A Christmas Story (1983)
The yuletide movie to top them all tells the timeless tale of a suburban boy in the 1940s who only wants a Red Ryder BB gun from Santa—parental protestations (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) be damned. Though filmed with a good-ol’-days nostalgic glow, director Bob Clark gives the gut-busting proceedings their fair share of tongue-on-flagpole edginess.

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Bad Santa (2003) He drinks like a fish, swears like a sailor and the less said about his sexual proclivities, the better. Billy Bob Thornton’s department-store Saint Nick is the furthest thing from being a saint, to say the least. The fact that Terry Zwigoff’s misanthropic comedy somehow turns this pathetic sad sack into a sympathetic hero—and the movie into a foul-mouthed ode to good will toward men—is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Might a Macy’s department store Santa (Edmund Gwenn) be the real thing? And will he survive his insanity trial? The vibe of this immortal studio favorite is snappy and comedic, but it also packs the wallop of an essential holiday truth: Christmas magic often requires us to rise to the occasion of being charmed.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Tinged with magical passages, buckets of good will and an alternate plotline with the disturbing kick of a Twilight Zone episode, this tribute to the efforts of a small-town do-gooder (James Stewart, in his most beloved role) cements the idea of Christmas as a time for giving.

Black Christmas (1974)
An early slasher with an undeniable impact on future landmarks like Halloween and Friday the 13th, this cult essential takes place on a snowy college campus where sorority sisters find themselves targeted by a creep who lives in the attic. The mood is icy and ominous; it doesn’t lift even after you turn on the lights and warm the eggnog.

A Christmas Carol (1951)
Charles Dickens’s classic tale has been adapted into everything from a musical to a star vehicle for the Muppets. This British film featuring the incomparable Alastair Sim as converted humbug Ebenezer Scrooge, however, is the definitive version. We dare you not to get a lump in your throat when Glyn Dearman’s Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, one and all.”

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Trust Goth godhead Tim Burton and animator Henry Selick to concoct the perfect dose of alt-holiday fun in this musical comedy about the king of Halloween taking over yuletide festivities—with ghoulishly giddy results. For those who prefer to have themselves a scary little Christmas, this is the go-to movie.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
By now as iconic as the story of Kris Kringle himself, this Peanuts-based perennial sends viewers into happy spasms of neck-tipped dancing year after year. Its most lasting achievement is Vince Guaraldi’s breezy jazz score—whimsical and lovely like a falling snowflake.

Gremlins (1984)
Plenty of Christmas presents come with instructions, yet none are as ominous as the following: Never expose to bright light, never add water and, crucially, never feed after midnight. Joe Dante’s horror-comedy turns a well-intentioned gift into a nightmare. Meanwhile, a traumatized Phoebe Cates tells the saddest Christmas story ever.

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Elf (2003)
Will Ferrell’s overgrown-child persona hilariously complements this comedy about a guileless giant elf searching for his dad in NYC, but the film’s focus isn’t just on the funny bone. There’s an abundance of heart and soul in the way the film cherishes holiday cheer; in a genre that’s become generically saccharine, this is one modern Christmas movie that’s genuinely sweet.

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