I grew up in a family not much different in size from A Christmas Carol’s nice but needy Cratchits, who every Dec. 25 wonder why Ebenezer Scrooge can’t just dial back the nastiness. We had more children, in fact: Us seven, Cratchits six. My family wasn’t needy, either, except in terms of the holiday movies we could watch on television. In that regard we were poor.
Oh, it was a stingy time, those days before streaming. You made do with whatever the networks were generous enough to dole out. My family, as I recall, watched virtually nothing holiday-related in the weeks after Thanksgiving other than repeats of the 1951 movie of A Christmas Carol. We were lucky, in a sense, because it’s a wonderful movie, but also penetratingly dark — almost noirish. We all ended up muttering, “Bah humbug!” to each other straight through New Year’s.
As a critic, though, I’ve been able to watch more and more holiday movies of greater variety with every passing year. The best have the bright shine of ornaments. The basic themes remain the same as that ’50s classic—kindness, forgiveness, decency—but these productions are certainly more fun. Early exposure to movies like Elf might have made me less like inclined to all that bah-humbugging.
Here are the 10 movies I recommend for your own family to turn into their watch-on-repeat favorite this season.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This is generally regarded as one of the best versions of the Charles Dickens classic (apart from that depressing one from 1951). It’s the most charming, anyway. The tiny Muppets, crowding around and below Michael Caine’s frosty-hearted Scrooge, carry with them the spirit of childhood. Meanwhile, Scrooge deals with those other spirits, the three that sprang from Dickens’s genius. The best is the first, Christmas Past, represented by an ethereal, girlish creature who floats around gently, like dandelion fluff. You can imagine her putting things right in Mean Girls. Miss Piggy makes a late but typically forceful entrance as Mrs. Cratchit.
Where to Watch: Disney+ (1 hour, 27 mins.)
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (2022)
This sweet, Oscar-winning cartoon, based on the story by Charlie Mackesy, is a stripped-down fable about a boy, lost in a snowy landscape, who finds his way back home with the help of a trio of animals. (They’re in the title. So don’t expect a wombat, a penguin and a wolf.) It’s very philosophical, in a winsome way—something like Winnie-the-Pooh if Christopher Robin had spent a few weeks studying the deep thinkers. “Nothing beats kindness,” says the mole. “It sits quietly beyond all things.” Probably good just before bedtime.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+ (34 minutes)
This Will Ferrell comedy just turned 20 — but hasn’t aged a bit. Ferrell plays Buddy, a human orphan who’s been raised at the North Pole and considers himself an elf. Buddy is a looming HR disaster—he has no aptitude for making toys—but Santa’s helpers turn a blind eye for as long as they can. Like Pinocchio, Buddy ends up heading out into the wide world, an innocent soul who perhaps trusts too much. When a Manhattan greasy spoon promises the world’s best cup of coffee, Buddy is ecstatic. It takes most of the film before he realizes the coffee is lousy.
Where to Watch: Max (1 hour, 36 mins.)
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022)
Here’s a shiny little gift left beneath the tree by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s also six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon taken to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) travel to Earth to bring back what they think will be the perfect Christmas present for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt): None other than Bacon himself. (Why? Because Peter idolizes him, especially for Footloose.) Special also includes a rock number with the lyrics: Santa is a furry freak with epic superpowers /He flies to every human home in under 14 hours. Note: I recall hearing one swear word, but Special is probably too zippy, silly and clever to be consigned to the Naughty List.
Where to Watch: Disney+ (44 mins.)
A Christmas Mystery (2022)
There’s a touch of melancholy to this otherwise lighthearted movie. But it’s not an uncommon thing, is it, to feel haunted by sadness when everyone in town is hauling home trees and all the halls are undergoing bedeckment? Eleven-year-old Violet (Violet McGraw) is still mourning the loss of her mother, who died of cancer not too long ago. Luckily, she has an invigorating knack for sleuthing. When a Christmas-curdling thief steals what have long been believed to be Santa’s sleigh bells from the local museum, Violet is on the case. Despite the magical element of those bells, which the townspeople treat almost as religious relics, the psychology of the crime is rooted in simple everyday life. In the end, the culprit will be left feeling a little let down by the holidays, too.
Where to Watch: Max (1 hour, 27 mins.)
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)
Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) is a brilliant inventor who probably could have used some of Scrooge’s squinty, penny-pinching guile: While Jeronicus is away from his workroom one day, his assistant steals a marvelous new mechanical toy—a miniature bullfighter (voiced by Ricky Martin)—that would have made the inventor’s fortune. After that, the poor man gets by, barely, as a tinkerer with a pawnshop. But his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) shares his creative gifts, and her hopes and dreams are untarnished. This is a lovely, lavish musical fantasy, decorated with bustling Victorian cheer. And it contains a nugget of wisdom: “Never be afraid when people can’t see what you see. Only be afraid…if you can no longer see it.”
Where to Watch: Netflix (2 hours, 4 mins.)
Will Ferrell again, this time paired with Ryan Reynolds in an elaborate Christmas Carol reboot—it’s one of the most deluxe holiday showcases in recent memory. (Judi Dench has a cameo. That’s called pulling out all the stops.) Ferrell, as one of the Spirits, is spearheading the campaign to rehabilitate a simply awful human being named Clint (Reynolds). Clint is a media consultant so cynical he’ll use opposition research to influence a grade-school election. The plot spins its way through a number of reversals and some big, splashy song-and-dance numbers. It’s like watching a Christmas tree in a centrifuge, shooting off sparks and colored lights. Note: A sprinkling of mild naughty words.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+ (2 hours, 7 mins.)
Home Alone (1990)
It’s hard to convey, more than three decades later, how excited the country was over Home Alone. It sat atop the box office for 12 consecutive weeks and grossed so much money you could have filled every Christmas stocking on the planet with hard cash. This wasn’t just a holiday movie. Because of Macaulay Culkin, it felt like a discovery—the child’s equivalent of Julia Robert’s arrival in Pretty Woman that same year. As Kevin, the 8-year-old left behind in a big suburban house after his family flies out of town, Culkin immediately established himself as one of the most gifted kid actors in movie history. He was maybe even a great clown—a tiny Charlie Chaplin, brave but touchingly vulnerable.
Where to Watch: Disney+ (1 hour, 44 mins.)
Just like our modern superheroes, Santa Claus has an origin story. He didn’t just come down the chimney, you know? In this uncommonly handsome animated film, we start with a secondary character. Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is the new postman in Smeerensburg, a cold, remote Northern town where no one likes anyone else well enough to indulge in sending a letter — and forget about paying for it. But eventually the local children begin writing to Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a generous but mysterious toymaker who lives alone in a cabin. Jesper becomes the one delivering the children’s wishes. It’s a hot new market! Lesson: For happiness to blaze brightly, start with whatever kindling is at hand.
Where to Watch: Netflix (1 hour, 38 mins.)
The Santa Clause (1994)
This Tim Allen holiday comedy, one of the best at capturing a sense of suburban life (before happily escalating into a fantasy complete with flying reindeer), has turned into a fa-la-la-franchise with two sequels, plus a Disney+ series. There’s an unusual hint of black comedy in the premise: After accidentally killing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, divorced dad Scott (Allen) has to take on the job—along with the round belly and the voluminous white beard. Clause is about living your best life, even if it means becoming someone else.
Where to Watch: Disney+ (1 hour, 38 mins.)
Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)
A bonus recommendation! Pee-wee’s creator, Paul Reubens, died earlier this year, so in his memory—and as a tribute to our own Christmases past—let’s end with this strange, campy and completely endearing special episode from his classic TV series. Pee-wee mostly rolls his eyes as his friends stop by and give him brick-solid fruitcake (although in the end he finds a constructive use for it). The guests include Cher, Joan Rivers, Grace Jones and Dinah Shore, who sings so many stanzas of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that Pee-wee finally abandons her.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+ (47 mins.)