It’s that time of year again, with mistletoe and fruitcake and joy to the world. But there’s something special about it, and sometimes movies can help us capture or recapture or remember what that special thing might be.
If nothing else, they can give us a great big laugh or a great big cry. Here are 10 movies for all different tastes, all streaming on Netflix this holiday season. Enjoy, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas!
The veteran “mumblecore” actor and director Joe Swanberg released Happy Christmas (2014) last summer, perhaps as a way of being subversive. The story itself is also most un-Christmaslike, even though it takes place during the holiday season, complete with chilly weather, parties and decorations. After a bad breakup, Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to stay with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) during the holidays. Jeff and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, who gets to use her natural New Zealand accent) have a new baby, and Kelly is longing to get back to her writing.
With no responsibilities, Jenny is free to get drunk and come home at all hours, which only makes Kelly feel worse. So Jeff gets her an office space to start writing again, aided by an enthusiastic Kelly, who urges her to write an erotic novel. Swanberg shot this enjoyable, laid-back holiday character drama in his own home, which came equipped with a tiki lounge in the basement, and his own real-life son Jude plays the baby.
Terry Zwigoff’s outrageously naughty, hilarious Christmas comedy Bad Santa (2003) features Billy Bob Thornton in a great performance as Willie T. Soke, a drunk, foul-mouthed master safecracker who poses as a department store Santa each year, then robs the safe on Christmas Eve.
Tony Cox is Marcus, his “little person” partner (in one of the movie’s many brilliant gags, he wears white “elf ears” over his own black skin). Willie meets a nerdy kid (Brett Kelly) who gives Willie a place to hide out and helps him find his humanity again, and also meets a sexy bartender (Lauren Graham) who has a “thing” for Santas. Equally funny are Bernie Mac as the store detective who figures out the con, John Ritter as the meek store manager, Lauren Tom as Marcus’s snooty wife, and Octavia Spencer as one of Willie’s conquests.Joel and Ethan Coen contributed to the screenplay, without credit.
The movie appeared in three different cuts: Zwigoff’s 88-minute director’s cut, the 91-minute theatrical cut, and the awful 99-minute “Badder Santa” version that distributor Miramax tried to pass off as a darker “unrated” version. Netflix has the very satisfying 91-minute theatrical cut, which strikes a nice balance between naughty and nice.
While You Were Sleeping
Sandra Bullock is at her charming best in the high-concept romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping (1995). She plays Lucy, a token-taker on the Chicago subway who pines for a man she’s never met, Peter (Peter Gallagher). When she rescues him from a fall onto the tracks, she pretends to be his fiancee so that she can get into the hospital. Her family overhears and takes her in, while Peter lies in a coma.
Normally it’s difficult to get these “lie” plots to work, but Lucy keeps up her deception for fear of inducing a heart-attack in Peter’s grandmother. Meanwhile, she falls genuinely in love with Peter’s humble furniture-maker brother Jack (Bill Pullman).
Jon Turteltaub directs with a clean slickness, setting much of the movie over Christmas and New Year’s, which lends it a cozy feel. The cast, including Glynis Johns and Jack Warden, feels totally genuine, and Peter Boyle is especially funny. The movie’s main misstep is the cartoonish “Joe Jr.,” (Michael Rispoli) the son of Lucy’s landlord who comically tries to pick her up from time to time.
Author Paul Auster adapted his short story “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” into this feature, directed by Wayne Wang. In Smoke (1995), Auggie (Harvey Keitel) runs a tobacco shop in New York, and assorted characters come in and out of the shop, each with his or her own story.
William Hurt plays a writer named Paul, Harold Perrineau Jr. plays a young man who saves Paul’s life, Stockard Channing is Auggie’s ex-girlfriend Ruby, and Ashley Judd is amazing as Ruby’s crack-addicted daughter. The movie unabashedly counts on its dialogue and performances to carry it, and Wang holds the shots for decent lengths of time to accentuate this.
Toward the end of the movie, over a scene that lasts about 10 minutes, Auggie simply tells Paul his Christmas story, a good one, about a stolen camera. Auster and Wang also released Blue in the Face (1995), a companion film that feels largely made up of leftovers and outtakes from this one.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Tim Burton provided the story and characters, and he produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), but Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) did the actual directing work on this stop-motion animated holiday hybrid. Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and sung by Danny Elfman) is the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown.
Stuck for ideas for the Halloween celebration, Jack stumbles upon Christmas Town and steals a few, putting horrific twists on them. He even plans to kidnap Santa, except that Santa accidentally ends up in the hands of the villainous Oogie Boogie. Elfman’s songs are gleefully naughty, and the animation is particularly detailed and stunning. The overall effect, a film that can be enjoyed at both Halloween and Christmas, can catch you off guard. Catherine O’Hara and William Hickey provide other voices.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The key ingredient in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) isn’t a Muppet at all, but rather Michael Caine, who makes a marvelous, traditional Ebenezer Scrooge. Kermit the Frog becomes Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s underpaid, underheated employee who risks the ire of his boss by asking for Christmas Day off. Little Robin plays the Tiny Tim role and effortlessly steals hearts.
Despite many clever, funny Muppet-style gags, the movie sticks fairly closely to the Charles Dickens story, and the result is unexpectedly touching while still being constantly funny. Gonzo, who claims to be Dickens, narrates the story along with Rizzo the Rat. The grumpy critics Statler and Waldorf play the ghost of Jacob Marley and his brother “Robert.” This was the first Muppet film after the untimely death of Jim Henson, so Steve Whitmire takes over for the voice of Kermit. Henson’s son Brian directed.
After the enormous success of his re-darkened Batman (1989), director Tim Burton made it winter in Gotham City, and also Christmastime. This setting lends a strange air to the dark adventure as Batman (Michael Keaton) battles not one, not two, but three villains.
In Batman Returns (1992), the Penguin (Danny DeVito) decides to run for mayor, while Catwoman (a memorable Michelle Pfieffer) seeks revenge against her boss, and the mastermind is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Some fans objected to the overload of bad guys and also the ending, in which Batman rips off his mask, but the incredible atmosphere, mood, and pace (and a very cool Batmobile) eventually win the day. Best of all is the astonishing origin of the Penguin prologue, rendered without dialogue and like a Viking funeral, co-starring the one and only Paul Reubens (shortly after his infamous scandal).
On any list of the funniest Christmas movies, Scrooged (1988) stars the formidable Bill Murray as an Ebenezer Scrooge-type television executive, Frank Cross, whose network is putting on an expensive live Christmas Carol spectacular. The movie’s biggest joke is that Frank never sees the connection between himself and the Dickens character.
Richard Donner directs and allows some surprising violence and nastiness to sometimes creep into the jokes, but it all works out during the heartfelt ending, thanks mainly to Murray’s great performance. David Johansson and Carol Kane are memorable as ghosts, and Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Alfre Woodard are terrific as humans. Don’t miss Lee Majors and Robert Goulet in other hilarious fake Christmas specials, and look fast for the legendary Miles Davis as a street musician playing “We Three Kings.”
An Affair to Remember
Anyone who has seen Sleepless in Seattle knows this unabashedly sentimental weepie from the great director Leo McCarey. An Affair to Remember (1957) stars Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, as Nickie and Terry, who meet-cute while on a cruise. Since they are both currently with other people, they agree to meet at the Empire State Building in six months. Nickie shows, but Terry doesn’t, on account of an accident that has left her crippled.
What happens next is where the movie really succeeds. If it’s not all goopy enough, McCarey sets the finale on Christmas Eve, and it’s hard to resist reaching for the hankie. But McCarey was highly skilled and knew exactly how to pace his story and where to place restraint and subtlety. He also used a widescreen frame with remarkable effect, emphasizing empty space and staging over spectacle. It’s a beautiful movie.
The Bells of St. Mary’s
McCarey was no stranger to Christmas movies, as evidenced in this classic sequel to the multiple Oscar-winner Going My Way (1944). Bing Crosby returns as Father O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). This time he’s assigned to help save a struggling Catholic school. He tangles with the feisty Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and tries to straighten out the selfish businessman Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers, who also played the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life).
Only one scene is Christmasy, but it’s a winner: a Nativity play put on by the children. McCarey was easily as skilled as Frank Capra at bringing this kind of goopy, laugh-cry material to the big screen, disarming audiences with humor and then sucking them in with something sentimental. The tagline in the ads was: “Your heart will be wearing a smile!”
Thanks to re-releases, and adjusted for inflation, The Bells of St. Mary’s is still one of the top 100 moneymaking films of all time.
More Christmas movies available for streaming
- Meet John Doe (1941)
- White Christmas (1954)
- Mr. Arkadin (1955)
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
- My Night at Maud’s (1969)
- A Christmas Without Snow (1980) [Archive.org]
- Trading Places (1983)
- Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988)
- Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)
- Love Actually (2003)
- In Bruges (2008)
- The Warrior’s Way (2010)