Tis the season to complain about it being dark out at 5 pm, which also means it’s the season to plonk down in front of your biggest screen and binge some comfort movies. We asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite films to watch during the holidays, holiday-themed or not, and then weighed in ourselves (because obviously). Grab a bookmark, spike the cocoa, and pull up a seat.
The Departed (2006, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Around the holidays, I often watch The Departed. My Boston-area family, like many others from the region, has a longstanding romantic attachment to the Irish mob. We obsess over Bulger. We hold a soft spot for a knucklehead cousin. And we like a movie that romanticizes lowlife, R-dropping, shit-talking projections of our ids. This is as true at Christmas as it is any other time, and if perhaps the self-mythologizing tough guy shtick gets old at the dinner table, we’ll still go all in on Nicholson, DiCaprio, and Damon’s pitiful Boston accents.
Bonus: Listen to Tracy talk about Howard Hanks’ Ball of Fire (1941) on the Open Form podcast
Arctic horror movies
In this holiday season, I love nothing more than to sit comfortably indoors with a beer or hot tea and watch horror stories set in the Arctic: John Carpenter’s The Thing, the lesser 2011 remake of The Thing, The Edge (Alaska, not strictly the arctic), Alien vs. Predator starring the amazing Sanaa Lathan, and TV series like The Head and—my personal favorite series ever—Fortitude. I don’t think it’s coincidental that so many of these stories take place in Norwegian outposts—there’s a sort of inverted-hygge that can be experienced only when you’re cozy at home, listening to the weather whip just outside your window, watching a group of scientific researchers gather around to figure out which one of them is the murderer. It’s probably the one horror genre that’s less scary when watched alone.
Toni Erdmann (2016, dir. Maren Ade)
Why, when I think of the meaning of Christmas, do I see semen landing on a green fondant fancy? In Toni Erdmann, arguably the truest-hearted movie of the 21st century, our businesswoman heroine finds herself not much interested in the sex she’s having. Seized by some inscrutable urge, Ines puts a stop to the rutting and instructs the guy to ejaculate on a small cake instead. He obeys. Superbly, with great nonchalance, she then eats it. Like tinsel, like faltering tree lights, like poorly wrapped and misjudged gifts, Toni Erdmann is funny and sad and awkward and cracked with longing and disappointment. It has nothing to do with Christmas except in feeling, which is why in my heart it has everything to do with Christmas. The movie’s main relationship, failing and prevailing, is the one Ines resists with her prankish dad, Winfried. When he puts on an unkempt wig and false dentures to interrupt his daughter’s high stakes professional life, there’s profound paternal purpose to this ridiculousness. At one point, ceding to the absurd energy of his forcefield, Ines sings Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” to a room full of strangers. She goes all in. It is the greatest performance of all. Later, disguised in what seems to be a traditional Bulgarian Kuker costume—an enormous shaggy thing with a chimney-like head—Winfried pursues his daughter through a park. Finally, we understand the following: he’s just a dad, in a babushar, standing in front of a corporate strategist, asking her to love him.
Bonus: Listen to Hermione talk about Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) on the Open Form podcast
Metropolitan (1990, dir. Whit Stillman)
I always watch my favorite Christmas-adjacent movie—Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990)—around the start of the holiday season. The film, which follows a group of intellectually-gifted but still emotionally-young debutantes, takes place in New York City during Christmas vacation. It takes a skilled filmmaker to make a movie about privileged, insular teenagers that is genuinely heartwarming, but Stillman’s love for his teenage characters, even when they’re being silly or pretentious or self-sabotaging, shines through every scene.
Bad Santa (2003, dir. Terry Zwigoff) and Female Trouble (1974, dir. John Waters)
It’s a tie. Bad Santa, 2003, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a safe-cracker who poses as a department-store Santa so he can rob shopping malls after the stores close, and John Waters’ Female Trouble, 1974, which isn’t technically a Christmas movie but includes a scene in which Divine knocks over the family Christmas tree because no one bought her cha-cha heels. What’s not to love about that, holidays or no?
Batman Returns (1992, dir. Tim Burton)
The Penguin’s lair was the most terrifying world I could imagine when I was a kid. The Christmas tree adorning Gotham Plaza was my initial visual association with real life Rockefeller Plaza. Even today, when the Christmas tree lighting is on TV, I’m waiting for Penguin’s goons to terrorize the ice rink. Michelle Pfeiffer going from belittled assistant to body-suited Catwoman is a kind of fuck-your-holiday-party ascension one can only hope to find professionally. The depth of Batman Returns’ villainy is next level Grinch energy and makes up for Keaton’s whatever-level performance.
Bonus: Listen to José talk about Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (1993) on the Open Form podcast
The Nutcracker Prince (1990, dir. Paul Schibli)
For years now, I thought I hallucinated the one movie I associate with Christmas (outside the questionable Love Actually). As a kid who found Christianity exotic, I was mesmerized by an animated version of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the short story that inspired the famous ballet. The film was pure Christmas glory: Tchaikovsky, presents, fir tree, the works. There was something soft and tender about the animation that gave me the same feeling about Christmas that Mandy by Julie Andrews did. I recently discovered I didn’t make it up: it’s the 1990 Canadian film The Nutcracker Prince, starring, inexplicably, Kiefer Sutherland of 24 fame, and yes, I will be watching it this yuletide season.
Bonus: Listen to Ilana talk about Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) on the Open Form podcast
Carol (2015, dir. Todd Haynes)
For the holidays, I’d recommend Carol, Todd Haynes’ 2015 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (read the book too!). The film tells the love story between shop-girl Therese and wealthy, older suburban housewife Carol. It’s lush and romantic, but fraught, given the impossible circumstance of being women in love in 1950s America. There’s longing, passion, cheekbones, and gorgeous period costumes, as well as Cate Blanchett’s plummy voice, an appearance by Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, and the evergreen predicament of a woman trapped by her domestic life and societal norms.
Gremlins (1984, dir. Joe Dante)
When my family is together for the holidays, we often put a movie on after dinner. It used to be that we’d try to watch something nobody had seen yet. But that always resulted in the splitting of the family into two camps—one side wanting complete silence, the other wanting to keep talking, movie or no movie. The shushing would turn angry, the rewinding passive aggressive. So now we go with movies we all know well. Gremlins, a movie my siblings and I watched hundreds of times as kids, is a go-to. It’s an unusual combination of Christmas comedy and horror. Something for everyone, silence not required.
Bonus: Listen to Nadia talk about Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) on the Open Form podcast
Fanny and Alexander (1982, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Each Christmas, after the celebration has ended and our Colorado home is glowing with fire and twinkling lights, we gather, our family of seven siblings, the newest babies, our parents, and often friends. We watch Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, one of my mother’s favorite films. The movie follows the large Ekdahl family in 1907 after the death of their patriarch. The film is lush with imagery of Christmas, the humor and vibrancy of stage performers, and the bonds of theater. In fact, I love Fanny and Alexander so much that a line from the film serves as the epigraph to my forthcoming novel, Woman of Light.
Bonus: Listen to Kali talk about Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning (2008) on the Open Form podcast
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017, dir. John McPhail)
There’s a new classic in our household that perfectly bridges the transition from fall to winter and does so with genre-blending flair: Anna and the Apocalypse, a musical zombie film that follows a group of British high school students as the world comes to an end before Christmas. The genre mash-up isn’t always perfect, but the catchy songs juxtaposed by zombies being bashed by a giant candy cane amidst choreographed dance are just my kind of weird and more than make up for any flaws. My wife and I were instantly enamored when we first saw it and the soundtrack is played throughout the year in our car.
Little Women (1994, dir. Gilliam Armstrong)
Every holiday season my family spends an evening making pomanders while watching the 1994 Little Women. All those scenes of crackling fires and rustling fir trees and boots crunching through snow: it’s the perfect cozy winter movie. As for the pomanders—like most good traditions, I couldn’t tell you why it started, but I hope it never stops. (I’m a bit of a Beth.)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, dir. Brian Henson)
This is almost too goofy to talk about publicly, but the one movie I absolutely have to watch every holiday season is The Muppet Christmas Carol. I don’t know why—maybe it’s the fact that a young(ish) Michael Caine gives the performance of a lifetime opposite Kermit the Frog? Is it Gonzo playing Charles Dickens? Is it the (genuinely very good) soundtrack? I’ve never been very excited about A Chrismas Carol, or any of the semi-moralizing Christmas stories that involve chestnuts, baby ghosts, and/or Anglicanism, but the muppets really turn this into a heartwarming screwball musical. Miss Piggy in a Dickensian snowglobe is exactly the exuberant, mildly deranged mood I prefer in December.
Bonus: Listen to Jordan talk about Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017) on the Open Form podcast
The Joy Luck Club (1993, dir. Wayne Wang)
I have a holiday season tradition of watching The Joy Luck Club with my girlfriends—I think it started out as sort of an ironic joke about being bad Asian American daughter, but the scene with June and her mother (IYKYK: “Waverly took best quality crab, you took worst, because you have best quality heart”) always makes me tear up a little. The actresses who play the mothers and daughters are all so beautiful and charismatic on screen. And Russell Wong breaking open the watermelon! Iconic, peak horny.
Die Hard (1988, dir. John McTiernan)
Last Christmas, I introduced my husband (somehow) to the Best Christmas Movie of All Time. As you know, I’m talking about Die Hard. Before 2020, I hadn’t seen it in a while, and let me tell you: it holds up. I mean, usually movies I think I love get sadly ruined when I rewatch them and notice all their misogynist structural underpinnings—the watch, people; it’s a symbol, you see—but somehow Die Hard is so good that I simply . . . don’t care. I mean, peak Bruce Willis, evil Alan Rickman, Kieran Culkin’s aunt (look it up) being truly iconic. And not for nothing, but, as a writer—the pacing. It has transcended its own 80s-ness to become a forever classic. Welcome to the party, pal.
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970, dir. Frank and Eleanor Perry)
Here’s a movie for all the cynics of this holiday season: Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife is the story of a woman driven nearly to insanity by a marriage with, it seems, the most insufferable man ever to have walked the streets of Manhattan (and that’s saying something). She takes refuge from their Upper West Side life—which for her is an endless stream of chores, insults, orders, and daily humiliations—in the bed of a lover, portrayed by Frank Langella in his film debut. Carrie Snodgrass’ sly portrayal of the long-suffering housewife speaks to the beleaguered holiday host and the family pressures (good and bad) of the holiday season—and Richard Benjamin is so unrelentingly good in the role of the unbearable husband that you love to hate him.
Meet Joe Black (1998, dir. Martin Brest)
My favorite holiday movie is Meet Joe Black. Despite not being set at Christmastime, I’ve always thought of Martin Brest’s 1998’s quasi-supernatural romantic fantasy opus—in which Death (Brad Pitt) comes to spirit away an aging American media mogul Bill Parish (Anthony Hopkins), only to fall in love with Parish’s daughter (Claire Forani)—as a Christmas film. Its vibes are cozy, Dickensian, and paced similarly to a protracted Christmas vacation at home. Consider the evidence:
• A family gathers together for a large celebration at the house of an imperious patriarch.
• People swoon and argue and eat and wander through the halls and rooms and gardens of a turn-of-the-century manse.
• There’s a (mostly beguiling, sometimes terrifying) otherworldly figure who shepherds our curmudgeonly protagonist toward revelation.
At 181 minutes, it is so, so long. Meet Joe Black is interminably, luxuriously long. Every scene goes on about 30 percent longer than it needs to, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Every holiday episode of 30 Rock (2006–2013)
I’ve only recently felt comfortable admitting what I’ve known about myself for a long time: I much prefer TV to movies. As such, my favorite holiday “movie” is every holiday episode of 30 Rock. They’re funny, which I consider a must for holiday movies, but the presence of Elaine Strich gives them a whiff of old timey musical spectacular. If you were a fan of the show when it was on the air, returning to the holiday episodes feels like catching up with old friends with whom you maybe don’t have that much in common anymore, but with whom you’re still able to coast by on that sweet, sweet nostalgia. Which is really the essence of the holiday season, no?
Santa’s Slay (2005, dir. David Steiman)
While there is no true escape from the Christmas-industrial complex, Santa’s Slay does make for a wonderful antidote to the overwhelming nature of the holiday season. In this campy cult classic, Santa, played by professional wrestler Bill Goldberg, is a fallen angel who strangles people with Christmas lights, uses tree decorations as throwing stars, drowns someone in eggnog, and equal-opportunity kills a shopkeeper with a menorah. His reindeer have glowing red eyes and are referred to as “hell-deer.” It’s up to a local grandpa and teenager to try to take out Santa in a desperate snowmobile fight that evil Santa, of course, manages to win. Slasher comedies are always a treat, but Santa as the slasher makes for perfect holiday fare. Those looking for a double feature are encouraged to enjoy the much better and equally ridiculous Krampus.
The Thin Man (1934, dir. W.S. Van Dyke)
W.S. Van Dyke’s sparkling 1934 noir-comedy, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as a hard-drinking, nonstop-bantering leisure class amateur detective couple, is the perfect movie to watch on December 26th, or maybe even on New Year’s Day. I’ve never been hungover, but this feels like the perfect thing to watch if you are: there are a lot of scenes of people waking up groggily after nights of partying. The movie begins just before Christmas, when Nick Charles (a former detective) is reluctantly enlisted by a young woman to find her missing father, the eccentric inventor Clyde Wynant. But when Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf, is found murdered, evidence suggests that Wynant may be the culprit, and Nick finds himself investigating the same case from several different, baffling angles, with some help from his wife, Nora, and their fox terrier, Asta. Based on the riotous Dashiell Hammett novel, this lighthearted and high-spirited adaptation is not necessarily boozier than its source text, but it is significantly fizzier and bubblier.
The Holiday (2006, dir. Nancy Meyers)
Who doesn’t love a Nancy Meyers rom-com? All those neutral and beige matching sets, the shiny chrome kitchen fixtures, flowing rivers of white wine, and a heroine with a job in the creative industry all make for the best kind of sugary escapism. In The Holiday, Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet play down-on-their-luck career women who take part in an Airbnb exchange before the company had seemingly ubiquitous influence. Amanda Woods (Diaz), an American movie trailer producer (lol) living in Los Angeles, dumps her boyfriend (Edward Burns) after discovering he cheated on her. She decides to swap houses for the holidays with British society columnist Iris Simpkins (Winslet), who is hopelessly in love with her ex-boyfriend Jasper (Rufus Sewell). Of course, in following the Meyers cinematic blueprint, both women rediscover themselves and find romance when they least expect it. Another bonus: Jude Law is definitely supposed to be the movie’s designated heartthrob, but Jack Black makes a surprising and endearing turn as a rom-com leading man.
While You Were Sleeping (1995, dir. Jon Turteltaub)
There is a Sandra Bullock movie for every season. Practical Magic is obviously the perfect fall flick. Miss Congeniality is just what you need in the spring (specifically on the perfect date of April 25). And right around the holidays, it’s time to revisit While You Were Sleeping, a masterpiece of a romantic comedy. Sandra Bullock plays a lonely and charming Chicago transit authority booth worker who, for years, has yearned for a man (Peter Gallagher) who takes the train every morning—a man she has never met, who she fawns over from behind the safety of the plexiglass. When she witnesses him falling into the tracks one day, she springs into action! She rescues him from the crush of the train, but he falls into a coma. In order to see him at the hospital, she claims to be his fiancée, which of course backfires spectacularly when his entire family overhears and welcomes her into their home. (This really seems to be a theme for good ole Sandra Bullock. The Proposal, anyone?) For those feeling a little left out this year, it’s a heartwarming tale about the family you find for yourself. It’s also a great reminder that men are most lovable when they are A) someone you’ve never talked to or B) unconscious. If that’s not enough inducement, there’s a hot brother (Bill Pullman) and an endearing scene in which Sandra Bullock is incapable of bringing her Christmas tree up into her apartment.