As this pandemic year (hopefully) reaches its climax, the holiday season promises to offer some welcome and familiar comforts — namely, the handful of classics and mainstays we collectively revisit annually to get into the spirit of the season. At the same time, streaming services have not only developed new material they hope will soon join the ranks of those standard-bearers, but have collected holiday fare with increasing specificity from familiar sources to provide a virtual smorgasbord of options.
Ahead of Thanksgiving and with other year-end celebrations not far off in the distance, we looked at offerings from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Disney+. Disney’s selections were immediately the most exciting, as much as anything because their service includes The Simpsons, and programmers compiled all of the series’ Christmas episodes. Meanwhile, we presume that some titles will be added in December to these platforms — and on many of them, there are more options if you’re willing to pony up a few bucks for a rental. But take a look at just a few of the titles currently available for you to get into the swing of the season without spending any more cash than you do on your current subscriptions.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The history of this film is fascinating: it came out with a whimper, but became a “classic” when its distributor licensed it out exhaustively for television broadcast, not so much giving as forcing people to watch it until they loved it. But Frank Capra’s film is a stone cold masterpiece, with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the good-hearted executor of Bedford Falls’ pygmy bank who squares off against the greedy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) — and the townspeople’s increasing financial problems as he wrestles with what may be the last moments of his life. There’s no description that does the movie real justice if you haven’t seen it, but there are few holiday movies that encapsulate the spirit of the season better, and just plain make you feel good. (Amazon Prime)
White Christmas (1954)
From Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, comes this enduring classic about two army buddies (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) who band together to revive business at the winter lodge owned by their commanding officer. Their romantic tete-a-tete with a pair of showgirl sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) sets the stage for some terrific comedic hijinks as well as some great musical numbers, leading up to a beautiful, snow-covered conclusion (it is called “White Christmas,” after all) (Netflix).
Home Alone (1990)
Chris Columbus’ holiday classic feels a bit like a study in growing up with movies we all loved as kids; where once we identified with young Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) and the thrill of being by ourselves on Christmas, many of us now more closely relate to Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) — at least in believing that this kid’s violent defenses of his home are excessively brutal. Whether or not you want to watch Donald Trump in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, much less the subsequent sequels, they’re available as well. (Netflix for the original; Disney+ for all of the rest)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This film feels like it may be more memed than memorable — especially after that gif of Michael Caine dancing with the Ghost of Christmas Present. But Brian Henson’s adaptation combines the best of Dickens’ source material with the best of the Muppets for a delightful lesson in kindness and generosity. (Disney+)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Henry Selick directed this musical stop-motion masterpiece, but don’t tell that to Tim Burton’s Hot Topic armies: Pumpkin King Jack Skellington’s boredom with Halloween leads to big trouble when he sets his sights on replacing Santa for Christmas. Burton’s delightfully mischievous storytelling, paired with Selick’s imaginative staging, makes this a multi-holiday feast. (Disney+)
The Grinch (2000, 2018)
I suppose that which version of The Grinch you prefer may come down to how old you are (though as of right now, the 1966 cartoon originally created for television is only available for rent). Thankfully, there are two other versions, Ron Howard and Jim Carrey’s 2000 live-action odyssey, and Illumination’s 2018 animated version, which boldly attempts to reimagine its musical landscape with new tunes by the likes of Pharrell and Tyler the Creator. Even if the movie is occasionally as gaudy as the materialism that the Grinch helps the Whos learn to live without, Carrey’s performance perfectly suits the character’s madcap personality, while the computer animated iteration finds vivid new ways to bring his misanthropic world to life. (Netflix)
This Christmas (2007)
A perhaps surprising (and more contemporary) inclusion among so many venerated films, but writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II gathers an amazing ensemble that includes Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba, Loretta Devine, Columbus Short, Regina King and others for this dramedy about a family coming together at the holidays, and the dirty laundry that gets aired. Offering a uniquely POC-heavy cast while mining some familiar seasonal clichés, Whitmore’s film is the movie that reminds you both of the drama that family gatherings bring, and also the togetherness and bonding that makes it all worthwhile. (Hulu; Netflix)
A Christmas Carol (2009)
Robert Zemeckis has certainly spent more time than he probably should mining whatever the latest technology is to tell stories in a more complicated way than necessary. But with Jim Carrey in the role of Scrooge, Zemeckis’ adaptation of this Christmas classic is far more effective and surprising than anyone could have expected. Though it’s not possible to watch the film in its native 3D (unless you have the Blu-ray, but if you did, why are you reading this), and it may not be the definitive film version of Charles Dickens’ iconic story, 2020 might be the right time to venture outside your comfort zone with this one — it’s worth it. (Disney+)
Confession time: I absolutely loved the original Frozen, but I never saw the sequel. I plan to remedy that now that they’re both on Disney+ (as is Olaf’s Frozen Adventure); but directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, the original offers a pretty wonderful deconstruction of Disney princess clichés alongside a powerful story of sisterhood, themes of self-actualization and acceptance, and some really terrific songs. Hopefully the second one, also directed by the duo, will at least approximate some of the emotional weight of its predecessor…? (Disney+)
A recent addition to the canon but a worthy one: this Netflix film was nominated for Best Animated Film for its alternative take on the origins of Santa Claus, starring Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones and Joan Cusack. Where a lot of other animated holiday projects veer desperately into sentimentality, this one actually offers a deeply evocative story, beautifully animated, that explores ideas about Christmas that a lot of similar films do not. (Netflix)
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