Top 20 Christmas Movies of All-Time: Democracy in Action

by Darren Clarke, December 13, 2020

“Why is everybody voting wrong?”

It seemed like a great idea. Doing a blog post on the Top 20 Christmas Movies of All-Time using votes from friends and family to decide the final ranking. Then most everybody preceded to vote wrong.

This, this is the problem with Democracy. It seems like a good idea until people start voting for movies with Chevy Chase in it.

But at a certain point the enterprise had gone too far to reign it in. Votes had been cast. Passions had been ignited. My job was to simply follow the voting to its’ final tally and maybe, humbly appreciate that sometimes it doesn’t matter so much what makes a person happy as it does that something does. Particularly in 2020.

So here is the completely unscientific results of the Top 20 Christmas Movies/Specials of All-Time. Along the way we’ll also look at some of the more interesting picks that didn’t make the Top 20. Thank you to all that participated and shared what they loved! (even those of you who voted wrong)

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 64%, Audience 72%, IMDB Rating 7.6/10

My sister Leah has a knack for breaking bad news, particularly bad news related to my personal failings. Not in a mean way just a matter of fact way. So, years ago, when I mentioned how much I enjoyed Love Actually she pointed out to me that the movie wasn’t so much about love actually as it was about infatuation. I had no rebuttal at the time. I’m thinking now though- doesn’t most love begin with infatuation?

My infatuation with Love Actually has never manifested in great love over time unfortunately. In the end my sister isn’t wrong. Watching it now it seems a little overly clever, a little forced, a little glossy and at times suspect. I still like it though. Still watch it every year. My favourite part of the movie is when Prime Minister Hugh Grant is going door to door seeking out Martine McCutchen’s luminous Natalie. PM Grant tries any number of wrong houses including one where three young girls ask him to sing a Christmas carol for them. Grant begins to sing Good King Wenceslas and looks back for support from his chauffeur standing behind him. The chauffeur joins in and startles Grant (and really, who gets startled better than Hugh Grant? It’s his gift) with a majestic, full bodied, singing voice.

The scene where Emma Thompson’s character realizes that her husband had bought an expensive necklace for another woman is genuinely heartbreaking as well.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 87%, Audience 96%, IMDB Rating 7.9/10

Tony Sloman from Radio News wrote of the 1947 original version of Miracle on 34th Street, “Children may prefer the newer, more obvious version, but parents will warm to this utterly beguiling original.” First, beguiling is a great word in general. Second, beguiling is entirely the perfect word for Miracle on 34th street. Seventy plus years later there is something genuinely wonderful that knits the story together that keeps young and old informed not only of the magic of the past but the magic of the here and now.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 25%, Audience 47%, IMDB Rating 5.7/10

I love Vince Vaughan, I love Resse Witherspoon. Please don’t make me watch this movie again. But hey, I’m not really interested in creatively ripping any of these Christmas movies. I can tell you that Four Christmases does not get great reviews overall, good review to bad review, it’s not a 50/50 proposition. Given it is the season of giving though I will provide you with two positive, two negative, reviews of the movie-

“Four Christmases is the kind of film that you should only watch if you’re trapped on an airline and can’t fall asleep, the kind of holiday film that makes Jingle All the Way look like a cinematic tour de force.” Simon Abrams, New York Press

“This is marginally better than most, with a few offbeat comic ideas, a reliably droll performance from Vaughn, and, as the parents, four watchable old troupers in search of a fat paycheck.” J.R. Jones, The Chicago Reader

“Maybe if Four Christmases had extended itself beyond white trash targets and projectile vomiting, we could’ve been talking about a new Christmas classic right now.” William Goss, Cinematical

“You can see most of the big slapstick set-pieces looming long before they hit but there are a few smaller routines that pack a punch just because they have an unexpectedly manic tilt to them.” Sandra Hall, Sydney Morning News

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 33%, Audience 61%, IMDB Rating 6.8/10

My friend Justin Drummond actually placed the Home Alone sequel ahead of the original. Beyond the overt, cynical, product placement in the film Home Alone 2, Lost in New York retains much of the charm of the first film. Are Catherine O’Hara and John Heard the worst parents in the world? Maybe. I wouldn’t ask them to feed my fish while I was away on vacation that’s for sure.

The Rotten Tomatoes reviews are somewhat damning but I think Robert Schickel of Time Magazine nails it here, “It is going to make a ton of money, but you never feel that’s the only reason it was made. It respects itself and it respects us, and there’s no reason to begrudge its success.”

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 73%, Audience 72%, IMDB Rating 7.3/10

“Happy Birthday!”

“… and Frosty because he was made of snow himself, was the fastest Belly-whopper in the world!”

Man I love this special. I loved it when I was four, and almost fifty years later I may love it more. Everybody knows these characters- figures, like Frosty, briefly coming to life within the borders of our personal worlds to fill everything with magic, figures, like the would-be magician, that want to destroy anything magical and beautiful.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 79%, Audience 75%, IMDB Rating 7.0/10

Billy Bob Thornton is one of those guys who you either like or you really, really, don’t. I’m in the latter group and I cannot seem to get past it. So, here’s a portion of a review from someone who doesn’t dislike Thornton with all of their being, Teresa Talerico, Common Sense Media

“There’s no question that viewers will find Bad Santa crude and irreverent. But while some might be shocked and disgusted, others will find themselves laughing all the way through this unconventional Christmas tale. Indeed, Willie emerges as the ultimate antihero. Those who aren’t utterly offended might even find themselves rooting for Willie, who is portrayed as more of a washed-up, disorganized loser than a genuine menace. He starts out as a Grinch, but seems to be headed for his own version of redemption. A scene where Willie and his girlfriend help decorate the home for Christmas is surprisingly sweet.

In his final film role, the late John Ritter shines as the uptight department-store manager. Lauren Graham brings just the right mix of freewheeling sexiness and earthy compassion to her role Willie’s love interest, and Bernie Mac is solid as the store’s deadpan, scheming security guard, and Cox plays a great straight man to Thornton’s over-the-top Willie.”

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 15%, Audience 38%, IMDB Rating 5.6/10

Friends… friends… really? Jingle All the Way.

This couldn’t have made it to the Top 20 without Del Stephen providing for his Top 15 list one single, lone, pick- Jingle All the Way. So, I reached out to Stephen and asked for some help in explaining the allure of this film. Del Stephen’s father Claudio provided this explanation, “Arnold Schwarzenegger is funny along with Sinbad playing the postman waiting till Christmas Eve to buy this toy Turbo Man on Christmas Eve for his 5 year old son. Limited supply of the toy. All in all it’s a funny Christmas movie with innocent fighting scenes. At the end a father rebuilds a relationship with his son. Must see.”

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 71%, Audience 65%, IMDB Rating 6.5/10

“I was surprised to find The Santa Clause rather easier to take than anticipated.”

Jay Boynar, Orlando Sentinel

“I think that if we’re going to destroy our son’s illusions, I should be a part of it.”

Scott Calvin

Tim Allen. There’s all kinds of valid reasons to not like Tim Allen but for some reason I find him eminently likeable. Home Improvement, Galaxy Quest, even Last Man Standing. I just like him in these roles. Who knows? I can’t explain, please don’t make me.

I like this movie. I just do.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 71%, Audience 71%, IMDB Rating 7.0/10

“I never liked a girl enough to give her twelve sharp knives.”

Bill Murray is the man.

Gaming a Google Map trip to  Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is an annual tradition for me with Groundhog Day being the best non-Christmas-Christmas movie ever. I want to live in Punxsutawney, learn how to play piano there, save cats in trees there, gather every year to see if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow.

Back to Murray, consider a resume that includes- Caddyshack, Stripes, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Kingpin, Rushmore, Lost in Translation, Moonrise Kingdom, The Life Aquatic, Grand Budapest Hotel… on and on it goes.

And he’s great in Scrooged.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 95%, Audience 84%, IMDB Rating 8.1/10

Eleven? Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, eleven!?!!?!?!?

My mother loves to regale friends and family with stories of my fear of the Abominable Snowman when I was a child as well as my complete inability to pronounce the word Abominable (apparently I added numerous vowels and accompanying syllables to the word).

There’s so much to the story of Rudolph that relates to the child and adult in us. Knowing we have something unique and beautiful about us but often feeling estranged from our fellow man by those very things. Harbouring desires to do things outside the elf norm, “I Want to Be a Dentist,” and knowing those desires will make you leave some places you have an attachment to. And finally, simply, the natural fear of big scary things.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 76%, Audience 75%, IMDB Rating 7.3/10

“I fell down the chimney and landed on a flaming hot goose!”

Rizzo the Rat

The united voting block of Tim and Candice McIntee voting for The Muppets Christmas Carol as their number one ensured the movie a respectable and well deserved spot in the Top 10.

“The nervy bookkeeping rats in Scrooge’s office are a joy, but Statler and Waldorf (Jerry Nelson and Goelz) as the chain-swinging ghosts Jacob and Robert Marley are, as ever, peerless.”

Kevin Maher, Times UK

The original Muppet Movie might be in my Top 25 movies all-time. Muppet Christmas Carol is easily in my top 5 Christmas Movies.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 85%, Audience 89%, IMDB Rating 8.1/10

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” 

Charles Dickens’ Scrooge

The simple idea behind Christmas Carol is so timeless. Greedy, petty, man is visited by three ghosts and realizes the empty, joyless, life he’d been leading hoarding wealth. Immediately changes his ways. Man, if we could only have that happen more often.

This will be the first year my wife and I miss the Shaw Festival rendition of A Christmas Carol in Niagara-on-the-Lake. If you get a chance next year check it out. Really special.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter NA, Audience NA, IMDB Rating 8.3/10

“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Linus Van Pelt

I’ve often said if I could escape from this world into another reality it would be to the world of Charlie Brown. Think about it. A world of primary colours, baseball games, Great Pumpkins, highly imaginative dogs, philosopher’s like Linus Van Pelt, a world with cheap psychiatric care available (mind you, maybe it’s so cheap because it’s ironically doled out by Lucy who seems to cause the most emotional issues on the show) and most importantly, a world filled with the utterly sublime music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

What a world.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 94%, Audience 94%, IMDB Rating 8.2/10

“Yippee Ki Yay mother fucker!”

There’s so much to love about Die Hard. From, “Make fist with your toes,” to the rapport between John McClane and likeable, Twinkie eating, cop Al Powell, Die Hard is that loveably over the top film that manages to find strange Christmas comfort via great performances all around, none better than Alan Rickman. From the pomp and circumstance attached to carefully leafing through his notebook to read an initial statement to the folks at the Christmas party (which was so brief, he needn’t have required notes- but the pretentiousness to it is fabulous), to the expression on his face as he falls to his death, Rickman is lights out all movie long.

Of course, much social media time and effort has been wasted (mind you, that may be the whole point of social media) hot taking/trolling whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not. Expert Die Hard isn’t a Christmas Movie troll Justin Drummond (yes, the same Justin Drummond who voted for Santa With Muscles featuring Hulk Hogan) once spent a whole afternoon at a comic convention harassing wrestler Mick Foley with the, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” question just to get these rebuttals for Facebook debates- “Yeah you might think it’s a Christmas movie but the man who created Mr. Socko doesn’t…” and, “Talk to me when you’ve been thrown off a 20-foot cage through a table.”

The, “It’s an action film that takes place at Christmas!” debate point baffles me. Is Home Alone not pretty much exactly that? Everything is something that takes place at Christmas. Christmas Carol is a cautionary tale, a tale of redemption, that takes place at Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life is a morality play that takes place at Christmas, Love Actually is a British rom-com that takes place at Christmas. How is this even a debate?

So, maybe, the next time, before folks wade into the, “Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie!” debate they’ll instead consider just going and playing Candyland or Farmville. Time better spent really.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 100%, Audience 97%, IMDB Rating 8.3/10

“He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch.”

There was one or two votes for other incarnations of Dr. Seuss’s great How the Grinch Stole Christmas but in the end people seemed to uniformly agree that there’s no substitute for the original. There isn’t.

Grinch: It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages boxes, or bags!
Narrator: And he puzzled and puzzled, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more.”

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 94%, Audience 95%, IMDB Rating 8.6/10

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Really, what more do you need?

George Bailey: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary. 

Mary: I’ll take it. Then what? 

George Bailey: Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair… am I talking too much?

Stewart and his knack for the boisterous, the bleak, the artful pause, the, the, poignant stutter. “I want a suitcase THIS big!!!!” is riveting. Donna Reed meanwhile is just, well, she’s just all manner of beautiful. Reed provides a warm, grounded, always twinkling, foil to Stewart’s erratic (however well intentioned) nature.

Just an aside- I always wonder when I watch Conservative supporters on my Facebook page- Do they root for Old Man Potter in this movie? Do they sit back and say, “Man George Bailey is a left wing extremist! A communist! A socialist!”

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 89%, Audience 88%, IMDB Rating 7.9/10

“You’ll shoot your eye out kid!”

Growing up in the 70s this movie really captures the Christmas experience for me. The idea of being entirely wrapped up in getting a certain gift for Christmas and the world seeming aligned against it. The bullies on the way home from school, the lineups at the mall for Santa, my father reading the newspaper at the table, Triple Dog Dares on the school playground. It just nails everything.

“D-R-I-N-K M-O-R-E O-V-A-L-T-I-N-E”

Who can’t relate to that gutting moment as a child when you realize something you thought of as magical was really just a clever marketing plot?

Darren McGavin is brilliant as the Dad as well. The fights with the furnace, the insane glee the leg lamp provides him, the ongoing battles with the neighbour’s dogs. It’s just so perfect.

Being fourth on the list is a bit of a disappointment to me, though, maybe not as disappointing to me as Martin Garster who wondered aloud at people’s selections, “How is a Christmas Story not at the top of everyone’s list? You people are all broken.”

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 84%, Audience 79%, IMDB Rating 6.9/10

It’s amazing that most of the cast for Elf weren’t the creators first choices. Trying to imagine the infinite charm of Elf without Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel seems impossible. But let me pause for a moment and focus on my favourite character in the movie- Gimbel’s manager, Faizon Love.

Gimbel’s Manager- Why are you smiling like that?

Elf- I like smiling. Smiling’s my favourite.

Gimbel’s Manager- Make work your favourite. That’s your new favourite. 

Faizon Love’s character crushes every scene he is in with the back and forth between him and the naive Elf elevating the dialogue to hilarity each time, every time-

Gimbel’s Manager- There’s no singing in the North Pole!

Elf- Yes there is!

Gimbel’s Manager- No there isn’t!

Elf- Yes there is!

That’s not the most amazing dialogue you’ll ever read but on screen, in the hands of Love and Ferrell, it’s beautiful.

Elf is sweet, it’s ridiculous, it’s a good natured shoutout to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and it uses it’s cast perfectly. I mean, the movie has Zooey Deschanel singing in the shower. It has Bob Newhart playing a loveably droll elf. Come on! It’s hard to do better than this in terms of a Christmas movie.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 65%, Audience 80%, IMDB Rating 7.6/10

Something to think about-

In my History of the Americas University class our teacher asked us to consider, “What would have happened if Europeans hadn’t come to North America?” I responded, “Oh, we were coming…” It was impossible for me to imagine us not doing what we do- finding new lands to bring our particular brand of destruction to.

Chris Columbus directed Home Alone as he did Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom. He also produced a couple Night at the Museum movies, Jingle All the Way (making Del Stephen and his father really happy), a few Harry Potter films and The Help.

I looked at Columbus’s resume given I wondered what kind of pressure would be attached to having the same moniker as the man who, “discovered the New World.” (how bizarre is it by the way that we would ever attach that notion to a guy who found places with people already on it?) Explorer, destroyer of old worlds, Christopher Columbus’s legacy has faltered under the weight of the modern ethical lens but still, if I’m born with that name I think I would feel a certain sense of lofty expectations.

Maybe Christmas isn’t the perfect time to analyze this too deeply- the impacts of European colonialism versus that of early 90s movie making but I wonder if we look at how the movie has resonated, or even the life of Macaulay Culkin, if we don’t see some of the same cautionary tale of the wayward impacts of excess and ego. Sure, Home Alone was a success, sure it’s a fun movie, I like it, I watch it. But there’s something underneath the tale that always kind of gnaws at me.

European colonialism was fundamentally rooted in the desire to expand power and wealth. Of course, that’s not how it was sold. Colonialism was sold as being less about the desire for more wealth and more about destiny, adventure and bringing enlightenment and religion to, “savages.” In the end what it did, like most things involving people who were seeking their destiny, was mostly destroy things.

When I watch Home Alone, yeah, I enjoy it but there’s moments, usually at some point in product placement, or the wanton violence, where I think, “Where’s this ship headed and what’s really it’s true purpose?”

In the end we’re all mostly products of our time, you, me, Home Alone, Christopher and Chris Columbus. Products of our time. I wonder if we will ever fully explore the separation between how we qualify what we do and why we actually do it.

Something to think about. Or not.

Rotten Tomatoes: Tomato Meter 68%, Audience 86%, IMDB Rating 7.6/10

Ellen What are you looking at?

Clark Oh, the silent majesty of a winter’s morn… the clean, cool chill of the holiday air… an asshole in his bathrobe, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer…

[Eddie, in the driveway, is draining the RV’s toilet] 

Eddie Shitter was full.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the landslide winner in the voting and the number one reason I wondered as votes came in , “Why is everybody voting wrong?”

The allure of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a complete mystery to me. Clearly though lots and lots of good, fine, folks, love it. Instead of me going on about my disconnect to the movie I thought I would reach out to those who voted for it and ask, “Why?”

The responses I received from friends were pretty uniform with, well, one great exception from Lacey Warford who concluded her thoughts with-

“… and a young Chevy Chase… hubba-hubba…”

I’ll bet many of you, like me, hadn’t anticipated Clark Griswold’s general sexiness, his general hubba-hubba-ness, being a major factor in the popularity of the film. Now you know.

Here’s some more takes on the attraction of Christmas Vacation

“One of the reasons that I always wanted children was to have a big family Christmas get-together. I would be lucky for it to turn out like the Griswold’s family Christmas.” Bobby Cross

“A lot of movies have this false sense of what family is. Everything is so proper. Christmas Vacation is a more real look at it… turned to 11.” Justin Drummond

Many of the explanations as to why people love this movie referenced, “the shitter’s full,” exchange as being a particularly exceptional moment in the movie for them. And I think that’s precisely the defining- are you in or are you out? point for people. I’m out. But many folks are in, way in.

“Christmas Vacation to me just signifies Christmas. I still always reference the “Gridwald house” in terms of decorated houses. As a kid, we used to go to this house in Burlington and there would be crowds checking out the lights.” Jesse Seguin

And maybe that’s it as well. Christmas was designed as a break to the cold, dark, winter. A defiant moment punctuated by primary coloured lights glowing against the backdrop of both the harsh winter landscape and the warmth and comfort of your living room. A moment to revel in song and drink in camaraderie. A moment to celebrate the audacity of being alive and the gorgeous ridiculousness of our all too brief passage through this mortal coil.

In the end I guess nobody was voting wrong. Everybody was just following their personal take on a collective celebration. It’s a singular toast celebrated by the raising of many different drinks of choice.

Vive la difference!

… or, as Lacey might put it, “Differences… hubba-hubba…”