What makes a holiday movie? What sort of elements must reside within the film for it to qualify for a category of films that we all seem to know implicitly (i.e. we know it when we see it), but that we cannot define? It’s a question that must vex film scholars, and I don’t plan on providing any deep notions or answers here, other than a surefire list to get you through the holidays and New Years’ with one hand on the TV remote and the other hand on the cookie tin.
There are, of course, the usual suspects (and with those three words I reference Michael Curtiz’s classic Casablanca and not the Bryan Singer film of that name). Those suspects are, generally: It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, Love Actually, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Die Hard, Elf, and A Christmas Story, respectively. I’m probably missing a bunch, some of which I’ll undoubtedly mention in my list below, and some of which I’ll undoubtedly miss.
The list below certainly does not constitute any kind of ‘ultimate’ or ‘best of’ guide; I prefer to offer a wide array of options, a smorgasbord of silver screen morsels, all excellent for a given moment and a given mood.
The Apartment (1960, dir. Billy Wilder) – Set in the chilled climate of a New York City winter, this film has all the qualities you expect from Billy Wilder: cutting humor, the exquisite dialogue you (and the films’ actors) can sink your teeth into, and a bittersweet edge. This is a personal favorite and the ending at New Years’ makes it a perfect holiday film; now you say, “shut up and deal.”
The Thin Man (1934, dir. W.S. Van Dyke) – Never do two people have more fun solving a murder than Nick and Nora Charles, as immortalized by the great William Powell and Myrna Loy (who were great friends in real life & made 14 pictures together). Another personal favorite of mine (based on a book by one of my favorite authors) this movie showcases the absolutely suave spotlessness of William Powell’s acting, which is at its peak in another classic: My Man Godfrey (1936).
The Silent Partner (1978, dir. Darryl Duke) – A hardly known gem from our neighbor to the North; this Canadian film stars Elliott Gould as a near idiot bank teller and Christopher Plummer as an unhinged bank-robbing department store Santa, but don’t mistake this film for a comedy. It is dark and twisted, and a nice palette cleanser if you’re tired of all the feel-good vibes the holidays usually rouse.
Last Holiday (2006, dir. Wayne Wang) – A definite crowd-pleaser; this film stars Queen Latifah as a New Orleans cookware company employee who finds out she doesn’t have long to live. She pools her life-savings together for one last-ditch holiday jaunt…to the nicest hotel basically ever: the Grand Hotel Pupp in the Czech Republic; if it looks familiar it’s because it was also a setting in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale.
The Holiday (2006, dir. Nancy Meyers) – Is there anything more festive than a romance (and laugh) filled Nancy Meyers movie? I think not. Starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, the film follows two women who use an early (somewhat odd) version of basically AirBnB to swap homes; one goes to sunny LA and the other frosty England for the holidays. Romance and hijinks ensue.
Little Women (2019, dir. Greta Gerwig) – I can’t recommend this movie enough; in fact, I already did, in my Halloween/Autumn movie blog a few months back. But this film really shines at the holiday season as well. It’s a classic story told with all the freshness and energy that Gerwig and her cast bring to the table. There’s not much more to say other than what are you waiting for?
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983, dir. Nagisa Ōshima) – Yes, a Japanese war film is also a Christmas movie; you can tell by the title alone. Starring David Bowie, yes you read that correctly, and Tom Conti as WWII Prisoners of War held in Japan and the sometimes antagonistic relationships they develop with two of the Japanese soldiers guarding them: Ryuichi Sakamoto as the camp commandant and Takeshi Kitano as an officer of the camp.
Tokyo Godfathers (2003, dir. Satoshi Kon) – A fun anime adventure film, co-written by one of the writers of Cowboy Bebop, the ultra-acclaimed 1990s Japanese anime series. The film follows three homeless men as they try to find an orphaned baby’s parents on Christmas Eve.
Die Hard 2 (1990, dir. Renny Harlin) – So you like Die Hard (1989)? Who doesn’t? But this film follows almost the exact same formula and is also set at Christmas, but in an airport. I won’t say it’s as good as the first in the franchise (lacking as good a villain as Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber), but it is still a very solid action film with all the requisite Bruce Willis charm.
Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011, dir. Various) – Nearly every one of the Harry Potter films contains a holiday scene or two, and this franchise is perfect for a family or friends looking for an easily-agreed-upon rewatch. Plus, it features Alan Rickman (just like Die Hard; weirdly Alan Rickman is a very holiday-film-oriented actor).
Catastrophe (2015-2019, created by Sharon Horgan & Rob Delaney) – So this is obviously not a film, but a TV series and it is also technically not a holiday-themed TV series either. And yet, I can’t help adding it to the list because it showcases a lot of what the holidays truly are for people (especially overworked parents): stress-fueled onslaughts of family hectic craziness. But this show makes all that funny; extremely funny. It starts off being about an American businessman getting an Irish woman pregnant in a one night stand in London, and just goes from there. It’s both lovely and gut-wrenching and laugh out loud the whole way.
Be forewarned: this show is very raunchy, and not appropriate for children; or if you get easily discomforted by watching sex scenes with your parents.
One reason the holiday season is ripe for movies is that the often frigid bluster of winter contrasts beautifully with the heart-warming content Hollywood generally likes to dole out. These films spring from different source materials, emotions, places, times, countries even. Some have happy endings, some bittersweet; but all are set at, or contain scenes during, the holiday season. In some way that foregrounding of holidays, even just in a secular sense, binds them all together.
It’s the overarching feeling of community, of being a member of a group, a tribe, a pack, that makes the holidays the holidays. And it is what sometimes dooms the films’ characters and also saves them, just as it does in real life for all of us. Happy Holidays, and Happy Watching!