Hollywood Does the Holidays: All the Christmas Films You Need to Watch This Year

George Bailey finally realizes it’s a wonderful life. The glamorous Mame Dennis knows she needs a little Christmas, right this very minute. Humble Tevye extols the virtues of traditions! Buddy the Elf finds the true meaning of the season. Dorothy discovers there is no place like home. Bing Crosby is dreaming of a white Christmas.

Holiday movies give us the once-a-year gift of escapism, a throwback to a simpler time, a lack of politics, or head-scratching complication. They often take us on a sleigh ride of hope and the promise of a kinder world. All right, maybe not Bad Santa (featuring an incredibly vulgar, drunk Santa) or Tim Burton’s scary The Nightmare Before Christmas, but even those recent cult favorites take us to the celebration of the season. So, in the words of my favorite lyricist Johnny Mercer, let’s “accentuate the positive” with some cinematic holiday magic.

Christmas Movies
Photo courtesy of Chad Madden via Unsplash

People get confused this time of year with Holiday Inn and White Christmas. If this were Jeopardy!, the correct response would be, “What is a partial remake?” 1942’s Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn takes a crooner and a hoofer (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire) to a rural inn reinventing itself as a holiday live entertainment venue. This is when the song “White Christmas” took home Oscar gold, beating out the popular favorite “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo” from Orchestra Wives. Another holiday classic beat out Holiday Inn for Best Score of the Year: Yankee Doodle Dandy. But I digress. 

White Christmas

1954’s beloved White Christmas has a crooner and a hoofer (Crosby again, this time with Danny Kaye, stepping in at the last minute for Donald O’Connor) joining up with a sister act to perform in rural Vermont. Our boys plan a yuletide miracle to save the place, with some of the best musical numbers an uncredited Bob Fosse could put together. My own favorite is Kaye and Vera Ellen doing the smooth “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” It also marks the only time on film when prolific Crosby breaks up, laughing so hard at Danny Kaye in their “Sisters” partial drag number that director Michael Curtiz could not get a straight take from him, so he left in the shot of Crosby completely cracking up with laughter. This was from the crooner who could play it straight in all those “road” movies with hope!

Love Actually

Let’s go to modern times with a fabulous film about the emotion that connects all of us: Love Actually (2003). From the British prime minister to a fading rock star, from a young boy to a philandering husband, we meet a varied group approaching Christmastime. There is an all-star cast that vies with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as one that could not be put together today. Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kiera Knightley, and Alan Rickman portray just a few of the characters who touch our hearts in this irresistible romantic comedy drama. It also contains that rarity: an enormously happy ending reminding us that love is all around. 


I’ve spent a life in broadcasting, so of course I would enjoy a movie about Scrooge being a cruel television executive. In the film, Scrooged, he is visited by three ghosts who give him a chance to reevaluate himself. This movie reminds us of the subjective nature of comedy and drama. The late Roger Ebert told me it was his idea of the worst Christmas movie ever made. Bill Murray made this after Ghostbusters, so it was the beginning of him going on to become a leading man. Groundhog Day, anyone? 

What’s Cooking

Pass the kugel, spring rolls, tamales, and outrageous conversation for a look at four ethnic groups celebrating the holidays. 2000’s What’s Cooking? takes us to Los Angeles with African American, Jewish, Latino, and Asian families, with each group preparing food. There are tricky, sometimes hilarious, family togetherness situations. Not enough people know this spicy, smart, and succulent film.  

We’re back to Christmas classics with two good ones for the family: 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife. Then there is the all-time great A Christmas Story, and All I Want for Christmas has cinematic fun with our obsession for material goods this time of year. Other favorites include An American Tale and the fabulously extravagant Oliver!

Meet Me in St. Louis and Fiddler on the Roof take us to another time, while Miracle on 34th Street just might convince us there really is a Santa Claus. The list is as unending as holiday joy itself!

Have a holly jolly holiday!  This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Bay Times.

Jan Wahl

Longtime Marin resident Jan Wahl is a double Emmy winner for documentary production and a member of the Directors Guild of America. She lectures, teaches, emcees community events and writes, as well as broadcasts weekly on KGO Radio and the international Armed Forces Radio Network.