There are few pleasures greater than gathering together during the holiday season with family and friends and sharing in the communal experience of movie watching. While there are so many great seasonal movies to choose from, including tons that turn formulas upside down or otherwise offer an alternative to conventional holiday cheer, we’ve assembled a semi-definitive collection of bona fide, beloved Christmas classics to make sure you add to your annual and permanent watchlist -- that is, at least until someone comes along and adds another masterpiece to the canon.
25. 'Jingle All the Way' (1996)
No Christmas movie list would be complete without at least one entry with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Brian Levine’s film delivers and then some: Arnold plays a workaholic dad who endures a gauntlet of abuse while trying to obtain a prized Christmas gift for his son, the future Dark Lord of the Sith.
24. 'The Polar Express' (2004
No matter where you come down on the “creepy or cute” debate over this film’s CGI characters, Robert Zemeckis’ first animated holiday film has a surprisingly tender and important message for audiences of all ages as a young boy goes on an odyssey to prove that he can hold onto his Christmas spirit in the face of too many reasons not to believe.
23. 'The Night Before' (2015)
As quite possibly the only Jewish-themed Christmas movie (at least on this list), Jonathan Levine’s story of three friends (Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie) searching for the ultimate Christmas party offers tons of laughs but also some surprisingly mature messages, all anchored by an unexpectedly delightful turn by Michael Shannon as the trio’s would-be guardian angel.
22. 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (1964)
Having run every year on television since 1964, “Rudolph” is the longest-running Christmas special in history. But Rankin/ Bass’ stop-motion adventure is full both of anachronistic, oddball charms and timeless lessons, as Burl Ives supplies a musical backdrop that make Rudolph’s search for friends - and eventually, self-acceptance - such an enduring story.
21. 'The Shop Around the Corner' (1940)
Before this story got turned into “You’ve Got Mail”’s unlikely romance between a book chain executive and the proprietor of a mom and pop bookstore, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan played two bickering gift shop employees who fall in love after unknowingly becoming each other’s pen pal.
20. 'Holiday Inn' (1942)
The music of Irving Berlin drives this musical about singer Jim Hardy (Fred Astaire) and dancer Ted Hanover (Bing Crosby) who compete for the hand of Linda (Marjorie Reynolds), a talented and comely performer while Jim tries to transform his farm into a concert venue open - you guessed it - only on holidays.
19. 'Muppet Christmas Carol' (1992)
This “Christmas Carol” adaptation has largely been reduced by the internet to a meme of its Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) dancing along with one of Jim Henson’s human-sized puppets, but the film remains one of the most magical - and emotional - versions of the story ever told, thanks to a Bob Cratchit, played by Kermit the Frog, who irresistibly embodies the everyman everyone loves.
18. 'The Santa Clause' (1994)
Tim Allen’s 1990s hot streak continued with this story of a man who inadvertently inherits the mantle of Santa Claus and must adjust - and adjust his wardrobe - to accommodate the demands of one of the world’s most important jobs.
17. 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' (1965)
This would make the list on the strength of Vince Guaraldi’s music alone, but this animated special qualifies as Charles Schulz’ magnum opus, as his beleaguered title character tries to find the true meaning of Christmas in a landscape marred by rampant commercialism.
16. 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1994)
Fresh from his stint in “Jurassic Park,” Richard Attenborough plays a different kind of dreamer - this time, the one and only Kris Kringle, whom a little girl (Mara Wilson) and a lawyer (Dylan McDermott) try to prove is the real thing in a world full of disbelievers.
15. 'Love Actually' (2003)
Richard Curtis’ enchanting tapestry of relationships in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas continues to inspire debates about exactly how healthy the behavior some of its cast of characters are, but that’s sort of the point of the movie itself: what we all want, what we’re pursuing, and at what cost all connects through love, even if in some cases that means the fractured relationship between a husband (Alan Rickman) and wife (Emma Thompson), and others, the recognition of a soul mate in a long-suffering tour manager (Gregor Fisher) and his unpredictable rock-star client (Bill Nighy).
14. 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas' (1996)
At 26 minutes and using only hand-drawn animation, this television special might lack some of the pizazz of the live-action and computer-animated versions that followed. But its adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book gets all of the details the most right, and features the immortal Boris Karloff as narrator, lending the character’s journey from crank to Christmas superfan a theatrical elegance that’s never been matched.
13. 'Gremlins' (1984)
Joe Dante created this mischievous romp about a mysterious little creature and the trouble caused when his owner (Zach Galligan) fails to obey the very simple and strict rules for taking care of him. Featuring a cavalcade of manic, menacing, oddball creatures and plenty of Dante’s own impish creativity, it’s a highly unconventional holiday film that has earned its place in the canon.
12. 'Scrooged' (1988)
There have been a lot of great versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but Bill Murray makes his version of Scrooge one of the wildest, this time a television executive who loses his way in a cutthroat industry and gets visited by three ghosts unafraid to beat him (literally) into a Christmas morning epiphany.
11. 'Arthur Christmas' (2011)
If the movies teach us anything it’s that Santa has a lot of family members - but this might be the first time he not only has kids, but a father of his own. In this delightful animated film, Santa’s son and old, OLD Saint Nick team up to deliver a lost gift to a young girl in time for Christmas.
10. 'Bad Santa' (2003)
Terry Zwigoff’s midnight-black comedy offers a rejoinder to the notion that Christmas stories must be cheerful and bright, as alcoholic safe-cracker Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) eats, drinks, sh*ts and f*cks his way through the holiday season, holing up in the house of an outcast kid name Thurman who think he’s the real article as his partner Marcus tries to keep him in check (and sober enough to complete their annual Christmas Eve heist).
9. 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947)
The best holiday stories are those that remind you what it was like to be a kid - or at least that there’s some magic in the world - and this one is no exception: when a man dressed as Santa Claus and claiming to be him gets institutionalized, a young lawyer sets out to prove that he’s the real thing.
8. 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)
Tim Burton combines the best of two holidays with this stop-motion animated film about Jack Skellington (Danny Elfman), an authority on all things Halloween who decides to turn his macabre creativity loose on Santa’s favorite day of the year.
7. 'Elf' (2003)
Jon Favreau’s comedic chops balance perfectly with Will Farrell’s wholesome, silly enthusiasm in this endlessly entertaining story of a human raised at the North Pole who treks to civilization and reconnect with his father, a cynical workaholic book publisher played to perfection by James Caan.
6. 'Home Alone' (1990)
John Hughes transitioned into decidedly more family-friendly territory with this script about a kid who gets left behind while the rest of his family heads out for their Christmas vacation. Macaulay Culkin became a star overnight as the precocious preteen who fends off burglars and holiday loneliness in Chris Columbus’ monster hit film.
5. 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' (1989)
Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo come clashing back together as Clark Griswold and his loving, long-suffering wife Ellen, this time trying to survive the holiday season that much like every other Clark family gathering seems destined for disaster.
4. 'White Christmas' (1954)
This second of two Bing Crosby-driven entries follows a song-and-dance duo who organize a concert to support their former commanding officer at his failing Vermont inn, in the process falling for a pair of singing sisters.
3. 'A Christmas Story' (1983)
Bob Clark’s adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” skillfully pays tribute to a bygone era of childhood fantasy and hilariously exposes the simple truth that it never really existed. Peter Billingsley is so good as the kid who wants nothing as much as a Red Ryder BB gun and will engage in any and all subterfuge to obtain one - and protect it even after his parents’ worst fears come true.
2. 'Die Hard' (1988)
Before John McClane became a superhero and Bruce Willis descended into vain cynicism, his performance in this iconic original installment oozed with everyman charm as the New York cop loses his shoes, battles a skyscraper full of terrorists, and tries to make peace with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia).
1. 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)
Frank Capra’s 1946 film initially achieved ubiquitousness by virtue of endless syndicated showings on television, but it became a classic on the strength of its story - a portrait of sacrifice and generosity - as well as a performance by Jimmy Stewart that utilized both his fragile desperation and scrappy determination.