Two years ago, while we were in the throes of lockdown, I compiled a list of the 10 best made-for-TV Christmas movies. You know the ones: the films that are so bad, they’re good. The ones that are clichéd, predictable, and inane, yet are so impossibly charming you can’t stop watching them. Oh yes: they’re cinema’s greatest offerings and they’re here for your perusal during this most wonderful festive season.
We may no longer be in lockdown but the Christmas films just keep a-comin. This year, is it possible that Hallmark, Netflix, and the other streaming services have just gone and outdone themselves? That we live in a world where the movies that exist are so endearingly charming they’ll thaw even the frostiest and Scoogiest of hearts this season? Dare we believe that there are even better, more satisfying, more world-changing, nay, era-defining genre pieces out there?
The answer, dear reader, is a resounding YES! Ring your Christmas bells and sing for joy, because I’m now delighted to say that the streaming gods have blessed us with even more beautiful offerings for 2022. To prove it, here’s a list of the best movies to watch this Christmas:
10. Christmas Under Wraps (2014)
Christmas Under Wraps is like if a studio with a really low production budget tried to recreate Grey’s Anatomy, but without McDreamy and set in a small town, thousands of miles from Seattle, at Christmas. Well, here you have it, folks: a terrible ripoff without any of the charm of the hit series but plenty of lines of dialogue that real doctors would never say. In the lead is reliable Hallmark fixture Candace Cameron Bure (you’ll remember her from A Shoe Addict’s Christmas, though frankly, she was better in that), and she’s Lauren Brunell, the surgeon-turned-GP-for-the-holidays as she tries to overcome a failed attempt at earning a fellowship and win back her credibility. In Garland, Alaska. Like a normal person.
The romance is iffy because the love interest Andy (David O’Donnell) has been cast to look like Patrick Dempsey and it’s distracting: the only really cool character is Lauren’s colleague Billie (Kendra Mylnechuk), and I’d actually be worried if Dr. Brunell was assigned a real patient with her questionable work ethic. Despite the incredible odds against her, she prevails and even wins herself a man for the season.
To be honest, though, the details aren’t important. What’s really clear about this film is that real, decent doctors probably wouldn’t brag about being nepotism babies, like Brunell is so intent on doing, and that they definitely wouldn’t have so much free time to traipse about in the Alaskan countryside over the holidays. But that’s the magic of Hallmark: anything is possible in a fabricated festive fantasy.
9. Return to Christmas Creek (2018)
Now what I like about Return to Christmas Creek is that it’s literally the epitome of the Hallmark genre. A career-focused, Chicago city app developer (Amelia Hayes) abruptly has a bit of a reality check right before the holidays. Investors think that her idea for a personal stylist app doesn’t exactly scream Christmas. So, app-less, idealess, and unwilling to spend the holidays with her in-laws despite her boyfriend’s pleas, she accepts an invitation from her long-estranged uncle to visit her hometown, Christmas Creek.
In Christmas Creek, Amelia meets up again with her estranged uncle, plus reunites with her childhood friend who also happens to have the best last name ever, Mike Ruggles (Stephen Huszar) – she is such a sweet character and a natural with Mike’s niece. Over the holidays, she rediscovers the importance of family, friendship, and the Christmas spirit. She even overcomes a decades-long family feud and brings everyone together again for the holidays. And thinks of a new app idea in the process. Overall, she basically turns her whole life around thanks to the magic of Christmas.
There’s a reason why it’s so addictive to watch: the formula works, people! We (I) love it. It’s very sweet. You don’t need to think too hard about it: the characters do all the heavy lifting and it’s fantastic.
8. A California Christmas (2020)
Here’s the thing: A California Christmas is not a good film, but it’s also strangely impossible to stop watching. Joseph Van Aston (Josh Swickard) is a big-city finance bro from San Francisco, where his family are the wealthy owners of the Van Aston company. His mother doesn’t value his playboy lifestyle though and sends him on an errand to wine country deep in California with the mission of completing a difficult deal with a farm owner. The problem is, the company wants to buy the land, but the owner, Callie (Lauren Swickard), refuses to sell her family’s home, despite being up to her eyeballs in debt and recently bereaved of her fiancé. The odds are against her, but she stubbornly refuses to budge so that she might help out her eight-year-old sister, Hannah, and their ailing mother.
Naturally, Joe decides he’ll impersonate the new farmhand Manny (David Del Rio) and persuade her to let go of the farm after all. This means learning the value of actual hard work, including birthing calves and milking cows. Things don’t quite go to plan, and you can imagine what happens next. While all that’s happening between Joe and Callie (by the way, did I mention that Josh Swickard and Lauren Swickard are married in real life and produced the film?), another, far more entertaining subplot unfolds. Joe’s chauffeur, Leo, actually finds the real Manny and pays him off to keep up Joe’s pretence. But Leo and Manny become best friends – it’s so wholesome!
I have to give this one credit because, after Joe spends the entire film embracing small-town values, there emerges a sequel that undoes pretty much everything from the first film! You have to love that arc. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy, after all. It also feels way more realistic than literally every other romcom because I’m sure no writers actually address the fact that the couple will get bored after a year in the countryside. The sequel’s called A California Christmas: City Lights and every serious Christmas viewer needs to watch it immediately.
7. Single All The Way (2021)
Just because Single All The Way is the only gay Christmas romcom I’ve watched this year, doesn’t mean it can’t be my favourite. LA-based photographer Peter (Michael Urie) is perpetually single after a string of terrible boyfriends, most recently a cardiologist who happens to be married! To a woman! Cynical about love yet desperate to avoid his family’s judgement, Peter convinces his best friend, Nick (Philemon Chambers), to join him back at home in New Hampshire for the holidays and pretend that they’re together to throw his family off the scent.
Personally, though, I don’t think Peter needs anyone. He’s fantastic. He has an Instagram account for his plants and he’s a photographer at a high-performing agency. Sure, he can be a little self-centered, but everyone, including Nick, soon puts him in his place. When he starts seeing a man from back home that his mother has set him up with, Peter’s teenage nieces step in to make sure he’s on the right track.
I love how sassy this film is: the energy is fabulous. The puns are inexhaustible, especially when Peter’s mum waves a holiday-specific ‘Sleigh Queen!’ sign. Not to mention that the film has an all-star cast, including Jennifer Coolidge and Jennifer Robertson (best known as Jocelyn from Schitt’s Creek.) Most importantly, though, Single All The Way is the rarest of great films: a non-heteronormative romcom that has all the charm of every Hallmark film while actually giving something none of them have offered before.
6. The Holiday Calendar (2018)
In The Holiday Calendar, struggling photographer Abby (Kat Graham) has big dreams of one day owning her own studio and showcasing her work, but she’s tied to a job she wants to leave and is just trying to make it through the holidays by photographing families enjoying the Christmas season. She has low expectations and pretty much knows what this holiday will hold for her until her grandpa (Ron Cephas Jones) gives her a magical calendar that tells her the future, suddenly throwing everything into question.
As Abby and her best friend, Josh (Quincy Brown), start to decipher the message of the antique souvenir, life also throws them a few curveballs, including eligible single dad, Ty (Ethan Peck), a PTA meeting, and a mishap involving a very grumpy boss in a nutcracker costume. This one doesn’t quite fit the mould of every other Christmas film. What I found the most endearing about it was that it unironically leant into the fantasy element of Christmas and it was so fun to watch Abby and Josh act like excitable children when they tried to work out the Christmas riddle. Their chemistry is great and feels way more natural than basically every other holiday film, making it feel like these are people you actually could meet in real life. All in all, great Christmas viewing.
5. The Noel Diary (2022)
This film is great and it’s little wonder it’s one of the top 10 most-watched films of the day on Netflix at the time of writing! Novelist Scott Turner (James Remar) returns home to his estranged mother’s estate, accompanied by his trusty dog Ava. There, he meets linguist Rachel Hayden (Essence Atkins), who happens to be looking for her birth mother, Noel. The diary in question refers to something they find along the way.
This one was a tearjerker for sure. These two people who are afraid to trust other people go on a journey of discovery about themselves and each other, they have fun, and there are tragic backstories and heartbreak, but reconciliation too. Not to mention flawless set design, smooth jazz, and beautiful characters. I just loved it.
The Noel Diary is extra fun because it pokes fun at genre tropes. When Scott and Rachel check into a hotel, Scott’s impressed at the setup: ”If this were a romcom,” he jokes, “you’d only have one room left and we’d have to share!” Uncomprehending, the receptionist deadpans “romcom?” – It’ll elicit a wry laugh at the very least, and is the most overt reference to a screwball comedy of the 30s I’ve seen in a Christmas film this year. It’s of little importance that the next night there’s only one room available for them to share: this is a witty, self-referential Christmas movie and I was pleasantly surprised.
4. A Castle for Christmas (2021)
A Castle for Christmas is the perfect example of a film created by Americans who’ve never visited Scotland. Escaping a scandal involving her ex-husband, recent divorce, and public humiliation on the Drew Barrymore show (surprise cameo!), author Sophie decides to take a trip to her ancestral home, a castle in Scotland.
Fortunately for her, the castle is in a charming little town called Dun Dunbar, where the locals are absolutely lovely. Unfortunately, the castle is currently owned by a frosty Duke, Myles (The Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes), who’s reluctant to give up his home. Well, you can imagine that a cosy little stay over the Christmas season soon turns into something more for the two of them and the result is glorious.
Is it trash? Yes. Is it also the best thing you’ll watch this Christmas? ABSOLUTELY. It is SO GOOD, GUYS. I can’t even tell you why. There are truly terrible Scottish accents and every time a character is mildly inconvenienced there’s a huge exclamation of ‘OCH!’ Really, it’s perfect.
3. The Knight Before Christmas (2019)
Queen of our hearts, Vanessa Hudgens, is back! I loved this beautiful knock-off of Enchanted, a deliriously fantastic fish-out-of-water story. No cliché is spared, no piece of dialogue deemed too repetitive to include. When Netflix first announced this film back in 2019, it was clear that this was going to be a classic.
Brooke (Hudgens) is a smart, streetwise but disillusioned-by-love high school teacher. She’s skeptical and completely unprepared when a mysterious aristocrat, Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse), magically appears from 12th century Norwich – transported into the modern day after helping an old lady lost alone in the woods. He wishes to fulfil his destiny as a true knight by midnight on Christmas Eve, and to do so he must discover what’s really important to a knight.
The two of them embark on exciting adventures in the world of modern-day Ohio, and Cole’s enchantment at seemingly normal day-to-day things, from the ‘steel steed’ (car) to the ‘magic box’ (TV), is delightful. He’s also a natural with Brooke’s young niece and her friends, and everyone soon warms up to his quirks.
This is pure feel-good schmooze and I am 100% here for it. There are even twists I, a grown adult, didn’t see coming and for that reason, it’s just impossible not to love.
2. Christmas Inheritance (2021)
Honestly, I really deliberated with the top spot of my list and this one very, very nearly made it to first place. Socialite Ellen Langford (Eliza Taylor) is dubbed New York’s ‘party heiress’ after she crashes a charity gala hosted by her father, the influential Jim Langford (Neil Crone). As a consequence, and to teach her some life lessons and a sense of responsibility before she can take on a job at his company, Jim sends his daughter to the remote town of Snow Falls where he grew up.
Armed only with $100, no credit cards, and no phone reception, Ellen must use her initiative, learn some life skills from the locals and become a useful member of the town. During the week leading up to Christmas, she gets to know the residents, including the very eligible local B&B owner, Jake (Jake Collins), and his fabulous aunt, Debbie (Andie MacDowell! I squealed!) I loved this so much. The more clichéd it got, the more I was convinced this was the greatest film I’ve seen this year. I might in fact rewatch it right now. Gotta go.
1. Falling for Christmas (2022)
We’ve seen some fine specimens already throughout this Christmas journey, but only one can be crowned the best festive film of 2022. It can be none other than Falling For Christmas, because this film is everything you want it to be, and more. Why? It has all the ingredients: Lindsay Lohan as Sierra, the spoiled heiress. Chord Overstreet as Jake, the kind father, and widower. The cutest daughter called Ava (Olivia Perez). The kindly abuela Alejandra (Alejandra Flores). The absolute chad of a boyfriend Tad Fairchild (George Young), who is simultaneously insufferable and iconic. When I tell you this movie really has it all, I mean it.
I found it especially charming that, although the family-owned lodge is falling into disrepair, Jake won’t ask for a charity handout. Instead, Sierra (known as Sarah in her amnesia), Alejandra, and Ava collaborate to bring all the former guests together and raise money for the cause. Breaches GDPR and info-sharing laws notwithstanding, it’s just a really sweet gesture. What a heartwarming film. No notes. 11/10.
And so, after hours of watching the same formulaic festive content, you may think that they’re all beginning to blur into one. Like this online user, you might have even slept through one and woken up in another without realising it. But, no matter how similar these films might be, they’re uniquely delightful and each can just put you in a festive mood. If they exist purely to make you feel good, then they must be the best things to watch this Christmas.