Best modern Christmas movies

December 18, 2019 | (Jason Fraley)

We all know that “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), “A Christmas Story” (1983) and “Christmas Vacation” (1989) are holiday classics.

But if we capped it at the 1990s and beyond, what would the list look like?

Let the countdown begin:

Best Modern Christmas Movies

10. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000)

Dr. Seuss famously rhymed a tale of the grumpy Grinch, who lives atop a snow-covered mountain and hates the joyful sounds of Whoville below. He becomes so fed up with holiday cheer that he sabotages Christmas Eve for the Whos, only to realize that Christmas means more to them than presents. The best screen adaptation remains the 1966 TV special narrated by Boris Karloff (“Frankenstein”) and directed by Chuck Jones (“Looney Toons”), featuring Thur Ravenscroft’s catchy song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” When it came time to adapt it for the big screen, Ron Howard delivered the top-grossing movie of the year 2000, featuring a zany performance by Jim Carrey and a radio hit in Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?”


9. “Jingle All the Way” (1996)

The No. 12 highest grossing movie of 1996, this holiday flick is so ridiculous that it’s actually become something of a cult holiday classic. After macho roles in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) and “True Lies” (1994), Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to his family-friendly “Kindergarten Cop” chops to play a determined father who promises to get his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. When every store is sold out, he searches the city for the last remaining toy in a race against rival mailman Sinbad. The Turbo Man plot ironically captured the zeitgeist of that year’s real-life Tickle-Me Elmo craze, a damning indictment of Black Friday commercialism.


8. “The Polar Express” (2004)

After penning the hit picture book “Jumanji” (1981), author Chris Van Allsburg followed up with the 1985 children’s book “The Polar Express,” about a young boy who hops on a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. When it came time to adapt it for the big screen, Hollywood turned to Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who had demonstrated his visual effects wizardry on such blockbusters as “Back to the Future” (1985), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) and “Forrest Gump” (1994). This time, Zemeckis reunited with Tom Hanks, who used groundbreaking motion-capture animation to voice six roles, from The Conductor to Santa Claus. The result earned three Oscar nominations, including for the song “Believe” performed by Josh Groban.


7. “Love Actually” (2003)

Nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, “Love Actually” boasts the deepest cast of any holiday movie with a BAFTA-winning Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Laura Linney, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson and Billy Bob Thornton. Written and directed by Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), the mosaic-style story provides a dash of optimism in our post-9/11 world with a happy ending that popularized Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” You’ll feel it your fingers. You’ll feel it in your toes. Love is all around us. Just don’t show your kids the uncensored version (Martin Freeman’s British nudity humor doesn’t travel well).


6. “Bad Santa” (2003)

Putting the “naughty” in our naughty-and-nice list, “Bad Santa” is a profanity-laced, booze-drenched, sexed-up romp. In other words, it’s hilarious. Billy Bob Thornton earned a Golden Globe nomination as a sleaze-bag shopping mall Santa who hates his job and reluctantly mentors a bullied kid (Brett Kelly). Thornton leads a stellar supporting cast, including Lauren Graham, Tony Cox, Sarah Silverman, the late Bernie Mac and the late John Ritter (in his last role). Not for the easily offended, the film features plenty of “no they didn’t” moments, but its heart ultimately shines through with The Kid offering to make sandwiches with unconditional love for his Santa father figure.


5. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)

Over the years, there have been so many great versions of the classic Charles Dickens tale, including the early 1938 talkie with Reginald Owen, the 1951 British classic with Alastair Sim (my favorite), the 1962 animation with Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo, the 1970 musical with Albert Finney, the 1983 Disney animation with Scrooge McDuck, the 1984 version with George C. Scott and the 1988 spoof with Bill Murray. However, if we’re limiting this list to ’90s and beyond, the best is “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” starring Michael Caine as Scrooge alongside Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Miss Cratchit, Fozzie as Fozziewig and Gonzo as Dickens. If you like this, be sure to check out the TV special “A Muppet Family Christmas” (1987) where the Muppets invite the Sesame Street gang to the Fozzie’s grandma’s farmhouse.


4. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)

Tim Burton’s stop-motion classic tells the tale of Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), King of Halloweentown, who stumbles across Christmastown and doesn’t understand the concept. That is until he wins the love of Sally (Catherine O’Hara) while thwarting a Santa-kidnapping attempt (“trick or treat!”). Jack and Sally became the antithesis of Jack and Rose for ’90s youth finding their identities between Celine Dion and Fiona Apple, who covered “Sally’s Song.” Other homages followed — Amy Lee, Blink 182, Korn and Marilyn Manson — but nothing compared to Danny Elfman’s vocals on the insanely catchy “What’s This?” The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects and would have surely won if it weren’t the year of “Jurassic Park” (1993).


3. “The Santa Clause” (1994)

On TV’s “Home Improvement,” Tim Allen delivered hilarious Christmas episodes, competing in the neighborhood lighting contest and watching a church choir misspell “NOEL” as “LEON.” It was only fitting that the grunting Toolman would jump to the big screen (before Buzz Lightyear) as single father Scott Calvin, who accidentally kills Santa on Christmas Eve. To please his son, he puts on Santa’s suit, but forgets to read the fine print, falling victim to “the Santa clause.” It’s a magical pact that forces him to assume St. Nick’s identity, freaking out his boss and ex-wife, but bringing him closer to his son. With a supporting cast of Judge Reinhold (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Peter Boyle (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), “The Santa Clause” was such a hit that it launched an entire trilogy grossing more than $473 million worldwide.


2. “Elf” (2004)

The same year that Will Ferrell went streaking in “Old School” (2003), he donned a green suit and pointy shoes as Buddy the Elf. In a classic “fish out of water” story, Buddy is an adult-sized elf who literally doesn’t “fit in” at the North Pole. He packs his bags for New York City but has trouble adapting to the real world. Ferrell plays the part with adorable innocence, backed by a stellar supporting cast: Ed Asner (“Mary Tyler Moore”), Bob Newhart (“The Bob Newhart Show”), James Caan (“The Godfather”) and Zooey Deschanel (“500 Days of Summer”), who recorded a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the soundtrack. Director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”) later brought us “Four Christmases” (2008), but found it impossible to recapture the magic of “Elf.”


1. “Home Alone” (1990) 

Written by John Hughes (“The Breakfast Club”) and directed by Chris Columbus (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), “Home Alone” took the simple premise of a child pranking robbers and turned Macaulay Culkin into a cheek-slapping child star. Catherine O’Hara and John Heard are the perfect blend of loving and frantic parents; John Candy propels a good Samaritan subplot recalling “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987); and Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the most lovable crooks ever to hit the screen, in the same year Pesci won his Oscar for “Goodfellas” (1990). The film also features the best Christmas soundtrack around, from Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” to The Drifters’ “White Christmas” to Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” all on top of an Oscar-nominated John Williams score. Not only was “Home Alone” the top-grossing movie of 1990, it remains the highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time (adjusted for inflation), inspiring the beloved sequel “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992).

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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