We are back for our third annual ranking of the new original Netflix Christmas films, and the news is good: After last season’s dull vintage, Netflix has gotten back on track and improved its batting average. Still, it’s worth noting that while the top movies are much better than their equivalents from last year, the bottom entries are much, much worse. (Note that more originals are slated to debut after our deadline, but the biggest presents have already come down the chimney). Light spoilers ahead.
1. ‘Single All the Way’
Hulu scored with the lesbian romantic comedy “Happiest Season” last year, and now Netflix is striking back with a male version. This time, the lead does not shun the right love interest (Team Riley forever!).
Michael Urie stars as the serially single Peter, who has dragged his roommate and best friend, Nick (Philemon Chambers), home for the holidays. Once settled in cozy New Hampshire, famine turns to feast as Peter is torn between two lovely suitors — there are no baddies in this movie. One is his mother’s trainer, James (the Hallmark Channel hottie Luke Macfarlane), and the other is the friend-zoned Nick, who had been hiding his true feelings.
Directed by Michael Mayer, “Single All the Way” is fast-paced, funny and sweet without being cloying (the HGTV joke is gold). Kathy Najimy and Jennifer Coolidge, as Peter’s mother and aunt, deliver particularly delicious turns — the rehearsal scenes for Coolidge’s Christmas pageant alone could have landed this movie in the No. 1 spot.
2. ‘A Boy Called Christmas’
Like “Klaus” (No. 2 on our 2019 ranking), this film is a Santa origin story, albeit a live-action one as opposed to animated. A poor Finnish boy, Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), sets off to find his father (Michiel Huisman), who has left him behind to find the village where elves live. Of course that place could merely be the stuff of legends, but since Nikolas has a talking pet mouse (voiced by Stephen Merchant), we know early on that anything is possible.
Based on a book by Matt Haig, “A Boy Called Christmas” knows that the best fairy tales have dark undertones, and it drops satisfyingly ominous touches: Dad is far from perfect; the wicked children-hating Aunt Carlotta (Kristen Wiig, in too short a role) does something unspeakable to Nikolas’s beloved turnip doll.
Regrettably, the film never goes full Roald Dahl on us — if only Tim Burton had directed it. But kids should enjoy the story while their parents will eat up the sneakier jokes and fully appreciate Sally Hawkins’s stunning performance as the elf leader Mother Vodol.
3. ‘Love Hard’
This rom-com has such a sketchy premise that its spectacular recovery should count as an Olympics-worthy gymnastics feat.
The biggest test is that viewers are asked to not hate Josh (Jimmy O. Yang) after he catfishes Natalie (Nina Dobrev) by using a photo of his hunky friend Tag (Darren Barnet) on a dating app. Not only does Natalie quickly get over the switcheroo, she then agrees to pretend to be Josh’s girlfriend. The film’s main asset is Yang (Jian Yang on “Silicon Valley”), whose Josh miraculously comes across as sweet rather than creepy. Once that battle is won, “Love Hard” — which is funnier than most rom-coms and fully embraces a farcical goofiness — can convincingly sell its central relationship. By the time Natalie and Josh duet on a memorably revised version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” we are firmly rooting for them.
Bonus (likely involuntary) Netflix callbacks: Natalie is said to be a Los Angeles 6 and a Lake Placid 10; in “Single All the Way,” Nick is described as a 10 and Peter is a 10 in New Hampshire.
4. ‘A Castle for Christmas’
Sophie (Brooke Shields) is a best-selling American romance novelist who travels to Scotland to reconnect with her roots and impulsively decides to buy a scenic castle from its bristly cash-strapped owner, Duke Myles (Cary Elwes). Since a white-knuckle suspense this is not, they fall in love and all ends well.
The film supplies the usual rom-com accouterments, in this case an adorable knitting circle that warmly welcomes Sophie, but it really hangs on the chemistry between Shields and Elwes. Fortunately, these two have a comfortable, playful rapport that makes their preposterous circumstances almost feel natural. Sealing the deal for Myles is his dog, Hamish, played by Barley, a natural who is more than ready to lead a spinoff movie. Barley is a 10 anywhere.
5. ‘The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star’
Netflix’s holiday all-star Vanessa Hudgens is back for the third installment of her trademark franchise, and this time everybody seems to have an eye on the clock, waiting for the ordeal to end.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
1. “The Power of the Dog”: Benedict Cumberbatch is earning high praise for his performance in Jane Campion’s new psychodrama. Here’s what it took for the actor to become a seething alpha-male cowboy.
2. “Don’t Look Up” : Meryl Streep plays a self-centered scoundrel in Adam McKay’s apocalyptic satire. She turned to the “Real Housewives” franchise for inspiration.
3. “King Richard”: Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’s mother in the biopic, shares how she turned the supporting role into a talker.
4. “Tick, Tick … Boom!”: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is an adaptation of a show by Jonathan Larson, creator of “Rent.” This guide can help you unpack its many layers.
5. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Several upcoming movies are in black and white, including Joel Coen’s new spin on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
As in the second film, Hudgens plays three parts, with bad-girl Fiona stepping to the fore in a feeble, nonsensical heist plot while Queen Margaret and Princess Stacy lurk in some castle or other, twirling their thumbs (they do have to handle some switcheroos with one another but really, it’s Fiona’s show). No matter who she plays, though, Hudgens appears disengaged for the first time in the “Princess Switch” saga. As for Sam Palladio’s Edward and Nick Sagar’s Kevin, they are only required to smile and look handsome — welcome to the wife role, gentlemen.
Bonus Netflix callbacks: The butler Frank De Luca and the chief of staff Mrs. Donatelli have a cameo in “A Castle for Christmas,” where they book a romance package at the local inn. Let the fan fiction begin.
6. ‘The Claus Family’
A mom who works in a cookie factory; a grandpa who is the true Santa Claus and has elf helpers: What a fun, sweet holiday treat this Belgian film must be!
Sorry to pop your Christmas bauble but “The Claus Family” is as leaden as a Liège waffle left on the counter overnight.
Young Jules (Mo Bakker) hates Christmas and the young boy’s downcast disposition contaminates the entire movie, which is flaccidly paced and fails to pull off its more festive scenes. When a “cookie revolution” at the factory makes for dull viewing, you have to wonder how a director could possibly muck up such a gimme scene.
And then there is Jules’s grandfather, who might well be the grimmest Santa ever. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether this is a daring rewriting of Christmas rules (just imagine the script meeting in Belgium: “What if Santa was resentful about his job?”) or just bad execution.
7. ‘Father Christmas Is Back’
John Cleese and Kelsey Grammer as estranged brothers. Elizabeth Hurley as a brazen vixen in laced-up tight pants. Now this is a promising cast!
Don’t fall for it.
Everything goes south at the family reunion in a British countryside manor, and so does this aggressively awful would-be comedy. At least Hurley looks as if she’s having fun, wringing every last camp drop from her terrible role.
“Father Christmas Is Back” peddles a strange mix of sentimentality and sourness, as all the members of the Christmas-Hope clan, for that is their name, can’t stop bickering and insulting each other. Of course the movie hurtles toward reconciliation, but here it feels even more contrived than usual in such fare because the hate feels all too real.