The 20 best Christmas movies of all time, ranked (from 'Happiest Season' to 'Scrooged')

Brian Truitt

Santa Claus is coming to town, but you still have plenty of time to seek out all sorts of holiday movie fare.

There are the classics, naturally, like Macaulay Culkin taking on dimwitted crooks in "Home Alone" or Bill Murray's self-centered TV executive learning a thing or several about the meaning of Christmas in "Scrooged," a take on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Or maybe you want more modern options, like Lifetime's country-fried "Reba McEntire's Christmas in Tune" or RuPaul's VH1 drag holiday movie "The (B----) Who Stole Christmas" (premiering Dec. 2).

Heck, Netflix is pretty much an annual treasure trove of streaming yuletide cheer: This year, instead of a lump of coal, Santa gets an origin story with "A Boy Called Christmas" plus Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes unexpectedly fall for each other in "A Castle for Christmas." 

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In honor of the holiday season, let's rank the 20 best Christmas movies ever:

Santa's son Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) notices one kid is forgotten at Christmas and decides to right the situation in "Arthur Christmas."

20 (tie). 'Arthur Christmas' (2011)

The underrated, animated British gem centers on Santa Claus' son Arthur (James McAvoy), who works on a deadline to get a present to the one girl forgotten by his family's militaristic, high-tech delivery system.

Journey Jangle (Madalen Mills), a 10-year-old inventor, works her magic in the holiday musical "Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey."

20 (tie). 'Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey'

The entertaining and big-hearted fantasy musical about a famous former toymaker (Forest Whitaker) getting his mojo back thanks to an inventive granddaughter (Madalen Mills) features top-notch tunes, a diverse focus and young female ingenuity.

Macaulay Culkin stars as an 8-year-old who defends his house against a pair of burglars on Christmas in "Home Alone."

19. 'Home Alone' (1990)

Culkin is unfailingly precocious, and watching an 8-year-old foil a pair of clueless adult burglars in inventive fashion is fine and all. What's often forgotten amid the kiddie shenanigans, however, is what the film has to say about the importance of family.

John Cusack (left, with Connie Nielsen) is a mob lawyer trying to get out of town with a bunch of stolen loot in "The Ice Harvest."

18. 'The Ice Harvest' (2005)

Set in Wichita, Kansas, on Christmas Eve, this twisty, cool and funny film noir casts John Cusack as a mob lawyer who steals $2 million from his boss (Randy Quaid) and has issues hightailing it out of town because of bad weather.

Kristen Stewart (left) and Mackenzie Davis star as a lesbian couple whose relationship is tested by a holiday family get-together in the romantic comedy "Happiest Season."

17. 'Happiest Season' (2020)

The inclusive and pleasantly clever romantic comedy stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a lesbian couple whose relationship is tested at a family get-together by deep secrets, conservative parents and competitive siblings.

Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) takes on the role of Santa Claus in Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

16. 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)

Is this a Halloween movie? Sure. And is it a yuletide flick, too? You bet! Tim Burton puts his insane spin on a holiday mashup where Jack Skellington, the big man in Halloween Town, decides to take over the various aspects of Christmas Town – and arrange the abduction of Santa – until he realizes it wasn't the greatest idea.

Mel Gibson (left) and Danny Glover are reluctant partners in the Christmas-themed action film "Lethal Weapon."

15. 'Lethal Weapon' (1987)

By itself, it's one of the best buddy-cop action pictures, forcing together Danny Glover's aging Roger Murtaugh and Mel Gibson's loose cannon Martin Riggs. The seasonal stuff just makes it all the better, including a shootout at a Christmas tree lot and Riggs, struggling with suicidal thoughts, ultimately finding a family with whom to share a holiday dinner.

Diane Kruger sings a merry song during World War I in the drama "Joyeux Noel."

14. 'Joyeux Noel' (2005)

This war drama snagged an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film and explores the victory of humanity over brutality as it chronicles the real-life story of the Christmas truce of 1914 when the World War I battlefield welcomed carols instead of carnage. 

13. 'White Christmas' (1954)

Two Bing Crosby musicals utilized the song "White Christmas": Let's leave off 1942's "Holiday Inn" (which has a cringe-inducing blackface sequence) and instead include Crosby teaming up with Danny Kaye as crooning World War II GIs who attempt to save their old commanding officer's country inn with the help of a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen).

12. 'Gremlins' (1984)

The holiday tale doubles as a good entry into horror for youngsters, with a small town beset by freaky gremlins because teenagers can't follow simple instructions. Also: Baby Yoda can only try to be on the cuteness level of little Mogwai Gizmo in a Santa hat. 

11. 'The Shop Around the Corner' (1940)

The basis for the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy "You've Got Mail" is this Hungarian holiday jam featuring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as bickering co-workers at a Budapest leather goods store who've unknowingly fallen in love with each other through anonymous letters.

A mall Santa (Jeff Gillen, left) makes Raphie (Peter Billingsley) nervous in "A Christmas Story."

10. 'A Christmas Story' (1983)

Full disclosure: I despised this movie as a kid who wasn't into BB guns or leg lamps. As an adult, though, the comedy resonates more as an ode to the exhaustive nature of being a parent around the holidays and how everybody's just trying to get by at the holidays, even the tired mall Santa.

9. 'A Christmas Carol' (1951)

Among the various "traditional" versions of the Charles Dickens classic – from "The Muppet Christmas Carol" to the excellent George C. Scott TV movie – this one cuts right to the dark tones of the original text, with Scrooge (Alastair Sim) living through an insightful horror film to come out the other side as a better man.

An elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) is the object of affection for a lonely office worker (Jack Lemmon) in Billy Wilder's 1960 film "The Apartment."

8. 'The Apartment' (1960)

The romantic dramedy stars Jack Lemmon as a nebbish office drone known for lending out his place for bosses to take their mistresses. He puts the focus back on himself when he starts to fall hard for an elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine), whom the big boss (Fred MacMurray) secretly takes to the love den on Christmas Eve. 

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is forced to fend off terrorists who take a corporate holiday party hostage in "Die Hard."

7. 'Die Hard' (1988)

Heck yeah, this is a Christmas movie, just in case there was any doubt. And sorry, Santa, no one squeezes through tight spaces in a building to get the job done – in the case of this classic action film, thwarting terrorists and saving his estranged wife – better than Bruce Willis' iconic John McClane.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) goes all out for the holiday in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

6. 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' (1989)

Anybody who's ever tried entirely too hard during the holidays can empathize with Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his hilarious battles to decorate his house, deal with wacko relatives – we all to have our own Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) – and have the merriest Christmas imaginable, with himself often acting as his greatest foe.

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn, left, with John Payne) is put on trial in the 1947 classic "Miracle on 34th Street."

5. 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947)

If you can withstand the gratuitous hokeyness, there's an intriguing "Law & Order" episode to be had here when Kris Kringle himself (Edmund Gwenn) does a little too good of a job replacing a drunk Macy's Parade Santa and gets put on trial for mental instability when he insists he's the real deal.

The British prime minister (Hugh Grant) and his staffer, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), comprise one of many couples in the Christmas rom-com "Love Actually."

4. 'Love Actually' (2003)

Often imitated, never duplicated. Intertwining tales of love featuring Brits and others conjure all sorts of holiday emotions – some happy, other melancholy – and are entirely manipulative. But watching a little boy race through Heathrow to find his crush or seeing Andrew Lincoln's silent ode to Keira Knightley, you're too busy being bombarded by feels to care.

Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell, left, with Faizon Love) is excited for Santa in a scene from "Elf."

3. 'Elf' (2003)

For our money, the closest this century we've had to an honest-to-goodness holiday classic. Will Ferrell has one of his best roles as a naive overgrown elf who finds out he's actually human, and the high jinks that follow when he's introduced to "civilization" are filled with heart, humor and childlike wonder.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) celebrates Christmas with his wife (Donna Reed) and kids in "It's a Wonderful Life."

2. 'It’s a Wonderful Life' (1946)

The "Citizen Kane" of Christmas films, though in this case, everyone has seen Jimmy Stewart's heavenly journey as George Bailey. Akin to the Scrooge model in its focus on the significance of second chances, with a man being shown how bad life would have been if he had not been born, this thing will straight-up pull the Christmas spirit kicking and screaming out of you.

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) encounters a playfully vicious fairy (Carol Kane) in "Scrooged."

1. 'Scrooged' (1988)

Born out of '80s greed though timeless in its relevancy, "Scrooged" is a pitch-perfect blend of slapstick and black humor, love and loss, life and death that has no business being as astounding as it is. It's superbly cast, from Bill Murray's modern Scrooge-y Frank Cross to Carol Kane's adorably sadistic fairy. And if you're not welling up by the time "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" kicks in, you might be visited by three ghosts yourself.