It’s the first year in a long time where I’m actually excited for the holidays. Weird, right? I’m actively seeking out that holiday cheer to counteract all the B-A-D bad this year. Hand to God, I played Christmas tunes on Spotify this year, cuing those jams up of my own free will. No pressure, and no forced smiles. I even went out of my way to bake bread and cookies.
In years past, I would just look forward to a break from the hum-drum of the day-to-day. I’d lazily skip putting up the decorations in lieu of finding a quiet spot at home to curl up with a book. But we, as proud Americans, have killed the magic this year. All of it. Seized hostage by a ceaseless pandemic, we further entrenched ourselves into two main camps and lobbed barrages of polarizing soundbites and threats at one another. It was exhausting, and in the fog and desiccation of a world starved of joy, I realized how hungry I was for flights of fantasy and magic.
And I can’t count on streaming platforms to entertain me these days…. My Netflix and HBO feeds are all serious dramas all the time. Which is why I’ve put together a holiday watchlist, one that can be viewed in the span of 24 hours (with about 10-15 minutes free for bathroom breaks).
It’s a recharge, a way to imbue my spirit with creative energy needed for 2021. Before you ask, no, Die Hard is not on this list. I love Die Hard. It’s terrific, but it’s not a film I feel like watching around Christmas. These picks are… different, mostly.
Without further delay…
- March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934) – 78 minutes
This film has been a staple in my family since before I was born. Every Christmas, it’s always been on in the background of family Christmas parties. Initially, I believe it was just a movie that basic TV channels slotted for Christmas Eve / Day. In the era of digital streaming, we keep the spirit alive, cuing this up at least once a year.
It’s silly, sweet, and bears the sincerity of another era. It also features an unlicensed Mickey Mouse depiction that I suspect managed to slip by before Disney clamped down the rights of their flagship mascot.
2. “Holiday Knights” from The New Batman Adventures – 22 minutes
This is a delightful animated Batman episode that features three different holiday-themed vignettes. I make this episode a yearly viewing because I love the way it ends. At the end of the episode, Commissioner Gordon meets Batman in a diner for a cup of coffee. This is a tradition they both share every New Years, one that neither is willing to break. Through all the chaos and mayhem that each year throws at them, they still have this uplifting moment to ring (or sip) in the next year.
3. “And All Through The House” from Tales From The Crypt (1989) – 22 minutes
Whenever I hear “The Christmas Song,” I can’t avoid thinking about this episode. It’s a remake from the 1972 Tales From The Crypt movie featuring a short story about a widow trying to hide the body of her recently murdered husband while a crazy, axe-wielding Santa is on the loose. Sure, this doesn’t fit the bill of traditional “Christmas magic,” but it’s silly in a very 80s horror camp kind of way.
4. A Christmas Carol (1951) – 87 minutes
As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one, true adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, and it’s this 1951 adaptation starring Alastair Sim. This film gets everything right, especially the mood. It’s dark and a little mortifying in the beginning, and when Scrooge has his awakening at the end, the exuberance and joy is overwhelming. I have yet to see another adaptation hit both of the emotional resonances quite the same way.
5. “Comfort And Joy” from Justice League – 24 minutes
Ever feel alone on Christmas and longing for friends and family to visit? This holiday episode perfectly encapsulates that feeling as members of the Justice League celebrate the holidays with their respective families. Martian Manhunter, being the last of his species, is left alone. The tenderness at play here, particularly with Martian Manhunter’s story, really gets to the heart of what the holiday season is all about – that connection and goodwill toward others. I can’t recommend this episode enough, especially in a year when many of us may find ourselves alone.
6. “Experiment 321: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” from Mystery Science Theater 3000 – 97 minutes
This mind-boggling Christmas movie where Santa Claus brings the gift of Christmas to Martian children is cheap, ill-conceived, and so full of catastrophic magic that one can’t look away. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew help to make this 60s flop even more digestible.
That said, the best way to describe this movie is as an odyssey one must fully immerse themself in. You won’t like it (probably), but you definitely won’t forget it.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – 76 minutes
What can someone say about The Nightmare Before Christmas that hasn’t already been blogged about endlessly? I think this film does a great job of helping viewers cope with the feeling of stagnation many of us often feel at each year’s passing. It’s cathartic to watch Jack Skellington go through a similar journey, especially in a tale that’s so simply constructed, even the youngest viewers can understand what’s going on here.
Plus, the art style is incredible. Though Tim Burton didn’t direct this, credit goes to Henry Selick, it very much feels in line with his love of German expressionism.
8. Batman Returns (1992) – 126 minutes
I’m not going to lie. This is my favorite live-action Batman film of all time, and it just so happens to center around the Christmas holiday. Batman Returns falls into that same bucket that Die Hard does where every year people “argue” about whether or not it’s a “Christmas” film.
I don’t care if it is or isn’t. The gothic, wintry tone in here is perfect for this time of year. Plus, this film is goofy enough to carry its own strange, surreal, and repressed brand of magic.
9. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” from The Simpsons – 30 minutes
For those who aren’t familiar, this is the origin story of Santa’s Little Helper, the Simpsons’ greyhound, from the first season. It has so much heart, and it makes me long for classic Simpsons episodes where humor was much more tightly interwoven with a genuine familial love between the core characters. Homer Simpson wasn’t just a buffoon, he was an imperfect man who truly cared about his family.
10. Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – 104 minutes
No, this isn’t a Christmas movie. It’s a classic hero’s journey archetypal adventure flick with cool stop-motion monsters by Ray Harryhausen. The soundtrack is sweeping and bombastic. The adventure is imaginative and so full of color and light. This film is pure joy, and it imbues me with the creative drive to put my own imaginative ideas to paper. Heading into a new year, this film is the perfect battery to give me that creative burst of energy.
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) – 86 minutes
I love this silly movie. It features one of my favorite monster designs in Megalon, a giant beetle with drills for hands and a lightning-rod antennae. The robot protagonist, Jet Jaguar, is a rubbery collection of colors, and his determination to fight for his creators is delightful.
This movie isn’t high drama. Most people would say it’s one of the worst Godzilla movies ever made. But there’s something unique about it, something whimsical and carefree that makes it a regular must-watch for me. During this time of year, when we’re looking for joyful entertainment, Godzilla vs. Megalon is an easy pick.
Plus, at the heart of the story, is a family tale of survival as a child and his two fathers endure spies, giant monsters, and an avalanche in order to find each other again.
12. Jingle All The Way (1996) – 95 minutes
This movie tries to pair the spirit of Christmas with the follies of Christmas shopping. It’s like an odyssey, in a way, as one dad battles the hordes to get his hands on this year’s hot toy and bring it home to his son. Phil Hartman excels as a wonderfully wicked neighbor.
13. Home Alone (1990) – 103 minutes
You’ll never see a home with more Christmas cheer. It’s all over the walls. It’s in the design and floor planning. No amount of Hallmark movies could ever reach the maximum level of Christmas-ness that this movie achieves. I like to think that Macaulay Culkin isn’t just defending his home from intruders in this film. He’s defending it from annual “war on Christmas” that the Right is always screaming about.
14. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – 132 minutes
I’m legally obligated to add this film to my list. Also, I like watching movies where Jimmy Stewart loses his cool at some point. There’s something strange and entrancing about this, as he seems like such a nice, sweet, stand-up guy.
Also, this film helps to put my next pick into context.
15. “Huh-Huh-Humbug / It’s a Miserable Life!” from Beavis And Butt-Head – 30 minutes
This holiday special is often forgotten, and that’s a shame. It’s ridiculous and carries that perceived “Gen X” disassociation that marketers and society-at-large painted people in this group with. Plus, it carries that clever and unique sense of humor Mike Judge imbues his creations with.
16. Gremlins (1988) – 107 minutes
Each year, I watch Gremlins, and I can’t decide if I’m ready to leave this movie behind or not. I loved this film growing up. It was a yearly favorite for sure, but as I’ve aged, I find Gremlins less and less of a must-watch. But I still carry it with me. I still lug it along, waiting for one of two things to happen. Either the magic of this movie is rekindled for me, or someday I start a family of my own, and I pass the joys this movie once held on to a much younger member of the family.
I’m hoping option two wins out in the end.
17. “Experiment 820: Space Mutiny” from Mystery Science Theater 3000 – 108 minutes
This is arguably the single-greatest episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The creative team brings its best jokes, front and center, to a strange, often incomprehensible science fiction film that tries to weave some kind of space narrative together around stock footage from the original Battlestar Galactica.
Why is this on a Christmas movie list? Well, for one, the head of the ship is mockingly referred to as Santa. Two, the joke writers really lean into Christmas references and imagery with this one. Three, there’s a special kind of child-like joy that comes from watching this train wreck that fits with the season. What more could you want?
18. King Kong (1933) – 104 minutes
There’s something magical and imaginative about the original King Kong that can’t be duplicated. There’s a simplicity to it, as well as an adventurous spirit that there are still mysteries to be found out on our planet. King Kong proves to be one of those mysteries. Rather than just another addition to the pantheon of gigantic, raging monsters that became popular later, there’s a soulfulness and sweetness to Kong’s eyes, which is a credit to the animator. Kong feels real, and he’s just as mystified and bewildered by our world as we are by him.
King Kong is one of those cinematic achievements that push us to dream. It represents the spirit and will to go beyond, to explore and conjure something from nothing. Sure, there’s a lot going on here that would later get fleshed out in the 2005 remake by Peter Jackson, but the simplicity of the original carries with it this greater sense of wonder that only comes around when the conditions are right.
For a brief 104 minutes, it takes away our ills and struggles. It lets us believe in the magic of the screen, which is something all of the films on this list accomplish in some form, but not like King Kong.
If part of Christmas is about giving into things we would normally disbelieve and permitting ourselves to feel joy, then I suppose many more films are Christmas films. They lift us up. Whisper in our ear. Remind us that we, too, can reach out beyond the everyday.