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

078nativity
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.

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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

Screwtape Letters, Blue Like Jazz Coming to Theater Near You: Future of Christian Filmmaking May Hang in Balance

‘Christian Filmmaking’ Captures Hollywood’s Attention as Never Before, but are Christian Filmmakers Up for the Challenge?

 

Screwtape has been masterfully adapted for stage, but sat in Sony's vault for nearly 60 years waiting for the right filmmaker. Enter Ralph Winter and Scott Derrickson...

As Soul Surfer roars past Fireproof‘s $33M payday, (eventually reaching $45M at the box office) Hollywood’s rush to cash in on adapting Christian stories–such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ($279), and stories about Christians–such as The Blind Side ($256M) continues to gain momentum.

Whether or not this trend proves to be good or bad for the future of Christians in the entertainment industry remains to be seen.

Suddenly, Christians who have spent their lives establishing themselves as world-class filmmakers–such as producer Ralph Winter (XMen), and director Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still)–find themselves in the same conversation as unproven “Christian filmmakers” who have clawed their way to the market only by virtue of uniquely Christian product. .

Two current projects may make or break Hollywood’s interest in ‘Christian’ projects. Ralph Winter’s The Screwtape Letters, and newcomer Steve Taylor’s adaptation of Donald Miller’s best-selling Blue Like Jazz are being closely watched by industry insiders.

'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' proved a huge disappointment both for Christian audiences and box office expectations. Can Screwtape Letters recapture that C.S. Lewis magic?

It could be an uphill battle. The trend toward “Christian filmmaking” is already drawing mixed reviews in Hollywood, largely due to the less-than-stellar quality of many so-called “Christian Movies.”

I’ve chosen two takes on the movement in recent publications for your consideration (below). Cathleen Falsani’s post in the Huffington Post offers some positive press on the movement, and even suggests some possible future adaptation projects. Andrew O’Herir’s post in Salon offers a more sobering critique based on Hollywood’s memories of truly atrocious “Christian Films.” It’s painful to read and often overstated, but O’Hehir’s commentary is worth considering and striving for a higher standard.

The world really is watching!

See also:

If You Live It, They Will Come (to the Theater): How Blind Side & Soul Surfer Point to Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories.

It’s a Wonderful Life: “Christian Filmmaking’ at its Finest.

The Screwtape Letters Onstage: One Hell of a Good Show

Biola Media Conference at CBS Studios Tomorrow – April 30.

 

Christian Film?

What Should Be Coming to a Theater Near You

by Cathleen Falsani in the Huffington Post

This fall a film based on Donald Miller’s bestselling spiritual memoir, Blue Like Jazz, is expected to hit theaters nationwide. In many ways, Miller’s book is an unlikely subject for a feature film.

Blue Like Jazz is a collection of semi-autobiographical short essays based in part on Miller’s experience auditing classes at Reed College in Oregon that explore the author’s wrestling with questions of faith.

Donald Miller's best-selling memoir made for laugh-out-loud read, but can newcomer Steve Taylor be able to make it work as a movie?

But the film project is part of a growing trend of adapting well-known “Christian” or Christian-themed books (both fiction and nonfiction) as feature films. Recent movies based on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Two more film adaptations of Lewis’ works — The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce — are in development.

Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media (Note: Ralph Winter contacted me this AM (4/30) to tell me that Cathleen’s report is mistaken –Walden Media is NOT connected to the project at this time), the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.

Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”

Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”

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Why are Christian movies so awful?

As “Soul Surfer” demonstrates, “faith-based” movies are a boom industry. Do they have to be so lame?

by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon

Stills from “Soul Surfer,” “The Passion of Christ,” “Fireproof”

When a star teenage surfer named Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack, and then got back on her surfboard just three weeks later, you could hear another species of shark – the ones from Hollywood, who turn dramatic real-life events into movies — swimming to the scene.

Not only did Hamilton’s story have an attractive and charismatic central character, it also came with a moral message attached and (to think more cynically) a much-desired target demographic. Hamilton’s family were evangelical Christians who understood what had happened to Bethany as a personal and providential test of faith, and also saw it as an opportunity to testify to the wider world.

The resulting film, “Soul Surfer,” which stars AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents, took some interesting twists and turns on its way to the big screen. There was evidently disagreement between the Hamiltons and the film’s producers along the way, over the question of how explicit to make the references to faith and the quotations from Scripture. (They’re plenty explicit, if you ask me.) But success has a way of resolving all such disputes, and “Soul Surfer” opened last weekend on 2,214 screens with a $10.6 million gross, and the third-highest per-screen average of any film in wide release (after “Hop” and “Hanna”).

You could call “Soul Surfer” a Christian film that got picked up by a mainstream distributor (Sony) or an inspirational mainstream film that was concocted with the “faith-based” audience partly or largely in view, after the fashion of“The Blind Side,” “Secretariat,” the “Chronicles of Narnia” series and so on. (For whatever it’s worth, the universe of Christian movie sites and bloggers seem to view it as the former.) While the Hamilton family’s religion runs through the story as an undercurrent, the movie’s only mouthpiece for official Christian theology is a youth counselor played (very clumsily) by country star Carrie Underwood. As Carolyn Arends, the film critic for the evangelical site Christianity Today, has noted, director Sean McNamara and his team of writers aren’t trying to preach the gospel to outsiders but to create a recognizable self-portrait for their target audience, “a reasonable approximation of daily American Christianity.”

However you want to categorize “Soul Surfer,” it’s going to make plenty of money, and should serve to remind those of us in the secular moviegoing public that the evangelical audience that emerged with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and the out-of-nowhere 2008 hit “Fireproof” hasn’t gone anywhere.

Christian-identified viewers remain voraciously hungry for content, and even though the major studios all have marketing arms devoted to courting them, they still feel poorly served by the mainstream film industry and its addiction to violent, sexual and otherwise profane subject matter. (Dozens of Christian-oriented movies are made every year, but only a small fraction of them will reach general release.)

But do Christian-themed movies really have to be so bad?

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