En español | The warm chestnut-ty thing about most feel-good movies is how well they leverage feeling bad. This is especially true of Christmas season tales, in which miserliness and misery often precede the bliss and blessings, in which lumps of coal give way to lumps in the throat. There’s never been a holiday film worth its sugar canes that doesn’t remind us that there’s so much more to the season than what the supply chain delivers. So, deck the halls, or — if your name is John McClane or Kevin McCallister — the bad guys. Bring on the tales of renewed affection, gratitude, grace. Bring on the bahs and humbugs, the misfit toys and Zuzu’s petals, the old chestnuts and still-affecting epiphanies. Here are 13 films streaming right now that bring it all to your family’s living room.
Last Holiday (2006)
Long live the Equalizer, er, the Queen — Latifah, that is. In this comedy, the star brings her customary verve to the role of sweet Georgia Byrd, a frugal department store assistant who learns that she has only three weeks to live. Out with the coupon hoarding and cautious demeanor. (She won’t own up to a crush on a coworker, played by LL Cool J.) In with a five-star romp in the Czech Republic fueled by her life’s savings. What could possibly go awry? A fave fact: This comedy creates one degree of separation between Queen Latifah and Sir Alec Guinness, who had the role in the 1950 original.
A Sugar & Spice Holiday (2020)
Speaking of firsts, this breezy comedy sends determined architect Suzie (Jacky Lai) home to a small town in Maine, where a gingerbread building contest — plus a romance — starts to take precedence over the project that could earn her a promotion. Grandmas, first-gen ambitions and baking rule in this AAPI-centered, candied holiday treat.
Watch it: A Sugar & Spice Holiday, on Amazon Prime
Happiest Season (2020)
Under the rubric of The Things We Do (but probably shouldn’t) for Love, file this tale of romance and dysfunction. For the sake of girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis), Abby (Kristen Stewart) ducks back into the closet as the couple head to Harper’s childhood home for Christmas. There Abby finds clueless parents, a wacky sis and a tightly wound one, and Harper’s ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend (an excellent Aubrey Plaza). If this sounds like this stocking might be stuffed, it is. But, as the first full-on LGBTQ holiday tale, Happiest Season had a lot of overdue gifts to deliver.
Watch it: Happiest Season, on Hulu
Don’t miss this: The Best Christmas TV Specials to Watch With Your Grandkids
The Preacher's Wife (1996)
Sometimes the joys of the season come in the bounty of those gathered on-screen. Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance sparkle in Penny Marshall's 1996 remake of the 1947 classic The Bishop's Wife. Washington is the smiling angel, and Vance and Houston the titular beneficiaries of his heavenly intervention. Come for the stars, stay for the rousing rendition of “Joy to the World,” with Houston leading the Georgia Mass Choir.
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square (2020)
Nothing brings to mind “feel-good” quite like these two words: Dolly Parton. In this Netflix movie — too new to be a classic but too sparkly to pass up — the angelic philanthropist dons heavenly wings as she drops in on a frozen-hearted businesswoman (Christine Baranski) who plans to evict the denizens of a small town — on Christmas Eve no less.
Will Ferrell's oversize elf heads to New York City in search of his birth father. James Caan plays the less-than-welcoming dad, whose fixed grimace would seem to make him ill-suited for his role as the publisher of children's books. Can openheartedness trump the dyspeptic? In this particular season, whaddaya think?
Home Alone (1990)
Feel-good goes hilariously (but not scarily) sadistic when 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) fends off two fully incompetent robbers. The bumbling thieves (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) take quite the beating in order for the youngster to learn some enduring truths about his place in a loving family.
Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)
When the Puerto Rican Rodriguez family gathers in Chicago for a Christmas celebration, the adult kids and cousins expect the usual big, raucous affair. What they don't anticipate is Mom saying she's leaving Dad. Pass the .. .wha?!!! Of course plenty can — and will — happen before that declaration of departure, and family love prevails. This 2008 comedy has a cast to relish: Elizabeth Peña, Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzmán, Freddy Rodriguez and Debra Messing.
Love Actually (2003)
This omnibus holiday romance has aged fairly well, with its collection of couples – current, would-be and unlikely. It's jam-packed with class acts: Hugh Grant as a singleton prime minister; Liam Neeson as a widower; Emma Thompson as a wife aware of the impending departure of her husband (Alan Rickman). Joni Mitchell's version of “Both Sides Now” is brilliantly crushing. But Bill Nighy steals the show as rocker with nary a friend – or so it seems.
The Santa Clause (1994)
Heroes aren't born so much as rise to the occasion — often after trying to wriggle out of duty. Tim Allen's Scott Calvin is one such soul. When he inadvertently dispatches Santa and then dons the red suit, the fine print states he's it — like it or not. His personal growth — aided by a wise-guy elf and a wee, wise-souled elf — is cause for merriment. Apparently, he got the hang of the gig enough for three sequels.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1965)
An outcast with a blinking red schnoz and an impressive vertical leap meets an outcast with a hankering for dentistry, plus a beachhead of poorly constructed but oh-so-game toys in this made-for-TV stop-motion lesson in acceptance. Even Santa vows to do better. Burl Ives narrates – and sings classics – as Sam the (vest-wearing, pocket-watch-consulting) Snowman.
Watch it: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, on Vudu
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Those who thrive on payback are always a wee bit frustrated that Mr. Potter never gets his comeuppance in director Frank Capra's perfect snowflake of a tale. Forget seeing him being carted away in handcuffs for theft, we don't even get some “hah!” shot of the banker all alone at a vast and empty dinner table while Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey — a little worse for the wear after seeing what Bedford Falls would have been like without him — basks in the love of family, old friends and his community. Zuzu's petals will give you wings.
Watch it: It’s a Wonderful Life, on Amazon Prime
Die Hard (1988)
You can have your ho-ho-hos. Some families love a yipee-ki-yay. When Holly McClane’s corporate holiday party gets invaded by Euro-baddies (led by the very-much-missed Alan Rickman), estranged husband and off-duty detective John McClane rises to the occasion. People — OK, guys — have come to near blows battling about whether this classic action flick is really a holiday movie. Sure, it’s set on Christmas Eve, but really? It’s shot through with lessons of love and loyalty, so our answer is yes, really.
Lisa Kennedy, a regular AARP film critic, is a former Village Voice editor (1986-96) and Denver Post film critic (2003-15) who writes on popular culture, race and gender for Variety, The New York Times, Essence, American Theatre, the Denver Post, and others.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Nov. 30, 2020. It has been updated with additional movies and links where you can stream the films on this list.