But, as I listed things out, I started to notice that a lot of movies were falling nicely into pairs. So, rather than try to assemble a blanket pool, I'm breaking these into five categories, each of which will feature the two best holiday films that genre offers.
From these, I'll whittle it down to a simple "top 5" list. What that will represent is a look at the best Christmas films from the entire range of the holiday selection.
Best Animated Christmas Movies
There have been a lot of animated Christmas movies, but surprisingly few great ones. Both of these movies under-performed at the box office, but both are phenomenal films.
Nightmare Before Christmas
An homage to Rankin/Bass specials, Nightmare Before Christmas displays all of Tim Burton's style unencumbered by his limitations as a director (let's just be honest about this). In the hands of Henry Selick, the movie is able to thrive as a stylish, operatic masterpiece. It's beautiful and hilarious, and the showdown between Jack and the Bogeyman stands as one of animation's finest battles. A lot of Christmas movies are called "classics," but this deserves the title.
The mix between absurdist humor and subtle drama is managed as well in Arthur Christmas as any movie I've ever seen. It's wistful, dark, and methodical, and as a result earns its happy ending completely. The film features a wholly original concept for Santa Claus that retains enough respect for history to somehow be instantly recognizable. It's one of the best Christmas movies ever made, and I look forward to the day it gets the attention and respect it deserves.
And the winner is.... Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's a lot closer than most of you probably think.
Best Christmas ComediesI don't think there's another genre with as many overrated entries. There are dozens of sites that will list "A Christmas Story" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" as classics, and neither are worth your time. Fortunately, there are others that are. In fact, there are quite a few Christmas comedies that are at least fun. But there are at least two that are fantastic:
I've said it before: Jon Favreau was hired to churn out a crappy vehicle for an SNL alum, and he failed so badly he wound up crafting one of the greatest holiday films ever made. There are many reasons this works as well as it does, but one stands out for me: rather than take the easy road and treat it like a parody, the movie is deeply sincere in its approach. The result is a sweet, charming holiday film.
Perhaps the most underrated movie up here, Fred Claus has a measly 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. While the movie has a few flaws (there's no excuse for the cartoon sound effects making it into the final cut), it's remarkably complex and intelligent. This movie approaches Santa Claus like the mythology it is, and it does so with a purpose. It has something to say, and it delivers its message with skill.
And the winner is.... Elf. I really enjoyed Fred Claus and think it deserves a place on the long list of the best holiday films. But, between the two, Elf is the movie that goes on the short list.
Best Holiday Action Movies
It's shocking just how many great holiday action movies are out there. Boiling it down to two was surprisingly easy, though, and that's because these are that good. You could remove the word "holiday" from this section, and these would both remain serious contenders.
On every level, Die Hard delivers an experience that hundreds of films have attempted to duplicate. The movie is tense, exciting, funny, and brutal. Unhindered by the decades of similar movies that followed it, Die Hard perfected the tropes before they became cliches. The movie is simply fantastic.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Shane Black has written a lot of movies that would have claimed this spot if The Long Kiss Goodnight didn't exist. No one has had as big an influence on so many of the best Christmas movies, regardless of the genre. But - at least in my opinion - this one rises to the top for the simple reason it's the most fun of his films. Geena Davis is awesome here, and Samuel Jackson delivers more quotable lines than I can easily count.
And the winner is.... Die Hard. I love The Long Kiss Goodnight, but let's be clear: the definitive action movie was the first modern one.
Best Black and White Christmas Movies
Yes, that pun was intentional. And no, I won't apologize. There are a lot of classic Christmas movies, but only two that really stand out as cultural juggernauts. The fact that they're both genre films fills me with holiday cheer.
It's a Wonderful Life
The prototype for more science fiction movies involving time-travel than I can count, It's a Wonderful Life is probably the single most famous Christmas movie. Every year, more parodies and homages show up in specials. For many, it's synonymous with the holidays. And all for good reason: the movie is a remarkably clever inversion of A Christmas Carol where the character - already a good man - has to learn that his life has meaning to those around him.
Miracle on 34th Street
I'm not going to go through Miracle on 34th Street and cover all the movie's merits. There are too many phenomenal character moments, hilarious situations, and great twists to cover. But I will reiterate the one thing that has made this endure, the movie's single most impressive feat. It makes us believe in Santa, whether we want to or not.
And the winner is.... Miracle on 34th Street, hands down. Not to take anything away from It's a Wonderful Life, but there's just no competition.
There have been many Christmas horror movies, and - in all honesty - I've only seen a small portion of them. I feel like I've seen most of the ones considered the best, though.
Am I cheating with these picks? Perhaps a bit: neither are exactly "traditional" horror movies. Then again, most Christmas horror movies are at least half comedy (many are much more).
Mixing horror, comedy, and adventure tropes, Rare Exports offers a truly fresh spin on the killer Santa premise. The movie is bizarre and fascinating.
A classic in its own right, Gremlins has some of the best production values you'll find in any holiday horror movie. It's inventive, intriguing, funny, and at times genuinely scary.
And the winner is.... Rare Exports. This was another close one, but after re-watching Gremlins the movie's PG-rated limitations, baffling tone shifts, and abandoned subplots need to be taken into account. It's still a great holiday movie, but I think Rare Exports takes the lead.
Here are the five winning movies, in no particular order:
- Nightmare Before Christmas
- Die Hard
- Miracle on 34th Street
- Rare Exports
Don't read it as the five best - several of the movies knocked out in the primaries are better than some that made the list, since some sub-genres have stronger offerings than others. Instead, you're seeing broader picture, a look at the best the cornerstones of holiday entertainment have to offer. Hope it helps you pick what to watch next year.
If you're upset your favorite movie got overlooked, keep in mind I had to pare things down a great deal to arrive at these lists: it doesn't mean I don't love the movie. Unless you're pissed I'm snubbing A Christmas Story, Home Alone, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Black Christmas, or one of the other overrated pieces of crap that have a following for some unidentifiable reason. If that's the case, the problem is you have bad taste in movies. Simple as that.