The best traditional Christmas movies for streaming

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O. Henry’s Full House

(Rental: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $3.99) 

7 xmas ohenrysfullhouse jma 20th Century Fox

★★★★☆

The anthology film O. Henry’s Full House (1952) brings five famous short stories by O. Henry to the screen, adapted by five directors. The legendary Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi” is here, and it’s still a good one, even if director Henry King allows it to get a bit goopy. The highlight is Howard Hawks’s rendition of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” the story of kidnappers whose young victim is so horrible that he thwarts their plans.

“The Cop and the Anthem,” the story of a homeless man trying to get arrested so he can spend the winter in jail, works because of its scene-stealing performance by Charles Laughton (and because of an early Marilyn Monroe appearance). The other two segments are Jean Negulesco’s “The Last Leaf” and Henry Hathaway’s “The Clarion Call.” Somehow, author John Steinbeck appears as himself and introduces the five segments.

Love Actually

(Netflix)

8 xmas loveactually jma Universal

★★★★☆

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) made his directorial debut with this mammoth, multi-character romantic comedy, set during Yuletide. Some of the stories are heartbreaking or bittersweet (Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson’s endangered marriage, Andrew Lincoln’s unrequited crush on married Keira Knightley, etc.) and some are sweetly tentative and adorable (Colin Firth learning Portuguese to speak to Lúcia Moniz, Prime Minister Hugh Grant trying to get Martine McCutcheon’s attention, Liam Neeson coaching his stepson Thomas Sangster in the ways of the rom-com, etc.).

Bill Nighy steals his scenes as an egomaniacal crooner recording an awful Christmas song, and Martin Freeman and Joanna Page appear in the weirdest segment, as lighting stand-ins for a porn movie shoot. Love Actually (2003) doesn’t really break with many rom-com conventions, and it has its detractors, but its bright spirit and many big laughs have endeared it to many.

Rise of the Guardians

(Rental: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

9 xmas riseoftheguardians jma DreamWorks

★★★★☆

This slick, exciting computer-animated family movie, based on books by William Joyce, doesn’t take place at Christmastime, but Santa Claus is a main character, and it makes good viewing any time of year. Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin)—a big, burly fellow who speaks in the voice of a tough Russian gangster and has “naughty” and “nice” tattoos on his forearms—is the leader of the super-hero like Guardians.

The others are the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher), the Sandman (who has no voice), and their newest recruit, the cocksure Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine). Together they must prevent the evil Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law); he gains power when children no longer believe in their guardians. Rise of the Guardians (2012) is fast and fun and perfectly paced at 97 minutes. Best of all, it makes Santa cool.

The Best Man Holiday

(Rental: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, etc., from $2.99)

10 xmas bestmanholiday jma Universal

★★★☆☆

Fourteen years after his The Best Man, filmmaker Malcolm D. Lee (Spike’s cousin), revisits the characters at Christmastime in the comedy-drama The Best Man Holiday (2013). It indulges in a few too many lazy storylines wherein, if characters would simply talk to each other, there would be no trouble. But the wonderful cast and the cheery setting still generate enough goodwill, warmth, and laughs to make it worth a viewing.

The friends (Taye Diggs, Terrence Howard, Nia Long, Harold Perrineau, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun, Melissa De Sousa, and Regina Hall) from the first movie gather at the mansion of football star Lance (Morris Chestnut) for the holiday, where several dramas unravel. The advantage here is that these characters are not family; they have gathered together by choice, and their dynamic is unique. When an old favorite song comes on, they spring comfortably into a dance routine invented many moons ago.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

(Amazon Prime)

11 xmas manwhoinventedchristmas jma Bleecker Street Media

★★★★☆

The last three novels published by Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) have flopped, and he’s stuck for what to do next. As if by divine province, he runs across a lone miser (Christopher Plummer) in a graveyard, and gets the bare-bones idea for what would become A Christmas Carol, which would be published in 1843. Far from a standard biopic about a writer, The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) is largely unconcerned with being “based on a true story.”

As Dickens works, he’s visited by various imaginary “spirits” who alternately inspire and distract him. Real-life people, including his father (Jonathan Pryce), and a pulp literature-loving maid (Anna Murphy) frequently interrupt him. And money is running out. Directed by Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), the movie is sweet and colorful, making the argument that Dickens actually did “invent” Christmas spirit, while maintaining that spirit itself.

The Christmas Chronicles

(Netflix)

12 xmas christmaschronicles jma Netflix

★★★☆☆

This brand-new Netflix original film probably wouldn’t be terribly interesting except for the canny, cool casting of cult star Kurt Russell as a sturdy, leather coat-wearing Santa Claus. And, with his help, The Christmas Chronicles (2018) actually lands as a broadly enjoyable, heartwarming tale that could hold up to perennial viewings.

With their firefighter father having died the year before, and their mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) called in to work on Christmas Eve, teen Teddy (Judah Lewis) and his younger sister Kate (Darby Camp) decide to stay up and catch Santa on video. They wind up accidentally sabotaging Santa’s sleigh and crash-landing it in Chicago. Then, they must find the reindeer, Santa’s magic hat, etc., in order to save Christmas and get back home. It’s silly, but cheerful, and Russell sets the tone, even performing an Elvis-like rendition of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” while stuck in jail.

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