Let me preface this list with a haiku:
A Christmas movie "Elf"
Can duly go fuck itself
Don't quote it or else
Here's the list!
10. Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town (1970)
It was tough, picking between all these pleasant little stop-motion Christmas specials. It’s honestly like, one of the fifth greatest inventions ever made, the stop-motion Christmas special. Those rubbery, weird moving folk-- aren't they just the best?
Yeah, so it was like, between this, Rudolph, that one with the heat and snow miser, and a dozen other ones your grandpappies sat you down to watch on Turner Classic Movies. I picked this one cause, to hell with it, a stop-motion Santa origin story voiced by Mickey Rooney? Jeez, it's like they combined every trend of Hollywood history into one delightful little package!
Also, the hipster in me may have been entrenched by the little attention this film receives, because, of course, underexposure immediately makes watching something more interesting and lends more perspective. There's a bizarrely cathartic charm about watching Jolly Ol' Saint Nicholas become the portly gift giver he is today. Don't ask me what, but the feeling is similar to eating pears - you can't explain what's nice about it, but it's there.
Also, Fred Astaire, tap dance extraordinaire himself, narrates and sings! This thing couldn't get more charming if it tried!
9. Batman Returns (1992)
Look, if people can rank Die Hard as an awesome Christmas movie, I can absolutely put Batman Returns here. I’ll be perfectly honest, most of this film’s utilization of Christmas is purely aesthetic. There’s no layered examination, subtle symbolism, or anything like that.
But oh, what an aesthetic it is! It’s a madcap Christmas ballet gone horribly, wonderfully insane. Bats, cats, penguins, clowns, wreaking havoc in a gothic romance amongst the snow and sleigh bells! It goes to show that while, usually, a Christmas setting can be an evocative backdrop - you've got Christian, familial symbolism, commercialism, the end of a year - when paired correctly, it can be delightfully wacky when paired with something that doesn't match.
The Dark Knight fighting villains amongst evergreens and Santas? Yes please! It also kind of weirdly serves to show that Batman's the most cinematically satisfying when it's recognized how batshit (HAHAHAHAHA) and ridiculous his world is. After all, is the season not ridiculous within itself? Elves and candy canes, deer with red noses, and the list goes on.
So maybe Batman Returns is as much of a visual wonder as it is because it lets two crazy elements just be themselves and explode, all helped because we hold them so sacred in some circles? Sure! But let's be honest, the real treat is seeing Danny DeVito, Frank Reynolds himself, waddle down a holiday street running for mayor so he can abduct all of Gotham City's firstborn children. Yeah, exactly.
8. The Apartment (1960)
Ever have that terrible feeling, as you stand by yourself in a room while Auld Lang Syne plays and you’re happy, but can’t help feeling awfully lonely without a significant other or platonic partner? We all crave someone to ring in the holidays with, to mark occasions with love, and when we don’t, no matter the fun, something feels missing? Right, well, The Apartment is That Exact Feeling: The Movie.
While it’s fundamentally a story about companionship and self-worth, the holiday backdrop helps paint a vital picture in demonstrating how far apart we've wedged each other. We're not measured in individual decency, but the services we can offer. It's not about being truly happy at during New Year's, it's about being at the loudest, glitziest party. Why does it matter? Why have we assigned such an importance to relationships during this time, rather than say, March or April?
Our protagonist, C.C Baxter, who lends his titular apartment out to his bosses for their extramarital flings, is constantly devalued, a cog in an insurance company that measures lives by numbers rather than any human feeling. He's fallen into the lure of the grandiose, the artificially established structures made by others more powerful.
But when he meets Fran, another equally lost soul, victim of the same machine, so begins a heartwarmingly connective story that assures us one thing: know your worth, find others who value that worth, and it doesn't matter where you are during the holidays. You'll be home.
7. Carol (2015)
The 50s, as you know, were a perfectly content yet rigid era full of secret darkness and societal restrictions hidden under a pleasant banner of suburban bliss. And while Christmas does shove a lot of problems under the rug, you can't deny a hint of magic in the air - and hell, sometimes even a miracle might happen.
When two women, the titular Carol and the younger Therese (played to perfection by Cate Blanchett, the goddess of my life, and Rooney Mara, respectively) fall in love, the spark begins in a dull, mechanical department store shuffling out toys to children and indifferent parents. Perspective is everything in this film, via frosty windows or cold space in general.
As opposed to the general atmosphere before, here, our Christmas world is a labyrinth, a mirror of our own society where individuals have to navigate to find a semblance of meaning or happiness.
By the time our two leads consummate their relationship - after an hour of rock-solid character development and patient storytelling - we hear the New Year ringing in from afar, but neither of them cares. They have each other, in the comfort of their own world. It doesn't matter in the big picture; how you decorate, where you go, what you wear, for the individual connection is all the sweeter. You don't have to save the world to find the true meaning of the holiday spirit. Just one world will do.
And by the way, any studio-funded LGBT movie that ends with their same-sex leads SURVIVING and actually being HAPPY is just, well, it's just swell.
6. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
I don't have too thick of an analysis for this one. Nope. It's just so motherfucking grin-inducing you'll feel as if Santa just poured a satchel of the best sugar down your throat. Sentimental? Of course. Kitschy? It's the 40s.
But are these elements, no matter how iconic or hard pressed or old fashioned, exclusively bad? Hell no! Not everyone is a cynical, double-sided character with a dark side. Sometimes, people are just good.
People mostly have the capacity to be good, and they will leap at it. Whatever the cost is, there are few gifts as rewarding as just reaching out your hand to help someone. It's almost shocking to see such a commercial staple of the holiday bear such a pure message of goodness.
Did y'all know this famous flick doesn't even feature Christmas until the last twenty or so minutes? What better ending to a life of giving than, on the day of giving, to have your kindness loop around to save your life when needed most?
James Stewart could make anything compelling and likable. He's one of the main reasons that the long road to a loving world works and never feels fake. If that ending doesn’t either warm your heart or squeeze out a few tears, your soul is as lifeless as Mr. Potter’s leg.
5. Brazil (1985)
I totally forgot Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece takes place during Christmas - and even more so I realized that, if you look at it, this scathing takedown of both bureaucracy and corporate clutches secretly functions as one of the most biting Christmas commercialism satires and critique that we’ve had, if not the most.I'll throw you all a basic logline, ripped from the film's IMDB page: "A bureaucrat, in a retro-future world, tries to correct an administrative error, and becomes an enemy of the state." Awesome. So nonsensical, yet would you doubt that could actually happen. If Get Out tackled the ridiculous yet horribly possible world of liberal racism, Brazil does the same with the bureaucracy looping into every one of our lives seemingly innocent, but secretly sinister.
But yeah, the Christmas part! It's a genius move, setting it then. Of course in a world thriving on paperwork and rigid rules, a commercialist tradition looms over all. How do we gauge others' on their kindness during the holidays? By the gifts, of course. And how does this world gauge the safety of the lives of its citizens? By a similar constriction of material value.
Have you ever seen a time of the year compliment a story's world like this? I haven't. That's why I rank it so high - a good Christmas movie makes sure to explore the season in ways we never considered. Including the horrifying bureaucratic aspect.
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
TIM BURTON DID NOT DIRECT THIS MOVIE - HENRY SELICK DID.
Remember that, next time someone says otherwise, and give the man credit where credit is due! A Halloween movie decorated as a Christmas movie. A Christmas movie decorated as a Halloween movie. Which one is it?? Who cares? I didn’t put it on my Scariest Movies list, so what the hell, I’ll put it here.
Firstly, points for a film about someone discovering Christmas for the first time and going insane in trying to spread it where it doesn't belong - that's a neat little deconstruction and wondrous portrait of a great holiday all at once.
Secondly, I love the fact that entire worlds are built on seasonal atmosphere, intertwining like a living biospheric calendar. Just...just points for novelty, that truly never wears off. You think of Christmas in relation to Halloween. And vice versa. And all the other computations that spring into your head with the other holidays.
Lastly, here's the point that makes this movie such a masterpiece: there's no difference between wanting to be scared and wanting to be given a gift. It's a construct we've made to entertain each other, but it's a hell of a construct. There's a reason both are celebrated every year. It's fundamental at this point that very fabrics of the world are built upon it!
So, besides absolutely stellar production design and well, everything design, The Nightmare Before Christmas is an ode to the essential sensations we want to thrust upon us come October and December. Why? Because they're fun as hell.
3. Scrooge (1970)
Hah! This movie is nuts! Total bonkers! So I’m actually a diehard fan of A Christmas Carol - it’s my favorite novel, one of my favorite character arcs, and incredibly heartwarming and atmospheric. As long as we put in the effort, we can dig through cynicism to find a pure heart and soul.One of the best holiday-themed stories and observations on humankind's capacity for love, and also, interestingly - I didn't find this out for a while - it helped jumpstart Christmas as a worldwide tradition!I'd love to adapt it one day, but anyway, enough about my hopes and dreams. Unfortunately, most adaptations have been rigid, weird, or slavish to the material while making strange enough diversions. It almost reads like a straight re-enactment of the book in the vein of the first two Harry Potter movies before they got interesting. Not this movie.Oh, no, wanna see Scrooge get drunk and fly out a window with a giant? It's here. Wanna see three gimps lead Scrooge into a hell that looks like it was made from neon cardboard? Come hither. A classic Christmas staple, off it's goddamn rocker. This is Batman Return's lightbulb of a cousin - that film can go brood in madness and mania and ridiculousness, but Scrooge's one desire is making its source material as happy and joyous, focusing on that ever-present air of yearning for goodness.
The weirdness has a heart, don't get me wrong, which makes it all the more endearing. Hell, I laugh hysterically at Albert Finney's outright strange high nasal delivery, but then I choke up during the final musical number where the newfound Scrooge engages what seems like all of Victorian London in his rediscovered love, dressed as Santa for goodness' sake. Look at that title image! Come on! You're already grinning, aren't you?
"Thank you very much! Thank you very much! That's the nicest thing that anyone's ever done, for me!" Good luck getting that out of your head.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The Peanuts are the goddamn best. No two ways about it. Iconic characters, designs, great fun, but bolstered by an ever-present realism? That's why they've endured. That's why we watch the Great Pumpkin, to see Linus wearily come to terms with the fact the GP doesn't exist, with Charlie Brown's costume being dumped on by the various adults at whose houses he tricks or treats. It's fun, but real, you know?And it never condescends without betraying that realism. I put this one so high because that's the sort of seasonal flick we need for our children to grow up watching. I think they might have ruined children's animation because the earnestness, innocence, and wisdom of these films are so immaculately perfected. You see a bunch of kids on an idyllic iced lake, as a choir so beautifully - chipping into the nostalgia of innocence with grace and subtlety - sings over.It's not overdone. It's not too real. It exists in memory, you might say.And then in swings Charlie Brown's Christmas depression, and you have not only a fully realized portrait of childhood but an achingly relatable touch. There's empathy around every corner. When these kids each discover their own meaning of Christmas - Linus telling the crowd the story of Jesus in the manger is such a tender, honest moment - it doesn't feel like phoniness, but truth. We've been there. And we can revisit that initial feeling. The journey is a storybook miracle.I might also be putting this at number two because the Vince Guaraldi Trio soundtrack is out of this goddamn world. I’m sure you’ve heard it. A few simple jazz notes and the Christmas spirit is wafting out of your speakers joyously. That encapsulates what makes these specials great - so simple, nothing dramatic, and yet that simplicity is more real than most live-action pieces.
1. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Oh, hey! I just realized this was on my greatest hits of the 21st-century list. Now it's number one here. Aw, you go, movie!
Yeah, yeah, I know, ending my list with an unseen movie that usually elicits a “huh?” when read. Almost like my trademark now, I guess! But you know - I just couldn’t find another movie that captures the essence of Christmas in a way equal in magic and pain.
First little note, if you love Studio Ghibli, Satoshi Kon’s movies are a fascinating counterbalance - whereas Miyazaki explores the natural simplicity of the idealist fantastical, Kon pots for the magical nature of the cynical ordinary. And what better time to do so than the season of miracles? Like I've said above, those who are happy are doubly so in Christmas cheer. Those who are unhappy, suffer twice as much.
People wish for miracles, of all classes, and only those who have enough to provide for themselves may get lucky to at least get close to their wish.
But what if the world is more than simply bowing to the whims of superstitious humans? What if there was indeed a system of entropic interaction that once, just once, created a miracle unlike any other? What if, by chance, enough lives intersected to the point where the miraculous nature of human connection became commonplace, just for one place and time? A life is remarkable in of itself. If we never forget that, you'll find no shortage of miracles. Christmas is only a small reminder of that beauty.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.