Isn’t every holiday movie a Greater Good movie? That is to say—aren’t they all movies that highlight acts of generosity, empathy, compassion, reconciliation, or gratitude?
Alas, no. Or at least, not all of them are very insightful about human goodness or adept at conveying how we become better. We’re sure most readers are familiar with the hits, especially the recent ones: Christmas Story, Elf, Four Christmases, The Grinch, The Night Before, to name a few—plus, of course, Die Hard and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Some of them are pretty great; others, not so much.
Here, we’d like to turn the spotlight on classics you may have forgotten, movies from outside the United States, a controversial one, and a brand-new movie that we think is well worth your time. These are movies that tackle some of the tough stuff behind the holidays, and they do it, in the estimation of our writers, with intelligence and wit.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Every Christmas for several years, I’ve seen people complaining about one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, which is about a small-town banker named George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart, who had just returned from flying combat missions during World War II). At the start of the movie, George is contemplating suicide—until an angel helps him to see his life in a new way.
The critics suggest that this story sends horrible messages: Sacrifice your dreams, don’t try; live small, eat dirt, and then smile and say it was caviar. In my opinion, however, It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man who gets few of the things he WANTED, but everything he actually NEEDED.
Oh, George had dreams of traveling and building great buildings and bridges, having adventures and seeing the world, getting out of Bedford Falls. And if those were the most important things to him, his life would indeed be a failure.
George has his “dark night of the soul” when someone he trusts makes a terrible error, and his nemesis Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) finally crosses the line between “amoral” and “immoral.” Potter sacrifices his soul for petty revenge, and George is tested.
In stories like this one—tales of faith and miracles—it is reasonable to expect an appropriately symbolic divine intervention. An angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) magically reveals an alternate world without George, and George, being George, is ripped from his self-pity into an awareness that he had made his choices, is proud of them, and cannot be destroyed by Potter’s evil.
This is what George discovers, with the angel’s help: Our WANTS are transitory and often trivial, but our NEEDS are far deeper and more critical. It’s a Wonderful Life is about how one man learns to differentiate between his wants and needs.
And what is his need? That’s spelled out in one of the very first scenes: to be a man like his father, whom he admired above all others. A man of integrity, intelligence, and charismatic strength, the only force capable of standing against Old Man Potter, who symbolizes amoral wealth and power.
And against the siren song of ego, George stands strong. At every turn, every time he’s tempted and has a chance to “escape,” his real values emerge. Nobody and nothing “forced” George to stay in the town where he grew up and make sacrifices for those around him. He chose. He decided. And it HURT, like life sometimes hurts. For him, it simply would have hurt more to do otherwise. By his own values, stated in almost every scene, George really is “the richest man in town.”
His ego hadn’t run his game; his true self had—his higher self. This, to me, is why this movie endures. George gets what he needs, not what he wants. I get that entirely, and could wish for no more for myself or my children, especially in this, the season of miracles.
May you all live so fully, and so well. —Steven Barnes
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
I’ve been watching A Charlie Brown Christmas for my entire life, first as a child, then as a parent. Now that my kids are preparing to leave the nest we’ve feathered, it shocks me to realize that I’ll probably watch it many more times before I finally kick the bucket.
One of the most interesting things about A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it’s a splendid example of American Christianity before it was infused with politics, a relic from a time when the story of the birth of Jesus was one that bound people together instead of tearing them apart.
The plot is simple enough: Christmas triggers a crisis of meaning in the depressive Charlie Brown. To lift his spirits and give him a purpose, his friends put him in charge of a school play—but that doesn’t go as well as anyone hopes. Things look bad until Linus takes the stage and explains “what Christmas is all about,” which is, he concludes, “peace and goodwill toward men.” The children call Charlie Brown back into their community, and together they decorate his bedraggled Christmas tree and sing carols.
It’s all so sweet that no one in their right mind, it seems to me, could argue with its message, which is that the followers of Jesus Christ have a responsibility to lift others up and to make everyone feel welcome, no matter how much they’re struggling. I may not be a Christian myself, but I definitely think that’s an idea worth considering! —Jeremy Adam Smith
The Snowman (1982)
In retrospect, the ’80s and ’90s were a strange time for Christmas movies. The ones we remember today—the “classics”—tend to deal explicitly with themes of greed, cynicism, and alienation.
In Edward Scissorhands, for example, an outsider finds he has no place in human society. Gremlins and Die Hard are good movies that are both nightmarishly violent. The cartoonishly brutal Home Alone has a nice speech about family that fuels reconciliation with the scary neighbor; but in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the yuppie neighbors are viciously satirized right up until the end. Movies like Scrooged and Trading Places are about ’80s-style avarice.
That’s why the 30-minute cartoon The Snowman stands out to me (you’ll find the entire thing embedded above, but you can also watch it on Amazon). In the English countryside, a young boy named James builds a snowman who magically comes to life. The two of them run wild through James’s house as his parents sleep, and then fly with a squadron of other snowmen to meet Father Christmas. The next morning, James awakes to discover that his friend has melted.
The Snowman is beautifully drawn and scored with haunting music by Howard Blake; there are no words, but the playful story doesn’t need them. Like the 1978 picture book by Raymond Briggs on which it’s based, the cartoon is aimed at preschoolers—and underneath the childish adventure, there’s a serious message about how the world works.
“I don’t have happy endings,” said Briggs in a 2012 interview. “I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.” Of course, you don’t need to state that message so baldly to your children. You can just watch The Snowman beside them, and then talk with them about what they saw. —Jeremy Adam Smith
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
My teenage son turned me on to this Japanese anime, which is about what happens when a makeshift family living on the streets in Tokyo finds a newborn abandoned in a pile of garbage. It is a holiday movie, but one that is well outside of the American paradigm.
It’s a lot rougher, for one thing. In many ways, the story is about mental illness and its consequences. An American movie would make the characters misunderstood but lovable. In Tokyo Godfathers, they are lovable, but I think everyone in the story understands in an unsentimental way that serious mental illness can make love extremely hard to accept and express.
That love actually does triumph in the end is a given; what’s interesting is the lurching, violent, funny path the movie takes to get to that point. Everything changes for the three primary characters when a baby is thrust upon them. They all feel, in their different ways, a primal drive to take care of this helpless creature—but they lack experience and skills, both practical and emotional, and they each must fight against their own (often confused) needs in order to put the baby first.
The result is a fascinating, entertaining psychological study, and a meditation on family that starts out seeming silly and gradually becomes genuinely profound. —Jeremy Adam Smith
Love, Actually (2003)
That’s right, haters: It’s Love, Actually.
This is probably simultaneously the most loved and most reviled Christmas movie of the 21st century, for some really good reasons on both counts.
Why reviled? Well…Love, Actually is as much a romantic comedy as a Christmas movie, and most of its nine distinct storylines peddle some of the rom-com genre’s most sexist, heterosexist tropes. In addition to women being too often valued for only their looks, there’s a lot of bad behavior on the part of men that is never punished and is sometimes even rewarded.
Why loved? Oh, boy. Let’s start with the related facts that it’s pretty damn funny and extremely well-crafted. It’s tricky to weave together so many different kinds of stories in a way that stays compelling, and Love, Actually pulls that off with panache.
But what lifts Love, Actually above so many other rom-coms and Christmas movies are the peculiar balances it strikes between sordid and uplifting, vulgar and elegant, compassionate and cruel, thoughtful and stupid, ugly and beautiful, happy and melancholy.
There’s something cold at the heart of Love, Actually—and that’s good, in this case, because it cuts through so much of the movie’s abundant schmaltz. People in this movie are what they are, good and bad, and love is what wraps itself around all our good and all our bad. It’s a worldview crystallized in the famous opening voiceover by the fictional prime minister of the United Kingdom (played by Hugh Grant):
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge—they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion love actually is all around.
In the final scene, the movie returns to Heathrow, where most of the disparate characters converge, having found ways to connect over some chasms that were once very wide indeed. And that’s what makes Love, Actually a very Greater Good kind of Christmas movie. —Jeremy Adam Smith
Happiest Season (2020)
My partner Adele loves Christmas movies. Her theory is that most contemporary American Christmas movies are all about leaving your socially safe urban bubble to go “home” for the holidays. There, you have to re-integrate with family you don’t really know anymore, who don’t know you anymore, because you’ve been geographically separated and changing as time passes.
That very American dilemma definitely applies to Happiest Season, one of her favorites. It’s the story of a closeted lesbian (MacKenzie Davis) who brings her girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) home for Christmas, where they have to pretend to be straight with politically and culturally conservative parents. Hijinks ensue.
Happiest Season was a hit for Hulu back in 2020, when we were all caged up in our houses and Netflixing (without the chill) every single night. It seems to me that it’s largely forgotten today by everyone but Adele, who has watched it (by her estimation) about 25 times, which means I’ve re-watched it more than once.
It’s a very funny, charming little movie, despite how it touches upon some very serious issues (watch the clip embedded above). My own theory about why straight people are drawn to coming-out stories is that they dramatize every person’s internal debate about how authentic to be around the people they grew up with. If we show our true selves, we might fear, then they’ll stop loving us.
Happiest Season has a happy ending, of course; this isn’t the kind of movie where everyone ends up sad. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy about family reconciliation that doubles as a wish for Americans to bridge their political and cultural divides. It suggests—not unlike another movie on this list, this year’s Spirited—that people can and do change for the better, but for that change to happen, we have to be brave. —Jeremy Adam Smith
Just Another Christmas (2020)
Tudo Bem no Natal que Vem (Just Another Christmas) is a lighthearted and comical Brazilian spin on a time-honored classic, A Christmas Carol.
The main character, Jorge (Leandro Hassum), is a self-proclaimed hater of Christmas, born on Christmas day. He grew up detesting the holiday because of how it detracted from him being able to fully celebrate his birthday; he remarks that there was no contest between a celebration of Baby Jesus’s life or his. His disdain for Christmas holds even when he marries and has a family of his own.
Through a mystical intervention involving the otherwise stoic grandfather of the family (Levi Ferreira), Jorge develops a 364-day amnesia that prevents him from remembering anything, except for one day of the year. You guessed it: That day is Christmas.
Through the course of what seems like more than a decade, he is only present and aware of his experiences on Christmas. That becomes the one day he is the most like himself, while on the other 364 days of the year he is quite literally on autopilot.
Through these experiences, Jorge realizes how much of “life” he was missing out on and how much he took for granted, including love, family, and presence. It’s a lesson we all can benefit from, hopefully without the need of a 364-day amnesia. —Shanna B. Tiayon
And the award for most Greater Good Christmas movie of the year goes to…a postmodern musical bromance starring Will Ferrell as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Ryan Reynolds as the “perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest” that, weirdly, ends up being a sequel to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Spirited starts with a question: “Do people really change?” The rest of the movie explores the answer, in some very entertaining ways. It imagines the afterlife as a kind of singing-and-dancing nonprofit agency that selects self-centered, mean people for visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, with the aim of helping them evolve in a more positive direction.
The plot goes into motion when a public-relations monster named Clint (played by Reynolds) is picked for haunting. Clint is a very 2022 villain—an amoral right-wing social-media manipulator whose motto is “People never change” and whose company “specializes in creating controversy, conflict, and disinformation for his clients worldwide.”
“Oh, my God,” says the Ghost of Christmas Present, more than a little smitten. “He’s perfect.”
“Why do we do it?” asks “Present” (as he’s called, though his name when he was alive in the 19th century was Ebenezer). “We do it for the ripples. See, it’s a documented fact that one person’s kindness can have a ripple effect.” Unfortunately, however, in this case the ghosts don’t know what they’re getting into, for Clint proves himself to be a very clever and tenacious adversary.
There’s a lot of truth in Spirited, it seems to me, and despite the movie’s zippy, feel-good vibe, some of its truths are actually quite hard. The message is that people do, in fact, change, but that change is really, really difficult to accomplish, and none of our self-improvement makes suffering and death go away. Maybe that’s not what everyone would want to hear—but, by my (Christmas) lights, it’s what we all need to hear. —Jeremy Adam Smith