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—Black Mirror: “White Christmas” (2014) | Lee McCutcheon
If you’ve seen any of Charlie Brooker’s fantastic Black Mirror before you know what to expect. More often than not a melancholic look at a not so distant future, where technological advances shape the world we live in. Season 2’s White Christmas is no different. Released in 2014, this festive special stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, with the pair stationed at a remote outpost in the middle of a snowy wilderness. We spend the next hour or so in their company as they look back on their lives. The narrative is broken down into three separate mini-stories, all the while cutting back and forth to the present. We get an insight into the character’s pasts as the story takes some dark turns. Towards the conclusion everything starts to come together and when the inevitable twist arrives it’s as satisfying as ever.
The genius of Charlie Brooker’s storytelling lies in how he creates relatable worlds that we can imagine ourselves inhabiting within our lifetimes. There are no neon-filled sci-fi landscapes with flying cars. His stories centre around enhancements of technology we already own and use. It’s this fact that makes Black Mirror unsettling and White Christmas is a great example of this being utilised within a wider story. In this episode alone we see what a real-life Facebook block would feel like and also get a glimpse at smart home technology taken to the extreme. Couple all this with some great performances (Jon Hamm in particular being as smooth as ever) and White Christmas makes for one of the best Black Mirror episodes released in its 5 season run. It might not be as uplifting as other festive shows and movies this time of year, but it certainly adds some variety. And if you are new to Black Mirror, there is no better place to start this Christmas.
Day 2—The Holiday (2006) | Romona Comet
Ask someone for a holiday rom-com recommendation and more than likely you’re going to hear ‘Love Actually’. The ensemble comedy with a star-studded cast is a hard one to pass up during the holiday season, but if I may, I’d like to make a case for The Holiday. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but Hans Zimmer delivers a gorgeous, underrated score and the entire cast delivers performances so earnest and charming that it’s easy to overlook some of the more formulaic plot points. Breathe easy folks, because you’re not going to find any ridiculous shenanigans here, or exhausting miscommunications to keep our lovers apart. Even better? You only have two storylines to keep up with, both of which are perfectly balanced with romance, comedy, and charm. This is a movie about making changes and taking control of one’s life, and it’s hard to find a more affable, festive rom-com than The Holiday.
Day 3—The Ref (1994) | Sailor Monsoon
What Ted Demme’s film captures, better than any other holiday film, is how much it sucks to be stuck with your family on Christmas. None of us want to admit it but for some of us, Christmas is a holly jolly prison that is one passive aggressive comment away from turning into a bloody Damien Hirst art installation. Most of the other films on this list are traditional comfort food you watch every year but The Ref is the only one that becomes more and more relevant the older you get.
Day 4—Love Actually (2003) | Sailor Monsoon
There might not be a holiday film audiences have turned against harder than Love Actually. I don’t know the problems people have with it and it’s been awhile since I last saw it, but unless there’s a scene I’m forgetting that involves Liam Neeson in black face kicking a pregnant dog, I can’t imagine the issues being more than unintentional misogyny. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, there’s no denying the performances are all fantastic (with Emma Thompson being the MVP) and although some of it is admittedly cornball, it’s so sincere, you can’t help but smile through 80% of it.
Day 5—The Santa Clause (1994) | Marmaduke Karlston
I recently read online that the original draft of The Santa Clause had Tim Allen kill Santa by shooting him with a gun. Obviously, Disney found that to be a bit too dark for this Christmas classic. This is one of those holiday films that gets put on rewatch (along with its sequels… okay, mostly just The Santa Clause 2) at least once a year. One time, I watched this film in January because I never had enough time for it in December. It’s interesting to watch Scott Calvin (Allen) who tells his son Charlie that Santa is real to then become Santa and not believe it’s really happening. When he finally embraces being the new Santa Claus, that’s when the fun really begins.
Day 6—The Silent Partner (1978) | Sailor Monsoon
Christopher Plummer (at his most unhinged) takes on Elliott Gould (at his most schleppy, which is saying a lot), in this underrated 70’s thriller. Written by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), this cat and mouse heist film packs more unpredictability and grime than a game of Twister at a seedy bordello. Perfect for the holidays.
Day 7—Elf (2003) | Romona Comet
As someone who loves the holidays, I had dozens of classics I watched growing up – It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Home Alone, A Christmas Carol just to name a few – and it simply didn’t feel like Christmas until I sat down and watched them all. I often wondered if my own children would have their own classics they would beg to watch every December, or if the era of Christmas films with longevity was over. And then came Elf. Jon Favreau’s film about a man in search of his real father after being raised in the North Pole as an elf is everything a holiday classic should be. Hilarious and spirited, but also good-natured and poignant, it’s a wonderful reminder of how joyful the holiday can truly be if you’re surrounded by people you love. Released sixteen years ago, Elf is a movie that continues to resonate with audiences, and will no doubt be a holiday staple for decades to come. And if you don’t get a little bit choked up during the ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ singalong, then you deserve a lump of coal in your stocking this year.
Day 8—National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) | Marmaduke Karlston
Featuring an early role for a pre-Seinfeld Julie Louis Dreyfus and a pre-Big Bang Theory Johnny Galecki, Christmas Vacation is pure comedic bliss. Some of my favorite bits involve the greased to the max sled and the blinding lights on the house. Of course, the film takes time to stop the comedy in favor of some more lighthearted moments such as when Clark gets trapped in the attic and watches old footage of him as a kid on Christmas. The Vacation films have always managed to throw the Griswolds into new and exciting situations and Christmas Vacation doesn’t break the mold.
Day 9—Die Hard (1988) | Marmaduke Karlston
Die Hard isn’t just a great action movie, but a great Christmas movie. John McClane (Bruce Willis) risks his life to stop the bad guy and save his estranged wife! Not only did the film gift us with the iconic “Yippee-Ki-Ya Motherfucker,” but it showed us that anyone can kick ass if they have the right resources and a high tolerance for pain. I know Christmas doesn’t really factor into the plot (save for the holiday party, “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho,” and the odd Christmas song here and there), but dammit it counts.
Day 10—Bad Santa (2003) | Sailor Monsoon
Written in part by The Coen Bros, Bad Santa lives up to its title and then some. Billy Bob Thorton has never been better than as Willie T. Soke, a crude, hilariously crass thief who fucks and steals everything in sight. His character, as well as pretty much everything else in the film, is almost unbearably foul but slowly, you start caring about the miserable bastard and even hoping he ends up ok. Much like Scrooge or the Grinch, the tale of Willie is a tale of redemption and there’s nothing more Christmas-y than that.
Day 11—The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) | Sailor Monsoon
Second only to Dracula, there might not be a more adapted book than Dickens holiday classic. There’s been multiple live action and animated versions, as well as a musical but The Muppet Christmas Carol has something none of the others do– puppets. Or more specifically– Muppets. On paper, it shouldn’t work but when Michael Caine yells at Kermit or gets harassed by felt ghosts, you never question it. It may not be the best adaptation but it’s secretly our favorite.
Day 12—How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) | Marmaduke Karlston & Sailor Monsoon
Karlston’s Take: It’s definitely the classic Grinch tale. I think the 2000 Grinch did a good job expanding the children’s book into a full-blown feature-length film, but sometimes it’s best to just get it done in a thirty-minutes. Without this special the Grinch wouldn’t be green and we might not have that killer song. There’s only two people that come to mind when you think of characters that hate Christmas (but then soon learn to love it): Scrooge and the Grinch.
Monsoon’s Take: Dr. Seuss created the single best Christmas icon not tied to folklore and the animated special will always be the best adaptation of his story. Fun fact: did you know there are two sequels to this? One where he fucks with the Cat in the Hat and one where he tries to take over Halloween.
Day 13—A Christmas Carol (1984) | Romona Comet
With so many adaptations of Charles Dickens’s classic out there, one would think it would be difficult to choose just one to recommend for your holiday viewing. But… it wasn’t. Sure, plenty of the versions out there are delightful to watch, while others remain borderline painful. But if you’re looking for an authentic adaptation that stays faithful to Dickens’s story of an elderly miser given a second chance at life, then you need to look no further than the 1984 made for television movie directed by Clive Donner. Bleak and atmospheric, A Christmas Carol also boasts a phenomenal cast led by George C. Scott, who gives a remarkable performance as Scrooge – gloriously nasty until each ghostly visit begins to peel away his unhappiness to reveal a vulnerable, lonely man weighed down by greed and regret. Despite airing in 1984, this made for TV movie does not feel dated in the least and could arguably be considered the adaptation of A Christmas Carol by which all future adaptations are measured.
Day 14—Black Christmas (1974) | Sailor Monsoon
Before he made the most watched Christmas movie of all time, Bob Clark directed the definitive Xmas horror film. Often regarded as the first slasher, Black Christmas is every bit as creepy as it’s predecessors (Psycho, Peeping Tom) and is inarguably better than its imitators (too many to list). It definitely won’t put most in the spirit of the season but for horror fans, this is essential viewing.
Day 15—Trading Places (1983) | Sailor Monsoon
Not a Christmas film per say, Trading Places still holds a very nostalgic place in many fans hearts. Yes, it has a very problematic third act complete with an indecipherable plan involving stocks, black face, and gorilla rape but for many of us–myself included–this was the first time we saw titties in a movie. I had seen this on cable for many years before I got around to watching it on HBO or something and seeing Jamie Lee Curtis bare all was one of the all time shocks of my life. I knew this movie inside out and backwards but only knew one version of it. In that moment, I learned many things about editing and even more about the female anatomy. For not being a Christmas movie, it gave the greatest gift of all: boobs.
Day 16—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) | Sailor Monsoon
In my mind, when I picture Christmas, there’s a tree covered in lights surrounded by presents, in a house decorated to the nines and on the TV, there’s a Rankin-Bass Christmas special playing. Their stop motion shorts have left an indelible mark on pop culture and have become an annual tradition for most. Their best work is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) but their most iconic, by a large margin, is their adaptation of the iconic Johnny Marks song.
The Island of Misfit Toys, Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist, Yukon Cornelius and his quest to find the fabled peppermint mine, a winged lion named King Moonracer and the nightmare inducing Abominable Snow Monster from the North–this film doesn’t make any goddamn sense but much like Rudolph himself, it’s its uniqueness that separates it from everything else. It has been telecast every year since 1964 for a reason: It is Christmas.
Day 17—Home Alone (1990) | Mitch Roush
That iconic shot of Kevin screaming. Catherine O’Hara wigging out on the airplane. Joe Pesci’s gold tooth. The tarantula. Fuller throwing back too much Pepsi. All those homemade booby traps. How can you not love Home Alone?
The best Christmas flicks tap into the greater public consciousness weaving their way into our seasonal paradigms … and pop-culture references. That’s what makes Home Alone great. A full-fledged family-friendly comedy checking all the boxes of holiday charm and redefines the zeitgeist. Not to mention, the concept is flat out hilarious. But seriously, in terms of cross-generational lifespan, Home Alone is on the same trajectory as It’s A Wonderful Life. Everyone has a distinct memory with this movie. John Hughes made a career of romanticizing the everyday little things we overlook and take for granted, but pushed them to the limits of feasibility and hysterics wrapping them in the delicious packaging of sarcasm and youthful observation. In that light, Home Alone stands as peak 90s family entertainment.
Every year my family snuggles on the couch to re-journey through the McCallister craziness. The blend of sweet nostalgia, loud laughs, and just the right amount of thoughtful holiday camp unlocks our holiday cheer in a way the Grizwalds simply can’t. It may not be Dickens-level, but the forgotten kid urban tale is kind of remarkable in terms of shelf life and re-watchability. If nothing else, it gave us the dynamic duo of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, and for that we’re all grateful.
Oh, and keep the change ya filthy animal.
Day 18—Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014) | Marmaduke Karlston
For a while it looked like the world of Toy Story might live on with holiday-themed TV specials. And to be honest, I would have been perfectly fine with that. Toy Story of Terror! and That Time Forgot may simply be repeating plot beats from previous films (Jessie’s claustrophobia and toys not knowing they’re toys), but the heart and humor keep us coming back. Plus, in That Time Forgot gives Buzz a chance to see how stupid he looked believing he wasn’t a toy. His one-liner “You got a crayon?” is great. The special also teaches kids to play with toys and use their imagination for a change instead of staring blankly at the TV playing video games.
Day 19—Frosty the Snowman (1969) | Marmaduke Karlston
I hadn’t seen this in years so I watched it right before writing this blurb. It’s alright, but nothing special. It definitely holds a place in Christmas pop culture due to its age and timelessness. The old man selling them a ticket to the North Pole was funny. The magician all of a sudden being evil and thinking nasty was a hard 180 turn for the character.
Although, what might be the most disturbing moment of the whole special is that when Frosty comes alive he always says “Happy Birthday” and acts like this is his first time coming to life. So he basically forgets everyone he ever met which has to be hard on the children each year. However, for 30-minutes it moves by at a brisk pace, so if you need something quick to watch, pop this in.
Day 20—Joyeux Nöel (2005) | Sailor Monsoon
Joyeux Noel is a film about strangers connecting. More importantly, it’s a film about enemies putting aside their differences in order to celebrate Christmas because at the end of the day, they’re still people. People that are connected, not by ideologies or similar backgrounds but by simply being alive.
This is an exceptionally well told story that is uplifting without ever being schmaltzy or preachy. It’s very light in tone compared to a Schindler’s List or other war films but in the films defense, it’s less a war film and more of a Christmas story. And a damn good one at that. This film proves that we’re all in this together and that’s a message that this generation desperately needs to listen to.
If you like this, I also suggest you check out the film A Midnight Clear (1992) which has a similar concept and is equally as good.
Day 21—A Christmas Carol (1951) | Sailor Monsoon
There must be a law that states that if you’re English, depending on your gender, you have to play either the queen or Ebenezer Scrooge at least once in you’re lifetime. A Christmas Carol has had about a billion adaptations over the years and while most are good, none have surpassed the 1951 version. Every version is nearly identical to one another, so it really comes down to who is portraying the greedy old miser and Alastair Sim gives the definitive performance. He starts off as unrepentantly indifferent to the plight of others, almost to a malevolent degree but slowly, over the course of the film, you begin to sympathize him. The character has one of the best arcs in all of storytelling and Sim nails every single one of them. You detest him, you have sympathy for him and then you eventually love him. It’s a great time travel story, it’s a great redemption story and it’s easily the best Christmas story ever written.
Day 22—A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) | Marmaduke Karlston
The 1960s were a goldmine for Christmas specials. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas; these are all TV specials that continue to be watched annually during the holidays. A Charlie Brown Christmas is perhaps the best known Peanuts special after It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It is full of feel good moments, and features the amazing track “Linus & Lucy” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio which has since become synonymous with the Peanuts franchise.
Day 23—Iron Man 3 (2013) | Marmaduke Karlston
You could swap Iron Man 3 out for almost any other Shane Black film. The good majority are all set at Christmas. Lethal Weapon? Yup. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? You know it. The Nice Guys? Yes, seriously, go watch that film. Iron Man 3? I… am… Santa Claus. The third installment in the franchise was set at a time in the MCU when its characters were given more mature storylines and it wasn’t a laugh-a-minute riot. Steve Rogers dealt with issues of freedom in The Winter Soldier, and Tony Stark suffered with PTSD following the Battle of New York. Iron Man 3 gets a lot of hate for some reason, but I find it to be one of the most compelling MCU sequels with a lot of great moments, specifically when he’s breaking into the Mandarin’s mansion. If you’re tired of watching non-stop Christmas movies, pop in Iron Man 3 or any Shane Black film for a little detox.
Day 24—Miracle on 34th Street (1947) | Sailor Monsoon
I really like the ’94 version, but the reason I prefer the original is how it presents the story. There’s a fundamental difference between the two versions and that is, how it convinces you that the impossible is possible. In the ’94 version, Richard Attenborough is so perfectly cast as Santa, you never question whether he is or not. The thought that he might not be, doesn’t even enter your mind. You immediately believe it, which puts you ahead of the movie. You don’t have to be sold anything.
The original is different in that it adds some doubt. The drama isn’t born from whether he’s going to when the court case like the remake but whether he’s actually crazy or not. But you ultimately believe he’s Santa because the little girl believes he’s Santa and that’s proof enough. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and his name is Edmund Gwenn.
Day 25—Miracle on 34th Street (1994) | Marmaduke Karlston
I haven’t seen the ’47 version yet, but damn, did I fall in love with the ’94 version. Like Sailor mentions below, Richard Attenborough is Santa Claus. He’s perfectly cast and just oozes Christmas charm. Mara Wilson, as the child who has been taught that Santa doesn’t exist, excels in her role as well. Wilson has a knack for playing characters that seem years older than they actually are. The movie even calls this into attention. And a quick shout-out to Elizabeth Perkins who plays characters who have to be constantly reminded that it is okay to be a kid sometimes (I’m referring to her role in Big).
I think the real hook for the Miracle on 34th Street remake is how it handles the issue of whether Santa Claus is real or not. The Americans have ‘In God We Trust’ written on their bills, but there’s no concrete evidence that God actually exists, we just believe that he does. Using this method, the Judge is able to determine that we can put our faith into Santa Claus the same way the US Department of Treasury can put its faith in God on its money. It’s a heartwarming ending.
Also, when Wilson’s character’s Mom asks her what her third wish was, and she replies, “A baby brother, byeeeee” and peaces out leaving Perkins and her character’s new husband to look down at her belly and smirk, I nearly lost it. Whether it be in Mrs. Doubtfire or Miracle on 34th Street, Wilson sure knows how to steal the spotlight.
That’s SAW’s 2K19 list of 25 Christmas movies to watch this holiday season. How many will you commit to watching before Christmas Day?