Ron Howard, director of “Thirteen Lives” (Prime Video), looks back on some of his favorite holiday titles to introduce this guide to catching the classics this season:
Streaming has made it easy to watch virtually any movie at any time. It’s also led movie viewing to become a more solitary experience — why argue over the remote if there are enough titles and screens for everyone? But the holidays are still a time for watching with loved ones. There are a handful of films that I and my family still return to over and over again at this time of year.
Rarely does a Christmas pass when I don’t see “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact, all year round, I reference that movie and its philosophy. The recognition that the choices each of us makes has a huge ripple effect resonates perfectly at Christmas, but should always be in the back of our minds. Personally and maybe unexpectedly, “Scrooged,” with Bill Murray, is another favorite in our family. My mom, Jean, is in it. She plays Mrs. Claus, who picks up some kind of automatic weapon and starts blasting away at the beginning of the film. It’s hilarious, and directed by Richard Donner, who’s directed everyone in our family in TV or movies.
I also love “The Homecoming,” which was a two-hour television movie on CBS in 1971. It was so successful that it spawned the series “The Waltons.” Earl Hamner Jr. wrote it, and it’s a beautiful screenplay. As a young actor I read that script and so desperately wanted to play John-Boy. “The Andy Griffith Show” had ended a few years earlier, and I was the right age for it. But I couldn’t even get an audition. I think they didn’t want Opie to be John-Boy. I can now understand why, but at the time I had just connected so strongly with the script. My dad had been about that age during the Depression, and told a lot of stories about it. That screenplay and the execution of it, including Richard Thomas’ performance as John-Boy, has caused me to go back and revisit that one many times with no bitterness whatsoever — nothing but appreciation.
I often find myself watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Its heart and its themes are in the right place. That’s a half-hour spent with a smile on my face! And, of course, there’s Chuck Jones’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” It only takes a half an hour and it’s an absolute work of art. I loved making our feature version of the Grinch. It was amazing to see Jim Carrey bring that character to life. That was what I signed on for, to support that performance and collaborate with him. Not a day went by working on that film where I wasn’t dazzled by Jim Carrey’s creativity. It was just bravura work. And I like the fact that the film has had a long tail and become a kind of Christmas evergreen.
Those are just some of my favorites. Here’s how to find them and more this holiday season.
‘A Christmas Story’
1983 | 1 hour, 33 minutes
Cable: Will run in 24 hour marathons beginning Christmas Eve, 5 p.m. Pacific, TBS and 6 p.m., TNT
The story of a small boy’s dream for an air rifle, a grown man’s love for a lamp/leg, a smaller boy eating like the piggies do and a mother who manages to keep them in order, it has given the world the double-dog dare and made narrator-author Jean Shepherd a signal sound of the holiday and will keep it so for generations to come. (Give yourself the gift of listening to Shepherd’s radio work, which can be found here and there around the internet.)
— Robert Lloyd
1988 | 2 hours, 12 minutes
Cable: Starz, Sunday, Dec. 25, 1:35 a.m., 8 and 11 p.m. Pacific
Though not a holiday movie per se (among other things, it opened in July), the Bruce Willis action film is set on Christmas Eve and routinely makes its way onto lists of the best Christmas movies of all time, R-rated or otherwise.
— Josh Rottenberg
‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’
2000 | 1 hour 44 minutes
Rating: PG, for some crude humor
Cable: HBO, Sunday, Dec. 25, 6:15 p.m. Pacific
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is one overstuffed movie, but it’s by no means a turkey. Yes, it’s odd to see a $100-million-plus extravaganza that mocks materialism and extols simplicity. Yes, the film’s frenetic attempts to create a full-length feature film out of a slender, albeit beloved, children’s book can be exhausting. Finally, however, the lively and amiable spirit of the endeavor converts our inner curmudgeon just as the spirit of Christmas eventually overpowered that larcenous Grinch, played by Jim Carrey.
In a part he seems almost predestined to play, Carrey uses his unequaled physicality and a face so mobile it seems computer-generated to turn the grumpy green monster into an antic combination of Chewbacca and Jerry Lewis. Holed up in a lair on Mt. Crumpit that’s part Bat Cave, part an especially messy teenager’s room, this character comes alive not as a person but as a creature, someone capable of treating his dog Max as an equal and, in a voice that’s part Karloff, part W.C. Fields and part Sean Connery, arguing violently with a sassy echo.
— Kenneth Turan
2003| 1 hour, 36 minutes.
Rating: PG, for some mild rude humor and language.
Cable: AMC, Saturday, Dec. 24, 5 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 25, 3 and 7:15 p.m. Pacific
“Elf” is an example of the good things that can happen when hipsters do it on the square. The fable of what transpires when a young man raised by elves goes back to investigate his human roots, it manages to be both genuinely sweet and just a teensy bit wised up. Directed by Jon Favreau from a script by David Berenbaum it brings sophisticated glee and a sense of innocent fun to what could have been a moribund traditional family film.
Making this pay off without winking at the audience is a difficult task, and “Elf” doesn’t always feel all of a piece. But in “Saturday Night Live” alumnus and star Will Ferrell, the film has a guide who steers it unerringly over the bumpy patches. Ferrell is exactly right as Buddy, who as an infant at an orphanage found his way into Santa’s bag and became the first human to penetrate into the fastness of his North Pole workshop. Adopted by Papa Elf (an amusingly dry Bob Newhart), Buddy grows up convinced he’s an elf himself, even though several factors point strongly in a different direction.
— Kenneth Turan
1990 | 1 hour, 42 minutes
How closely can a movie resemble a cartoon and still be called a movie? “Home Alone,” another kiddie comedy from the slush pile of John Hughes, isn’t a cartoon movie in the way that, say, “Dick Tracy” is. Its graphic style is closer to overheated sitcom than comic-book. But the ways in which its characters collide and carom off the walls are strictly funny-pages stuff. No one in this clobber-comedy movie seems to have a nervous system.
Kevin ( Macaulay Culkin) is the 7-year-old pipsqueak upstart accidentally left behind by his vacationing family when they jet to Paris for Christmas. With all the telephones in the area out, and the neighbors on vacation, the tiny terror is forced to fend for himself against a bumbling pair of house thieves ( Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern).
— Peter Rainer
‘The Homecoming: A Christmas Story’
1971 | 1 hour 40 minutes
Streaming: The Roku Channel: Included
I have the feeling that “The Homecoming” may be around as long as Santa Claus himself or the last sprig of mistletoe and the last scratchy record of Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas.” This two-hour television movie has all the earmarks of a perennial that will turn up on the network Christmas after Christmas after Christmas. And I, for one, am delighted.
This is not only because I am enchanted with the movie — it is such a rich, lusty, roaringly alive experience, sometimes wildly funny, again so poignant and sentimental that I will warn you to have boxes of Kleenex handy when you turn it on. It’s also because it’s American. I hate to seem overly provincial, but I am really getting quite tired of the notion that Christmas is exclusively a British institution.
There’s Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, who is the young Earl Hamner really, and who writes in penny tablets and hides what he writes under his mattress, and who goes out into the storm in search of his missing father and runs out of gas. He plunges through the snow to a revival meeting at a Black church which includes a Nativity pageant by the children of the church and a Black doll as the infant Jesus and so filled with delight is John-Boy at all this he almost forgets his missing father.
Most of all, I suppose, you cherish Patricia Neal and the quiet strength of her, holding this family together, her husband lost out there in the storm, no money, no presents, wrapping herself in a worn black coat and dragging the tired body down to the store to buy a bit of sugar for a Christmas cake. Oh, you remember the twisting smile of her and the haunted despair of her waiting, waiting for “The Homecoming” of her man on that long-ago Christmas Eve.
It’s an American saga, wrought of the native soil, of tougher times but maybe better times, or seeming so because you were young in them. I was about to say it’s as American as applesauce cake, but I don’t remember much about applesauce cake — though I will say it beats plum pudding anytime.
— Cecil Smith
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
1947 | 2 hours, 10 minutes
Broadcast: NBC, Saturday, Dec. 24, 8 p.m. Pacific
(Will also run in a 24 hour marathon beginning Christmas Day at midnight on E!)
It is one of the ironies of Hollywood history — one of the sadder ironies, in fact — that Capraesque has become a highly desirable word to describe a new film.
In director Frank Capra’s vision, ordinary people were worth our attention and our admiration. They generally lived in a world of agreed positive values. Happy endings were not only possible but were likely to happen to those who had, one way or another, earned them.
Capra’s ordinary men and women were actually quite uncommon in their passions ( James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), their eccentricities (Gary Cooper in " Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”) or their particular and eccentric charms ( Jean Arthur in practically anything). Yet the message always was that it was inward qualities rather than the advantages of birth or inheritance that made the person.
The continuing popularity of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has already become as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus or tinsel, is proof in itself that there is still nothing like an uplifting good cry. It was his favorite among his films, as it was James Stewart’s, and its long afterlife has been as pleasing a review as a filmmaker could ask for.
— Charles Champlin
2003 | 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: R, for sexuality, nudity and language
Cable: BBC America, Saturday, Dec. 24, 3 and 6 p.m. Pacific
For some, Richard Curtis’ sweet 2003 rom-com collage is as sacrosanct a piece of Christmas canon as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” or “Elf.” Memes and TikTok renditions of the film’s iconic moments abound.
Like it or not, “Love Actually” has become an essential seasonal ritual. And as with any seasonal ritual, from ugly sweater contests to arguments over canned versus homemade cranberry sauce, its emotional power has as much to do with personal or familial history as the film itself.
The film’s wide-ranging understanding of love in all its gloriously imperfect forms is exactly what the season calls for. We are all aware of how absurd and maddening some of it is — no thinking person would consider Martine McCutcheon’s Natalie chubby — but that doesn’t outweigh the pleasure of the moments we love. For all the story’s surrender to sentiment, the dialogue is witty and sharp, delivered by a ridiculously talented cast that goes on for days.
— Mary McNamara
‘Miracle on 34th Street’
1947 | 1 hour, 36 minutes
Cable: AMC, Sunday, Dec. 25, 4:15 a.m. Pacific
“Miracle on 34th Street” belongs to a trio of films that have come to epitomize the season. It joins the ranks of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (especially the 1938 version), which are considered classics designed to trumpet the homey virtues of Christmas.
Like the other two movies, “Miracle on 34th Street” is thick with sentiment, the kind of happy-vibes heaviness that we might not forgive so readily any other time of year. But it’s within that generous framework that these pictures find their appeal — they’re like holiday mantras we chant again and again to feel good.
“Miracle on 34th Street” probably was the first movie to give the commercialism of the holidays a stiff caning as we watch mega-department stores Gimbel’s and Macy’s try to outdo each other in Christmas sales. The fact that the real Santa ( Edmund Gwenn) is in the middle of this cash-crazy firefight puts everything in the right perspective.
The film opens on the eve of the Christmas parade with Doris, an advertising exec for Macy’s played by Maureen O’Hara, facing disaster. Her regular Santa (veteran character actor Percy Helton) is fall-down drunk and she has to find a replacement. Santa, calling himself Kris Kringle, steps in out of nowhere and soon becomes the hit at Macy’s.
Everything goes smoothly until the villain, Macy’s resident shrink played by Porter Hall, steps in and accuses Kris of insanity for claiming to be who he is. Gwenn’s Santa is blissfully bemused by the competency trial that ensues, as he is convincing Doris’ cynical daughter (a very young Natalie Wood) that he’s the real thing.
— Mark Chalon Smith
‘The Polar Express’
2004 | 1 hour 39 minutes
Cable: AMC, Saturday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 25, 6:30 a.m. and 9:15 p.m. Pacific
Great books for young children, and that includes Chris Van Allsburg’s modern classic “The Polar Express,” are united by the sense of pure wonder they evoke in readers of any and all ages. But wonder is a noticeably quiet emotion, and quiet is not what the noisy core of the moviegoing audience wants to experience. And when you are spending a reported $170 million to make and another $125 million to market and distribute a film, connecting with that core is more than a priority — it’s a necessity.
So it comes to pass that the extravagant computer-generated version of “The Polar Express,” directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks in five roles, is something of a devil’s bargain, a bipolar experience, if you will. “Polar Express’ " greatest success is its look, one that beautifully echoes and expands on the oil pastel originals that Van Allsburg used to tell the fantastical story of a young boy who gets to take a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole. Hard to beat are moments when the film brings the book to larger-than-life life — when, for instance, that huge train with a balding conductor (Hanks) majestically pulls up to the boy’s house. Or, in the film’s absolute high spot, when a team of dazzlingly high-stepping waiters serve hot chocolate on the train like it’s never been served before.
— Kenneth Turan
1954 | 2 hours
Cable: AMC, Sunday, Dec. 25, 11:15 p.m. Pacific
The music makes this 1954 movie, starring Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen, George Clooney’s Aunt Rosemary and Danny Kaye. The score encompasses, by my count, 18 Irving Berlin songs. The title song was introduced 12 years earlier in another Crosby vehicle, " Holiday Inn.” It’s still Berlin’s most popular song.
You have my permission to take the plot line, about a retired general struggling with a Vermont resort hotel during a winter without snow, as a prefigurement of global warming, if you wish. Under the directing hand of Hungarian expatriate Michael Curtiz, whose earlier hard-edged work included “Casablanca” and " Mildred Pierce,” “White Christmas” is unapologetically sentimental. Go ahead and shed a tear at the big finish.
— Michael Hiltzik
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’
1964 | 52 minutes
Before there was “Glee” there was “Rudolph,” with its doe-eyed but different hero, its elfin dentist and its island of misfit toys. Now made available, by nostalgic baby boomers, in all manner of collectible reproductions. But still. You will laugh, you will cry and it isn’t Christmas until you’ve watched it, and who knows, maybe your kid will want to become a dentist. Which is a very good job, even at the North Pole.
And while you’re at it, stick around for “Frosty the Snowman” (1969, 25 minutes; Apple TV+: Rent/Buy), with its equally odd but endearing supporting cast and mind-numbing but still fabulous song.
— Mary McNamara
‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
1965 | 25 minutes
Streaming: Apple TV+: Included
The original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the earliest TV Christmas special to still qualify as contemporary; age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds, Vince Guaraldi score, dancing children, wintry calm or Sally Brown stating, in a quiet voice of reason, “All I want is what I have coming to me; all I want is my fair share” — a line that would fit in any Martin Scorsese movie you could name, but would not be as well delivered, nor make me as happy.
— Robert Lloyd
‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’
1966 | 25 minutes
The 1966 animated holiday special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas, " the television classic from Dr. Seuss ( Theodor Geisel) and animator Chuck Jones, follows the green and small-hearted Grinch as he tries to steal the holiday from the Whos living in the town of Whoville.
— Saba Hamedy
‘Call the Midwife Christmas Special’
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Broadcast: PBS, Sunday, Dec. 25, 9 p.m. Pacific
The relationship between the United States and Britain is never more “special” than at Christmastime: mince pies and plum pudding, Victorian carolers and Boxing Day sales. Long fueled by seasonally classic films from “A Christmas Carol” to “Love Actually,” the electronic hearth now allows Americans to share the great British tradition of Christmas Day television in real time with the “Call the Midwife” Christmas special.
Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, “Call the Midwife’s” tone of clear-eyed optimism allows it to chronicle all manner of serious topics — incest, abortion, spouse abuse, child abandonment and the grinding reality of poverty — without becoming too dark or jaded. If this episode seems unapologetically constructed for two or three cathartic moments, well, why not? “Call the Midwife” is all about embracing the laughter and the tears, and it’s Christmas, after all.
— Mary McNamara
Adaptations of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’
The British author’s novella about a selfish and stingy miser who becomes woke in Victorian England was an instant holiday hit when published in 1843. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by the ghost of his business partner and the spirits of Christmas past, present and yet to come, has been adapted for film, stage and television beginning in the silent era of movies and continuing to this day. The Scrooge role has been inhabited by first rate actors ( Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Michael Caine and Donald Duck (as Scrooge McDuck). The productions have been live action, animated, puppetry, TV specials, holiday episodes of TV series and musicals. What follows is a small sample that includes many favorite adaptations of the definitive Christmas story.
‘A Christmas Carol’
Movie 1938 | 1 hour 9 minutes
Scrooge: Reginald Owen
‘A Christmas Carol’
Movie 1951 | 1 hour, 26 minutes
Scrooge: Alastair Sim
‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’
TV Special 1983 | 26 minutes
Scrooge: Scrooge McDuck (voice of Alan Young)
‘A Christmas Carol’
Movie 1984 | 1 hour, 41 minutes
Cable: EPIX Saturday, Dec. 24, 6:35 p.m. Pacific
Scrooge: George C. Scott
Movie 1988 | 1 hour, 40 minutes
Scrooge (Frank Cross): Bill Murray
‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’
Movie 1992 | 1 hour, 25 minutes
Scrooge: Michael Caine
‘A Christmas Carol’
TV series 2019
Scrooge: Guy Pearce
Movie 2022 | 2 hours, 7 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for language, some suggestive material and thematic elements
Streaming: Apple TV+: Included
Scrooge (Clint Briggs): Ryan Reynolds
“Spirited,” the umpteenth screen incarnation of Charles Dickens’ evergreen “A Christmas Carol,” is such an amusing, buoyant and good-natured entertainment that it’s not hard to forgive this flashy musical-comedy-fantasy’s missteps. Grinchy viewers, however, may sing a different tune.
The story’s meta, at times convoluted reimagining, in which rules are seemingly made to be broken (and gleefully so), finds a trio of ghosts representing Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Will Ferrell) and Yet-to-Come (a shrouded Loren Woods, voiced by Tracy Morgan) tasked every Christmas Eve with rehabilitating one dastardly being for the good of humanity. As it is tidily explained: “We haunt someone, change them into a better person and then we sing about it.”
— Gary Goldstein