A lot has changed in the last few years when it comes to holiday traditions. Yet one thing hasn’t: gathering around the TV to watch new and classic movies with family and friends. The problem, if it can be called a problem, is that with each new streaming service comes a shift in which streamers offer what films. We’re here to help—and give you a quick and handy guide to a few holiday gems you may never have seen before. Below are 15 titles sure to get even the grinchiest of revelers into the holiday spirit.
It's hard to argue Todd Haynes' heartbreaking 2015 film is strictly a Christmas movie—it's about a young woman named Therese (Rooney Mara) who begins an intense relationship with Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant woman who shops at the store where she works—but it is set during one Christmas in the 1950s, and that's good enough. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, the film lays out what happens to Therese and Carol when they embark on a road trip and draw suspicion from the man Carol is attempting to divorce. Both lush and subdued, it's wrenching right up to its gut-punch finale.
Watch on TubiHome for the Holidays
If you’re feeling guilty that you won’t make it to your parents’ for Thanksgiving this year, this ode to dysfunctional family gatherings—directed by Jodie Foster—might serve as an all-too-realistic reminder of what it’s really like when your relatives reassemble under one roof. Holly Hunter plays a recently unemployed single mom who heads from Chicago to Baltimore to spend Thanksgiving with her family—only to immediately regret the decision. (Yes, we’ve all been there.) Hunter’s character might summarize the feeling best when she asks, “When you go home, do you look around and wonder: Who are these people? Where did I even come from?” A very pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. costars.
Given the increased output of original products that the major streaming networks like Netflix and Amazon Prime are releasing, it was only a matter of time before they all caught the Christmas bug. Last year, that honor went to Hulu, which assembled an impressive cast of actors you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a holiday rom-com (see: Kristen Stewart) for Happiest Season. When Harper (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) invites her girlfriend Abby (Stewart) home for Christmas, she neglects to tell her one thing: Harper has never told her ultra-conservative family that she’s gay. Though it’s a setup that sounds like it could easily reach Three’s Company levels of slapstick and double entendres, the earnestness with which it’s played by its stellar cast—which includes Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Mary Steenburgen—pushes it neatly into that enjoyable space between farce and family drama.
Watch on HuluThe Best Man Holiday
Broadly speaking, the holidays are just the backdrop for Best Man Holiday, but when a movie features Taye Diggs, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, and Morris Chestnut doing a New Edition dance and lip-sync number, does it matter? Nearly 15 years after they all gathered for Lance’s (Chestnut) wedding (and nearly 15 years after the release of The Best Man), a group of old friends gathers in New York to celebrate Christmas together. As with all friend reunions, everyone simultaneously remembers their closeness and long-simmering issues. No need to spoil it here, but suffice it to say the laughs are heartfelt and the drama—cancer diagnoses, pregnancies, marriages—is high. The perfect film for your Friendsgiving.
Watch on HBO MaxMiracle on 34th Street
Natalie Wood is the epitome of precocious as Susan Walker, the wise-beyond-her-years daughter of Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), a straight-shooting single mom executive at Macy’s who has always discouraged her daughter from buying into make-believe. But when a Santa Claus look-alike (legally) named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) comes into their lives, he challenges their shared distaste for fairy tales—for the better.
Watch on Disney+The Preacher’s Wife
This remake of the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, directed by Penny Marshall, stars Denzel Washington as an angel named Dudley sent to help a pastor (Courtney B. Vance) who is struggling to keep his New York City church afloat. What happens, though, is that he ends up crushing on, yes, the preacher’s wife, a one-time nightclub singer turned choir star, played by Whitney Houston. Comedy and heartbreak and, ultimately, redemption ensue. If all that heartwarming content isn’t enough, it also features a fair bit of Houston’s forever impeccable voice.
Rent on AmazonThe Nightmare Before Christmas
No, Tim Burton didn’t direct The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick did). But he did come up with the stories and characters and produce it, and his stop-motion-animation-loving fingerprints are all over this masterpiece, which works just as well as a Halloween movie as it does a Christmas film. When Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, accidentally discovers Christmastown—a place that’s less about scaring people and more about comfort and joy—he concocts a plan to kidnap Santa Claus and bring him back to Halloweentown so that his fellow townspeople can experience yuletide joy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the caper doesn’t pan out as Jack had hoped. Even today, nearly 30 years after its original release, The Nightmare Before Christmas remains a masterful work that shows the true magic of stop-motion animation.
Where to stream it: Disney+
By now, there are few people who don’t know the Home Alone story, but we’ll give you the rundown anyway: The night before the McCallister family is headed to France to spend the holidays in Paris, Kevin—annoyed that he has to share a room with his bed-wetting cousin, not to mention that someone ate his pizza—wishes his family would just disappear. While that’s not exactly what happens (they just sort of forget he’s sleeping up in the attic when they wake up late for their flight), it does mean that an 8-year-old is left to his own devices at Christmastime. Among the issues he’s forced to confront? A neighbor he believes might be a serial killer and two bumbling burglars who are set on ransacking his family’s home. Lucky for Kevin, he’s got a seriously sadistic side that allows him to come up with all sorts of inventive ways to nearly murder these intruders as he learns to appreciate his family a little bit more. (Same goes for them.)
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If you want to see what happens when a family leaves their young son alone a second time, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is also streaming on Disney+.
Watch on Disney+White Christmas
If contemporary stresses have you wishing for a kinder, gentler time, few movies (holiday-themed or otherwise) are as saccharine as White Christmas. That’s not a slight, just a very upfront warning that if you’re looking for even a drop of cynicism, you’d better look elsewhere. This holiday romp—which features Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and some of the fakest snow ever seen on camera—is shamelessly sentimental, which is part of its charm. What is it about? Two WWII buddies turned big-time showmen putting on a Christmas spectacular to help their former commanding officer, whose Vermont snow lodge is about to go under.
Watch on NetflixThe Man Who Invented Christmas
In 2012, Dan Stevens ruined Christmas for millions of Downton Abbey fans when his beloved character, Matthew Crawley, met an untimely—and rather bloody—ending. Five years later, in what might have been an attempt to make up for that heartbreak, he became The Man Who Invented Christmas. In this meta-ish take on A Christmas Carol, Stevens plays Charles Dickens, who hasn’t had a hit book since Oliver Twist. With the Christmas season playing out all around him, inspiration strikes in the form of what will become A Christmas Carol, as the characters reveal themselves to Dickens, and real life and the fictional world merge into one.
Watch on HuluThe Muppet Christmas Carol
Speaking of A Christmas Carol: There have been dozens of adaptations of Dickens’ book over the years in virtually every medium. Among the best takes are the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim (which you can rent from Amazon Prime), Richard Donner’s Scrooged with Bill Murray (which you can also rent on Prime), and The Muppet Christmas Carol, directed by Jim Henson’s son Brian (in his directorial debut). While it’s as Muppet-y as you can imagine, with Gonzo taking on the role of Charles Dickens and Kermit as Bob Cratchit, the film also stars Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge and features some pretty complicated puppetry.
Watch on Disney+Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
If you grew up with HBO in the ’80s, you no doubt have long considered Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas one of Jim Henson’s best movies. For anyone else, it’s only in recent years that the film has made its way back to the masses with sold-out theatrical screenings nationwide and a new Blu-ray edition in 2018. If you still haven’t seen it, or have never even heard of it, it’s time to rectify that horrible wrong. A Muppet-fied take on The Gift of the Magi, the story is about the widowed Ma Otter and her son Emmet, who are struggling to pay their bills but do what they can by picking up odd jobs. When they hear about a talent competition happening in a nearby town with a grand prize of $50, they each—unbeknownst to each other—make a major sacrifice in the hopes of being able to win and give each other a much-wanted gift for Christmas. Then the Riverbottom Nightmare Band shows up. Emmet Otter may be more than 40 years old, and sure, you can see the puppets’ strings, but that’s just part of its charm. And the soundtrack still slaps.
Watch on Amazon PrimeIt's a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra was a filmmaker who loved a Hollywood ending—and he delivered a big one in It’s a Wonderful Life. While the film’s final moments may be kind of sappy (even if they do make you tear up), the bulk of the movie’s running time is actually pretty dark. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a beloved member of the Bedford Falls community with a lovely home, an adoring wife (Donna Reed), and four beautiful children. But George is sick and tired of being “the dependable one” in his family. For years his own dream has been to see the world beyond his hometown, but each time he tries, a new tragedy seems to strike that keeps him there. But Christmas Eve proves to be the breaking point, and George, drunk and suicidal, wishes he had never been born. Sort of like A Christmas Carol, an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) shows George what his life—and the life of those he loves—would be like had he never existed. Cue the waterworks.
While a fresh crop of holiday movies seems to pop up every year, it takes a special kind of movie to become a true Christmas classic. Elf began spreading its Christmas cheer almost immediately after arriving in theaters, and it has only grown more popular in the nearly two decades since. Jon Favreau’s direction and David Berenbaum’s script deserve much of the credit. But it’s Will Ferrell who steals the show with his endearing performance as Buddy the Elf—a syrup-loving human who, after being raised in the North Pole among Santa and his elves, travels to New York to find his biological father (James Caan). Though Buddy and the Big Apple don’t get off on the right foot, his childlike charm eventually gets the best of those around. Well, most of them. Though audiences have been clamoring for a sequel, Ferrell has said no way.
Watch on HuluRare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Not everyone wants their holiday fare sugar-coated and sweet. For those people, there’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Something strange is happening in the mountains of northern Finland, where kids are disappearing and reindeer are being murdered. Two young boys—Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää)—think they know what’s going on: A group of local drillers has uncovered the tomb of Santa Claus. But the man they eventually capture hasn’t got a jolly bone in his body.
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If you want more holiday horror, be sure to check out Bob Clark’s Black Christmas—the original, 1974 version only (for rent on Amazon Prime or streaming on The Criterion Channel). Though it’s less well known than John Carpenter’s Halloween, it’s the movie that inspired it—and pretty much all slasher movies that followed. It also doesn’t hold back on its scares or gore, so it's best for an adults-only evening. Fun fact: Nine years after Black Christmas, director Bob Clark made yet another holiday classic with 1983’s A Christmas Story. Talk about range!
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