By now it's legendary that when It's a Wonderful Life first was released in December of 1946, it was a commercial flop, finishing 1947 in 26th place in terms of box office revenue. People did not take to the story of a distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve.
As George wrestles with his crisis of conscience, his family, including his wife Mary (Donna Reed) pray for him. Their prayers are answered when a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) shows George what a world without him would have looked like and George begins to understand the positive effect he's had on his community and that even though he had set aside his own dreams to care for his family, he truly has a wonderful life.
"No man is a failure who has friends," Clarence helps him realize.
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards but lost Best Picture to The Best Years of Our Lives. In 1974, 28 years after its initial release, the copyright on the film lapsed and stations everywhere were able to air the movie during December, turning what was once deemed a financial failure into a beloved classic. In the '90s NBC purchased the exclusive broadcast rights and still airs the movie every year on Christmas Eve. But thanks to the magic of streaming you now can watch George lasso the moon for Mary as many times as you want leading up to the big day.
But if you are looking to shake up your holiday movie watching game, here are 10 films that are like It's a Wonderful Life in storyline, tone and cast, to watch next.
Best for: Fans of Stewart at his most bumbling romantic
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Released in 1940, Stewart plays a shopkeeper who begins to fall in love over anonymous written correspondence. Little does he know that the object of his affection is actually his co-worker Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). If that plot sounds familiar the movie's premise was the basis for 1998's You've Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The movie, which was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1999, showcases Stewart as the romantic lead who can't quite believe he's fallen in love. Like It's a Wonderful Life, Christmas plays a pivotal role in the movie's time frame.
"Close to perfection — one of the most beautifully acted and paced romantic comedies ever made in this country." — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
Best for: Fans of more feminist approach to a beloved classic
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There are so many versions of this iconic tale by Louisa May Alcott. This 2019 iteration, from director Greta Gertwig, features Saoirse Ronan as Jo March, Emma Watson as Meg March, Florence Pugh as Amy March, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth March. Although set in different centuries, the movie shares a post-war setting with It's a Wonderful Life. Set in the time during and after the Civil War, Jo longs to be a writer, but, like George Bailey, her dreams are often sidelined by family obligations. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards with Jacqueline Durran winning for Best Costume Design. Keep an eye out for a cameo from Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk as the family patriarch, too.
"Gerwig's Little Women demands its viewers reconsider these familiar characters and what we've always assumed they stood for. It doesn't just brim with life, it brims with ideas about happiness, economic realities, and what it means to push against or to hew to the expectations laid out for one's gender." — Alison Wilmore, Vulture
Best for: Fans of Stewart at his most earnest
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It's a Wonderful Life was the third movie Frank Capra and Stewart made together. Seven years before Capra directed Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, the duo paired up for a second time (the first was 1938's You Can't Take It with You) with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart made over 20 movies before Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it was this movie where he plays Jefferson Smith, a senator ready to take on a corrupt political system, that made him a star. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won for Best Original Story. The film was one of the first 25 films inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. Fans of It's a Wonderful Life will recognize Stewart's gift for making impassioned, emotional speeches.
"Demonstrating that the greatest political evil is indifference, this appeal to a world on the verge of war has lost none of its relevance." — David Parkinson, Empire
Best for: Fans of discovering a new black-and-white film to watch every year
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Like It's a Wonderful Life, this 1945 film, from director Peter Godfrey, was released just as World War II was ending. It follows Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) a newspaper writer who uses her column to talk about her loving husband, beautiful baby and their idyllic life on a farm in Connecticut. There's just one problem — none of it is true. When her editor insists she host a Christmas dinner for a returning war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), Elizabeth must scramble to make her fictitious world a reality.
"A thoroughly wacky 1945 screwball comedy that also doubles as a fascinating subversive commentary on conventional gender roles. It's a bit of a hidden gem in the Christmas canon." — Caroline Siede, The A.V. Club
Best for: Those who want a movie to watch with their kids
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There are so many iterations of A Christmas Carol to choose from, but this is the only one that features Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit. The movie takes the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) on a tour of the past, present and future as Scrooge learns he must change his ways. The 1992 film, which was directed by Jim Henson's son Brian Henson, was the first Muppet movie produced after Jim Henson's death. And beginning on Dec. 11, 2022, Disney+ will stream a version of the movie that features the song "When Love is Gone," which was left out when the movie was first released because producers worried the song was too sad.
"If you love Christmas movies, and especially if you have some young family members you wish to share your holiday with, you can't go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol." — Michael Drucker, IGN
Best for: Fans of Christmas classics
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This movie came out in 1954, eight years after It's a Wonderful Life was released, and offers the same kind of comforting story. Like It's a Wonderful Life, the story begins on Christmas Eve, but this time it follows army buddies Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) performing for the troops. It's not the first time Crosby crooned "White Christmas" in a movie — that was in 1942's Holiday Inn when the song won the Academy Award — but it's White Christmas that most people remember. The movie sees everyone coming together to save a beloved Vermont Inn (incidentally the same inn featured in Holiday Inn). White Christmas was the No. 2 movie of 1954 (behind The Caine Mutiny) when it was released.
"Great songs, gentle humour and a dose of syrup which is not to everyone's tastes, but worth buying to keep that Christmas spirit going until next year." — David Parkinson, Empire
It's long believed that It's a Wonderful Life drew inspiration from A Christmas Carol. In this musical take on the Charles Dickens classic, Clint Briggs (Reynolds) is a high powered PR executive who will do anything and everything to get what he wants. That's why this year the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan and played by former NBA player Loren Woods), and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) have decided to make Clint their project. While it's designed to be a feel-good romp in which characters do learn important lessons (and you even get some extra special backstory about the Ghost of Christmas Present), there is a twist ending that fans of It's a Wonderful Life may not see coming.
"More often than not, the stirring tunes and the genuineness of the proceedings help paper over Spirited's rough spots." — Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
Best for: Fans of the Nancy Meyers aesthetic
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Like It's a Wonderful Life, this movie from director Meyers, features protagonists struggling with depression during what is purportedly the happiest time of the year. Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) are both recovering from break-ups during the holiday season. They decide a change of scenery is what they need so they swamp homes—Iris spends Christmas living in Los Angeles while Amanda is off to London. Enter Jack Black and Jude Law as two dashing men who will help them appreciate the true meaning of Christmas.
"This is familiar territory for writer-director Nancy Meyers, Hollywood's queen of the chick flick. Her latest has charming moments and a hopeful message for despondent singles, but it lacks the emotional resonance of Something's Gotta Give and the zaniness of What Women Want." — Ruth Stein, San Francisco Chronicle
Shy and reserved Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah) plays life safe in this 2006 film from director Wayne Wang. In her secret "Book of Possibilities," Georgia only dreams of romance with her kind co-worker Sean (LL Cool J). After a head injury at work, Georgia unexpectedly discovers she only has weeks to live. So, she spends her life savings on a dream vacation in a luxury Czech hotel where she allows herself to indulge in decadent meals, buy ridiculously expensive clothes, and splurge on lavish spa treatments. Along the way she helps her Scrooge of a boss (played by Timothy Hutton) realize the value of kindness. As with George Bailey, it takes a near death experience for Georgia to learn to appreciate her life and the value of her community. The movie was nominated for several Teen Choice awards including "Choice Liplock" for the moment Georgia and Sean admit their feelings for each other.
"This is a picture about learning to take chances, about not waiting until the last minute to recognize our potential." — Stephanie Zacharek, Salon
Best for: Fans of thinking about the road less traveled
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This movie, which was released right before Christmas in 2000, is a reverse It's a Wonderful Life. Unlike George Bailey, Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) choses travel over the love of his life Kate (Tea Leoni). Thirteen years after Jack leaves Kate at the airport in favor of an internship in London, he gets to experience the life that might have been when he encounters an angel-like character named Cash (Don Cheadle) on Christmas Eve. Jack realizes he might have loved a married life with Kate complete with kids and a house in the suburbs. Directed by Brett Ratner, the film was a relative box office success upon release and also won Leoni the Best Actress award at the 2001 Saturn Awards.
"Has the airiness of a well-made souffle, springing delicate small surprises at calibrated intervals." — Ella Taylor, LA Weekly