Every holiday season, millions of Americans are faced with the same dilemma: figuring out what to watch. Yes, the decision over what’s worth your time and what to skip has long plagued households from sea to shining sea, especially as holiday-related films and specials grow more and more numerous by the year. This year especially presents what quite possibly may be the most dire season of the holiday viewing struggle to date. With nationwide surges in the pandemic, the young and old are increasingly finding themselves stuck in their homes with little else to do but fill the vacuous hole in their schedules with television.
If you suffer from this same tribulation, fear not, for I have dipped into the well of knowledge of holiday entertainment to provide for you a list of what I believe to be some of the best television specials and films to watch this holiday season. No matter what you and your family celebrate, all of these are quality films that are sure to bring you some joy.
These first three specials are so well-known, they need no introduction. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a 1964 stop-motion animated adaptation of the 1939 book of the same name by Robert L. May and 1949 song by Gene Autry and Johnny Marks. While the story may leave something to be desired (especially from the surprisingly antagonistic Santa Claus), the special contains some catchy songs, heartwarming moments and memorable comedic moments. There is also 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which adapted the popular Charles M. Schultz comic, “Peanuts,” for television, featuring the titular neurotic Charlie Brown as he seeks to find the true meaning of Christmas amidst a sea of consumerism. Christians and non-Christians alike can enjoy the witty dialogue, charming characters and brilliant jazz soundtrack by Vince Gauraldi. The first and best adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” faithfully presents the classic story of a monster who learns to love Christmas while trying to destroy it. With some top-notch voice acting from Boris Karloff (“Frankenstein”) and the fantastic Thurl Ravenscroft song, “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch,” this is guaranteed to remain a staple of the holiday season for decades to come.
“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962) has the distinction of being the very first animated Christmas special. At under an hour long, the special presents a condensed version of Dickens’ iconic tale with added musical numbers and an original framing device which contextualizes the events of the story as a play starring the titular Mr. Magoo (already a popular character for over a decade in cartoons from United Productions of America). Despite this adaptation’s brevity, it manages to remain surprisingly faithful to the source material, lifting much of the dialogue directly from Dickens’ novella.
In 1971, animated legends Chuck Jones (“Looney Tunes” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”) and Richard Williams (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) teamed up to once again adapt “A Christmas Carol” for television. This adaptation is even shorter than “Magoo,” clocking in at just 25 minutes, yet it does not waste a moment of its time. Not only is this one of the most meticulously accurate of adaptations, but it also includes moments often left out of feature length versions. The most breathtaking aspect of this special is its animation, which recreates the feel of the original 1843 illustrations by John Leech. The style is at the same time both detailed and sketch-like giving the animation a wholly unique quality. To date, this remains the only adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” to win an Academy Award, proving its outstanding quality.
“The Snowman” is a 1982 animated short directed by Raymond Briggs, based on his own 1978 picture book of the same name. This special stands out for including no dialogue beyond a short opening narration (provided by either Briggs himself or David Bowie, depending on the version). The story is told entirely through the visuals and music, allowing emotion to drive the special. For a half hour-long children’s cartoon, “The Snowman” deals with some surprisingly adult themes of life and loss.
When discussing the best films for the holiday season, it doesn’t get any better than “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Released in 1946, Frank Capra’s classic remains not only the best Christmas film ever made but, I would argue, one of the greatest films of all time. Opening on the night of Christmas Eve, the angel Clarence Odbody is assigned to aid a man named George Bailey who is contemplating taking his own life. The film then shows moments across George’s whole life, revealing him to be an adventurous young man who gradually gave up his own dreams in order to help others. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is filled with moments of great sadness as well as profound joy and appreciation for the wonder of being alive. Jimmy Stewart (“Vertigo”) delivers his career-best performance as George Bailey, making the character feel fully real and sympathetic. In truth, the whole cast is amazing, especially the performances from Donna Reed as Mary Hatch, Lionel Barrymore as the villainous Mr. Potter, Thomas Mitchell as absentminded Uncle Billy and Henry Travers as Clarence. As is to be expected for a film that’s over 70 years old, certain elements may come off as dated. Still, when the film is at its best, its strengths outweigh any qualms you may have with it, endearing a place in your heart.
The only foreign entry on this list, the 2005 French film “Joyëux Noel” tells the amazing true story of the Christmas truce of 1914. During the First World War, soldiers from France, the United Kingdom and Germany laid down their arms to celebrate Christmas, exchanging food and singing Christmas carols together. The film’s strong anti-war message highlights the commonalities between people no matter where they come from, praising unity and friendship instead of division and violence. “Joyëux Noel” received critical praise upon its release, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and features a talented international cast with Daniel Brühl (“Captain America: Civil War”) and Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”).
You can’t talk about holiday films without mentioning the 2003 Jon Favreau comedy “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell (“Anchorman”) as a human raised by Christmas elves who travels from the North Pole to New York City to reconnect with his biological father, a jaded children’s book publisher played by James Caan (“The Godfather”). Ferrell’s joyfully optimistic performance anchors the film and makes its hopeful message resonant with viewers of all ages. There’s also the 1990 comedy “Home Alone,” starring Macauley Culkin as a young boy who has to defend his house from burglars after his family accidentally abandons him before a trip to Paris. Written by ‘80s teen-movie icon John Hughes (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) and directed by Chris Colombus (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”), this movie is both hilarious and poignant, reminding viewers of the importance of family.
A few more films that deserve to be mentioned are the 1951 and 1984 adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” as well as the 1954 comedy “White Christmas.” The ‘51 and ‘84 films are, in my opinion, the two best adaptations of Dickens’ novella, featuring the two most iconic portrayals of Scrooge by Alastair Sim and George C. Scott, respectively. “White Christmas” tells the story of a famous singing duo, played by old-school celebrities Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, who plan to put on a show raising money to help out their old commanding officer from their time in the Second World War. Plus, you can’t forget the quirky 1983 comedy, “A Christmas Story.” It’s televised for 24 hours every year on Christmas, so you’ll have plenty of time to watch that one if you haven’t yet.
Last on my list is “The Lion in Winter” from 1968. The film follows the story of King Henry IV and Queen Eleanore of Aquitaine as they struggle to choose an heir from among their three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John. While some people may object to this being included, I would respond, “If ‘Die Hard’ can be considered a holiday movie, so can this.” After all, when you remove the medieval aesthetic and discussions of succession, the film is at its heart a story about a dysfunctional family coming together for Christmas (albeit with much more plotting and betrayal). The main strength of “The Lion in Winter” is its cast, featuring unforgettable performances from Peter O’Toole (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Katherine Hepburn (“The Philadelphia Story”), Timothy Dalton (“Hot Fuzz”) and Anthony Hopikns (“The Silence of the Lambs”) in his very first film role.The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three, including Best Actress for Hepburn.