(2015; free to stream on Tubi)
Aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara) is spending the Christmas of 1952 working in a Manhattan department store and dating Richard (Jake Lacy). She’s already been putting off his suggestions that they get married when the elegant, bewitching Carol (Cate Blanchett) walks up to Therese’s counter at the store and changes her life forever.
(2015; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
The chaotic Engel family assembles for Christmas, primarily to fight and ruin the holiday for Max (Emjay Anthony), the only member young enough still to believe in Santa Claus. When his frustration leads him to tear up his letter to Santa and scatter it to the winds, he summons Santa’s antithesis: Krampus, a demon that proceeds to terrorize the family. If you feel like watching a holiday movie but your favorite film of 2019 was Midsommar, give Krampus a look.
The Best Man Holiday
(2013; free to stream for Peacock subscribers)
In this sequel to 1999’s The Best Man, Mia (Monica Calhoun) and her husband Lance (Morris Chestnut) invite their old college friends to spend Christmas with them at their lavish home—the first time they’ve all been together since the events of The Best Man. Some old tensions resurface, which may be why only Harper (Taye Diggs) notices that Mia has lost a lot of weight and doesn’t seem to be feeling well….
The Great Christmas Light Fight
(2013; free to stream for Hulu subscribers)
You might feel your neighbors are constantly trying to one-up each other’s holiday lights decorations, but they are probably not in the same league as the families on The Great Christmas Light Fight. Judged on both their inventiveness and their Christmas spirit, contestants attempt to outdo one another’s light displays to win a prize of $50,000.
(2012; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
One of the most enduring British traditions which hasn’t really made its way to the U.S. (yet) is the Christmas special. The Office did it; Downton Abbey did it; and Doctor Who continues to do it every year. All the various modern Doctors’ Christmas outings are available on Amazon (some free for Prime members); this link will take you to a collection of all three Christmas stories featuring The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), plus some bonus prequels.
(2011; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Aardman Animations, of Wallace and Gromit fame, is one of the studios that brings us this take on North Pole operations. Sitting Santa Malcolm Claus (voice of Jim Broadbent) supervises while his son and presumed successor Steve (Hugh Laurie) runs deliveries with military efficiency; Steve’s younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy) answers letters. But when Steve and Arthur argue over whether one missed gift is an acceptable screw-up, Arthur goes rogue, determined to make it right despite his total lack of experience.
(2009; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Newly widowed Frank (Robert De Niro) is dismayed as, one by one, each of his adult children (Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell) calls him to back out of their plans to spend Christmas together. Certain there’s more to their cancellations than they’re admitting, Frank travels to each of the cities where his children live to see what’s going on in their lives.
(2008; free to stream for Starz subscribers)
After inexperienced hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) accidentally kills a child while purposely killing a priest, he and his seasoned partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to the historic Belgian town of Bruges to hide out while their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) figures out what to do with them. Ray is rankled by Bruges’s quaint charms, and probably wouldn’t like it any better if he knew how Harry is going to get Ken to clean up their mess.
(2008; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Because each of their four parents has divorced, remarried, and created stressful new households, Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) have always escaped familial obligations by planning glamorous travel and claiming they’re doing charity work. But when a weather system cancels their flight so disastrously that they’re interviewed about it on TV, all their parents know they’ll be staying in the contiguous U.S., and they have to strain their own relationship by visiting all their families.
(2006; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
When Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) injures her head at work, a CAT scan reveals that she has a rare neurological disease, the treatment for which isn’t covered by the health plan offered by her employer. Since she apparently only has a few weeks left to live, Georgia uses her life’s savings to spend that time at a luxurious vacation at a Czech spa, abandoning her former meekness to be bold and have fun in her final days. …Or are they?
(2006; free to stream for Hulu subscribers)
London wedding columnist Iris (Kate Winslet) is shattered when Jasper (Rufus Sewell), with whom she’s been having an on-and-off affair for several years, announces his engagement to another woman. She’s weeping at home when she gets a message through a home exchange service: Amanda (Cameron Diaz) wants to get out of Los Angeles for the holidays, and they agree to trade homes. In England, Amanda crosses paths with Iris’s hot, hard-drinking brother Graham (Jude Law), while Iris gets close to Amanda’s retired screenwriter neighbor Arthur (Eli Wallach) and goofy film score composer Miles (Jack Black). A fine work from Nancy Meyers, maestro of wealthy women’s romantic struggles.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
(2005; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
A series of mishaps and misunderstandings bring burglar Harry (Robert Downey Jr.) from a botched job in New York to an audition, and then a party, in Los Angeles (at Christmastime!). It turns out to be a fateful affair for Harry: he meets PI “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer) and reunites with his childhood crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), and the three of them get snarled up in a complicated caper.
The Family Stone
(2005; free to stream for Peacock subscribers)
Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) is preparing to bring his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to spend Christmas with his family. But as warm as they can be, Meredith is so nervous she makes a terrible impression. Everett’s sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) already has her knives out after meeting Meredith once before; Everett’s mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) fears he’s going to ask her for an heirloom engagement ring to propose to Meredith; and things only get worse when Meredith begs her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come give her moral support and all the Stones like Julie better—possibly including Everett.
(2004; free to stream for Paramount Plus subscribers)
Cady (Lindsay Lohan) has been homeschooled while her scientist parents did research in Africa, and is attending an American public school for the first time at the age of sixteen. Her new friends Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) encourage her to infiltrate and take down The Plastics, the vicious mean girls of the title—which Cady does, including with a lascivious dance performance to “Jingle Bell Rock” at a Christmas assembly. But Cady’s schemes eventually escape her control, with disastrous results.
(2003; free to stream for HBO Max subscribers)
Buddy (Will Ferrell) has never quite fit in with the other elves at the North Pole, and one day he overhears why: he’s a human. His Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), who adopted and raised him, directs Buddy to his biological father Walter (James Caan). Buddy travels to New York to meet him, and to spread Christmas cheer to everyone he meets—including part-time Gimbels elf Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).
(2003; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
A variety of love stories play out against the backdrop of London at Christmastime. Karen (Emma Thompson) has no idea she should be concerned about her husband Harry (Alan Rickman), and the attention his new assistant Mia (Heike Makatsch) is paying him; Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is tortured by his obsession with Juliet (Keira Knightley), despite having just stood up as best man at her wedding to his friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor); the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is drawn to a household staffer (Martine McCutcheon) at 10 Downing Street; and so on, until we see at the end how they all interconnect.
Catch Me If You Can
(2002; free to stream for Paramount Plus subscribers)
Based on the true story of Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a gifted con man who figured out how to forge checks, sneak onto planes to travel for free as “a pilot,” and posed as a doctor. D.A. FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) starts tracking Frank when he’s still a teenager, and seems to have all his important conversations with Frank at Christmastime.
About A Boy
(2002; free to stream for Paramount subscribers)
Will (Hugh Grant) has never had to work thanks to his father’s having written “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” a tremendously popular Christmas song. His comfortable life is entirely unencumbered until he scams his way into dating single mothers and crosses paths with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a lonely nerd who’s justly anxious about his mother Fiona (Toni Collette), who has depression. Will and Marcus become friends, but when Will mentions him to new romantic prospect Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and she assumes he’s Marcus’s father, things get complicated.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
(2001; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
As in Helen Fielding’s blockbuster novel, from which this is adapted (and which was itself a gloss on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), the action kicks off at a New Year’s Day buffet, where awkward Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) fails to impress judgmental Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). From there, we track Bridget through the year that follows, including her romantic misadventures with her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, again) and her subsequent, increasingly successful encounters with Mark.
Eyes Wide Shut
(1999; free to stream for HBO Max subscribers)
“Erotic thriller” may not be the first film genre you reach for during the holidays, but this one is set at Christmas. In the final film from director Stanley Kubrick, New York City doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise)—shocked and destabilized by a revelation from his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) that she almost had an affair earlier in their marriage—leaves their home and takes a dreamy trip through the city’s lurid sexual underworld.
(1999; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Director Doug Liman followed his surprise hit Swingers with this film, set at Christmas in Los Angeles. Supermarket clerk Ronna (Sarah Polley), trying to avoid eviction, pursues a lead to sell ecstasy to a couple of strangers while her co-worker—the actual dealer they were looking for—is out of town. The story spirals outward into several other plots involving a rave, a couple of closeted soap actors, a comedy of errors in Las Vegas, and a shirtless Timothy Olyphant.
(1998; free to stream for Netflix subscribers)
Isabel (Julia Roberts) loves her boyfriend Luke (Ed Harris), but feels inadequate compared to his effortlessly competent ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon); while Isabel has a good relationship with Luke’s son Ben (Liam Aiken), his daughter Anna (Jena Malone) is relentlessly hostile. Jackie and Isabel have already clashed over parenting when Luke puts more stress on their relationship by proposing marriage to Isabel. Then Jackie finds out she has terminal cancer, and realizes she not only has to accept Isabel, but prepare her to raise Jackie’s children when Jackie is gone.
Jingle All The Way
(1996; free to stream for Hulu subscribers)
Years before we all knew about problems with the consumer-goods supply chain, Jingle All The Way dared to address the agony of trying to track down the one toy your kid most desperately wants to find under the tree. Rival dads Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Myron (Sinbad) meet each other on the field of battle in pursuit of the year’s marquee toy: Turbo-Man.
The Preacher’s Wife
(1996; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
New York pastor Henry (Courtney B. Vance) is struggling in his parish, given declining attendance and a compelling offer to sell the property to a developer. Henry prays for help, and soon meets Dudley (Denzel Washington), who tells Henry he’s the answer to his prayer, and a literal angel sent by God. Henry doubts Dudley’s story, but Henry’s wife Julia (Whitney Houston) is intrigued.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
(1996; free to stream on Tubi)
We meet Samantha (Geena Davis) eight years after she washed ashore on a New Jersey beach, pregnant and with no memory of her identity; now she’s a schoolteacher raising her daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima) with her boyfriend Hal (Tom Amandes). After suffering a concussion in a Christmastime car accident, she suddenly discovers she has inexplicable skills for fighting—and, when her home is invaded, for fighting her attacker. When she leaves Tom and Caitlin for their own safety, she learns that she was formerly a CIA assassin, and that she has unfinished business to deal with.
While You Were Sleeping
(1995; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Working a token booth at a Chicago train station, lonely orphan Lucy (Sandra Bullock) has developed a secret crush on Peter (Peter Gallagher), a commuter she sees every day. When muggers push him onto the tracks on Christmas day, Lucy saves his life. His family misunderstands when Lucy distractedly says, “I was going to marry him”: they assume she’s Peter’s fiancée, and since Peter’s in a coma, he can’t correct them. But the longer Peter spends unconscious, the more Lucy finds herself drawn to his brother Jack (Bill Pullman).
The Santa Clause
(1994; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
When toy salesman Scott (Tim Allen) goes up on his roof on Christmas Eve and finds Santa Claus there, both are surprised—though only Santa falls off. A card in Santa’s pocket indicates that the reindeer will know what to do, and…long story short, Scott has to become the new Santa Claus. Two sequels—The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3—are also available for completists to stream.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
(1993; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon when speaking; Danny Elfman singing) has been experiencing increasing ennui in his life as the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. Then he chances into Christmas Town and, awed by what he sees, tries to bring the wonders of the holiday back to his fellow Halloween Town residents. When that doesn’t work, he decides to invade and occupy Christmas Town instead.
Last Action Hero
(1993; free to stream for Netflix subscribers)
Lonely New York City kid Danny (Austin O’Brien) loves escaping to the movies — especially the Jack Slater film franchise. When his pal, film projectionist Nick (Robert Prosky), gives him a magic ticket to see an early screening of Jack Slater IV, Danny gets pulled into the world of the film franchise, which proves confusing not just to himself but to Jack (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who doesn’t know he’s a fictional character.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
(1992; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Legendary curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) has no room in his heart for Christmas celebrations…until he is visited by several ghosts who try to change his ways by taking him through his Christmases past, present, and future. Because this is the Muppet Christmas Carol, Jacob and Robert Marley are Statler and Waldorf; Bob Cratchit is Kermit the Frog; and our narrator Charles Dickens is Gonzo.
(1992; free to stream for HBO Max subscribers)
Gotham socialites Tucker and Esther Cobblepot (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger) throw their physically disfigured child in a sewer, where he drifts into the zoo to be raised by penguins. Thirty-three years later, the former Oswald Cobblepot is now The Penguin (Danny DeVito), determined to scheme his way back into society by staging acts of heroism, but also blackmail against local millionaire Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). Schreck’s assistant Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) stumbles compromising material; when he pushes her out a window, she discovers she has nine lives. It’s a gnarly plot, but basically: Batman (Michael Keaton) fights two villains, one of whom he’s attracted to, around Christmastime!
(1990; free to stream for Amazon Prime members)
A reclusive inventor (Vincent Price) constructs and raises Edward (Johnny Depp), an artificial boy, but dies of a heart attack before he can replace with hands the scissors that have served that function all Edward’s life. Eventually, Edward is discovered by Peg (Dianne Wiest), an Avon lady, who brings Edward home to live with her. He doesn’t fit into her suburban neighborhood, but he is drawn to her daughter Kim (Winona Ryder).
(1990; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
The large and noisy McCallister family gather at Peter (John Heard) and Kate’s (Catherine O’Hara) house the night before a trip to spend Christmas in Paris. A power outage knocks out everyone’s alarms, leading to a mad dash to the airport; not until Kate is seated on the plane does she realize they forgot her 8-year-old son, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin). While Kate scrambles to make her way back home, Kevin looks after himself and protects the house from burglars Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern).
(1988; free to stream for Peacock subscribers)
On Christmas Eve, New York City detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) reunites with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party atop the partially completed Nakatomi Tower. He’s freshening up after his flight when terrorists break in and start making demands; since they don’t know he’s there, John tries to use his stealth and ingenuity to save the hostages. And would you believe Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990; free to stream on Peacock) also involves John McClane having a terrible Christmas Eve? That one requires him to defuse the situation when terrorists take over the air traffic control system at Dulles International Airport just as Holly’s inbound.
(1988; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a TV executive planning a garish adaptation of A Christmas Carol to air live on Christmas Eve. Getting increasingly stressed, Frank is visited by the ghost of Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), his former mentor, who warns him that more ghosts will be walking him through the events of his life to change his heart. Alfre Woodard plays Grace, the Bob Cratchit stand-in, whose son hasn’t spoken since his father died; Karen Allen plays Claire, a social worker and the ex-girlfriend Frank left behind in pursuit of his career.
(1984; free to stream for HBO Max subscribers)
Failed inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) thinks he’s found the perfect Christmas gift in a shop in Chinatown: a cuddly little creature called a mogwai. The shop owner (Keye Luke) tries to refuse to sell the mogwai, finally relenting after telling Rand the rules for its care: he must not expose it to sunlight or bright lights, let it get wet, and never feed it after midnight. Rand and his family will learn the hard way how important it is to follow these rules faithfully.
A Christmas Story
(1983; free to stream for HBO Max subscribers)
Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, and ignores the warnings of everyone he tells that he’ll “shoot [his] eye out.” During this particular Christmas journey, Ralphie’s friend Flick (Scott Schwartz) learns why you shouldn’t stick your tongue to cold metal; and Ralphie’s mother (Melinda Dillon) learns why she should pay more attention to which contests her husband (Darren McGavin) enters, lest he actually win a prize of a lamp shaped like a woman’s leg in a fishnet stocking.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
(1966; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Ignore both last year’s CGI animated version with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, and the 2000 live-action film starring Jim Carrey under prosthetics. The original television special—directed and co-produced by Looney Tunes veteran Chuck Jones, and with Boris Karloff voicing the titular character—remains the only version you need.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
(1965; free to stream for AppleTV+ subscribers)
Possibly the most mournful title on this list, and yes, I’m aware that several of them involve bereaved husbands and one near-suicide. Charlie Brown (voice of Peter Robbins) is depressed about his lack of Christmas spirit; when he chooses an anemic little tree from the lot, his so-called friends mock his choice. Can Linus’s recitation of the nativity story from the Book of Luke turn things around?
Babes In Toyland
(1960; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Once you get past the part where crooked miser Barnaby (Ray Bolger) tricks Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello) into marrying him after…first tricking her into marrying Tom Piper (Tommy Sands), who then gets kidnapped and falsely reported dead, this is a cute romp for kids! The toy soldier battle is an all-timer. And if you like it, you can stream the 1986 remake—starring Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore—on Amazon Prime (free for Prime members).
Miracle On 34th Street
(1947; free to stream for HBO Max subscribers)
Macy’s event director and single mother Doris (Maureen O’Hara) has raised her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to be a clear-eyed pragmatist, which is why she’s shaken when the latest Macy’s Santa, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) convinces Susan that he really is Santa. John Hughes remade it in 1994 with Elizabeth Perkins as the store event director; Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle; and Mara Wilson as Susan; it’s available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon.
It’s A Wonderful Life
(1946; free to stream for Amazon Prime members)
On Christmas Eve 1945, George Bailey (James Stewart) prepares to die by suicide. His worried friends and loved ones, praying for him, activate Clarence (Henry Travers), a trainee angel who will earn his wings if he can prevent George from ending his life. We join Clarence as he watches vignettes from George’s earlier days to see what has brought George to such despair. (Don’t worry: it has a happy ending.)
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