We started out December with some big holiday shopping, stopping by the big three (Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu), to find the best holiday streaming movies. Next, we hit up some of the newcomers (Apple TV+, Disney+, Paramount+, etc.).
Now Christmas is nearly upon us, and we’ve gone back for some last-minute gifts, this time from the free services (Tubi, Vudu, Crackle, Roku, etc.), the library-based services (Kanopy, Hoopla), and the specialty services (Shudder, The Criterion Channel), and even HBO Max, which has most of the famous Christmas classics on its menu. These 15 films will bring some joy, or some laughter, or some tears, or some thrills, to your season.
This brand-new Christmas horror film, from France, tries something a little different than the usual killer Santa. Eva (Eugénie Derouand) is a former dancer who, after a car accident a few years back, now requires a wheelchair. For her birthday, her extrovert pal Sophie (Honorine Magnier) gives her a beautiful, sinister advent calendar, full of little wooden compartments and covered with strange carvings and even a little wooden demon that pops up.
Eva learns the rules: If you eat one piece of candy, you must eat them all, or you’ll die. If you throw the calendar away, you’ll die. If you disobey the rules, you’ll die. As December rolls along, Eva eats her candies and finds herself with the promise of love, and even the promise of once again dancing, but there must be sacrifices. The Advent Calendar (2021) is a twist on an old tale, well-told, and with plenty of new style and eye-opening turns.
Anna and the Apocalypse (Hoopla)
Dreamed up by a handful of fresh-faced newcomers, this one is a triple-threat: a Christmas-musical-zombie movie. Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) concerns several high school students dealing with various problems just before Christmas break. Anna (Ella Hunt) is smothered by her worrying dad, and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is secretly in love with her. We also meet sophisticated lesbian Steph (Sarah Swire), obnoxious bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), cabaret-style singer Lisa (Marli Siu), and Lisa’s film-geek boyfriend Chris (Christopher Leveaux). But then the zombies come, and the friends must make it across town to the high school to rescue a group of stranded parents.
The movie is less silly than it might seem; death means something here. The songs begin delightfully but grow surprisingly darker as things go on. Christmas imagery is used in a subversive way, such as a giant candy cane turned into a weapon, but even if the focus is not necessarily on holiday cheer, this one is still weirdly touching.
The Bells of St. Mary’s (Hoopla, Roku, Tubi)
Director Leo McCarey was easily as skilled as his contemporary Frank Capra at bringing goopy, laugh-cry material to the screen, disarming audiences with humor, and then sucking them in with something sentimental. The year before Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, McCarey scored a huge hit with this classic sequel to his multiple Oscar-winner Going My Way (1944). In The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), Bing Crosby returns as Father O’Malley; 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. The weirdly accurate tagline in the ads was: “Your heart will be wearing a smile!”
Black Christmas (Criterion Channel, Shudder, Hoopla, Kanopy, Crackle, Roku, et al)
Still the greatest Christmas horror movie ever made, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) is like a spiked eggnog you can enjoy again and again. One of the very first bloody “slasher” movies, it’s also an expertly paced mystery filled with strong performances and interesting characters, as well as a decent slice of festive holiday cheer. (The darkness and snow are dotted with bright colored lights.)
At a sorority house Christmas party just before the holiday break, an obscene phone caller threatens to kill the girls. The next day one of them is missing, and from his secret hiding place, a killer will strike again. Margot Kidder is great as the hard-drinking, sex-obsessed, swears-like-a-sailor Barb; lovely Olivia Hussey is Jess, who finds herself pregnant; Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) is Peter, an obsessed, selfish music student; and John Saxon is the police lieutenant. Amazingly, Clark went on to direct the sentimental favorite A Christmas Story (1983).
Carol (Pluto TV, Roku, Tubi, Vudu)
Todd Haynes directs this glittering adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt, which was published in 1952, after her Strangers on a Train, under a pseudonym. Its passionate story of a love affair between women could have brought her serious trouble in the day, but now Haynes gives it the high-class treatment it deserves.
At Christmastime, Therese (Rooney Mara) works in the toy section of a New York department store. Carol (Cate Blanchett) comes in to buy a gift for her daughter, and Therese can hardly take her eyes from the glamorous woman. Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese returns them, and they begin a passionate, adoring, but tentative relationship. But soon, Carol’s husband is threatening divorce, and threatening to take their child away. Haynes doesn’t quite dig as deeply into Carol (2015) as he did with previous films like Far from Heaven (also set at Christmastime), but everything still clicks perfectly into place. Carter Burwell’s score is glorious, Edward Lachman’s cinematography is lush and rich, the holiday decorations are positively dreamy, and barely a thing could be improved upon.
The Dead (Kanopy, Roku, Tubi, Vudu)
John Huston made one of the most assured movie debuts in history (The Maltese Falcon) and subsequently spent more than 40 years as a maverick, taking risks with challenging, powerful material and failing perhaps more often than succeeding. But when he succeeded, he did so wonderfully, as in his final film, the quiet, touching The Dead (1987), based on James Joyce’s classic short story.
This beautiful, wintry, introspective holiday masterpiece takes place a few days into January, during a traditional Irish family feast. Gorgeous food is prepared, and various family members arrive, each with their own little dramas. Freddy (Donal Donnelly) has been drinking too much, and the kindly Gabriel (Donal McCann) worries about his dinnertime speech. As the events unfold over the course of the evening, it causes Gabriel’s wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) to remember a past event that she finally chooses to share with Gabriel. The ill Huston directed from a wheelchair and breathing through an oxygen tank, and the movie subsequently has a patient, quiet feel. His son Tony adapted the screenplay.
8-Bit Christmas (HBO Max)
The very minor, but pleasant 8-Bit Christmas (2021) unfolds, A Christmas Story-style, as grown-up Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) narrates his tale to his daughter. In the late 1980s, younger Jake (Winslow Fegley) wants nothing in the world more than a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). His parents (June Diane Raphael and Steve Zahn) say nix, so Jake and his misfit friends try to win one in a contest selling wreaths, and then hatch a plan to sneak off during a field trip and procure one. Will there be a Christmas miracle?
Directed by Michael Dowse (Goon, Take Me Home Tonight), the movie is not exactly razor-sharp, but it’s good natured, and some of the silly characters are kinda likable, especially the pathological liar Jeff (Max Malas). And, while it may seem like a big ad for Nintendo, it has something more in mind.
Fanny and Alexander (Criterion Channel, HBO Max)
The master Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman announced his retirement after this three-hour familial epic (which was edited down from a five-hour-plus Swedish TV mini-series), and thus he seemed to throw everything he had into Fanny and Alexander (1983). It’s arguably the most accessible and personal film in the great director’s career. Though it introduces many members of a large family, it essentially focuses on the title children, especially 10-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), who is clearly the one Bergman identifies with.
When Fanny’s (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander’s father suddenly dies, their mother marries a bishop, who turns out to be one of the most thoroughly hateful and evil of all movie villains, covering up his nasty, brutish behavior with piousness. However, the movie opens with a joyous, sad, and beautiful old-fashioned Christmas celebration, set in 1907, and taking up nearly an hour of the film’s 188-minute running time. It could almost be a little Christmas film all on its own. (The Criterion Channel offers the theatrical cut as well as the 5-hour TV version.)
Vincente Minnelli’s full-color musical is a masterpiece, set over the course of an entire year, leading up to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The Smiths (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) have four spunky daughters, Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll), and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), most of them boy-crazy. There are many ups and downs as the girls plan romantic things, while the youngest, Tootie, causes her own kind of trouble. Everyone is devastated by the news that the family may have to leave St. Louis and move to New York.
The startlingly beautiful film includes a surprisingly spooky Halloween scene, followed by a lovely Christmas ball. Esther sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—written for this movie—to a distraught Tootie, who destroys all the snowmen in the yard. Despite its downbeat moments, it’s a glorious movie, showing Minnelli’s astounding skill at its height. O’Brien won a special Oscar for her performance.
Metropolitan (Criterion Channel, HBO Max)
Writer/director Whit Stillman received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of his debut film, Metropolitan (1990), which is filled with the chatter of upper-crust intellectuals, many of whom are rather sillier than they seem to think they are.
Set during a chilly Christmas season in New York City, it begins as Princeton student Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who can’t afford a warm overcoat and wears a raincoat instead, becomes involved with a pack of Upper East Side socialites; they mistakenly believe they have stolen his cab, and thus invite him to a party. The sly, cynical Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman, a standout) takes Tom under his wing, and he eventually becomes a member of the group. There are crushes and small betrayals, and lots of philosophizing, which, weirdly, is more universally appealing than it sounds. Christmas decorations drift by in the backgrounds, making this a cozy movie to enjoy with a cocktail.
Miracle on 34th Street (HBO Max)
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.
The Preacher’s Wife (Roku)
Penny Marshall directed this remake of the Cary Grant movie The Bishop’s Wife (1947). She cast Denzel Washington in the Grant role and tells the story from a Black point of view. The Preacher’s Wife (1996) emerges as a smooth, big-hearted movie, worth surrendering to.
Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) operates a struggling church in a poor neighborhood; he’s in danger of losing his faith, losing his flock, losing his wife Julia (Whitney Houston), and even losing the church itself to make way for a new multi-million-dollar condo. In answer to his prayers, a charming angel, Dudley (Washington), appears. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to trust Dudley, and, worse, he starts to fall for Julia. The movie makes good use of Houston’s voice, casting her as the leader of the church choir. Gregory Hines is hilarious as the greedy businessman trying to get his hands on the church.
Shazam! (HBO Max)
In an attempt to save the sinking DC Universe movie series, the makers of Shazam! (2019) decided to make a snarky comedy rather than a sludgy, serious explosion-fest, and the gamble worked. Set at Christmastime, this movie is genuinely funny, but more than that, it’s a heartwarming tale about the search for one’s true family.
Troubled orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is adopted by a loving foster family; after defending his foster brother Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) from bullies, he is chosen by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to receive superpowers. He appears in a grown-up body (Zachary Levi) with a red suit and cape. At first, the unnamed hero (in the comics, he was known as Captain Marvel, but DC obviously can’t use that anymore) and Freddy have a ball, but then it’s time to get down to business, stop bad guy Sivana (Mark Strong), and save the family. David F. Sandberg, known for the very good horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, directs.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) (HBO Max)
People remember Jimmy Stewart for his adventures in Bedford Falls at holiday time, but fewer know him for his wonderful, romantic performance in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a much more graceful movie, and no less touching. Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, a salesclerk in a shop in Budapest during the holidays. He is engaged in a secret pen-pal romance, but discovers to his chagrin that the mystery girl is in fact his annoying new co-worker, Klara (Margaret Sullavan). All this happens amidst an atmosphere of declining business, potential layoffs, and a secret affair with the boss’s wife.
Movie fans will recognize the boss, Mr. Matuschek, as the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan, and William Tracy is very funny as delivery boy Pepi. Though Lubitsch is largely unknown these days, he was quite famous and highly influential in his day, noted for his delicate, graceful “Lubitsch Touch,” which is difficult to describe but easy to spot. He could convey information or humor with a certain visual rhythm that was all his own. A remake by Nora Ephron, You’ve Got Mail (1998), has none of that rhythm but was a huge hit anyway.
Tangerine (Kanopy, Crackle, Pluto TV, Redbox, Roku, Tubi, Vudu)
It’s Christmas Eve in Hollywood, but of course, there’s no snow, and the color scheme in Tangerine (2015) is more orange and pink than red and green. Two transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), are chatting over a donut. Sin-Dee has just been released from prison and has now learned that her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone), has cheated on her with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Thus begins a daylong odyssey across the city to find both the cheater and the girl.
The pair pauses for Alexandra’s “show” at a seedy club, and we occasionally follow Armenian taxi driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who would rather engage Sin-Dee’s services than spend the holiday with his family. Director Sean Baker, who also made the excellent Starlet, creates a strong sense of community, with characters becoming very much a part of the space they occupy, as well as a touching lack of judgment toward their not-so-wholesome activities. The surprisingly touching conclusion elevates it to memorable alternative holiday viewing.
Finally, don’t forget the many “fireplace” videos, available free on Tubi, including 4K Fireplace, Meditation Fireplace, Festive Fireplace, Classic Christmas Films Fireplace, and Modern Art Deco Fireplace. (Tubi)
Even more recommendations
If your favorite holiday movies didn’t make our top list, you might find them here: Batman Returns (HBO Max), The Bishop’s Wife (Kanopy, Roku, Tubi, Vudu), Brazil (Tubi, Pluto TV), A Christmas Story (HBO Max), A Christmas Tale (Criterion Channel), The Day of the Beast (Shudder, Tubi, Vudu, Kanopy), Doubt (HBO Max), Elf (HBO Max), Eyes Wide Shut (HBO Max), Gremlins (HBO Max), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Tubi), Holiday Affair (1949) (HBO Max), Jingle Bell Rocks! (Kanopy), Lethal Weapon (HBO Max), The Long Kiss Goodnight (Hoopla, Tubi), Maniac (Shudder, Tubi, Vudu, Pluto TV), The Merry Gentleman (Kanopy, Roku, Tubi, Vudu), Mon Oncle Antoine (Criterion Channel), Morvern Callar (Kanopy, Roku), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (HBO Max), The Night of the Hunter (Criterion Channel), Nothing Like the Holidays (Tubi), Peter’s Friends (Tubi), Rabid (HBO Max, Hoopla, Roku, Kanopy), The Ref (Hoopla), Serendipity (Crackle, Roku, Pluto TV), Susan Slept Here (HBO Max), Tokyo Godfathers (Hoopla), Trancers (Tubi, Pluto TV), 12:08 East of Bucharest (Kanopy), Wonder Woman 1984 (HBO Max)
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.