Thirty Favorite Christmas Movies and TV Specials

We compiled our list from Stratton family favorites and suggestions from the Two Handed Warrior community. Did we miss your favorite?

by Gary & Sue Stratton

If the stable teaches us anything it’s that you can’t always judge a Christmas classic by its humble beginning. The highest-rated Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, was known as Frank Capra’s greatest failure until countless TV reruns brought it back to life.  CBS executives nearly killed the most-watched Christmas special of all time, A Charlie Brown Christmas, because they feared it was too ‘sacred.’  With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus (1979)  “the most watched movie” of all time, yet most Americans have never heard of it. The most-watched opera in television history, Amahl and the Night Visitors, may never recover its audience after a tiff between composer Gian Carlo Menotti and NBC kept it off the air for over three decades.

So Sue and I put together our own list of favorites in hopes of inspiring your search for true greatness. Some are well-known. Some are secret treasures. We categorized the films/shows between those with a more-or-less ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), and ‘secular’ offerings (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.

We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue

 

GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

A Christmas staple Menotti's 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' is worth finding in a local live performance or the original video
The most viewed opera in TV history, Menotti’s powerful ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ is well worth the search to find it

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, both the WGA  and AMI list it as one of the twenty best films ever made.

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) Gian Carlo Menotti’s most popular opera was originally written for NBC as a one-hour Christmas Eve TV broadcast. Find a local live performance if you can, but the hilarious and inspiring original is also available on DVD.

Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas. CBS feared it was ‘too sacred’ for prime time.

The Nativity (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.

 

GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of  a Larger Movie

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Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

Ben-Hur (1959) At least one wise man continues his search for Jesus as Charlton Heston’s title character strives to put his life back together after profound betrayal. Also, on the AMI list of best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face Christmas traffic.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. Our normally chatty group of friends didn’t speak for a full hour after watching it together.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective. Watching Luke (Jesus, 1979) and Matthew’s narrative back-to-back creates a marvelous disequilibrium. Throw in the prologue from The Gospel of John (2003), with LOST’s Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus, to complete a remarkable Christmas trifecta.

 

GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

Bill Murray at his comedic best
Bill Murray at his comedic best

A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.”  You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”

Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.

Silver Bells (2013) When a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game lands an ambitious television sportscaster in serious trouble he finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas.  Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell‘s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.

 

GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas

A Christmas Story ( ) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection
A Christmas Story (1983) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise.  Many remakes, none come close to the original.

White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.

A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie.  A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.

 

GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

Tim Allen featured in Bill O'Reilly's new book, Killing Santa
Tim Allen to be featured in Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Santa?

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home in Connecticut.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community? This is the movie for you. The Griswold family’s big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how the strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.

Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.

The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.

 

GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid-friendly)

If you like Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you
If you love Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you

While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who ever cherished a secret love (or faced a Christmas alone). Might be Sandra Bullock’s best role before The Blind Side.

Die Hard (1988)  Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.

Family Man (2000)  Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of (Madam Secretary)  Tea Leoni and Nicholas Cage‘s and careers. Sue and I watch it every year and ponder our own “what if?”

Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war.  A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)

Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.

.

See also:

It’s a Wonderful Life and the Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

Thirty Good to Great Christmas Movies for 2014, by Gary and Sue Stratton

Our annual Christmas movie extravaganza compiled from our family’s favorite Christmas movies of all time and suggestions from members of the THW community.

by Gary & Sue Stratton

charlie-brown-christmas2
The #1 Made-for-TV Christmas movie of all time almost never aired because CBS doubted its ‘sacred’ view of Christmas would draw a large enough audience.

What better way to get in the holiday spirit than to fire up the DVD, Blu-Ray, Tivo, Wii, XBox, Laptop, IPad, Kindle, Smart Phone, Hulu, NetFlix, Roku, Amazon Prime, etc. and watch your favorite Christmas films.

We divided our list between good and great films and categorized them with either a ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), or a ‘secular’ version (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.

We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue

 

GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

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The toughest on the list to find, but worth the search if you want to talk about the real meaning of Christmas with your kids.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, it is one of the ten best films ever made.

Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at the meaning of Christmas. Set the DVR and experience the least commercial Christmas tale ever told on network TV.

The Nativity (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.

The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.

GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of  a Larger Movie

078nativity
Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

Ben-Hur (1959) Charlton Heston’s character’s life parallel’s the life of Jesus, (even if he actually misses his birth). Also, one of the best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face the mall.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus “the most watched” movie of all-time.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective.

GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

Muppet Christmas Carol: A scary ghost story for the PG set.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) Samuel Goldwyn’s romantic comedy about a Bishop’s fundraising prayer that nets a lot more than cash. Cary Grant plays the angel with more on his mind than money. (The 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, featuring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston isn’t bad at all.)

A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.”  You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”

Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.

Silver Bells (2013) Bruce Dalt (Bruce Boxleitner) is an ambitious television sportscaster who approaches the holidays as he does life – competitively. But when a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game leads to serious consequences Bruce finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas and hope.  Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell’s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.

GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas

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We watch it as a family every year as we decorate the tree. And every year we say, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise.  Many remakes, none come close to the original.

White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.

A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie.  A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.

GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

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Totally idiotic and totally entertaining.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s false personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home n Connecticut.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community?  This is the movie for you.  The Griswold family’s plan for a big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.

Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.

The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.

GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid friendly)

children_of_men
Long before last year’s Oscar nominee GRAVITY, Alfonso Cuarón was shedding new light on stories of faith, like Christmas.

Die Hard (1988)  Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is at his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who has ever had a secret love or faced a Christmas alone. Sandra Bullock’s best role before Blind Side..

Family Man (2000)  Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni’s careers. We watch it every year and ponder our own what if?

Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war.  A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)

Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.

.

See also:

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

Henchmen, Villains & Uber Villains: What Video Games Teach Us about Drama, by Ashley Arielle

The Art and Architecture of Hollywood, Villains and a Good Story Well-Told

by Ashley Arielle from In Defense of Villainy

Super Mario battles uber villain Boswer: a thirty-year war of epic proportions

Poor Mario, it’s a good thing he’s so super, because he has the worst luck. If it’s not his girl getting kidnapped, it’s his castle being overrun or his brother disappearing.  And as any child given any variation of a Nintendo gaming system in the last thirty years knows, he’s going to have to fight through Goombas, Koopas and Chomps before taking on Kammy Koopa and then finally, his arch-nemesis Bowser.

A good action film is set up very much like a good videogame. The larger and more varied the force of villains arrayed against your hero, the more he has to overcome, the stronger both your hero and your story will grow.

Three Categories of Villainy

In videogames villainy is broken down into three categories: henchmen, villains and uber villains.

Henchmen are on the lowest level they generally don’t have names, are terrible shots and rack up body counts like no other. These are the stormtroopers in Star Wars, the orcs in The Lord of the Rings and the Nazis in… well most any movie involving Nazis.

Uber Villain Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)

Villains are usually the hired muscle of the big bad; they do have names and can get personal with the hero, but are not the main event. Think Count Rugen (aka the six-fingered man) in The Princess Bride, Frederick Sykes (aka the one-armed man) in The Fugitive and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.  They are usually defeated in a prolonged physical struggle that weakens the hero before his battle with his ultimate nemesis: the uber villain.

The uber villain is an entirely different kettle of fish. He is the puppet master, the perpetrator of some great evil against the world at large and (hopefully) the hero in particular.  He is smart and cunning and usually his confrontation with the hero involves some sort of chicanery.  Theirs can be a physical fight, but it can also be a battle of wits and not infrequently the hero is, at the last minute, saved by some kind of outside help or piece of hidden knowledge.  Entering at stage right we have Commodus from Gladiator, Agent Smith from The Matrix and The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Die Hard with a Villain

One film that utilizes all three categories with verve and panache is Die Hard. Die Hard is the story of our hero, John McClane, who is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, who faces one of the great villains in action film history.  The stage is set, Christmas Eve, an unhappy couple, a mostly empty skyscraper and a truckload of villains intent on robbery and mayhem.

Uber Villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman)

Our henchmen are the nameless and numerous bank robbers, these are the ones toting machine guns and looking tough, but not doing much else. Karl moves from nameless tough to the role of villain when McClane kills his brother, Tony making the conflict quite personal.  Their fight rages throughout the film, Karl becoming further and further enraged by McClane’s antics.  The final conflict between Karl and McClane is an epic, bare-knuckled brawl from which, McClane barely escapes; whereupon he goes after Hans Gruber, who is of course, the uber villain.

The relationship between McClane and Gruber in this film is truly marvelous…

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Ashley Arielle is a promising twenty-something screenwriter and graduate student. Follow her Blog or on Twitter.