A Charlie Brown Christmas
I don’t like Christmas, because I don’t really like anything, so very few Christmas movies actually appeal to me. I was raised by grumpy, cynical Hindus, so we didn’t celebrate much beyond rerouting gifts from Diwali to Christmas Day — but trickier is that the positivity proselytizing in holiday movies has never spoken to me. Even now, Christmas feels like a lonely time, even though I’m perpetually surrounded by people who love this holiday and want me to, I don’t know, pretend I love mulled wine (ah, yes, warm cough syrup, ‘tis the season).
So, naturally, A Charlie Brown Christmas is the one holiday movie that speaks to me the most. It’s moody and oddly macabre for children’s programming, and it’s only moderately treacly by the end. Christmas bums me out — this year, in particular, for reasons I don’t think I have to detail in full — so maybe there’s something soothing about seeing Charlie’s pathetic little tree (an allegory for me) or watching Lucy grow infuriated with Schroeder (also me, somehow). Christmas is hard! Why are we even pretending it’s not? At least with the Peanuts gang I don’t have to pretend I’m having a nice time, and I’m not the saddest person in the room.
“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus,” Charlie Brown tells his friend in the movie. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Same here, buddy. The holidays are tough for outcasts, but it’s nice when you can find someone — or something — understanding of how you feel. —Scaachi Koul
How to watch: PBS, Apple+
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
One of my favorite pandemic activities has been revisiting films I enjoyed as a kid. I recently rewatched both Home Alone movies. Although they’re essentially the same in terms of plot, the sequel is so earnest — and so filled with the exact kind of merriment I’ve been craving in our year of perpetual sadness — that there were moments that made me genuinely weep. It’s billed as a comedy, and it’s led by the talented Macaulay Culkin, who masterfully nails the precocity of Kevin McCallister (has there ever been a better child actor?!), the kid whose feeling of being an outsider in his own family manifests when they, serendipitously, board two different flights for Christmas vacation, one headed to Miami and the other New York City.
Kevin, alone in the big city, makes the most of the holiday that he now must celebrate by himself. There’s scamming; he cleverly uses his father’s credit card to check in at the Plaza Hotel, orders room service, and watches movies that definitely aren’t age-appropriate. There’s New York itself; Kevin soaks up the incredible view atop the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern star as the two bandits who haven’t quite mastered the art of outsmarting a 10-year-old boy are fantastic. The scene where Stern’s Marv is accidentally electrocuted — dangerous? Probably! HILARIOUS? ABSOLUTELY! And the John Williams score is beautiful. A little sappy, maybe, but a reminder that the love of family and friends is ultimately the reason this time of the year is so special. So if you want a massive dose of holiday cheer, get to streaming, ya filthy animal! —Michael Blackmon
How to watch: Disney+
The Family Stone
There is no movie I’d rather watch while getting drunk on a plane — at any time of year — than The Family Stone. It’s the perfect plane movie, the perfect holiday movie. Just a perfect movie, period.
Dermot Mulroney plays Everett, the requisite hard-hearted city dweller who’s returning home to the burbs for the holidays. This year, he’s bringing his girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker, iconic as always), whose uptight work obsessiveness and tight bun alienate her from Everett’s upscale bohemian siblings. The more Meredith tries to endear herself to them, the cringier she gets. During an infamous dinner scene, she makes anti-gay comments about Everett’s gay brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano), and it’s only their other brother, Ben (Luke Wilson, delightful as the Cali stoner), who takes pity on her.
I know a lot of people who are turned off by the redemption plotline for this anti-gay loser of a woman — but for me, the scene is so much more about how angry their mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) gets at Meredith for implying there’s anything wrong with her son. (And this movie came out 15 years ago, mind you.) Diane Keaton as the Stone family’s matriarch is what I’m really here for, even more so than absurd romantic switch-ups and zany conflicts. As a lesbian with mommy issues, can you really blame me?? I cry at the end every single time. —Shannon Keating
How to watch: Hulu, HBO Max
There are many iconic lines in this 2003 Christmas movie starring Will Ferrell as a human who grew up among elves in the North Pole and who must journey to New York to find his father. Like when Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf finds out he is not, in fact, a gargantuan elf, and that his father (James Caan) is on the naughty list. He runs through the snow in hysterics, and when his friends, a trio of stop-motion figures, say hello, he screams, “Not now, Arctic Puffin!” Or later, when he’s questioned about why he smiles so much: “I love smiling, smiling’s my favorite,” he says. Or when he answers his father’s business phone at a children’s book publisher with “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?”
The movie, directed by Jon Favreau, is a journey of self-discovery (one that rivals that of any Greek hero) as Buddy goes in search of his father while also trying to spread Christmas cheer. There’s something truly magical about watching Ferrell play an eccentric adult dressed like an elf, creating havoc wherever he goes. Even if we are forced to watch this giant adult baby have a romantic plotline with Zooey Deschanel — who is both horribly miscast and blonde!! — whatever, I’ll take it all just to see Ferrell in yellow tights and an adorable little hat running through the streets of New York screaming “Santa!!!!” and putting discarded, already chewed gum into his mouth, even after Santa advises him that the gum he finds on the street is not “free candy.” —Karolina Waclawiak
How to watch: Hulu, Amazon Prime
The British candy-coated romantic comedy, which came out in 2003, is everything a good holiday movie should be: It has an unapologetically asinine plot with protagonists you root for that barrels into a completely unrealistic batshit ending — except you don’t care, because everything works out and makes you ugly-cry.
Granted, as with all holiday movies, there are plot holes to navigate. Are there so many storylines in Love Actually that you feel like you’re watching four movies at once? Yes. Could the movie have done without the entirely stupid “Colin Goes to America to Have a Four-Way With British-Starved Women in Milwaukee” storyline? Absolutely. Was I incredibly frustrated that Sarah (Laura Linney) sabotaged a night of hot sex with her work crush, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), by simply deciding not to tell him what was happening in her personal life? Mmmm, yes.
Otherwise, Love Actually checks all the boxes. I know we were supposed to care more about way-too-self-aware Sam (Thomas Sangster) and his crush on his American classmate Joanna (Olivia Olson). But let’s be honest, the romance between Jamie (Colin Firth), who retreats to a French cottage after finding his wife in bed with his brother, and his non-English-speaking Portuguese housekeeper, Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz), is the crown jewel of the plot. Even if you think all the other plotlines suck ass, Jamie’s realization and subsequent journey back to Aurélia makes it all worth it.
There are other endearing storylines: The friendship between rock legend Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his longtime manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher), is sweeter than you think it’ll be. As is the story of how the relationship between how actor stand-ins John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) develops after they simulate some very awkward sex scenes.
But, as is the case with your other stupid holiday favorites, this isn’t a movie where we focus on what “should” have happened. Instead, we give ourselves over to the charm of the film. So stop coming for Love Actually and start enjoying it for what it is: A VERY GOOD HOLIDAY MOVIE. —Jason Wells
How to watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime
Unlike Cameron Diaz’s character in The Holiday, I cry all the time. I love a good cry. I love a holiday movie that makes you weep. And if you’re looking for the same, The Holiday should be your go-to.
This Nancy Meyers masterpiece is ostensibly about two women, Diaz’s Amanda, an unhappy producer of movie trailers in LA, and Kate Winslet’s Iris, a columnist in England, who swap houses for the holidays — but it’s really about what happens when you surround yourself with people who reflect you back to yourself, and who see you and celebrate you as you’ve always been. You get a contact high when you watch Iris grow from a pushover in love to someone who owns their helpful nature. Her relationship with Eli Wallach’s Arthur, an old-Hollywood legend who finds himself lost in an ever-changing neighborhood and industry, is the kind of wholesomeness 2020 needs in spades. Also somehow this movie makes Jack Black hot???? The Holiday is a perfect hug of a movie — yes for the outrageously hot Jude Law transforming into outrageously hot Dad Mode Jude Law, yes for Winslet screaming in delight while exploring her new digs, yes for the cutest movie children ever captured on film — but most especially yes for the way Meyers commits to screen how these women fall in love with the person they’ve always been, because that’s the most enduring love affair. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud
How to watch: Hulu
You’ve Got Mail
I’ve always thought of You’ve Got Mail as one of my favorite Christmas movies. A persnickety, contrarian colleague pointed out that since the Meg Ryan–Tom Hanks rom-com partly takes place during the fall, that means it’s not a real “Christmas movie.” So I rewatched and realized why it stands out as a holiday story in my head.
It’s technically a movie about an idealistic thirtysomething children’s bookstore owner, Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), being catfished by her online pen pal, big-box superstore owner Joe Fox (Hanks), who pushes her indie shop out of business.
The story ends in spring, when (spoiler alert) Ryan and Hanks fall in love — but it’s not about romance or new beginnings. It’s really all about the kind of melancholy that the holidays impose. Writer Nora Ephron drew on the 1940s-era screwball rom-com The Shop Around the Corner for inspiration, and that’s partly why, despite its late-nineties online dating–era update, the movie has a retro sheen and soundtrack that adds to the nostalgia.
Tellingly, the story’s most dramatic arc and climax take place during Christmas, as Kelly battles for her store while putting up twinkle lights. The store’s demise happens as Kelly liquidates the books, wrapping them up as holiday gifts. She yearns for her mother amid the loss of her store, which makes sense because the holidays are so much about sitting in one’s feelings about family and relationships.
The movie makes us root for Kelly’s Santa Claus–like belief in the magic of childhood (though it also asks us to root for a white lady as a victim of gentrification). Even the antiseptic chemistry between the leads feels sanitized in the family-friendly mode of Hallmark holiday fare. In short, You’ve Got Mail is a movie about the sentimentalities that prop up capitalism, and that’s what Christmas is all about. —Alessa Dominguez
How to watch: HBO Max ●