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The Best Holiday Movies Ever Made

With only a few days left before Christmas, it’s time to kick back and take in some yuletide cheer. In fact, it’s almost become a family tradition to watch a Christmas movie favorite with the family. So while you’re waiting for Santa, check out our picks for the best holiday movies ever.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) encounters bizarre relatives and more in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

After the success of 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, a sequel was sure to follow. Christmas Vacation was next in line and it’s possibly the best of the bunch. Chevy Chase (the very first break-out star of Saturday Night Live, and who now appears in NBC’s Community), is the bumbling yet well-meaning family patriarch, Clark Griswold. And all Clark wants for Christmas is a perfect family holiday.

Try as he might — including sheeting the exterior of the house in lights (25,000 of them, enough to strain the local power grid) and even tolerating low-rent, low-luck Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) — Clark’s dreams are smashed to bits at every turn. And that’s where part of the film gets its charm. Look for Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory) as Clark’s son Rusty and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld) as Clark’s stuck-up neighbor. With a laugh practically every minute, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the gift that keeps on giving.

Die Hard (1988)

“Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds himself in a tight situation.

New York cop John McClane wants to spend a quiet holiday and reconnect with his estranged wife, the only problem is his wife works in one of Los Angeles’ high-rise office buildings and the building has just been overtaken by terrorists. The terrorist put the building on lock down, unknowingly also locking in John McClane as he arrives at the office to met his wife for the company Christmas party. The rest of the movie plays out like a cat-and-mouse game as McClane starts offing the terrorist one by one.

Per usual, Willis is extremely likeable in the lead role and the movie’s action scenes are intense and well planned. Master thespian Alan Rickman shines as chief bad guy, Hans Gruber. Like Christmas the film returns each year – for a while it seemed that Die Hard was also returning each year, this movie spawned three different sequels (and a fifth rumored to be in the works) and countless knock-offs. Speed for example, starring Keanu Reeves was pitched to studio producers as Die Hard on a bus. But it’s this movie, that set a standard for action movies for years to come.

You think spending the holidays with family is challenging? Stream Die Hard on your iPad and you’ll soon realize that you’re not the only having a tough Christmas.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, strikes a blow for the common man, represented here by Jimmy Stewart.

Hollywood tends to make movies about larger-than-life subjects, so it’s interesting that one of the best films ever made is based upon the simple notion that it’s okay just to be an average person. It’s a Wonderful Life tracks the trajectory of ordinary citizen George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy with big-city dreams that never quite materialize.

In his darkest hour, an angel is dispatched from Heaven to render key psychological aid and show him what life—everybody’s lives—would be like if George had never existed in the first place. Director Frank Capra specialized in making films about “average” American characters and It’s a Wonderful Life may shock first-time viewers with its power and depth.

And the “Christmas miracle” that George receives is only miraculous in its timing; his neighbors come to his financial rescue because he’s spent his entire adult life protecting their interests. When the American Film Institute assembled its ranking of the most inspirational American films ever made, this one topped the list.

A Christmas Story (1983)

A time of simple joys – and the neatest BB gun ever manufactured.

Many people become nostalgic during the holidays about Christmases from their youth. Here’s a piece of nostalgia pie that is effective precisely because it doesn’t remember everything too fondly. Still, A Christmas Story gets the details correct, and that’s the main thing that needs to happen in a nostalgia piece. The charming story is set in the 1940s in hardworking Hohman, Indiana, and concerns the Christmas ordeals of Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old who’s only ambition is to get the hotshot BB gun of his dreams—despite the resistance he meets from a succession of grown-ups opposed to the idea.

Pudgy, bespectacled Peter Billingsley was nobody’s idea of the ultimate kid star, and that makes him even more likeable as the long-suffering Ralphie. Numerous subplots flesh out the movie, including a hilarious one involving Ralphie’s father (played to ranting-and-raving perfection by Darren McGavin) and his obsession with a novelty house lamp shaped like a female leg. The movie perfectly understands the child’s view of Christmas and his single-minded desire to obtain the must-have gift of the season.

Scrooged (1988)

Bill Murray plays TV executive Frank Cross, Hollywood icon Robert Mitchum makes a cameo as his boss. 

A modern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray as the curmudgeonly Francis Xavier “Frank” Cross, a modern-day television network executive who’s loaded with one-liners. While he’s got a fancy New York office and loads of success, he lacks any human warmth or soul.

As the Dickens’ story dictates, the greedy miser has to be shown the error of his ways and reconnect with his sense of humanity. Here, instead of a flying ghost, we’re given a setting-appropriate cab driver who’s able to show Murray a world beyond the hustle and bustle of New York City. Murray built a career playing smug characters who are often vicious with sarcastic put-downs, but he’s never been more hateful or foul than in Scrooged. With an awesome supporting cast and cameos by actor Lee Majors (“The Six Million Dollar Man”), singer Robert Goulet and jazz legend Miles Davis (as a street musician). Scrooged is a movie that ultimately shared the true meaning of Christmas, while laughing all the way.

White Christmas (1954)

Power Couples: (from left to right) Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and dancer Vera-Ellen. Danny Kaye was the reigning funnyman of the day, while Crosby was a chart-topping crooner. 

Inspired in part by the classic title song sung by Bing Crosby, White Christmas was the  most successful film of 1954. The song went on to become the biggest-selling recording of all time (with more than 50 million copies sold), White Christmas demonstrates that “Glee” wasn’t the first show where characters just suddenly break out into song, and everyone instantly knows all the lyrics.

The movie reflects back on a simpler and more wholesome time period and makes for fine family viewing. The catchy tunes, all written by master American composer Irving Berlin, are some of the most memorable movie songs you’ll ever hear. The film’s direction, by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, is transparent and effortless. And the singing and dancing (and romancing) by the cast (Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen) couldn’t be more entertaining. Will the big Christmas show be enough to save the retired general’s ski lodge? Will Bing and Rosemary patch up their budding romance before the big finale? Will we hear the title song during the movie’s stirring closing? Will it snow on Christmas Eve? White Christmas is a grand piece of Christmas entertainment, and was the very first film produced in VistaVision, an early widescreen projection process.

Home for the Holidays
Holiday movies are now an understood part of most families’ Christmas traditions. No wonder films are a great way to bring the family together. Be sure to capture the memories with your DSLR camera or other means of digital filmmaking. And don’t forget – take time, to take in one of the Christmas classics above.


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