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9 iconic Christmas films for every occasion

By Paul Hsiao 24 December 2019 | Last Updated 22 December 2023

Header image courtesy of Park Circus

Cuddle up with a warm mug of cocoa on Christmas Eve (and Christmas Day and Boxing Day) with one of our selection of the best classic and new-school Christmas films to watch. Paul Hsiao, chart maker and film enthusiast at Movieconomist, gives us his favourite holiday films fit for every occasion.

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For a touch of the classics: It’s a Wonderful Life

There’s a reason why the 1946 Frank Capra dramedy always makes it to the top of the Christmas movie lists—this twentieth-century take on A Christmas Carol is still as relevant as ever. George Bailey finds himself at the end of his rope in small-town America and is about to end it all when an angelic force gives him a glimpse of what life for his community could have been like if he never existed. Not only is it a heartwarming flick, but it also touches on deeper themes of existence, choices, and morality—perfect for an after-Christmas-dinner contemplation.

For adults: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Something for the adults. Pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. plays a low-level thief who partners with a wise-cracking private detective to solve a murder mystery in Christmastime Los Angeles. It’s a cynical and hilarious take on the holiday season. For Marvel fans, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang also directly led to the creation of the entire MCU. Robert Downey Jr. said that his performance in the film attracted the attention of Iron Man director Jon Favreau and won over Marvel executives, which led to his generation-defining turn as Tony Stark.

For the romantics: Love, Actually

For the romantics in the world, there are few better movies that so earnestly wear their messages on their sleeves compared to Love Actually. The original and—in my mind—best holiday-themed romantic comedy follows pre-Brexit Britons in varying stages of relationships. Shoutout to the complexity given by the late, great Alan Rickman as a conflicted husband and Hugh Grant as a bumbling but good-hearted prime minister (aka Bojo with the Good Hair).

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For family fun: Jingle All the Way

They don’t make movies like this anymore: Back when studios used to greenlight any movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, audiences received this 1990s gem that featured the Terminator himself playing a busy dad on a journey to get his son a sold-out Turbo Man action figure during the holiday season. The film contains some of the best physical comedy the Gubernator has ever put on screen and was shockingly prescient about its depiction of the commercialisation of Christmasbad Santa trend, and after-credits cliffhanger.

For a sing-along: A Nightmare Before Christmas

Before The Avengers, Touchstone (a.k.a. low-key Disney) boldly combined two cultural phenomena—Christmas and Halloween—in the perennial animation A Nightmare Before Christmas, which follows the story of Jack Skellington, a Halloween ghoul who causes chaos when he leaves Halloween Town for Christmas Town. The stop-motion feature is even better than you remember with every painstaking movement displayed on the screen, and the music is grander and more on point than anything Frozen has ever produced. A more mature fairy tale for kids.

For barrels of laughter: Elf

In what could have been a one-note Saturday Night Live skit, Will Ferrell brings the funny and the charm as an oversized thirty-something who grew up as one of Santa’s not-so-little helpers and is now looking for his real dad in New York City. Seeing Ferrell freak out upon meeting a mall Santa is already worth the price of admission.

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For the grinches: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

While there are a couple of big-screen versions of this Dr Seuss tale, we think that Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Grinch is by far the best (sorry, Benedict). In the fictional town of Whoville, its most cynical vengeful resident, the Grinch, attempts to ruin Christmas until he’s shown compassion by one Cindy Lou Who. 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an incredible feat of production, boasting arguably the most heavily made-up cast since The Wizard of Oz, the largest physical set at the time, and an incredible performance by Carrey, who had to spend three hours per day getting in and out of the trademark Grinch suit.

For the thirty-somethings: The Night Before

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, and Seth Rogen team up in this Christmas comedy about three childhood friends who go on one more drug-fuelled wild night in search of the ultimate New York Christmas party before settling down once and for all and ending their annual holiday tradition. Hilarious and surprisingly bittersweet, this movie was made specifically for the early thirty-ish audience during the holiday season.

The controversial choice: Die Hard

For a heartwarming family tale about overcoming obstacles with a shot of adrenaline, look no further than Die Hard. Bruce Willis’s John McClane started the genre of the everyday hero as an NYPD cop who thwarts European thieves in Los Angeles’s Nakatomi Plaza. Fun fact for those who find this a controversial choice: Die Hard has been crowned as the “Greatest Christmas Film of All Time” by Empire. Watch this in-between rounds of eggnog to stay awake.

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Paul Hsiao


Paul, the founder of Movieconomist, likes to watch movies and make graphs. He also writes a monthly column on Localiiz about new Netflix releases and is a lead community director for Finimize. His writing has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, CNBC, Financial Times, Asia Investor, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He also spends a great deal of time playing squash.