The best holiday movies to watch this season on HBO Max

The best holiday movies to watch this season on HBO Max

HBO Max has something for every couch potato seeking films that are merry and bright, including Elf, A Christmas Story, and The Shop Around The Corner

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The best holiday films to watch on HBO Max
(Clockwise from bottom left:) A Very Harold And Kumar Christmas (screenshot), Gremlins (screenshot), A Christmas Story Christmas (Warner Bros.), Elf (New Line Cinema/Courtesy Evere)
Image: The A.V. Club

HBO Max’s selection of holiday season films is emblematic of the streaming library’s overall offerings: a reliably eclectic mix of family-friendly, genre-subverting, and classics both old-school and modern. If you’re craving a trip down memory lane, may we suggest Christmas In Connecticut or The Shop Around The Corner? More recent, and irreverent, hits include Elf and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas. And then of course there’s both with MGM’s A Christmas Story, a classic that this year extended its dominance of our screens with Peter Billingsley’s worthy sequel. Read on for HBO Max’s best holiday movies and some merry and bright writing from The A.V. Club on each.

This list was updated on December 3, 2022.

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Arthur Christmas

Arthur Christmas

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS - Trailer

For some reason, Arthur Christmas flies its Santa sled under the radar, even though it’s a charming holiday film. It’s produced by Aardman, the same geniuses who brought us the Wallace & Gromit canon, so it has that same dry sense of humor enjoyable for any age. Coming from a world similar to the Prep & Landing specials, in Arthur Christmas, the delivery of gifts is also a high-tech operation. Three generations of Clauses are behind it: a retired, doddering old Santa; the current beloved figurehead; Steve, the heir who runs the operation behind the scenes; and his brother Arthur, who reads the Christmas letters. Arthur seems like the most ineffectual one of the bunch until a single present fails to get delivered, and he and his grandpa have to go old school to make sure no child gets forgotten at Christmas. Their caper is thrilling and delightful, helped along by a furiously gift-wrapping elf and some eye-rolling reindeer. And the message that sometimes traditional is better than technological is a great one for your screen-addicted offspring. Whether you’ve heard of it or not, Arthur Christmas would make for a welcome addition to your family holiday canon. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Christmas In Connecticut

Christmas In Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Official Trailer - Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan Movie HD

Christmas In Connecticut, a thoroughly wacky 1945 screwball comedy that also doubles as a fascinatingly subversive commentary on conventional gender roles [is] a bit of a hidden gem in the Christmas canon. Though it’s a favorite of TCM (and Tom Hanks), it hasn’t achieved the perennial status of It’s A Wonderful Life or White Christmas. Like those movies, however, it’s also set against the backdrop of World War II. And it uses its Christmas fun to specifically, if subtly, examine the seismic cultural changes brought on by the war. [Caroline Siede]

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A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story: Ralphie Gets The Red Ryder (Clip) | TBS

Though it’s fundamentally a light comedy, A Christmas Story contains plenty of hurt and anger, all drawn directly from the stories and monologues of radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, who narrates his reminiscences of growing up in Middle America in the ‘40s, applying elevated language to the politics of profanity and schoolyard “triple-dog” dares. Peter Billingsley plays Shepherd’s grade-school self, dealing with bullies, weird relatives, and his worry that he won’t get a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. Writer-director Bob Clark had long dreamed of making a movie based on Shepherd’s work, and after working his way up through the horror/exploitation ghetto in the 70s and scoring a fluke hit with Porky’s, Clark took his moment of Hollywood clout and ran with it, developing a piece true to Shepherd’s finely detailed recollections and good-natured cynicism… [Noel Murray]

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A Christmas Story Christmas

A Christmas Story Christmas

Julianna Layne as Julie, River Drosche as Mark, and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story Christmas
(L-R:) Julianna Layne, River Drosche, and Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story Christmas
Image: © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

When HBO Max announced that it would release A Christmas Story Christmas, there was as much resigned shrugging as there was genuine excitement. Of course a perennial holiday favorite that plays for 24 straight hours every December would get a decades-later sequel if the original star was game enough to return. Why wouldn’t Warner Bros. Discovery go reaching for those eyeballs, those clicks, those subscribers? At a time when legacy sequels and holiday streaming options are both a matter of expectation, it felt like the ultimate no-brainer.

The question that remained after the announcement is whether or not A Christmas Story Christmas’ play to build on the nostalgic appeal of Bob Clark’s 1983 classic would be successful or not. It is, at the very least, a film built on the very direct involvement of star Peter Billingsley, who produced the sequel and has a story credit, so there’s an air of instant legitimacy that other attempted follow-ups didn’t always have. It’s also, like the original film, a movie rooted in deeply relatable, if more grown-up, holiday themes. The result is something that, while never reaching the ineffable magic of Clark’s film, ends up in solidly entertaining, if slightly disjointed, holiday territory. [Matthew Jackson]

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Elf

Elf

The Angry Elf - Elf (5/5) Movie CLIP (2003) HD

Not since fellow man-child Adam Sandler donned a searing blue suit for Punch-Drunk Love has a costume done so much for an actor: In his oversized green smock with yellow tights and pointy shoes, [Will] Ferrell’s fish-out-of-water [elf] looks almost three-dimensional, and his already-imposing presence balloons into something like The Hulk…. [Director Jon] Favreau and his producers have impeccable taste in casting. In addition to the inspired choices of [Ed] Asner and [Bob] Newhart, as well as [James] Caan and indie darling [Zooey] Deschanel, Elf also pairs Andy Richter with Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass, brings back the underappreciated Mary Steenburgen, and taps The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage for a scene-stealing cameo. [Scott Tobias]

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Gremlins

Gremlins

Gremlins
Gremlins
Screenshot: HBO Max

[Gremlins] opens with a father (Hoyt Axton as Randall Peltzer) looking for a Christmas gift for his son (Zach Galligan as Billy Peltzer), which he finds in an antique store in New York’s Chinatown. The Mogwai, a small, furry creature, makes the trip back to Kingston Falls, a town that closely resembles It’s A Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls (later in the movie that film is actually playing on a television) with all the snow and merriment. That merriment, however, soon turns into a massacre when Billy breaks three very important rules regarding his new pet, resulting in a destructive army of Gremlins that are determined to ruin Christmas for everyone... [Becca James]

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How The Grinch Stole Christmas

How The Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (6/9) Movie CLIP - You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (2000) HD

How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a weird hybrid: It’s a movie-star movie and an intellectual-property movie. Both the Dr. Seuss book and the 1966 TV special were fully embedded in the national consciousness. You would’ve had a hard time finding anyone who didn’t know who the Grinch was. But you would’ve also had trouble finding anyone who didn’t recognize Jim Carrey, the antic, rubbery energy-bomb who had succeeded Robin Williams as Hollywood’s most lucrative physical comedian… He puts every ounce of his manic, ticcy, enervating energy into bringing the Grinch to life. He minces and growls and frowns and mugs. The movie gives him a long, long leash to riff and dance and ramble, and he uses all of it. Even under all that yak fur, Carrey is instantly recognizable for his mannerisms alone, and he puts on the full Jim Carrey show... [Tom Breihan]

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Christmas Vacation Official Trailer #1 - (1989) HD

Christmas Vacation may be one of the most realistic, albeit exaggerated, cinematic depictions of what celebrating Christmas is like for many families. Where most holiday features are high-concept or supernatural, set pieces here involve shopping or sledding; even if you don’t blanket your house with lights like Clark, the trouble he has getting his decorations up and working is relatable, and funnier as a result. The film has become a perennial favorite, as important as It’s A Wonderful Life in many families’ December repertoires, because it shows the holidays as wonderful and taxing in equal measure. It understands the desire to be with extended family, but also the inherent frustration of sharing space with visitors and in accommodating everyone’s different schedules and tastes. (“I’ll be outside for… the season,” Clark decides as the in-laws descend.) Though it lacks scenes where the Griswolds attend holiday parties or bake cookies, this is about as close as Hollywood has gotten to putting everyday Christmas traditions on screen. In its sweetness and humor, this is the Vacation where John Hughes’ imprint is most visible. (He wrote the screenplay; the director is Jeremiah Chechik, who mostly does TV now.) [Ryan Vlastelica]

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10 / 13

The Polar Express

The Polar Express

The Polar Express (2004) Official Trailer - Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis Movie HD

The Polar Express brings a multitude of computer-animated Tom Hankses to the screen to spread some digitized Christmas cheer. Shot entirely in a 10'-by-10' studio space using “performance capture” technology—more or less the same technique used for Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy—the film creates a snow-covered world of Santa-worshipping elves and tireless locomotives, using elaborate artificial backdrops and human actors converted into animation via supercomputers, green screens, special cameras, and nerd sweat. As a spectacle, The Polar Express looks remarkable. [Keith Phipps]

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11 / 13

The Shop Around The Corner

The Shop Around The Corner

The Shop Around the Corner Official Trailer #1 - James Stewart Movie (1940) HD

This plot will likely sound familiar: Two coworkers who openly hate each other carry on an anonymous love affair through the mail, and neither of them know the other’s pen-name identity. Set in a small store in Budapest where curiously only one of the employees has any sort of a native accent, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner peaks during the holiday shopping season. Real-life friends Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play Alfred and Klara, the star-crossed lovers unaware that their loathed co-worker is the person who’s been writing them those lofty letters. The charm and chemistry of the young leads—headstrong Sullavan and lovestruck Stewart—transcends this picture as they battle and flirt, often simultaneously. Just check out the scene when Alfred has figured out that Klara is the writer he loves, and courts her in the shop on Christmas Eve, lit only by holiday lights. You may love this store and its employees so much that you’ll be tempted to check out the 1949 Judy Garland/Van Johnson remake In The Good Old Summertime, which is fine. But by all means, avoid the hackneyed 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan version, You’ve Got Mail. It’s Christmas, for God’s sake. [Gwen Ihnat]

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12 / 13

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

Screenshot: A Very Harold And Kumar Christmas
A Very Harold And Kumar Christmas
Screenshot: HBO Max

Right from the jump, the [Harold And Kumar] franchise’s third installment makes a quantum leap in both visual and comedic inventiveness. For one thing, it makes relentless fun of 3-D, a running gag that arguably works even better if you’re watching the movie at home in 2-D. For another, director Todd Strauss-Schulson demonstrates more formal panache in any random 30 seconds than the previous films do in their entirety, from a musical Claymation interlude to lightning-quick flashbacks that demonstrate how gross-out humor should be done. (Get ready to duck Danny Trejo’s overly excited reaction to a Christmas tree.) And the film’s general sensibility is radically different: a freewheeling, anything-goes surrealism more reminiscent of Community than of Cheech & Chong. It’s always nice to see Neil Patrick Harris spoofing his public image, which he does even more aggressively here than in the first two films, but it’s also nice to laugh during the long stretches when he isn’t onscreen at a commercial for a waffle-making robot called WaffleBot. Because the plot for 3D Christmas pivots on Harold and Kumar no longer being friends, their easy rapport is mostly missing; if a fourth film adds that chemistry to this tone, look out. [Mike D’Angelo]

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