The winter timed holidays are nothing if not a collection of traditions. Some are religious themed festivals, each with their own distinct practices, while others celebrate the aligning of the earth with the sun. Everyone has their own beliefs and traditions but no holiday has as many traditions like Christmas. Some countries honor St. Nicholas (who was the inspiration for Santa Claus), while others teach their children to fear the young’n stealing Krampus. The English like wearing paper crowns and eating gross deserts, while Americans like getting drunk on eggnog, gifting fruit cake to people we hate and going overboard on presents and decorations.
However you celebrate it, I think we can all agree that there are few things that fill one with the Christmas spirit quite like a movie or TV special set around the holidays. Luckily, the SAW crew has made a list of essentials that you should watch this month. If you’re looking for an alternative to the same old Christmas classics or want ideas for your own marathon, check out the recommendations below.
Day 1—First Blood (1982)
Die Hard seems to have been crowned the action Christmas movie by the internet, but it’s not the only one. At first glance, First Blood may not seem like a Christmas movie, but not only is is set during Christmas, it’s practically a retelling of the nativity of Jesus Christ. Except, instead of bringing peace and joy to the town that turns the shelter-seeking Rambo away, he brings them hot lead. See? Practically the same story.
Day 2—The Polar Express (2004)
So a ton of people are freaked out by the animation in The Polar Express and I can see why, but I think it actually does a great job capturing the feel of the classic book and that music is just quintessential Christmas. It’s an iconic Christmas tale even if the movie fails to live quite up to the storybook.
Day 3—Jack Frost (1998)
I used to be like many of you who found Jack Frost to be absolute trash. When I used to see it on TV, I might watch it while my other shows were on commercial, but I would never sit through the whole picture or seek it out on the TV guide. I had a chance to review the film a few years ago and—after watching it from beginning to end for the first time—I realized I had been wrongfully judging the film. Is it extremely cheesy and does the snowman look fake no matter what? Yes. Are the actors having fun? Absolutely. Is Michael Keaton voicing a snowman the best part of this film? Again, you would be correct. Jack Frost won’t ever win any Best Christmas Movie awards, but you can do a lot worse than Jack Frost for a holiday flick.
Day 4—Gremlins (1984)
What kid didn’t want a Mogwai for a holiday gift? Heck, I still want one now – I’m sure I’d be responsible and not feed him after midnight and… whatever that other instruction was. Gremlins is a great warmup for a holiday season in that it reflects both the good and the bad things about this time of year. The warm feelings towards our fellow travelers on this globe and the commercial consumption that seems to go hand in hand with it. Get the warm fuzzies with Gizmo, the giggles-with-a-side-of-nausea at a Gremlin in a microwave and the “why I hate Christmas” story from Phoebe Cates that helped (along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) usher in the PG-13 rating.
Day 5—The Grinch (2018)
Hot Take: Illumination gave us the best installment of the grumpy, green Grinch we’ve seen on screen. Of course there’s a place in the pantheon for Boris Karloff’s edition. The short-but-sweet turn from the 1960s is about as fantastic as it gets for a literal page-to-screen interpretation. It’s classic and memorable. But the 2018 animated feature, with none other than Cumberbatch dawning the green scowl, found the often elusive sweet spot where artistic license meets brilliant source material. Through vibrant, nuanced animation and a more modern-day setting, Illumination crafted a take on the Grinch that packed as much fun as it did earnest (and dare I say conceivable?) backstory. It’s tough to take a story that typically fits a slim 20 minutes and expand it into a full-blown feature. Just ask Ron Howard how that ended up. Yikes.
All that being said, The Grinch is an engrossing watch and an altogether delightful holiday flick. Updated humor meets classic storytelling; fun, imaginative gadgets meets a good old fashioned caper; new age animation meets familiar emotion. Every note is there with just enough small creative choices to keep the surprises plentiful and pleasant. I dig this Grinch because it embraces everything we love about the story but doesn’t succumb to cheap showmanship. Rather than filling the screen with a personality, it places a slightly expanded edition of the story front-and-center and earns the payoff. For fun, family holiday entertainment, The Grinch is a modern gem every bit worthy of our unabashed appreciation. Plus, it even weighed-in on the “Pancakes vs Waffles” debate and came out on the correct side. Well played, Illumination.
Day 6—While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Do you know what I love about While You Were Sleeping, beyond the fact that it takes place during the holidays? The fact that it’s not riddled with your typical rom-com tropes. Sure, it may have a somewhat improbable premise, but it’s a movie that deals with two regular people who happen to fall in love in a way that is believable and relatable. Sandra Bullock’s Lucy does not need to undergo a magical beauty transformation to win a man’s heart. Bill Pullman’s Jack isn’t a standoff-ish putz whose jerky behavior is rewarded by winning the hand of the heroine. They’re simply two kind people who talk and fall in love as they get to know one another. Yes, there are some silly shenanigans and a couple of misunderstandings, but the cast is fantastic and the chemistry between Pullman and Bullock is some of the best you’ll ever see in a holiday rom-com.
Day 7—Sint (2010)
If you want to celebrate the holiday but are over the cheerful schmaltz associated with it, you could always drink some spiked egg nog and watch a naughty Xmas themed porno or you could stop being a degenerate and celebrate the right way: with a Dick Maas Christmas! A genre favorite with such underrated gems as Amsterdamed and The Lift, Maas has slowly cultivated an impressive catalogue of good enough horror films over the years with Sint being his most watchable one to date. I don’t care if he’s played by Goldberg or what but a killer Santa Claus movie is always fun. Not always great mind you but entertaining and Sint is no different. The CGI is woeful and the pacing is off (the best bit happens around the half way mark) but there’s a ton of kills, the Santa demon monster looks cool and there’s some inventive set pieces. It’s like a cinematic fruit cake: it’s bad and it shouldn’t exist but if you’re drunk enough and need a stupid treat, it gets the job done.
Day 8—Lethal Weapon (1987)
Die Hard usually gets all the love for being a Christmas action movie and for good reason but I always feel like Lethal Weapon is overlooked in that department. Richard Donner’s 1987 action flick is a quintessential buddy cop movie with one of the best tandems of polar opposites. Mel Gibson’s Riggs and Danny Glover’s Murtaugh couldn’t be two more diametrically opposed police detectives but their chemistry is unparalleled. Throw in some fun action sequences, Gary Busey as the bad guy along with plenty of Christmas imagery and you have a solid holiday watch for this time of year.
Day 9—The Family Man (2000)
I first saw The Family Man on television a few years ago. I caught maybe twenty minutes somewhere in the middle of the film. I was intrigued. I was in search of new Christmas movies to watch (where were the SAW watchlists four years ago?), so the next year I sought the film out and bought it. I loved the Christmas Carol approach of Nicolas Cage getting a glimpse at a life he could have had with Téa Leoni. Featuring supporting performances from Don Cheadle and Jeremy Piven, The Family Man is a sweet romantic-dramedy that will get you into the Christmas spirit.
Day 10—Batman Returns (1992)
Okay, so comic books’ favorite brooding vigilante facing off against a psychotic Penguin and devilish Catwoman in a gothic romp from the hands of Tim Burton doesn’t exactly scream yuletide gay. But in between the Batmobile chases, chaotic transformations, and messy politics rests a Christmas flick through and through. Maybe therein lies the ironic genius of Batman Returns; that in the thick of a villain character study sets a symbolic imagery of celebration, joy, gratefulness, and the promise of renewal. Penguin tried to craft his own redemption narrative and it ended with an arctic funeral processional. Renewal certainly found Catwoman whether she liked it or not, and things got much more complicated … and sexual. Nevertheless, Returns delivers A+ goods in just about every meaningful metric: cast, narrative, production design, holiday flair, makeup, re-watachability, and high-octane entertainment. Plus, a delicious subversion of genre from the mind of Burton, back when he made good stuff.
Batman Returns remains not just a cult classic, but a fantastic Christmas movie. A darkly original yet deeply IP-driven blockbuster of yesteryear that still feels fresh and ghoulish for all right reasons. And all over the backdrop of a glistening, snow-laden, luxurious Gotham City. Take it in with DeVito and Pfeiffer’s career-best performances and you’ve got the makings of a delightfully unconventional movie night for the holiday season. Because nothing says Merry Christmas quite like the Caped Crusader, right?
Day 11—Unaccompanied Minors (2006)
I will admit that I have only seen this once, but what I remember of it I enjoyed. It’s a pretty simple story, a bunch of kids traveling by themselves for the holidays get stuck in an airport during a blizzard and hilarity ensues. But this flick has a pretty solid cast all around and the kids do a good job of running the show. I honestly had no idea this was a Paul Feig movie until I looked this up to write about it. But don’t let that keep you from watching it. It’s a fun movie that’s great to throw on during the holidays that isn’t A Christmas Story for 24 damn hours.
Day 12—Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Horror is year-round even though there are several Christmas horror classics, there are not a to of good horror Christmas movies. Rare Exports is one of the few to give a truly unique twist on the holiday mythology. There’s no Rudolf, Snowmen, or any of that silly nonsense. The story is about a group of excavators who uncover the long-buried “real” Santa Claus. As local children begin to disappear, they realize that he’s not the jolly fellow they thought. This is a very dark fantasy with some light horror elements. However, the subject matter is dark. The humor is dark. The cinematography is gorgeous. This Finnish film has some heartfelt performances and a story that will leave you guessing until the very end.
Read Bob’s review here.
Day 13—Inside No. 9: “The Devil of Christmas” (2016)
For anyone not familiar with Inside No. 9, it’s a British comedy series full of twisting stories and dark themes. Think of a funnier, snappier version of Black Mirror. Episode 1 of season 3 (the Christmas special) is no different. Set in 1977, the basic plot involves an English family arriving at an Austrian Alpine chalet, as their guide begins to tell them the story of the Krampus. To say any more would risk spoiling the many surprises in store. It has a distinct retro 70s feel to it and was actually filmed using authentic equipment from that period. Overall it feels like a loving parody of classic vintage horror. The final reveal is excellent and as usual, I didn’t see it coming.
Day 14—Fatman (2020)
I don’t know what’s crazier: the fact that an action movie about a hitman trying to kill Santa exists or that it’s secretly a treatise on how to run a business in a failing economy. Seriously, the trailer is selling a completely different movie than what Fatman actually is. This isn’t Santa With a Shotgun or Blood Father Christmas. It’s fifty or so minutes of a disheveled Mel Gibson bemoaning about “the good ol’ days” with about twenty minutes of Walton Goggins hamming it up which ultimately conclude with twenty-odd minutes of some decent action. It’s nowhere near as crazy or violent or funny as you’d think it would be considering how ridiculous the premise is but there are some good things about it. The sugar obsessed elves are a treat and the aforementioned Goggins and Gibson are giving it 100%. They’re easily the best thing about the movie and while I wish it leaned a bit more on either the exploitation side (this seriously feels like it could’ve been a fake trailer in Grindhouse) or the action-comedy side, it’s still enjoyable enough curio to keep you entertained. It’ll get you in the holiday spirit and it’s definitely the better alternative to whatever bullshit Netflix just shat out this month, that’s for sure.
Day 15—Go (1999)
Look, I’m gonna be honest with you: I don’t remember much about Go. I saw it when it came out and haven’t seen it since. I remember that it is set during Christmas, and I remember that I liked it. It’s been on my list to rewatch for a couple of years now, but I have just never gotten around to it. But I’ll tell you what: you watch it, and I’ll rewatch it. And we’ll come back here and compare notes. If you hate it, I blame Duke.
Merry freakin’ Christmas.
Day 16—Arthur Christmas (2011)
Arthur Christmas was such a pleasant surprise for me when it was released in 2011. Aardman Animation’s charming holiday offering finds Santa Claus’s son, Arthur, embarking on an adventure in a race against time to deliver a forgotten present to a little girl by Christmas morning. A simple premise that Aardman Animations enhances with beautiful, crisp animation, an impressive cast (James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton… should I go on?) and a gentle reminder that all the innovation and technology Santa Claus may use to deliver millions of presents around the world in one night doesn’t really mean much at all. With a script that offers plenty of humor and gags for both adults and children alike, Arthur Christmas is one of those underrated holiday movies that should be destined to become a Christmas classic. It’s definitely a must-watch in my house every year.
Day 17—A Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
This is the best Christmas movie of all time hands down. The stop-motion magic of the Rankin-Bass productions is at its peak here and the classic performances of heatmeiser and snowmeiser are the icing on the cake. The movie gives us a unique take on the familiar characters with an adventure that reminds us of the reason for Christmas.
Day 18—Pottersville (2017)
If you’re an Xmas junkie, odds are, you’ll watch anything holiday-related, regardless of its quality. Netflix and Hallmark trash is like a treasure trove around this time of year with their Christmas movies being ironic or even un-ironic pleasures. The cheesier they are, the better which could either be a great thing or a bad thing when it comes to Pottersville. A star-studded film you’ve never heard of that feels like a parody of a Hallmark Christmas film but is played so earnest and weird, that it might turn off fans of that particular kind of holiday pap.
When a beloved local businessman is mistaken for the legendary Bigfoot during an drunken excursion through town in a makeshift gorilla costume, it sets off a series of events that turns the small town into a massive tourism spot which attracts the attention of a reality TV monster hunter. Will the struggling town come clean or will they let the lie continue to generate much-needed income?
A bit like Waking Ned Devine if Ned wasn’t dead but was a man in a bigfoot costume instead, Pottersville is a Christmas themed movie who’s tone is all over the place. The town is filled with eclectic characters who are all lovable, the cast is amazing (Michael Shannon, Judy Greer, Ron Perlman, Thomas Lennon, Christina Hendricks, Ian McShane) and the tone is very Hallmark-y but there’s just so many odd choices made throughout. Including but not limited to the fact that Hendricks and Perlman are furries in this. They like to dress up like animals and identify as such. And Shannon likes getting shit faced on moonshine but doesn’t yell at a single person throughout. This is not a good movie but if you’re looking for something odd this season, this fits the bill.
Day 19—Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
On its face, Adventures in Babysitting may not seem like it has much to do with Christmas outside of the time of year in which it’s set. Chris (Elizabeth Shue) is stuck babysitting a bunch of kids after her boyfriend cancels their long-anticipated anniversary date at the last minute. When her troubled friend Brenda calls Chris to beg for a ride home from a downtown bus stop after a failed attempt to run away from home, Chis finds herself faced with a tough choice: leave her best friend to fend for herself in the big city, or put the kids in her care at risk by taking them with her to rescue her friend.
At its heart, Adventures in Babysitting is a movie about charity. Chris makes the difficult decision of leaving the safety of the burbs and venturing into the dangerous city to help a friend in need. Along the way, Chris and the kids get up to all sorts of shenanigans but are helped along the way by the most unlikely people, including a grisly tow truck driver, a suave, street-savvy car thief, a frat boy, and the tow truck company’s owner (in a memorable early role for Vincent D’Onofrio). With the help of this motley crew, Chris and the kids might just survive the city and rescue Brenda.
Adventures in Babysitting is a fast-paced, fun, and funny classic 80s movie, and it’s absolutely worth adding to your Christmas line up.
Day 20—Klaus (2019)
After watching Klaus for the first time last year, my initial thought was, that’s added to my annual festive rewatch list. Joining the likes of Die Hard, Home Alone and A Nightmare Before Christmas is high praise indeed. Distributed by Netflix, it’s an alternative take on Santa Claus’ origin story. The plot revolves around a postman stationed in an island town to the far North, who befriends a reclusive toymaker. The animation is simple but gorgeous and while the usual Christmas tropes of friendship and forgiveness all play out, it never feels stale. Recommended for all the family.
Day 21—The Santa Clause 2 (2002)
The Santa Clause trilogy usually get watched at least once a year in my household. The first one is an absolute charmer with Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin trying his hardest not to become Santa Claus. Therefore, it only makes sense for the sequel to have Scott trying his hardest to stay as Santa Claus. If he cannot find a wife by the next Christmas Eve, he will stop being Santa forever. Scott hightails it back to his home town in search of the next Mrs. Claus while the physical and magical effects that come with being Santa begin to wear off. Being released eight years after The Santa Clause, the film is able to reintroduce Scott’s son Charlie as an angst teenager who hates his principal…who Scott immediately falls in love with. It’s a fun Disney film that the whole family can enjoy.
Day 22—Jingle All the Way (1996)
This seems like one of the more overlooked Christmas films out there which seems silly because it checks all the boxes for a yearly holiday classic. Fun? Check. Cheesy? Check. Arnie vs Sinbad? Check. Jerk Phil Hartman? Check. Awful parents more worried about giving their kids material things? Check. Future Darth Vader? Check. Honestly what more do you want or need here?! Go watch the damn movie, ya lumps of coal!
Day 23—A Christmas Story (1983)
I’m mixed on the movie myself, but you know who’s not? My mom. Every Christmas, this movie plays for 24 hours straight, and my mom watches it for 24 hours straight as we proceed through our Christmas traditions. As far as the movie goes, it’s classic and fits in just about everything that we love and hate about the holiday. I used to find it a bit crass, but every year, I actually find it growing on me more and more. It’s heartwarming in the end to see two struggling parents get Ralphie the Red Ryder BB gun he wanted all along, even if he did shoot his eye out.
Day 24—The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
As I said in my review last year, my wife and I adore this move. We watch it as we put up the Christmas decorations – but it’s perfect on Christmas Eve as well. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a film of the heart, one that works a magic on me that’s hard to describe. It combines my two favorite holidays in a kid-friendly gothic nightmare with great characters and catchy tunes (by Danny Elfman, who also provides Jack’s singing voice). Some people may argue whether this is a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie – and you can decide for yourself if it’s either or both. For me, and for my wife, it’s definitely a Christmas film. “What’s this?” Just one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time.
Day 25—It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life has endured for decades as one of the most inspirational holiday classics and it’s certainly one of my favorites. Growing up, the family movie on Christmas Eve was always It’s a Wonderful Life, and it never got old. Jimmy Stewart has never been better as George Bailey, a self-sacrificing man who is finally driven to his knees, contemplates suicide, and is then shown what life would be like had he never been born. George’s journey of discovery and despair is, in my opinion, flawless. Wonderfully written and beautifully acted, the movie’s themes of redemption and faith has never felt so relevant than it does this year. I challenge you to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and not be moved. If you ever need to restore your faith in humanity, this is definitely the movie to watch.
Ho ho ho, that wraps up SAW’s 2020 list of 25 Christmas movies to watch this holiday season. How many will you commit to watching before Christmas Day?