Christmas has arrived once more, and the traditional rotation of Christmas classics has begun broadcasting on the airwaves. There is always a place for classics like Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas, as well as the perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life.
However, an eclectic roster of modern Christmas movies has appeared over the last few decades that have gradually earned their place among the established classics, and the season wouldn’t be the same without these newer entries. Wealth of Geeks proudly presents a collection of modern Christmas movies, starting from 1990, that have earned their place among the holiday pantheon.
1. Home Alone (1990)
The film turned Macaulay Culkin into a child superstar. Directed with impeccable grace by Chris Columbus and written by 80s teen film maestro John Hughes, Home Alone followed the story of Kevin McAlister, a young boy who defends his Chicago home from a pair of bungling burglars after being left behind by his family over the Christmas holidays. The slapstick performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the film’s highlights, but it’s the quieter moments between Culkin and Roberts Blossom that truly capture the spirit of the season.
2. A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Many adaptations of the beloved Charles Dickens novella have existed almost since cinema emerged as a medium, but a generation of children will vouch for this Disney-produced version.
The story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his ultimate redemption gets a make-over with the Muppets cast, with Charles Dickens himself portrayed by Gonzo the Great and Bob Cratchit played by Kermit the Frog. Michael Caine gives a commanding performance as Scrooge and would fit seamlessly in more conventional versions of the story, showcasing his care and dedication to his supporting Muppets. Disney cut a key component of the film, the melancholic love song “When Love is Gone,” from most releases of the feature. It was ultimately restored in 2022 in time for the film’s 30th anniversary, letting audiences finally see the film as director Brian Henson intended.
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Director Henry Sellick and producer Tim Burton, adapting Burton’s own 1982 poem, took a dark fantasy twist to modern Christmas movies by mixing it with another beloved holiday: Halloween. Jack Skellington reigns as the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, but years upon years of the same macabre routine have left him bored and eager for something new.
Only when he stumbles upon “Christmas Town” and takes in the atmosphere of Christmas does Jack decide to take over the holiday for himself. With a legendary score by Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman and meticulous stop-motion animation overseen by Sellick, The Nightmare Before Christmas remains a beloved cult classic and continues to inspire thirty years later.
4. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
A remake of the 1947 Maureen O’Hara/Edmund Gwenn film of the same name, Miracle on 34th Street followed the story of a department store Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, who claims he's the real Santa Claus and the effect he has on an unbelieving young girl. Much of the original story had to change to conform with the 1990s, particularly the removal of Macy’s department store for a fictional counterpart and the injection of faith into the text. The story is treated more seriously compared to its 1947 counterpart, but the performance of Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle shines as one of the best interpretations of Santa Claus among modern Christmas movies.
5. The Santa Clause (1994)
Tim Allen became famous for his starring role on Home Improvement before landing the chance to play a vastly different sort of Santa Claus in this classic. Scott Calvin balances being a toy marketing director, divorcee, and devoted father to his son Charlie. On Christmas Eve, Calvin accidentally causes Santa Claus to fall to his death and, on a legal technicality, must become the new Santa. The success of the film created a new franchise of modern Christmas movies for Disney, with a brand-new TV series, The Santa Clauses, premiering in November 2022.
6. Jingle All the Way (1996)
A breezier form of Christmas film aimed at the family, Jingle All the Way skewered the rampant commercialization of the holiday. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a mattress salesman who strives to buy the last Turbo-Man action figure for his son on Christmas Eve, only to run afoul of a similarly determined mailman played by Sinbad.
While not a critical darling, the film developed a cult following over the years, due to the comedic performance of Schwarzenegger in an against-type role of put-upon everyman.
7. The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
A remake of a Cary Grant/Loretta Young vehicle called The Bishop’s Wife, The Preacher’s Wife stars Denzel Washington as a suave angel named Dudley who answers a struggling reverend's prayers to help salvage his failing church. A distinctly old Hollywood premise punctuated by Washington’s classic charm, the film adapted the original story to accommodate the focus on gospel themes. This crucial change also gives costar Whitney Houston, the wife of the title, a chance to return to her church choir roots with her powerful singing voice. Oft forgotten today, The Preacher’s Wife stands as an uplifting look at faith and community that shines among modern Christmas movies.
8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Hollywood has adapted numerous Dr. Seuss books for animation in the past, but Universal’s first live-action adaptation take on the beloved material still remains the one to beat. The beloved 1966 Chuck Jones animated special had already adapted How the Grinch Stole Christmas but director Ron Howard found new avenues to explore the original text. Jim Carrey portrays a more manic version of the “Mean One” in his trademark style and the hyper-stylized set design and make-up work are a sight to behold nearly twenty-five years after its release.
9. Bad Santa (2003)
As pitch black a comedy as there ever was one, Bad Santa sticks out among modern Christmas movies for its unapologetically raunchy, twisted take on a familiar idea: the bad man earning redemption during the holiday season.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie T. Stoke, a hard-drinking, women-addicted department mall Santa Claus who plots with his dwarf assistant to rob a department store on Christmas Eve. However, Stoke encounters a bullied, naïve boy who believes he’s the real Santa Claus, causing him to rethink for his own life choices. Even after twenty years and a sequel in 2016, the original Bad Santa continues to surprise and stands as a welcome twisted addition to the modern Christmas movies repertoire for its unrepentant mean-spiritedness.
10. Love Actually (2003)
One of the most beloved of writer/director Richard Curtis’s filmography and a true modern Christmas favorite. An ensemble piece as there ever was, Love Actually crisscrosses between ten individual stories from a washed-out rock star recording a Christmas cover, a widowed father helping his stepson through his first love, and the fresh-faced Prime Minister of Great Britain finding love in 10 Downing Street.
With some of the UK’s best actors including Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, and Emma Thompson, Love Actually shows the diaspora of “love” during the holidays and the highs and lows of the season.
11. Elf (2003)
Jon Favreau’s directorial breakthrough and one of actor Will Ferrell’s most iconic roles, this movie pays loving homage to Rankin/Bass holiday specials.
Elf follows Buddy, a human raised as one of Santa’s elves, as he returns to New York City to reunite with his curmudgeonly father, played by James Caan. Ferrell is at his most childlike as Buddy, encapsulating the youthful excitement around Christmas and wearing the holiday’s heart on his green sleeves. The success of the film would inspire both a Broadway musical and a broadcast stop-motion adaptation that would bring the story in line with its original Rankin/Bass influence.
12. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
One of Japanese director Satoshi Kon’s last masterpieces, Tokyo Godfathers takes the concept of the Three Wise Men and brings it into early 21st century Japan with deeper explorations of found family dynamics.
Loosely inspired by John Ford’s Western 3 Godfathers, Tokyo Godfathers follows three homeless people of different backgrounds who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. Determined to find the child’s parents, the trio traverses Tokyo, coming to terms with their pasts along the way as they try to confront their futures. Grounded in realism but sentimental where it counts, Tokyo Godfathers remains a true stunner among modern Christmas movies.
13. The Polar Express (2004)
Robert Zemeckis had made a reputation for himself by combining groundbreaking special effects technology and storytelling when he was tasked with adapting Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 classic.
Considered the first all-digital motion capture film, The Polar Express expands upon the original picture book to fit a conventional runtime but manages to capture the warm tones and nostalgia that made the story a Christmas staple. Yes, the “dead eye” effect can distract and there’s one “roller coaster” sequence too many, but the performances by Tom Hanks and the film’s visual splendor are more than worth the watch.
14. Joyeux Noël (2005)
Inspired by the real-life Christmas Truce of 1914, French film Joyeux Noël strived to capture the experience of December 1914 through the various eyes of French, British, and German troops fighting the early months of the First World War. As beautiful as it is heartbreaking, the film captures a wonderful reprieve in a war destined to define the rest of the century while showcasing the best of humanity in such a critical period of time. Featuring actors Daniel Brühl and Dianne Kruger, Joyeux Noël stands as a commendable ode to the goodness inherent in all mankind and embodies the hope that can be found at Christmas.
15. The Holiday (2006)
Conceived by Nancy Meyers and molded in the great Richard Curtis tradition, The Holiday follows two women, one British and one American, who exchange houses with one another to get over their mutual heartbreak over the Christmas season. Featuring Jack Black in a wonderfully against-type role as a romantic lead, The Holiday is a cozy romantic comedy that takes the spirit of the Christmas holiday and shows audiences the love that can be found in the most unconventional circumstances.
16. The Nativity Story (2006)
Plenty of films about Jesus Christ touched on the nativity narrative in the past, but The Nativity Story was the first to truly go in-depth into the surroundings of the most famous birth in history. The film allows the audience to sympathize with Mary and Joseph, the great responsibility thrust upon them, and the humanized ways both would react to the situation.
It also doesn’t hurt that the film marked one of Oscar Isaac’s first onscreen starring roles, portraying Joseph as he struggles with his bride’s new purpose. Though met with mixed reception at the time of its release, The Nativity Story deserves a second look.
17. A Christmas Carol (2009)
Robert Zemeckis returned to the Christmas film genre with this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, utilizing the same motion capture animation technology for The Polar Express while capturing more of the gothic undertones permeating the text. Jim Carrey takes a more serious turn as this film’s Scrooge, eschewing much of his comedic sensibilities and embodying a mournful version of the old miser. With a supporting cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and Bob Hoskins, Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol stands as a visually dazzling take on a well-worn favorite, particularly its loving winter recreation of 1840s London.
18. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
One of the rare Finnish films to break out into the American mainstream, Rare Exports adapted a pair of shorts by director Jalmari Helander. The story follows a company that takes wild Santa Clauses and trains them to become the department store Santas people see around the world. This film serves as the company’s origin story, blending Christmas sentiment, action, and horror to make a unique type of Santa Claus story that owes more to John Carpenter than Frank Capra.
19. Arthur Christmas (2011)
Aardman Animation’s second purely CGI-produced film, Arthur Christmas brings a more tech-savvy take on the Santa Claus concept while adding the right dash of English humor.
Arthur Claus is the youngest son of the current Santa Claus. The family expects his older brother, Steve, to take over as “Santa” upon their father’s retirement. After another successful annual delivery run, Arthur discovers to his horror a young girl's bicycle was misplaced and sets out to deliver the present himself, teaming up with his grandfather and a gift-wrapping-obsessed elf. Punctuated by kinetic comedy animation and familial themes, Arthur Christmas awaits reappraisal as a modern Christmas movie.
20. Get Santa (2014)
Another British Christmas production overlooked in recent years but deserving of a second look, Get Santa is another Santa Claus story with a unique hook: what if Santa crashed his sleigh over London and ended up in jail for his trouble?
Jim Broadbent portrays Santa with the same warmth as expected but mixes it up with a prison escape film as Santa counts on a recently paroled getaway driver and his young son to break him out. It’s an offbeat, but nevertheless charming addition to the canon of modern Christmas movies.
21. Krampus (2015)
Christmas and the horror genre have intermingled at various points over the last several decades, particularly in slasher fair, but Krampus mixes the two just right. Inspired by the mythos of the demonic helper of Santa Claus in Central/Eastern European winter folklore, Krampus follows the terrifying plight of a family battling the titular demon after losing their holiday spirit. Made in the grand Joe Dante tradition of Gremlins, Krampus skews more comedically than its horror premise would suggest and acts as a welcome respite from the cheesier aspects of modern Christmas movies.
22. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Just how did Charles Dickens sit down and write A Christmas Carol back in 1843? This semi-fictional account of the creation behind the beloved novella blends fantasy and reality coming together, as Dickens sets out to meet his increasingly tight deadline while contending with the forces that both push and imperil creativity.
With a looming Christopher Plummer as the creative id that becomes Ebenezer Scrooge, The Man Who Invented Christmas serves as a loving tribute to Charles Dickens and shows how impactful his writing has had on the modern celebration of Christmas nearly two centuries later.
23. Klaus (2019)
Netflix’s animation library has earned praise over recent years, and it arguably began with this visually stunning take on the origin of Santa Claus. A Spanish/American co-production, Klaus follows the spoiled Jesper Johansen, a reluctant postman stationed on an island town in far northern Norway. Tasked with delivering 6,000 letters amidst a squabbling family feud between the town’s citizens, Jesper teams up with Klaus, a reclusive toymaker to answer children’s letters. A gorgeous mix of mostly hand-drawn animation with light computer touches, Klaus stands as the most joyful of modern Christmas movies.
24. Violent Night (2022)
What if Die Hard wasn’t about John McClane but instead Santa Claus?
This simple hook serves as the premise behind Violent Night, a hard-action comedy that reevaluates the old elf in the 2020s. A semi-disillusioned Santa, portrayed by a hard-drinking David Harbour, endeavors to rescue a wealthy family after stumbling upon a band of mercenary thieves during his Christmas deliveries. Gloriously violent and heartwarming all at once, Violent Night packs the heart of a modern Christmas movie with the soul of an old-school action-thriller.
25. The Holdovers (2023)
The Holdovers, though a recent release, is destined to be talked about in the same breath as other Christmas classics. In a remarkable return to form for director Alexander Payne, The Holdovers follows Paul Hunham, a classics teacher in 1970s New England bitterly resented by his fellow staff and students for his upright attitude, as he’s tasked with looking out for left-behind students over the Christmas holiday break. He eventually bonds with loner Angus and cafeteria woman Mary as the trio comes to grips with past regrets and shattered dreams. Achingly bittersweet but open to new hopes, The Holdovers captures the look and feel of its time period while embodying the complex emotions of the Christmas season that many others don’t.