As the late Andy Williams sang, It’s the most wonderful time of the year/with much mistletoeing and DVRs glowing … Wait, those aren’t the lyrics? Well, they should be. Because this month is the only time you can get away with stuffing your eyeballs with Christmas movies: Something about watching characters hang stockings and sing carols just feels wrong in any other season. Unless you literally have nothing else to do (in which case, condolences on your recent unemployment/paralysis), you won’t have time to watch every one of Tinseltown’s tinsel-themed tidings, so I’ve put together a handy guide to some more underrated flicks. I’m skipping the behemoths such as A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, because if you pick up your remote, close your eyes, and randomly push a button you have a 95 percent chance of finding one of them on TV right now. These films are like eggnog at the holiday cocktail party—a little risky, but trust me, they go down smooth.
I am really glad that Richard Donner (of Superman and The Goonies fame) made Scrooged back in 1988 when Wes Anderson was still in college, because I shudder to think what would have happened to my all-time favorite Christmas movie if it had fallen into the wrong hands. I mean, sure, Bill Murray as an Ebenzer Scrooge-like TV exec who gets a wake-up call from ghosts in the forms of Buster Poindexter as an undead cab driver and Carol Kane as a bipolar fairy seems like a home run no matter what, but what makes Scrooged so perfect is that 1988 Bill Murray wasn’t yet ironic. He was just the guy from Ghostbusters and Caddyshack. And he turns what could have been a lame ’80s Dickens update into a piece of true comic genius that manages to be both biting and sweet, without an ounce of sap. This movie is so magical that Bobcat Goldthwhait is in it, and he is not even a little bit annoying.
Santa Claus: The Movie
Unlike Scrooged, this odd fish-out-of-water tale of an excommunicated elf (played with apple-cheeked aplomb by Dudley Moore) is an ’80s movie that does not really hold up to critical scrutiny. But that doesn’t make it any less awesome. Part fantasy origin story (David Huddleston—now best known for playing the Big Lebowski in The Big Lebowski—makes a great Santa), part morality play (John Lithgow is only slightly less creepy than Dexter’s Trinity Killer as a corrupt toy magnate), and part shamelessly corny PG comedy (when Moore’s normally chipper character Patch gets down, he’s lacking in “elf-confidence”), Santa Claus: The Movie is undeniably oddball but has enough charm to pull it off.
Emmet Otter’s Jug- Band Christmas
This was Jim Henson’s first full-length movie, which debuted in 1977 as a TV special. It doesn’t feature any recognizable Muppets, and it’s lacking in some of the more sophisticated humor for which Henson later became known, but Emmet Otter is a yuletide gem nonetheless. It’s a retelling of the gift of the magi, about a boy and his widowed mother who compete in a talent show to try to win money to buy each other gifts, and features adorable original songs. Warning: Grinches and Scrooges may find its earnestness cloying. If you like your kid-friendly fare a little more depressing, you should try …
A Charlie Brown Christmas
OK, fine, I know: This 1965 classic is not obscure in the least. But it’s the most subversive of all of the popular Christmas movies (technically, it’s only a 22-minute TV cartoon), for the simple fact that if you pay close attention you will notice that every single character—with exception of our titular antihero—is a huge asshole. The Schulz gang puts Tina Fey’s Mean Girls to shame. It’s kind of amazing that America watches this fable of grade-school angst and public humiliation every December and collectively sighs, Awwwww. But good for Charlie for saying what most of us aren’t willing to admit: The holidays can be rough, existentially speaking. Luckily most kids who watch this don’t know about existentialism yet, or even the truth about Santa’s existence.
Most people forget that the first installment (1988) of this now-classic action series doubles as an (admittedly kind of dire) Advent tale. In fact, Bruce Willis’ tough NYPD cop John McClane is changing into his most festive reindeer sweater* for a company holiday party when Alan Rickman’s impeccably bearded terrorist, Hans Gruber, takes his estranged wife hostage.
(*At least, this is what I like to think he would have worn, had he managed to put something on over his wife-beater.)
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Not the best of the Vacation movies (that would be Amy Heckerling’s European Vacation, thankyouverymuch), but a solid entry into the venerable Griswold oeuvre, Christmas Vacation (1989) may be the only holiday movie to feature the electrocution of a cat. But even though it’s full of dysfunctional—and hilarious—slapstick, it’s also quaint in a way, taking us back to a time when Chevy Chase was still kind of a fox, and when Randy Quaid wasn’t running from the law (although, the fact that he was arrested for illegal squatting has harmonious resonance with the film’s multiple outhouse jokes). And that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? Heartwarming memories.
The Worst Christmas Movies on Netflix Instant
Just in case you need an antidote to the season’s rampant good cheer.
A Christmas Too Many (2007)
Mickey Rooney. Gary Coleman. Marla Maples. And a septugenarian talking about penis size. God bless us, everyone!
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
This not-at-all feel-good drama about prisoners of war—including David Bowie!—exploring homoeroticism in ultranationalist Japan is violent and unsettling. Hmmm. Maybe the title isn’t supposed to be literal?
Holidays in Handcuffs (2007)
Melissa Joan Hart, desperate for a rebound relationship to show off to her family at Christmas, kidnaps Mario Lopez. (Meh, it’s not like The X-Factor really needs him anyway.)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Kind of a downer; no reindeer.