This is easy: It’s A Wonderful Life? No.
Well, then it has to be Miracle on 34th Street! No. Neither the 1947 version nor the updated version from 1994.
How about Jingle All the Way? Nope. Not that movie either.
Okay, fine. It has to be one of the versions of A Christmas Carol, right?
Wrong again, my friends. Americans, it turns out, are not as traditionalist as they seem when it comes to holiday movies. What Americans love to rent during the holiday season are movies about complicated families leading complicated lives with lots of different story lines.
In our holiday infographic below, we unwrapped the data to discover which films America loves renting most during the holiday season:
A state-by-state analysis of rentals by DVD Netflix members reveals that the most popular holiday movies are an unusual triumvirate: The Family Stone, Love Actually, and Four Christmases. There are a couple more that show up in the top 5 by state fairly consistently: Elf, New Year’s Eve, and Fred Claus. But those first three are so consistently in the top three by state, it isn’t even close.
So what’s the deal with these movies?
The biggest surprise, for me, on this list is The Family Stone. This good-natured comedy/melodrama about a family gathering for Christmas at the parents’ (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson—there’s an odd pairing!) home in a small town in New England. I’d never even heard of this movie until a friend of mine made me watch it last July and I was dubious at best. And then I was completely won over. Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, this movie follows the couplings, gay and straight, happy and unhappy, of the family Stone. It’s a messy, complicated, argumentative, and lively bunch. The magnificent cast includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, Claire Danes, Brian White and Tyrone Giordano.
Who would have guessed that one of America’s favorite Christmas movies isn’t even an American movie? But then, who doesn’t love Love Actually? Set in London, this is another movie with multiple storylines. Ten different storylines, in fact! Another Written and Directed By; British filmmaker Richard Curtis put this gem together. Curtis is a past master of the romantic comedy, and previously wrote the screenplays for Bridget Jones’ Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill. All of these feature Hugh Grant, of course, so they are naturally charming. But I don’t recommend binge watching Hugh Grant movies. You’ll get annoyed very quickly. There is one scene in Love Actually, however, that should be shown over and over again in every acting class. It’s the scene in which Emma Thompson realizes her husband (played by Alan Rickman) is having an affair as she listens to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Thompson’s understated portrayal of devastating heartbreak and self-control is breathtaking. The cast also includes Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, and, well, just about anyone else who has ever appeared in a production at the Royal Shakespeare Theater.
And then there’s Four Christmases. This frantic comedy is about a 30-something couple going to visit all four of their divorced parents on Christmas. Guess what? It doesn’t go so well as all four of their parents are varying degrees of complete nutjobs. Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight. For anyone who’s ever tried to manage divorced parents and their tantrums at Christmas time, this movie is for you.
I guess what was most comforting about this study from DVD.com for me is how these movies seem to strike a unifying chord across our apparent cultural and regional divides. The Family Stone has an interracial gay couple at the center of its narrative, and yet it’s the most popular Christmas movie in deeply conservative states like Wyoming, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. And the most popular Christmas movie in the vast and sunny nation-state that is California is one set thousands of miles away in England—Love Actually.
I was talking to my agent once many years ago and he had called me about setting up a meeting at a studio for me to pitch a movie.
“What kind of movie?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what all the studios are looking for,” he said. “They all want a Christmas movie.”
“A Christmas movie? Really?” I asked. “You mean something warm and funny with a lot of characters and conflicts and some yelling and recriminations and ‘it’s over between us!’ but then miraculously everything turns out alright at the end and they all enjoy a nice Christmas together?”
“Exactly,” he said. “Something like that.”
“I’ve got nothing,” I said.
He was quiet for a moment.
“Okay, what about Valentine’s Day?” he said. “Got anything in the Valentine’s Day area?”
Merry Christmas, everyone. And remember: it turns out that the reasons we love these movies is because they seem to give us stories about what we want, which is love, actually.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.