‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘Die Hard’ and Other Classic Christmas Movies

Does a Christmas movie have to be about Christmas? If it merely takes place around Christmas, how prominently does the holiday have to feature for it to qualify? And really, must it be a merry Christmas? The Grinches and Scrooges of the world have streaming subscriptions, too.

With a more elastic conception of the holiday in mind, we picked 15 Christmas movies of a broad variety, from warm Old Hollywood favorites to family-friendly modern comedies to the sort of boozy, vulgar entertainments that parents can watch after putting the kids to bed. (And yes, the oft-debated “Die Hard” did make the list. When is it ever a bad time to watch “Die Hard”?) These films are either on streaming services or available to rent on major platforms. Also, “Die Hard” returns to theaters Dec. 8.

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Having established herself as a master of melodrama in “Stella Dallas,” a closet romantic in “The Lady Eve” and a duplicitous femme fatale in “Double Indemnity,” Barbara Stanwyck combines all three qualities into a winning performance in “Christmas in Connecticut,” a screwball holiday comedy with heart. Stanwyck plays a single New Yorker who’s been posing as a wife and mother from rural Connecticut to make her food column more appealing to American housewives. When asked to host Christmas dinner for a dashing war hero (Dennis Morgan), she scrambles desperately to sell her made-up persona, but amid the confusion over her fake husband and baby, she winds up falling for her guest.

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Released to mixed reviews and disappointing box office — particularly by the standards of the director Frank Capra, who was seen as a hitmaker after films like “It Happened One Night” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become the undisputed star atop the holiday-movie tree. But what makes it so enduring ties into why it took a while to catch on: The joyful, tear-jerking ending is exceptionally hard-won, following a Christmas Eve that’s a dark night of the soul for George Bailey (James Stewart), a man whose despair nearly drives him to the brink. It’s only after meeting his guardian angel that George sees his value to his family and community.

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As if to compensate for making the holiday-themed slasher classic “Black Christmas” nine years earlier, the director Bob Clark turned to this nostalgia-soaked comedy, which has become a seasonal favorite, though it’s not without its horrors. The Parkers are the most disaster-prone family in their 1940s Midwestern town, and embarrassment is always around the corner for poor Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas, but is constantly told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” In the lead-up to his big gift, Ralphie has an awful encounter with a mall Santa, decodes a disappointing secret message from Ovaltine and is forced to wear the pink bunny onesie his Aunt Clara got him. But Ralphie won’t be a put-upon kid forever.

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An ideal double feature with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Joe Dante’s mischievous comedy throws a Capraesque small town into chaos when an exotic Christmas present spawns the green marauders of the title. While in Chinatown on business, an eccentric inventor discovers a cute little animal called a mogwai and sneaks it back home to his family. But the new caretakers don’t follow important instructions, like keeping the mogwai away from water and not feeding it after midnight. It mutates into the innumerable creatures of the title, who take a juvenile delight in creating mayhem. Part monster movie, part live-action Looney Tunes, “Gremlins” leaves a trail of destruction through its snow-capped holiday idyll.

Stream it on Hulu. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

There should be no argument over whether “Die Hard” is a true Christmas movie, given that John McClane (Bruce Willis) flies out to Los Angeles to spend the holiday with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia), battles an armed band of European thieves who have taken over an office party and even dresses one unfortunate henchman in a Santa suit. Plus it’s a useful excuse to rewatch this impeccably crafted and influential action movie, which emphasizes McClane’s vulnerability as much as his resourcefulness and guile in outwitting a criminal mastermind (Alan Rickman) and perhaps saving his marriage in the process.

Stream it on Disney+ and Hulu. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

He may be surrounded by singing, dancing, mischief-making Muppets, but Michael Caine gives the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the heartless miser of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” every bit the gravity of screen antecedents like Alastair Sim, Basil Rathbone and Albert Finney. This allows “The Muppet Christmas Carol” to position him as the ideal straight man, a grouchy counterpoint to the silliness of Kermit the Frog’s earnest Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as a typically brassy Emily Cratchit and the three offbeat ghosts who show Scrooge the path to redemption. The film proves it’s possible to honor Dickens while paying a visit to Fozzie Bear’s rubber chicken factory.

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On paper, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” sounds like a cynical proposition, an animated studio musical with a plot that covers both Halloween and Christmas, giving it a solid three-month window where it’s seasonally appropriate viewing. Yet Henry Selick’s stop-motion fantasy, made in collaboration with one of its producers, Tim Burton, has a dark, personal, idiosyncratic style that dispels any thought of commercial calculation. It has earned a legitimate cult following over the years. As the Pumpkin King of Skeleton Town, Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) inadvertently discovers the joys of Christmas Town and tries to bring the magic back home, with predictably demented and chaotic results.

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The premise of this dark comedy sounds a little like the Humphrey Bogart noir “The Desperate Hours,” in which escaped felons hole up in a suburban home and take a family hostage. Only the twist of “The Ref” is that the crook, a cat burglar (Denis Leary) abandoned by his partner in the middle of a job, winds up captive himself to his hostages, a Connecticut couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) who cannot stop arguing. It becomes a Christmas Eve to survive when other members of the family turn up and the would-be felon takes on the role of reluctant counselor.

The marital odyssey in Stanley Kubrick’s dreamlike final film is book ended by Christmas backdrops that underline the state of a bourgeois marriage that threatens to collapse. After a fashionable party where his wife (Nicole Kidman) flirts shamelessly with a well-heeled Hungarian, a doctor (Tom Cruise) starts a fight with her about jealousy and temptation. From there, he embarks on a nocturnal adventure that leads to several frustrating encounters with other women, culminating in an exclusive sex party that he tries to attend without an invitation. Given the threat to this superficially stable and happy family, the holiday setting, rendered in warm lights and festive colors, stands out in sharp relief.

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There was no more ideal choice to play an orphan raised by North Pole elves than Will Ferrell, whose ungainly, up-for-anything rambunctiousness had made him a breakout star on “Saturday Night Live.” “Elf” has the quality of an extended sketch, as Ferrell’s overgrown Buddy leaves Santa’s Workshop for New York City to find his real father (James Caan), an ornery children’s book publisher who works in the Empire State Building. His comic naïveté and relentless good cheer turn “Elf” into a fish-out-of-water comedy of disarming warmth, thanks largely to an ace supporting cast that includes Emily Deschanel, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen and Bob Newhart.

Stream it on Paramount+. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

For those who greet the holidays with dread — or simply like their eggnog extra-spiked — Terry Zwigoff’s dark comedy is the ultimate in Christmas counterprogramming, a relentlessly vulgar provocation that does have a heart if you squint hard enough to see it. Billy Bob Thornton stars as an alcoholic mall Santa who uses his access to rob department stores at the peak of the shopping season, provided he can stay sober long enough to crack the safe. His latest job is complicated by a sweet, outcast boy whose belief in Santa is unshakable, even when his hero is a grump with conspicuously foul breath.

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Since breaking into Hollywood with his script for “Lethal Weapon,” the writer Shane Black has set six of his films during Christmas in Los Angeles, where it’s too temperate to find obvious evidence of the season. His directing debut, the spiky neo-noir buddy-action comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” loads up the soundtrack with a mix of traditional and irreverent Christmas songs. Its murder mystery starts at a fancy party where the most intriguing guest, an aspiring actress (Michelle Monaghan), appears in a deconstructed Santa outfit. Robert Downey Jr. plays a hilariously snarky thief who stumbles into an audition for a detective role, gets the part and then shadows a real-life private eye (Val Kilmer) on a case.

Stream it on Mubi. Rent it on Amazon and Apple TV.

The premise for this French ensemble piece sounds like a heartwarming holiday treacle: Playing the matriarch of a large family, the screen legend Catherine Deneuve gathers her three adult-age children and their significant others to announce that she has leukemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant. But the director, Arnaud Desplechin, who broke through with a three-hour film titled “My Sex Life (Or How I Got Into an Argument),” isn’t the sentimental type. “A Christmas Tale” exposes the many fault lines in this wildly dysfunctional family but it’s a disarmingly affectionate film, too, with a first-rate cast that includes Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud and Emmanuelle Devos.

During the Christmas rush at Frankenberg’s department store in 1952 Manhattan, a moment is shared by two women — one an aspiring young photographer (Rooney Mara) logging time as a clerk in a Santa hat, the other a wealthy married woman (Cate Blanchett) in a glamorous mink. What follows is a forbidden affair that bridges a chasm in age and class. The morality clause in the older woman’s marital contract threatens her financial security and her status as a mother. Yet “Carol” has a powerful romantic spirit all the same, buoyed by a wintry holiday backdrop that’s suggestive of a new home these women seek to find in each other.

Stream it on Disney+.

A deserving nominee for best live action short at the 2023 Oscars, Alice Rohrwacher’s charming and evocative 37-minute film takes place at an all-girls Catholic boarding school over Christmas during World War II. As the head nun keeps strict watch over these adorable, mischievous kids — they get their mouths soaped for grooving to a pop song on the radio — a young woman arrives with a scrumptious red custard cake, asking them to pray for her unfaithful boyfriend. The nun presents the kids with a cruel challenge: Can they prove their devotion to Jesus by resisting the temptation of this Christmas Day treat?

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