Miracle on 34th Street.
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Financing Jeff Bezos’s penis rocket to Mars isn’t the only good thing about having Amazon Prime: You can watch holiday movies for free! A couple of these require watching a couple videos to watch them for free (or maybe some commercials), but free is free. You can save those dollars for a new Echo. (Disclaimer: We did not include the 2017 animated Mariah Carey special All I Want For Christmas Is You, about a little Mariah’s search for a Christmas puppy. It’s out there if you want it, but you really, really shouldn’t watch it.)
Aardman, the folks behind the terrific stop-motion Wallace and Gromit shorts, delivered this yuletide animated yarn that imagines the North Pole as a high-tech control center that delivers toys on Christmas Eve. But when one present doesn’t get to its destination, the sweet, nerdy Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) — Santa’s son who, unlike the rest of the family, hasn’t lost his joy for the season — must go on a Mission: Impossible–style quest to ensure its safe arrival. Arthur Christmas lacks the overstimulating excess of most kids’ films — it’s endearing and wry rather than bratty and loud — and you can’t top a supporting cast that includes Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, and Imelda Staunton. An action movie with heart, laughs, and Christmas spirit: How can you resist?
Cary Grant never played an angel in any other movie, but he probably should have: He’s kind of a great angel! A bishop (played by David Niven, in a nice touch) prays for a new cathedral for his church, and Grant shows up to help him … but ends up becoming a bigger part of the church community, and the bishop’s life, than anyone was expecting. This is wholesome old-school Hollywood entertainment of its highest form, feel-good and charmingly weightless: The Bishop’s Wife feels beamed in from a bygone, much better world. It was remade in 1996 with Denzel Washington in the Cary Grant role alongside Whitney Houston. Stick with the original.
There are so many A Christmas Carol adaptations, and ironic adaptations of those adaptations, and reinventions, and reinventions of reinventions, that there’s something pleasing and charming about a simple straightforward adaptation of Dickens’s book the way he wrote it. This CBS TV-movie stars George C. Scott as Scrooge, and he’s excellently George C. Scott–y in the role: cranky, bug-eyed, mean but with a hint of the sweetness underneath. Chances are a lot of you fell asleep on your grandparents’ couch watching this movie, and it was surely a pleasant, warming, comforting rest. The movie plays like a cozy old blanket you only half remember.
We get as tired of the old “Is this movie a Christmas movie? Is this one?” discourse as you do: Just so you know, whatever your thoughts about Die Hard, we can confirm that it is not available for free streaming on Amazon Prime. But Edward Scissorhands is, and while it takes a while to reveal itself as a Christmas movie, it without question is one by the end. The movie’s suburban satire of empty sprawl actually turns out to be something warmer, and sadder, exemplified by the snow released by Edward’s ice sculptures, which is how an elderly Kim (Winona Ryder) knows he’s still alive so many years later. The holidays are a constant in the world of Edward Scissorhands: They’re a yearly reminder the world is still standing.
About a month after the release of Punch-Drunk Love, the film that signaled a shift for Adam Sandler toward more serious fare, the Sandman was back to his old tricks with Eight Crazy Nights, an animated film in which he voices (among others) Davey, the town drunk who needs to turn his life around or face a prison sentence. This is the immature, sophomoric Sandler of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and the jokes are undeniably juvenile. And yet, they can also be disreputable fun — especially if you have kids who are tired of heartwarming treacle — and, of course, there’s a version of Sandler’s popular “Hanukkah Song” thrown in for good measure, too. Don’t tell the grandparents you’re watching this — they won’t approve. But how many other holiday movies feature deer who eat feces? (Actually, don’t answer that. We don’t want to know.)
One of Jim Henson’s first spinoffs from The Muppet Show — the original version features an opening scene with Kermit the Frog, just to make sure you have your bearings — Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas was actually a one-hour special Henson made in part to expand his canvas beyond just The Muppet Show. (It worked: Paul Williams wrote the songs for this and would go on to write the songs for the Muppet movies.) But this is far from just a stepping stone in Henson’s journey: It is almost supernaturally charming, these little otters singing on the river, being good to each other and all the people around them, spreading holiday cheer. We guarantee you this will make your family very happy. And it’s short: under an hour, just in time to wreck you.
Often mislabeled as a sappy Christmas movie — usually by people who haven’t seen it — this Frank Capra classic is, instead, a fairly clear-eyed portrait of despair and depression led by James Stewart’s mournful George Bailey, who ponders killing himself because he thinks his life has been for naught. A hapless angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) intervenes, showing him the impact of his existence, and in the process It’s a Wonderful Life delivers a moving portrait of selflessness — albeit one filled with minor tragedies and still-pertinent lessons about greed and man’s inhumanity to man. In other words, this film’s iconic happy ending is hard-earned, brought to beautiful life by Stewart, who embodied modest decency as wonderfully as any actor ever has.
Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed 2019 adaptation boosted the visibility of previous big-screen versions of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale — in particular, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Christmastime hit. Appropriate for an age in which women rock musicians were starting to be afforded the same stature as their male peers — and Jane Campion became only the second woman to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for 1993’s The Piano — this take on Little Women emphasizes Jo March’s (Winona Ryder) hunger for independence, wanting to be taken seriously as an author and not just for her beauty. Before the Gerwig adaptation, this was the version — also featuring Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, Gabriel Byrne, and Susan Sarandon — that was the gold standard for Gen-Xers and older millennials, combining a feminist spirit with a warm paean to family and true love. Nearly 20 years later, it still more than holds up.
Greatest Christmas movie ever? Miracle on 34th Street is on the short list, even though it originally opened in the summer of 1947, 20th Century Fox doing its best to hide the film’s obvious yuletide themes. Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Kris Kringle, a kindly bearded man who becomes a mall Santa — except, he’s the real Santa Claus, touching the lives of several New Yorkers he meets, including Natalie Wood’s impossibly adorable Susan. A love story, a tribute to the power of optimism … even a courtroom drama? Sure, the more’s the merrier when it comes to a film that’s unabashed in its belief that a little kindness goes a long way. All these years later, it’s impossible to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and not think of this eternal charmer.