We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call.

Yippee-ki-yay or double-dog dare? The Coast’s readers weigh in, ya filthy animals.

In this line of work, you have to maintain some level of objectivity. The pursuit of truth demands no less: You present the facts, such as they are, and let a reader come to their own conclusions.

And so, when we set about discussing the best Christmas movies at The Coast’s office this week, we knew we needed a measurable standard. To wade through a crowded field of contenders requires some clear criteria: What makes a holiday film stand out above the rest? How do you separate the genuine Red Ryder BB gun from the knock-offs, the fat Christmas bonus from the Jelly of the Month club, the cheese pizza from the pepperoni? It takes science. A set of razor-sharp questions with indisputable answers. And so, dear Coast reader, that’s what we resolved to do. For you.

First, an acknowledgement: We had to whittle the field down to a manageable number. The “Christmas classic” movie shelf is deeper than the Bedford basin and contains some veritable heavy-hitters—from the animated (see: How The Grinch Stole Christmas! and A Charlie Brown Christmas) to the star-studded (see: Love Actually and Christmas Vacation) to the multi-generational favourites (see: It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street). We could come up with a list of the 20 best Christmas movies and there would still be glaring omissions. So, we shrunk the pool. And to do that, we picked four classics from the best era for Christmas movies: The 1980s to early 2000s.

The contenders

In the name of fairness and originality, we opted for a shortlist that would avoid redundancies. That meant any final four contenders couldn’t include both Home Alone and Home Alone 2, say, or Christmas Vacation and Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. That also meant selecting a foursome that would cover its share of genres: rom-coms, ’80s Christmas classics, the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-Christmas-movie contrarian picks and John Hughes Christmas movies. (Simply put, Hughes exists in a category of his own when it comes to holiday flicks.)

Our chosen movies? Love Actually, A Christmas Story, Die Hard and Home Alone. You can debate those in our comments section if you want (in fact, please do), but that’s a holiday Mt. Rushmore you can’t discard.

To identify a clear winner, though, we submitted those four films to a far more rigorous test—one that would pit star against star, catchphrase against catchphrase and cameo against cameo.

Let’s dive in.

The categories

The undisputed Greatest Christmas Movie of All Time needs more than just one A-list actor, a Santa Claus cameo and a half-baked catchphrase to pass muster (here’s looking at you, Jingle All the Way). It needs to stand above the pack in numerous categories. Here’s how we’ll be ranking our contending films:

Headlining talent: A Christmas classic doesn’t necessarily need an all-star cast, but this is Hollywood we’re talking about: Star-power wins. The key here is that a holiday flick can’t coast on its star-power alone; it needs those performances to be memorable. And sometimes, a true cinematic contender can exist without any A-listers on its roster—just as long as the talent on screen shines through.

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call.
Photo: The Holiday
Want a celebrity-packed Christmas? The Holiday stars Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black and Kate Winslet.

Best catchphrase: This is perhaps the most crowded category of any, but the GCMOAT needs to be quotable. Can the utterance of a single phrase immediately conjure the film in someone’s mind? That’s the kind of sticking power we’re looking for here. We want the “I’ll be back” of Christmas.

Scene-stealing side characters: Just as important as your headlining talent, a true holiday great needs a surrounding cast with character. The best Christmas movies are remembered not just for who’s on the movie poster, but for the cameos that deliver just as much oomph as the film’s biggest talent.

Iconic imagery: Like with catchphrases, is a single item or image immediately synonymous with the film? We’re looking for our Rosebud of Christmas classics here.

Is it the lead actor’s best movie? Call this the Elf rule if you want. A film can be in the A-tier of holiday movies without satisfying this rule, but to reach the S-tier—the true pantheon—you want the film to be a star-maker. If it isn’t the actor’s opus, that’s an immediate knock.

Does Santa Claus make an appearance? Fairly self-explanatory. But also, how memorable is the film’s Santa Claus? Are we talking jolly but generic (The Polar Express) or down-on-his-luck (Bad Santa)? Does Santa’s presence make enough of an impact for the cameo to be worthwhile?

Does Alan Rickman make an appearance? A true Daniel Day Lewis of the holiday film genre, nobody does Christmas villains quite like Rickman—whether it’s Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, or Love Actually’s Harry, or—dare we call them Christmas movies?—the Harry Potter series’ Snape.

With all that sorted, let’s get into ranking the films. We’ll start with the most recent and work our way backward in chronological order.

Love Actually (2003)

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. (2)
Photo: Love Actually

One-sentence synopsis: Nine storylines of love lost and found interweave over Christmas in London.

Headlining talent: Hugh Grant (Prime Minister), Keira Knightley (Juliet), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Colin Firth (Jamie), Emma Thompson (Karen), Martin Freeman (John), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter)

You’re not getting a more star-studded lineup in a holiday movie than this one. We’re one Dame Judi Dench appearance away from all of British film royalty in one flick.

10 / 10

Best catchphrase: “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”

It’s a good line (and delivered with perfect comedic timing from Thompson), but Love Actually’s best offerings aren’t the one-liner quips—or rather, British humour doesn’t always hit you over the head with its zingers the way Hollywood humour so often does. And so, even if the writing is quite good in Love Actually, the lines, when laid under the cold and unforgiving gaze of posterity, don’t have the staying power we’re looking for.

6 / 10

Scene-stealing side character: Rowan Atkinson as Rufus (jewellery salesman)

If a Christmas movie is so celebrity-packed that Rowan Atkinson is relegated to cameo status, that tells you something. And Atkinson, true to form, delivers as boutique jewellery salesman Rufus, who has to make absolutely sure that each of his store’s products are gift-wrapped to perfection.

8 / 10

Iconic imagery: The doorstep cue cards.

This is how the internet remembers Love Actually: Rick Grimes (well, Andrew Lincoln as Mark) standing at Keira Knightley’s doorstep on Christmas Eve, revealing his heart one Sharpied-over Bristol board at a time. Iconic scene, if a bit over-memed.

7 / 10

Is it the lead actor’s best movie? No.

It’s a hell of an ensemble cast, but it isn’t Grant’s best work (About A Boy), nor Knightley’s (Pirates of the Caribbean), nor Neeson’s (Schindler’s List). Firth won an Oscar for The King’s Speech; ditto for Thompson and Howards End. Ejiofor should’ve won for 12 Years a Slave, but lost out to (*checks notes*) Matthew McConaughey. Take your pick with Freeman’s credits (The Office, Sherlock, The Hobbit); each are bigger roles.

5 / 10

Does Santa Claus make an appearance? No.

0 / 10

Does Alan Rickman make an appearance? Yes.

But we don’t get peak Rickman in Love Actually. He’s a prick in the film—which, sure, is part of what makes his performance good—but he’s not a diabolical prick in the way of, say, Hans Gruber. A passing grade, but not an all-out winner.

7 / 10

Overall score: 43 / 70

Share of Coast reader votes: 26.15%

Pretty good, but the true GCMOAT should fare better. Onward to our next contender…

Home Alone (1990)

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. (3)
Photo: Home Alone / Disney+

One-sentence synopsis: Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister is alone for the holidays and has to protect his family’s house from two burglars intent on cleaning the place out.

Headlining talent: Macaulay Culkin (Kevin McCallister), Joe Pesci (Harry Lime), Daniel Stern (Marv Murchins), Catherine O’Hara (Kate McCallister)

A true murderers’ row of on-screen talent. Macaulay Culkin is at peak box-office powers in 1990: The first Home Alone grossed $476 million worldwide, which is almost twice what Love Actually hauled in 13 years later ($247 million). Gangster flick great Joe Pesci takes an iconic turn (and a BB to the balls) as “Wet Bandit” Harry Lime, and we get two Can-Con performances from the always great Catherine O’Hara (playing the role of Kevin’s mother, Kate McCallister) and John Candy (who plays “Polka King” Gus Polinski).

9 / 10

Best catchphrase: “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”

No notes. Absolute perfection. (Okay, some notes. More on this below.)

10 / 10

Scene-stealing side characters: D. Danny Warhol as Pizza Boy, Ralph Foody as Johnny in Angels With Filthy Souls

Culkin and Pesci are the engines of Home Alone, but the Chicago-based film gets top-tier performances from its side characters—and the absolute best two come from D. Danny Warhol (playing a Little Nero’s pizza delivery driver) and Ralph Foody, playing the movie-character-within-a-movie role of gangster Johnny in the fictional Angels With Filthy Souls. Foody offers the kind of quip-packed performance that makes you long for a feature film-length version of Angels, and Kevin harnesses it to maximum effect in scaring Warhol’s Pizza Boy on a delivery run.

10 / 10

Iconic imagery: The backdoor blowtorch, the tarantula, the gold tooth, the laundry chute iron

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. (5)
Photo: Home Alone
Joe Pesci is famed for playing hotheads, but Home Alone took it to another level.

Home Alone is chock full of iconography, from Harry’s runaway gold tooth to the myriad traps Kevin sets in anticipation of the Wet Bandits’ arrival. But none carry the instant name recognition that a true contender in this category requires—the same way the mere mention of a lightsaber summons images of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader.

8 / 10

Is it the lead actor’s best movie? Yes.

Home Alone 2 is good—even very good—but not as good as the original. And Culkin isn’t topping this magnum opus with Richie Rich. Unquestionable pick here.

10 / 10

Does Santa Claus make an appearance? Yes.

But it’s kind of a meh moment. A beardless Santa (played by Ken Hudson Campbell) offers Kevin Tic-Tacs after a mini curbside therapy session on Christmas Eve.

6.5 / 10

Does Alan Rickman make an appearance? No.

Tough scoring, but rules are rules.

0 / 10

Overall score: 53.5 / 70

Share of Coast reader votes: 27.98%

Now we’re talking. But can we do even better?

Die Hard (1988)

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. (4)
Photo: Die Hard

One-sentence synopsis: A bunch of German terrorists have taken a Los Angeles office Christmas party hostage—but they didn’t account for Bruce Willis.

Headlining talent: Bruce Willis (John McClane), Alan Rickman (Hans Gruber)

Willis was already a star from his Emmy-winning turn on Moonlighting, but Die Hard turned the New Jersey-raised performer from a comedy-drama actor into a bonafide action hero. And his on-screen chemistry with Rickman as criminal mastermind Hans Gruber is pure bottled lightning. A third co-star might’ve been nice to add to the billing, but this is as good a pairing as you get.

9 / 10

Best catchphrase: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”

An absolutely iconic line in cinema—and still as fun to quote as ever.

10 / 10

Scene-stealing side character: De'Voreaux Sefas as limousine driver Argyle

The Achilles heel of Die Hard? It’s not super strong on side characters. The most notable is probably McClane’s airport limousine driver, Argyle, who’s tasked with bringing him from LAX to Nakatomi Plaza. He didn’t count on getting locked into the tower’s garage, but he ends up helping to save the day: When he spies super-hacker-terrorist Theo plotting an ambulance escape, he rams his limo into the ambulance and one-punches Theo in the jaw. Baddies thwarted.

5 / 10

Iconic imagery: Nakatomi Plaza

Two words are all you need to conjure Die Hard in anyone’s mind—faster than Gruber falling out the tower window to his demise.

8 / 10

Is it the lead actor’s best movie? Yes.

We’re not debating this, are we?

10 / 10

Does Santa Claus make an appearance? No.

Well, sort of. Willis (as John McClane) kills one of Gruber’s accomplices, then dresses him in a Santa hat to send down the Nakatomi Plaza elevator as a message to Gruber: “NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN. HO-HO-HO.” Excellent catchphrase, but partial points.

4.5 / 10

Does Alan Rickman make an appearance? Yes.

And not just that—it’s Rickman’s first ever big-screen credit. Seriously. The man who would go on to roles in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; Truly, Madly Deeply; Sense and Sensibility; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and eight Harry Potter film instalments made his silver screen debut with one of the most iconic movie villain performances of all time.

10 / 10

Overall score: 56.5 / 70

Share of Coast reader votes: 15.6%

Oh, shit. Die Hard topped Home Alone? That leaves just one contender…

A Christmas Story (1983)

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. (7)
Photo: A Christmas Story / Amazon Prime

One-sentence synopsis: Ralphie Parker wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas—and he’s willing to pull out all the stops to make sure it happens.

Headlining talent: Peter Billingsley (Ralphie Parker), Melinda Dillon (Mother Parker), Darren McGavin (Old Man Parker)

Remember when we mentioned that not every contender needs an A-list roster? A Christmas Story doesn’t come jam-packed with star-power, but it makes up for what it lacks by getting every ounce of talent out of its cast. You won’t find a weak performance among the bunch. And perhaps the biggest star, Melinda Dillon (who earned Best Supporting Actress nods for her roles in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1981’s Absence of Malice) is excellent as the Parker family matriarch.

7 / 10

Best catchphrase: “He had yellow eyes. So help me god, yellow eyes!”

There are some top-tier contenders in this category. “You’ll shoot your eye out” is probably the most famous one, and then there’s the infamous “triple-dog dare,” but I’ll throw in an honourable mention vote for Ralphie’s one-liner during a daydream in which, as a future blind self, he tells his parents the cause of his plight: “It was… soap poisoning.”

The real winner’s pick, though, comes in Ralphie’s description of childhood bully Scut Farkus. And speaking of Scut…

10 / 10

Scene-stealing side character: Zack Ward as Scut Farkus

A true Hall of Fame-level movie bully, Scut Farkus terrorizes the children of Hohman, Indiana while patrolling its snowy sidestreets in a raccoon-skin hat, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. He doesn’t say much—he doesn’t need to say much—beyond uttering a few maniacal laughs. That’s all he needs to make a lasting impression. And that name? It makes you puke just saying it.

10 / 10

Iconic imagery: The “leg lamp,” the frozen pole

Another crowded category. Where A Christmas Story is short on big box-office talent, it’s rich in the props and symbols it’s made famous. This 1983 classic made leg lamps into a collector’s item—an Oakville, Ont. couple even pitched the lamps on Dragons’ Den—and turned a schoolyard pole in St. Catharines into a national treasure.

10 / 10

click to enlarge We picked the best Christmas movie of all time. It’s a close call. (6)
Photo: A Christmas Story
Never listen to a triple-dog dare. It ends poorly.

Is it the lead actor’s best movie? Yes.

Peter Billingsley has had his share of film credits since A Christmas Story—and even a healthy roster of holiday features. Aside from the 2022 sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas, he was also in Four Christmases, and he has an uncredited role in Elf. But nothing’s coming close to his starring role as Ralphie.

10 / 10

Does Santa Claus make an appearance? Yes.

And it’s a memorable one. Ralphie’s intent on throwing one last Hail Mary to ensure his prized Red Ryder BB gun shows up under the Christmas tree. So, having exhausted all avenues with his parents, he heads to the mall department store with his brother Randy to put in a word with Santa. The line takes forever. And just when Ralphie gets his chance, his mind goes blank. He can’t form words anymore. Santa sends him on his way with a boot to the face. End scene.

10 / 10

Does Alan Rickman make an appearance? No.

0 / 10

Overall score: 57 / 70

Share of Coast reader votes: 30.28%

And there you have it—the best Christmas movie of all time is A Christmas Story. Don’t argue with us; it’s just science.

About The Author

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...

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