From 'Elf' to 'Die Hard,' Christmas films for all types

Seasonal favorites, old and new, for your holiday viewing pleasure

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Christmas movies come in all shapes and genres. 

There are Christmas comedies, Christmas dramas, Christmas action movies, even Christmas slasher films. (It takes a true Grinch to throw on "Silent Night, Deadly Night" at the holidays.) 

Bill Nighy has a surprise Christmas pop hit in the 2003 hit “Love Actually.”

But not all Christmas movies revolve around Christmas. Some of the season's best are all about the build-up to Dec. 25, while others use the holidays as a festive backdrop to the main story they're telling. 

What are the best movies to watch at the holidays, assuming you've worn out your copy of "A Christmas Story?" Here are some of the season's most merry selections, from movies centered on Christmas to flicks that are emboldened by the yuletide spirit. 

"Love, Actually": The ultimate romantic comedy is also the ultimate holiday film. An ensemble cast — Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley and Emma Thompson among them — share adjacent love stories in the weeks leading up to Christmas in London in 2003. While its romantic politics may not be woke by today's standards — the film leans heavily on employer-employee romances that can be seen as problematic — "Love, Actually" is a joyous gift with an enthusiasm for life and love that films rarely achieve. 

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation": While this third installment in the "Vacation" franchise is nearing 30 years old, Clark Griswold is still an everyman for our times: he wants his family to have the best Christmas possible, he lines his house with an obnoxious amount of Christmas lights and he's dependent on a holiday bonus he slowly realizes isn't coming. There are plenty of Christmas hijinks in this holiday tale — and watch for a pre-"Seinfeld" Julia Louis Dreyfus as a perturbed neighbor — but it's the film's unexpected amount of heart that has made it a Christmastime classic.   

Will Ferrell plays a human raised by Santa’s elves in 2003's “Elf.”

"Elf": It was the movie that cemented Will Ferrell as a big screen star, and his performance as Buddy the Elf plays up his innocence, his sense of childlike wonder, and his unpredictable energy. Director Jon Favreau would later be handed the keys to the Disney kingdom, but it was here that he showed his ability to shape a family film that played to both kids and adults without condescending to either. And it's got one of the best belching scenes of all-time. The holidays aren't complete without it.   

"It's a Wonderful Life": Even if you've never seen "It's a Wonderful Life," you probably feel like you have; it's been unavoidable on television for decades, and characters in other Christmas movies always seem to have it on in the background. Without even trying, you'll probably run across the 1946 classic at some point this holiday season, so why not make a point to sit down and watch it on purpose? The Frank Capra classic — in which James Stewart's character revisits key moments in his life on Christmas Eve — may be slow compared to modern movies, but it's worth it for the "every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings" scene alone. 

Yes, it’s a Christmas move: “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis.

"Die Hard": Every year the debate is reignited: Is "Die Hard" a Christmas film? Definitively, unequivocally, yippie-ki-yes it is. It unfolds at an office Christmas party, Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" is deployed, and when John McClane (Bruce Willis) scores a machine gun off a bad guy, he leaves a note that reads, in part, "ho ho ho." Not only is "Die Hard" a Christmas movie, it's one of the best Christmas movies, and it's one of the most influential action films ever made. Stop debating and just watch it already.  

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang": Shane Black is the King of Christmas. The screenwriter is known for setting his films at Christmas — see also "Lethal Weapon," "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Iron Man 3" — but Black's 2005 directorial debut is the feather in his Santa cap. A back-on-his-feet but pre-Marvel Robert Downey Jr. stars alongside Val Kilmer in this L.A. crime caper which cleverly sends up film noir tropes and acts as a hilarious antidote to typical Christmas fare.    

"Eyes Wide Shut": Nothing says Christmas quite like this often maddening journey through marital infidelity except, well, pretty much any Christmas movie ever, "Bad Santa" included. But Stanley Kubrick's final film does take place during the holidays, which is just enough of an excuse to revisit this infamous 1999 erotic drama. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as a married couple testing the limits of their trust in a dreamlike New York that looks an awful lot like a London soundstage. The film is infamous for its orgy scene — family viewing this ain't — but if you're looking for a twisted new Christmas tradition, start here.   

"In Bruges": Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of hitmen sent to Belgium after a job gone bad in the debut film by Martin McDonagh, who went on to make last year's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." McDonagh's screenplay, a heady exploration of existential dread, makes several mentions of Christmas, just enough to make this film Christmas adjacent (and to qualify it for this list). It's a smart, sad, strange journey, which makes it perfect for the part of Christmas that has nothing to do with Santa Claus.  

"Rocky IV": This prequel to the current "Creed II" features a Cold War plotline that pits America vs. Russia, a handful of rousing training sequences, a rockin' '80s soundtrack and a main event that takes place on -- when else? -- Christmas Day. "Rocky IV," which stars Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Carl Weathers, is the most successful film in the "Rocky" series — in today's dollars, it grossed more than $300 million — and it's the most endlessly watchable entry in the series. Bonus points and holiday relevance for the movie's live performance by James Brown, who died on Christmas Day in 2006. 

"Go": This 1999 caper, about a drug deal gone awry and the quest to make it to a rave, combines crime, comedy and Christmas. The cast includes Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant and a young Melissa McCarthy in her first notable role. Director Doug Liman, coming off of "Swingers," gives the film a youthful kinetic energy that feels like being out all night and not knowing where you're heading next. It's a Christmas adventure from the safety of your couch.   

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in "Green Book."

"Green Book": This current comedic drama stars Viggo Mortensen as a New York bouncer who takes a job driving a musician (Mahershala Ali) on tour through the deep South. It's a sweet story of friendship about two people learning to overcome their prejudices and trying to make it home just in time for Christmas dinner. It features a pair of excellent lead performances and is being talked up as a potential Oscar favorite, which could make it a holiday standard for years to come. Get ahead of the curve.