Towards an Expansion of the Modern Christmas Movie Canon

Nine Movies to Add to Your Classic Holiday Season Rotation

By Sam Eichner ·
New Line Cinema

Just as our major corporations dictate what we buy for our loved ones on Valentine's Day, so too have our cultural gatekeepers—namely, basic cable companies, critics, discerning mommies and daddies—determined the movies we watch again and again come Christmastime. 

More exclusive than any literary canon, the modern Christmas movie canon is nearly impossible to penetrate. But it has become stodgy, stale, relatively out-of-touch. And it persists because we let it persist, content to forgo new additions for the comfort and familiarity of the old hits, during a season when we willfully revert to our childhood selves. Shielded from the abrasive bustle of "real life," we're all too happy to relinquish our critical faculties in favor of watching Home Alone or It's a Wonderful Life for the billionth time. 

Which is fine. Really, it is. I love those movies as much as any human being with a pulse and a modicum of holiday spirit. But Christmas break is long—and it can feel longer when you're having circuitous conversations about your love life with Mom instead of quietly watching movies on your couch.

That's why I'm proposing an expansion of the Christmas movie canon. A few notes on my criteria here:

1) I disqualified new movies that are obviously Christmas movies, because they are inherently qualified for the existing canon. (I'm also not going to touch the whole "Harry Potter is a Christmas movie" debate; at this point, it effectively is.)

2) Thus, these are not Christmas movies, per se. Although, to qualify, they must at least contain a Christmas-y element (i.e. lots of snow, songs, etc.).

3) When thinking about expanding the canon, we must consider whether a Christmas movie is good not only because it's a Christmas movie, but because it's a good movie in general. This is key.

4) These movies must also be viewed in the context of their rewatchability. No movie can enter the canon if they prove difficult to sit through on subsequent viewings.

5) This is, of course, a woefully incomplete and imperfect list. 

Happy Holidays.

Phantom Thread

Fine, I'll say it: Phantom Thread is a Christmas movie. It's not just a Christmas movie, of course. But it is also a Christmas movie. Paul Thomas Anderson's subtle masterpiece from last year takes place in London, where a fastidious, workaholic dress designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), has taken a new lover—a homely waitress from the country, Alma (Vicky Krieps). It's a story about obsession and craft made by a filmmaker and actor obsessed with craft. But it's also a wry profile of marital realpolitik—the way we exert our wills over another, and allow another to exert their will over us, in the name of love (or in spite of it). The first time I saw the movie, I found it quite devastating; the second time I saw it, I found it hilarious. I can't wait to watch it, again. 

Visually, the movie is a study of stark whites against sanguine hues of red, purple, green. Until the resolution of the film, it takes place entirely in the cold, often in the snow—a tonal match for the little verbal daggers thrown casually between Reynolds, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and Alma. One of the most crucial scenes takes place at a New Year's Eve party, where Reynolds tracks down Alma in a rapidly dispersing crowd and embraces her for a long New Year's kiss. It's only then that one realizes Anderson never showed us Christmas at the house of Woodcock, though in the compact, if fuzzy, timeline of the movie, it must've come to pass. But, of course, Reynolds wouldn't make a big deal of Christmas. He probably would've worked through it, despite Alma's entreaties to eat the elaborate roast she'd cooked him. Phantom Thread is a great Christmas movie, in part because of its conscious elision of it. The film makes a side-eyed mockery of everything the holiday purports to stand for: warmth, celebration, family, sentimentality. And, in the end, even food.

Where to streamHBO GO.


The writer and director Whit Stillman's first film—and first of a de facto trilogy about Reagan-era upper class white existential ennui—takes place on Christmas break, primarily in the upscale Upper East Side apartment of a wealthy teenage socialite following a debutante ball. It's an Austen-esque Gossip Girl-type tale of a middle-class outsider-looking-in instilled with the precocious intellectualizing of a Woody Allen movie, but it's also in a class all its own. Stillman has a sui generis voice, transforming the patter of the young New York bourgeoisie into a kind of ethnic dialect, which perilously circles a well of sincerity; he takes his characters just seriously enough to make you care. Even if it's not explicitly a Christmas movie, it feels like one, in the sense of old college friends reuniting over break to talk a lot about nothing and evaluate their respective futures, before returning to school. 

Where to stream: iTunes

Just Friends

As I've written previously, Just Friends is a near-perfect set-up for a romantic comedy: Chris (Ryan Reynolds), forced home by circumstance, and disillusioned with his fancy new life, tries to win over Jamie (Amy Smart), the down-to-earth girl from high school, Jamie. I would go so far as to say this is one of my favorite movie formulas. If high school movies manufacture the dramatic moments for which we will become nostalgic, the high school reunion, coming-home movies excavate that nostalgia to see how much those moments really mattered in the first place. Which is often far more interesting.

But what makes Just Friends a classic Christmas movie and not just a great coming-home movie is that the holiday serves as both an accelerant and a time constraint, allowing Chris to capitalize on the fuzzy feelings of old times and tradition Christmas engenders while also forcing him to close the deal before the week ends. The movie also gives our flawed protagonist his spirited redemption: Chris, realizing his attempts to woo Jamie with his newfound braggadocio and wealth are falling short, channels his true feelings to ultimately win her over. It’s a triumph of his old, pure, loser-y nice-guy self over the muscled veneer of Ryan Reynolds douchebaggery he’d layered on top of it—a personality makeover worthy of a well-coiffed Grinch. (Also, if that isn’t a fitting meta-description of Ryan Reynolds, generally, I don’t know what is.)

Where to stream: Rent on Amazon Prime


Gremlins is already a cult-classic '80s movie, so it shouldn't be too hard to shift it into the Christmas movie canon. The premise relies on Christmas, after all: the small, furry, Snow White-inclined creature who ends up spawning an army of gremlins started out as a Christmas present from a father to his teenage son. Which, in retrospect, is kind of an odd gift? 

Where to stream: Rent on Amazon Prime

The Hateful Eight

You have to admit that Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight kind of feels like a Christmas movie, even if it's really just a Western parlor-room shoot 'em up. It has all the right elements: people who are at their throats because they're stuck in the same room; a lot of snow; booze; and someone who gets shot in the genitals. Sure, that last one's a stretch, but let's let this one slide—The Hateful Eight is such a mishmosh of genres and influences already, we might as well invite it into the Christmas movie canon (where it will ruthlessly murder every other movie inside). 

Where to streamNetflix

Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg's charming con-man picaresque, starring Leonardo DiCaprio at his most charismatic, is perhaps the saddest entry on this list. For Frank Abagnale, Jr. (DiCaprio), a young man who runs away from home following the disintegration of his parents' marriage, and amasses a small fortune as a hot-shot pilot, check forger, actual lawyer, fake doctor and check forger, again, Christmas is the loneliest time of year. Because he's on the run, he can't go home. And despite the company of many women—a high-end escort played by Jennifer Garner, of all actresses; a one-time wife—he's always putting on airs, professionally pretending: he can never quite be himself. 

One way Spielberg marks the passing of time in the decade-spanning film is the annual Christmas Eve call between Frank and his would-be captor, FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). There are surface-level reasons for Frank to reach out, but, as Hanratty eventually surmises, the real reason is because he has nobody else to call. It's a devastating realization—one that's matched by another Christmastime scene, wherein Frank visits the home of his mother's new family, and can only muster the nerve to talk to his young half-brother through the window. 

Catch Me If You Can is not a Christmas movie in the traditional sense, but it does use the holiday in effective ways, exacerbating Frank's self-inflicted sense of loneliness and isolation—this trap he laid for himself, and from which he can no longer escape. It doesn't hurt, from a canon perspective, that Catch Me If You Can is routinely on TV, too, and that it's the kind of epic that you can get sucked into at any time.

Where to stream: Rent on Amazon Prime


Barry Levinson's Diner is an all-time hangout movie, a more neurotic precursor to the idyllic adolescent aimlessness of Dazed & Confused. Set in Baltimore on the last week of 1959, it nonetheless captures the timeless feeling of post-collegiate uncertainty—the friendships, the relationships, the careers—as well as the never-gets-old bliss of shooting the shit with old friends over a basket of fries. Eminently rewatchable, it's also the most Jewish Christmas movie on this list (and in the current canon). 

Where to streamMax Go (or rent on Amazon Prime)

Mean Girls

I'm proposing Mean Girls here for several reasons: 1) along with Ladybird, it's probably the most obvious film to enter the 21st-century High School Movie canon; 2) it's easily one of the best and most prolific cable movies of the last 15 years, and its almost permanent place on one channel or another is what allowed it to sink so deeply into the cultural consciousness; 3) the "Jingle Bell Rock" dance scene, aside from being a classic encapsulation of Regina George's clique, represents a crucial shift in the group dynamic, as Cady (Lindsay Lohan) ascends and Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert) falls.

Where to stream: Rent on Amazon Prime

Beautiful Girls

Okay, yes: this movie may not have aged the best. And, to be fair: its precocious, tween Natalie Portman performance/character is kind of cringe-worthy. But it's hard not to have a soft spot for the clueless, girl-crazy dudes in Ted Demme's filmparticularly, Willie (Timothy Hutton) and Tommy (Matt Dillon, at the peak of his powers)—all of whom have returned for a wintry 10-year high school reunion, which, for some reason, takes place over the holidays. It's an easy watch if you haven't seen it—and an easier one if you have. There are some great supporting performances, too, from household like Rosie O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino and Michael Rappaport. 

Where to streamNetflix

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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