What does your family like to do on Christmas? We always went to the movies. It was such a transformative way to spend time together, to foster community not just among ourselves but among a theater full of folks, and to stir the conversational pot after. This time of year also happens to be a time when the film industry puts both their most prestigious, award-friendly films and their most crowd-pleasing, often milquetoast films in the cinema, giving folks ample room to decide what to experience on this particular holiday. Many of these films are released days or even months before the actual date of December 25th… but what of the ones that drop on Christmas Day proper?
In the year of our Lord 2020, my Christmas ain’t gonna look like these Christmases of Multiplexes Past. If it’s similar circumstances for you, and you’re feeling bummed about it too, then I’m hoping this list of the 25 best Christmas-released movies of the 21st century will help put the spark back in your heart of what it means to go see a movie, a movie that just came out in order to make this holiday more special, on Christmas Day. All of these films featured are different from one another, representing a wide swath of genre, tone, and directorial vision; but all manage to, because of their association with this holiday, elevate beyond their status as just “a movie.” Like everything else on Christmas Day, they begin to mean something a little more…
25. Into the Woods (2014)
On paper, and largely in practice, Into the Woods is one of the most “down the middle, crowd-pleasing, fun for the whole family” flicks you’ll see on this list. But like its source material’s devastating “everything changes in Act II” twist, this big screen Disney musical has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Rob Marshall, who previously gave a welcome sense of kineticism to the movie musical form in Chicago, works with DP Dion Beebe to give this film a frighteningly dark, saturated, even Tim Burton-esque color palette, with a startlingly tactile production design to boot. And Meryl Streep is more than willing to commit to being The Witch in her moments both terrifying and pathos-inducing. It might not be as brutal as Stephen Sondheim‘s original stage musical, but the film version of Into the Woods works very well as a best-of-both-worlds approach.
24. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Take the “hateful” part of the title seriously. The Hateful Eight is a polarizing, perilous, and punishing film, playing something like Knives Out meets Oldboy meets Saló. Quentin Tarantino lenses an appropriately wintry landscape with beyond-gorgeous 70mm photography (kudos to Robert Richardson) — that is, until you realize the film locks itself indoors for the majority of its 3-hour running time. Then, the photography turns the various phenomenal performers into landscapes of their own, with Samuel L. Jackson in particular becoming the mythical arbiter of a kind of justice Jules waffled in and out of in Pulp Fiction. If you need a giant kick of blood-vomit-inducing poison in your eggnog, you just might love The Hateful Eight.
23. The Illusionist (2010)
Told largely in silence and inspired by an abandoned screenplay from French film maestro Jacques Tati, The Illusionist (L’illusionniste) is a charming, heartfelt, melancholy, and absorbing animated feature from French film maestro Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville). As the title implies, it’s a story of magic, but of realization that “magic” comes from a different source than the performative tricks our lead illusionist, beaten down by a career of uncaring audiences and a waning appetite for his old school schtick, tends to peddle. Instead, Chomet’s work shows us, with brilliantly bittersweet, courageous, and bittersweet élan, that real “magic” comes from leaving the people and places we come in contact with better than before. If you have a child, this film will make you weep.
22. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
This Christmas, how about some tea? Notes on a Scandal is a professionally but deliriously arted up psychosexual suspense thriller, with acting luminaries Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench enjoying the hell out of tormenting each other. The pair begin the film striking up an unlikely friendship, with the lonely Dench especially instigating their camaraderie. But when Blanchett becomes embroiled in an underage sex scandal with a student she teaches, Dench becomes judge, jury, executioner, lawyer, and prodding news reporter all at once. It’s a queasy film made queasier by the sheen, the outright repression of its cinematic form; Philip Glass‘ outstanding score especially painting the lurid material with a coat of prestige. It’s what you might get if you asked Paul Verhoeven to make a 2000s Miramax Best Picture-bait, and if you’re onboard for that, you’ll be more than onboard for Notes on a Scandal.
21. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
When I left the theater for The Wolf of Wall Street, I felt sick to my stomach — and I’m pretty sure that’s a compliment. A film of excess in length, cinematic technique, and provocative imagery, Martin Scorsese‘s lightning bolt (sometimes literally!) against unchecked capitalism plays like the answer to a dare. Yes, it’s going to go there, and yes, it’s going to walk right against the line of “depiction versus endorsement” until they become blurred and intractable within your conscience. It’s also, like, really funny, Scorsese’s closest take on a screwball comedy we’re likely to get, with Leonardo DiCaprio proving that when he works broad and works physical, the results are transformative, wildly watchable, and laugh-out-loud funny. Until he turns the screws and makes us furious again. What a picture!
20. Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
With clean, crisp action, a giant sense of heart and hope, and some of the best contemporary villain arcs in superhero cinema, Wonder Woman 1984 is a crowd-pleaser and then some, a family-friendly piece of popcorn filmmaking that deserves to be seen on a giant screen with a giant group of people — but, like, your quarantine bubble on HBO Max will be fun, too. Patty Jenkins and DP Matthew Jensen have so much fun with their action set pieces; it’s particularly joyful to watch Gal Gadot swing that purposefully cartoonish-looking golden lasso around like a beefed up Indiana Jones, and we see every move with striking clarity. Plus: Kristen Wiig and especially Pedro Pascal absolutely shine as the villains of the picture, jumping on their journeys with unexpected sympathy, charisma, and, again, out-and-out fun. There are flaws in this film, some of which are unfortunately centrally located, but for a joyous, instinctive blockbuster this Christmas, time travel yourself back to 1984.
19. Wolf Creek (2005)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre lensed with grimy 2000s vérité HD urgency. A surprising first-half emphasis on character development and even romance. A potent allegory on the unyielding strength of nature and the punishment we endure (deserve?) when we try to muck things up with our city-slickin’, performative “nature enjoying” that’s really couched in irony and disrespect. A uniquely Australian product that helped bash the door open for future grim pieces of cinema from down under, not to mention an entire sub-genre of extreme horror. Merry Christmas, I got you Wolf Creek! Good luck!
18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Holy cannoli, have some tissues handy before you watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Playing a little like the union of Forrest Gump with Big Fish, and rendered with David Fincher‘s typically impeccable sense of craft and precision, Benjamin Button is an atypically intimate epic, wide in scope and emotion, but arriving at such conclusions by zeroing in on the moment-by-moment intricacies of the human experience. Brad Pitt and some astonishing-to-this-day visual effects inhabit Benjamin Button in all his curious glory, allowing us to feel every moment of his backwards-aging life. He’s surrounded by a litany of incredible, life-enriching women, including first love Tilda Swinton, last love Cate Blanchett, and especially his adopted mother Taraji P. Henson, all of whom deliver potent, heart-rattling performances. And its final moments, delivered as bluntly as any of Fincher’s more typically dark films, will linger in your soul for some time to come. Ya gotta love a movie that so explicitly wants you to be a better person, ya know?
17. Django Unchained (2012)
Its third act gets a touch wonky — especially with Quentin Tarantino‘s embarrassing, Australian accent-yielding cameo — and it gets itself knotted into a conversation about who has the right to yield, weaponize, and depict such horrific Black traumas for the sake of cinema. But Django Unchained still remains a unique, idiosyncratic, wildly entertaining, and fiercely cathartic piece of agitprop genre cinema. It feels really, really, really good to watch Jamie Foxx, giving such a heartfelt, badass performance, annihilate the hell out of vile slave-owners. And to his credit, Tarantino complicates this potentially overly simplistic through line with upsetting, provocative, and nerve-shedding discursions, especially involving the duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. Perhaps more than any other Tarantino piece of revisionist history, Django Unchained makes you earn your visceral release, and makes you fiercely uncomfortable throughout. A wild, vital watch.
16. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Sure, sure, we all know Sherlock Holmes is a very smart detective who solves crimes with his brain or whatever. But what if he was also very strong and had the movie star charms of, say, Iron Man, and also he bareknuckle boxed people in time-ramping slow-mo, and also it all took place in a Guy Ritchie steampunk action fantasy? Why, then you’d have the 2009 Christmas Day take on the iconic detective. Purists may balk at the action blockbuster take on the world’s greatest detective (sorry, Batman, but to be fair, you are based on him). But for either an atypically cerebral popcorn flick, or an atypically physical detective story, Sherlock Holmes stays wholly entertaining, and plays well for every member of the family in different ways.
15. The Company (2003)
No real conflict, no real story, just vibes. The Company is an odd duck, playing on its own invented wavelength. If you can follow along with that wavelength’s choreography, though, you will find a relentlessly watchable, experimental yet accessible, and wholly engrossing picture. The second-to-last film made by Robert Altman, The Company reunites star/co-writer/producer Neve Campbell with her childhood background of performing ballet, and she acquits herself impressively with the ensemble members of the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet. We watch, with Altman’s typical emphasis on ensemble-work, on catching overlapping conversations with long-lens zoom photography, and on procedure over result as these artists do their best to simply exist. And while there are some more typical screenwriting moments in a “dance film,” like the threat of career-ending injury and a piece of romantic temptation, they’re all observed with a welcome sense of paradoxically immersive distance. It’s an absorbing movie with exquisite dancing, one that will make you miss the company of others immensely.
14. Children of Men (2006)
A relentless, much-imitated, impeccably-crafted piece of dystopian filmmaking, Children of Men remains so gripping, so thrilling, and despite all of its darkness, ultimately so hopeful. It’s a film that fights, and compels us, using all kinds of peerless cinematic technique (especially those jaw-dropping long takes, still so rife with gut-churning potency and violence), to keep fighting ourselves, despite the oppressive society we find ourselves in. Beautiful, fraught performances and a sharp, insightful screenplay all combine with Alfonso Cuarón‘s astonishing directorial vision to make this a film worth revisiting time and time again — at the very least to see the source of what so many prestige thriller productions have copied since.
13. Little Women (2019)
“My little women,” says Bob Odenkirk, tears welling in his eyes. “Merry Christmas, my dear.” And much like Florence Pugh in the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, I threw my popcorn on the ground and jumped and cheered in delight, so wrapped up I was in this quiet, sensitive, soulful, and wonderfully-crafted tale of growing up and finding yourself. Greta Gerwig and her editor Nick Houy establish such an exquisite, unorthodox cross-cutting pattern to give this story vitality and power, and to subtly heighten the potency of Saoirse Ronan‘s meta-storyline of becoming a storyteller herself. It’s romantic, it’s triumphant, it’s a love letter to the power of female bonds, it’s our Little Women.
12. All the Money in the World (2017)
A film that was not originally meant as a Christmas Day release but shifted into one thanks to a hasty recasting and reediting of a certain actor who was outed as a pervasive sexual predator, All the Money in the World plays with surprising seamlessness, intention, and immersion. Based on the unbelievable true story of a kidnapping, an unrelenting love of capitalism, and a damn severed ear, All the Money in the World applies a gripping, 1970s-styled suspense thriller framework to the chilling realization that love, family, and “the right thing” will always take a backseat to money, power, and stubbornly mutated principles. As for the performances? Michelle Williams is unstoppably powerful; Christopher Plummer, the actor inserted into the film, wins the case that no one else on earth could play this role; and I will think about a scene between Mark Wahlberg and Plummer that cascades into a threat of physical violence for some time to come.
11. Waltz with Bashir (2008)
A harrowing, true story of the societal and personal tolls of war, told with uniquely beautiful animation to help personify its documentary subjects’ horrible accounts with gripping, emotion-driven, and utterly cinematic transformation. Waltz with Bashir is hard to watch but necessary to experience. Its filmmaker, Ari Folman, was conscripted to serve in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon War, but his memories are failing him. So he interviews and dramatizes friends, soldiers, psychologists, and even TV reporters who were involved with the conflict, and as their stories rejigger his traumatic memories, they too become animated visions for us to reckon with. An astonishing work of self-reflexive filmmaking; a piece of therapy that wrecks with emotional exploration; an example of animation that’s unafraid to be terrible while it’s being beautiful.
10. Sylvie’s Love (2020)
Sometimes, on Christmas, you just want to watch an utterly splendid love story. Sylvie’s Love will give this to you and so much more, its welcomely old-fashioned aesthetics crafted with affection and care by filmmaker Eugene Ashe, its incredible cast giving themselves over wholeheartedly to its unironic vision of romance, of music, of purpose, of life. Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha are simply perfect as our young couple falling in and out and in love with each other; you will fully believe each of them gives the other what they’re desperately missing, while desperately wanting them to get what they need as themselves. Their supporting cast members, especially Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick, Jemima Kirke, and Wendi McLendon-Covey, provide the film with such welcome texture, support, balance, and period charm. As for the score, from composer Fabrice Lecomte? Wow, wow, and wow again. A new romantic classic for the ages, one that taps into but rearranges the romances of ages before.
9. Hidden Figures (2016)
The absolute ideal of a crowd-pleasing Christmas Day movie, so entertaining, so crisply rendered, so deeply performed and felt. Hidden Figures puts the Black women so responsible for our success in the exploratory fields of space and science front and center, personified with incredible performances from Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and especially (again!) Taraji P. Henson. These real life mathematicians come face to face with systemic racism, personified effectively by a cheerfully vile Kirsten Dunst, and burst through these cobwebs with professionalism, skill, expertise, and a powerfully optimistic sense of “leading by example” triumphing over all. There are some pitfalls to the picture that likely stem from, well, its white director and screenwriters, and it can fall into the trap of white saviorism vis-a-vis Kevin Costner‘s gruffly supportive mentor figure. But by and large, it’s a blast of fresh air that still manages to check those “inspirational true story ’90s dramas” boxes while painstakingly writing a few new ones itself. And those performances, my goodness. More stories about Black women, please and thank you!
8. One Night in Miami… (2020)
What happens when Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown walk into the same hotel room? An incredible, explosive, dynamic, complicated, and utterly watchable blast of philosophy, purpose, and personality, constructed resplendently by first-time filmmaker Regina King, king of all things. Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Aldis Hodge play these four vital figures, respectively, and each of them make such a case for earning a Best Leading Actor Oscar that they should just have a Best Acting Ensemble Oscar and give it to them already. These performers find the nuances, the humanities, and the relationships between each other behind these well-known figures, giving each other space, a hard time, and love as needed (and it’s all needed). King and screenwriter Kemp Powers (who also wrote the play this is based on) have some pacing issues, especially in its first act, but once we’re locked into the hotel room, everyone on this team becomes locked the hell in, and it is stunning to watch. The final moments prove just how strong of a career King has as a director if she wants it.
7. Spies in Disguise (2019)
Spies in Disguise hive, unite!
…No? Just me? Fine, but you’ll have to listen to me scream about why this film is so good for a little bit (and who knows, maybe you’ll join the hive after). The “spies” of the title are Will Smith as a suave, James Bond type and Tom Holland as a nerdy, um, Tom Holland type. But the “disguise” of the title… is birds. That’s right: Spy Will Smith turns into a dang bird, and much of the film’s comedy comes from trying to make a bird into a spy. But within this silly, some might say nonsensical premise, lies a story advocating for empathy, for the bonds of friendship over the problematic triumph of individualism, and most explicitly and welcomely, for non-violent solutions. This pacifist message, and how explicitly it changes our Smith character, feels refreshingly frank, especially in its playing with a genre so rife with violence (its animated spy-thriller counterpoint, The Incredibles, had guns and violence galore comparatively). Spies in Disguise, the film about a spy who turns into a pigeon, is utterly beautiful, and I will not stop screaming about it until everyone joins the hive. Flock? Whatever works.
6. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Working both as a fascinating, entertaining, crowd-pleasing procedural thriller and as an exacting, thorough, downright sad examination of what happens to someone with a lack of love and family, Catch Me If You Can remains a jewel in Steven Spielberg‘s late-period crown. Leonardo DiCaprio (that guy’s everywhere on this dang list!) has so much fun playing dress up in a litany of positions for a litany of cons, but when his young frame needs to yearn for a more stable life (especially when he stares at Martin Sheen and Nancy Lenehan lovingly doing the dishes together), we feel it in every ounce of his poor face. Tom Hanks, the FBI agent on DiCaprio’s tail, plays refreshingly against type as a humorless, non-endearing figure of logic against charisma, and holy cannoli is it one of my all-time favorite performances from the star. And Christopher Walken will, simply, break your absolute heart. A brilliant film to settle into on Christmas, one that will make you want to catch up with everyone you love immediately after. Catch Catch Me If You Can if you can.
So many of us have gotten a visit from the Depression Kitty.
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