The Christmas movies to watch all over again -- Get into the spirit with ''Elf,'' ''Love Actually,'' and other great holiday flicks

By EW Staff
Updated November 29, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

It just doesn’t seem like the holiday season till you’ve seen certain Christmas movies for the billionth time. To help you get that special feeling, we’ve pulled together a list of our favorites — the movies that are entertaining enough to balance out the required seasonal sappiness. Find out about our picks on the AMC TV special AMC & Entertainment Weekly Present: Twenty Greatest Holiday Movie Moments (Sun., Dec. 12, 10 p.m.). Or if you want to join the rest of us who revert back to childhood every time Will Ferrell exclaims, ”Santa? I know him!” — then click through our recommendations on the following pages.

LET THERE BE TIGHTS! Santa baby Ferrell (with Caan) grows up all sweet and dim

As decreed by the Hollywood branch of the North Pole Transit Workers Union, the regulation holiday movie season shall include at least one Christmas-themed comedy accessible to children but pitched to adults — a binding agreement sometimes known as the ”Santa Clause” clause or the ”Grinch” pact. Said entertainment should be family-friendly and support positive values of tolerance, inclusiveness, and conflict resolution, yet slip in enough ”SNL”-style jokes and actors to simultaneously please ”SNL”-bred viewers and youngsters who enjoy a good burping scene. Producers are encouraged to take a playful swipe at the dreary commercialization of seasonal themes — in a commercially viable seasonal movie.

Under such contractual constrictions, Elf is much funnier and more nimble than a ”Jingle All the Way” placeholder needs to be: It’s anti-ironic, with hipness hung like ornaments. This is, after all, a fractured fairy tale in which Bob Newhart dons a pointy hat to play the majordomo of Santa’s helpers; Ed Asner steps in as Claus himself; James Caan growls as a grouchy children’s book publisher; Zooey Deschanel sings ”Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in a licorice cabaret voice; and ”The Station Agent”’s Peter Dinklage becomes a preening, famous author who is not amused at being called a dwarf by a six-foot-something guy who calls himself an elf.

And such an elf! The disarming comedic tone — silly and novel in its lack of cynicism — is driven by the fearless, cheerful unself-consciousness of Will Ferrell, a big man last seen streaking (all too unself-consciously) through ”Old School.” Now wearing lime green polar couture and a humiliation-proof grin, he’s a sight for dour eyes.

As a human child accidentally spirited away in Santa’s toy sack, Ferrell is named Buddy and raised by elves, growing up (and up and up) among neighbors who top out at two feet tall. And the star throws himself into character with unflappable seriousness. Feeling like a misfit — a classic Christmas-movie condition — Buddy treks to New York City to find his real father (Caan).

Directed by Jon Favreau, trading the single-guy smarm of his hilarious ”Swingers” script for family-man riffs, and written by David Berenbaum (”The Haunted Mansion”), ”Elf” finds a perilously easy target in the sham of store-built Santalands. (It’s on the selling floor that Buddy falls in love with Deschanel’s jaded seasonal employee.) And even Farrell’s energy stalls in a Tinker Bell-ish scene requiring a community outpouring of holiday spirit to propel Claus’ stalled sleigh. But for every standard-issue plot point (e.g., Buddy reignites childish wonder in his Santa-denying half brother, played by Daniel Tay), there’s a welcome stocking stuffer. In a sequence of beautiful stop-motion animation, for instance, octogenarian animation legend Ray Harryhausen himself supplies the voice of a polar bear cub. Cool — and I don’t just mean polar.

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Image credit: Emmet Otter Jug-Band Christmas: Everett Collection WHY I ‘OTTER’ Henson presents his version of a traditional Christmas movie: puppets… otters actually… playing, um, bluegrass music

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

In case you forgot, what with all the fancy-schmancy computer animation and digital trickery that’s so in vogue these days, puppets rock. Especially Muppets.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas falls squarely between the inspired variety-show lunacy of The Muppet Show TV series (1976-81) and the sweet-hearted feature film odyssey The Muppet Movie (1979), and you can see Jim Henson and Co. (many of whom, like Frank Oz and Richard Hunt, had been with Henson since Sesame Street) stretching themselves and their art.

To tell the story of a poor widowed otter and her dewy young son who sacrifice what little they have in order to win a talent show, thereby making a better holiday for each other, Henson and his craftsmen created large-scale sets, featuring rivers, city streets, and a crowded town hall. The camera dives and sweeps, dollies and tracks, all to help disguise the fact that these are just hand puppets and marionettes.

And the music, while not quite as transcendent as Muppet Movie numbers ”Movin’ Right Along” or ”The Rainbow Connection,” is still smart and catchy, with a bluegrass spirit that would do those O Brother, Where Art Thou? folks proud.

There’s a collective magic that takes place when watching classic Muppet tales; our willingness to believe that these felt-and-fur creations are real, combined with Henson’s seemingly innate sense of emotional truth, makes for kids’ entertainment that’s still unparalleled.

Image credit: Miracle on 34th Street: Kobal Collection ‘MIRACLE’ WORKER Attenborough gets his jolly St. Nick on

Can a modern kid still believe in Santa Claus in this cynical world? Miracle on 34th Street is, of course, a remake of the 1947 holiday classic starring Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle and an enchanting young Natalie Wood as the little girl who refused to believe. (There was also a 1973 made-for-TV remake proposing Sebastian Cabot as Kringle.) You can tell it’s the ’90s now because the little girl, Susan (Mara Wilson, who lisped her way overfetchingly through Mrs. Doubtfire and continues the tiresome act here), lives with her mother, Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), a depressed, single working woman seemingly in need of the miracle of Prozac. Dorey’s boyfriend is Bryan (Dylan McDermott), a do-gooding lawyer who’s patient in the face of his beloved’s long-term mopeyness (suggested Christmas gift book: Men Who Love Too Much). And Bryan’s pro bono client is Kringle himself, who masquerades as a department-store Santa and who is played by Richard Attenborough with the kind of Eh-wot? jolly Father Christmas British accent that imparts instant authority.

The director of record is Les Mayfield (Encino Man), but really, the ho-ho- hos in this Miracle belong to writer-producer John Hughes, who, I swear, truly does believe in Santa — or maybe he is Santa, so enthralled is he by the warm glow of childhood. And I mean that in the best possible way: If anyone can make an audience buy into a pretty, old-fashioned, cockle-warming premise, it’s Hughes, the millionaire softie who invented Home Alone. This retelling is loving and gentle and lit like a 1940s musical.

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Image credit: It’s a Wonderful Life: NBC ‘LIFE’ IS BEAUTIFUL George Bailey (Stewart) embraces his reality

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a midlife-crisis fantasy in which angelic intervention allows George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) to appreciate the eternal verities of family and belonging, to see how lousy Bedford Falls would be if he’d never been born. In exploring all the things that could go wrong, Wonderful Life, thanks to Stewart’s shockingly bitter performance, remains scary as hell.

MERRY GRIMACE The Grinch reindeers on ”Christmas”’ parade

As the fuzzy Scroogian sourpuss of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jim Carrey doesn’t just wear Rick Baker’s sickly green, evil sprite makeup; he merges with it. He molds the creased feline cheeks, lunar beastie hair, and crooked layers of yellow teeth to his own grin and scowl, to every last flicker and eruption of his mischievously divided, ”now I’m calm/now I’m a raving sarcastic PSYCHO!” personality.

The Grinch, who lives in a giant cave tucked atop the curvy elf shoe peak of Mount Crumpit, likes to fancy himself a guy who hates everything, especially Christmas. But he’s a worrywart megalomaniac, too neurotic to sustain his loner’s rage for more than a momentary spasm or two. He’s got an answering machine that threatens violence to anyone who leaves a message — and then politely invites callers to push star ”if you want to fax.” Even the angry echo of his voice won’t cooperate with him.

Carrey, thrusting his lower lip into a pout of magnificently mocking self pity, speaks in a basso, rapid fire, vaguely British growl that makes him sound like a deranged James Stewart fused with Lionel Barrymore. He plays the Grinch as an overgrown kid who never got his candy and is now going to make the world pay for it. The Grinch sits around his mad scientist lair, munching on glass, his beetle brows locked into a sneer as he tries to dream up ways of ruining everyone else’s pleasure. Meanness fills him with dirty high spirits, but he’s so suspicious of anything that feels good that he compulsively sabotages even his own malevolent glee.

Attempting to drown out the happy holiday sounds of the Whos down in Whoville, the Grinch sticks his head, which resembles a giant coiffed gourd, between a huge pair of crashing cymbals, and Carrey’s face, under all that rubbery padding, registers something between agony and joy. Later, after being informed that he’s won a Christmas contest, he panics and asks, ”What if it’s a cruel prank? What if it’s a cash bar!?” Carrey makes the Grinch a slobby, self loathing elitist ruled by the secret fear that he’s always being left out of things.

For anyone raised on the beloved 1966 Christmas television special, it’s difficult to greet the prospect of a live action Grinch with anything but skepticism. Ron Howard’s phantasmagorical rim shot fairy tale is easy enough to watch, but it’s not exactly what I would call a magical entertainment. The movie, with its curved Seussian sets, which have none of the loopy, gravity be damned elegance of Theodor S. Geisel’s drawings, lacks the funky, engaging simplicity of Chuck Jones’ animated TV special (or the even more minimalist 1957 Seuss book).

It takes a while for Carrey to rev up, to lash the entire overscaled production to his snappish, quicksilver, channel surfing rhythms. The newly padded out story feels, well… padded, and the movie doesn’t truly kick in until the Grinch shows up in Whoville after being chosen, at Cindy Lou’s behest, as the Holiday Cheermeister.

Needless to say, the reward turns into a disaster, as Carrey, leading a conga line and giving the mayor a ”fabulous” shear job, unleashes his singular brand of anarchy. Howard deflates any goody goody piety by building a conventional, toys are us cynicism about Christmas into the bustling miniworld of Whoville. He’s trying for the sort of goosey domestic surrealism that Tim Burton brought to ”Edward Scissorhands,” but the tone would have worked better if we’d been more involved with the Whos as characters. Make no mistake, though: This is Jim Carrey’s show, and he just about wraps the movie around his spindly green middle finger.

He’s done it once or twice before, of course. ”The Grinch” often feels like a final encore, banana split version of Carrey the blockbuster comedian, since the movie, pitched to little kids, is a testament to how safe, even sweet, his ”satanic” brand of improv tomfoolery has become. If anything, the real surprise here is how affecting he makes the Grinch’s ultimate big hearted turnaround, as Carrey the actor sneaks up on Carrey the wild man dervish. In whichever mode, he carreys the movie.

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Image credit: Meet Me in St. Louis ‘MEET’ CUTE Garland (right, with Margaret O’Brien) met her future husband on the set

Meet Me In St. Louis

There’s not a phosphor in your TV that won’t be excited by Meet Me in St. Louis, MGM’s colorful musical valentine to Midwestern family life circa 1903. Director Vincente Minnelli married Garland shortly after shaping her career-best performance as girl-next-door Esther Smith. She’s beautifully made-up and costumed, subtle for once, and often very funny (watch her crumple with self-consciousness after ”The Trolley Song” when she sees her sweetheart’s been watching her perform). And that sprawling, sumptuously decorated house will give you severe real estate envy.

EXTRAS Liza Minnelli gushily intros her parents’ movie, while the excellent 1972 TV doc Hollywood: The Dream Factory (precursor of the That’s Entertainment! compilations) tops off a bounty of strong making-of material. Best of all is a music-only track that elevates the movie’s intricate underscoring to full-blown, surround-sound quality.

Image credit: A Christmas Story: TBS

A Christmas Story (24-hour marathon-TBS)

NICK OF CRIME Billingsley has a guilty conscience

Whether it’s the etiquette of the Triple Dog Dare or the science of marrying wet tongues to frozen poles, A Christmas Story is the most educational film many of us saw as kids. Mostly we learned from Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) how to bag a Daisy Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle without pissing off the Old Man. Think of it as It’s a Wonderful Life for post-Reagan generations as it morphs from cult to classic 20 years down the road.

EXTRAS And where are the Parkers? Billingsley is the only one present in the DVD extras. Also missing: a nifty-sounding deleted Flash Gordon sequence he mentions on the commentary track.

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Image credit: Gremlins: Everett Collection MOGWAI NOT? ”Gremlins” is a crowd-pleaser

They struck a nerve we didn’t know needed striking: repellent, anarchist rubber-puppet critters that trashed every sentimental trope established by their nicer green-guy cousins, E.T., Yoda, and Kermit. The original Gremlins, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante from a script by Chris Columbus (now king of the Harry Potter flicks, then an NYU student), was a huge sleeper hit. But the outlandish gore that ticked off parents and helped trigger PG-13 ratings — pop goes the microwaved gremlin! — still sinks the movie. When doe-eyed leads Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan get clawed and speared by the ugly spawn of cute little Gizmo (whose fur Dante says he decreed should resemble that of Spielberg’s cocker spaniel), their physical peril is played so straight it’s no fun — it’s torture, not horror. The extras are mainly old making-of promos, but new commentaries — by Dante, the producers, and the cast — hold fresher tidbits. Catch Galligan droning on about his inexperience and his big ’80s coif (Cates is mostly silent). There’s great detail on how much grosser Columbus’ initial script was, including a scene of the family dog being eaten by gremlins.

Image credit: A Christmas Carol: Kobal Collection AH, HUMBUG Sim nails the role of Scrooge

A Quintessential ‘Carol’

Other Christmas Carols need not apply. The definitive version of the Dickens tale is, appropriately enough, straight out of England. This flick is not only the gold standard against which all other holiday films should be measured, but also one of the greatest films ever made, period. Chalk it all up to Alastair Sim’s pitch-perfect performance as Scrooge. Whether expressing goggle-eyed horror, heartrending sorrow, or gleeful giddiness, Sim is equally adept at wringing tears and peals of laughter from the viewer. Throw in a stirring, weep-worthy score, a witty script, and a sparkling supporting cast, and you’ve got a film you’ll want to watch year-round.

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Image credit: The Simpson: © 20th Century Fox BOWLFUL OF JOLLY A corpulent Santa Homer knows where the hearth is

Given the current mania for putting hit television shows on tape, it was inevitable that we’d see The Simpsons’ Christmas Special. Here’s the first of what will probably be a never-ending merchandising bonanza, and while it’s hardly the best or even most representative episode, there’s enough of the endearingly cynical, vaguely leftist humor that makes the series an oasis of sanity in the prime-time desert. I won’t give the plot away; let’s just note that it does to various Christmas clichés exactly what deserves to be done to them. Or as Marge says of Homer’s last-minute gift of a family dog: ”It’s perfect — something that can share our love and frighten prowlers.” Very nice stereo sound, by the way.

Image credit: The Bishop’s Wife: Kobal Collection DIVINE COUNSEL An angelic Grant (at right) ministers to Niven

Cary Grant plays Dudley the angel in The Bishop’s Wife, a film ubiquitous on TV during the holiday season and available on tape year-round. The Capraesque movie follows Grant’s charismatic Dudley as he reunites an ambitious clergyman (a worn-looking David Niven) with his neglected spouse (a luminous Loretta Young). Dudley executes his good deeds with such relaxed good cheer, incandescent charm, and beautifully toothy smiles that he captivates everyone in town — not to mention anybody watching the movie. Grant’s turn is thoroughly convincing because he himself appears to be having a terrific time: He’s expansive, graceful, and seems always on the verge of chuckling with goodwill.

LONDON FALLING In ”Love Actually,” it’s amour, the merrier for a charming band of heartsick Brits (including Grant and McCutcheon)

A romantic comedy, it has often been observed, needs an obstacle, a force of natural confusion to keep its objects of affection (temporarily) apart. On the other hand, there’s Love Actually, the first movie directed, as well as written, by the compulsive British crowd-pleaser Richard Curtis (”Four Weddings and a Funeral,” ”Notting Hill”). Set in London during the weeks before Christmas, it’s a toasty, star-packed ensemble comedy in which a handful of lonelyhearts attempt, with some success, to come out of their shells, and it’s going to make a lot of holiday romantics feel very, very good; watching it, I felt cozy and charmed myself.

It’s worth noting, however, that the appeal of ”Love Actually,” a movie as sweetly munchable as a Christmas cookie (and about as nourishing), lies in the way that its romantic ”obstacles” are, for the most part, barely even there. Curtis’ cheaply winsome stroke of genius is to have made an unabashed celebration of the fairy-tale obvious — that love is standing right in front of you, and that all you need to do is reach out and grab it. Your average Jennifer Aniston or Luke Wilson character should only have it this easy.

At the beginning, Bill Nighy, looking like a trampy, gone-to-seed Crocodile Dundee, appears in a recording studio as a raunchy has-been rock star who’s gotten corralled into doing a special yuletide version of ”Love Is All Around.” He thinks the song is crap, but, make no mistake, it will stick in your head (for days), and the rest of the movie follows suit: It’s fashionably acerbic about being unfashionably sappy. We’re soon introduced to Hugh Grant as the newly elected prime minister, and before we’ve had a chance to giggle at the amusing perfection of Grant, with his elegant downcast features, playing an alpha-male bachelor version of Tony Blair, he has fallen head over cuff links for his new personal assistant (Martine McCutcheon), whose radiant moon face reflects that affection back at him.

It just wouldn’t do, of course, for the freshman PM to be shagging his servant. So Grant flirts with her in innocent, stammering agony. He has become a peerless romantic star, even if the film takes a bit too much delight in having him shimmy around the mansion to the Pointer Sisters’ ”Jump,” as though to prove that British men can be funky too. If anything, this particular PM should probably be listening to Billy Joel’s ”Tell Her About It.”

In a bizarre retrograde twist, ”Love Actually” is preoccupied with liaisons between shy, chivalrous male bosses and pliant female underlings. In addition to Grant, there’s Colin Firth as a cuckolded novelist who finds the perfect companion in his willowy Portuguese maid (Lucia Moniz), who doesn’t quite speak English. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman, as a somber executive stuck in a comfy marriage to a touchingly devoted Emma Thompson, must fend off the advances of his sex-bomb secretary (Heike Makatsch). He seems to be doing a fair job of it until he decides to buy the assistant a gold necklace. Thompson’s reaction upon discovery of this secret Christmas gift is the film’s most wrenching moment, though the episode would be stronger if we had any idea what was going on in Rickman’s head. The gravity of it all is balanced by the levity of two professional movie stand-ins who chat politely as they mime sex, nude, all day long, and also by a goofy-faced bloke (Kris Marshall) who thinks that his English accent will make him a stud in America. (In the film’s cheesiest gag, he’s proved right.)

Meanwhile, Laura Linney, with those dimples you just want to curl up in, is adorable as a pathologically shy American with a consuming crush on her office colleague (Rodrigo Santoro). After working up the nerve to take him home, Linney has one of those exhibitionistically private, hands-in-the-air ”Yes!” moments that’s meant to unite the audience in vicarious happiness. But the joy, rather inexplicably, is short-lived, as it turns out that she’s too wrapped up in caring for her mentally ill brother to let herself go. Ultimately, a more compelling case of amorous denial arrives with the blithely charismatic Andrew Lincoln as a fellow who’s doing all he can to hide his secret yearning for his best friend’s wife (Keira Knightley). If that doesn’t pluck your heartstrings of bittersweet nobility, try Liam Neeson as a widower who coaches his 11-year-old stepson (Thomas Sangster) into confessing his feelings to the girl he has a crush on.

Tell her about it, indeed. At its best, the movie reminds you how one such moment can activate, and set, your lifelong romantic compass. That’s ”Love Actually”: the heartfelt, sometimes the wise, layered atop the unfinished and the glib, with even the British prime minister as just one more sweet and lonely guy who’s really got to get out of the house more.

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