The Best Christmas Movies of All Time—And Where to Stream Them – The Daily Beast

TIS THE SEASON
The Daily Beast’s Obsessed staff recommends their favorite classic holiday films, to help make your season a little brighter. (“Die Hard” is definitely a Christmas movie.)
Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, it is officially, without a doubt, and incontestably an appropriate time to put up the tree, start playing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on loop, and begin watching Christmas movies 24 hours a day.
And the thing is, there are enough holiday movies at this point for you to do just that. The holiday movie content factory is overwhelming—and, now, even controversial—with hundreds (literally) of new films churned out each year. And that’s not to mention the classics, the special ones that we want to and should be returning to year after year, as an antidote to the bevy of formulaic fresh offerings.
Navigating all that content is a job that would require the help of all the elves in the North Pole. We’ve helped with a guide to the year’s most exciting new movies. Streaming services are organizing their holiday collections for your benefit. And now, consider us the Jacob Marley of your seasonal viewing habits, guiding you through the best movies of Christmases past.
Here’s The Daily Beast’s entertainment team and the Obsessed staff’s favorite holiday movies—and, most importantly, where to find them.
Streaming on YouTube
This is a 1997 animated Christmas special that nobody but me and a handful of people in the YouTube comments remember. And it’s pernicious. I used to rent this on VHS every single week from our local video store in the weeks leading up to Christmas when I was a kid, and I think it altered the chemistry in my brain somehow. It’s a beautiful and touching little movie about a kid named Randy, who lives with his grandfather on their farm and lost his voice in a barn fire the year before. Unbeknownst to them, Santa brings a unique gift to the farm animals every year: the ability to talk, but only for one day. Annabelle, a sweet new foal, accidentally talks in front of Randy on Christmas morning, and becomes his very best friend, protecting him from local bullies and making him feel safe and loved.
I won’t spoil anything for you from there, but just know this shit will make you sob. Like, hard, ugly tears. It’s a happy ending, but you’re going to be on the floor. I showed this to my longtime boyfriend last year and he almost broke up with me. (Kidding, but I wouldn’t have blamed him.) He did not recover for hours, and neither will you. But in the best way possible, I swear! I am literally crying right now, writing this extremely superfluous description of it. Annabelle’s Wish has the unique power to bore a hole into your heart and stay there for the first of your life. Governments wish they could harness that kind of energy for evil purposes, but they can’t, because Christmas is all about the power of good!
– Coleman Spilde

Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube
Like a warm cup of eggnog topped off with whisky and cigarette ash, Bad Santa is a sincere ode to compassion, selflessness, and togetherness that’s delivered with more bitter black humor—and, to my mind, elicits more raucous laughs—than any holiday comedy in history. Billy Bob Thornton should receive a retroactive Oscar for his performance as Willie T. Soke, a degenerate, kid-hating thief and sex addict who, along with his insanely profane dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox), robs the department stores that he works at as a seasonal Santa Claus. A relationship with socially inept young boy Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) and rowdy bartender Sue (Lauren Graham) help alter Willie’s fortunes, although climactic uplift is far less important than the bawdy, nasty, inappropriate hilarity peddled by Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 gem, which also benefits from the participation of the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter.
– Nick Schager
Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Everyone shut up, it’s time to talk about the lesbians! My life changed the first time I saw Carol, which is not just one of the best holiday films, but one of the best films ever made. Every frame of Todd Haynes’ 2015 magnum opus, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel The Price of Salt, is a sumptuous and romantic delight. Muted winter whites and stone grays are contrasted with warm emeralds and checked red patterns, colors swirling through every scene like Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese’s (Rooney Mara) budding romance. I’ve heard straight people call this film boring, at which point I’ve chewed their heads off. Everything about Carol is deeply radical.
People see this film about two women in the 1950s falling in love—defying every cultural norm at the risk of their own safety—and call it “quiet and boring,” simply because a filmmaker can understand that not everything has to be melodramatic to feel important. Carol is a quiet romance because so much queer longing is done in silence. Small glances across a table and a handful of softly spoken words can say so much to us, tactics we’ve developed through decades of self-preservation. These are fractions of instances that straight people can’t see, but inside, we feel our hearts pounding and our minds racing with possibility. That’s what Carol—and the holiday season for that matter—are all about.
– Coleman Spilde
A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Streaming on Apple TV+
The great power of the Peanuts gang—and especially this, their greatest TV special—is their ability to drive a warm stake through even the most cynical of stone-cold hearts, melting them into an earnestness-embracing puddle. A Charlie Brown Christmas pulls out the heavy artillery: Charlie Brown is depressed despite everyone else’s seasonal cheer (relatable!); his efforts to make the holiday special feels inadequate compared to his peers’ presumptuous expectations (that tree!); but love in the community is stronger than any of that. Vince Guaraldi’s score slaps hard—that is, when its pitch-perfect melancholia isn’t turning you into an emotional wreck. Even non-secular holiday diehards will find themselves moved by Linus’ reciting of Luke’s gospel, a monologue that, when you distill it to its non-religious core, calls on all of us to take a pause amidst the frenzy of the season and take stock of what truly matters. No other film just feels like Christmas the way that this one does.
-Kevin Fallon
Streaming on Amazon Prime; Available to Rent on Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube
I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas movies. I don’t really celebrate the holiday, even if I remain a fan for aesthetic purposes. What I do remember was belly-laughing at this movie, which boasts a 5 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, back in the day. Tim Allen’s character and his wife, played by an always-game Jamie Lee Curtis, are skipping their tiresome Midwestern suburban Christmas, with its labor-intensive decor and neighborly platitudes, in favor of a Caribbean cruise. They end up having to stay when their daughter decides she’s *Camila Cabello voice* coming home for Cuismois. There’s a bit where Tim goes too crazy on the Botox, and another (very 2000s) gag in which a pair of local cops misspell his daughter’s Peruvian boyfriend’s name as “N. Reeky.” I won’t watch it again. But I trust myself enough to recommend it to you if you’re down so bad that you made it to the end of this article. Happy holidays!
– Adam Manno
Streaming on Starz; Available to Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube
That’s right, I’m saying it, loudly and proudly, since John McTiernan’s 1988 action classic isn’t just set at Christmastime—it embodies the very spirit of the holiday. There’s nothing hollier or jollier than a wise-cracking New York detective killing European terrorists, an African-American LAPD officer overcoming trauma to help take down villainous invaders, and a dapper Alan Rickman with arrogant disdain dripping off his eloquent tongue. ’Tis the season for walking barefoot on glass, leaping off exploding skyscrapers, and scrawling sarcastic Yuletide messages on corpses (“Now I Have A Machine Gun Ho-Ho-Ho”), all as Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” plays on full blast. The story of a reluctant working-class modern cowboy who saves the day—and, with it, his marriage and Christmas itself—with violence and wit, it’s a summer blockbuster made for December viewing.
– Nick Schager
Die Hard.
Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube
My personal connection to classic Christmas movies is weirdly not that strong. However, I’m going to be creative and offer one of my favorite films that takes place during the holidays, made by my second favorite filmmaker from my home city of Baltimore: the 1982 Barry Levinson joint Diner. The little movie that paved the way for Seinfeld (and presumably a bunch of other shows and movies about men talking about nothing) is a hilarious, sharply written romp about a group of male friends approaching different crossroads in their adulthoods. It features a hot Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin, and a spiraling Kevin Bacon, who destroys a neighbor’s Nativity scene. It’s classic dude cinema. And the seasonal setting makes it an ideal Christmas Eve watch.
– Kyndall Cunningham
Streaming on HBO Max; Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube
Once upon a time, I thought of Elf as a silly kids’ Christmas movie. Now, I recognize it for what it is: The funniest holiday movie there’s ever been. Elf is endlessly quotable: “I’m a cotton-headed ninny muggins.” “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” “Watch out! The yellow ones don’t stop.” Will Ferrell gives my favorite, underrated brand of acting performance: Adult capturing the wonder of a child without being patronizing. (See also: Tom Hanks in Big, Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday.) It also has a stacked cast, with Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Peter Dinklage, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, and, most surprisingly, James Caan nailing their supporting turns. Sometimes at Christmas, you just want to laugh.
– Kevin Fallon
Streaming on Starz; Available to Rent on Apple TV, Amazon Video, Google Play
I could blame my rom-com-obsessed wife for this one but I would be lying if I said I haven’t also come to cherish the annual tradition of sitting down to watch what has to be the most uncomfortable Christmas movie of all time. This perfectly cast home-for-the-holidays film gets so cringey so fast as Sarah Jessica Parker’s uptight Meredith repeatedly embarrasses herself in front of the relatively laid back Stone family, which includes Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, and Dermot Mulroney. The dinner scene in which Meredith manages to insult the family fourth sibling (Tyrone Giordano) for being both deaf and gay, never gets easier to watch. And yet somehow, by the end of the film when (spoiler alert!) the family reconvenes minus one key member, I always find myself tearing up.
– Matt Wilstein
Available to Rent on Amazon Video and Google Play
Unbeknownst to Mariah Carey probably, John Waters is the arbiter of Christmas—or at least one of them. From his tasteful Christmas compilation album to his beloved annual Christmas show, the man is very good at getting even the most cynical observers of Christmas (me) in the mood for the holidays. It’s strange then that the closest thing he’s ever made to a Christmas movie is the 1974 comedy Female Trouble, which I devoured as teen. Along with Die Hard, The Apartment and Iron Man 3, it belongs to the canon of Christmas movies that aren’t about Christmas. For its part, the movie features a hysterical scene of the main protagonist Dawn Davenport (Divine), as a child, throwing a tantrum because her parents didn’t buy her cha-cha heels for Christmas and then smothering her wailing mother with a Christmas tree. And that’s about it! It may not be the most warm, sentimental suggestion for a holiday flick. But observing Waters’ comedic genius always feels like a present to me.
– Kyndall Cunningham
Streaming on Netflix
Though not totally confined to the winter—the movie jumps through several different holidays, including the Fourth of July, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day—Holidate is perfect for the festive season. With two hall of fame romantic comedy tropes (enemies-to-lovers and fake romance), Holidate feels like the Bridgerton of cheesy Netflix Christmas movies. Two singletons, Sloane (Emma Watson) and Jackson (Luke Bracey), agree to become each other’s plus one for all holiday parties, even though they’re not really dating. Who wants to attend a New Year’s party alone, or, even worse, not bring home a date for Christmas? Sloane and Jackson have wonderful chemistry, and there’s enough holidays in this movie to make you miss every month, even though it’s the most wonderful time of the year right now!
– Fletcher Peters
Available to rent on Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV
The first time I saw this charming, impeccably scored Nancy Meyers rom-com—about a pair or women who swap perfect homes for two weeks at Christmastime to escape their messy love lives—I was 15 and utterly smitten with weepy single dad Jude Law. He and Cameron Diaz’s wine-loving Amanda were easily my favorite couple of the movie—she with her flawless white cashmere sweater, and he with his cute glasses and suspiciously bronzed skin. But sometime over the past 16 years and probably 96 rewatches, I’ve realized that the beating heart of this movie is the friendship between Kate Winslet’s Iris and Eli Wallach’s Arthur. Theirs is a sweet, platonic love story that shows you how the best friendships are the ones that help us see ourselves more clearly. That, and the all-important lesson: “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake!” May we all tackle the new year with such gumption.
– Madeline Roth
Streaming on Peacock; Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, YouTube
I’m reluctant to include this; it feels too obvious to bother explaining. But what list would be complete without this masterful performance from Boris Karloff—who went from playing Frankenstein’s monster to giving voice to the other green menace from pop culture. (Remember, this was a time before Shrek.) As both Grinch and narrator, Karloff dazzled me as a kid; his silky, sneaky baritone makes a meal out of the Grinch’s every grumble, a performance permanently seared into my mind (and ears). Nothing says “Christmas” quite like Thurl Ravenscroft’s bar-setting rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”—a song that simply demands to be sung. The animation is beautiful, if simple, and captures the whimsey of Dr. Seuss’s 1957 children’s book. (I spent way too much time trying to copy the slow creep of the Grinch’s horrible grin, repulsed and delighted all at once.) Simply put, a life without this holiday classic would’ve stink, stank, stunk.
– Laura Bradley
Little Women.
Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel never fails to bring holiday cheer to a snowy day, even though it’s not technically a “Christmas movie.” Maybe it’s because the 2019 film was released on Christmas day, or Bob Odenkirk’s grand entrance in the holiday scene—grab your tissues for “My little women!”—but this movie is definitely in the seasonal canon. There’s something so tender about Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen all huddling by the fireplace together in wonderful knitwear, all waiting to unwrap presents with bows tied by Laura Dern. “Merry Christmas, world,” Jo announces as she flounces down the stairs early in the morning, the perfect way to welcome in the holiday.
– Fletcher Peters
Streaming on Disney+
Ebenezer Scrooge’s yuletide redemption tale has been told and retold countless times, but its best iteration is the one starring screen legend Michael Caine and a bunch of Muppets. It’s basically the Christmassy version of the Paddington movies, which is to say it’s 85 minutes of uncynical, big-hearted charm that teaches you the importance of kindness. I’ve watched this movie every December for as long as I can remember, and it still never ceases to amaze me how many big belly laughs abound—mostly thanks to memorable lines like, “Light the lamp, not the rat!”—but how real the tears are, too (Tiny Tim with his little cane and sickly, froggy cough will never not make me cry). But the real MVP is Caine and his cockney charm; he plays it entirely straight, acting his arse off alongside a slew of fuzzy, singing Muppets as he reminds us to hold each other close “with a thankful heart.”
– Madeline Roth
Streaming on YouTube
I grew up in a mixed-religion household, which, combined with my sister’s and my December birthday, rendered the holiday season a more generic “present month.” Bereft of traditions beyond a reliable exhaustion from having to wrap gifts for three weeks in a row, my family never instilled a taste for the festive in me. I’ve never cared for holiday movies as a result, deepened by my belief that most of them aren’t even good. But I do have one favorite: Olive, the Other Reindeer, a TV special that aired on Fox in 1999. In the cartoon adaptation of J. Otto Seibold’s book of the same name, Drew Barrymore voices Olive, an English-speaking Jack Russell terrier, who loves Christmas and her owner, Tim, more than anything. But Christmas is on the verge of cancellation when Santa’s reindeer Blitzen is injured.
When Olive overhears the news on the radio, followed by the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she’s convinced that she’s destined to be Santa’s back-up steed. (You hear “All of the other reindeer;” Olive hears “Olive, the other reindeer.”) She travels to the North Pole with her penguin friend (and local con artist) Martini, hoping to make it to Santa’s workshop in time to help deliver gifts. There’s great music, including a song from Blitzen’s cousin Schntizel, voiced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe; wonderfully storybook-ish animation; and smart, wry humor, making Olive more of a silly wintertime adventure than a saccharine holiday movie. Plus, Olive is an unbelievably adorable puppy.
– Allegra Frank
Streaming on HBO Max; Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube
For a movie full of AIDS and drug abuse and heartache, it’s easy to forget that this raggedy film adaptation of the ’90s Broadway hit is bookended by two different holiday seasons. There’s plenty of sparklers, costumes, and catchy choruses to compensate for the ham-fisted, turn-of-the-century melancholia. What’s more comforting than spending Christmas and New Year’s with a group of old friends, even if they’re on TV?
– Adam Manno
Streaming on Paramount+ With Showtime; Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
There’s nothing more satisfying when you hear about a buzzy new movie, sit down and watch it, love it, and then come to the ecstatic realization: This is a Christmas movie! Historically, I’ve been allergic to the conveyor-belt holiday-movie content farm that has confusingly been embraced by so many. So there’s nothing better than a legitimately great film that captures the reality of weathering the holiday season beyond, say, moving home from the big city and falling in love with a high-school classmate, or recovering from amnesia underneath the mistletoe.
Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine was a revelation. It was shot entirely on iPhones, and it centers the stories of transgender sex workers with grace and humor in a way that Hollywood never does. Sure, this may be the only Christmas film on this list that features a revenge plot against a pimp, the smoking of crystal meth, and a brothel. But it is also one of the only ones to tell the stories of marginalized characters. It’s Christmas Eve when Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) meet at a Hollywood donut shop. Sure, chaos ensues, but the lesson is holiday-appropriate: Who knows what people are struggling through and how messy those struggles may be, but we all need some generosity and friendship to make it through.
– Kevin Fallon
Streaming on HBO Max; Available to Rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Every year on Christmas Eve since 2006, I have watched this movie after everyone else falls asleep. I’m a last-minute gift wrapper, and at this point I’ve made it a tradition to keep all of my presents hidden until the night before Christmas, when I break out the paper, ribbons, and tape and settle in. When I was younger, You’ve Got Mail was peak coziness—and although my feelings toward Joe Fox have grown more complicated (read: hostile) as I’ve gotten older, my affection for the story still lingers.
This movie is not explicitly about Christmas, but its biggest emotional peaks and valleys all occur during the winter holidays—right down to Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly (a top-tier rom-com name if ever there was one) decorating a Christmas tree, filled with bittersweet memories of her mother. It’s a balm for a certain kind of Christmas feeling—a nostalgic longing for times, people, and places gone by that can creep in during moments when there are no cookies to bake or lights to hang. I’m always grateful for its company.
– Laura Bradley

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