Twas’ the night before… Sorry, let’s start that again. ’Twas the month before… No. One more time. ’Twas a month and two days before Christmas. Nailed it. Anyway, it’s Thanksgiving week, but you wouldn’t know it from what's playing theaters: a few weeks ago brought “Christmas With The Coopers,” this past weekend saw the opening of both the enjoyable Seth Rogen holiday-themed comedy “The Night Before,” and Todd Haynes’ sublime “Carol,” which is set over the Christmas period, while next week we get the Evil Santa horror-comedy “Krampus.”
Studios release their Christmas movies well in advance to let them play longer in theaters, knowing that few will want to see them once January rolls around. In an entirely unrelated move, we’ve been thinking about Christmas films. And so below, you’ll find twenty of the best ever. Take a look at our picks and let us know your own present-wrapping favorites in the comments.
“The Apartment” (1960)
If a Christmas-time setting is useful for anything, it’s often to play up a sense of loneliness in a character —the holidays are meant to be a time to spend with loved ones and family, and you can isolate a character beautifully by the simple means of surrounding them with festive revels. Perhaps more than anything else, this makes “The Apartment” a Christmas movie: though it spans a few months and climaxes memorably on New Year’s Eve, the film makes as great a use of the holidays as anything else here. Billy Wilder’s film, maybe the greatest romantic comedy ever made, stars Jack Lemmon as an ambitious, lonely office drone who lets his higher-ups use his apartment for their extra-marital affairs. He’s in love with elevator operator Ms. Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who is in fact the mistress of his boss Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Though often incredibly funny, Wilder’s film stands apart from other holiday films by its rich vein of melancholy, and none more so than during arguably the movie’s most memorable stretch, involving a Christmas party where everyone finds out everything that’s going on, and Lemmon finds MacLaine having attempted suicide in his apartment, and then spends several days with her while she recuperates. The Christmas backdrop elevates the fairy tale feel of the story, even if it’s a bittersweet one for much of its running time, and the perfect climax to a perfect film warms your heart like chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
“Babes In Toyland” (1930)
Perhaps a Christmas movie more out of its association with a shitload of toys than because of a seasonal vibe (though Santa Claus does make an appearance), “Babes In Toyland,” a very loose adaptation of the operetta of the same name, is another movie that became a holiday TV staple, airing on New York’s WPIX for many years. If it does not quite encompass Laurel & Hardy’s finest hour, the film is certainly one of their most imaginative and family-friendly efforts. The two play Stannie and Ollie, two toymaker’s assistants who live in a shoe in Toyland who try to raise money to stop the evil Silas (Henry Kleinbach) from forcing Bow Peep (Florence Roberts) to marry him against his will. Surprisingly convoluted plot wise and even surprisingly scary by the time bogeymen invade at the end, the film perhaps suffers in comparison to Laurel & Hardy’s best by letting the comedy take a back seat to the plot and adventure elements. But the two are as good as ever when given a chance, the film makes good use of the music throughout, and there’s a level of imagination at play that should still capture the attention of kids who aren't checking Twitter every five minutes…
“Bad Santa” (2003)
There’s rum in the egg nog in Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” and maybe a little bit of puke too: unlike some of the more kid-friendly entries on this list, this no-holds-barred comedy is a 100%, unapologetically adults-only affair. Which is to say there’s bouts of sloppy jacuzzi sex, conspicuous binge-drinking and more creatively colorful profanity than a hundred “South Park” episodes. Billy Bob Thornton, a born outlaw if ever there was one, plays Willie Stokes, a piece-of-shit crook moonlighting as a mall Santa Claus, with his pint-sized, foul-mouthed partner Marcus as an attending elf. Some rays of sunshine trickle into Willie’s dark, boozy world in the form of a horny bartender with a Saint Nick fetish (Lauren Graham of “Gilmore Girls”) and an overweight, underloved kid who frequently finds himself a target of bullies. Zwigoff is an ace profiler of the downtrodden and disenfranchised (see his bitter, lovely “Ghost World” if you haven’t already) and “Bad Santa” never asks to be loved, to its credit. There’s no Christmas spirit forcing Willie to change his reckless, philandering ways: he remains a true-blue American scumbag, all the way to the movie’s literal middle finger of a final shot. Featuring crackerjack supporting turns from two since passed comedy greats —John Ritter as the mall’s perpetually flustered overseer and Bernie Mac as a hard-charging private consultant tasked with cleaning up Willie’s messes— “Bad Santa” is a naughty present for the holiday hell-raiser in us all, and almost certainly the most gleefully foul Christmas movie on this list.
“The Best Man Holiday” (2013)
Grammatical nightmare of a title aside (is it mean to be Best Man-Holiday? Or Best-Man Holiday?), “The Best Man Holiday” is a strong attempt at rebooting the “Family Stone”-esque tragicomedy with a more diverse cast than usual. The sequel to 1999’s “The Best Man,” directed like this film by Malcolm D. Lee, switches up genres, from comedy-drama to a sort of “Big Chill”-style reunion movie, as Lance and Mia (Morris Chestnut and Monica Calhoun) ask their old friends to join them for Christmas, which is the first time they’ve all been together in fourteen years. It’s refreshing not just because, like the original, it focuses on resolutely middle class African-American characters, but for showing a Christmas revolving less around family and more around friends. It’s a little odd that the film exists at all, given the fourteen year gap, but it proves more effective than a dozen similarly-plotted Sundance movies at examining the fractures and bonds of friendship and at juggling an ensemble cast —Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Terrence Howard et al— with a lot of actors who are often underused given good material to play with here. It becomes weighed down a bit near the end, as terminal illness melodrama threatens to overwhelm proceedings, but on the whole, this is good enough to make us glad that a third movie in the trilogy is on the way next year.
“A Christmas Story” (1983)
Christmas movies become classics not necessarily on release, but often due to a time-honored tradition of endless TV repetition while you’re in a food coma. It happened to “It’s A Wonderful Life” back in the day, it happened to “Elf” and “Love Actually” since, and it’s happened to “A Christmas Story,” which airs in a continuous Christmas Eve marathon on TBS every year. Based on stories by anecdotalist Jean Shepherd, the film follows young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, who’d grow up to be a director and inflict “Couples Retreat” on us) growing up in the 1940s and dreaming of a BB gun, while his parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) feud over the fire, the next door dogs, and a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg. Directed by “Porky’s” helmer Bob Clark, who co-wrote with Shepherd, this is a rare Christmas movie that doesn’t over-sentimentalize childhood, opting instead for a winningly specific look at family life and as much focus on the perceived injustices of pre-adolescence as on heartwarming holiday cheer. Those of us who grew up outside the U.S. and didn’t have it as a childhood staple might be a little puzzled by its place in the canon —it’s very sitcom-y, in part because Clark shoots it that way— but there are certainly worse movies to watch twelve times in a row while present-wrapping.