What Makes A Great Christmas Movie?

Photo: Michael Gibson/Getty Images.
Everyone has a favorite Christmas movie. It doesn't matter if you're celebrate the holiday or not, believe in Santa or not, go to the movies or not.
Everyone has a favorite Christmas movie because the commercial value of the holiday forces each and every person to engage, in some way, with Christmas content. The sheer density of Santa-related TV movies and feature films is at an all-time high now, thanks to the wonders of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Not only do we have the O.G. classics (It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and A Charlie Brown Christmas), and the modern classics (Polar Express, Elf, and Santa Claus), but we also have a new category: the "um-is-this-supposed-to-eventually-be-a-classic?" (A Christmas Prince, Office Christmas Party, and The Princess Switch).
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We have Christmas movies coming at us every direction these days: from the aforementioned cheesy TV movies to the expensive Disney theatrical releases, to our own Netflix queues. If you want a story about a Christmas miracle, you have approximately 243 titles (rough estimate) to sift through, and if you want one about a Christmas prince, then buckle up, because there are more options than there are fan accounts for Timothée Chalamet.
But that’s the point — there are a few go-to Christmas tropes and themes that show up in every movie because they are surefire wins. Christmas is basic as hell, and that’s why it’s so easy to replicate the Christmas movie formula. But I’m not here to talk about the typical tropes in every earnest family flick (you know the ones: a mall shopping montage, a snowfall kiss, a hometown Christmas romance). I’m here to explain to you what not-so-typical tropes *make* a Christmas movie worth watching these days. I'm not trying to reinvent the Christmas cookie here — classics like Miracle On 34th Street will remain a wonderful, nostalgic piece of art, I'm just here to point out a few simple key elements that make a modern-day holiday movie excellent.
It is the difference between leaving out store-bought cookies for Santa, and leaving out homemade double-chocolate chunk cookies. One is fine, the other is divine.
Photo: Joseph Lederer/Shutterstock.
1. Hot Santa
Two words: Zaddy Claus. Kurt Russell knows what I’m talking about. Santa Claus, a.k.a Old Saint Nick, a.k.a Kris Kringle, should be attractive. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the Santas of the early aughts, but why not make him good-looking? Who is that hurting? No one. Tim Allen was factually hotter as Santa than he was as his actual character in Santa Clause. In Elf, Ed Asner rocks his suspenders and bald cap as a aged, but beautiful, St. Nick in the elves' workshop. And then there's Billy Bob Thorton who, as a drunk and delinquent mall Santa in Bad Santa and Bad Santa 2, proves this point is true for both Actual Santas and Fake Santas. As a working toy master who is happily married to one Mrs. Claus, it just makes narrative sense for the man to have a five o'clock shadow below those rosy cheeks, and some arm muscle from hammering away at those trinkets year round! In a world where Steve Carrell is a zaddy, just make Santa hot.
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2. Bad Kids
Good kids are just boring. No one wants to watch a movie about a goody-two shoes narc of a child who is dead-set on proving that Santa is real and then eventually does just that. Make all kids in Christmas movies troublemakers. Like, the worst. They should cuss, slam doors, and steal cars. They should be mini Grinches, but ones that still get allowance. I want to see these kids be full messes, and then Hot Santa to come along and teach them how to act right, because even bad kids don't want lumps of coal for Christmas.
Although these kids are older, The Family Stone gets this right. Everyone in this family is a little rude, more than a little egotistical, and fully grating. But they're family, and the idea of their common fucked up-edness is what ultimately unites them. (A sick mom subs in for Santa in this Christmas dramedy.) While Netflix's new The Christmas Chronicles nails Hot Santa with a rugged Russell, the young central character we're meant to root for (Darby Camp, aka Chloe from Big Little Lies) is pretty insufferable. She's a tattle-tale and a meddler! I want to see him make over a bad kid (like the girl's older brother), and turn a Santa skeptic into a Santa stan. It's so much more fun to witness a kid go from bad to good because of the spirit of Christmas. See also: Love, The Coopers.
Note: Bad kids, not Bad Moms.
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3. Cute — Not! Creepy! — Elves
If a movie has Santa and kids, then it's got to have elves. One of the most iconic early Christmas movies, the 1964 stop motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has, hands down, the creepiest elves. Maybe it's because of this song that haunted my childhood, or because of their pointy noises and wooden faces, but these elves are the worst. And thus, the third update to the classic movie tropes: Elves should be cute, not creepy.
Note: Elves should not be hot, but they should be approachable. As toymakers, this means they are allowed to either look like toys, (Christmas Chronicle), or look like tiny humans (Santa Clause and Elf).
Reindeers are luckily always cute, so we don't have to worry about that.
Photo: Courtesy of IMDb.
4. A Villain
A Christmas movie is not complete if there is not a villain. Whether the villain is a literal person (Grinch, Scrooge, robbers), or a concept (time running out, fleeting Christmas spirit, lack of money), there needs to be an ominous presence to lift the stakes. Scrooge is a great villain because he's wicked, and because the true meaning of Christmas makes him reconsider his entire way of life. A spiteful mother-in-law or new significant other is a poor villain. They add no levels to the conflict, and are usually there just to make the lead character look good, which is already achieved in so many other ways.
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Taking all of these updated tropes into consideration, here's my ultimate Christmas movie:
The cast: Armie Hammer, CGI-aged to be Hot Santa. Nicholas Braun as a cute, goofy ironic elf that is casually 6 feet 6 inches tall. Amma from Sharp Objects (Eliza Scanlen) as the ill-tempered daughter-scammer losing her faith in Christmas and Santa together.
The premise: A Christmas scammer (a mix of the IRL New York socialite scammer Anna Delvey and the Grinch) puts the fate of Christmas on the line after she scams the big man himself. He has to team up with his biggest skeptic to save Christmas.
The memorable scene: The scammer reselling the stolen Christmas gifts at a retail store while a nostalgic Christmas song, maybe Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song," plays in the background. For reliability's sake, let's call it A Christmas Scam. Netflix, Hallmark, Lifetime — call me.
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