It's a simple matter of math: there are 24 Days of Christmas and there are hundreds of Christmas movies.
Even the best organized and least busy among us would be hard-pressed to cram even half of those holiday films into an already busy schedule before Santa finishes his rounds. That means there are some hard choices about what movies to watch. So with the rather manageable notion of watching one Christmas film per day through Dec. 24, here's a quick holiday movie playlist. (Note: The list includes only theatrical films, and not the myriad holiday TV specials.)
Dec. 1: "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993): Tim Burton's dark and magical stop-motion masterpiece of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington and his quest to expand Halloween by taking Christmas from Santa alternately chills and warms the heart.
Dec. 2: "Die Hard" (1988): While not a traditional Christmas film, this action thriller still counts since it takes place during a Christmas party, with cop John McClane (Bruce Willis in his finest moment) elevating heroism and the film genre to save his wife and others from German terrorists.
Dec. 3: "Trading Places" (1983): Set during the holiday season, the sight of a drunken, suicidal Santa (Dan Aykroyd, playing down-on-his-luck to maximum comic effect) is a highlight of this "Prince and the Pauper"-style comedy from John Landis, with a terrific turn by Eddie Murphy when he was still a comic force of nature.
Dec. 4: "Love Actually" (2003): Richard Curtis ("Notting Hill," "Bridget Jones's Diary") wrote and directed this crowd-pleasing couples dramedy of the many phases of love set in London as the holiday season begins, with an all-star cast including Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley.
Dec. 5: "Scrooged" (1988): Bill Murray at the height of Murrymania in the 1980s makes for a hilarious grouch as a selfish network-TV executive in this loose, updated version of "A Christmas Carol" co-written by the late, great "Saturday Night Live" scribe Michael O'Donoghue, who undoubtedly supplied the film's darker, more acerbic moments.
Dec. 6: "Scrooge" (aka "A Christmas Carol") (1951): Alastair Sim stars as Ebenezer Scrooge in this definitive version of the Charles Dickens classic, which tanked when first released in the United States, but decades later has become a holiday classic.
Dec. 7: "White Christmas" (1954): No Christmas season is complete without Bing Crosby crooning Irving Berlin's beloved ode to the simplicity of the Christmas day of his youth in this musical co-starring Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.
Dec. 8: "The Bishop's Wife" (1947): Cary Grant is an angel sent to help an Episcopalian bishop (David Niven) struggling with his faith and building a new church in this Christmas favorite that delivers strong holiday messages.
Dec. 9: "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" (1964): If you're in need of a break from traditional holiday messages, this so-bad-it's-good kitschy classic makes for an excellent respite, as Kris Kringle is kidnapped by Martians to bring Christmas to their planet, with a young Pia Zadora as a Martian girl.
Dec. 10: "The Santa Clause" (1994): Tim Allen is a struggling divorced father who accidentally kills Santa and is then required to take Jolly Old Saint Nick's place as per the film's title. Forget the two sequels — the original with its sitcom-y family-friendly gags is the only one worth your time.
Dec. 11: "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944): Set just before the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904, this musical drama perhaps isn't a Christmas-film standard, but it does feature the debut of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as sung by Judy Garland.
Dec. 12: "The Polar Express" (2004): Robert Zemeckis co-wrote and directed and Tom Hanks starred in what was clearly meant to be a holiday classic in this adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's novel about a boy who no longer believes in Santa who boards a magical train bound to the North Pole. While it didn't turn out that way, it's still worthy of an annual viewing.
Dec. 13: "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000): Since this list eschews TV specials, this Ron Howard big-budget adaptation of the beloved Chuck Jones holiday mainstay will have to suffice, with Jim Carrey, as the Grinch, sporting plenty of green fur, makeup and a heart two sizes too small.
Dec. 14: "Home Alone" (1990): John Hughes wrote this heartwarming tale of a child inadvertently left behind by his busy family at Christmas, who must fend off two comically inept house burglars. The movie made stars of Macaulay Culkin and director Chris Columbus.
Dec. 15: "Joyeux Noel" ("Merry Christmas") (2005): This French film explores the true story of the World War I Christmas Truce between Germans, French and Scottish soldiers who, on Christmas Eve, put down their arms to mark the holiday — not as combatants but as friends.
Dec. 16: "Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes" ("Le Pere Noel a les yeux bleus") (1969): In only his second feature film, French director Jean Eustache wrote this story of a young man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who, pining for an expensive stylish duffel coat, takes a job dressing as Santa Claus. While dressed as Santa he discovers a benefit to the costume: women have a thing for men in the red suit.
Dec. 17: "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992): Jim Henson's son Brian carried on the family tradition with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit and perhaps the most offbeat version of "A Christmas Carol."
Dec. 18: "The Nativity Story" (2006): Catherine Hardwicke of "Twilight" and "Thirteen" fame directs this visually spectacular account of Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, with Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac as Joseph.
Dec. 19: "Christmas Vacation" (1989): Some consider this third film in the "Vacation" series the best of the bunch as the Griswold family encounters one comic disaster after another -- including a surprise visit from Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) — as it prepares for another Christmas holiday.
Dec. 20: "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947): For many of us who grew up with this film as part of network TV's holiday tradition, Edmund Gwenn's Oscar-winning turn as Kris Kringle was the definitive fat man in a red suit by which all mall Santas were judged.
Dec. 21: "Elf" (2003): Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell teamed to create the best family-comedy Christmas film in years, with Ferrell as the human elf Buddy who leaves the North Pole to find his real father — a Scrooge-y workaholic played by James Caan — in New York City.
Dec. 22: "Bad Santa" (2003): An inspired Billy Bob Thornton plays a drunken, belligerent mall Santa who befriends an overweight oddball boy. You'll never look at a mall Santa the same way.
Dec. 23: "A Christmas Story" (1983): Forget TBS's 24-hour marathon of this holiday classic and, instead, watch it as God intended: once. Jean Shepherd's tale is steeped in warm and clever reflections of Christmases past, and benefits with his witty narrative, and impeccable comic pacing by director Bob Clark, who was coming off his first big hit that was also nostalgia-based, 1982's "Porky's."
Dec. 24: "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946): Frank Capra's quintessential holiday film was, as many know by now, largely rejected by audiences, but can you imagine a Christmas season without this teary tale of a second chance? James Stewart, the Tom Hanks of his day, is the heartbeat of this movie, effortlessly jumping through a wide range of emotions, which culminate in the ultimate feel-good holiday message.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.