Everyone has a different opinion on not only what their favorite Christmas movie is, but also what makes a movie a Christmas movie. Some people refer to the “classics” like A Christmas Story (1983) and March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), while others like to think more outside of the box with movies like Die Hard (1988). In this Christmas movie round-up, we’re going to talk specifically about the movies that embody the “true meaning” of Christmas—and teach us what the holiday spirit is all about.
5. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Photo credit: The Geek Wave
In this Japanese anime, we meet three unlikely heroes on Christmas Eve. Through a nativity-esque scenario, they teach us the meaning of Christmas through kindness, charity, and pure luck. The main characters, Gin, Hana, and Miyuki, are homeless and stumble upon a newborn while sifting through the trash. Incredibly heartwarming and wildly unconventional, this movie teaches us about what makes Christmas so magical, even when there is no magic involved. Directed by the late Anime veteran Satoshi Kon and written by Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bepop and Wolf’s Rain), Tokyo Godfathers is full of heart. This movie is completely unafraid of its unconventionality, so if you’re a big fan of It’s a Wonderful Lifethis probably won’t be the movie for you. It doesn’t exactly hit you over the head with holiday spirit, but it’s inspired and filled with little miracles—which is exactly what makes it a delightfully different yuletide tale.
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Everyone knows at least one person who can cite this movie word for word from memory. (I am that person.) In my opinion, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a Christmas classic. Directed by Ron Howard, this movie refuses to be cliche and conventional. The Grinch takes place in the fictional town of Whoville, which is located on a snowflake (yes, on a snowflake) and whose citizens are obsessed with Christmas. Unfazed by this peculiarity, one of the main characters, Cindy Lou Who, questions what’s so special about Christmas. She becomes fascinated by the titular character, the Grinch, a “What” who has been ostracized and who absolutely hates Christmas. Seeking the only being who might understand her, Cindy reaches out to the most feared creature in all of Whoville, inviting him to the town's holiday celebration. When the Grinch attends, chaos ensues.
The narrator, voiced by the wonderful Anthony Hopkins, embellishes the characters' thoughts with the silly adjectives Dr. Seuss was famous for creating. What sets this movie apart from its predecessor is its infectious humor and oddly relatable theme of learning to care. Not only do we all know a Grinch, but at some point we have all probably been one. This movie communicates that Christmas is never about presents or decorations; it’s about enjoying the time you have with those you care about—no matter who or "what” they are.
3. The Polar Express (2004)
Another classic, The Polar Express' Christmas spirit is impossible to miss. This movie follows a group of children who are visited by a midnight steam train that takes them to the North Pole to meet Santa just before he sets off on his infamous gift-giving journey. Though the film is advertised as an animated children’s movie, there is so much more to this movie than childish Christmas fun. The Polar Expressdeals with themes of greed, poverty, loss, identity, and growing up. This movie was animated using CGI, which is what allowed Tom Hanks to play six characters—two of whom are the main characters. There are musical numbers, roller-coaster-like thrill sequences, ghosts, and an unfortunate run-in with marionette puppets that was always too scary for my six-year-old nephew. There's something about the jingle of the bell on Santa’s sleigh in this movie that brings the Santa-suspecting child out of everyone.
2. Love Actually (2003)
Not as kid-friendly as the last two recommendations, Love Actually has a star-studded British cast that is sure to leave you in tears (both from laughing and sadness). This movie follows the intertwining stories of ten characters played by Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Andre Lincoln, Keira Nightly, Chitewel Ejiofor, and more. (If it’s your first time seeing it, I can almost guarantee you’ll gasp and say “Oh my gosh, that actor is from ____ at least five times.) What makes this film so timeless is its honesty. Unlike the storytelling methods used in the previous movies on this list, Love Actually does not bank on making everyone happy in the end. There are many stories in this film that are heartbreakingly real for many people, and director Richard Curtis does not try to sugarcoat these narratives with hope and joy. He leaves the heartache open-ended, but momentarily resolved for Christmas. But don’t be fooled! This movie is still filled with love and light, and features a heart-felt monologue voiced by Hugh Grant, who plays the Prime Minister of England, that makes my best friend's mom cry every time she watches it. He says:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrival gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge—they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.”
I think this quote is particularly relevant this Christmas season. After a year of being upset over the “gloomy state of the world,” Christmas, at the very least, reminds us that love actually is all around.
1. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Kerry Brown—Garlands Films DAC
I’m very excited about this one, because I’m sure it will shock most people. I don't think this movie generated as much Christmas buzz as it deserved. I saw it for the first time during Halloween this year (I promise there is a valid explanation for that). After collecting myself and wiping away my tears, I was absolutely baffled by the fact that I hadn't heard of this movie sooner. It’s a risk to list a new movie as a Christmas must-watch, but don’t let the silence surrounding it fool you. This movie is based on a book of the same name by Les Standiford. It's the story behind A Christmas Carol, and what Charles Dickens went through while writing it. This movie is particularly important because it is essentially the origin story for Christmas. One of the main problems Charles Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) faces in this movie is that he is writing a book about a holiday no one cares about. During the movie, Dickens is visited by the characters in the story, and they teach him not only about himself, but what Christmas could be. This movie literally invents the Christmas spirit. The set, costumes, and storytelling are delicious and seamless. It is impossible to not fall in love with this film's visuals, and equally difficult to keep your eyes dry as the story progresses. The Man Who Invented Christmas made me want to put up a Christmas tree in the thick of spooky season, and if that’s not power, I don’t know what is. Directed by BAFTA-winning Bharat Nalluri, this movie is intuitive, colored with life, and bursting with spirit at its seams. What seems like a silly, empty idea in the beginning ultimately transforms humanity forever.