Like Christmas music, Christmas movies are such a staple of the season that it’s easy to tune them out completely. Very few people actively pay attention to them: They’re just window dressing — a thing to have on in the background while you’re tearing off wrapping paper as quickly as possible or guzzling spiked eggnog with family and friends. Or fodder for your own personal Cousin Eddie to quote over and over and over again in the case of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (“Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!”) or the ubiquitous A Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”)
But that assumption is unfair. Plenty of these films perfectly capture what’s so magical — and often, exasperating — about the holidays. With that in mind, we decided to highlight some of the best characters, trees, families and Tiny Tims from that most seasonal of Hollywood genres.
We’re also here to tell you who is really the baddest Santa ever — sorry, Billy Bob.
Most Intense Concussions: (tie) Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York Twice and in two different cities (suburban Chicago and New York), little Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) thwarts the schemes of the same unfortunate pair of crooks (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) with weighted paint cans, steam irons, bowling balls, bags of concrete, bricks, buckets of wrenches and anything else he can think of to drop on their sensitive crania. (Not to mention nail guns, scorching hot doorknobs, nails and broken glass applied to bare feet, glue and feathers, tarantulas, icy stairs and ladders, burning ropes and various other makeshift weapons specifically designed for maximum groin-related injuries.) It’s been jokingly suggested that Kevin grew up to be Jigsaw, the nefarious trap-setter from the Saw movies. But there’s no question that his ruthless efficiency has had an ongoing impact. Case in point…
The Kevin McAllister Memorial Paint Can for Extra Holiday Sadism: Luke (Levi Miller) in Better Watch Out
Imagine Kevin as an angelic-faced 13-year-old who’s horny for his 18-year-old babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) but still well-versed in an ultraviolent brand of home defense, and you’ve got this clever dark comedy from 2017. Luke repeats the paint can pendulum — giving full credit to Home Alone — but then ups the stakes with several guns, a baseball bat, a riding lawn mower and the strategic use of a very sharp pencil.
Least Annoying Tiny Tim: Calvin Cooley (Nicholas Phillips) in Scrooged
“God bless us, every one” can be one of the most annoying lines of dialogue ever written, particularly when placed into the mouth of a wet-eyed Victorian moppet who’s been created by Charles Dickens, one of literature’s greatest manipulators. (Let’s not forget Oscar Wilde’s immortal sick burn, that one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.) A grating Tiny Tim can sink an otherwise passable A Christmas Carol, so let us salute Scrooged for giving us a sweet young mute who genuinely earns tears; it’s the fact that he’s saying — or technically, quoting — the line at all, rather than the line itself, that gives the moment its sentimental oomph.
Most Dysfunctional Family: The Vuillards in A Christmas Tale
American Christmas movies have given us our share of bickering siblings, family secrets and terminally ill moms, but no one has done it with the ruthless efficacy and brutal affection of French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin. His onscreen clan includes a matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) who expects one of her children to endure a painful bone-marrow transplant on her behalf; a wastrel son (Mathieu Amalric) who’s been exiled from the family; and the seemingly emotionless sister (Anne Consigny) who did the exiling. Put a little champagne and some bûche cake into this crowd, and the sparks fly. (Son: “Still don’t love me?” Mom: “Never did.” Son: “Me neither.”)
Most Over-the-Top Christmas Decorations: Valerie’s Sister (Teri Garr) in Unaccompanied Minors
You’ve got to admire the holiday commitment of a woman dedicated to heavy (but festive) sweaters, antler headgear and hot cocoa, particularly when that woman lives in sunny Los Angeles. But this never-named character doesn’t merely live the Christmas spirit, she inflicts it upon others; her front yard has a giant fake chimney, out of which randomly pops a laughing Santa Claus so jarring that it actually frightens passersby. It’s one of many amusingly skewed details in Paul Feig’s pre-Bridesmaids cult comedy.
Best Christmas Tree: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The gap between the idealized holiday captured on greeting cards and the grim reality of lived experience is where the humor lies in the Vacation movies. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) remains bound and determined to create the magazine-cover version of any situation for his family, despite the fact that everything can and will go wrong. Naturally, when it’s time to put a tree in the living room, Clark refuses to settle for some spindly thing from the local lot, instead putting himself and his family into peril as they trek out into the woods and return with a giant sap-covered, squirrel-infested tannenbaum.
Best Christmas Dinner (Domestic Division): This Christmas
How seriously do they take the meals in this comedy about a far-flung family’s holiday reunion? As the turkey, macaroni and cheese and sweet potatoes make their way around the table, you’ll feel hunger pangs and start mentally rewriting your own Christmas dinner menu.
Best Christmas Dinner (International Division): Fanny and Alexander
In the longer, made-for-TV version, the aristocratic family sits at the same table with the servants — the servants are, of course, horrified at such flouting of class distinction — for what seems to be a never-ending feast.
Worst Christmas Dinner: The Ref
Judy Davis creates a menu full of indigestible, or at least unpronounceable, Swedish offerings (seven-day-old lutefisk, fresh-baked Kringlors, lamb gookins and an orange marzipan cake with creme de menthe-lime zest) and makes all her guests wear flaming St. Cecilia wreaths while they try to choke it down.
Best Gift-Givers: The townsfolk of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life
They cough up whatever loose cash they can find to help out George Bailey.
Worst Gift-Giver: Ralphie’s aunt in A Christmas Story.
Three words: Pink bunny suit.
Most Christmas Spirit: Arthur Christmas (voiced by James McAvoy) in Arthur Christmas
In this delightful, itching-for-a-rediscovery animated feature from Aardman, Arthur is the younger son of the reigning Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent). Santa himself has become a bit doddering, and Arthur’s older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) has retooled the gift-delivery system with a level of precision that’s like a Seal Team 6/Six Sigma mash-up, but it’s Arthur who’s still infused with a love for the holiday and who cares most that children all over the world wake up delighted on Christmas morning.
Least Christmas Spirit: Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) in Trading Places
Two mean old billionaires bet they can break down this entitled preppy by stripping him of everything he holds dear. They’re not wrong: Unable to cope with life outside of the 0.1 percent, Winthorpe eventually becomes the drunkest, scuzziest, dirty-bearded Santa you ever saw. The moment where he crashes the company party and slips an entire salmon into his filthy red costume is as horrifying as anything in Silent Night, Deadly Night (see below).
Least Welcome Christmas Houseguest: Whoever (or whatever) is camping out in the attic in Black Christmas
Bob Clark, well before his later triumph with A Christmas Story, pretty much created the holiday-themed horror movie four years before John Carpenter released Halloween. In this chiller about sorority girls ready to go home for Christmas break, the sisters start receiving sinister and very disturbing phone calls. (Are they threatening, or are they merely a madman’s cry for help? They’re so jarring, profane and enigmatic that no one knows for sure — at first, anyway.) And they’re coming from inside the house. (Runner-up: Krampus.)
Best Christmas Kills: Silent Night, Deadly Night
It’s after Halloween, of course, when the slasher-movie subgenre was born, and among the slasher’s identifying factors are the clever, elaborate and otherwise extreme maneuvers by which nubile adolescents meet a grisly demise. This controversial 1984 entry certainly doesn’t disappoint in that category, as our unhinged protagonist — dressed as Santa Claus — deploys the naughty with an ax, a bow and arrow, and most memorably, a set of reindeer antlers.
Baddest Santa: Oliver MacGreevy, Tales from the Crypt
Sorry, Silent Night, Deadly Night and Billy Bob Thornton, but the horror anthology Tales from the Crypt gives us an escaped homicidal maniac who terrorizes greedy, murderous housewife Joan Collins in a memorably terrifying Christmas vignette. (A decade or two later, the HBO series of the same name remade this story, with L.A. Law’s Larry Drake stalking Mary Ellen Trainor.)
Most Effective Use of a Reindeer: Santa Claus (1959)
Teach your children to question the nature of reality with the bizarre, wind-up reindeer in this baby’s-first-surrealism classic from the director of Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy. This saga of St. Nick is generally one never-ending freak-out — from Santa teaming up with Merlin to battle one of Satan’s minions to the giant dancing dolls who torment a sweet young girl in her nightmares. In other words, those creepy, laughing reindeer are merely the cherry on the top of this Sundae of Strange. (They were also, no doubt, much more budget-friendly for this production than using real ones.)
Second-Best Frank Capra Movie Featuring a Christmas Eve Suicide Attempt: Meet John Doe
After spending World War II making films for the War Department, Capra’s first movie upon his return to Hollywood was It’s a Wonderful Life. But the last film he made before deploying was Meet John Doe, another movie in which a hero of the common man is driven to try to jump to his death on Christmas Eve because of the machinations of rich, powerful, greedy men. Gary Cooper’s John Doe hasn’t become quite as iconic as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, but as the gulf between the rich and poor grows ever wider, his Depression-era story becomes more relevant than ever.
Best Christmas Binge-Watch: Christmas Eve on Turner Classic Movies
A full day of faves, including It Happened on Fifth Avenue (rich people have to pretend to be homeless to enter their own NYC mansion, which becomes a squat at Christmas); Christmas in Connecticut (Barbara Stanwyck as a phony Martha Stewart-type who has to fake a perfect holiday for a GI); Meet Me in St. Louis (Judy Garland will smash your heart with her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”); Holiday Affair (an exceedingly sexy Robert Mitchum sweeps young widow Janet Leigh off her feet); The Bishop’s Wife (suave angel Cary Grant saves Christmas for clergyman David Niven and his wife Loretta Young); and The Bells of St. Mary’s (Bing Crosby’s priest saves sister Ingrid Bergman’s convent and the movie showing in Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life).
Best Christmas Nudity: Eyes Wide Shut
Granted, Stanley Kubrick managed the trick of making orgies look no fun at all with his stylized, choreographed and generally moribund masked sex party, but this is the rare holiday title that allows the people on-screen to shed their parkas. (Don’t think this is a Christmas movie? Watch it again.)
Most Annoying Christmas Kids: Daddy’s Home 2
This is a movie that fails on all fronts, with its above-the-title stars (Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) shouldering most of the blame for this insipid and unfunny holiday romp, but the children here are so bratty and irritating — when they’re not being needlessly cruel to each other, they’re endlessly kvetchy to their parents — that it’s easy to understand why daddy has such a short temper.
Most Tedious Argument From Christmas 2009 That Shows No Signs of Dying: “Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?”
It is. So let’s drop it, shall we?