Christmas comforts: 15 essential movies and ‘toons bring holiday joy

Spirit-lifting classics, new and old, are online and on TV


As we hunker down at home, these are the movies that keep up our spirits, perhaps remind us of happier Christmases past, and assure us that things might be OK. Indeed, there could be joy in the world once more. All are available to stream or rent online. Happy holidays!

15. Santa’s Workshop (1932) / Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952) / The Small One (1978) / Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

This collection of classic Christmas-themed Disney animated shorts makes for a good evening’s binge-watch. (Together, they run about 66 minutes.) Be wary of unfortunate cultural stereotypes in the 1932 short, and be ready to grab tissues during “The Small One.” (Disney+)

14. The Thin Man (1934)

Not strictly a Christmas movie, but W.S. Van Dyke’s adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, with the perfectly-cast William Powell and Myrna Loy, is a superbly-crafted comic detective story, with a Christmas Eve party, and a lazy, funny Christmas morning. (HBO Max)

13. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Some of it has dated a bit, but the Griswold family Christmas still has many classically comic mishaps, from cutting a real Christmas tree, to decorating the house with an absurd number of lights, as well as warm, gooey moments like Clark (Chevy Chase) watching old home movies. (Amazon Prime, Apple TV and others)

12. Little Women (1994)

It’s hard to say which version of “Little Women” is the best (note: Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version is not yet available streaming), but Gilliam Armstrong’s beautiful, flowing 1994 version with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale, etc., is a pretty good contender. The Christmas breakfast sequence is always a heart-warmer. (IMDB TV, Roku)

11. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Tim Burton created and Henry Selick directed this still-amazing 76-minute stop-motion animated musical about what would happen if the king of Halloween Town accidentally wandered into Christmas Town and decided to borrow a few ideas for his own scary celebration. (Disney+)

10. A Christmas Story (1983)

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” The grown-up narration by writer Jean Shepherd is what makes this very funny, nostalgic holiday story work so well. Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) navigates a kid-complex Christmas season while dreaming of a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Light up your leg-lamp and enjoy! (Online at Amazon Prime, Apple TV; also, 24-hour marathons air on TV on Christmas Eve, starting at 8 p.m. on TBS and 9 p.m. on TNT)

9. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The essential 1951 Alastair Sim movie “A Christmas Carol” wasn’t readily available this year, but this Dickensian romp will certainly do in a pinch. Michael Caine’s Scrooge is performed straight-faced — and he’s one of the screen’s best — while all kinds of Muppet-influenced gags, buffoonery, and songs occur all around him. (Disney+)

Forest Whitaker plays a toymaker in the new release, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” (Courtesy Netflix)

Forest Whitaker plays a toymaker in the new release, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” (Courtesy Netflix)

8. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)

This year’s best brand-new holiday release, an invigorating musical, tells the story of a ruined inventor (Forest Whitaker), whose work has been stolen. He’s just about ready to give up hope, when his granddaughter (Madalen Mills) — also an aspiring genius — visits. The incredible sets and costumes look assembled from various bits and pieces, gears and trinkets. (Netflix)

7. Arthur Christmas (2011)

An absolute delight from Aardman Animations, this dazzlingly colorful kid-friendly movie imagines a vast, well-oiled organization that helps Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) deliver presents to all the children of the world in one night. This year, a child has gone without gifts, and it’s up to the cheerful, clumsy Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) to fix it. (Starz, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, others)

6. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

We included this in our Thanksgiving list, but here it is again, because how can we not have Santa Claus? The real Kris (Edmund Gwenn) helps out busy single mom (Maureen O’Hara) and her curious, lovable daughter (Natalie Wood) at Macy’s during the bustling, big city holiday season, but faces trouble from the store’s twitchy psychologist (Porter Hall). (Disney+)

Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel are great in the adorable “Elf.” (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel are great in the adorable “Elf.” (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

5. Elf (2003)

“Smiling’s my favorite!” Will Ferrell brilliantly juxtaposed his large frame with his enthusiastic little-kid performance, making this a constantly hilarious, yet warmly sweet comedy. The rest of the cast is perfect, from Ed Asner to Peter Dinklage, but especially Zooey Deschanel as the lovely, sad, singing department store elf. (Fubo Starz, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, others)

4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Maybe people are sick of it — it was underappreciated during its time, and then overplayed on TV when it fell into the public domain — but director Frank Capra and star James Stewart bring this film into truly dark and desperate places before pulling out all the stops with its full-beating-heart ending, earning tears every time. (Amazon Prime)

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Really the oddest of all Christmas specials, with no Santa Claus, and dialogue about the commercialization of Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas, plus a jazz score by Vince Guaraldi (recorded at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios), this half-hour mini-masterpiece culminates in a miraculous moment of kindness among the sadness. (Apple TV+)

2. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

This masterful, bursting-with-Technicolor musical from director Vincente Minnelli is set over a full year, with Judy Garland and the Smith family struggling with love and the threat of moving away; it culminates with Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to a heartbroken Margaret O’Brien among the broken snowmen. (HBO Max)

Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star in the holiday-set romantic comedy “The Shop Around the Corner.” (Courtesy photo)

Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star in the holiday-set romantic comedy “The Shop Around the Corner.” (Courtesy photo)

1. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated, nuanced comedy-drama masterpiece with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as employees at a struggling Budapest shop during the holiday season and sending anonymous love letters to each other without realizing it, winds up its series of sweet, delicate, heartbreaking little tales on a Christmasy high note. (HBO Max)

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