Netflix has sauntered into the popular “gentle Christmas movies” space with a bunch of offerings that feature varying levels of celebrity and plot coherence. Ahead of the holidays, we took a look at what’s on offer to help you figure out which of them to watch.
The Noel Diary
Nothing could shock me more than the fact that I enjoyed this movie. First of all, I am Team Chrishell (of Selling Sunset); thus, I usually abstain from content starring her ex-husband Justin Hartley. Unfortunately, holiday movies dissolve all habitude and make a mockery of context, so here I am.
Hartley plays super-successful author Jacob Turner, who has plenty of women fans chasing after him but opts to spend the holidays alone with his dog. Or that would have been the plan, but a lawyer calls to tell him his estranged mother has died and left him everything. He returns to his childhood home to deal with her house — which is full of crap, since she was a hoarder — and a woman shows up at the door. That’s Rachel (Barrett Doss), on a search for her birth mother, who, as it happens, was Jacob’s nanny. As he clears through his mother’s stuff, he comes across a diary written by someone called Noel. (That’s Rachel’s mom! Keep up.) Hence, the Noel diary.
But where is she now? Peskily, the only way to find out is via Jacob’s dad, whom he is also estranged from, for reasons unknown to the viewer but obviously very upsetting to Jacob. As an act of Christmas goodwill, Jacob agrees to help Rachel meet him.
The casting in this movie is good — all the side characters are wholesome but not too hokey, and the two leads are charismatic, even if they don’t have the most sparkling chemistry in the world. The best gag in this is Rachel’s fiancé, Alan (Mike Donovan), a penny-pinching liberal intellectual type who wears nerdy glasses and calls her about gas bills while she’s in the midst of making life-changing discoveries.
Honestly, this movie’s terrible name makes it seem like it will be more D-grade than it actually is. A lot of holiday movies inspire a begrudging description of “fine,” but this movie is actually fine! Incredible work. —Estelle Tang
Falling for Christmas
Lindsay Lohan + Christmas movie = something I would watch even if I didn’t have a TV and had to view the whole thing peering through the window of a Best Buy in the snow. And while it gave me little pleasure to notice how Lohan’s considerable charm has dimmed since her truly wonderful performances as a kid, I still happily digested this ridiculous bonbon of a film.
Lohan plays Sierra Belmont, a ski lodge heir (wasn’t aware that was a thing) whose father wants to give her a made-up job at his company so that she will have something to do rather than just swan around in designer clothes. But in a tragic mishap, she falls off a mountain after her influencer boyfriend proposes to her, bumps her head, and loses her memory. Jake Russell (Chord Overstreet), the proprietor of a smaller, less successful ski lodge, lets her stay with him and his family, but makes her help out with random tasks, allowing her to discover that she enjoys the dignity of work. I can’t believe this movie is secretly about how great it is to have a job. Boo!
The characters are little more than tropes, the wardrobe is lurid, and the themes are predictable. But what I will say is that this movie is cozy as hell. While watching Falling for Christmas, I opened several search tabs to facilitate my future acquisition of “tartan pajamas,” “white chenille sweater,” “fluffy throw,” and “big sparkly angel for tree.” It was really difficult to tell if Lohan and Overstreet have chemistry because I was so disturbed by the idea that a man would fall in love with and try to kiss a woman who has been affected by severe memory loss. And I was deeply distracted by Olivia Perez, who plays Jake’s young daughter Avy, a girl who seems so perpetually optimistic and happy that I felt sad about my own impoverished capacity for joy.
Anyway, I don’t think you have a choice about whether or not you watch this movie. It will happen to you at some point in your life, so you might as well do it now. —Estelle Tang
Christmas With You
OK, first of all, they say the name of this movie in the movie. That is always extremely satisfying. However, probably the easiest way to describe Christmas With You is as a lower-budget, holiday-themed Marry Me. Aimee Garcia plays Angelina, a pop star whose shine is diminishing; she needs a hit to stay relevant. Freddie Prinze Jr. is Miguel, a dorky high school music teacher and single dad. When his daughter Cristina (Deja Monique Cruz) makes a video of herself singing one of Angelina’s songs, the pop star visits the teen, thinking she could try to create a viral moment with a young fan.
The first part of this movie is rather punishing, full of joyless exposition. When I started feeling tired, I looked at the progress bar and only 30 minutes had passed. Scripting is not its strong point: Christmas With You is full of lines like “Never doubt yourself” and “What good is surviving if you’re not really living?” Yet at some point, I realized I was extremely invested in the main plot point of Miguel and Angelina writing a Christmas hit that would save her career.
And this movie succeeds where other Famous Person Meets Normal Person movies fail: It actually explores what it’s like when a celebrity whirlwind enters and then suddenly departs your life. It’s really nice when Miguel assures his daughter, who is worried the resulting circus is her fault, that he got to do a bunch of cool stuff because of her love of music. The final set piece, at Cristina’s quinceañera, celebrates family in a way that doesn’t feel like a second-place award. I loved watching her walk out in her big pink dress and jewels. I cried at the end, OK? I’m not in a good place emotionally. Movies are so stupid. —Estelle Tang
The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star
You may be under the illusion that The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star is just a movie. I am here to tell you it is so much more. No, it is not one of your regular holiday films — it’s a daring display of excess, an act of defiance against the limits of Hollywood superstardom. By which I mean it is a film where Vanessa Hudgens plays not one, not two, but three characters: a princess, a queen, and the queen’s identical-looking cousin.
To catch you up quickly with the story so far: The first Princess Switch is a straightforward Prince and the Pauper re-creation, but make it Christmas. Stacy (Hudgens), a regular American girl on vacation, switches places with Duchess Margaret (also Hudgens). It’s nice. It ends with a wedding. The second, Switched Again, ends in a wedding and a coronation, which is double as nice, but that’s neither here nor there. It introduces a third look-alike: the evil cousin Fiona (also Hudgens), who tries to sabotage the coronation but ends up in jail.
Enter the third Princess Switch. You think you want another rom-com for Christmas? Sorry, too bad. Romancing the Star is a Christmas heist movie — it’s Ocean’s Eleven, except everyone is played by Vanessa Hudgens. Margaret and Stacy are planning to throw a spectacular Christmas celebration, made more glittery by the presence of the Star of Peace, a shiny, priceless artifact on loan from the Vatican. When the Star of Peace is stolen, Margaret and Stacy quickly realize that they’re out of their depth in trying to retrieve it, so they turn to the evil and glamorous Fiona for help in getting it back.
Romancing the Star has it all: It contains homages to plenty of action films, like an elaborate laser-evading scene à la Mission Impossible. Its title is a preposterous play on the classic Romancing the Stone. It even manages to fit in a redemption story for Fiona, who has to confront her inability to love. At a certain point, a police officer delivers the line, “That would be a pie crust promise. Easily made, easily broken.” That’s the best line in movie history.
But none of this is really the point. You come to watch Hudgens transform herself into three distinct characters, and then watch her transform again as each of these characters play each other to pull off double, even triple, switcheroos. In order for this movie to work, you not only have to keep track of which Hudgens is which, but also be able to recognize which Hudgens is playing a Hudgens disguised as another Hudgens. What more do you want? Plot? Don’t be so elitist. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud
A Castle for Christmas
I don’t have anything bad to say about this movie even though, technically speaking, it is not good. If you are watching A Castle for Christmas with a preference for such arbitrary elements as flowing dialogue, realism, a “cool factor,” or any other spurious considerations, then fie upon you and your family — no Christmas wishes shall be upon thee. The correct way to enjoy this holiday confection is to regard it as a pleasant 98 minutes in the company of Cary Elwes and Brooke Shields.
If you do not do this, then you may chafe at the blatantly formulaic plot and stilted cast dynamics. But if you come with no expectations, then you may enjoy the tale of Sophie (Shields), a romance novelist who has alienated her fanbase (her “misstep” is so inoffensive that it doesn’t bear discussion), and Myles (Elwes), a Scottish duke whose castle is at risk of repossession. (Castles: very big and difficult to maintain, as it happens.) Sophie angers the duke by wandering the drafty castle (it’s his home) without permission, and not even her revelation of an old connection to the estate can cure their acrimony. Nevertheless, they are extremely attracted to each other, which means they overcome their misunderstandings while working together to keep the castle in good hands. Thank goodness.
This all takes place in a world where rom-com laws prevent anything from going too badly. Major ingredients include an unlikely real estate contract, a magical font of money that solves every practical problem, a knitting circle, and a huge tartan ballgown; there’s a dog, and also horses, for some reason. Brooke Shields and her eyebrows remain as perfect as ever, and Cary Elwes gamely lends charm to these ridiculous hijinks. Let’s be honest — why are you reading about A Castle for Christmas? You’re already watching it with your aunt. —Estelle Tang
Love Hard is like the Christmas movie version of an r/AmITheAsshole post. Like those divisive scenarios, Love Hard poses a question about who acted most poorly: Is the asshole Jimmy O. Yang’s character, Josh Lin, for catfishing Nina Dobrev’s character, Natalie Bauer, by using a photo of his childhood friend on a dating app? Or is it Natalie, who, once she flies across the country and realizes what Josh has done, rejects him and convinces him to set her up with the friend in exchange for pretending to be his girlfriend for the holidays?
To use the Reddit parlance, ESH (everybody sucks here). While this film has a lot of modern elements (catfishing, dating apps, Natalie working for some sort of women’s online magazine), it has the vibe of an outdated early 2000s rom-com, where an “ugly duckling” is turned into a swan in the eyes of their beloved just by taking off their glasses — or, in this case, showing off their nice personality.
Despite this, I was amused watching the writers try to twist this strange premise into a happy ending. They want us to believe that Natalie pretending to like rock climbing and wearing flannel to win over outdoorsy Tag (Darren Barnet) is the same as Josh catfishing her, but that doesn’t really land. But then Natalie spends the movie chasing after Tag purely because he is hot, which kind of cements her character as the worst (she and Josh have ~a connection~ and she and Tag barely speak).
So they both ATA (are the asshole), which makes it a good thing they — SHOCKING SPOILER — end up with each other and leave poor Tag, who doesn’t deserve to be entangled in this, alone. Throw in a subplot where Josh has a secret passion for making candles and this is Christmas movie perfection. Does it matter that Natalie and Josh seem to be a complete mismatch? No! Does another subplot, where Natalie’s editor stalks her to ensure she files a story, make sense? Also no!
Yet do I recommend this movie, preferably if you’re under the influence of one or more substances? Sure! —Stephanie McNeal
Father Christmas Is Back
Well, what to even say about Father Christmas Is Back, one of Netflix’s latest Christmas movie offerings, which features Kelsey Grammer as an absentee father, John Cleese as his horny cuckolding brother, Elizabeth Hurley as an oversexed grown daughter, and a bunch of other actors neither of us have ever heard of? Frankly, nothing good! And yet, it is the viewing experience of the century, mostly thanks to a completely nonsensical plot where the very stupidly named James Christmas (Grammer, who does seem visibly embarrassed by this entire production) returns to England for the holidays to see his four awful daughters after not being present for most of their lives. Do you get the title now? Father Christmas Is Back???? See, it’s because his last name is Christmas, and it’s a Christmas movie, and he’s their father, and he’s back!! Incredible writing, truly unparalleled.
Father Christmas is barely 100 minutes long, but it somehow feels like six or seven days pass while you watch Caroline Christmas-Hope (Nathalie Cox) dance for her sad little husband in a red teddy and Vicky Christmas (Talulah Riley) boink the hot bartender who works in town. Every minute of this movie contains something inexplicable, like how Frasier over here doesn’t have a British accent even though literally everyone else in his family does, something waved off by the fact that he’s been living in the US for years. Also, for the record, Liz Hurley is 56, and Grammer is 66, and she plays his daughter, but 41-year-old April Bowlby plays his new American girlfriend. Everyone is really stretching incredulity for this project, and for that I am grateful. —Scaachi Koul
Single All the Way
Netflix’s first gay Christmas movie feels more than a little late; even conservative-leaning holiday movie titans like Lifetime and Hallmark have already beat them to the punch. And unfortunately, Single All the Way wasn’t really worth the wait.
Our protagonist is Peter (Michael Urie, of Ugly Betty fame), a gay guy and self-described “plant lady” — his home garden has flourished while relationships wilt. Like the urban professionals of Christmas movies past who return to their quaint hometowns for the holidays, Peter considers attempting to trick his family into believing he’s finally found love so as to not suffer being “the single one” anymore. Though his roommate and best friend, Nick (Philemon Chambers), agrees to join Peter and his family for festivities in New Hampshire, he refuses to pretend to be Peter’s boyfriend. While it’s a refreshing change from the much-overused fake relationship trope, fear not — still plenty of tropes to be found!
First, the good: This is clearly a gay movie made by actual gay people (Urie is openly queer, as is the director, Michael Mayer), with cute if relatively obvious references to the likes of Madonna and Instagays. One charming scene involves Peter and his nieces (he’s a proud guncle) reprising their old choreography to Britney Spears’s incredible Christmas song, “My Only Wish (This Year).”
Most of the bad has to do with the relative lack of chemistry between Peter and his two romantic prospects: his hunky blind date turned hometown honey, James (Luke Macfarlane), and his best friend and roommate, Nick. For some reason, his family is convinced the longtime friends actually belong together and attempt Parent Trap-style hijinks to force them to realize they’re soulmates. This is supposed to be charming, instead of creepy and invasive behavior propelled by the anti-LGBTQ premise that two gays can’t just be friends. (To be fair, the movie does acknowledge that “straight people” do tend to make this assumption, most of the time unfounded.) Single All the Way also manages, bafflingly, to glamorize gig work by making Nick a bestselling children’s book author who’s a TaskRabbit basically for fun, because he likes to be “of service” to people. Yikes!
What could be a fun gay twist on the fundamental When Harry Met Sally question is instead pretty boring, and too long, and lacking in sexiness or whimsy. Perhaps worst of all, Single All the Way completely wastes Jennifer Coolidge’s significant talents and gay icon appeal by underusing and misdirecting her. If you want a gay holiday movie with a similarly beloved gay icon that’s actually good, try The Christmas Setup with Fran Drescher on Lifetime. It’s delightful!!! —Shannon Keating ●