Photo: Warner Home Video
The streaming era has fundamentally changed the way we watch classic Christmas movies — and how Christmas movies become classics in the first place. In the past, a combination of quality and repetition could catapult a Christmas movie into canon. It’s a beautiful lifefor example, deserves its reputation as one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, but it was endless Christmas broadcasts on syndicated television that allowed it to find an audience after underperforming on its initial release in 1946. TNT’s annual marathon of a Christmas Story is pretty much the last vestige of that practice, but that means those in search of cinematic holiday cheer will have to be a little more active to look for it. Luckily, plenty of holiday classics can be streamed at the touch of a button, and HBO Max has a plethora of them. Below are eight of the best.
You can program your own marathon by simply pressing the play button each time you finish Bob Clark’s nostalgic comedy inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd’s memories of his Indiana childhood. Or, effective as it is as background noise on vacation, you could watch it from start to finish. Aside from some unfortunate racial stereotypes in its final moments, the film remains a charming comedy, capturing the joys and fears of a child at Christmas time, following Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) as he dreams of a Red Ryder despite the possibility that he himself shoots out the eye. (HBO Max also features the 2022 sequel A Christmas Story Christmas featuring Billingsley and several members of the original cast and, somewhat confusingly, A Christmas Story 2an independent sequel from 2012.)
What if Santa Claus was not a person but a title passed from one generation to the next? That’s the premise of this clever comedy from Aardman Animations, starring James McAvoy as Arthur Christmas, the generous second son of the soon-to-be retired Santa (Jim Broadbent) who lives in the shadow of his more able older brother Steven (Hugh Laurie). That may sound like an impossible crossbreed Miracles on 34th Street and successorbut Aardman’s signature blend of gentleness, whimsy, and charming character designs make it a winning (and somewhat sleepy) choice for vacationing family viewing.
There is no shortage of Charles Dickens adaptations A Christmas song, and variations on the often-told story are made again and again. It’s impossible to call one definitive, but few have been as influential (or, for that matter, as good) as this 1951 version (released in the UK as Scrooge). Much of the credit should go to Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, a performance that makes the curmudgeon’s transformation seem like a true Christmas wonder. This is Dickens played directly and played incredibly well. There’s a reason this story became a classic in the first place.
Characters whose cynicism is blown away by the Christmas cheer is something of a Christmas movie tradition. Barbara Stanwyck plays a sharp-tongued New York writer whose stories of farm life in Connecticut are 100 percent fiction. As the revelation threatens her, she finds that she needs to turn the fake life she’s written about into reality, or something similar, in time for Christmas. Stanwyck is perfectly cast as the focal point of a fast-paced comedy that could spell disaster or romance at any moment.
A film that would not work without its central performance, Eleven Stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a man raised at the North Pole who travels to New York to search for his father (James Caan). Ferrell throws himself into the role with abandon, making Buddy’s naivety feel both compelling and endearing. Sure, he’s a goofy, happy weirdo with a simple worldview. But maybe he has the right idea? It fits well with Zooey Deschanel’s performance as Jovie, who melts her character’s cynicism with every scene.
Say you’ve got enough Christmas cheer and wouldn’t mind a movie that shares that cheer. This Joe Dante horror comedy has you covered. Zach Galligan plays Billy, a small-town bank teller who receives a cute little creature named Gizmo as a Christmas present from his father (Hoyt Axton). Gizmo comes with some catches about water, sunlight, and when he can or cannot be fed, and when those rules are broken, chaos erupts. Dante’s gleefully destructive impulses pervade the film, which transforms a picture-perfect small town decked out in Christmas lights into a Christmassy war zone. Anyone tired of the holidays can have fun cheering on the bad guys to burn everything down.
if Christmas in Connecticut doesn’t offer enough deception, mistaken identity, unlikely romance and wacky action, try this overlooked gem directed by Roy Del Ruth (who got the job when Frank Capra decided to do it It’s a beautiful life instead of this). Victor Moore plays Aloysius T. McKeever, a homeless man who plans to spend Christmas where he usually spends it: the boarded-up Manhattan mansion of millionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), who is wintering elsewhere. Or at least he winters somewhere else most all the time. As the house fills, complications mount in a comedy steeped in Christmas cheer but also a poignant commentary on the divide between the rich and the have-nots in America.
When people use the phrase “Lubitsch touch” to describe what brought director Ernst Lubitsch to classic comedies Design for living and To be or not to be, It’s shorthand for a blend of sophistication and sex appeal. Both are found in abundance in this Christmas classic, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as colleagues at a leather goods shop who hate each other – but have also unknowingly started courting each other as anonymous pen pals. But Lubitsch also brings a heartfelt quality to his films that makes it easy to care for the characters and hope they find happiness together. (Yes, You have mail shares the same property. Both films refer to the play by Miklós László perfumery. but You have mail isn’t filled with Christmas cheer, so save that for another day.)