My top 12 Christmas films

A curmudgeon’s holiday list

It’s a Wonderful Life

Exclusive to MeierMovies, December 23, 2018

I don’t like Christmas movies. There, I said it. (Ah, I feel so much better now.) But before you go judging me the Grinch reincarnate, let me explain.

My dislike of holiday flicks has little to do with my feelings for the season and everything to do with the films themselves. Seriously, if you took away the yuletide spirit, the spiked egg nog and the joy of family and friends, and objectively examined Christmas movies, what would you see? Mediocre direction, lame dialogue, subpar production values and bad acting. Come on, deep down you know it’s true.

Still, as is the case with every cinematic genre, some films shine through. And to prove it, below you will find a dozen – for the 12 days of Christmas – that reached through my sternum to caress my cold, dead heart.

But before we begin, my apologies to Edward Scissorhands, Love Actually, the new Ben is Back and other flicks that aren’t 100 percent Christmassy. If there is any debate about their status as a holiday film, I left them off.

The list also does not include The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ and other films that tell the life of Jesus. Neither does it contain The Ten Commandments and similar, Biblical movies. Their exclusion has little to do with my agnosticism and a lot to do with the fact that the best films addressing those subjects do not focus solely on the birth of Jesus (at the time of year we now celebrate Christmas), and are, therefore, an ill fit for this list. However, I realize such films are an important part of many Christians’ holiday traditions and probably deserve their own, separate article.

12. Gremlins. We start with the least Christmassy movie on my list, this sci-fi/horror dramedy from 1984. (Who can forget Phoebe Cates’ nightmarish narrative about the death of her father, who died in their family’s chimney while dressed as Santa Claus?)

11. Miracle on 34th Street. This 1947 classic directed by George Seaton established Edmund Gwenn as the cinematic Santa for all time. Though it’s overrated, the film features memorable performances by Maureen O’Hara and a 9-year-old Natalie Wood as the girl who, like all of us, wants to believe in Kris Kringle.

10. A Charlie Brown Christmas. My unconventional list contains not just feature films but shorts and TV specials too. My #10 entry, which debuted on CBS in December 1965, falls into the latter category. Though a tad primitive and slight – at just 25 minutes – when compared with other entries, this animated Peanuts tale nevertheless encapsulates the holidays for an entire generation of Americans born in the late 1960s and ‘70s.

9. The Muppet Christmas Carol. This 1992 feature directed by Brian Henson was the first Muppets project released after the death of founder/demigod Jim. And though the new voice of Kermit took (and still takes) getting used to, the film’s inventive characterizations and its casting of Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge make it a worthwhile addition to the cinematic holiday canon.

8. The Polar Express. Though the “uncanny valley” special effects of this 2004 Robert Zemeckis holiday flick (based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg) freaked out some audiences, the film deserves praise for its groundbreaking use of motion-capture technology and its imaginative examination of a boy’s belief – or disbelief – in Santa.

7. The Man Who Invented Christmas. Another re-telling of A Christmas Carol, this one is unique because it casts Charles Dickens (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) as a central character, along with a Scrooge stand-in (Christopher Plummer) and Dickens’ father (Jonathan Pryce). Released in cinemas in 2017, it’s a surprisingly inventive, touching take on a familiar story. (Read my full review here.)

6. Mickey’s Christmas Carol. This delightful short film from 1983 was the first new Mickey Mouse theatrical cartoon produced by Disney after Walt’s death. In fact, you’d have to go way back to 1953, with The Simple Things, to find the last original mouse tale to hit the big screen. (And only three have been created since.) So, upon its release, it felt like a rare animated gem, and it still does.

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! What can one say about the best and most iconic Grinch story ever created? Sure, this 1966 animated TV short might lack some of the production values of the more recent Grinch releases, but it’s tough to top the creativity of director Chuck Jones, writer Dr. Seuss, narrator Boris Karloff and singer Thurl Ravenscroft. It’s become almost as important to the holidays as wrapping paper and nutcrackers.

Alastair Sim in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol

4. A Christmas Carol (1951). This list contains four adaptations of the Dickens classic, and none is more revered than the early ‘50s British version (titled simply Scrooge in the U.K.) directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring the incomparable Alastair Sim, who has essentially become Scrooge in our mind’s eye. (And let’s not forget Mervyn Johns – better known as the protagonist of Dead of Night – as Bob Cratchit.)

If this list were longer, I might have room for other versions of the 1843 novella, which practically reinvented Christmas for Britons. The 1984 television movie starring George C. Scott might be worth a mention, along with the 1970 Scrooge with Albert Finney, the 1935 Scrooge with Seymour Hicks, the 1988 Scrooged featuring Bill Murray and the 1938 adaptation starring Reginald Owen. Heck, I might even throw in my own stage appearance as Tiny Tim back when I was just 10 years old. (On second thought, probably not.) But my list is limited to just 12, and the 1951 movie best stands the test of time and will continue to do so for countless Christmases Yet to Come.

Oh, and before moving to the next movie, let me wallow for a moment in act of blatant self-promotion: Check out this brilliant examination of the dialects of the Dickens story, by my dad, Paul Meier. (When I’m not writing about movies, I serve as vice president of Paul Meier Dialect Services.)

3. Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Before the original Muppet Movie, in 1979, there was this Christmas gem, which debuted on Canada’s CBC Television Network in 1977 and became an HBO tradition in the 1980s. Lovingly directed by Jim Henson, it features no fewer than seven great songs, including the masterpiece “When the River Meets the Sea.” Surprisingly, the 48-minute film never got a theatrical release until earlier this year, when Fathom Events hosted a two-day run. But if you missed it in your local cinema, never fear: Grab the Blu-ray and some friends, and warm your snakes and beavers by the fire while enjoying Otter on your tube.

2. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Often regarded as the best stop-motion animation ever, the Henry Selick-Tim Burton musical fantasy has the distinction of being not just one of the best Christmas films, but one of the best Halloween ones too. The 1993 story of Jack Skellington, who discovers a portal from his world into Christmas Town, continues to inspire and entertain audiences 25 years after its release.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life. This 1946 Frank Capra masterpiece starring Jimmy Stewart sits atop most Christmas lists, and mine is no exception. Embodying all that’s best about not just the holidays but the human spirit, the movie is wonderfully entertaining before turning surprisingly dark toward the end – all in a perfectly calculated effort to teach the eternal lessons that “No man is a failure who has friends” and “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” Just thinking about this film makes my small heart grow three sizes.

© 2018 MeierMovies, LLC

For my article on the worst Christmas films, click here.