Unwrap these movies this holiday season


Covers from “Die Hard” (Left) and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (Right) that depict two very different types of Christmas movies

Nick Williams

Alongside decorating a tree and unwrapping presents, watching Christmas movies is a long held tradition for many families around the holidays.  Over the years, the worlds of cinema and Christmas have merged to create movies that range from forgettable films to bona fide classics.  These movies have stood the test of time and proved themselves to not just be fun novelty movies, but true gems of the industry. While there is a spectrum of quality for of these movies, there is no doubt that each one holds a special spot in the hearts of millions of families when the holiday season rolls around.  For those of you just getting into the cinematic Christmas spirit or those trying to expand your horizons, here is a list of seven essential Christmas movies.

“A Christmas Story” (1983)

Many Christmas movies can be considered iconic in their own ways, but rarely do I find myself quoting any other Christmas movie more than I do “A Christmas Story.”  There are countless moments that have stayed with me since my first watch, and I’m sure that’s the case for millions of other Christmas movie lovers. From “You’ll shoot your eye out” to “Fra-gee-lay,” nearly every scene has a memorable moment that has been ingrained into our American cultural tradition of Christmas.  Based off the book by Jean Shepard titled “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,” which was released 17 years prior to the movie, this humorous novel consisted of numerous short chapters centered around the boy, Ralph, who reminisces about his childhood with his friend, Flick. The movie’s plot is similar, but not identical.  While the movie’s plot is based on many of Ralph’s childhood experiences with an older Ralph narrating the sequences, the character of Flick is done away with as well as the whole idea of the two discussing their childhood as adults. This seamless conglomerate of childhood tales not only make for an entertaining watch, but also a heartfelt story that comes full circle and touches on the family theme that is common among Christmas movies.

“Die Hard” (1988)

One of the longest ongoing debates among movie-goers is whether or not Bruce Willis’s classic action flick falls under the category of “Christmas Movie.”  There are probably many that are already offended that I put “Die Hard” on this list, however my decision stands. There is far too much evidence sprinkled throughout the film to convince me otherwise.  From the Christmas music to the seasonal one-liners, the movie delivers in spades on its claim to being a Christmas movie. Now aside from the cinema drama, “Die Hard” is a near perfect action movie. There are many things that make this movie great, but the one aspect that separates it from all other brainless action flicks is the hero, John McClane.  He is just an ordinary cop from New York that is thrown into an extraordinary situation. He is not a specialized soldier or a secret agent trained for these circumstances, making his actions easier to empathize with. This is what the successive movies lose, for they have John McClane acting like a super soldier rather than a family man fighting to save his wife.  Whether you agree that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not, there is no denying its classic status.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989)

Personally, this is my favorite Christmas movie, and hopefully it is not hard to see why.  The brilliant comedic lines and timing from the whole cast, especially the wonderful overacting from Chevy Chase, make even the most mundane scene enjoyable.  The classic tale of a “normal” family dealing with the annoying and sometimes destructive, but ultimately loving, in-laws and cousins has been seen a million times amongst all genres but it is even more prevalent with the sub-genre of Christmas movies.  A challenge presents itself when trying to find a new way to tell this type of story. In my opinion, what makes this certain rendition of this story unique is the very real sense of love and care that the characters have for one another. No matter how badly a family member messes up the holiday, they all seem to forgive each other in the end, creating a sincere family feel amongst the characters.  In addition to the mood of the whole story, the comedy works perfectly with the story. Jokes do not feel forced or shoved in place, they come naturally as the plot progresses and only add to the characters. There is the classic debate among cinephiles as to whether the plot or characters are more important to a film’s success, and in this case, I would say that “Christmas Vacation” dies without its characters.

“Home Alone” (1990)

I have been watching this movie every year around the holidays for as long as I can remember, and every year I have grown to love it more and more.  This is another character driven movie, even though it has a unique plot that spawned droves of spin-off movies where a child bested adults in various situations.  While the mindless fun of watching Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern get beaten within an inch of their lives by a child’s traps is all well and good, the sincere theme of a family being together during Christmas, seen once again, is kept constant and felt throughout the course of the story.  We see Kevin Macallister’s mindset on family go from resenting it, to not caring about it, to missing it, to being scared without it, and finally to being glad that he has it. The obstacles presented to Kevin amount in a change of heart that sees him have a much greater appreciation for his family.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000)

Although extremely goofy, sometimes too much so, this movie served as a vehicle for one of the most over-the-top and crazy performances that cinema has seen in this century by the incredible and under appreciated Jim Carey.  While I have my problems with the movie, I usually forget them about twenty minutes in after seeing Carey absolutely own the part of the Grinch. The practical makeup, sets and production design also do a wonderful job of creating a Seuss-like atmosphere without relying on CGI as a crutch.  The original cartoon short will always be better in my opinion because it does a better job of representing the picture book, but this movie is a worthy adaptation that is enjoyable in its own right. 

“Elf” (2003)

For any fan of Christmas, comedy, or Will Ferrell, this modern classic is required viewing and has already cemented its legacy as an essential movie to watch during the holidays.  It has intense Christmas energy, with its theme being exclusive to the holiday season, for the movie is focused on preserving the Christmas spirit. The crown jewel of this movie is Ferrell’s delightful performance.  He brings a certain energy to set that personifies Christmas and really allows this story’s theme to come alive. Despite Ferrell’s charisma as a dorky elf, the side characters are not very fun or interesting. Perhaps that’s the point but the scenes without Buddy are a drag.  While far from perfect, “Elf” is largely enjoyable and a must watch when December rolls around.

“Polar Express” (2004)

When it comes to discussing “Polar Express,” I am torn between my love for the story and my disdain for the animation.  The story is well done, hitting the beats and getting the message across utilizing many tools at its disposal. There are fun sequences as well as more serious ones that add to the theme of belief.  Despite all that the writers and story developers got right, the artistic department fell short. With hall of fame director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump”) helming the film and legend Tom Hanks serving as the best character in the movie, you would think that more effort would have been put towards the look of the film.  But this, sadly, is not the case. The animation comes off as creepy, weird, and just flat-out odd to look at. With a runtime of 100 minutes, it only gets harder to look at the awkward faces as the story progresses. It almost looks as if the animation department was handed all the voice acting and the script with six months to create a fully animated movie before the release date.  Whether it be a rushed job or just a poor job, the animation of “The Polar Express” simply bothers me and gets rid of whatever the story had going for it.