Emerald Recommends: Our 12 essential holiday movies

The Emerald has enlisted the arts and culture desk to suggest their favorite holiday movies. (pocolover1957/Creative Commons)

To celebrate the home-run stretch before Christmas, Hanukkah and the holiday season as a whole, the Emerald has enlisted every writer on the arts and culture desk to recommend his or her favorite holiday movie. With classic cartoons, comedies and a few oddball selections, these are the films Emerald staffers will be watching during winter break. Let us know in the comments what you will be watching to celebrate the holiday season. 

  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This 1946 black-and-white film is among the top 100 best films ever made; but it’s more than just a great holiday movie. It also sends a heartwarming message.

On Christmas Eve, George Bailey (James Stewart) is slightly suicidal and begins to wish he was never born. In response, his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), is summoned, showing George an alternate timeline that reflects life without any trace of George Bailey. As it turns out, the general quality of life of the people he loves dissipates greatly in his absence, and he realizes just how precious life really is — a reminder everyone could use.

It’s a Wonderful Life is dramatic and poignant; it sends the perfect holiday message about the importance of family and loved ones. As Clarence put it, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” — Carleigh Oeth

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

It’s hard not to love a story about the triumphs of an underdog. This version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer originally aired as a TV special in 1964 and has captured hearts ever since. Charming young Rudolph is deemed unable to pull Santa’s sleigh, the most desirable task for a reindeer in the North Pole, because of his glowing red nose. After unsuccessfully trying to cover up his problematic nose, Rudolph sets off on an icy journey with a “misfit” named Hermey — an elf who wants to be a dentist instead of a toy maker.  When a massive storm on Christmas Eve forces Santa to contemplate cancelling Christmas, Rudolph and Hermey come to Santa’s rescue and save Christmas, but not before singing a few festive songs along the way. With such likable characters, including the misunderstood Abominable Snowman, this classic stop-motion film continues to be one of the best Christmas tales around. — Leanne Harloff

  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Charles Shultz’s Peanuts comic strip had become an absolute phenomenon by the mid-1960s, and it didn’t take long for television executives to greenlight a Christmas special. The result was an immediate success, with an unexpectedly quiet, somber tone led by a soundtrack by jazz genius Vince Guaraldi that became a staple in American households during the holidays. Watching Charlie Brown try to direct a school play about the meaning of Christmas is funny, chaotic and meaningful, complete with Snoopy’s dancing antics and Linus’ emotional, now-famous closing monologue. It’s also the best of the Charlie Brown specials, and the most focused. While short, it runs just under 26 minutes, the special’s length doesn’t allow for any distracting or unfunny elements to derail the experience. It’s the definition of a classic, and a must-watch for any family during the holiday season. — Dana Alston

  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

No Christmas movie night is complete without some serious childhood flashbacks, and what better way is there to kick off these memories than a viewing of the How The Grinch Stole Christmas!? (The original, of course.) Boris Karloff, widely recognized as a classic horror icon and known for his role as Frankenstein, puts an extra creepy edge to the voice of the Grinch himself. He also narrates the story. “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch!” is one of the best songs ever rendered from a Dr. Seuss book, especially during the scene when the Grinch steals Whoville’s Christmas: toys, candy canes, ornaments and all. This scene might be the movie’s highlight, but watching the Grinch’s heart grow out of his chest before he rains down presents on Whoville is as heartwarming as a Dr. Seuss Christmas can be. — Patience Greene

  • Frosty The Snowman (1969)

First shown in December of 1969 as a TV special on CBS, Frosty the Snowman has become a must-watch, childhood classic during the holiday season. While the popular “Frosty the Snowman” song was written in 1950, the story of Frosty was cemented into Christmas culture with this short film. Both the film and song fall within the top echelon of their respective holiday categories. The film begins with a bumbling magician, Professor Hinkle, performing to a group of school kids, who are unamused by his poorly executed tricks. When the magician’s rabbit (appropriately named Hokus Pokus) runs off with Hinkle’s top hat, the kids use the hat to bring their snowman to life.

Pursued by Hinkle, the kids attempt to preserve Frosty by getting on a train to the North Pole. During the adventure, Frosty is trapped by Hinkle in a poinsettia greenhouse and melts, but Santa saves the day, reviving Frosty for a third time and promises the kids that Frosty will return every Christmas Day. He also teaches Hinkle (and the viewer) an important lesson about generosity. — Franklin Lewis

  • The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The holiday season has also become the Star Wars season over the past two years, with the release of The Force Awakens and the upcoming Rogue One movie taking center stage in every theatre. But did you know there’s a Star Wars: Holiday Special? It came out in 1978, the year after the original movie, back when making a holiday special was akin to printing money. The thing is, it’s a scattered mess that’s considered an embarrassment to nearly everyone involved, including George Lucas and the original cast. It follows the exploits of Chewbacca’s family as they wait for Chewie and Han to return home for Life Day, the Wookie equivalent to Christmas. It is filled with random intermissions, most of which make little sense and vary in tone. As a sample, there’s an animated segment featuring Boba Fett, a musical performance by Jefferson Starship and a comedy skit of Bea Arthur running the Mos Eisley Cantina.

This surely isn’t a good movie, but it’s a rite of passage for any hardcore Star Wars fan. If nothing else, it will settle once and for all which Star Wars movie is the worst. — Mathew Brock

  • A Christmas Story (1983)

Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wanted one thing for Christmas: “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” Depsite his desperation to acquire one of Ryder’s air rifles, every adult in his life has the same answer: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” With his efforts thwarted by the adult world, Ralphie is blinded by his ambition to convince anyone who will listen that buying him a BB gun is not only a good idea, but the best idea anyone has ever had.

Developed from narrator Jean Shepherd’s novel In God We Trust, All Other’s Pay CashA Christmas Story is not only a Christmas classic, but also a damn-near perfect comedy that captures the magic of waking up on Christmas morning as a child like no film before or since — the hunt for the gift, the elation of receiving it and the realization that maybe mom was right. The amount of classic moments in this movie is surpassed by few films: the tongue on the flagpole; the leg lamp; the department store Santa who hates tapioca; the pink bunny pajamas and Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant add up to a truly unforgettable movie.

By the time TBS’ 24-hours of A Christmas Story marathon ends on Christmas Day, the only thing to say will be, oh fudge, we have to wait a year to watch it again.”Craig Wright

  • Die Hard (1988)

The 1988 action-thriller Die Hard isn’t your traditional Christmas movie. While visiting his family in Los Angeles for the holidays, New York City detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets caught in the middle of a hostage situation at his wife’s company Christmas party. The group of captors, who are led by the villainous Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), claim to be terrorists seeking to punish the company for its excessive greed. With little help from the police officers stationed outside of the skyscraper, McClane must defeat the terrorists in order to save Christmas for his wife and the rest of the hostages.

Although this movie isn’t usually thrown in the same discussion as other Christmas classics, it might be the best Christmas movie ever. Willis’ breakout performance, which features his famous “yippie ki-yay mother f’er” line, as well as Rickman’s perfect portrayal of an international terrorist make this movie an all-time classic.

Die Hard will air at 6:30 on Christmas Eve on IFC. If you don’t have cable, don’t fret. For only $2.99, it is available online at Amazon, Youtube, iTunes and Google Play. — Zach Price

  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

There are inordinate adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol out there in the universe, but there are at least three big reasons why the 1992 Muppets production is the obviously the best use of your time:

  • Sir Michael Caine plays the geriatric miser and money-grubbing banker at the center of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge lives in a dirty London barrio, where the local diaspora is evidently 1:12 humans to felt-sewn citizens.
  • Kermit the Frog plays Bob Cratchit, a family man-frog and Scrooge’s employee at the bank. Fraught with towering financial debt and a mortgage to pay off, the perpetually lime-green Kermit is pressed to care for his family, including his sickly son Tiny Tim, whose skin tone is that of a day-old avocado.
  • Spoiler alert for this 1843 story: After Scrooge’s journey forces him to see how he’s neglected his community and colleagues, the old capitalist returns to the present. He strolls around on Christmas morning, gives handouts to his penniless neighbors and sings a democratic-socialist anthem about a “promise to share the wealth.”

The Muppet Christmas Carol is playing on HBO2 this Friday, Dec. 16 at the ultra-convenient time of 6:40 a.m. — Emerson Malone

  • 8 Crazy Nights (2002)

The only Hanukkah movie that I can think of besides A Rugrats Chanukah, is Adam Sandler’s 8 Crazy Nights. Those are two very different movies for very different times. 8 Crazy Nights follows Davey Stone (voiced by Sandler), a young Jewish man who lost his parents in a car crash as a child and must redeem himself from his alcoholic ways by helping coach a youth basketball league. It’s full of dark, twisted humor and images that invoke the dark undercurrent of the holiday season. It is not Sandler’s best movie in terms of comedy, nor is it a classic that remains as relevant today, but still, Hanukkah deserves its moment in the holiday movie canon, even if this is its greatest hit. — Sararosa Davies

  • Elf (2003)

Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, a human raised by elves who discovers that his biological father lives in New York City. After passing through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, the good-natured Buddy must wander through a disenchanting new world whose inhabitants’ hearts are two sizes too small — including Walter’s, Buddy’s Scrooge-like father who is on the naughty list. Though he is working on a children’s book, Walter ironically casts aside the youthful enchantment of the holiday season, as well as his own family. Buddy must work to tie the family back together and ultimately rekindle the spirit of Christmas in a place where it has seemingly vanished. Be prepared to sing loud for all to hear. — Kathryn Martinez

  • Love Actually (2003)

One true holiday classic that will remain popular for decades is the ultimate Christmas romantic comedy Love Actually. This classic features a massive ensemble cast of all the biggest British movie stars of the early 2000’s including Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth and Emma Thompson. Ten separate love stories intertwine, with dramatic and comedic tropes played out with smart British humor and relatable plot lines. It’s the classic romantic comedy that the holiday season needs, mixed with animated favorites like A Charlie Brown Christmas, older films like Home Alone and Miracle on 34th Street, and beloved laugh-out-loud comedies like Elf. No other rom-com can compare to the drama, wit, and relatability that Love Actually encapsulates. — Casey Miller

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