Christmas is upon us, and with it comes plenty of traditions. But one staple of the holiday season holds a special place in my heart - the Christmas movie. Whether it’s belting out ‘You’ll shoot your eye out kid!’ during TV reruns of A Christmas Story, or getting into a heated debate over whether or not Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie (I’ll spare everybody the trouble and say that it is), these classics never fail to entertain year after year.
So naturally, I had to come up with my own definitive list of the best Christmas movies, backed by hard data. I used the MovieLens dataset as the basis of my analysis, an open-source bank of 20 million movie reviews maintained by researchers at University of Minnesota. For the purpose of my work, only movies released prior to 2015 were considered1.
Without further ado, here’s the best Christmas movies of all-time, according to ratings from more than 83,000 people2.
The Thin Man -- a comedy-mystery film first screened in 1934 -- is the highest ranking Christmas movie of those considered. The movie follows Nick Charles, a retired detective, as he attempts to discover why an acquaintance’s father has gone mysteriously missing.
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) comes in at #2 according to MovieLens. Although it initially disappointed at the box office, the film has since become a staple of holiday season programming. And it’s not just a cute Christmas flick; It’s a Wonderful Life was named one of the 100 best American movies by the American Film Institute in 1998.
The fact that such old films sit atop the list got me thinking: are old films still widely revered? In the world of Christmas cinema, the answer seems to be yes.
Three of the top five and nine of the top 20 Christmas movies all-time were released before 1950. Pre-1950 Christmas films have an average rating on MovieLens that is 15% higher than the overall average (3.95 vs. 3.45). Love Actually (2003) is the most recent film to crack the top 10, and the only one from post-1990.
Since the turn of the millennium, however, audiences have been souring on a number of Christmas classics. I tracked the ratings for the ten most popular movies since 2000, and found that they have fallen consistently over time.
While movies like The Thin Man and A Christmas Story are still highly regarded, each film’s average rating among 2014 reviews was almost 10% lower than in 2000. A Christmas Carol (1938), the original cinematic take of the popular Charles Dickens novel, has also fallen out of favor with MovieLens users.
What’s causing the downward trend? Perhaps it’s a reflection of millennials’ waning interest in classic films. According to a survey conducted by FYE.com, less than a quarter of millennials have watched a film from start to finish that was made in the 1940s or 1950s. Twenty percent of millennials claimed black-and-white films were “boring.”
But before we go millennial bashing, note that some movies have evaded this trend. Black Christmas, Home Alone 2, and Rocky IV have all seen their average rating rise since 2000. (And yes, Rocky IV qualifies as a Christmas movie because the main fight takes place on Christmas day!)
In general though, the classic Christmas films have endured waning support among MovieLens reviewers. So are we in line for a shake up at the top? We’ll have to wait and see. Thirteen Christmas movies have been released since 2015, which were omitted from our analysis, but most have fallen short of expectations. Who knows -- maybe next year’s much-anticipated remake of The Grinch Stole Christmas will break its way into the upper echelon of Yuletide films.
- The MovieLens 20 million dataset includes ratings through March 2015. I include data through end of 2014, to avoid showing partial data in the second and third graphics. ↩︎
- In total, 138,000 MovieLens users have reviewed some movie on their platform. Of the 138k, over 83,000 posted a rating of at least one Christmas movie that I considered. ↩︎
The Christmas themed movies were selected from this Wikipedia list.
For the purpose of this analysis we only considered movies with theatrical releases prior to 2015.
Data for the remaining 99 movies in the list was pulled from the MovieLens database.
MovieLens stores data at a timestamp level, hence for the analysis all ratings and counts were aggregated wherever required.
Graphics were created in Tableau.
The MovieLens database is available here.