Sometimes the holidays seem overwhelming and it’s fun to dive into an irreverent comedy or horror movie that makes fun of it all (see our list of best offbeat Christmas movies for ideas), but other times, we feel a deep need to get back to whatever it is that makes the holiday special—something more honest, traditional, special. These 12 films, while still with their off-kilter moments, celebrate that certain something.
For even more recommendations, take a look at our top picks from 2017. We've updated the entire list, so you'll know which services are streaming your favorites.
Babes in Toyland
(Amazon Prime, Hoopla)
This Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy classic isn’t completely a Christmas film; they play “Stannie Dum” and “Ollie Dee,” two toy workers in a kind of Nursery Rhyme Land. Santa Claus comes to check on his order for wooden soldiers, and of course, something has gone wrong. Otherwise, the plot concerns our duo trying to help Bo Peep get together with her true love, Tom-Tom, and escape the evil attentions of villain Barnaby.
The climax involves a trip into the freaky “Bogeyland.” The Three Little Pigs and a monkey in a “Mickey Mouse”-type suit might be the stuff of nightmares, but otherwise, this silly classic oddity is a family favorite for many. It was released as both Babes in Toyland and March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), and colorized versions are available, so hunting under both titles is recommended to find the right one for you. Watch it with the Laurel & Hardy short Big Business (1929)—available at Hoopla in “The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy”—in which they play Christmas tree salesman.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Whether you’re sick of it or whether you watch it every year, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a supremely effective film, astoundingly heartfelt and an ever-more essential call for kindness and compassion in an increasingly Potter-like world. Distraught over his lot in life, George Bailey (James Stewart) tries to commit suicide at Christmastime, but an angel (Henry Travers) shows him how his accomplishments have improved the lives of many.
It’s a long film, and it veers bravely into some very dark territory, but Capra’s touch is always loving, as if he were holding our hands. Plus, no matter how familiar, or how often parodied, the final sequence is unfailingly moving. Lionel Barrymore plays the vile, miserly Mr. Potter and Donna Reed is the lovestruck Mary. With Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Grahame, Ward Bond, and many other greats.
(Rental: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $1.99)
Not nearly as well-known as many other classics, Holiday Affair (1949) is nonetheless one of the best classic grown-up Christmas stories. The adorable Janet Leigh has one of her best early roles as Connie, a widow whose husband died in WWII, leaving her with a child, Timmy (Gordon Gebert). She has a boyfriend, the mild-mannered Carl (Wendell Corey), but isn’t too excited about committing.
Connie works as a comparison shopper, and while buying a toy train at Christmastime, she costs a store employee, Steve (the great Robert Mitchum), his job. But the imperturbable and super-cool Steve (“baby, I don’t care”) asks her to lunch. Director Don Hartman deeply explores the complex human emotions and behaviors here, hinging as they do on hurt and reluctance, and it’s surprisingly three-dimensional. Christmas decorations are everywhere, but kept in the background, and refreshingly non-schmaltzy. Yet the movie always looks for hope. It’s a real treasure.
Miracle on 34th Street
(Rental: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)
This great New York City Christmas movie won an Oscar for Edmund Gwenn as Best Supporting Actor, because how can the real Santa Claus not win? Miracle on 34th Street (1947) begins at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as the actual Kris Kringle takes the seat in the sleigh when the actor hired to play him falls down drunk. Then Santa becomes interested in helping a busy, successful single mom (Maureen O’Hara) and her spunky daughter (eight year-old Natalie Wood).
John Payne plays the single nice guy who puts up Kris in his apartment. The black-and-white cinematography captures a big city, chilly-weather, seasonal hustle-bustle as well as a big-hearted romance. (The original title was “The Big Heart.”) Look for the wonderful Thelma Ritter as a Macy’s customer. Director George Seaton won an Oscar for his screenplay, as did Valentine Davies for his original story. There was a 1994 remake, but nothing beats the original.
The Lemon Drop Kid
(Rental: Amazon, $1.99)
Another classic that is somehow not terribly well-known, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) has just the right combination of savvy and sweet, of sentimental and streetwise. Bob Hope plays the title character, a despicable, desperately in-debt New York swindler who would even cheat the woman who loves him (Marilyn Maxwell) for a little cash.
After several schemes fall apart, he hits upon a doozy: start a fake old-folks home, so that he and his men can legally dress up in Santa suits and collect money on the street! Unfortunately, the money is stolen, and the old folks need his help. The comedy is a bit high-tension, so it’s a relief when the beautiful “Silver Bells,” written for this film, comes on and we can sit back for a moment and enjoy the pleasures of Christmastime in the city. Lloyd Nolan and Jane Darwell co-star, and look for Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson... as a Swedish wrestler.
(Rental: Amazon, $1.99)
Released in the United States as A Christmas Carol, Scrooge (1951) is considered by many to be the definitive screen version of Charles Dickens’ novella, though some would make arguments for the polished 1938 MGM version, the George C. Scott television version, or the Muppets version. In this one, Alastair Sim plays the old skinflint, his face a combination of monstrous intolerance and deep-seated weariness; his eventual transformation to a nice guy after encountering a series of ghosts seems emotionally possible.
The pacing, the dialogue, and the ghosts in this one are just about the closest to perfection, although purists will find themselves missing the “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding...” line. Brian Desmond Hurst directed, from a screenplay by Noel Langley (The Wizard of Oz).
Click here for more great recommendations!