Let it show: Celebrate Christmas in July with these festive flicks

They're not about the most wonderful time of the year, but the holiday plays a starring role in each
Snowman made of sand
Photo credit Getty Images

In the middle of a relentless heat wave, we might be forgiven for daydreaming of the brisk, snowy days of just a few months ago.

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Jack Frost is nowhere to be found in July, but we need a little Christmas — right this very minute.

Well, let your heart be light. Our gift to you: a list of our favorite “Christmas in July” flicks. These movies may not be about the most wonderful time of the year, but Christmas certainly plays a starring role in each.

So, get ready for some comfort and joy. Make sure your favorite Yule log video loop is playing on a nearby laptop or tablet. Grab a big bowl of popcorn — and string together some garlands. And plunk yourself down somewhere merry and bright (and preferably with air conditioning). We’ve got you.

Toy Story

What’s more Christmassy than waiting for your favorite toy to appear under the tree? Young Andy has always favored his cowboy doll, Woody (Tom Hanks), but when he is given a Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) action figure, his place at the top of the toybox is threatened. The toys come alive when Andy is not in his bedroom, and an accidental fall out the window starts them on an epic journey to find their way back to their beloved owner, realizing along the way that they’re still important no matter who is Andy’s favorite. At the end, the toys wake up on Christmas morning to a barking puppy — the sound of a new rival favorite “toy.”

Cue sequel.

Though it was followed by three of them (in 1999, 2010 and 2019) and the spinoff “Lightyear,” just this year, this original “Toy Story” (1995) is still the best of the franchise.

The “Toy Story” movies are currently streaming on Disney+.

Home Alone

Before her “Schitt’s Creek” renaissance as Moira Rose, Catherine O’Hara is arguably best known for screaming “KEVIN!” directly into the camera when she remembers that she’s left her son at home in “Home Alone” (1990).

Kevin McCallister (the adorably precocious Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left behind at the family homestead, while his many siblings, cousins and distracted parents jet to Paris for Christmas. Kevin finds himself on his own vacation — away from his family. And he’s more than fine with the arrangement — eating garbage and running around the house without supervision — but a pair of bumbling robbers, who had been casing the house earlier, get in the way.

The “Wet Bandits” (Daniel Stern, Joe Pesci) meet their match in the pint-sized home defender, as Kevin thwarts their attempts, one after the other, to steal from his home. The cartoon violence that ensues between the two warring sides would probably kill any real person (a high-velocity iron to the face? Yikes) but this is a kid’s movie — no one can ever get that hurt.

If you haven’t seen this movie by now, what are you doing? It’s a Christmas classic that stands the test of time in any season.

“Home Alone” is currently streaming on Disney+.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Jack Skellington (Danny Elfman), the Pumpkin King, is really good at Halloween. He thrills the residents of Halloween Town every year, outdoing his antics from the year before, but the monotony of success leaves him craving a change.

His prayers are answered when he stumbles upon a secret door to Christmas Town. He doesn’t understand the lights and bright colors and good cheer, but he is enchanted — and he wants it. Jack hatches a plot to kidnap “Sandy Claws” and make Christmas his.

The ghosts and goblins of Halloween Town do their best to help him win over the residents of Christmas Town — but his version of their holiday is more trick than treat.

Meanwhile, Sally (speaking of Catherine O’Hara!) the rag-doll, in love with Jack from a distance, has some serious doubts about his plans to hijack the holiday, and she risks life and (literally) limb to save him from himself.

From the imagination of Tim Burton, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) is a beautiful and haunting masterpiece of stop-motion animation and song.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is currently streaming on Disney+ and available on Amazon Prime.

Gremlins

"Gremlins" (1984) is a strong reminder to parents that it is often a bad idea to give children the pet that they desperately want, let alone one they didn't even ask for. Living things require special attention, and a mogwai (a kind of “evil demon” in Chinese culture) requires more than most.

1. Do not expose it to bright light.

2. Do not feed it after midnight.

3. Do not get it wet.

But none of this really matters to struggling inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), who picks up one of the adorable furballs on his travels to give to his son Billy (Zach Gallligan) for Christmas. You can be sure that all three rules will be broken and that chaos will follow. In this case, that chaos is a roving throng of malevolently playful and hilariously lethal monsters who do all they can to reduce the population of Billy's small Pennsylvania/New York town.

The animatronic gore is so spectacular that "Gremlins" is one of the movies responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating — though few 13-year-olds today will be fazed by it.

“Gremlins” is currently streaming on HBO Max and available on Amazon Prime.

Edward Scissorhands

“Edward Scissorhands” (1990) starts out as a bedtime story, told by an old lady (Winona Ryder) to her granddaughter, about why it snows in suburban Tampa at Christmas time. It’s all to do with a boy who had scissors for hands.

An eccentric inventor (Vincent Price), who lives in a castle on the hill, builds an artificial boy named Edward (Johnny Depp). But the inventor dies — on Christmas — before he can give Edward the gift of real hands, leaving the poor boy confused, lonely and, it would seem, incomplete.

Compassionate, well-meaning Avon Lady Peg (Dianne Wiest), finds the reclusive Edward when she comes knocking on the castle door, desperate for a sale. Determined to save him, she coaxes him out of the cold, gray shadows and into the bright, but bland, pastel monotony of suburbia, where he is met with fear, kindness, lust, pity, ridicule, revulsion, rivalry — but not respect.

Edwards’ skillful use of those long, sharp, deadly blades earns him notoriety. But as Edward resists becoming the plaything of bored housewives, the neighborhood turns on Peg’s family and dismisses Edward as an outcast.

On the night of Peg’s Christmas party, while Edward is lost in a flurry of artistic expression, carving a garden of magnificent ice sculptures, and sending chips and flakes into the air like snowfall, Peg's teen daughter, Kim (the old lady from the opening scene!) sees that Edward is not incomplete at all — nor is he in need of saving — but his innocence has put him in danger.

“Edward Scissorhands” is currently streaming on Disney+ and available on Amazon Prime.

Trading Places

What can you say about “Trading Places” that hasn’t been said? It’s a comic tour de force, a near-perfectly constructed movie. And for men of a certain age, it’s a fondly remembered rite of awakening.

In his first of three collaborations with director John Landis, Eddie Murphy plays fast-talking hustler Billy Ray Valentine, whose life is turned upside down when he’s plucked from Philadelphia’s mean streets to unwittingly participate in a “social experiment,” switching lives with self-centered commodities broker Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd).

As Valentine thrives in the moneyed halls of the Union League, Winthorpe spirals into helplessness and even crime, with a tough-but-kind sex worker named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) as his only friend. But when they learn exactly how Winthorpe’s bosses engineered the situation, the three decide to turn the tables.

Trading Places is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Die Hard

In only his third lead role, Bruce Willis reshaped the action hero template as New York City cop John McClane in “Die Hard” (1988). Trying to patch things up with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia), McClane visits her in Los Angeles and joins her at a Christmas party in the office tower where she works. But the terrorist acts of a gang of highly trained international criminals inrterrupts the festivities — and their reunion.

If any doubts remain of this movie’s Christmas bona fides, consider, if nothing else, the soundtrack, featuring “Winter Wonderland,” Vaugn Monroe’s rendition of “Let it Snow!” and “Christmas In Hollis” by RUN-DMC. At one point, McClane himself whistles "Jingle Bells."

It’s hard to believe now, but “Die Hard” (1988) was seen as a risk for 20th Century Fox in 1988 — centering a major action movie on a TV actor (see “Moonlighting”), especially in the era of big budgets and bigger biceps. Willis’ McClane was the anti-Rambo — a smart-aleck everyman forced to use his wits to prevail.

Just as deserving of praise is the late Alan Rickman, in his feature film debut, as hall-of-fame villain Hans Gruber. Rickman excelled as the oily, intelligent Gruber, and made him almost as likable as McClane.

“Die Hard” not only spawned four sequels, it also created a cottage industry of imitators, as “ ‘Die Hard’ on a [mode of transportation]” became a go-to format for Hollywood action movies, including “Speed” (“Die Hard” on a bus) and “Under Siege” (“Die Hard” on a submarine).

But the original movie is justly regarded as the best, and not only for its often-studied screenplay, razor-sharp direction and stellar supporting cast. It provided Willis with his signature role, which defined him for many years after.

“Die Hard” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s "Batman Returns," the sequel to his 1989 course-correcting “Batman,” is steeped in what Nerdist aptly calls “candy-striped creepiness.” It takes place over the course of the holiday season, and centers many of the action sequences under Gotham City’s towering Christmas tree.

“Batman Returns” is also a monster movie, in that almost every major character is a monster.

For a second time, Michael Keaton delivers his slightly neurotic Bruce Wayne, still isolated and still focused on his mission of vengeance. Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) is a deformed, penguin-like man whose rich parents discarded him as an infant — at Christmas time — making him the funhouse mirror reflection of Wayne. And then there's Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a mousy secretary turned feline femme fatale. She is less cat burglar than chaotic avenger, playing Batman and the Penguin against each other.

But a classical film noir this is not. It's a dark fantasy masquerading as a superhero movie, superimposing Gotham’s grit against a pastiche of holiday cheer — with circus assassins, a woman with nine lives, an evil king of a sort in Christopher Walken's businessman Max Schreck, and a creature of a man out to visit a Biblical plague on the city.

There might be better Batman movies, but "Batman Returns," in its own way, is a gift that keeps on giving.

"Batman Returns" is currently streaming on HBO Max.

The Preacher’s Wife

No, this is not the 1947 movie “The Bishop’s Wife” with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven. This is the remake, coming 49 years later, with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Gregory Hines and Courtney B. Vance, directed by Penny Marshall.

Just like its predecessor, the 1996 version is set in New York City at Christmastime. The Rev. Henry Biggs’s (Vance) schedule, and his Baptist church’s finances are both stretched thin. A developer (Hines) wants to buy the church property for a major real estate project, and is even willing to build a new church building away from the Black neighborhood Rev. Biggs’ ministry serves.

With all this on his mind, his marriage to choir-leading wife Julia (Houston) and his relationship with his son Jeremiah both take a back seat. So an angel (Washington) comes to fix whatever he can — down to the church plumbing. This should be a romantic story of healing. Of course, other sparks fly.

With Houston on board, fantastic music takes the spotlight in this film.

“The Preacher’s Wife” is available on Amazon Prime

Mean Girls

Is “Mean Girls” a Christmas movie? No. Does it have arguably one of the best Christmastime scenes in a comedy? Yes. One of the best and most meme-able moments of the 2004 Tina Fey film is the “Jingle Bell Rock” performance. The Plastics (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried) and Cady (Lindsay Lohan) perform cringy choreography that doesn’t quite match the light-hearted number. But most importantly, it introduces us to the word “fetch.” (Has anyone made that happen yet?)

“Mean Girls” is currently streaming on Netflix.

"Harry Potter" series

Like many coming-of-age movies, each episode of the Harry Potter series takes place over the course of a school year. With that come cheers of “happy Christmas!” over the clinking of steins of butterbeer. The snowy rooftops of shops in the village outside Hogwarts give the tales a warm-and-fuzzy holiday backdrop, but it’s the movies as a whole that emit a sense of family togetherness no matter the time of year.

The "Harry Potter" movies are currently streaming on HBO Max and Peacock.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Inject a little Wes Anderson energy into your Christmas daydreams with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” about a father who is likely worse than any real-world dad you know, but who ultimately earns some redemption and affection. Though the family name in the title may be synonymous with a traditional Christmas carol, and there’s a scene that features the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmastime Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” neither of those things are what puts this movie on this list. It’s the story of a family coming together when it’s most difficult — and when they need it most — that gives it a holiday flair.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” is available on Amazon Prime.

Mame and Meet Me in St. Louis

Consider these two “honorable mentions.” In both of these movie musicals, the main characters rely on the light and joy of Christmas to pull them through some dark times.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) follows a year in the life of the Smith family. In 1903, they are well to do and living their best lives in the prosperous 4th-largest city in America — until Mr. Smith announces that he’s been transferred to a plum position in New York, and the whole family will have to move. Still reeling in shock, daughter Esther (Judy Garland) sings a song to her youngest sister to remind her that, no matter how difficult it may be in their new home, one day — maybe — they might all regain the happiness they’re about to leave behind.

Meanwhile, in “Mame” (1974), orphan Patrick is sent to live with his progressive, independent and eccentric Aunt Mame (Lucille Ball). She shows him, in her unconventional way, how to live life to the fullest. But when Mame loses her fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, she decides that "a little Christmas now" might be just the thing they need to cheer themselves up.

Lucille Ball couldn’t sing, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. For a better adaptation of the story, we recommend the 1958 non-musical Rosalind Russell film, “Auntie Mame.”

“Mame” is available on Amazon Prime. “Meet Me in St. Louis” is currently streaming on HBO Max. “Auntie Mame” is available on Amazon Prime.

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