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Johnny Rodgers, Explosions, and Die Hard: Ranking the 10 Best Christmas Movies

December 26, 2021

Hope the holiday season was kind to everyone. Now I’d like to anger everyone. 

Here’s a ranking of the 10 best Christmas movies, with a loose comparison to a Nebraska legend negotiated out with my editors to earn approval to even do this. Commence the arguing:

1. Christmas Vacation (1989)

This movie is my Eric Crouch. Is it objectively the best Christmas movie there is or has been? Any number of people could make any number of arguments for why it’s not. But is it the best as I look at things and is it still objectively a top-five Christmas film? Yes and yes.

Chevy Chase, and specifically Christmas-crazy Clark Griswold, is my childhood. (Same can be said for Crouch considering one of his greatest moments was one of my first college football moments.) It’s one of the only movies I have consistently watched every holiday season since I was old enough to understand what was going on. When I was a little kid, this threequel viewing experience was essentially as simple as get to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, settle into the living room on Christmas Eve or Eve Eve, and wait for the snowy hill sequence—hitting all the quintessential comedic moments of its era—and listen to my grandfather absolutely bust his gut laughing as chaos ensues. 

As I’ve gotten older, it has taken on an entirely new relatability. The holiday season is riddled with anxiety. The script hits every moment that causes your dad or you as a dad to eventually reach your “Where’s the Tylenol?” moment each and every December—finding the right tree, getting the lights up, worrying about finances, hosting the relatives, and generally feeling like you’re being pulled in about 85 different directions. It’s dumpster comedy, sitcommy and smarmy with the perfect amount of warm and cozy, and everyone has their favorite moment, and everyone can recite the rant.

2. Elf (2003)

Elf is to the Christmas genre what Ndamukong Suh is to the Huskers. There’s a strong chance 20 years from now we think it’s the best there has been. But right now it’s still a little too early to argue that fact for *some* people. Still, there’s an overwhelming mountain of evidence to suggest it’s instantly an all-timer.

Will Ferrell’s range is incredible. He makes the movie your mom makes you watch every Christmas in Elf and then makes the movie your mom won’t let you watch in Anchorman (this is, of course, assuming you had overbearing parents who made you follow age restrictions). There is almost always an impending cruise-ship disaster when a star who has made his name off R-rated humor takes on a family-friendly comedy, and yet this one pulls it off in a way that feels like will help it be a top-three Christmas movie in 10 years time when we move past the “but it’s so new and therefore can’t be one of the best ever” phase (barf). What can’t Jon Favreau do? 

It’s heartfelt, it’s Buddy the Elf at his most earnest, it’s a reminder that Zoey Deschanel does in fact have a forehead, and it’s a warning shot ahead of his run as Tyrion that Peter Dinklage can kick anyone’s ass.

3. Home Alone (1990)

I just want to throw this out there: the premise for this movie is hella dumb. A child that small is checked on by his mother. Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin was also sleeping in the same space as another child who made it onto the flight. And Kevin’s mother realizing that he wasn’t around in the way she did makes no sense. If she didn’t know they were a head short in the first place, she isn’t going to have that epiphany moment sitting in first-class where the rest of the clan is back in the cheap seats. 

All that being said, Culkin on his own plants this firmly in the top-five. He’s Tommie Frazier: undeniably elite, entertaining, and ready to give a very bad day to any idiot that gets in his way.

Just like with Christmas Vacation, so many Christmas memories are tied to my grandfather’s laugh erupting as the pair of dimwit Wet Bandits get battered and bruised in the most elaborate ways imaginable. Kevin is the kid you thought you were when you were his age. Kevin gets to do the things you always wanted to when you were his age—whatever the hell you wanted. Going in and jumping on your parent’s bed when you find out you’re home alone is the most inexplainable kid thing there is or ever will be. 

Fun aside: I have a scar that you can barely make out under an eyebrow because when I was a small child, probably Kevin’s age, I was at the relatives for the holidays and with my parents upstairs I decided I was going to jump on the downstairs bed. As the story goes, they came down to scold me and tell me to stop lest I hurt myself, they then went back upstairs and not five minutes later were rushing down the steps to tend to the screaming child who had just smashed his head on the headboard because he went back to jumping on the bed. I needed stitches. Worth it. 

4. Klaus (2019)

An origin story we didn’t know we needed. The animation and the overall look of the movie is beautiful. J.K. Simmons is one of my favorites, and his interplay with Jason Schwartzman is really good. A cartoon for kids, complex and mature writing for the adults. Normally Netflix’s own movies are a flop, but Klaus feels like the kind of movie to watch every year with the kids and build a tradition around. A fun movie with relatable characters and a pin that anyone can get behind—good actions inspire more. It’s Taylor Martinez in that you knew it was a classic right away and it’s only going to look better with age.

5. The Santa Clause (1994) 

When Neal gets his weenie whistle, you forget for just a second that his character sucks. But as Neal and mom try to take kid Charlie away from Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin—and inexplicably walk through the middle of a children’s soccer game that just continues as if there aren’t parents standing in the middle of the pitch running into the ref—Allen is having perhaps his best moment on the big screen. Home Improvement was awesome. Toy Story is legendary. This is Allen’s best live-action movie, which is incredible in its own right. 

The sequel was alright and the third installment was just weird, but the original was everything I want in a Christmas movie. Allen’s transformation from incredulous and fit to holly jolly and cookie-obsessed is the right mix to take what’s otherwise a Disney holiday schmaltz and make it rewatchable. 

6. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

George Seaton’s take on Christmas is commentary on belief. Kris Kringle is on trial to prove whether he’s real. It’s an adult’s internal struggle with the season. Has to be on the list. Mike Rozier-like in its enduring greatness.

7. A Christmas Story (1983)

The leg lamp is iconic. The pole-licking scene is played out in every snow-draped town that has kids and poles and working parents. Again, it’s a classic. It’s on the list mostly because it has to be on the list, but also because it’s pretty good. 

8. Die Hard (1988)

Oft imitated, never duplicated. Bruce Willis’ tough-guy-gone-commando was the inspiration for a billion action movies in the streaming age, but none come close to the level of friggin’ Die Hard. Johnny Rodgers, I guess? For the explosiveness? These comparisons are getting tricky. Die Hard is a Christmas movie, a fly in the ointment if there ever was one. Fight me.

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Halloween Town’s Pumpkin King becomes Tinsel Town’s red guy. It’s ghoulish and catchy and macabre and a Christmas movie masquerading as a Halloween movie masquerading as a Christmas movie masquerading as a Halloween movie masquer-. I get Turner Gill vibes. Gill was overshadowed by elite playmakers on his own team, but his play at quarterback was genre-bending; Tim Burton’s stop-motion here tends to get overlooked in the pantheon of holiday specials, but it deserves its place amongst the greats.

10. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

There was not a better person to play this version of the Grinch than Jim Carrey, and yes the version of the movie on my list is the live-action flick. Maybe it’s because it’s so unbelievably quotable. “Hate hate hate, hate hate hate, double hate, loathe entirely,” is such a mood. He gave the TikTok generation two decades in the future some incredible audio clips to sample. Anyone else’ wife just randomly quote this movie in the dead of summer? “4:00, wallow in self-pity. 4:30, stare into the abyss. 5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one. 5:30, jazzercize; 6:30, dinner with me. I can’t cancel that again. 7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing. I’m booked. Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling, and slip slowly into madness. But what would I wear?” If you read that in a voice different from your own you know this movie belongs on the list.

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