The Twelve Movies of Christmas

A Definitive List of the Best Christmas Movies of All Time *1

by Frank Baker *2

When I think of Christmas, as a holiday season, many bad things come to mind. You can't go to the mall (no great loss, but sometimes you need to buy underwear in December). Traffic increases X10 (there is no good reason for this—maybe it's all the extra Amazon drivers?) Everyone is in a bad mood. Trying not to be one of those myself, I try to focus on the stuff I like: Christmas cookies, especially the shape ones with sparkly, colorful glitter, and powdered sugar covered Snowballs. Christmas lights—maybe my favorite thing (except for the efficiency freaks who take them down by New Years Day. I say: we need them to get through the grim months of January and February—lights should stay up, if not all year, until the spring time change). And Christmas movies, at least a few. Most are bad to unwatchable, but there's a few I love, so I made a list of, not merely my favorites, but the indisputable best. Also, note, my list goes to eleven. No, twelve. Okay, make it a “baker's dozen.”

ThirteenIt's a Wonderful Life (1946) A lot of people's favorite, just because most Christmas movies are just so bad. Just thinking about this convoluted plot makes me tired, so the fact that it shows on TV in under four hours (with about an hour of commercials) is a miracle in itself. I haven't watched it in years, so maybe I'll watch it this year, just for the sweating pharmacist. Also, I had this idea about editing the colorized version and original together, but I won't go into that here. *3

TwelveOn Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) I like the idea of watching old James Bond movies over the holidays—just not the recent ones. This is both the best and worst ever James Bond movie *4 —but regardless, it does have the best skiing scenes, including the dude going into a snowblower.

ElevenChristmas, Again (2014) As “Randy Russell” I was lucky enough to get an assignment to write about this movie for the Talkhouse Film website—never would have seen it otherwise, not a huge hit (it's kind of uneventful as real life is at its best?) —but it really gave me a lasting memory of this guy working at an urban Christmas tree lot—I love those places! *5

TenHoliday Inn (1942) I didn't see this movie until I was an adult, in 1985, at the Theatre 80 St Marks, probably my most nostalgic holiday moviegoing memory ever, partly because it's a really solid movie—a romanic comedy musical where the somewhat involved story comes before the music and dancing (which is excellent). *6

NineThe Hudsucker Proxy (1994) A lot of people seem to hate this movie, I say re-watch it. It's a fun version of Capra that's more funny, more visually interesting, and more weird. *7

EightThe Night of the Hunter (1955) All Christmas movies have a dark side, and there are more than a few Christmas horror movies *8, and this is not really a Christmas movie, but it works as one because it's so real-life horrifying that the speck of light that finally shines through is like a miraculous star.

SevenEyes Wide Shut (1999) Also not really a Christmas movie, but it effectively uses the surreal-ness of the season to intensify its weirdness. I just saw it again, and while it's a lot of fun, and funnier than ever, I'm still trying to decide if it's even a good movie. *9

SixTrading Places (1983) Barely crossed the line for my attention (before I stopped going to Hollywood movies in the Eighties). I used to watch it every year, but haven't for a while, but I'm guessing I'll find it just as funny. *10

FiveTangerine (2015) Was this already three years ago? It was kind of revolutionary and amazing, and I expected to see more movies in this direction even more amazingly revolutionary, but haven't (could be my fault, could be what's out there, and gets to the screen). Anyway, time to re-watch this one. *11

FourThe Shop Around the Corner (1940) Another one that's a Christmas movie because of the setting (Christmastime in Budapest) but just has a really good, involved story—if it wasn't for this movie, the rom-com wouldn't exist. *12

ThreeBad Santa (2003) Should have been called “Miracle on 34th Street” *13 because to make a movie with seven or eight of the most seriously flawed characters you'll ever see in the same movie—and you end up loving them all—is nothing less than miraculous. There's a turn-around so extreme it should make you puke on yourself (but you don't—Santa Willie does that). *14

TwoChristmas in July (1940) Not a Christmas movie at all, but it has “Christmas” in the title. *15 Yeah, it's set in the summer. But it's also about generosity and the human spirt and is truly heartwarming without being sappy. Also, tremendously complex. Also, the best ending of a movie ever. It's Preston Sturges. *16

OneThe Apartment (1960) My favorite Christmas movie, in part because it's maybe my favorite movie of all time, set in New York in a kind of harsh office work environment, has a great Christmas party scene, cold, snow, liquor. It would not exist if Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, a really great story, and Billy Wilder hadn't somehow come together at the right time and not been afraid of the complexity of the suffocating darkness that is possible to get one's head above, at least momentarily. *17

1 – Don't argue. Make your own list.

2 – Frank Baker is a fictional character, the “author” of my unpublished novel, The Doughnuts. I used that name here to get me off the hook for this list (not that anyone cares) and because it's a “Baker's Dozen” - get it?

3 – I'll go into it here. I saw a colorized version, many years back (a travesty), which made me think, wouldn't it be interesting to make a version where the “Pottersville” part is in color (or wait, maybe they did this?) – so it's kind of the opposite of Wizard of Oz – which gets into the whole discussion of which world is better, the “moral” boring one, or the “sexy” disgusting one – a lengthy, complex digression (see my review of Wings of Desire (not written yet) and Eyes Wide Shut (not written yet) eventually.

4 – I liked that there was a one-time James Bond. I know you can't change the past, but I wish that they would, in the future, hire a different actor for every 007 movie – you could more interestingly explore all the elements, good and bad, that go into that whole franchise – and maybe make it more thought-provoking, if not just more fun.

5 – There used to be a Christmas Tree lot that went in this vacant lot (still vacant) near where I live, east side of Milwaukee—during holiday time—and it's no more. I am actually pretty devastated, saddened, angered, by it's absence, and if I'm pretty cranky this time of year, that's why.

6 – There is a rather gross and unfortunate blackface number, so you might want to have your kids cover your eyes during that and you can later have a discussion about why some things that were palatable to the mainstream at one time are no longer acceptable.

7 – Also because it's the Coen Bros. movie without a scene of a guy going into a snowblower.

8 – A billion dollars of special effects slime can't even come close to what Robert Mitchum can convey in a couple of seemingly innocent words.

9 – I'm going to write a brief article about it, in this very place, but I haven't yet.

10 – Something about the muted colors of the movie poster made me nauseous, then I realized (due to the font) it's all money imagery—and I'm wondering if my exponentially increasing mistrust and disgust of wealth might enhance or detract from this story. I might watch it again this year.

11 – Actually, I wouldn't have thought of this in relation to Christmas movies, but I saw one of those “Best Christmas movie” lists (probably what compelled me to make this one) with all the usual, ho-hum and puke usual suspects—but included Tangerine, which I thought was kind of a brilliant and insightful choice.

12 – That's not true, of course, but this is the best romantic comedy, as I recall. When I saw it at some art cinema for the first time, decades ago, I found it pretty amazing. I haven't seen it in awhile, maybe it's time.

13 – The last time I visited Macy's was just after they remodeled the main floor, and it should be called “Tragedy on 34th Street.”

14 – Also the funniest movie on this list. Also, people who know me are probably tired of hearing, I read the script for this before it was in production (it was my job at the time) and my note was: “This movie will never get made.” It doesn't bother me, sometimes, to be wrong.

15 – I probably didn't need to point that out.

16 – Also, maybe my favorite movie of all time.

17 – I won't say any more, but if you are someone who has never seen this movie, consider yourself the luckiest person in the world because you have that experience in front of you. How about this year? Give yourself the Christmas present of an uninterrupted, phone-less, block of time in which you can totally immerse yourself.