We gave you our “naughty” list of holiday movies last week, films offering catharsis for the stresses and annoyances of the Christmas season. Given that this can also be a time of peace and joy, generosity and goodwill, we’ve also drawn up a “nice” list to celebrate all the good things that this season can be.
Whether it be learning to believe in Santa Claus, learning to believe in family, or learning to believe in oneself, these movies carry the message of the season.
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Coming from Aardman Animations—the English company that brought us Wallace and Gromit—Arthur Christmas (2011) is one of the most hilarious, colorful, and exciting animated Christmas movies ever made. Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the clumsy, cheery son of Santa Claus; he works in a little, brightly colored office answering letters to children, and he loves his job. His older brother Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), on the other hand, pretty much runs the high-tech operation of delivering presents to all the children in the world in one night, while the current Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) seems to have reached retirement age.
Late Christmas Eve, it becomes clear that a mistake has been made, a single present was not delivered, and it becomes Arthur’s job to make this right. Thus begins a thrilling, around-the-world adventure filled with funny characters and silly jokes. Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook, the movie looks great—warm and smooth and bright—and moves with slick, enthralling energy. Somehow, this lovable film didn’t do well in American theaters in its day, but it’s worthy of an annual viewing.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
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What more can be said about this, one of the earliest and most enduring of all animated TV Christmas specials? Now with a home on Apple TV+, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) may not have the smoothest animation—the scene of the kids dancing is easily parodied—but its teleplay, written by Charles M. Schulz himself, takes a most unique approach to the holiday. Feeling gloomy, Charlie Brown is given the chance to direct the school Christmas play, while Snoopy enters a commercialized decoration contest. The story culminates when Charlie Brown and Linus are sent to pick out a Christmas tree; choosing a misfit little live tree over a soulless aluminum one. (Sales of aluminum trees apparently plummeted after this.)
Employing untrained child voice actors, no laugh track, and a brilliant jazz score (Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack album went multi-platinum and remains an annual favorite), the unconventional special somehow came together as something universal and magical, an ode to the True Meaning of Christmas.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
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20th Century Fox
Fans of Christmas films might disagree as to which movie is the best Christmas Carol, but this one, which was broadcast on television in America, is surely a contender. The director, Clive Donner, had been the editor on another beloved version, the black-and-white 1951 Alistair Sim film. He brings color and a serene quality to A Christmas Carol (1984) and finds a perfect pace for what many consider to be one of the most faithful of the filmed adaptations.
George C. Scott is another winning factor, playing Ebenezer Scrooge without a lot of shouting or gesticulating (and even flicking a wry smile from time to time). The great David Warner, who passed away this year and was primarily known for playing villains, plays Bob Cratchit with a warm heart. Edward Woodward (The Wicker Man) is the Ghost of Christmas Present, Susannah York (Superman) is Mrs. Cratchit, and Joanne Whalley (Willow) is Scrooge’s sister, Fan.
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Elf (2003) made a box office star out of Will Ferrell and catapulted director Jon Favreau to the “A” list. It remains a hilarious, kindhearted, and beloved holiday favorite. Ferrell stars as “Buddy,” a human raised by Santa’s elves (the joke is funnier considering Ferrell’s 6-foot, 3-inch stature). The magical North Pole sequences are meant to recall classic TV Christmas specials, complete with a stop-motion-animated narwhal. Upon learning that he is not actually elf-born, he decides to go to New York City to find his real father, a cranky children’s book publisher (James Caan).
Ferrell’s total dedication to the part, a kind of girlish innocence, really makes this fly. His line readings of his ridiculously naïve dialogue (“what’s your favorite color?” “smiling’s my favorite!,” etc.) is unfailingly hilarious. An earthy performance by Zooey Deschanel, who works in a department store in an elf costume, perfectly complements him. (Their duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a keeper.) Peter Dinklage makes a very funny appearance as a successful children’s author. Bob Newhart narrates the story as Buddy’s elf “papa,” and Ed Asner is a grumpy Santa Claus.
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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 rom-coms. 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 rest of the cast is tremendous as well, 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
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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 take his own life 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
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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 he 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. Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Hugh Bonneville co-star.
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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 don’t result in 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.
Miracle on 34th Street
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20th Century Fox
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 film’s 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 Muppet Christmas Carol
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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. The grumpy critics Statler and Waldorf play the ghost of Jacob Marley and his brother “Robert.” Of course, Miss Piggy is here, as Emily Cratchit, and in a masterstroke of casting, Fozzie Bear plays that staple of Scrooge’s past, the Christmas-party-loving “Fozziewig.” Gonzo, who claims to be Dickens, narrates the story along with Rizzo the Rat.
Despite many clever, funny Muppet-style gags, movie sticks fairly closely to the Charles Dickens story—except the Paul Williams songs, which are nice without being exactly memorable—and the result is unexpectedly touching and constantly funny. This was the first Muppet film after the untimely death of Jim Henson; Steve Whitmire takes over for the voice of Kermit. Henson’s son Brian directed.
The Noel Diary
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These kinds of goopy, Hallmark-style Christmas romances are everywhere, like pine needles at the base of a tree. They’re very popular, and their fans are devoted. They’re unchallenging, frequently irritating, and ultimately as satisfying as a vanilla milkshake. Netflix alone released three of them this year, and only The Noel Diary (2022) is watchable.
Jacob Turner (Justin Hartley) is a best-selling author, who is handsome and single and has a dog. When his mother dies, he travels to her house to deal with her belongings. There, he meets Rachel (Barrett Doss), whose mother, Noel, was Jacob’s nanny. She’s looking for clues as to her mother’s whereabouts and finds it in a diary (thus, the title). This leads to a road trip to see Jacob’s estranged father (James Remar), and—even though Rachel is engaged—a potential romance.
The movie is full of weird touches, flaws, and shortcuts, but when these movies work, as this one does, the goopy stuff fills in the cracks and makes it all smooth and shiny. Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard) is terrific as Jacob’s mother’s next-door neighbor.
The Shop Around the Corner
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MGM/Warner Home Video
People remember Jimmy Stewart for his adventures in Bedford Falls at holiday time (I’m referring to It’s a Wonderful Life, of course), 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 sales clerk 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 was 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.
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Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been made into so many movies and shows that it’s difficult to keep track of them, but Spirited (2022) is something new: a sequel, more or less. We learn that Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) continues to haunt shady characters every Christmas in the hopes of reforming them. He has a huge crew of helpers, including the current Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell), who has been doing the job for two centuries and has the option to go back to being a human if he so chooses. This year, Present insists that they target Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a ruthless, fast-talking media consultant who has been labeled “unredeemable.” Clint is no pushover, though, and when Present falls in love with a human woman, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), Clint tries to draw attention away from himself and talk Present into pursuing her… and being human.
The movie is presented as a full-on Broadway-type musical, with catchy numbers and enthralling dancing. Director Sean Anders lets the movie go big, but still keeps things funny, snappy, and wise. Sunita Mani is terrific as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Tracy Morgan provides the voice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, who doesn’t get to talk when he’s working. (“He mostly just points at stuff.”)
The Thin Man
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Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Thin Man became one of MGM’s most successful movie series of the 1930s, beginning with W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934). Van Dyke used his typical raw, quick shooting style, scrubbing off some of MGM’s trademark polish and finding several wonderful, stolen moments. William Powell and Myrna Loy showed remarkable screen chemistry as husband and wife Nick and Norah Charles, he a boozing, happily retired detective, and she a bored, rich socialite longing for adventure. She encourages him to take on a new case, beginning with a missing person and ending in murder.
Maureen O’Sullivan, who had played Jane in Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man, co-stars as Dorothy Wynant, who hires Nick. The story falls during the Christmas season, and the Charles family—including adorable dog Asta—pauses midway to enjoy a Christmas morning full of presents around the tree. It may not be the most traditional Christmas story, but it’s a great film from Hollywood’s classic era, a perfect blend of comedy, romance, and mystery. Powell and Loy played the characters together in five more Thin Man films.
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Written by Preston A. Whitmore II, this busy, lovable jumble of a holiday movie has its share of holiday cliches, but it’s also a big ol’ warm hug of a movie, full of food, cheer, and silliness. It has an enviable cast, too, starting with Loretta Devine as matriarch Ma’Dere Whitfield, who celebrates with her boyfriend (Delroy Lindo). Her six children—plus various spouses, significant others, and grandkids—are all coming over. Each of them, plus wives and girlfriends, has secrets or grudges that must come out and be resolved before Christmas morning.
Idris Elba is a traveling musician, in trouble with loan sharks, Regina Hall has a cheating husband, middle sister Sharon Leal has a Christmas romance with Mekhi Phifer, and pop star Chris Brown is the youngest, afraid to tell his mother that he wants to be a singer. (He performs a cover of the classic Donny Hathaway song at the end.) There’s a lot more—a family business decision, a secret White wife, a pregnancy, etc.—and Whitmore does an admirable job of juggling it all, somehow making This Christmas (2007) feel inviting, warm, and cheery.
A Christmas coda
Let’s not forget the various “Fireplace”/”Yule Log” videos that are simultaneously ridiculous and charming. Tubi has many of them, available for free; Disney+ offers a Frozen-themed fireplace, Arendelle Castle Yule Log; Netflix features the “4K Fireplace;” Shudder contributes its spooky Jack-o-Lantern-themed “Ghoul Log;” and so on.
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.