It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The one period in our annual calendar where selflessness is celebrated and we are all encouraged to forgo aspiration in favour of mutual appreciation – any excuse to get together with loved ones seems vitally important in a world moving as fast as this one.
It’s the hap-happiest season of all. We bring nature inside as we adorn our living spaces with seasonally appropriate trees, and we light up the longer nights with bright and colourful lights. Music from generations long since passed is re-played and re-contextualised, and centuries old iconography is re-evaluated and repurposed.
There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and carolling out in the snow. If we’ve been good, we’ll receive gifts (thanks Santa!), and if we’re lucky we’ll eat so much food we can barely move. Almost certainly, we’ll watch a movie. From the Netflix Originals of the current era to the silver screen classics of wartime Hollywood, Christmastime movie watching doesn’t discriminate based on picture quality, colour or the lack thereof, acting powerhouses or barely trained actors – if it works, it works. And if it’s good, we’ll hold onto it forever.
In this Movie List from The Film Magazine, we’ve scoured the annals of Christmas movie history to bring you the very best of the best to watch this holiday season. These films are Christmas classics and beloved cult hits, some culturally significant and others often overlooked. These films are seasonal treats; two advent calendars worth of movie magic from the big-wigs in Hollywood and beyond.
Short films (those with a runtime of under one hour) will not be included here, nor will films that cross multiple seasons but feel like Christmas movies – sorry You’ve Got Mail and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Debatable Christmas movies like Gremlins have also been omitted because of their inclusion in our alternative list “10 Excellent Non-Christmas Films Set at Christmas“. Seasonal classic The Apartment has also been disqualified on the grounds that it covers Christmas and beyond, and is arguably more of a new year’s movie.
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1. Remember the Night (1940)
Golden Era stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (who would go on to star in The Apartment) spark an unlikely romance when Stanwyck’s Lee Leander steals a bracelet from a jewellery store and MacMurray’s John “Jack” Sargent is assigned to prosecute her over the Christmas holidays.
One of the era’s many beloved studio romantic comedies, Remember the Night features all the elements that would come to define the genre while encompassing some screwball comedy and classic transatlantic accents. The tagline read “When good boy meets bad girl they remember the night”, and it’s likely you’ll remember this seasonal treat too. JW
2. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Few things signal classic Hollywood Christmases like Jimmy Stewart, and 6 years before arguably his most memorable performance in the iconic Frank Capra Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, he starred in a seasonal favourite that was just as beloved by critics, The Shop Around the Corner.
This holiday romance from Ernst Lubitsch (who also directed Heaven Can Wait) sees Stewart’s Alfred fall in love with his pen pal who, unbeknownst to him, is the colleague he most despises at his gift store job – You’ve Got Mail has got nothing on this. With some hearty moments and all of the circumstantial comedy of the best movies of the era, The Shop Around the Corner will make you laugh and fill your heart in that special way that only the best Christmas movies can. JW
3. Holiday Inn (1942)
Early sound pictures were revolutionised by famed tap dancer Fred Astaire, and by 1942 he was a certified movie musical megastar. In Mark Sandrich’s seasonal musical Holiday Inn, he teams with would-be Christmas icon and man with a voice as sooth as silk, Bing Crosby. The result is one of the most iconic and influential Christmas movies ever made.
The film’s outdated attitude towards race are cringe-inducing and inexcusable in a 21st century context (there’s a whole sequence featuring blackface), but its other dated sensibilities shine bright amongst more modern and commercial Christmas films; its wholesome aura, classic dance scenes, and era-defining songs making for an unmissable experience. To top it all, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” for the first time in this film, cementing it in history as a seasonal classic. JW
4. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Widely acknowledged as one of the holiday season’s best-ever films, Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris) illuminates his would-be wife Judy Garland in arguably her most established performance, bringing Christmas cheer to all without sacrificing any of the harsh realities facing the American people in the first half of the 20th century.
Featuring the original (and arguably the best) rendition of Christmas classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and being anchored by some heartbreaking story elements, Meet Me In St. Louis maintains its power and relevance 80 years on. It offers a Christmas movie that will forever mark the height of its sub-genre, as well as the two filmmaking careers (of Minnelli and Garland) that helped to define the era. JW
Recommended for you: There’s No Place Like St. Louis at Christmas
5. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Remember the Night star Barbara Stanwyck is once again front and centre for a Golden Era Hollywood Christmas movie, this time playing a city magazine editor whose lies about being a perfect housewife are put to the test when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her house.
This is screwball comedy with all the spirit of the festive season is as romantic as it is funny, and prominently features the shadows of World War II to gift the film a unique emotionality that has ensured it is rewatched year on year. JW