Ranking Cinema Santas: Part I – Live Action

The Christmas season overflows with the chance for great listmaking. Whether it is assembling a baking order of goodies, compiling a list of presents you hope to find under the tree, or the Big Man himself finding out who is naughty or nice, lots of thought and heart goes into lists around this time of year. In that spirit, and in the throes of my rewatching all of my favorite holiday movies, I thought it might be time for Portland Film Review to get in  the spirit of Christmas list-making. Therefore, I present to you a two-part listicle event ranking my favorite versions of Santa Claus from the silver screen. Why Santa? Well he is the connective cinematic tissue of the season, and it never hurts to get a few extra brownie points during the season when he is working on that big old list. 

Today’s list is Part I and is limited to live action versions of Santa. Part II, coming on Christmas Eve, will cover all animated and stop-motion versions of St. Nick. I chose to separate them because I just see a hard divide to cross between someone bringing Santa to life in costume and make-up versus voice acting overtop of intricate animations. So buckle up the boots and pull on your hat; it’s Santa time. 

10. Peeter Jakobi – Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

This pick is partially about Peeter Jakobi giving a wonderfully unhinged performance as a wild elf that is domesticated into being Santa, but more so about increasing  representation of all the lesser known Christmas horror out there. While most Christmas movies lean into the love and cheer of the season, there is a subgenre that uses the holiday backdrop for spine-chilling exploits, and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is one of the best. Jakobi plays along to great success as the animalistic elf, and while I prefer the jolly versions of Santa Claus, I could not make this list without nodding to the other side of Santa.

9. Tom Cavanaugh – Snow (2004)

Admittedly, Tom Cavanaugh plays a man training to become Santa in Snow, but I love it all the same. He channels a goofiness and heartfelt optimism that smacks more than a little of Jimmy Stewart. Snow is not nearly up to the calibre of the films that Stewart’s invocation brings up, but Cavanaugh rises above the rote qualities of the narrative to provide a fresh interpretation of a Santa-in-training. He is a little nerdy, a bit awkward, but most of all, overflowing with cheer. 

8. Paul Giamatti – Fred Claus (2007)

I truly wish I could have been in the casting meeting where they decided that Paul Giamatti would play feuding brothers that just happen to be Santa and his brother Fred (Vaughan). I do not particularly like this movie, but I do quite enjoy Giamatti in it. His take on Santa is a tired man who is being audited right at the busiest time of year, and Giamatti captures a sense of weary optimism that gives his Santa a surprising ‘everyman’ quality. Plus, he ends up looking the part. 

7. Anna Kendrick – Noelle (2019)

Noelle is a perfectly enjoyable movie, but this pick is almost exclusively because I absolutely love Anna Kendrick. She has a special quality to her that brings joy to every role she slips into, and while I would like to see her do more dramatically complex work in line with her performance in Up in the Air (2009), I will never complain about getting the chance to see her play Santa’s daughter and spruce up the season. She may not become the Santa figure until the end of the film, but her charisma is undeniable, and therefore everything I want to imagine Santa actually being like. 

6. Billy Bob Thornton – Bad Santa (2003)

I know, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is not actually Santa, but let’s make an exception here for the truly absurd concept of Bad Santa. The boozing, womanizing, degenerate vision of a guy down on his luck trying to make money by posing as Santa is an undeniably subversive take on the genre that mostly succeeds because of Thornton. A lot of the humor here has not aged particularly well, but the stuff that does hold up is exclusively because Thornton commits to the bit. Chalk this one under the Santa I want to have a beer with. 

5. Kurt Russell – The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

Thank you to whomever convinced Kurt Rusell to play Santa, because it is precisely what I never knew I needed. Russell is one of the most effortlessly cool actors to ever come out of Hollywood, and that charm translates fully into his performance as the Big Man. He quips one-liners, pulls off action sequences, and even breaks into a musical number when he ends up trapped in jail, sending out more than a few echoes of his role as Elvis in Elvis (1979). There is little in The Christmas Chronicles to recommend except that it is all worth it for Russell’s #cool_santa. 

4. Sir Richard Attenborough – Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

On the whole, this remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is charming, but not quite as memorable as the original. What does stand out is Sir Richard Attenborough’s wholehearted embodiment of Kris Kringle. Of course his age and enviable facial hair help this along, but more important than that is the kindness of his eyes and the elfish energy he brings to every scene. Attenborough’s Santa is one of the first versions I remember seeing on screen, and it has stuck with me to this day. But he is not alone in bringing Christmas miracles to 34th street, which takes us to…

3. Edmund Gwenn – Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Attenborough just cannot compete with the original miracle-maker Edmund Gwenn. With a performance that set the standard for jolliness and Christmas caring, Gwenn’s rendition of Santa is truly the personification of an idealized Christmas season. He encourages everyone on screen, as well as those of us watching, to be loving, thoughtful, and kind. His tenderness is unmatched when it comes to playing Santa in the classic mold of a jolly, red-cheeked, older man who wants nothing more than to spread Christmas cheer. 

2. Ed Asner – Elf (2003)

Ed Asner is true comedy royalty. After a decades-long career bringing laughs to broadcast television and film alike, his role in Elf could easily just have been a phoned-in late career victory lap. That has never been Asner’s style, though. He only has a handful of scenes in a movie that is rightly dominated by Will Ferell, but every year I look forward to Asner’s off-kilter take on St. Nick. He has all the heart and jolliness that the character needs, but with a sarcastic edge that I adore. His deadpan “I’m getting too old for this job” as he and Buddy (Ferrell) whip away from the Central Park Rangers is great fun. Maybe this pick reveals that I skew towards comedy with my favorite Santas, but I have no regrets there, which of course brings us to number one. 

1. Tim Allen – The Santa Clause (1994)

It does not matter how many times I watch The Santa Clause, I belly-laugh every time Tim Allen, on his first run as Santa, has to take a kayak out of his sack. The blend of slapstick and barely contained frustration is fantastic and projects a relatability; I would also probably make a mess and complain if I was suddenly tasked with delivering gifts all over the world. But it is the apt joining of that comedy and the uncynical heart with  Allen’s role that brings this Santa to the top for me. Watching Scott Calvin (Allen) go from a Scrooge stand-in to a fully realized and jovial Santa Claus is a lovely distillation of everything I want from a Santa movie. It gives me humor and heart and sends me off with that warm cozy Christmas feeling. 

Let us know what you think of the ranking by commenting on our Instagram, @portland_film_review, or Facebook, @Portland Film Review. Come back on Christmas Eve for Part II of our Santa ranking, the animated and stop-motion section!

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