MGM Studios head Samuel Goldwyn and director Henry Koster insisted on the switch.
Modern Take? Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston were top-billed in the 1996 comedy, renamed The Preacher’s Wife.
Famous Quote: “We all come from our little planets. That’s why we’re all different.”
Cranky Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) has no use for yuletide cheer, but he changes his tune after visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Based on the classic Charles Dickens story from 1843.
Why We Love It: “The narrative trope of Scrooge transforming from a miser to a warm-hearted man has impacted the most Christmas movies,” Arnold says. This version, he adds, is the most straightforward.
Fun Fact: Sims reprised his role in a 1971 animated ABC-TV special that won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
Modern Take? At last count, 135 versions of this enduring tale are in the books—including the 1988 comedy Scrooged with Bill Murray in the villain-turned-hero role.
Famous Quote: “Bah! Humbug!”
In this musical, a group of post–World War II entertainers is determined to spread holiday spirit to save a failing Vermont Inn. The cast includes Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney—and, of course, features the timeless titular tune.
Why We Love It: The nostalgia factor is difficult to resist. “It’s linked to romanticism and love of the holiday,” Arnold says. And thanks to that Crosby-crooned holiday staple, “the movie will never go away.”
Fun Fact: Composer Irving Berlin is the only Oscar presenter to ever open the envelope on the big night and read his own name. (He won for writing “White Christmas.”) He joked, “I’m glad to present him the award. I’ve known him for a long time.”
Modern Take? Alas, no. Though Kelly Clarkson has said she’d be interested in starring in one.
Famous Quote: “My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.”
All young, beleaguered Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants from Santa Claus is a Red Ryder air rifle. He struggles to make it to Christmas with his dreams—and his glasses —intact. And beware of that leg lamp!
Why We Love It: Because the movie is an adaptation of former radio personality Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical short stories, “We get a child’s view of Christmas combined with an adult’s memory,” Arnold says. “I think that extra layer is the secret ingredient here because there’s a tension between young and old.”
Fun Fact: Next time you watch the 24-hour marathon on TBS, take note of the Toronto Transit Commission’s red trolley cars: Though the comedy is set in fictional Hohman, Indiana, it was filmed in Canada. (And most of the snow was fake.)
Sequel Status? None yet!
Famous Quote: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
With two chaotic vacations in the rear-view mirror, patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) just wants a traditional holiday celebration at home. No such luck once crazy Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his brood show up.
Why We Love It: Who can’t find comedic solace in good old-fashioned family dysfunction? “There are episodes in here, like finding a Christmas tree, that are taken to such absurd extremes,” Arnold says. “We can all relate to variations of that!”
Fun Fact: There are two yuletide ties to It’s a Wonderful Life: Not only does the film play in the background in a scene, but Frank Capra III (i.e., Capra’s grandson) served as an assistant director.
Sequel Status? National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation followed in 1997, with two new actors playing kids Rusty and Audrey.
Famous Quote: “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
Ahhh! After little Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left all by himself at home while his family is in Europe, he tries to stop two inept burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) from breaking and entering.
Why We Love It: “It’s a live-version of a Warner Bros. cartoon,” says the film’s director Chris Columbus. “And it’s emotionally powerful as a combination of humor and pathos.” Indeed, he crafted it with the hope it would remain timeless: “We wanted future audiences to feel as if the film was made just a few months prior.”
Fun Fact: The entire third act in which the “Wet Bandits” are thwarted by Kevin’s booby traps? “The stunts were real and we used no CGI,” Columbus says. “It still makes me laugh hysterically.”
Sequel Status? A revamped version, Home Sweet Home Alone, is now streaming on Disney+.
Famous Quote: “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”
When a flailing divorced dad (Tim Allen) accidentally makes Santa fall off the roof on Christmas Eve, he’s recruited to take his place—which means physically transforming into St. Nick himself.
Why We Love It: Allen still marvels at the heart in the script. “It could have been about the tooth fairy and still worked,” he says. “It’s so sweet and funny. And there’s an element of magic that kids still love.”
Fun Fact: The Home Improvement star endured hours of prosthetic makeup and wardrobe fittings for his five-stage Santa makeover. “It was very uncomfortable,” he says. And the original red suit featured little brass bells that had to be removed: “The sound guys said they made too much noise. But the suit was gorgeous. I felt like a king when I walked onto the set that first day.”
Sequel Status? After two follow-ups, Allen insists he has no plans to wear the suit for a fourth time.
Famous Quote: “I think that if we’re going to destroy our son’s illusions, I should be a part of it.”
Raised as a North Pole elf, giddy Buddy (Will Ferrell) travels to big, bad New York City to find his biological dad (James Caan), who happens to be in desperate need of ho-ho-ho spirit.
Why We Love It: With Ferrell playing an overgrown child, “we get to see Christmas through this wide-eyed wonder,” Arnold says. “It’s such a sweet and endearing movie and hard to make a Christmas movie that doesn’t embrace cynicism in today’s age.” Plus, it’s flat-out hilarious.
Fun Fact: A pre–Ace Ventura Jim Carrey was originally attached to the title role when the film was still in its early stages of development back in 1993. He’d go on to make the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Sequel Status? Not yet!
Famous Quote: “You sit on a throne of lies!”
Throughout Christmas week in England, eight couples of all ages discover all facets of love, actually. The ensemble includes Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Colin Firth, Martine McCutcheon and Hugh Grant as the charming dancing prime minister.
Why We Love It: Well, that amazing cast for one thing. Watching them weave in and out on a path to joy and reconciliation still yields pure joy, says Arnold. “You think these stories are all unrelated, and then you feel like these characters are one big family.”
Fun Fact: Rowan Atkinson’s overenthusiastic gift wrapper at the department store was originally written as an angel in disguise. Director Richard Curtis ultimately cut it to avoid a supernatural element in an already bustling film.
Sequel Status? The cast reunited for a 15-minute film in 2017 as part of the Red Nose Day TV benefit special.
Famous Love Actually Quote: “We need Kate and we need Leo, and we need them now.”
Sure, the idea of blood-thirsty thieves holding a bunch of innocent people hostage in a downtown L.A. office building on Christmas Eve doesn’t exactly scream “holiday cheer for everyone!” But in recent years, fans have insisted this action epic—released in July 1988 —should be added to the nice list. (Also consider that Bruce Willis’ hero cop John McClane is way-more resourceful than a gift-wrapping elf.) “You know, I never thought Die Hard was a Christmas movie until the audience said it was,” says Reginald VelJohnson (Family Matters, Turner & Hooch), who played helpful LAPD officer Al Powell. “But it’s interesting that it still shows up on Christmas and holds up after all these years.” His theory for its durability? “It has something everyone can relate to. You put yourself in the same situation Bruce Willis was in and can’t help but ask yourself what you would do.” Yippee-ki-yay!
Next, 100+ Christmas Movies To Watch This Holiday Season
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