It’s a magical time of year – especially for cuddling up to watch some of our all-time favorite movies. From tearjerkers to comedies, Christmas films hold a special place in our hearts. English Professor and the College’s Director of the Film Studies Program John Bruns ranks his favorite 10 Christmas films – revealing a common theme of restoring both our sense of wonder and our faith in humanity.
10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (dir. Peter Hunt, 1969)
I’m a huge James Bond fan, and to me this is the best James Bond film of all. I know, it’s also considered the worst, but believe me: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a superbly directed film with innovative editing techniques and great performances by Telly Savalas (as Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Diana Rigg (as the fiercely independent Tracy) and Gabrielle Ferzetti (as her worried father). The story takes place mostly in the Swiss Alps during Christmastime, so there’s plenty of gorgeous cinematography. Add to this a great musical score by John Barry, and amazing chase scenes – one on the ski slopes, another in bobsleds. Also, it’s a truly moving love story.
9. Nightmare Before Christmas (dir. Henry Selick, 1993)
Many of the films in this list follow a similar narrative pattern, one that can be traced back to Dickens’ classic story: Can we rediscover the meaning of Christmas and restore our faith in humanity? It’s there in Dr. Seuss and Charles Schulz, and just about everywhere. It’s here as well, in this clever stop-action animated film. The twist is that the film is a mash-up of two holidays: Halloween and Christmas. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween town, has accidentally stumbled into Christmas Town and he’s immediately transformed. Great songs and lyrics by Danny Elfman.
8. Remember the Night (dir. Michael Leisen, 1940)
Although Preston Sturges did not direct this film (he would go on to write and direct a string of successful comedies shortly after this) the story is unmistakably his. Barbara Stanwyck plays a young woman who faces trial for shoplifting. The prosecutor, played by Fred MacMurray, realizes his chances of a getting guilty verdict are slim during Christmastime, so he postpones the trial. In the meantime, however, the two fall in love. So what happens when the date of the trial finally arrives? Something must have been right about the chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray, as they would costar four years later in Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity.
7. Scrooged (dir. Richard Donner, 1988)
Writer Michael O’Donoghue, one of the original sketch writers for Saturday Night Live (and known for his very dark and twisted sense of humor), comes up with the perfect vehicle for Bill Murray (and hey, it’s Charleston … we gotta have a Bill Murray film in this list somewhere). This is a very smart take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Murray playing a TV executive with a heart of cold. One of the film’s highlights is Carol Kane’s brilliant role as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
6. Scrooge (aka A Christmas Carol) (dir. Brian Desmond-Hurst, 1951)
This British adaptation of the classic story by Charles Dickens boasts the best Ebenezer Scrooge, played by the great Alastair Sim. And the ghosts are pretty cool, too. There are many adaptations of this Christmas classic, but this is hands-down the best of all.
5. Miracle on 34th Street (dir. George Seaton, 1947)
This film boasts perhaps the greatest Santa to appear on film. Edmund Gween’s Kris Kringle is so sweet, so funny and so warm that you’ll want to believe, just as Susan Walker (a young Natalie Wood) does, that he is the real deal. Kris Kringle reminds us that Christmas is a frame of mind … and that’s what’s been changing. Maybe the real Santa can do something about it, but first he’ll have to prove in court that he’s not insane.
4. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah Chechik, 1989)
The Griswald family, the creation of the late, great John Hughes, is staying home for Christmas, and Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase) has big plans for his family. And a big tree. And a big exterior light display. And just about everything that could go wrong does. Watch for his delicious rage-rant when his company’s much-anticipated Christmas “bonus” finally arrives in the mail.
3. Elf (directed Jon Favreau, 2007)
I think everyone agrees that this film became an instant holiday classic when it came out. Will Farrell plays Buddy, who was raised in the North Pole by elves and thinks of himself as just a slightly overgrown Santa-helper. When he learns the truth about himself, he sets out for New York City in search of his real father. This is the perfect vehicle for Farrell, who is a gifted comic performer. His astonishment and glee at all things Christmas is a delight to watch.
2. A Christmas Story (dir. Bob Clark, 1983)
This wasn’t the only Christmas film Bob Clark made. He did a low-budget horror film called Black Christmas (1974) about a sorority house terrorized by a killer (starring Margot Kidder!). Thankfully, we have another Christmas film from him, and this one he managed to get just right. Nine-year-old Ralphie wants only one thing for Christmas: “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!” Mom: “No. You’ll shoot your eye out!” It’s a funny, touching film about growing up in the 1940s.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
Any Capra film could qualify as a warm and meaningful holiday film, even if it doesn’t take place during the holidays. But It’s a Wonderful Life is more than just a great holiday film (that actually takes place during the Christmas holiday), it’s a great film, period. Oddly, it didn’t do well when it first came out, and Capra never again saw the level of commercial and critical success he enjoyed before WWII. But over the years, with annual screenings that made viewing It’s a Wonderful Life a holiday tradition, people now realize its greatness. And it is my pick for the No. 1 Christmas film of all time.