The Best Christmas Movies by Decade

Christmas movies have been a staple of popular yuletide culture for as long as cinema has existed. Anyone who celebrates at Christmastime has sat down to watch a Christmas film at some point in their life.

The fun thing about Christmas movies is that they're far more versatile than you might think. They aren't all family-oriented, heartwarming, and sentimental – some of them are tragic, others hilarious, and there are even countless horror movies set at Christmas.

In this piece, we'll take you through the best two movies from every decade, starting with the 1930s and ending with the 2020s.

The 1930s | The Thin Man (1934, Directed by W. S. Van Dyke)

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Image Credit: Metro-Goldyn-Mayer.

The Thin Man is a pre-Code comedy-mystery movie based on Dashiell Hammett's 1934 eponymous novel. It's about former detective Nick Charles and his wealthy wife, Nora, as they investigate a murder case, mainly for the sheer fun of it, at Christmastime.

Far From a Typical Christmas Movie

The Thin Man 1934 Metro Goldyn Mayer
Image Credit: Metro-Goldyn-Mayer

William Powell and Myrna Loy make this movie what it is, and that's brilliant. While it's far from a typical Christmas movie, it has plenty of fun and festivities to ensure it falls into the category. The dialogue is excellent in The Thin Man, the movie's mystery gets handled superbly, and it's thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.

Babes in Toyland (1934, Directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers)

Babes in Toyland 1934 Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Babes in Toyland, AKA March of the Wooden Soldiers, is a musical Christmas movie starring comedy legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It's loosely based on Victor Herbert's famous 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland and follows Ollie Dee and Stanley Dum as they try and fail to pay off Mother Peep's mortgage, all while going up against the evil Barnaby.

One of The Merriest Christmas Films Ever

Babes in Toyland 1934 Metro Goldwyn Mayer 2
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

This movie is an absolute joy and one of the merriest Christmas films ever made. While it's mainly for children, there are laughs and thrills galore for all the family. It's simply delightful and fun in its most pure form, and Laurel and Hardy are fantastic in it.

Honorable Mentions; Scrooge (1935), A Christmas Carol (1938).

The 1940s | It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Directed by Frank Capra)

Its a Wonderful Life 1946 Liberty Films
Image Credit: Liberty Films

It's a Wonderful Life is a Christman fantasy drama movie based on Philip Van Doren Stern's 1943 short story The Greatest Gift, which is, in turn, loosely based on Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. It's about a man who gave up his dreams to help his community and whose suicidal Christmas Eve thoughts bring about the intervention of his guardian angel.

Defines Them All

Its a Wonderful Life 1946 Liberty Films 2
Image Credit: Liberty Films

This movie is one of the finest ever made and the Christmas movie that defines them all. James Stewart is phenomenal as its star, and the supporting cast does a fantastic job. It's creative, funny and full of heart. If you only get the chance to watch one Christmas movie, make sure it's this one.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947, Directed by George Seaton)

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmas comedy-drama based on a story by Valentine Davies. The movie is about a department store Santa Claus, at Macy's in New York City, who claims to be the real Father Christmas, and he goes to court in a bid to prove it.

Sentimental, Funny, and Brilliantly Performed

Miracle on 34th Street 1947 20th Century
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

You'll believe in Santa Claus by the time you've finished watching this movie – that's how good it is. It's sentimental, funny, and brilliantly performed by its excellent cast. Edmund Gwenn is exceptionally wonderful as Kris Kringle. Miracle on 34th Street is the perfect film to watch if you want to experience a warm feeling over the festive period.

Honorable Mentions; Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Christmas in Connecticut (1945).

The 1950s | White Christmas (1954, Directed by Michael Curtiz)

White Christmas 1954 Paramount Pictures
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

White Christmas is a musical movie featuring the songs of Irving Berlin. The tracks include a version of “White Christmas” introduced by Bing Crosby in 1942's Holiday Inn. In the movie, a successful song-and-dance duo becomes romantically involved with a pair of performing sisters. They all team up to save a failing Vermont inn run by their beloved former commanding general.

Great Fun to Watch

White Christmas
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

As the first movie to release in VistaVision, White Christmas looks terrific. It's also unashamedly sentimental, incredibly sweet, and great fun to watch. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are on top form in this one, and Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen keep up with them for the entire film.

The Snow Queen (1957, Directed by Lev Atamanov)

The Snow Queen 1957 Soyuzmultfilm
Image Credit: Soyuzmultfilm

The Snow Queen is a Soviet animated musical fantasy movie based on the 1844 story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. It's about the lonely and powerful eponymous fairy who kidnaps a human boy, forcing his best friend to head on a dangerous quest to rescue him.

A Masterpiece of Animation

The Snow Queen 1957 Soyuzmultfilm 2
Image Credit: Soyuzmultfilm

This movie is a masterpiece of animation and a wonderfully atmospheric film by any standards. It's hopeful and spirited with an excellent story – and it looks gorgeous. While it's undoubtedly better in Russian, the English dub is very effective.

Honorable Mentions; We're No Angels (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955).

The 1960s | A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965, Directed by Bill Melendez)

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Image Credit: Lee Mendelson Film Productions

Rather than being a feature-length movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas is an animated television special based on Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts. In the film, Charlie Brown is depressed despite Christmastime arriving, and Lucy suggests he direct a neighborhood Christmas play. However, when he chooses a tiny Christmas tree as a centerpiece, he finds himself the target of mockery.

Heartwarming and Funny

A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965 Lee Mendelson Film Productions
Image Credit: Lee Mendelson Film Productions

Production ended only ten days before it was due to air, with the team behind it convinced it would fail. However, it was a huge success – with the technical flaws it undoubtedly has being part of its charm. It's heartwarming and funny, and it has Charlie Brown coming out on top for a change, which is a great festive mood-booster.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966, Directed by Chuck Jones and Ben Washam)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas 1966 Cat in the Hat Productions
Image Credit: Cat in the Hat Productions

Another animated television special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is based on the 1957 children's book of the same name by Dr. Seuss. In the film, the mischievous Grinch attempts to ruin Christmas for the people of the town of Whoville, which sits below his mountain hideaway.

A Work of Art

How the Grinch Stole Christmas 1966 Cat in the Hat Productions 2
Image Credit: Cat in the Hat Productions

With Boris Karloff providing the voice of the Grinch and the narrator, this is a work of art. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, it's a festive staple that deserves its place on lists like these, despite not being a traditional feature-length movie. The animation is lovely, the story is excellent, and it's a joy to watch.

Honorable Mentions; Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968).

The 1970s | Scrooge (1970, Directed by Ronald Neame)

Scrooge 1970 Cinema Center Films 2
Image Credit: Cinema Center Films

Scrooge is a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1843 story, A Christmas Carol. This one stars Albert Finney as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, as several ghostly Christmas apparitions visit him and take him on a mysterious journey of redemption.

One of The Finest Movie Adaptations of a Christmas Carol

Scrooge 1970 Cinema Center Films
Image Credit: Cinema Center Films

It's one of the finest movie adaptations of the classic story, and it features a masterful performance from Finney in the eponymous role. The music and singing are great, and the whole thing is teeming with the warmth, sentimentality, and heart you hope to experience when seeing A Christmas Carol adapted on screen.

Black Christmas (1974, Directed by Bob Clark)

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Black Christmas is a slasher movie set during the Christmas season about a group of sorority sisters who receive threatening phone calls (from inside the house! – for the first time) and get stalked and brutally murdered by a deranged and mysterious killer.

A Tense, Scary Holiday Movie

Black Christmas 1974 Film Funding Ltd. of Canada
Image Credit: Film Funding Ltd. of Canada

It's a tense movie that provides all the fiendishly scary holiday viewing you need. It was innovative when released and is more intelligent than most slasher movies, and many horror fans see it as highly influential. Its leading stars – Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder, the latter famous for playing Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies – are both excellent.

Honorable Mentions; A Christmas Carol (1971), Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972).

The 1980s | Gremlins (1984, Directed by Joe Dante)

Gremlins Christmas
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Gremlins is a black comedy horror movie based on legends from World War II of folkloric creatures causing malfunctions in vehicles and machinery. In the film, a young man receives a strange pet for Christmas, which spawns other creatures that transform into monstrous little hellions that cause havoc in a small American town.

Wickedly Funny Movie

Gremlins Warner Bros MSN
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

It's such a wickedly funny movie that you can't help but enjoy it – even if you're easily scared. It has some reasonably frightening moments, but it's mainly an absolute hoot. The creatures in the movie are entirely practical – there are no special effects – and they look great. The whole cast gives excellent performances in this one.

Die Hard (1988, Directed by John McTiernan)

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Die Hard is an action movie based on Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever. In the film, a New York City police detective named John McClane finds himself in the middle of a terrorist takeover of a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve while he's there to visit his estranged wife.

One of The Greatest Action Movies of All Time

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the greatest action movies of all time. Debate rages on regarding its status as a Christmas movie, but we're inclined to call it one. It's thrilling to the point of causing the viewer's heart to pound. Bruce Willis is excellent as McClane, and the movie spawned what is now considered an iconic franchise.

Honorable Mentions; Santa Claus: The Movie (1984), Scrooged (1988).

The 1990s | Home Alone (1990, Directed by Chris Columbus)

Home Alone
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Home Alone is a Christmas comedy about a boy named Kevin McCallister, who must defend his large suburban Chicago home from a pair of burglars when his family mistakenly leaves him behind when they depart their festive vacation to Paris. It spawned a franchise, but only the first sequel is worth mentioning.

Slapstick, Hilarious Humor

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Macaulay Culkin is brilliant as Kevin in this movie, and the supporting cast is terrific – most notably Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the hapless burglars. Home Alone's slapstick humor is hilarious, but the movie also has a lot of heart. It's a sadistic celebration of grown-up bashing, and we mean that in the most brilliant way possible. It also has a brilliant John Williams score.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Directed by Henry Selick)

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Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop-motion animated musical dark fantasy movie. It originated as a poem written by producer Tim Burton in 1982. It follows Jack Skellington, the King of “Halloween Town,” as he stumbles into “Christmas Town” and plots a scheme to take over the more festive holiday.

Full of Fun and Mild Frights

The Nightmare Before Christmas 1993 Touchstone PIctures
Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures

This movie is a work of art. It's so original and is full of both fun and mild frights. It's utterly stunning from a visual point of view, the musical numbers are great, and the voice actors perform brilliantly. The story is lovely, and there's even a little romance. The Nightmare Before Christmas is perfect for watching on either Christmas or Halloween.

Honorable Mentions; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Jingle All the Way (1996).

The 2000s | Elf (2003, Directed by Jon Favreau)

Elf 2003 New Line Cinema
Image Credit: New Line Cinema

Elf is a Christmas comedy about a man named Buddy who spent his childhood at the North Pole raised by Santa's elves. When he learns about his origins, he journeys to New York City to meet his biological father – a grumpy children's book publisher.

One of The Most Cheerful Movies Ever Made

Elf 2003 New Line Cinema 2
Image Credit: New Line Cinema

It's one of the most cheerful movies ever made. Elf is nice-spirited, good-natured, warmhearted, and hilarious. Will Ferrell is sublime in the childlike eponymous role, and you can tell he had a ball doing it. The supporting cast of Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, and the late, great James Caan make it even better.

The Polar Express (2004, Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

The Polar Express 2004 Castle Rock Entertainment
Image Credit: Castle Rock Entertainment

The Polar Express is a computer-animated adventure movie based on Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 children's book of the same name. It's about a young boy who sees a mysterious North Pole-bound train stop outside his window on Christmas Eve. He's invited aboard and joins several other kids as they head off to visit Santa Claus.

A Deep, Magical Quality

The Polar

This movie looks stunning, and while it is festive, there's more of a haunting, deep, magical quality to it than the typical jolly Christmas film. It's utterly enchanting, and Tom Hanks deserves endless credit for brilliantly voicing no less than six characters – including several of the main ones. Overall, The Polar Express is lovely.

Honorable Mentions; How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), Bad Santa (2003).

The 2010s | Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, Directed by Jalmari Helander)

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Image Credit: Cinet

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a Finnish fantasy action horror movie based on the 2003 short film Rare Exports Inc. and its 2005 sequel Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions by Jalmari Helander and Juuso Helander. In the movie, an American and British research team dig up Christmas's true secrets in Lapland, with horrifying results.

Blend of Dark Horror and Deadpan Comedy

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Image Credit: Cinet

It's a near-perfect blend of dark horror and deadpan comedy. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is original, ambitious, and brilliantly crafted – from the sets to the acting and directing – and a movie you should undoubtedly watch. Despite its gruesome content, it also has a genuine feeling of Christmas spirit.

Arthur Christmas (2011, Directed by Sarah Smith)

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Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Arthur Christmas is a computer-animated sci-fi comedy. It's about Santa's clumsy son Arthur, as he sets out on a mission with his Grandfather to make sure a young girl gets a present Santa Claus misplaced in less than two hours.

Refreshing, Funny, and Emotional

Arthur Christmas 2011 Columbia Pictures
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

It's a movie that tackles the idea of Santa in a modern, hi-tech way, and it works. Arthur Christmas is refreshing, funny, intelligent, earnest, and emotional. Moreover, the animation is beautiful. Aardman Animations do an incredible job in only their second entirely computer-animated feature movie.

Honorable Mentions; Krampus (2015), The Grinch (2018).

The 2020s | Happiest Season (2020, Directed by Clea Duvall)

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Happiest Season is a romantic comedy-drama about a woman who struggles to admit that she's a lesbian to her conservative parents while visiting them at Christmas with her girlfriend. DuVall has said the film is semi-autobiographical based on her experiences with her own family.

A Satisfying Ending

Happiest Season 2020 TriStar Pictures
Image Credit: TriStar Pictures

With a great ensemble cast that includes Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, and Mary Steenburgen, Happiest Season is full of heartfelt performances. It's intelligent, charming, sincere, and jolly, with a satisfying ending that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

8-Bit Christmas (2021, Directed by Michael Dowse)

8-Bit Christmas
Courtesy of HBO Max

8-Bit Christmas is a comedy movie based on Kevin Jakubowski's 2013 novel of the same name. It's set in 1980s Chicago, as a 10-year-old embarks on a determined quest to ensure he gets the best Christmas gift of his generation: the latest and greatest video game console.

A Heart-Tugging Movie

8 Bit Christmas 2021 New Line Cinema
Image Credit: New Line Cinema

Neil Patrick Harris is excellent as the lead in this one, as is his supporting cast. It's a lovely, warm, sentimental, nostalgic, and heart-tugging movie. It's full of 80s references that those who lived through the decade will love. The writing and direction are excellent.

Honorable Mentions; Silent Night (2021), Red Snow (2021).

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