We all thought the pandemic would be over by this time this year, and we’d have a normal holiday season in 2021. Yet here we are, with another COVID variant threatening. Whether you’re staying safe by staying home, or gathering with friends and loved ones, celebrate the 12 days of Christmas with these great movies available for streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime video.
This Netflix original 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) 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., 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. For the sequel, which is, happily, just as surprisingly enjoyable as the original, Russell’s longtime life-partner Goldie Hawn joins the fun as Mrs. Claus.
Donovan’s Reef (on Amazon Prime Video)
Legendary director John Ford may have been one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, if not the greatest, but he did have a cornball sense of humor that crept out from time to time. In Donovan’s Reef (1963), a relaxed, lighthearted comedy set in a lovely Pacific-island paradise, he found just the right balance between raucous brawls and understated poetry.
Hulu + Live TV
Price When Reviewed:
$70/mo. (Disney+ and ESPN+ included)
Two U.S. Navy veterans, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan (John Wayne) and Thomas Aloysius ‘Boats’ Gilhooley (Lee Marvin), meet every year on their birthday to fight. All that changes, though, when uptight, prissy Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen) arrives to visit her father. A wonderful Christmas scene takes place during a holiday pageant. Despite some unfortunate cultural cluelessness, this big-hearted movie packs a lot of fun into its 109 minutes. Jack Warden, Cesar Romero, and Dorothy Lamour co-star.
Edward Scissorhands (on Amazon Prime Video)
Director Tim Burton’s unofficial irreverent Christmas trilogy consists of Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and this weird, but quite lovely film. Edward Scissorhands (1990) opens with Vincent Price as an inventor building his creation, Edward (Johnny Depp, using mostly his eyes to convey a disarming innocence and hurt), but the inventor dies before he can make Ed’s hands.
Years later, an Avon saleslady (Dianne Wiest) discovers him hiding in a decaying mansion and invites him to come back with her to an odd vision of suburbia, both comforting and unreal, like a snow globe. There he meets the beautiful Kim (Winona Ryder, hair bleached to become one of Burton’s many, beloved blonde angels) and the bully Jim (Anthony Michael Hall). But he finds his place by using his scissor hands to create topiary masterpieces and bizarre hairstyles for the housewives. The poetic, open-hearted wintertime/Christmas sequences make all the weirdness seem delightfully comfy.
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (on Amazon Prime Video)
Jim Henson’s 48-minute TV special Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (1977) raised the bar for the Muppets, performing on a 3D set for the first time, and anticipating The Muppet Movie (1979). Based on a children’s book by Russell Hoban, the special is one of the most downbeat holiday offerings ever made, but well worth a look (and full of jug band music, like “Bar-B-que” and “There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” as well as the lovely “When the River Meets the Sea”).
In frozen Frogtown Hollow, Emmet Otter (performed by Jerry Nelson) and his Ma (performed by Frank Oz and voiced by Marilyn Sokol) are barely squeaking by, doing laundry and odd jobs. When a talent contest comes up with a prize of $50, they each enter, unbeknownst to the other. Kermit the Frog (performed by Henson) introduces the story, and Paul Williams wrote the songs, which range from bouncy to bittersweet.
Happiest Season (on Hulu)
Clea DuVall wrote and directed this comedy-romance to create a holiday perennial for the LGBTQ+ community. Happiest Season does fall into the old groove of being about a couple wherein one partner is out and the other isn’t, which usually makes for annoyingly formulaic, lie-based romcoms. But this time DuVall is aware of the trope, and she nonetheless makes it all feel emotionally true.
While out one night admiring Christmas lights, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) is swept away in a romantic moment and invites her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home for Christmas. On the drive there, Harper confesses that her conservative family doesn’t know about her relationship status, and can Abby please pretend to be her roommate? Stewart is the one who really sells this, balancing her fury at the situation and her genuine love for Harper. The cast is tremendous, with Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen as Harper’s parents, Dan Levy as Abby’s comic-relief pal, Aubrey Plaza as a potential temptation for Abby, and Alison Brie as Harper’s “perfect” older sister.
It’s a Wonderful Life (on Amazon Prime Video)
Whether you’re sick of it or 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. Prime Video offers the original black-and-white version, in very fine, high-quality video.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (on Netflix)
A holiday blend of science and magic, David E. Talbert’s wonderful Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020) introduces us to Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), a brilliant inventor with a shop full of amazing things. Unfortunately, his apprentice Gustafson steals his latest invention, a sentient doll (voiced by Ricky Martin), as well as his book of inventions. Twenty years later, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) has become a wealthy and famous toymaker, but has used up everything in the Jeronicus’s book and has nowhere left to turn. Meanwhile, Jeronicus has turned his shop into a pawn service, and struggles to come up with just one more great invention. At this time, his clever granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) comes to visit, and she helps Jeronicus with the one thing that has been missing from his work.
The musical numbers are a delight, and the costume designs truly sparkle, especially Journey’s hairdo (with little gears embedded in her tufts). Lisa Davina Phillip plays a postal carrier who loves Jeronicus, and Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Hugh Bonneville co-star.
Klaus (on Netflix)
Origin-of-Santa-Claus movies and shows are nothing new, but the animated feature Klaus (2019) feels fresh and smart, providing oddly, satisfyingly logical ideas for the beginnings of certain Christmas traditions. It has a great look—hand-drawn characters and backdrops with computer-generated texturing and lighting—and strong voice performances.
Wealthy, spoiled Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is punished by his father, and sent to be the postmaster of a remote, frozen island, where longtime feuds between the residents mean there isn’t much need for mail. He meets old toymaker Klaus (voiced by J.K. Simmons), and gets an idea: to meet his quota, and perhaps return to his old life, Jesper encourages the children to write letters to Klaus, asking for toys. The movie sadly relies on some overly familiar plot twists as it goes along, but finally wins the day with its cheerful spirit. Sergio Pablos, who wrote the stories for Despicable Me and Smallfoot, makes his directing debut.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (on Hulu)
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 himself.
Riders of Justice (on Hulu)
Veteran screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, from Denmark, wrote and directed this endlessly clever crime film sprinkled with clusters of dark comedy. But the real surprise is that, while it veers close to Tarantino territory, Riders of Justice (2021) manages to avoid the kind of ironic detachment that usually marks these kinds of films.
The characters here, a band of hyper-intelligent misfits and a wounded, violent outsider (the great Mads Mikkelsen), are always trying to get each other to talk about their feelings, and to be totally honest. When a woman is killed in a train accident, which may not have been an accident, Markus (Mikkelson), Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Lennart (Lars Brygmann), and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) begin hunting for the murderer, using both computer skills and Markus’s lethal military training, all while trying to keep it a secret from Markus’s teen daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). It could have gone overly slapsticky, but it remains constantly fleet-footed and surprising—and even includes a heart-warming Christmas scene!
A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (on Netflix)
Like Clark W. Griswold, these two comic doofuses return for a third movie during the Christmas season. In A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011), Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are now estranged. Harold is married and making a go of being a suburban family man. His intimidating father-in-law (Danny Trejo) comes to visit, bringing a beloved family Christmas tree. Meanwhile, Kumar is getting over his ex and is still living in a dump, smoking pot every day. A mysterious gift brings the boys back together, but results in the tree being burned down. So, they must go on a comic odyssey into New York City on Christmas Eve night, find a replacement tree, and get it home before the family returns from midnight mass.
The comedy is rude and broad, but tightly constructed and hilarious; it helps that the movie occasionally veers into non-reality (including a stop-motion animated Christmas Special sequence), loosening the rules a bit, while Harold and Kumar remain at the center, constantly amused and amazed. And yet, it winds up showing a good spirit. Of course, Neil Patrick Harris returns as himself, putting on a spectacular Christmas pageant, and Patton Oswalt appears as a cheerful drug dealer with seasonal weed. The movie was originally presented in 3D, adding to its wild sense of holiday abandon. Sign us up for a “Wafflebot” this Christmas!
A Very Murray Christmas (on Netflix)
Director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) applies her dreamy, dewy touch to this traditional Christmas special turned sideways. Running only an hour, A Very Murray Christmas (2015) focuses more on heartfelt performances than on polished ones (it seems to annoy lots of people). It has an appealingly warm, sleepy, quiet pace, and it’s a perfect antidote for a frenetic holiday season.
Bill Murray plays himself, preparing to put on a live Christmas special at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, but thwarted by a snowstorm. So, Murray, pianist Paul Shaffer, and several guests gather in the bar for a laid-back, loose, impromptu special of their own, with Murray crooning, “Nick the Lounge Singer”-style, on several classics. Chris Rock, David Johansen, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, and Jenny Lewis sing, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus appear in a dream sequence, and Amy Poehler, Julie White, Dimitri Dimitrov, and Michael Cera turn in funny little appearances. The French band Phoenix (whose lead singer is Coppola’s husband) appear as hotel chefs and they also perform.
If you catch some double features and get through this list before the season is over, here are seven runners-up: Dear Santa (a 2020 documentary on Hulu), Just Friends (on Netflix), Let It Snow (on Netflix), Little Women [the 1994, 4K Version only] (on Amazon Prime Video), The Nice Guys (on Hulu), Serendipity (on Netflix), and Unaccompanied Minors (on Netflix).
Jeffrey has been a working film critic for more than 14 years. He first fell in love with the movies at age six while watching "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and served as staff critic for the San Francisco Examiner from 2000 through 2003.