For better and worse, the holidays mean holiday movies. The new Hunger Games and Hobbit installments are already in theaters, and this week brings the Anchorman sequel and prestige titles from David O. Russell and the Coen brothers. Our Holiday Film Guide, coming out on Boxing Day, will cover all the remaining yuletide heavyweights from Scorsese and company.
But what if the crowds, overpriced snacks, parking hassles, and 3-D-ification of the multiplex don’t appeal to you? Sometimes it’s nicer to stay home in your pajamas, curled up on the couch with the dog and some microwave popcorn, TV remote in hand. Thanks to streaming, Amazon, Netflix, DVD, and even old VHS tapes lovingly preserved at Scarecrow, it’s never been easier to binge-watch old holiday classics—and clunkers—at home.
The mistletoe catalogue keeps growing with each December’s glut of Hollywood releases, so the challenge is how to program your yuletide marathon. Curated correctly, with a well-stocked fridge of home-delivery food, there’s no reason to leave the house from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. Here’s what you should watch, organized by theme.
It’s a Wonderful Life inevitably tops this category, and Frank Capra’s 1946 tale of yuletide redemption is also playing for the 43rd consecutive year at the Grand Illusion. One reason the end of the film still packs a wallop is the darkness of the despair felt by suicidal banker George Bailey (James Stewart) after seeing his beloved Bedford Falls turned into the foul hellhole Pottersville in his absence. Bankruptcy and war haunt this movie, two reasons it’s still timely.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is a product of the same postwar era, which strives mightily to restore good cheer—and the enchantment of Santa Claus–disbelieving little Natalie Wood—when the real Kris Kringle shows up to sub for a drunken Santa-for-hire at Macy’s.
More recently, Will Ferrell’s overgrown Elf is no less aggressive in reconverting a hostile New York City to wonder and generosity. (Elf also runs at Central Cinema Friday–Monday.) These are Christmas movies at war with cynicism, as is that 1983 favorite from the VHS era—probably stored in the attic of your childhood home—A Christmas Story, which insists that Ralphie’s lust for a BB gun can convert his family and entire town to holiday benevolence.
And though only a half-hour TV special, Chuck Jones’ 1966 cartoon version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is infinitely superior to the Jim Carrey live-action adaptation from 2000.
Dark Christmas Comedies
Christmas is the ultimate affront to cynics and misers; it’s the perfect comic obstacle for a conversion story (see A Christmas Carol, filmed dozens of times in various flavors, including Smurf). Bill Murray plays the sour Dickensian villain in 1988’s Scrooged, here a sarcastic TV executive who gets his comeuppance from Carol Kane and other ghosts. It’s not quite a classic, but I always thought it was a dry run for Groundhog Day. Chevy Chase effectively smirks and stumbles his way through National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), which proved a much bigger hit than Scrooged—in part because the John Hughes script goes easier on the holidays and oafish family members, and in part because Chase doesn’t commit to the darkness so much as Murray.
Investing fully in his anti-Christmas character is Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, the 2003 neo-classic revived almost every year. His cursin’ and thievin’ rascal despises the holidays and its accoutrements, except when the costume helps him get laid. (Cue Lauren Graham’s famous “Fuck me, Santa! Fuck me, Santa!” scene in her car. And leave the hat on, she tells Thornton.) According to Thornton, a sequel will be filmed next year; we’ll believe it when we see it.
Not quite so inky but full of delicious bickering is The Ref (1994), in which burglar Denis Leary is caught at the acrimonious Christmas Eve gathering of Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, both locked in the terminal stages of a toxic marriage. This is the Christmas horror of family dinners, where only bitterness is unwrapped. For Tim Burton horror, PG-rated, we love the 1993 stop-motion animated tale The Nightmare Before Christmas. And for berserk Finnish holiday horror and monster-hunting in the snow, you can’t beat 2010’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, which has already become a bona fide cult movie.
Musicals and Sing-Alongs
Jews write all the best Christmas songs, as demonstrated by Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” first introduced on film in Holiday Inn (1942) but better served by 1954’s White Christmas, in which Bing Crosby delivers the title tune. Then there’s Judy Garland performing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the nostalgia-steeped Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), set during the holidays and superbly directed by Vincente Minnelli.
And here’s one for family: Remember The Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992? It’s a musical, with songs by Paul Williams, and the tunes are surprisingly catchy.
I Didn’t Know That Was a Christmas Movie
What was New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) doing in L.A. for the first Die Hard ? That’s right: visiting his estranged wife and kids for Christmas. The setup worked so well that he was stuck in an airport again, two years later, for Die Hard 2 (1990). Then there’s a whole series of enjoyable action movies set during the holidays and written by Shane Black: Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the best of the batch: 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, an L.A. caper comedy with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Michelle Monaghan even wears a sexy Santa outfit.
This one might seem a stretch, but the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is substantially set in snowy Switzerland during the holidays. Blofeld (Telly Savalas) invites 007 (George Lazenby) to a Christmas gathering; there’s talk of a germ-warfare scheme involving beautiful women (of course) to deliver “Christmas presents” that would threaten the world food supply; and then there’s lots of skiing and tobogganing in the snow.
And Gremlins? That’s right, the 1984 creature-com, which spawned so many copycats (like the little self-replicating monster), all began with an innocuous Christmas gift from father to son. And there’s a satiric aspect, as the anarchic, multiplying little mogwai are a rebuke to the seasonal consumerist spectacle.
Oddities, Rarities, Slasher Flicks, and Porn
The bottom of the yuletide barrel is surely 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, an inept sci-fi B-movie featuring a young Pia Zadora. Or so you would think. There’s actually a dank, blood-soaked cellar beneath that barrel, including the likes of 1974’s Black Christmas (aka Silent Night, Evil Night), in which sorority sisters are menaced by an unseen killer during winter break, and 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which a boy watches Santa kill his father and rape his mother, then grows up to be a Santa-dressed serial killer (essentially the same plot as 1980’s Christmas Evil, aka You Better Watch Out). In this blood-and-snow Christmas subgenre (see also: Silent Night, Bloody Night; Jack Frost; and Santa’s Slay), the old notion of going postal becomes going Santa.
And Christmas porn—who knew that was a thing? But it is: Google it, or even try Tumblr. Maybe that’s the reason that sales of Santa hats and red stockings go up during the holidays.