You know the holiday traditions, whether you practice them or not. The music and decorations. The baking of cookies and consumption of said cookies. Grabbing the remote to search for a movie. But not just any movie — the right movie for this time of year.

“For the holidays, we usually want movies that create a certain mood and have good plots,” says UCF Associate Professor Barry Sandler. “They aren’t as easy to find as we think they will be.”

For help with our holiday watch lists, we asked Sandler and his film colleague, UCF Assistant Professor Tim Ritter, to offer us their favorites.

Barry Sandler
Associate professor, screenwriter and Academy Award voter

“The movies I respond to are not necessarily about [the holiday season], but they happen to be set at [this] time. When you look at my picks, I think each one tells a compelling story and reinforces the bond of family and friends, though not necessarily in the ways you might expect.”

1. The Holdovers (2023)

“There are no huge stars, no car chases, and no computer-generated imagery. It isn’t based on a top-selling book and we’ve seen very little marketing for this movie. That’s why I wanted to see it in the theater before it disappeared — and it got to me. Christmas is in the background as the pivoting force that triggers a situation with three very different people stuck at a boarding school in the 1970s. The movie gradually builds a sense of hope and togetherness, and to me, that’s a great Christmas movie.

2. The Night Before (2015)

“Yes, it’s a crazy story and certainly against the grain in terms of sentimental holiday movies. It’s three guys trying to find the best Christmas Eve party in New York City. I remember walking out of the theater a little surprised, thinking, ‘That was good!’ It’s funny, human, and turns out to be moving enough that you end up liking these guys.”

3. Die Hard (1988)

“I know the debate: Christmas movie or not a Christmas movie? I say if the story is adjacent to Christmas time, then the answer is yes. The ultimate theme of Die Hard is Bruce Willis fighting to get home for Christmas, so at its core, the movie is about the importance of family, which is fitting this time of year.”

4. Gremlins (1984)

“You didn’t expect this one, did you? This family has to unite so they can conquer the creatures invading their town. It’s quite powerful, and because the story happens around the holiday season, you watch and experience these strong positive messages: the value of life and love for each other. For a PG movie classified at the time as ‘horror,’ there’s a warmth that coincides with the holidays.”

5. Miracle on 34th Street (the original)

“I like to be a little offbeat, but I also enjoy the classics and this one stands out. It’s extra special personally because I had an opportunity to work with Natalie Wood more than 30 years after she co-starred in Miracle on 34th Street as an 8-year-old. She had a magical quality on screen and a sweet demeanor in real life. I think she fits the movie perfectly because the story transports you away from the problems of the world to an innocent time and gives you something good to believe. Anyone can appreciate that during the holidays.”

Tim Ritter
Assistant professor, screenwriter and producer

“I grew up in a military family, so we lived all over the world. Because of that, we had a robust stock of movies to keep us entertained, especially at Christmas. In fact, my 9-year-old son and I traveled to see my parents at Thanksgiving and we watched the very first movie our family owned: White Christmas. Of course, it’s on my list.”

1. The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992)

“My students will tell you I have no shame about going to the dollar theater. That’s where I watched the Muppets version of A Christmas Carol for the first time, with a friend years ago in Virginia. I’ve surrendered to its charm ever since. Different movies satisfy different needs. This one satisfies the need for joy, which is why we’ve moved it into our family’s coveted Christmas Eve viewing spot.”

2. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

“When this film was made, Jimmy Stewart had recently returned from flying combat missions during World War II. Maybe that’s why his emotion in the movie feels so raw. It’s about loss, evaluating life, and putting others before yourself. As a kid, I probably thought of the story as dark, but every year I value the realness and humanity of it more and more.”

3. White Christmas (1954)

“Yes, I know there are contrivances in the plot to get the characters where they need to go, but even as a film guy I never really cared. It’s a fun story that culminates with people going above and beyond to lift someone up — in this case, a military general. When you know the background of the movie, it adds to the nostalgia. White Christmas the movie is based on White Christmas the song, which is still the best-selling single of all time. Bing Crosby originally sang it on a radio show in December 1941, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then it was used in the movie Holiday Innbefore becoming the title track for this movie. Personally, it reminds me of my earliest Christmases watching it on VHS with my mom and dad.”

4. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

“I created my first film with $150 and a two-person crew, so I’m a big fan of short films like A Charlie Brown Christmas. Anyone can connect to the simplicity — the rudimentary animation, the use of real children’s voices instead of actors, the jazz music. It’s a great success story, too, because most studios thought it would do poorly. Charles Shultz and the creators took a chance anyway. They countered the modern Christmas ideas of wish lists and materialism with what started the whole Christmas thing — the birth of Jesus. The script digs into the root of Christmas, and it’s done in an unpolished, playful, innocent way that for me never gets old.”

5. Christmas Vacation (1989)

“My aunt still laughs uproariously every time she watches this, so that tells you the movie has staying power. When Christmas Vacation was released, it served as an anecdotal counterpoint to the earnestness of most Christmas movies. Most people remember the movie because we can relate to the situations that come up. I have a friend who just had family over to his new house for Thanksgiving, and like Clark Griswold, wishes he hadn’t. It’s a Christmas movie, but the one-liners are open season all year.”