The holiday season is already arranged around rituals, so it makes sense that we come back to the same movies every year. In certain households annual showings of A Christmas Story or Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life are as rigorously observed as the lighting of Advent or Hanukkah candles. I’m not necessarily comparing religious belief with the secular comforts of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but let’s just say there are different kinds of gospel.
A scan of the streaming services reveals a collection of acceptable films, but I’d like to point out how thin the tree is. Netflix has a scattering of bona fide holiday classics, for instance, but after that you’ve got a whole lot of chintzy-sounding movies with “Christmas” in the title. Given the recently announced demise of the classic-film service Filmstruck, it would be nice if someone reminded these providers that movies existed before 1980.
Nevertheless, here are a few titles for the Christmas stocking, and maybe a couple of lumps of coal.
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play entertainers who put on a show for their former military commander at a snow-less winter resort. Definitely a time capsule from a vanished era (1954), this Irving Berlin musical has great production numbers, eye-popping color, and the enduring fascination (for me, anyway) of Crosby’s hepcat patter. Netflix
Miracle on 34th Street
The 1947 version, a heartwarming tale of a department store Santa (Edmund Gwenn, an Oscar-winner in the role) who believes he’s the real thing, but must convince skeptical Natalie Wood. Full of classic scenes, including the moment when Santa comforts a war refugee by speaking to her in her native language, at which point I always seem to get a piece of grit in my eye. (This black-and-white movie sometimes gets screened in a colorized version. Do not watch that.) Amazon Prime
I wish this R-rated comedy (also a 2003 release, like Elf) had aged better—it’s most effective on first viewing, when the shock factor is undeniable. It’s still got some hilariously foul-mouthed moments (the Coen brothers worked uncredited on the script), and Billy Bob Thornton, as a sleazy Santa-for-hire, is absolutely in his prime. Netflix
A quasi-update of Miracle on 34th Street, but with a 21st-century outlook. This comedy has aged extremely well, thanks to Will Ferrell’s childlike sweetness, its great eye for casting (Bob Newhart, Peter Dinklage, Ed Asner!), and the four major food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup. Rent on Amazon
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
The best version of the Dr. Seuss tale remains the 1966 cartoon narrated by Boris Karloff. But the live-action version, directed by Ron Howard, is worth a look if only for Jim Carrey’s manic performance, buried under mounds of makeup and costuming. Howard crams the film with his usual overly sweet sugar plums, but Carrey is way, way off the leash, including his memorable vocalizing on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Netflix
Some movies you don’t initially think of as Christmas movies—Eyes Wide Shut, for instance. (Great Christmas movie, nonetheless.) Gremlins is one, but this 1984 horror-comedy is set during the holidays, and the lil’ monsters that run amok in small-town USA are like Santa’s elves gone bad. Rent on Amazon
Set during Christmas, full of swingin’ carols, and the words “Ho ho ho” plays a key role: Who says this isn’t a Christmas movie? (Well, Bruce Willis recently said it, but we’ll let that pass.) It’s an action flick with plentiful wisecracks and a hall-of-fame villain (RIP Alan Rickman), so catch it again before the next sequel—number six in the series—hits screens. Rent on Amazon
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Muppets do Dickens, and the whole thing plays remarkably well: Kermit and Miss Piggy are the Cratchits, the Great Gonzo is Charles Dickens, etc. The lone actual human in the cast is Michael Caine as Scrooge, and he deserves a third Oscar for playing it absolutely straight as he interacts with a collection of furry sock puppets. Rent on Amazon
Not the recent Jo Nesbo crime thriller, but a half-hour 1982 cartoon based on a children’s book by Raymond Briggs. It’s the tale of a country lad and his magical snowman, marked by haunting music and gentle, colored-pencil drawings. Some versions have an introduction by David Bowie, but either way it’s a bittersweet fable. Amazon Prime
Meet Me in St. Louis
True, it has only one section set at Yuletide, but when that section includes Judy Garland introducing the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” under melancholy circumstances, it’s a keeper. The Halloween sequence is unforgettable, too. This 1944 gem, directed by Garland’s eventual husband Vincente Minnelli, is a high-water mark of Hollywood moviemaking. Rent on Amazon