The holiday season is upon us again, which means it's time to curl up on the couch in front of a warm fire (real or simulated), sip on hot cocoa, and escape into a winter wonderland. With so many cinematic gifts to choose from, it's hard to figure out which of the many tales of Christmas joy (and occasionally sorrow) to open first. Below, we navigate the yuletide offerings from cozy rom-coms, to family friendly fare, with a few selections from the naughty list in-between.
Read on to see which carols made it onto EW's list of must-watch Christmas movies on Hulu.
<i>It's a Wonderful Life</i> (1946)
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has spent his whole life helping others to the detriment of his own dreams. When the burden of those sacrifices catches up with him one fateful Christmas Eve, he prepares to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. His plan, however, is interrupted by his guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), who has been sent to intervene thanks to the prayers of George's family and friends. After George tells Clarence he wishes he was never born, the angel grants his wish and shows him how terrible life in the town of Bedford Falls would be without him.
The perennial Christmas classic directed by Frank Capra was crowned as EW's number one Holiday Movie Moment in 2016, as well as one of the 25 best inspirational movies. While It's A Wonderful Life goes to some dark places, it's ultimately an uplifting parable about the importance of community, compassion, and the transformative power of small acts of kindness. Is there a better Christmas message to unwrap?
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If you loved It's a Wonderful Life, you might also enjoy: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
<i>The Nutcracker</i> (1993)
For the more traditionally-minded Christmas film viewer, there's Macaulay Culkin's other contribution to the holiday movie genre, an adaptation of the timeless classic ballet, The Nutcracker. The Home Alone star pirouettes to the strings of Tchaikovsky's famous score alongside the New York City Ballet in this Christmas Eve fairy tale.
When a young girl named Marie (Jessica Lynne Cohen) sneaks out of her bedroom in the middle of the night, she finds herself shrunken down to size, and stumbles into a war between the Nutcracker Prince (Culkin) and the Mouse King (Robert D. Lyon). Fantastical adventures follow as Marie rescues the Prince and is taken to a snow-filled fairyland where the Sugar Plum Fairy (Darci Kistler), and her court, await.
The Nutcracker is a straightforward adaptation of the ballet, filmed as if the audience is watching a live theatrical presentation, with only a few passages of voiceover narration by actor Kevin Kline added to guide the viewer. The dancers on screen plié and jeté to the movements of George Balanchine's acclaimed choreography and deliver an enchanting production the whole family can enjoy.
If you loved The Nutcracker, you might also enjoy: Babes in Toyland (1961)
<i>Happiest Season</i> (2020)
Christmas-averse Abby (Kristen Stewart) reluctantly agrees to spend the holiday with her girlfriend Harper's (Mackenzie Davis) family in their idyllic, straight-out-of-a-Hallmark movie town. Abby sees this as the perfect opportunity to plan a secret yuletide proposal, but when Harper reveals that she hasn't come out to her family, and they need to keep their relationship secret until after her conservative father's mayoral campaign is complete, complications — and hijinks — ensue.
Featuring a fantastic supporting cast of comedy vets like Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen, Alison Brie, and co-writer Mary Holland (Golden Arm), this Clea DuVall-written and directed film puts a much-needed LGBTQ spin on the classic Christmas rom-com.
In fact, the inclusion of queer people in a genre that often excludes them was what drew Stewart to the role. As she told EW's Joey Nolfi in 2020, "I grew up watching and loving conventional movies like this. Seeing [marginalized] people loving each other in the middle of something that's so standardized was really exhilarating and freeing… I want people to see that two girls in love is just so fun."
If you loved Happiest Season, you might also enjoy: The Family Stone (2005)
<i>12 Dates of Christmas</i> (2011)
This holiday twist on the Groundhog Day time-loop trope finds advertising agent Kate Stanton (Stargirl's Amy Smart) reliving Christmas Eve over and over until she gets the day — and you guessed it — her first date, with charming architect Miles (Saved by the Bell's Mark-Paul Gosselaar), right.
Each of the dates features a tongue-in-cheek nod to the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in the form of Five Golden Rings perfume, or eight ladies dancing at a bar. 12 Dates of Christmas is the type of warm, fuzzy, dependable treat for those who like their holiday romances a little saccharine, where lessons are learned and romance blooms under the mistletoe.
If you loved 12 Dates of Christmas, you might also enjoy: The Christmas Calendar (2017)
<i>The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special</i> (2020)
In this hilarious filmed version of their popular stage show, the fan favorite RuPaul's Drag Race alums battle over control of their holiday special, each with conflicting views on what a Christmas show should be about. While director and producer Ben DeLaCreme attempts a more traditional take, two-time Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon is hellbent on crafting a bawdy, boozy, iconoclastic show. Featuring the spirit of DeLa's dead grandmother in a glass of eggnog, over-the-top musical numbers about the baby Jesus, nudity, and a deconstruction of the conservative values surrounding celebrations of the holiday, The Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Special is a must watch for anyone looking to put a little "X" in their Xmas.
When talking to EW about the special in 2020, Jinkx Monsoon said, "There are a lot of holiday traditions that don't really serve us today, and we keep them around because we think we have to… I'm really proud to have created something that says, 'Let's let go of the things that [don't] serve us and create new things that will."
If you loved The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special, you might also enjoy: RuPaul's Drag Race Holi-Slay Spectacular (2018)
<i>Dear Santa</i> (2020)
Filmed over three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2019, this documentary from Batkid Begins director Dana Nachman focuses on the United States Postal Service's Operation Santa program, as well as the volunteer "adopter elves" that answer children's letters to Santa.
The 100-year-old program receives hundreds of thousands of letters a year, and Nachman follows members of the public as they adopt these requests and try to help make the children's wishes come true. She also turns the camera on some of the adorable kids themselves, who ask for everything from "10 rabbits" to gifts for their struggling family, all while explaining why they're on the "nice" list.
The film walks a fine line between fact and fiction by presenting the truth of the program without ever dispelling the fantasy of Santa Claus and his elves, making this a safe watch for anyone whose children have yet to have the fantasy ruined. An educating and uplifting doc that only the most hardened Scrooge could resist, Dear Santa deserves a spot on your holiday viewing nice list.
If you loved Dear Santa, you might also enjoy: 'Tis the Season! A Holiday Documentary (2017)
<i> A Unicorn for Christmas</i> (2022)
A sweet, magical tale for kids big and small, A Unicorn for Christmas is destined to become the favorite holiday trip to the farm for the animal loving child in your life. In her lead debut, Reese Witherspoon's niece, Abby James Witherspoon, plays Izzy, a young girl unhappy about her family's move from the bustling city to a sleepy old country farm. But when she befriends a small pony named Snowflake, she soon discovers the colt has a magical horn only she can see, and she begins to warm up to her new life.
When Snowflake captures the imaginations of the other children in town at the Christmas carnival, she finds herself in the sights of the greedy fair owner, Horace (Ed Marinaro), who attempts to pony-nap the mystical creature. Now it's up to Abby to rescue her horned companion and save the wonder of the holiday. Unicorns and Christmas, the best kid-friendly holiday combo since milk and cookies.
If you loved A Unicorn for Christmas, you might also enjoy: Prancer (1989)
<i>Arthur Christmas</i> (2011)
Arthur Christmas reimagines Santa's North Pole workshop as a high-tech, militarized operation with his family at the core of the enterprise. Running things alongside the aging Kris Kringle (Jim Broadbent) are his sons Steve (Hugh Laurie), the brains of the operation, and the cheerful, Christmas obsessed, Arthur (James McAvoy). When the army of "field elves" who deliver the presents via space age airship miss one child on the list, Arthur takes it upon himself to save Christmas and deliver her gifts in Santa's now retired classic sleigh.
Arthur Christmas is a heartwarming, animated holiday tale that EW's Keith Staskiewicz wrote is "genuinely sweet, and the complicated relations among Santa's clan are surprisingly believable… In the end, the film really nails the trickiest knot of tangled multicolored lights: family."
If you loved Arthur Christmas, you might also enjoy: Klaus (2019)
<i>Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas</i> (2009)
A perfect choice for the little ones in your life, Curious George follows the titular monkey and his caretaker, the Man with the Yellow Hat (Jeff Bennett), throughout the holiday season as they prepare for Christmas. George (Frank Welker) gets into all kinds of kid-pleasing shenanigans while he and the Man figure out what gifts to get each other.
Unfortunately for the duo, the Man can't decipher George's list, and every time George tries to make something for the Man, things go sideways. Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas is chock full of slapstick visual gags that will easily amuse the kiddos while you wrap the presents and sip a little eggnog.
If you loved Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, you might also enjoy: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Just finished binging The Crown and looking for more adult holiday fare? Look no further than this "fable from a true tragedy" by Jackie director Pablo Larraín. Spencer follows three fictional, harrowing days in the life of Princess Diana over the Christmas holiday at the royal estate Sandringham in Norfolk. The People's Princess is figuratively haunted by ghosts of Christmas past and present in the form of the claustrophobic confines of her royal life, and literally in the form of the ghost of Anne Boleyn. As she desperately pushes against the cold reality of life in the House of Windsor through small acts of rebellion, she wrestles with her mental health and crumbling marriage.
In her review of the film, EW critic Mary Sollosi praised Kristin Stewart's Oscar-nominated performance writing that "Spencer would crumble in the hands of the wrong actress, and Stewart gives one of the best performances of her career so far as this highly subjective version of Diana… She's Diana, but ever-so-slightly off, in such a way that an audience can simultaneously buy into and detach from Larraín's imagined royal nightmare." For a haunted trip to a different kind of Christmas castle, push play on Spencer.
If you loved Spencer, you might also enjoy: Carol (2015)
<i>Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale</i> (2010)
A joint American and British drilling company excavates a frozen, ancient evil in the mountains of Finland and all jingle hell breaks loose in this delightfully dark horror-comedy from writer/director Jelmari Helander. Two young boys, Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää), are convinced this dig site contains the tomb of Santa Claus, but the being unleashed is nothing like the jolly St. Nick from the stories they've grown up on.
As reindeer turn up slaughtered, and local children go missing one by one, Pietari's father accidentally captures a savage, Santa-esque old man who may prove instrumental in stopping the army of evil elves making their way across the snow-filled landscape. The twisted fairy tale of this Finnish export might be just the cathartic, bloody good time you need after a long day of holiday shopping.
If you loved Rare Exports, you might also enjoy: Krampus (2015)
<i>A Christmas Carol</i> (2019)
This three-part special presented by FX leans heavily into the Dickensian aspect of Charles Dickens' tale, delving into the grim realities of Victorian-era London to illuminate the depths of Ebenezer Scrooge's (Guy Pearce) psyche. The reinvention still follows the familiar beats of Scrooge's Christmas haunting: three ghosts, each representing Christmas past (Andy Serkis), present (Charlotte Riley), and future (Jason Flemyng) show the miserly businessman the error of his ways. And of course, we meet the plucky Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush), his father, the abused clerk Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn), and the tormented ghost of Scrooge's former partner-in-crime, Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham).
Where this version differs, however, is in the horrific revelations of his childhood, and the cruel, disturbing ways he torments the Cratchit family, particularly Mary (Vinette Robinson). The adaptation asks the viewer to consider what redemption really means, and how we determine who is worthy of it, including how, in this version, the protagonist's attractive physical appearance factors into it. "It's an effective tactic — men (and women) with less-than-noble aims have often charmed their way into positions of power and wealth with a pretty face," EW's Maura Lee Lenker wrote in her 2019 piece about Pearce's "hot" Scrooge. The content of this Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott-produced update may not be for everyone, but if you're searching for a psychologically fraught Christmas viewing experience, don't say "bah humbug" to this retelling.
If you loved this version of A Christmas Carol, you might also enjoy: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)