By Elisabeth Vincentelli
With the flow of holiday releases now akin to the gush exploding out of a broken fire hydrant, it’s tough to figure out which movies deserve your attention: Hallmark alone has 42 new holiday movies this year; add the Lifetime and Great American Family channels, and you will be busy through Valentine’s Day. This roundup will at least get you started with many of the major streamers’ new offerings.
‘A Christmas Frequency’
Hulu scored with “Happiest Season” three years ago, but its originals are not very exciting this year. In this slow-paced rom-com, radio producer Kenzie (Ansley Gordon) must help her boss, Brooke (Denise Richards), hide the fact that she has split up from her husband — not a good look for someone who dispenses relationship advice to her listeners. As Kenzie tries to set up Brooke on dates to shore up both her romantic life and the show’s ratings, she ends up finding love for herself with a nice dude (Jonathan Stoddard) who works in the same building. Good thing some people still turn up in the office IRL. Stream it on Hulu.
‘Best. Christmas. Ever!’
Netflix really opened itself up to jokes with this dud’s title. Mary Lambert’s feature could have explored the not-very-nice feelings of envy the holidays can create, but it’s just an unfunny mess filled with grating people. Chief among them is Charlotte (Heather Graham), who mistakenly ends up at the lavish house of her friend Jackie (Brandy Norwood) for Christmas. Jackie has a dream life with her soul mate (Matt Cedeño), while Charlotte is stagnating and married to a nice guy (Jason Biggs) — the horror. If nothing else, the movie boasts the incongruous sight of a pint-size child genius (Madison Skye Validum) who has been accepted to Harvard but still believes in Santa. So much for “Veritas.” Stream it on Netflix.
‘Candy Cane Lane’
Reginald Hudlin’s vehicle for Eddie Murphy is the clear standout in the 2023 batch. Chris (Murphy) has a passion for Christmas and is obsessed with winning an annual contest that awards the best holiday decorations. He buys last-minute supplies at a pop-up Yuletide store run by Pepper (Jillian Bell), who turns out to be a nefarious elf. The major plot point involves Chris and his family trying to corral the gifts listed, ad nauseam, in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and which have come to calamitous life. As fun as this chase is, the film’s biggest asset is the chemistry between Murphy and his on-screen wife, Tracee Ellis Ross. Sign them up for a sequel, stat. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
‘Dashing Through the Snow’
Granted, the competition isn’t all that stiff this year, but Lil Rel Howery’s Santa easily emerges as the most fun of the season. On the streets of Los Angeles, Nick, as he goes by in Tim Story’s film, crosses paths with Christmas hater Eddie (a nicely understated Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris). A social worker for the police, Eddie is on the outs with his wife (the underused Teyonah Parris) and looking after their daughter (Madison Skye Validum, making a twofer here) as a certain holiday rolls around. Thinking his jolly new acquaintance is deluded, Eddie tries to get him some professional help. Will Nick — who sweats glitter and whose flatulence smells like cinnamon — melt Eddie’s permafrosted heart? A nail-biting suspense this is not. Stream it on Disney+.
As expected from something directed by a duo called Younuts, this Italian production is easily the oddest of the list. It starts off with a puppet Santa scaring off a young boy, Elia (Federico Ielapi), in the middle of the night with a big knife. The film’s elevator pitch is standard issue: the rogue elf Trip (Pasquale Petrolo), cast out of Santa’s workshop because he keeps inventing dangerous artifacts, helps Elia save the toy store run by his mother, Ivana (Anna Foglietta), from the evil forces of capitalism. It’s always fun to watch the holidays through a slightly different lens. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
The workaholic Graham (Robbie Amell) is stunned to discover that his family has secretly stayed in touch with his ex-girlfriend, Ali (Leighton Meester). They even invited her over for the holidays when they thought he wasn’t coming. Meester and Amell comfortably fire off dialogue that can be pleasingly snappy — “It’s the afterthought that counts,” Ali says upon discovering Graham’s last-minute presents — and the supporting cast rises to the occasion, especially Michael Hitchcock and Kathryn Greenwood as Graham’s milquetoast parents and Veronika Slowikowska as his droll lesbian sister (someone please give her a spinoff movie). Warning: Anybody with a basic knowledge of Minnesota in December will shudder at the sight of the wardrobe. Stream it on Amazon Freevee.
A fortuneteller (Rita Moreno), a “planetary alignment”: The holiday connection is more background than integral to the plot in McG’s comedy of mixed-up identities. Regardless, it’s great fun to watch all the members of a family led by Jennifer Garner and Ed Helms be Freaky Friday’ed for Christmas. The best decision here was to let Garner and Helms do their thing; the two stars are more than game, and their comedic chops go a long way toward making “Family Switch” a seasonal must. Stream it on Netflix.
The fish-out-of-water trope has a pretty good holiday track record (see: “Elf”). Now comes Melissa McCarthy as Flora, a genie free again after thousands of years in a jewelry box. She is gung-ho on helping her hapless liberator, Bernard (Paapa Essiedu, looking not entirely comfortable), win back his estranged wife (Denée Benton) and daughter (Jordyn McIntosh). Bernard even has an unlimited number of wishes, because clearly genie-dom works like a Las Vegas buffet here. Unfortunately, McCarthy does not have nearly enough opportunities to really let loose. This force of nature easily wrings laughs out of mild Tom Cruise jokes and the fabulousness of pizza, but we all know she can do so much more. Why keep her half-bottled? Stream it on Peacock.
‘The Naughty Nine’
It’s a thin line between troublemaker and sociopath, and the fairly scary fifth grader Andy (Winslow Fegley) comes dangerously close to crossing it. After he lands on Santa’s naughty list, Andy sets out for the North Pole to retrieve his undelivered presents, with the assistance of similarly deprived kids. Alberto Belli’s heist caper becomes more interesting when the children reach Santa’s village and the production design team gets down to lavish business. This being Disney, our antihero sees the error of his ways and undergoes a fast-tracked redemption. We’ll see if reformed Andy sticks around; the ending shamelessly sets up a sequel. Stream it on Disney+.
‘So Fly Christmas’
The most fun entry on the BET+ slate is Terri J. Vaughn’s comedy about friendship. When Wyvetta (Tichina Arnold, from “The Neighborhood”) is dumped at the altar on Christmas Eve, she and her supportive bestie Dione (Tami Roman) publicly swear off romance on their podcast. After close to a year of solidarity abstinence, Dione falls for Clarence (Robert Christopher Riley) — and tries to keep their relationship a secret to avoid hurting Wyvetta’s feelings. Um, did these two women really intend to remain chaste for the rest of their lives? Filmed largely in Atlantic City, this breezy movie benefits from Arnold and Roman’s believable camaraderie. And we could have used a lot more of Michael Colyar and Jackée Harry as Wyvetta’s forbearing parents. Make sure you stick around for the end credits, peppered with very funny outtakes. Stream it on BET+.