Christmas can be pretty overwhelming. On Amazon.com, it can be a real hassle sorting out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to decent holiday movies and TV specials, and picking between the many different versions available for some of the titles.
Below, for your convenience, are links to what I think are among the best of all the Christmas movies and TV specials available—and to what I think are likely to be the best and most appropriate of the various versions and editions. I have also created an Amazon store containing most of the same entries.
Holiday Movies on DVD from Amazon:
Classics / More Traditional
White Christmas (Anniversary Edition) — the classic. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are buddies serving together in the army. After WWII ends, they go into show business together, and are a big hit. Too big. Danny Kaye wants to set Bing up with a woman so he can have a rest. And then they meet two singers, sisters of an old Army buddy, played by Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney…
Holiday Inn (3 Disc Collector’s Set) — Bing Crosby starts an inn that only opens on holidays, each time with a special, thematic floor show. Fred Astaire is his best friend. And they’re both in love with the same girl. The film is notable for featuring the first screen performance of the song “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby—which would go on to be the biggest selling single of all time.
The Bishop’s Wife — with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Hard to go wrong with a cast like this. Cary Grant is maybe typecast—as an angel—but he brings restraint as well as charm, and a level of mystery and seriousness to his performance. One of my favorite Christmas movies. Not at all a religious film, despite the title, which was felt to hurt it at the box office because of confusion on this score. Elsa Lanchester appears in a supporting role.
Miracle on 34th Street (Special Edition) — Santa Claus goes on trial. A bit over-rated—the slightest of the old Christmas classics—a bit too sappy, but Edmund Gwenn is charming.
It’s a Wonderful Life (60th Anniversary Edition) / It’s a Wonderful Life [Blu-ray] — Zuzu’s petals! It’s Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Frank Capra. One of the mega-classics of the season. It can get old after too many viewings, but give it a few years… The sequence with the school dance is still a knock-out.
TCM Holiday Collection: Christmas in Connecticut 1945 / A Christmas Carol 1938 / The Shop Around the Corner / It Happened on 5th Avenue — Shop Around the Corner is the film on which You’ve Got Mail was based, but the original, directed by the great romantic comedy director Ernst Lubitsch and starring a very young James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, is infinitely superior.
Meet Me In St. Louis (Two-Disc Special Edition) — Vincente Minnelli directs Judy Garland in this integrated music, one of the finest, about the World’s Fair coming to St. Louis. The Christmas scene is a real tear-jerker and has long justified its inclusion in the canon of Christmas movies.
The Sound of Music (45th Anniversary Edition) (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) — I’m not entirely sure how this became a “Christmas classic,” but it did, and while it has its weaknesses, it is charming, and of course Julie Andrews is radiant and almost always worth watching and listening to. In one of my households, the tradition was to watch this while wrapping presents and drinking heavily.
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: American Musicals (The Band Wagon / Meet Me in St. Louis / Singin’ in the Rain / Easter Parade) — These are all very good musicals —Singin’ in the Rain, obviously the greatest… and Easter Parade perhaps the weakest, in part I think because Fred Astaire is playing a role better suited to, and originally meant for, Gene Kelly. All fine and must see viewing for anyone interested in the musical. Musicals in general seem particularly festive, particularly suited to the holiday season, and the inclusion of a “Christmas classic” in Meet Me in St. Louis gives some additional justification for including this here.
Scrooged — Bill Murray is a TV exec who schedules a live musical version of “A Christmas Carol” for Christmas Eve, has his secretary send his brother a present, and fires a guy. Then this ghost shows up. Bill Murray is… Bill Murray, and the movie is surprisingly charming in parts, even touching. I actually never get tired of this movie.
The Polar Express (Widescreen Edition) — Tom Hanks gives an interesting performance, and it is technically quite impressive. It’s not without its touching moments, but overall it feels a bit cold to me, I think largely because of the animation style. Still, for many people a very good Christmas movie.
Love Actually (DVD) — and, you know, actually I do love this movie—just a little, but still. The cast is truly stellar: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Hugh Grant… and of course Bilbo Baggins, porn stand-in.
A Christmas Story — I avoided this for years because of the picture of the kid on the cover/poster and the description, which made it sound a bit like a cheesy, low-budget Hallmark special. I was stupid, boneheaded, wrong. It’s great, and has a very Christmasy feel without being overly treacly and twee. The best, really, of all the more modern movies that have been designated as Christmas favorites.
Bad Santa — Has to be seen. Billy Bob Thornton plays a conman who takes a job as a mall Santa to rob the place with the help of an elf. But they run into a troubled kid and… Kind of genuinely heartwarming in the end.
Die Hard — Weirdly, for many people, this has become a sort of Christmas classic… It’s set during Christmas time, and has a happy ending and all that. And I think lots of us appreciate the change of pace that automatic gunfire provides…
Gremlins — Like Die Hard, a movie set during Christmas that has become a quirky alternative classic.
Holiday TV Specials on DVD from Amazon:
How the Grinch Stole Christmas — The original, one and only. Directed by the great Chuck Jones, narrated by Boris Karloff (aka The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster—in one of the most inspired and deeply weird bit of casting of all time) and a theme song sung by Tony the Tiger (no kidding—actually the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft, who did the original Tony in the TV ads).
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Remastered Deluxe Edition) — You might get tired of Charlie Brown’s tired tree, but it’s impossible to ever grow tired of the dance sequence. And of course the music is terrific. And the way the adult voices are handled is smart, funny, and apt.
Olive the Other Reindeer — The “Christmas classic” is a tough market to break into, but for me at least, Olive the Other Reindeer jumped straight into the category. I can’t wait to share it with people who haven’t seen it yet.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964 Rankin/Bass version on DVD) — Is this a classic? I’m not sure. But for people who saw it as kids, it might seem like it from pure nostalgia. Try watching it with your kids and see if it still can cut it after Shaun the Sheep, Toy Story and Polar Express, etc. Maybe the animation is too dated. And of course the story was always suspect, being a made-up marketing ploy.
Santa Claus Is Comin to Town — A 1970 claymation TV special that tells the story of Santa’s origins. Like Rudolph, it’s possible that its charms are primarily those of nostalgia and it won’t do as well with the sophisticated tastes of today’s 8 year old. But it is narrated by Fred Astaire and features the voices by Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn, and at times reflects the “hip” values and imagery of the late 60s/early 70s. I might have to watch this again.
The Original Christmas Classics (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer / Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town / Frosty the Snowman / Frosty Returns) [Blu-ray] — a grab bag including some of the best of the old TV specials—Rudolph, Santa Claus. With Frosty Returns thrown in, I suppose out of some need for completeness or a round number; despite the voice of Jimmy Durante, skippable.
The Original Christmas Classics (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town/Frosty the Snowman/Frosty Returns/Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol/Little Drummer Boy/Cricket on the Hearth) — a non-Blu-ray grab bag with the same good ones, and Mr. Magoo. I was never a fan of that guy.
Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker – San Francisco Ballet (DVD) — not exactly a TV special, but a great performance of a traditional “perennial holiday tradition” that I think most people have never actually seen, and which these days, in the live version, is beyond most people’s budget.