The 8 Best Christmas Movies on HBO Max

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Elf.
Photo: Warner Home Video

The streaming era has fundamentally changed how we watch classic Christmas movies — and how Christmas movies become classics in the first place. In the past, a combination of quality and repetition could vault a Christmas movie into the canon. It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance, deserves its reputation as one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, but it was endless holiday-season airings on syndicated television that allowed it to find an audience after underperforming when it was first released in 1946. TNT’s annual marathon of A Christmas Story is pretty much the last vestige of this practice, but that means those in search of cinematic holiday cheer will have to be a little more active in seeking it out. Fortunately, many Christmas classics are available to stream at the push of a button, and HBO Max has an abundance of them. Below, you’ll find eight of the best.

You can program your own marathon by simply hitting the play button each time you finish Bob Clark’s nostalgic comedy inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd’s memories of his Indiana childhood. Or, as effective as it is as holiday background noise, you could watch it from beginning to end. Some unfortunate racial stereotypes in its final moments aside, the film remains a charming comedy that captures the joys and anxiety of being a kid at Christmastime, following Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) as he dreams of a Red Ryder, carbine action air rifle in spite of the possibility he might shoot his eye out. (HBO Max also features the 2022 sequel A Christmas Story Christmas starring Billingsley and several members of the original cast and, somewhat confusingly, A Christmas Story 2, an unrelated sequel from 2012.)

What if Santa Claus wasn’t one person but a title passed down from one generation to the next? That’s the premise of this clever Aardman Animations comedy starring James McAvoy as Arthur Christmas, the bighearted second son of the soon-to-retire current Santa (Jim Broadbent) who lives in the shadow of his more capable older brother Steven (Hugh Laurie). That may sound like an impossible cross between Miracle on 34th Street and Succession, but Aardman’s trademark mix of gentleness, whimsy, and charming character designs make it a winning (and somewhat slept-on) choice for holiday family viewing.

There’s no shortage of adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and variations on the oft-told tale just keep getting made. It’s impossible to declare one definitive, but few have been as influential (or, for that matter, as good) as this 1951 version (released in the U.K. as Scrooge). Much of the credit should go to Alastair Sim’s turn as Ebenezer Scrooge, a performance that makes the miser’s transformation seem like a true Christmas miracle. This is Dickens played straight and played incredibly well. There’s a reason this story became a classic in the first place, after all.

Characters having their cynicism blasted away by the holiday spirit is something of a Christmas-movie tradition. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a tart-tongued New York writer whose tales of living on a farm in Connecticut are 100 percent fiction. When threatened with exposure, she finds she needs to turn the fake life she’s been writing about into reality, or something like it, in time for Christmas. Stanwyck’s perfectly cast as the center of a fast-paced comedy in which disaster, or romance, could break out at any moment.

A film that wouldn’t work without its central performance, Elf stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human raised at the North Pole who travels to New York to search for his father (James Caan). Ferrell throws himself into the role with abandon, making Buddy’s naïveté feel both convincing and winning. Sure, he’s a goofy, cheer-filled weirdo with a simplistic view of the world. But maybe he has the right idea? He’s well-matched by Zooey Deschanel’s performance as Jovie, who lets her character’s cynicism melt away with each scene.

Say you’ve had enough Christmas cheer and wouldn’t mind a movie that shares that sentiment. This Joe Dante horror-comedy has you covered. Zach Galligan stars as Billy, a small-town bank teller who receives a cute little creature he names Gizmo as a Christmas gift from his dad (Hoyt Axton). Gizmo comes with some catches about water, sunlight, and when he can or cannot be fed, however, and when those rules get broken, chaos breaks out. Dante’s gleefully destructive impulses pervade the film, which turns a picture-perfect little town adorned in Christmas lights into a holiday war zone. Anyone sick of the holidays can have fun rooting for the bad guys to burn it all down.

If Christmas in Connecticut doesn’t offer enough deception, mistaken identity, unlikely romance, and madcap action, try this overlooked gem directed by Roy Del Ruth (who landed the job when Frank Capra decided to make It’s a Wonderful Life instead). Victor Moore stars as Aloysius T. McKeever, a homeless man who plans to spend Christmas where he usually spends it: in the boarded-up Manhattan mansion of millionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), who winters elsewhere. Or at least he winters elsewhere most of the time. As the house fills up, the complications mount in a comedy filled with Christmas cheer but also some pointed commentary about the gap between the haves and have-nots in America.

When people use the phrase “the Lubitsch touch” to describe what director Ernst Lubitsch brought to classic comedies like Design for Living and To Be or Not to Be, it’s a shorthand for a mix of sophistication and sexiness. Both can be found in abundance in this holiday classic starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers in a leather-goods shop who hate each other — but have also unwittingly begun courting each other as anonymous pen pals. But Lubitsch also brings a heartfelt quality to his films that makes it easy to care about the characters and hope they find happiness with each other. (Yes, You’ve Got Mail shares the same plot. Both films draw from the Miklós László play Parfumerie. But You’ve Got Mail isn’t filled with Christmas spirit, so save that one for another day.)



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