As the days get colder and the holiday draws near, we’re reminded of Winston Churchhill’s famous quote, “Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” Now, I don’t know about you, but Goliath’s idea of reflection starts with a tall glass of egg nog (maybe two), new PJs, our loved ones, and watching as many Christmas movies as humanly possible. From National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to Home Alone, it doesn’t feel quite like the holidays until Clark Griswald finds the perfect tree or Kevin makes his family disappear.
If you’re looking for something festive to watch over the holidays and want to avoid the duds, join us as we countdown 30 of our favorite (& least favorite) Christmas movies, in descending order.
30. Don’t: Santa with Muscles
Santa with Muscles is an astonishingly lousy movie starring WWE legend Hulk Hogan as Blake Thorn (Hogan), a self-made billionaire who suffers amnesia after hitting his head, wakes up in a Santa suit, and believes he’s the real Santa. Hogan then ends up at an orphanage full of children and as his memories return, he agrees to save them from the evil scientist looking to obtain the energy crystals located under their orphanage… we’re not making this up.
Santa with Muscles is the kind of movie that’s so bad you’ve probably never seen the ending or remember how things turn out. What in the world was Ed Begley Jr. and Garret Morris thinking?
29. Love: Batman Returns
If you’re hankering for some superhero nostalgia during Christmas, you may want to check out Batman Returns, the 1992 sequel directed by Tim Burton. Set in Gotham City during Christmas time, Burton takes the full license with the holiday season and creates elaborate sets featuring all manner of wondrous and, in some cases, grotesque characters, scenes, and settings. In the movie, Batman (Michael Keaton) battles both the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). They too are grotesque, over-the-top characters. But the whole movie and setting are made hyper surreal by the Christmas time theme. Interestingly, Christmas has played a big part in many of Tim Burton’s most personal projects – from Edward Scissorhands to The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s not the best Batman movie ever made, of course, but it’s the only one set at Christmas.
28. Don’t: I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Starring the one and only Johnathon Taylor Thomas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas is a family comedy that tells the story of Jake Wilkinson (Thomas), a spoiled college student who must travel from Los Angeles, California to Larchmont, New York in order to win his father’s Porsche. As you might expect, Wilkinson decides to return home, but not because he wants to see his family, because he wants the Porsche.
I’ll Be Home For Christmas made our list because there is absolutely nothing redeemable about it and but most of all, it’s a shining example of why some actors should stick to television. Sorry, not sorry.
27. Loved: The Ref
While most people will point to Bad Santa as an example of a black comedy Christmas movie, we like an earlier film from 1994 called The Ref. The movie opens with an unhappily married couple (played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) attending a marriage counseling session on Christmas Eve. Through a series of funny happenstance, a cat burglar who is out robbing empty houses at Christmas time (played by Dennis Leary) ends up trapped in the house with Spacey and Davis. And although he holds a gun on the unhappy couple, he cannot get them to stop arguing and bickering with each other. It gets to the point where Leary’s cat burglar ends up meditating, or refereeing, the arguments between them – hence the name of the movie. This film is like Home Alone for adults. The Ref is worth checking out if you wish to watch something new this Christmas.
26. Don’t: Home Alone 3
Released in 1997, Home Alone 3 was Raja Gosnell’s tired attempt at reviving the once-popular franchise by replacing Macaulay Culkin with Alex Linz and as you might imagine, it missed the mark. Nothing against Linz, it’s just difficult to fathom a sequel without the antics of Culkin, Daniel Stern, and Joe Pesci. Even as a child, the thought of a kid besting four highly trainer hitmen in search of a stolen missile-cloaking computer chip seemed ridiculous.
Despite many critics panning Home Alone 3 for trying to squeeze a few more dollars out a franchise that should have folded after Macaulay Culkin quit, Robert Ebert believed it was “better than the first two.” While we wholeheartedly disagree with Ebert’s assessment of the franchise, we respect his opinion.
25. Loved: The Family Man (2000)
This is pretty obviously a Christmas movie and meant to be a modern take on the traditional holiday movies of director Frank Capra, who made It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet The Family Man rarely gets mentioned in the same breathe as other major Christmas films. About a selfish investment banker (played by actor Nicolas Cage) who gets to see what his life would have been like if he’d married his college sweetheart and settled down to raise kids and sell tires in suburban New Jersey, The Family Man takes place over Christmas time. Cage’s character gets to see what his life would be like celebrating the holidays with a wife and kids, as well as neighborhood friends and co-workers, rather than alone in a penthouse suite. More of a touchy-feely movie than an outright comedy, The Family Man nevertheless is a great family film to be enjoyed over the holidays.
24. Don’t: Four Christmases
Directed by Seth Gordon and starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, Four Christmases might just be one of the worst Christmas-themed romantic comedies ever made. This shameful holiday movie tells the story of Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon), an upscale couple who attempt to avoid their families during the Christmas holidays by going on a vacation to Fiji. After the couple’s exotic getaway is ruined by a fog storm, Brad and Kate must find a way to make it through four separate family Christmases in one day.
Despite having both Vaughn and Witherspoon onboard, Four Christmases lacked any sort of joy or cheer synonymous with Christmas-themed film, especially one that literally takes place on December 25.
23. Loved: Gremlins (1984)
Gremlins is set at Christmas, and the Gremlins themselves stem from a Christmas gift the inventor father in the movie Randall Peltzer (actor Hoyt Axton) gets for his son Billy (played by actor Zach Galligan). Once let loose, the Gremlins take delight in destroying the small town that is the movie’s setting on the eve of Christmas. This movie contains scenes of Gremlins in Christmas trees, wearing Santa hats, and there are several nods to other classic Christmas movies in the film—notably, It’s A Wonderful Life. This classic movie has aged very well and now seems like more of an action-comedy film than the horror movie it was made out to be when first released. Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins is a lot of fun for people who have a perverse sense of humor and are a little cynical about the holiday season.
22. Don’t: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
This movie was a big production when released in 1985. The film was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who were also behind 1978’s Superman: The Movie. And while Superman was a great flick, Santa Claus: The Movie is not. It stars Dudley Moore as an elf named Patch who has been with Santa Claus for centuries but decides to set out to make toys on his own, only to be exploited by a crooked toy company run by an uber-capitalist played by actor John Lithgow. An attempt at telling a contemporary Santa Claus story, this movie disappointed critics and viewers. Featuring exploding candy canes and a Congressional investigation into the nasty toy company, critics called this movie “tacky” and “mean-spirited” and found that it was unlikely to appeal to its target audience of children, who were not mature enough to understand the complicated business side of the story. Definitely a movie worth skipping.
21. Loved: Bad Santa
Who said Christmas movies have to be wholesome? A black comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as a thief posing as a department store Santa Claus, Bad Santa can be easily written off as a crass and offensive comedy. It certainly is both those things, but it’s also a surprisingly heartfelt film that (thankfully) never descends into treacly sentiment.
Thornton has made a career of playing disgruntled misanthropes and he’s as good as ever here. But the unreal supporting cast is no slouch either, with hilarious turns from Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, as well as the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac. Bad Santa probably isn’t the kind of Christmas movie you’re going to put on for the whole family to watch (unless your family is truly warped), but it’s a welcome reprieve from empty calorie Hallmark drek.
20. Don’t: Saving Christmas
Released back in 2014, the faith-based Christmas comedy Saving Christmas is without a doubt the worst Christmas movie ever made. This absurd film begins with Kirk Cameron – as himself – professing his love of Christmas and then proceeding to go on a rant about how atheists, materialism, and Christian fundamentalism have ruined the spirit of Christmas, all while sitting beside a fireplace. The scene then shifts to Cameron’s sister’s Christmas party and for whatever reason, Cameron believes the party is in danger from his brother-in-law Christian, which leads to him “Saving Christmas.”
Believe it not, Saving Christmas is so unimaginably terrible, it received a rating of 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards, to which the film won four, for Worst Picture, Worst Actor, Worst Screenplay, Worst Screen Combo.
19. Loved: Meet Me in St. Louis
Released in November 1944, Meet Me In St. Louis was a sugary sweet dose of comfort for Americans still fighting in World War II overseas. Since then, Vincent Minelli’s musical has become a revered classic and a popular holiday viewing tradition. The movie follows a Missouri family in the leadup to the 1904 World’s Fair so in a way, it’s only partly a Christmas movie.
Then again, it’s pretty much impossible to doubt the Yuletide merits of a film that features Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. More importantly, Meet Me in St. Louis is simply a great piece of classic cinema, albeit one best enjoyed sitting next to a roaring fire on Christmas Eve.
18. Don’t: Babes in Toyland
Directed by Jack Donohue, Babes in Toyland is an awful ’80s TV movie that stars a Richard Mulligan, Pat Morita, Drew Barrymore, and Keanu Reeves. It tells the story of Lisa Piper (Drew Barrymore), a young girl who is randomly transported to Toyland after getting in an accident during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. Upon waking up, Piper intervenes at a wedding and along with some new friends, uncovers the evil Barnaby Barnacle’s (Richard Mulligan) plan to take over Toyland.
While we acknowledge some might have enjoyed Babes in Toyland, given the film’s poor dialogue, low production value, and that it was basically a rip-off of The Nutcracker, this Christmas monstrosity is right where it belongs.
17. Loved: How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Upon release, Ron Howard’s live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas was met with decidedly mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. Two decades later, it’s easier to take Howard’s film on its own terms and what’s there is both funny and creative.
Jim Carrey’s manic performance as the Grinch is a delight, all goofy one-liners, and bonkers facial expressions. Meanwhile, the set design is simply immaculate, with Whoville feeling like a living, breathing world filled with (mostly) annoying denizens devoted body and soul to the commercialization of Christmas. That being said, the film is needlessly long and doesn’t quite capture the magic of the 1966 animated TV film. But we’d still choose it over the mediocre 2018 computer-animated adaptation any day.
16. Don’t: Santa’s Little Helper
Produced by WWE Studios in 2015, Santa’s Little Helper is a painful direct-to-DVD movie starring WWE superstars The Miz and Paige, as well as Nip/Tuck’s AnnaLynne McCord. After losing his job, the fast-talking Dax (Miz) is hand-picked by Santa Claus to replace his second-in-command and resume the role as Santa’s Little Helper. Before he can do so, Santa’s daughter Eleanor (Paige) envokes an obscure North Pole law that allows her to challenge Dax for a position. Riveting stuff, eh?
Although the acting was better than initially expected, the reality is, Santa’s Little Helper is so dull it even lacks that hilariously-bad quality that makes even the worst Christmas movie worth watching around the holidays. It’s the kind of movie you forget while you’re still watching.
15. Loved: It’s a Wonderful Life
We have this idea that Christmas movies (at least the popular ones) are overly sentimental and sweet. After all, Christmas is associated with doing good (giving generously, reconnecting with loved ones), so it makes sense that we expect the media we consume to reinforce these messages. It’s a bit ironic then that the most popular Christmas movie of all time follows a suicidal man who had his dreams crushed by the harsh realities of living in a capitalistic society.
Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t all doom and gloom. The film heartily endorses being grateful for what you have and that you don’t need to be rich to live a full life. And this gets at why the film continues to resonate with us more than 70 years after it was first released. By paying lip service to the best and worst aspects of the holiday season, It’s a Wonderful Life reflects our culture’s push and pull between the overcommercialization of Christmas and our desire to reclaim it as a sacred, uncorrupted tradition.
14. Don’t: Fred Claus
Directed by David Dobkin and starring Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, and Rachel Weisz, Fred Claus is a bland holiday movie about Santa’s (Giamatti) bitter and jerk of an older brother, Fred Claus (Vaughn). After being thrown in jail Fred calls his younger brother Nicolas to bail him out, which he agrees to do as long as Fred returns with him to the North Pole to work off his debt – which he does.
Given the strength of the cast and premise of the movie, Fred Claus had the potential the kind of Christmas movie families could watch year-after-year, unfortunately, it wasn’t all that funny and Vaughn appeared to mail it in halfway through.
13. Loved: Elf
Elf succeeds by taking a funny set-up and somehow extending it across a full film without letting it run out of gas. Released at a time when Will Ferrel was about to become one of the world’s biggest comedy stars, Elf lives and dies on the back of its lead actor. So if Ferrell’s brand of hyperactive comedy isn’t your thing, you probably don’t have Elf on regular rotation in December. For the rest of us, Elf has emerged as a modern Christmas classic, telling the story of a man who grew up thinking he’s an elf and dropping him into the real world on a quest to find his biological father (a reliably smarmy James Caan).
It’s a classic fish out of water story, only this fish eats syrup-covered spaghetti for breakfast and thinks every mall Santa is the real deal. Elf succeeds because outside of the Christmas trappings, it’s just a solid comedy movie at its core and one worth revisiting again and again.
12. Don’t: Jingle All the Way 2
Directed by Alex Zamm and starring Larry the Cable Guy, Jingle All the Way 2 follows a dad who wants nothing more than to get his daughter her favorite toy for Christmas, but when his ex-wife’s husband gets involved, Larry is forced to do whatever it takes to find his daughter a ‘Harrison the Talking Bear’ before its too late.
This straight-to-video sequel was so outstandingly terrible it made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version look like a holiday classic. Why the WWE thought it would be a good idea to make a movie based on an already inferior Christmas-themed movie and pack it full of lame jokes is a strange move, but this is the WWE we’re talking about.
11. Loved: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Is it a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? This question has dominated the discourse surrounding Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas for so long that it’s easy to overlook that the film is, at its heart, an ode to both holidays. Jack Skellington’s bungled quest to transplant Christmas to his home of Halloweentown is a macabre delight, brought to life by some of the greatest stop-motion animation work in cinematic history.
However, it’s Danny Elfman’s original songs that have truly helped solidify The Nightmare Before Christmas as an unconventional Christmas classic. It may be sung by a ghoulish skeleton, but that hasn’t stopped “What’s This?” from becoming an essential part of the holiday music canon.
10. Don’t: A Christmas Story 2
Released almost 30 after the original, Brian Levant’s Christmas Story 2 is an embarrassment to everything that made Bob Clark’s 1983 holiday classic so timeless. Picking up five years after the first film, a now 15-year-old Ralphie has his sights set on a sweet new ride but before he can even get it off the lot, he accidentally damages it. With the help of his friends Flick and Schwartz, Ralphie attempts to pay for the damages before the car dealer tells his Old Man.
This straight-to-DVD sequel has some redeemable qualities, but given its features an all new-cast of no-name actors (besides Daniel Stern) and an endless amount of out of date references to the original film, it’s not hard to understand why A Christmas Story 2 is so universally unpopular.
9. Loved: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted Christmas stories of all time, and there’s no shortage of excellent film adaptations to choose from. While the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is arguably the most faithful adaptation, you just can’t compete with the Muppets. Released in 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppets film to be produced without creator Jim Henson, who passed away in May 1990. As such, Henson’s son Brian was under a lot of pressure to not only live up to his father’s legacy but to bring a fresh vision to a very familiar story.
Fortunately, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a warm, wonderous film elevated by its charming cast of Muppets and a standout performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge. Come for the Muppets, stay for the catchy songs and surprising meta-comedy (Gonzo and Rizzo’s narration is the cherry on top).
8. Don’t: The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Hey, we actually really liked the first Santa Clause movie, in which Tim Allen accidentally kills Santa Claus and ends up becoming the jolly old elf. It’s seriously better than the premise makes it sound, trust us. The sequel wasn’t quite as good but was still an acceptable film about Santa trying to find a Mrs. Claus and also be an absentee father for his son. But the third one is a blatant attempt to milk any remaining money out of the franchise, featuring a painfully uninteresting plot and a lame villain in Martin Short as a bitter Jack Frost, who steals the job of Santa Claus and turns the North Pole into a year-round theme park. The film is unfunny and emotionally bereft, and there’s almost certainly a reason why the franchise died after it came out. Like, immediately afterward.
7. Loved: A Christmas Story
There’s a reason A Christmas Story (1983) is considered the holy grail of Christmas movies for Gen X and older Millennials. Yes, the fact the movie airs in marathons every December has certainly helped burnish its reputation. But the real reason A Christmas Story is a mainstay is that it’s a direct injection of American nostalgia.
Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) desire for a Red Ryder BB gun continues to resonate with adults who associate their childhood Christmases with warm, fuzzy feelings. As a piece of filmmaking, A Christmas Story is rather slight, as it’s a bit too meandering to be considered a “great film”. But when watched at a particular time of year, A Christmas Story might just be perfect.
6. Don’t: Surviving Christmas
This terrible Christmas movie was the low point in actor Ben Affleck’s mid-2000s slump. In the film, Affleck plays a wealthy executive who has no close relationships and becomes nostalgic for his childhood home at Christmas. When he visits the house and finds another family living there, he offers the residents, played by James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara, a lot of money to pretend they are his parents during the holidays. The couple’s daughter (Christina Applegate) comes home from Christmas too, adding to the awkward and tense situation. This movie is two hours of Tony Soprano trying not to kill Batman. It’s lame, mean-spirited, and not funny in the slightest. Surviving Christmas currently holds a 7% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet this movie is shown on television almost every year at Christmas. Why?
5. Loved: Home Alone
Home Alone or “Straw Dogs For Kids” is a pretty dark movie if you think about it for long enough. 8-year-old Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is abandoned by his neglectful parents (yeah it was an accident, but how do you forget to bring your kid on a plane with you?!) and must defend his home from a pair of thieves all alone on Christmas Eve. It’s all very absurd, but that’s part of Home Alone’s charm.
Written and directed by John Hughes, Home Alone succeeds by tapping into some powerful wish-fulfillment – what kid hasn’t dreamed of living parent-free in their own home? – and having as much fun as it can with the idea. The house of horrors finale showdown between Kevin and the bad guys (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, both perfectly cast) is a highlight, but it’s the little details – the fictional gangster movie playing on the TV, that delicious-looking pizza – that have helped establish Home Alone as one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever made.
4. Don’t: Christmas with the Kranks
Speaking of mean-spirited Christmas movies, let’s not forget 2004’s Christmas with the Kranks. About a couple (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) who decide to skip Christmas the year their daughter is away, only to have their plans changed when their daughter phones to say she is coming home for Christmas after all, this movie spends two hours reminding people what a gigantic pain in the ass getting ready for Christmas is and offers little else. It certainly isn’t funny. Ironically, this terrible movie is based on a novel by author John Grisham (also called Skipping Christmas) and has a screenplay written by Chris Columbus (of Home Alone fame). So what the hell went wrong? Maybe Columbus should stick to making kids movies and leave the adult stuff to other folks? It certainly didn’t work in this case.
3. Loved: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
No film better encapsulates the stresses and anxieties of getting the family together for the holidays than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This eminently rewatchable gem follows Clark Griswold’s (Chevy Chase) quest to host a perfect family Christmas at his home and mines much of its comedic gold from thwarting Clark’s plans at every possible turn. Christmas Vacation works as a comedy of errors, as the Griswold Family Christmas’ descent into hell is often uproariously funny (Chevy Chase’s unhinged rant about his boss is an all-timer).
Yet, this film endures because amid scenes of cats getting electrocuted and Christmas trees being set on fire, there’s a heartfelt honesty at play. The Griswolds are a dysfunctional mess, but whose family isn’t? Maybe we don’t all have a cousin we’d like to drive to the middle of nowhere and leave for dead, but the sentiment is relatable. Dealing with your family can be hard, especially during the holidays but Christmas Vacation argues that, in the end, they’re worth it.
2. Don’t: Deck the Halls
Whoever thought to put Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito in a Christmas movie together was a good idea should be fired. Like a lot of the titles on this list, the 2006 film Deck the Halls takes a simple premise and inexplicably tries to stretch it into a full-length movie. In this case, it is how rival neighbors try to outdo one another with their Christmas lights and decorations. In Deck the Halls, Broderick, and DeVito both play unlikeable people and neighbors who each feel that they “own Christmas” in their neighborhood, and try to show the other up with an elaborate display of festive lighting. With the tagline “There Glows the Neighborhood,” this awful and unfunny Christmas movie is a let down from start-to-finish. There just didn’t need to be a movie made about this topic. Every single street has one house that completely overdoes it for the holidays, in terms of decorations. That’s enough. You don’t need to watch a two-hour film about it.
1. Love: Die Hard (1988)
New York cop John McClane flies to Los Angeles to visit his soon-to-be ex-wife and kids at Christmas only to find himself caught up in a terrorist takeover of the ultra-modern high rise office complex Nakatomi Plaza. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history. This movie kicks-off with an office Christmas party and accelerates into a high octane action movie that is one of the best in motion picture history. Poor John McClane. All he wants to do is see his kids during the holidays, and instead, he’s forced to kick ass through 40 stories of sheer heart-pounding action sequences. This move made actor Bruce Willis’ career and contains some not-so-subtle jabs at the Christmas holidays. Case in point, the classic line: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, Ho, Ho.” A great Christmas movie and a great action movie. What could be better?