Merry Christmas Eve, folks, and if you’re anything like me — well, first of all, sorry about that. And second of all, you’re probably looking for something to watch this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The bad news is, with the continued swing towards original programming, a fair number of your holiday favorites are only available for a la carte rental or purchase this season. But many, many good ones are streaming, on a whole array of services, so in lieu of our usual rundown of new releases, we welcome you to a special holiday edition of your weekly streaming guide.
White Christmas: If you’re gonna watch a Christmas movie, y’know, watch a Christmas movie. This 1954 musical comedy romance from director Michael Curtiz (who also helmed a little something called Casablanca) jumps off of the title tune, which star Bing Crosby first sang in Holiday Inn, to tell the story of two Army-buddy entertainers doing a Christmas week gig at their old commanding officer’s resort, and falling in love, and getting into trouble, etc. Look, nobody watches White Christmas for the plot; queue it up for Crosby and Kaye’s chemistry, the unforgettable “Sisters” number by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and the general good vibes.
Bad Santa: This is a rude, crude, uproarious bit of bitter-tasting holiday backwash from director Terry Zwigoff, with Billy Bob Thornton as Willie T. Stoke (a decidedly W.C. Fieldsian name for the kind of role Fields could have played, had he been born 60 years later), a horny, unshaven, unshowered, piss-drunk (and piss-pantsed) department store Santa as if perpetually in the clutches of a particularly wicked hangover. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s script almost seems designed to offend, with scenes of a hammered Santa beating the shit out of papier-mâché animals, urinating on himself in the Santa chair, and sodomizing a clerk in the dressing room. Acid-tongued and wickedly funny, Bad Santa has rightfully become an anti-holiday classic.
Carol: If you’re keeping track, “Die Hard is the best Christmas movie” is now for lames and normies, and “Carol is the best Christmas movie” is the new cool film snob move. Program your holidays accordingly.
ON AMAZON PRIME
It’s a Wonderful Life: No holiday season is complete without revisiting Frank Capra’s 1947 classic — albeit one that doesn’t even mention the holiday until somewhere near the 100-minute mark. And maybe that’s part of its appeal; it’s not just a feature-length sleigh-bell ring, but an emotionally complicated chronicle of life, family, and sacrifice. And thus, it manages to grow with the passing years, as the viewer’s own experiences render those of its protagonists even more resonant. (Plus, one never gets tired of giggling at its FBI file.)
Rifftrax: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny: This 1972 musical fantasy was clearly an attempt at a holiday perennial, but it’s more like a drug-induced Lynchian fever dream, the kind of thing that haunts your nightmares well past the New Years. Luckily, it was tackled in 2010 by Rifftrax, the Mystery Science Theatre alumni trio of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, and their uproarious musings actually render this slow-motion trainwreck into something not only watchable, but entertaining. (Also available on Prime: their 2015 takeon the holiday mess I Believe in Santa Claus.)
The Nightmare Before Christmas: This 1993 stop-action family horror/comedy is too often listed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a proprietary credit handing altogether too much authorship to Burton — he’s credited as producer and story writer, but the picture is undeniably the work of director Henry Selick, who would go on to make James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. Here, he concocts a cheerfully dark and endlessly hummable hybrid of Halloween and Christmas movie, and one that plays equally well at either end of the holiday season.
Happy Christmas: The holiday wishes are right there in the title (albeit their British iteration), and Joe Swanberg’s charming indie comedy/drama is set during the holiday season, as a perpetual fuck-up (Anna Kendrick) visits her brother (Swanberg) and his family. Warm, funny, and thoughtful, with one of the cutest kid performances in recent memory — from the director’s own son, no less.
ON HBO GO
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Die Hard isn’t streaming this year, so if you’re looking to sub out that slot, you might go to Shane Black, who has set nearly all of his films during the holiday season. But Lethal Weapon has the Gibson factor, The Long Kiss Goodnight isn’t streaming, and Iron Man 3 is great but not if you’ve got superhero fatigue. No worries — Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is not only his best movie, but it’s got Santa suits and Christmas parties and curdled holiday mirth galore. Enjoy!
Scrooged: Richard Donner’s big-budget 1988 revamp of A Christmas Carol ends with plenty of holiday cheer — too much, perhaps. But they’ve also got quite a bit to make up for, by that point; Donner’s portrait of smug, unhappy network executive Frank Cross (played to perfection by Bill Murray) is so bleak, jaded, and nasty that a heartfelt sing-along is about all that can turn it around into an upbeat holiday picture. Not that we’re complaining — from the mushroom cloud-heavy holiday promos (“That looked like the Manson family Christmas special!”) to discussions of TV nudity (“Well, I’m sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples”) to a sugarplum fairy with a mean right hook (“the bitch hit me with a toaster!”) to a shotgun-wielding disgruntled employee, Scrooged offers plenty of dark laughs on the way to its happy ending.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Comedy franchises seldom peak in their third installment, but that’s exactly what happened in 1989, when the Griswold family (contrary to the title) stayed home for the holidays for funniest film in the series. The comic set pieces are priceless, the supporting cast is aces (including the very young Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis), and Chevy Chase is at the top of his game — particularly in his immortal “Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?” rant.
The Ref: “You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.” Not many Christmas-themed movies would trot out dialogue like that, but not many Christmas-themed movies are as audacious as Ted Demme’s terrific 1994 comedy. Released by Touchstone in March of that year (nice scheduling!), the film was promoted primarily as a vehicle for Denis Leary and his angry-smoker persona. The few who saw it in that initial run were surprised to discover a smart, well-written (by Fisher King scribe Richard LaGravenese), insightful look at a dysfunctional family and a crumbling marriage — a kind of Christmas with George and Martha.
Eyes Wide Shut: Forget religious observance, holiday cheer, and the warmth of family. Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 final film, set during the Christmas season, knows what that time of year is really all about: the quest for jealousy sex to get back at your hot, taunting wife.