Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Is It’s A Wonderful Life still the greatest Christmas movie of all time? And which plot in Love Actually is, actually, the best?
These are the questions we find ourselves asking every holiday season as family and friends gather, arguing around the TV during our annual Christmas movie marathons.
Here at Zavvi we love a festive binge watch and that’s why we’ve compiled a list of what we think are the top 10 best Christmas movies of all time. Let the debates commence…
1. Die Hard
Well, it couldn’t be anything else, could it? One of the greatest action movies ever produced by Hollywood, John McClane’s debut outing is the source of endless debate as to whether or not it counts as a Christmas movie — not least because it was originally released in July 1988.
Initially debuting to mixed reviews, it very quickly became a cultural phenomenon, kick-starting a franchise and helping Willis make the leap from small to big screen.
Its impact on the action genre can still be felt to this day too, as filmmakers continually look to imitate its winning siege-thriller formula: we’ve lost count of the number of movies that have been marketed as “Die Hard in X”, from Olympus Has Fallen (“Die Hard in the White House”) to 2022’s big Christmas release Violent Night (“Die Hard with Santa”).
You may disagree with whether it belongs here, but as far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing else that could top a list of the best Christmas films.
2. It’s A Wonderful Life
Similarly, you can’t write up a list of the best Christmas movies without invoking director Frank Capra’s powerful fantasy drama, a festive redemption story every part the equal of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
In what might be his definitive role, James Stewart stars as George Bailey, a suicidal man who, with the help of a divine intervention, comes to appreciate the miracle of life.
Unashamedly sentimental (there’s no wonder why critics of the director labelled his movies as “Capra-corn”) but undeniably powerful, it remains a mystery as to why audiences were initially left cold by It’s A Wonderful Life.
Although it bagged several Oscar nominations, the film was a box office flop upon release, making less than half of its budget back. Luckily, it’s managed to endure over the years, and it’s now hard to imagine the festive season without it.
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas
We always debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but why don’t we do the same for director Henry Selick’s stop-motion marvel, adapted from an original story by Tim Burton?
The perfect movie to end October’s spooky season binge watch with, The Nightmare Before Christmas sees us wave goodbye to Halloween Town and stumble into Christmas Town, which Jack Skellington and co. aim to give a ghoulish makeover.
Often falsely accredited to Burton, Selick’s directorial debut is the perfect introduction to an animation legend who crafts tales of outsiders that are equal parts quirky and terrifying.
Look no further than his 2009 effort Coraline or his more recent Wendell And Wild (co-written with Jordan Peele) for further evidence of his singular creative genius.
Another horror-inflected tale for the whole family, director Joe Dante’s 1984 hit remains a riotously good time nearly forty years later.
Well, maybe not for the whole family, considering that it was granted a then-unthinkable PG-13 rating upon release (one of the first films to ever receive the MPAA classification), with many audiences confused about how a movie promoted as an E.T. style fantasy quickly transformed into a full-blown horror romp.
Luckily, Gremlins has more than stood the test of time since then, arguably remaining Dante’s most successful blend of blockbuster adventure and genuine horror.
It may be one of the best Christmas movies of all time, but don’t watch it if you have really young children — one scene reveals the truth about Santa Claus they might not be ready to hear…
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ timeless tale might be the greatest story ever told, but the legendary author didn’t have the foresight to realize that he could have made it even better by adding Muppets into the equation.
No list of the top 10 best Christmas movies of all time is complete without one of the countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and this surprisingly faithful take on the material from Kermit and co. (featuring a never-more-committed Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge) is by far the definitive screen version.
We may have got Muppet Treasure Island a few years later, but we’re still waiting for more Muppet literary adaptations. Can somebody at Disney give the green light to Muppet Lord Of The Flies already?
6. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Die Hard might be the first action film that springs to mind when you think of Christmas, but it isn’t for lack of trying on writer/director Shane Black’s part.
The celebrated screenwriter sets all of his films during the festive season, to the point that when he finally deviated from this formula with 2018’s The Predator, it became something of a controversy.
Black made his directorial debut in 2005 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a blackly comic neo-noir that singlehandedly revived Robert Downey Jr.’s career, with the actor cast as Tony Stark off the back of its critical acclaim.
Equal parts Hollywood satire and labyrinthine thriller, its cynical attitude might be the perfect antidote to the sentimentality of the festive movie genre.
Forget Charles Dickens, director Todd Haynes’ romantic drama might be the definitive Christmas Carol. Adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, this fifties set romance explores the blossoming relationship between an unhappily married woman (Cate Blanchett) and a department store assistant (Rooney Mara).
Set against the backdrop of the Christmas period at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, it makes for the most emotionally devastating watch out of the films on this list — especially if you’re a hopeless romantic.
8. Bad Santa
There are plenty of dark Christmas comedies that try to get laughs from the idea of an alcoholic, sex-crazed Santa Claus, but none of them can compare to Bad Santa, starring a never-better Billy Bob Thornton as a department store Saint Nick who has a plan to carry out a Christmas Eve heist.
Originally written as a Jack Nicholson vehicle (and boasting uncredited rewrites from the Coen Brothers, no less), Thornton’s sardonic Santa instead feels tailor made for the actor.
It’s a credit to the film that, when we get the sentimental redemption arc, it doesn’t compromise the jet-black comedy that came before. It delivers everything you’d expect to see in one of the 10 best Christmas movies, finding something genuinely human buried deep within its cynical soul.
9. Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s final film – a tale of marital dysfunction, heterosexual relationship dynamics, and secretive orgies of the super-rich – has aged into one of his definitive works.
It’s the most unconventional film on this list — how many other festive erotic thrillers can you name? — but also one of the most surprisingly rewatchable with its combination of chilling conspiracy drama and deadpan surrealist comedy.
Maybe not the best one to watch with the family, mind.
10. Tokyo Godfathers
Anime auteur Satoshi Kon was best known for his grittier works, such as 1997’s cyber thriller Perfect Blue and 2006’s Paprika, a sci-fi headscratcher that proved a major influence on Inception.
However, his finest film may be this 2003 effort, a moving tale of a family, centered on three homeless people who find a newborn baby on Christmas Eve. Like all the best Christmas movies, this will have you bawling your eyes out by the end.