“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” all around the world right now. Unlike any other holiday, Christmas is widely celebrated across the continents. Some countries like the Philippines even jump-start the season on September 1st!
While everyone is nudged to feel the holiday cheer while getting ready to hibernate, it’s imperative we all stock up on food and plenty of binge-worthy content to survive the winter. American movies and TV series tend to serve up a dizzying array of cloying holiday stories, so you might be ready for more grounded alternatives. For that, we’ve curated a list of films from around the globe that offer a fresh perspective on holiday traditions and a more diverse take on hackneyed stories. It might just give you a new outlook on the universally beloved holiday, one that hopefully opens doors to understanding, tolerance, and respect for other cultures.
For the Kids Table
My Friend Bernard (2007) (South Korea)
This animated film is as instructive as it is delightful, as it teaches kids to face their fears, value friendship, help others in need, and never take other people’s belongings without their permission. It’s also entertaining enough for the grown-ups to watch, a rare feat for a film that’s for the 4+ set.
The story: Sam is a scared-y cat. Almost everything frightens him, even the tiny adorable dog in his neighborhood and the shadows in his room at night. His anxious disposition exacerbates every situation and makes life almost unbearable for him. Everything changes when, out of nowhere, he meets a polar bear named Bernard, who is not afraid of anything. Bernard takes Sam under his wing, and together they embark on epic adventures. Bernard teaches him snowboarding, helps him lose his fear of flying, and most importantly, teaches him how to face his biggest fears with humor.
A charming story with crisp animation, a relatable story, and a reassuring message, My Friend Bernard is everything you need from a holiday film everyone can watch. Where to stream it: Prime Video
Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas (2021) (Britain)
This British stop-motion series and Wallace and Gromit franchise spin-off is a short 30-minute gem that will hook even the smallest family members — thanks to the simplicity of its plot and the captivating animation. Its straightforward story, mischief, and hint of adult humor make this one ideal as a short before-bed treat for the whole family.
The story: The ever clever sheep Shaun is getting excited for Christmas when a farmhouse raid — in pursuit of stocking loot for the Flock — ends with Timmy going missing. Together, they must set out on an adventure to find him. Slapstick, sight gags, skiing, sledding, and the wisdom of its message make it worth the ride. Where to stream it: Netflix
For the Teenagers
Over Christmas (2020) (Germany)
A light and entertaining three episode series that are guaranteed to lift everyone’s mood, what Over Christmas lacks in originality it more than makes up for with its very likable supporting cast and imaginative humor, which arrives in the form of surrealistic daydreams. It also weaves in same-sex relationships in a mature and dignified manner.
The story: Bastian (Luke Mockridge) is a struggling musician whose life gets turned upside down by an audition gone awry. Still reeling, he decides to head home for Christmas to get his head right and mend his bruised ego. To make matters worse, he finds out that his ex-girlfriend is now dating his brother, and as if that wasn’t enough, his parents are holding a big secret that, when revealed, will ultimately change their family dynamics forever. Where to stream it: Netflix
2046 (2004) (Hong Kong)
A highly stylized and enchanting film about love, lust, loss, and repressed emotions, 2046 is a masterpiece for the senses. The film seamlessly blends nostalgia and sci-fi drama to aptly depict a non-linear narrative of interwoven relationships.
The story: A womanizing sci-fi author, Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) writes a novel that is largely set in the future. It features a train that transports passengers to a place of no return, where they can retrieve their memories. While finishing the book, Chow engages in multiple sexual encounters and relationships with mysterious women at the Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. Drawing inspiration from his lovers, he inadvertently blends fiction with reality, and ultimately blurs the line between the past and the future.
While the plot can get a little convoluted — the timeline is jumbled so that the future can make sense of the past — it requires your full, undivided attention to properly connect the dots. Hang in there, though, as it will all be worth it in the end. When all the pieces fall into place, you’ll remember 2046 a visually stunning, well-acted, masterfully directed, and deliberately paced piece of cinema that will surely leave you wanting more. Where to stream it: Prime Video
For the Seniors
Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (1973) (Czech Republic)
One of the most important rules in holiday moviemaking is to make things simple, and the cult Czech classic Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (alternatively known as Three Wishes for Cinderella) adheres to this rule in more ways than one. Unlike the Disney version of the fable, this film is more down-to-earth, less extravagant, and a bit dated — lacking any fancy special effects. Yet its modest production is also its greatest asset, as the realistic visuals and practical set pieces give it a much more homespun appeal, which makes it easier for the viewers to suspend disbelief. The film also features a spellbinding soundtrack that creates warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. No wonder this one is a Christmas staple not just in the Czech Republic but in Norway and Germany as well.
The story: A young woman named Cinderella (Libuše Šafránková) lives a life of servitude in her evil stepmother’s house together with her stepsisters. Sick of being unfairly treated, she sneaks out into the snow-covered forest to escape her reality. One day she bumps into a handsome prince during his hunting party and decides to save a deer from being slaughtered, and the encounter leaves an indelible impression on the prince. Back at home, word gets out that the King is hosting a ball intended for the prince so that he can choose a bride. Fearing that the prince might fall in love with Cinderella, her stepmother hatches a plan to stop her from attending the ball. Instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella gets unexpected help from a merchant who gives her 3 magical hazelnuts that grant wishes, and she must use them wisely. Where to stream it: Mubi
Joyeux Noel (2005) (France)
An Oscar-nominated French film loosely based on a real event, the 1914 Christmas truce that took place at the beginning of World War I, this 2005 war drama delivers a compelling and heartrending tale of hope and mankind’s desperate longing for peace. Historical inaccuracies aside, Joyeux Noel effectively depicts the brutalities of war while underlining the often conflicting beliefs that all sides share. With an excellent script and ingenious cinematography, the film manages to tug at the heartstrings without being mawkish.
The story: In 1914, the world was plunged into World War I, and Europe erupted into chaos. Death and destruction had become part of everyday life, especially for those in the trenches. One fateful Christmas eve, a miracle happened. Warring factions from the Western Front (France, Scotland, and Germany) called an unauthorized and informal truce. The front-line soldiers agreed to peacefully meet at the No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas and seek respite from war. Aptly called the 1914 Christmas truce, the peace and goodwill, unfortunately, did not last. Where to stream it: Prime Video
For the Whole Family
Three Days of Christmas (2019) (Spain)
Four women celebrate the holidays in their family home at three different phases of their lives — as teens, adults, and senior citizens. A slow-burning Spanish family drama, Three Days of Christmas is told over the course of three nearly one-hour episodes, and it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The story: Three sisters named Maria, Adela, and Esther are raised in a loving home deep in the forest, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Together with their parents and grandparents, they live a simple life off the grid. On a frigid Christmas day, the sisters encounter a fugitive and his daughter in the woods, and the man pleads with them to hide his daughter from the police before fleeing into the forest. The incident leaves the entire family shaken and conflicted. Together, they must make hard choices to honor the man’s request and most importantly, protect the idyllic way of life they’ve created deep in the woods.
At it’s core, it’s a gut-wrenching story that illustrates what people are willing to sacrifice to protect their families, and the characters are captivating and believable, especially the young actresses, who complement each other like real siblings. Prepare for a three-generation watch that’s introspective and hefty, but never heavy-handed. Where to stream it: Netflix
Parts Unknown (2016) (Philippines)
In the season seven premiere of the series, Anthony Bourdain, the late television personality, celebrity chef, bestselling author, and travel documentarian, traveled to the Philippines during the Christmas season in a trip he considered “very personal.” ’He wanted to investigate the plight of the overseas Filipino workers (the country’s biggest export) and understand why they leave their families behind in search of greener pastures. It was personal to him because he mentioned that his own home was also enriched by a Filipina nanny named Vangie, who had taken care of his daughter since she was a child.
Bourdain stated in the episode that he was not making a documentary about the country, because in his own words, “How could it be? There are over 7000 islands in the Philippine archipelago and I’m pretty sure I’ll die ignorant of most of them.” Perhaps it’s foreshadowing, but he achieved something better. It’s one of the most poignant and heartfelt documentaries ever made about the Philippines — not just by a foreigner but by anyone. By putting the spotlight on the people, he provided a rare, unfiltered glimpse into the heart of the country and showed why, even in the face of adversities, Filipinos still find a reason to smile…and, of course, sing! Have a box of tissues ready because there will be tears!
The story: The episode showcased the story of an elderly woman named Aurora, who is back in the country after working in the United States as a nanny for 30 years. Bourdain revealed that one of the show’s producers (Erik Osterholm) was in fact, raised by Aurora for over 20 years. The episode takes us strolling with them through the crowded streets of Manila, dining in Jollibee (the Philippines’ answer to Mcdonalds), drinking halo-halo, and attending several corporate Christmas parties. Bourdain also tags along with a local cover band, who show him how adobo (the Philippine national dish) is properly cooked. The show concludes with a heartfelt tribute to Aurora that you will just have to see. Where to stream it: HBO Max
For the “Found Family” Watch
Tokyo Godfathers (2003) (Japan)
For a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, this animated Japanese film does something few of its Western counterparts accomplish: it delves deep into the meaning of the holiday season. It was created by the late visionary Satoshi Kon, and anyone familiar with his work would never expect him to make a grounded animated Christmas film, but the result is a masterclass in storytelling. Tokyo Godfathers is a story about inclusivity, second chances, selflessness, and kinship with nuanced characters with fascinating backstories. It’s moving and funny and the perfect film to watch with friends, as it’s about a found family that, despite their circumstances, manage to brim with the holiday spirit.
The story: An unconventional homeless trio comprised of a middle-aged alcoholic gambler Gin (Toru Emori), troubled transvestite Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), and teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) functions as a family to survive on the streets of Tokyo. While dumpster diving for food on Christmas Eve, they find an abandoned infant. With no clue as to the baby’s identity or who her parents were, Gin and Miyuki decide to turn over the infant to the police, while Hana refuses to part ways with her. The trio is forced to face their differences and confront their past to find an answer to their predicament. Where to stream it: Prime Video
For the Solo Watch
Home for Christmas (2019) (Norway)
An exquisitely crafted drama series about the challenges facing single women during the holidays and the extreme lengths that they’re willing to go to appease their families, Home for Christmas is a delightful story about broadening horizons, accepting shortcomings, and being thankful for everything that life has to offer…even the unsavory offerings. It’s rife with twists and awkward moments that will make viewers laugh, cringe, and even cry. The writing is superb, the characters are properly fleshed out, and the English dubbing is exceptional.
The story: Johanne (Ida Elise Broch) is a successful nurse in her 30s. She has everything: A great career, a kickass apartment, and a loving family. What else does she need? Well, as her family constantly points out, she doesn’t have a boyfriend. During dinner, she becomes overwhelmed by their nagging and decides to lie to them that she is in fact, currently dating. Her plan backfires when her parents ask her to bring the non-existent boyfriend home for Christmas Eve. What ensues are her hastily conceived and ill-advised attempts to find a date. Will she make it in time…or will everything blow up in her face? Home for Christmas is easily one of the most binge-able shows available right now. And there’s two seasons to fill your break. Where to stream it: Netflix
How to Ruin Christmas (2020) South Africa
South Africa has its own single-for-the-holidays series on Netflix, with three quick seasons involving four family spectacles: Christmas, a wedding, a baby shower, and a funeral, all of them lavish. The story pivots around Tumi, “the disappointment” of the family. She’s a still-single bridesmaid who manages to stir up a tornado wherever she goes, delivering the drama with the comedy, but ultimately having more fun than any of the “adjusted” family members.
The story: In the first season, a Tswana woman named Beauty (Tubi’s sister) is getting married to a Zulu man (Sbu) in a three-day traditional wedding extravaganza. Despite their different classes and ethnicities, they truly love each other. Their families, however, do not. Sbu’s father is a high- profile government minister, which means there’s a camera crew capturing every moment of their Four Season nuptials. His wife considers the bride-to-be’s family beneath their stature. (Beauty and Tubi were raised by a single mom whose husband left when they were young.)
While it has all the ingredients of a dysfunctional family holiday comedy, How to Ruin Christmas brings the added intrigue of dropping us into a traditional culture that few get to experience, and the vibrant outfits, ceremonies, bride price negotiations, and rituals will fascinate as much as they entertain. Where to stream it: Netflix
So there you have it—the best international holiday movies and shows to watch this season. There are still plenty of hidden gems out there that are just waiting in the obscure corners of the internet to be discovered. Explore at your own risk. Happy streaming and have yourself a merry little international holiday season!