Best Christmas movies of all time, according to critics

Written by:
December 6, 2023
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Best Christmas movies of all time, according to critics

Since well before Thanksgiving, streaming and cable networks have featured Christmas movies in anticipation of the season. Some wholesome classics, like "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It's a Wonderful Life," have stood as holiday standards for generations. Others are forging new traditions, with prolific holiday production house Hallmark premiering new offerings every year and streamers like Netflix and Amazon working on their own Christmas films in an attempt to capture the market hungry for cheerful movies.

To help people sort through the many holiday movies available, Stacker compiled Metacritic data on all Christmas movies (as of November 2023) and ranked them according to their Metascore (out of 100). Any ties are broken by IMDb user scores (out of 10). To qualify, each film had to be identified as a Christmas movie by critics at significant publications, with at least four reviews from those publications.

Christmas films like "Elf" are fun family comedies, while the horror movie "Black Christmas" takes a completely different approach to Christmas imagery. Some films are less sentimental and family-centric, focusing instead on authenticity in depicting the conflicts between family members. Other films are about an entirely different subject matter while taking advantage of Christmas as a backdrop for their distinct imagery and broad themes of family and unity.

Genre is meant to help describe and communicate the tone and style of a film, not to serve as a limiting factor on what films can and cannot be. There are no hard-and-fast rules that define Christmas movies, but many critics agree that leaning into more open interpretations of what fits into certain genres is the best practice for getting a pool of films that represent all possible expressions of a particular genre.

Every film on the following list has been considered according to the cinematic history and development of Christmas movies. Keep reading to learn about what critics consider to be the very best in the holiday genre.

#25. Trading Places (1983)

- Director: John Landis
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 69
- Runtime: 116 minutes

During the peak of his "Saturday Night Live" career, Eddie Murphy starred in "Trading Places," one of his many 1980s film hits. Here, Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a street hustler groomed into a stockbroker to replace the educated Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) as part of a bet between two mogul brothers. Winthorpe reaches his lowest point at a Christmas office party, but he and Valentine team up to take down the brothers playing with their lives with an elaborate and crowd-pleasing scheme.

Despite some heavy subject matter and a few complicated details on stocks and finances, the film has a lighthearted tone, with one of its famous sequences involving a gorilla on a train, of all possible things.

#24. Happy Christmas (2014)

- Director: Joe Swanberg
- IMDb user rating: 5.4
- Metascore: 70
- Runtime: 82 minutes

Mumblecore extraordinaire Joe Swanberg turned in another mostly improvised film with "Happy Christmas," which stars Anna Kendrick as an irresponsible woman named Jenny moving in with her older brother (Swanberg) and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). While Christmas mainly serves as a backdrop to the story, the film touches on the themes of family and happiness, with Jenny ultimately being a positive influence on Kelly as she contemplates how to live a wholesome life.

#23. Bad Santa (2003)

- Director: Terry Zwigoff
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Metascore: 70
- Runtime: 92 minutes

It isn't a particularly family-friendly Christmas movie, but "Bad Santa" is something of a classic in some circles. The film stars Billy Bob Thornton as a con artist who uses an annual gig as Santa Claus at the mall to further his robbery agenda. As Thornton's bad Santa continues to spiral due to his alcoholism and sex addiction, doubts emerge about his abilities to sustain this lifestyle. Crude, vulgar, and unusual, this film gets laughs from audiences and critics alike, but it might be one to save for after the kids have hit the hay.

#22. Gremlins (1984)

- Director: Joe Dante
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Metascore: 70
- Runtime: 106 minutes

Part horror and part dark comedy, "Gremlins" is a cult classic with a storyline built on the premise of a father trying to find a Christmas present for his son. The gift he finds turns out to be a "mogwai," a creature that spawns mischievous and dangerous little monsters. Grim and violent, the film upset many parents who brought their children to movie theaters. "Gremlins" did manage to leave behind a legacy of critical praise and today is remembered for the contrast between the bright Christmas setting and the dark humor.

#21. Joyeux Noel (2005)

- Director: Christian Carion
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: 70
- Runtime: 116 minutes

Finding solace during one of the largest world conflicts in history is a rarity, but "Joyeux Noel" provides a fictional tale about just that. Taking place during World War I, this film depicts the Christmas Eve truce of December 1914 between French, British, and German soldiers, with all of them singing festive songs together and sharing stories about each other's lives. Against the intentions of their superiors, these soldiers stood in solidarity, if only for a short time.

#20. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

- Director: Shane Black
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 103 minutes

Writer-director Shane Black is famous for setting nearly all of his films during Christmastime, and after writing several famous action movies in the 1980s, his 2005 directorial debut fully immersed itself in the Christmas spirit. Darkly comedic, complex, and a little bonkers, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" stars Robert Downey Jr. as a burglar-turned-accidental actor who finds himself in increasingly absurd situations with a private investigator (Val Kilmer). The film caught the attention of Marvel Studios, which hired Downey Jr. as Iron Man and brought on Black to co-write and direct "Iron Man 3," another Christmas-set film with some frantic and absurd moments of its own.

#19. Die Hard (1988)

- Director: John McTiernan
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 132 minutes

"Die Hard" is easily among the most influential action movies from the 1980s, yet much of the contemporary conversation surrounding the film is regarding its status as a Christmas movie. Featuring dark humor and bloody action, "Die Hard" has Bruce Willis starring as John McClane, who attends the office Christmas Eve party of his estranged wife on the same night that an apparent terrorist named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) leads a team that violently takes control of the entire office skyscraper.

The film features several Christmas references, with twisted uses of Santa hats and Christmas-themed duct tape in pivotal scenes, but many could argue that the film is ultimately about a family reuniting.

#18. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

- Director: Satoshi Kon
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 74
- Runtime: 92 minutes

The late Satoshi Kon, best known for "Paprika" and "Perfect Blue," was the director behind "Tokyo Godfathers," an animated comedy film based on the novel "Three Godfathers." Taking place on Christmas Eve, the film focuses on three homeless people who find a baby and go on a quest to find the child's parents. With an emphasis on family, this film embodies the Christmas spirit and heart, even with its unusual setup.

#17. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

- Director: Tim Burton
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 74
- Runtime: 105 minutes

One of Tim Burton's most iconic movies is "Edward Scissorhands," which stars Johnny Depp in the eponymous role. As the name implies, Edward has blades as hands, which he got as a result of his being a product of a mad experiment. Though Christmas isn't a major theme here, one of the essential scenes occurs during Christmas, where Edward creates joy by carving an ice sculpture with his hands and creating snow with the ice shavings. Even with the dark imagery, this Burton film ultimately has a heartwarming and hopeful message about finding one's place.

#16. Metropolitan (1990)

- Director: Whit Stillman
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Metascore: 77
- Runtime: 98 minutes

Wealthy young socialites in Manhattan, New York, are the focus of "Metropolitan," a film that takes place in an apartment during the debutante season. These characters form bonds, discuss their respective philosophies on life, and uncover secrets about each other. While the film itself isn't strictly about Christmas, "Metropolitan" does attempt to capture the feeling of the time between Christmas and New Year's in New York City.

#15. A Christmas Story (1983)

- Director: Bob Clark
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 77
- Runtime: 93 minutes

One of the more obvious seasonal classics is "A Christmas Story," based on a book by Jean Shepherd—who also narrated the movie. The film is told through a series of vignettes, with protagonist Ralphie retelling a story from his childhood where he obsessed about getting a BB gun as a Christmas gift. While not immediately popular or successful upon release, the film eventually became an iconic holiday classic thanks to its sense of humor.

#14. 2046 (2004)

- Director: Wong Kar-Wai
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 78
- Runtime: 129 minutes

Loosely following up on his film "In the Mood for Love," Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai added some subtle science-fiction elements and constant references to Christmas Eve in "2046." In this movie, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) contemplates his unconsummated affair (which viewers saw in "In the Mood for Love"). The film shows subsequent relationships with other women that took place following the affair, with many key scenes taking place on Christmas Eve in different years.

#13. Christmas, Again (2014)

- Director: Charles Poekel
- IMDb user rating: 6.6
- Metascore: 79
- Runtime: 80 minutes

"Christmas, Again" made the rounds at several independent film festivals, including Sundance. The movie focuses on a Christmas tree salesman named Noel (Kentucker Audley) looking to move on from his past while several people—one being a romantic interest—help him out of a loop of self-destruction. As opposed to focusing on Christmas itself or showing a more cheery depiction of the holiday season, this film focused on some of the less festive feelings that might overtake some during this particular time of year.

#12. Tuesday, After Christmas (2010)

- Director: Radu Muntean
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 99 minutes

Romanian film "Tuesday, After Christmas" depicts a family in discord, as the patriarch of the family (Mimi Branescu) engages in an affair with a younger woman (Maria Popistasu)—who also happens to be the family's dentist. In love with both women, the man realizes that he must make a decision between the two before Christmas, with an ultimate verdict held off until the Tuesday after. Many Christmas films have themes of warmth and unity, while this particular film took the opposite direction by focusing on conflict and heartbreak.

#11. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

- Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 129 minutes

Quebecois film "C.R.A.Z.Y." tells the story of a young man (Marc-André Grondin) dealing with homophobia from his family and others. The film takes place over the span of several years. The young man was born on Christmas, and the film skips around to different Christmases to depict different points of his life. Even with the serious subject matter, the film manages to feel lighthearted enough to elicit laughs while still remaining honest and authentic.

#10. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

- Director: Henry Selick
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 82
- Runtime: 76 minutes

Something of a hybrid Halloween flick and Christmas film, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is beloved by those who adore both the spooky October and the festive, snowy December seasons.

The film follows Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, though Danny Elfman, who wrote the film's score, sang Jack's songs), the pumpkin king of Halloweentown, a gothic fantasy world filled with spooky creatures. After wandering in the woods, Jack accidentally finds the door to Christmastown and becomes enamored with the concepts and imagery he witnesses. The Tim Burton-produced film is filled with musical numbers, ranging from thrilling and scary to fun and festive, to represent the different holidays it portrays.

#9. Eastern Promises (2007)

- Director: David Cronenberg
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 83
- Runtime: 100 minutes

A film focused on the Russian mob may not be what one thinks of as a Christmas film, but "Eastern Promises" includes plenty of Christmas-related themes involving gift-giving and family. Taking place before Christmas in snowy England, the film stars Naomi Watts as a woman seeking the family of a girl who died in childbirth and Viggo Mortensen as an FSB agent who has infiltrated a violent Russian gang—the gang being led by the father of the baby. Mortensen's Oscar-nominated performance was a result of intense research and immersion into the role, which featured a bloody fight scene in a bathhouse.

#8. A Christmas Tale (2008)

- Director: Arnaud Desplechin
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: 84
- Runtime: 150 minutes

Not every family has the luxury of healthy familial relationships, as the French comedy "A Christmas Tale" reminds us. The film follows a family full of strained relationships and how that family is shaken upon the discovery that the family matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia. The film is sharp and funny, successfully engaging critics and capturing the chaos that defines many family gatherings during the holiday season.

#7. Tangerine (2015)

- Director: Sean Baker
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Metascore: 86
- Runtime: 88 minutes

Shot entirely on the iPhone and making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, "Tangerine" is the epitome of an independent film. The movie follows a transgender sex worker who discovers that her boyfriend has cheated on her, with the story tracking her search for him during Christmas Eve. The film received marks for its unique attitude and for its depiction of an often overlooked subculture.

#6. Little Women (1994)

- Director: Gillian Armstrong
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Metascore: 87
- Runtime: 115 minutes

One of the several adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel "Little Women," this film features Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Susan Sarandon as members of the March family. As with all adaptations of the novel, this film focuses on the relationships between the March sisters and how those relationships evolve over the years. With wintry scenes sprinkled throughout the film, Christmas serves as the backdrop for one of the more important family gatherings depicted in the film.

#5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

- Director: George Seaton
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 88
- Runtime: 96 minutes

One of the oldest Christmas classics that remains a favorite to this day is "Miracle on 34th Street." The film follows a department store Santa, who claims to be the real deal. Though the cheery Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) wins the hearts of children and adults alike, his claim that he's the "real" Santa Claus ultimately leads to a high-profile court case to determine his mental state. From start to finish, the film carries a theme of joy in the face of cynicism and true holiday spirit. Even after attempts to remake the film, the original version still stands its ground as a must-watch, family-friendly seasonal staple.

#4. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

- Director: Frank Capra
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Metascore: 89
- Runtime: 130 minutes

Frank Capra co-wrote and directed "It's a Wonderful Life," which remains an influential Christmas film today. An overwhelmed man (James Stewart) is close to taking his own life on Christmas Eve, but his guardian angel intervenes and shows him an alternate reality where he had never been born so he can see the impact he's made on people's lives.

The film wasn't always the holiday classic it is today—the studio actually lost money at the time of its original release. In 1974, when the producer and original copyright owner (Republic Pictures) failed to renew the copyright, "It's a Wonderful Life" entered the public domain, meaning it was free for TV networks to show. Knowing a good deal when they see one, stations used the opportunity to show or sell the movie without having to pay for airing it—until Republic Pictures found a way to regain control in 1993.

#3. Little Women (2019)

- Director: Greta Gerwig
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 91
- Runtime: 135 minutes

In another remake of the literary classic, "Little Women," the 2019 rendition directed by Greta Gerwig was lauded for its fresh take on a familiar story through unique cinematography and storytelling. Unlike previous versions, the story was not scripted chronologically. Viewers get thrown back and forth in time to check in on the formative moments of the women's lives. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won the Oscar for Best Costume Design.

#2. Carol (2015)

- Director: Todd Haynes
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 118 minutes

Based on a 1952 book titled "The Price of Salt," "Carol" is a queer romance film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—and one of the top-rated films of 2015. Taking place during the Christmas season in the 1950s, the film follows Therese (Mara), an aspiring photographer, and Carol (Blanchett), who is undergoing a difficult divorce. The two women connect after a chance encounter and, before long, enter into a passionate, complicated romance. While essentially melodramatic and not necessarily focused on familial themes associated with Christmas, the film has been lauded by critics and audiences alike for its compelling and engaging storyline.

#1. The Apartment (1960)

- Director: Billy Wilder
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 125 minutes

Legendary actors Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine star in "The Apartment," a famous romantic comedy centering on extramarital affairs. The film has an important scene that takes place during a Christmas party, with some truths about affairs and entanglements coming to light in the height of drunken revelations. The film is gleeful while also focusing on adultery and less conventional family values.

Data reporting by Luke Hicks. Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Tim Bruns.

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