Christmas movies have been a tradition for decades, but the days when we had to watch George Bailey try to jump off of a bridge year after year are well past us. Holiday movies are an industry in and of themselves, with dozens, if not hundreds of new seasonal offerings released starting around June. Most of them are cozy, Christmas cookie-cutter offerings, relaxing and largely disposable. But still, classics do emerge. With an entirely arbitrary two-decade cut-off, we’re taking a look at modern masterpieces of the form.
Luckily, the Christmas genre runs wide and deep: silly comedies, cozy dramas, gruesome horrors, queer romances, and surprisingly literal adaptations of Wham! songs. It’s all here!
A Will Ferrell comedy about a human who identifies as a literal elf has no business being this sweet and smart. Ferrell is Buddy, a kid who was accidentally shipped off to the North Pole as a child, and now he’s off to New York during the holiday season to find his biological father (James Caan). The impressive cast here (Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Peter Dinklage, Bob Newhart) doesn’t hurt one bit.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Roughly inspired by John Ford’s 1948 3 Godfathers, this one finds a drag queen, a teenage runaway, and a good-hearted middle-aged man struggling with alcoholism living on the streets of Tokyo when they come across a baby in a trash bin on Christmas Eve. The lovely, moving adventure that follows comes from director Satoshi Kon, who also directed classics Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Paprika in his too-short life and career.
Love Actually (2003)
Starting a few weeks before the holiday and counting down to the big day, the modern Christmas staple movie weaves together multiple stories of love starring British familiars like Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, and Colin Firth. If anyone’s ever professed love to you via a series of cue cards on your doorstep, you can thank (or blame) Love Actually.
Bad Santa (2003)
2003 was a banner year for modern Christmas classics, in any flavour you’d choose. The platonic ideal of a rude Christmas movie, Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa stars Billy Bob Thornton as Willie Soke, a mall Santa who’s actually a con man, using his seasonal gigs to scope out stores that he can rob at night. He represents everything that you probably don’t want your kid to be around during the holidays (or anytime, really): He’s foul-mouthed, cynical, and abusive whenever he’s not putting on the merest hint of a front for the children. The film does offer a solid Christmas redemption arc in and around scenes of seasonal debauchery—but still, this probably isn’t one for the kids.
The Polar Express (2004)
You might find this journey into the uncanny valley a little unnerving, which: fair. The animation style here is either beautiful and groundbreaking, or deeply creepy, and probably a bit of both. Still, the journey of a doubting young boy to the North Pole has timeless messages about the value of childhood wonder, and the slightly bittersweet ending balances the movie’s moments of holiday schmaltz.
Joyeux Noël (2005)
A fictionalized version of a true story, this Academy Award nominee deals with an unusual moment during the first year of World War I, when, at several points along the front lines, French, German, and British soldiers called a series of informal truces, often mingling to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The German Crown Prince even sent the lead singer of the Berlin opera to perform along the front lines, entertaining both sides. In dramatizing the event, the filmmakers understand that the truce was both glorious and absurd. Those complicated feelings, and the knowledge that what we’re seeing represents a momentary lull in a war that would continue for years, make for powerful emotional moments.
The Family Stone (2005)
Holiday gatherings always offer great potential for comedy and drama, with The Family Stone landing a bit of each. The setup involves Dermot Mulroney bringing home his new girlfriend, played by a fearlessly brittle Sarah Jessica Parker, for Christmas. That doesn’t go great, with the visitor constantly feeling out of place and embarrassed amid the insular, tight-knit, standoffish clan. But, in the background, strong-willed matriarch Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) is also looking for an opportunity, amidst the holiday chaos, to reveal a terminal medical diagnosis. The subtle final shot lands like a sledgehammer every time.
The Holiday (2006)
Depressed Englishwoman Iris (Kate Winslet) decides to swap homes and lives, for a bit, with similarly unlucky-in-love Californian Amanda (Cameron Diaz). Iris is now living in a giant Hollywood mansion, while Amanda is exploring a quaint country village. Naturally, romance is waiting for each woman in her newfound environs. It was largely ignored on its initial release, but has grown into a charmingly dorky Christmas cult classic.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
In the film, the research team of a greedy government drills into land best left undisturbed: an ancient burial mound that, legends suggest, is the resting place of Joulupukki, a pagan forerunner to our modern Santa Claus. BAD IDEA. Old Joulupukki is not dissimilar from Krampus, in that he’s much more interested in punishing the wicked than in rewarding the good. It’s an action-packed, darkly comic, cynical winter’s tale (rather the perfect one for our times) and builds to a wild climax.
Arthur Christmas (2011)
Aardman Animations, the Wallace and Gromit/Shaun the Sheep people, produced this joyful, quirky computer-animated family film. James McAvoy plays Arthur Claus, son of the current holder of the Santa title. Operations at the North Pole are largely automated, and Arthur has a hard time convincing management that a single undelivered toy is worth much fuss. So it’s clumsy, goofy Arthur to the rescue, with the certain knowledge that ruining even one kid’s holiday would be a failure.
The Best Man Holiday (2013)
The long-awaited sequel to 1999’s The Best Man, this one quickly updates us on the fallout from that earlier film before moving into new territory (it’s not strictly necessary to have seen the original if you’re looking to dive straight into the holiday festivities). Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Terrence Howard, and Sanaa Lathan lead the sequel, which offers a bold blend of off-color humor, hot shirtless guys, sincere religious themes, and shamelessly heartbreaking plot twists.
Just your typical girlfriend/buddy/revenge comedy movie about two trans sex workers on the hunt for the man who did one of them wrong. As heartfelt as it is madcap, it all takes place on a wild Christmas Eve in Hollywood (so don’t expect snow). Shot on a couple of iPhones, director Sean Baker and company make a virtue of the intimacy and immediacy that modern technology can bring.
Mara Rooney’s Therese and Cate Blanchett’s glamorous Carol set off sparks when they meet in a department store during the Christmas season of 1952. The women suffer for their growing attraction, and this certainly isn’t the breeziest of holiday movies, but there’s light here, and beauty, and hope for the future.
The Night Before (2015)
What else are you gonna do Christmas Eve than spend the night with your best friends (Seth Rogan, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at something called the Nutcracker Ball? Yeah, sounds awful to me, too. Luckily they’ve got a ton of drugs to get them through the night. A reliably entertaining stoner Christmas story.
Among the best of a decade’s worth of films reviving ancient, scary European traditions involving far less jolly versions of Santa, Krampus is a Gremlins-esque horror comedy with imaginative creature effects from the folx over at Weta Workshop. It might not be the darkest, nor the goriest, of holiday-themed horror sendups, but it is an awful lot of fun, with effects that evoke a twisted winter wonderland as we follow a family being hunted by the title demon.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
Zombies for Christmas? OK! In this mash-up of High School Musical and Shaun of the Dead that you never knew you needed, the titular Anna just wants to get through the Christmas show at her high school in Little Haven, Scotland. She’s so preoccupied with her own problems that she fails to notice the undead infection spreading around her. It’s a weird blend of styles, no question, but one packed with gory fun, musical numbers, and some surprising, seasonally appropriate heart.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
There are plenty of versions of A Christmas Carol to choose from, but this one examines that tale from the other side. It’s the story of Charles Dickens himself (Dan Stevens) and his journey to creating the wildly successful work. Dodging typical biopic tropes in favor of something more appropriate to the subject matter, the movie finds Dickens interacting with his fictional characters in a film that blends realism with whimsical fantasy.
The Grinch (2018)
Though I might still stick with the 1966 animated version (Boris Karloff FTW), as updates go, this 2018 version is bright and colorful and energetic without getting stressful (looking at you, Jim Carrey version from 2000). Benedict Cumberbatch plays the Grinch, Pharrell narrates, and Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, and Angela Lansbury round out the solid voice cast.
The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
A deeply cute Christmas adventure finds a couple of kids (Judah Lewis and Darby Camp) accidentally crashing Santa’s sleigh (Santa here is played by Kurt Russell). It’s got plenty of (family-friendly) action, and Russell seems to be having a ton of fun. If you like this one, the sequel is approximately as good.
Last Christmas (2019)
Emilia Clarke and America’s sweetheart Henry Golding have tremendous chemistry as a down-on-her-luck aspiring singer and the slightly mysterious man with whom she shares a lovely and inspiring holiday season. The twist ending here, inspired by a literal reading of the title song, is bonkers—but it works better than it has a right to.
A charming Santa origin story based on nothing in particular, Klaus finds Jesper Johansen, the lazy son of a postmaster general in 19th century Norway forced to a distant island town where he’s tasked with delivering 6,000 letters within a year, otherwise he’ll be cut off from the family fortune. Arriving there, he discovers the two primary feuding families can’t be bothered to send letters for him to deliver, but that reclusive widower Klaus might be willing to help him in a scheme he’s concocted to convince the town’s children to write letters in the hopes of receiving toys in return—toys crafted by old Klaus in hope of a family that never materialized. It’s all beautifully done, and I defy you not to cry during the final act.
Little Women (2019)
Before Barbie, Greta Gerwig took on an American classic and, while I’m not sure there’s ever been a bad adaptation of Little Women, this one is at the top of the pile, staying faithful to the novel’s themes while rearranging the narrative just a bit, and adding elements from Alcott’s own life to hint at the ending that the author really wanted.
Happiest Season (2020)
This splashy Christmas comedy with a marquee cast (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, et al.) sits somewhere on the border between Lifetime/Hallmark-style Christmas movie and traditional rom-com. Abby and Harper are a couple that have been dating for nearly a year—but it turns out that Harper had lied about coming out to her parents. And, what with the stress of the holidays, she’s hoping that Abby will play along and pretend to be her roommate until after Christmas. What could go wrong?
Jingle Jangle (2020)
This one’s a straight-up fantasy that finds toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) inventing a sentient matador figure (Ricky Martin) who fights for his right to be something other than a mass-produced toy. That sets off a series of misfortunes for Jeronicus, but his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) is on hand to try to put things right. The pedigree here includes playwright David E. Talbert in the director’s chair and an almost all-Black cast that includes Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, and Anika Noni Rose, all having a lot of fun in a colourful (and musical!) adventure.
Single All the Way (2021)
Sick of questions about being single, Peter (Michael Urie) decides to invite his best friend Nick (Philemon Chambers) to pose as more than his roommate. He’s in a high-stress L.A. job, and heading home for the holidays in New Hampshire and just can’t deal with cracks about being single. His mom (Kathy Najimy), though, already had plans to fix him up with her fitness instructor (Luke Macfarlane). Now James has to navigate not only his family obligations and his new date, but also his developing feelings for the guy who was just supposed to be a pretend romance.