It is probably not surprising to readers of this blog, given that I have spent a large portion of my adult life writing about Dawson’s Creek twenty years after it ended, but I also really, really love holiday romantic comedies—despite the fact that the vast majority of them end up as disappointments. The pinnacle of the genre (which is While You Were Sleeping, and yes I will fight you on this) is so good that I’ve been left forever chasing the dragon, looking for other movies that are perfect to curl up on the couch with in December with a box of chocolates or an obliging husband, even though it often ends up with me watching some garbled mess of offensive stereotypes, barely-funny “jokes” and (worst of all) no chemistry between the leads.
Well, it seems that Netflix and Hulu have recently realized that there are millions of people out there who are, like me, willing to try pretty much anything in this genre, and proceeded to do what they always do: pour their oodles of money into any project with a remote possibility of success in the genre they’ve decided is currently profitable.
Now there is such a plethora of offerings to choose from, it’s hard to know which one has potential! So, since it’s Christmas Eve and maybe you, like me, would like to watch something good tonight, I am ranking the ones I’ve watched. This is by no means a scientific list, because I haven’t systematically watched everything available. I just watched the ones that looked like they might be good. (We will see later that I in fact am not good at judging this.)
Since it’s always more fun to talk about the really bad movies, I’m doing this list the opposite way from most listicles: we’ll start with the winner, and work backwards to the losers.
1. Single All the Way
The perennially single Peter (Michael Urie), tired of his family’s pressure to find a man, brings his extremely handsome roommate Nick home for Christmas. But before the two of them can acknowledge their chemistry, his mother sets him up on a blind date with an equally handsome guy who just happens to live in Peter’s hometown, where he’s dying to move back to.
Why it’s #1
Michael Urie and Philemon Chambers, who plays Nick, have a quiet but appealing chemistry (“quiet but appealing” actually describes Nick’s entire vibe, which is an unusual and interesting choice). The characters are quirky without being caricatures, and Peter’s big family, bustling with love and internal gossip and inside jokes, actually makes you feel like you’re sitting in on someone else’s warm, welcoming family Christmas dinner. Jennifer Coolidge, of Legally Blonde “bend-and-snap” fame, plays Peter’s cool aunt, which is just a delight.
The movie makes a feint at being a “fake-relationship” rom-com, where the characters have to pretend to be together and then actually fall in love. Sterling examples of this trope include Netflix’s best rom-com ever, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. However, at the last moment, Nick himself loses courage and the movie becomes a simple story of two people who need to sort out their feelings for each other despite a romantic rival being thrown in the mix. The obstacles in the couple’s way err on the side of low-stakes, if anything. So if the movie has a flaw it’s that it’s not super exciting; on the other hand, we’re talking Christmas rom-coms here, so it’s not like you expect to be in real suspense. And it’s still gratifying when the inevitable ending does arrive.
Is it as good as While You Were Sleeping? Uh, no, nothing is. But it’s really sweet and actually funny. You will finish it with positive feelings about romantic love and familial love, and while that seems like faint praise, the same cannot be said about all the other movies on this list. Also, though, this movie is steeped in the urban gay culture and references that Peter and Nick share. It felt authentic, and it gave the movie so much context and texture; I loved feeling like I was getting a peek into two real (and likeable) people’s lives.
2. The Happiest Season
Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are happily dating—until Harper invites Abby home to her snooty parents’ for Christmas and makes Abby pretend to be her roommate. Abby ends up sleeping in the basement, and getting drunk with Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza), while she waits for Harper to be ready to be honest about their relationship.
Why It’s #2
This movie seemed like my dream movie. I will watch anything with Kristen Stewart in it, and also anything with Aubrey Plaza. Plus, to round out the cast, Harper’s family includes Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, and Victor Garber (another man I love in everything he does); and the movie was directed by Clea Duvall who I’ve been obsessed with since I saw But I’m a Cheerleader. And it’s a holiday rom-com! I can’t even describe to you how excited I was for this to come out. I watched the trailer half a dozen times before it came out. And then I think we watched it on the night it premiered.
And… it was good! Look, if we were ranking movies by quality, this movie would be well above Single All the Way. The characters are real and human and complex, the writing smart and funny, and the obstacles in the way of true love are real and high-stakes without being cliched or overblown.
But … the wrong couple ends up together at the end. There is one pairing in this movie with ridiculously good chemistry and an incredibly sweet rapport, and they don’t end up together! And when it comes to romantic comedy, that’s a cardinal sin. So definitely watch The Happiest Season, but be prepared to be as romantically disappointed as a single woman at the beginning of a clichéd holiday rom-com. (And there’s probably a 50% chance you’ll be fine with the ending! According to a scientific survey I just performed based on the number of fanfics about each couple, the internet is split almost exactly in half on this question.)
3. The Princess Switch
I mean, it’s pretty clear from the title, right? Vanessa Hudgens plays both a rebellious princess and a sassy baker. They switch places for Reasons, and fall in love with each other’s love interests.
Why it’s #3
Vanessa Hudgens is always charming in everything she does, her two leading men are very charming too, and there is nothing particularly offensive about this movie. I watched it about a year ago and I don’t remember much about it, which is its own recommendation, because I think I’ll be mad about the final two entries on this list FOREVER. I did find that there was little in the way of actual romantic tension, especially between Vanessa Hudgens and the prince, played by Sam Palladio. Everything was so obvious, and both couples marched along cheerily towards the preordained parallel ending. That can be satisfying if that’s what you want in a movie, but I’ll never rewatch it — I need that romantic tension!
To summarize: It was fine. If you watch it, you probably won’t feel that you’ve completely wasted two hours of your life. I’ve heard some bananas things about the next two, which almost makes me think that they’d be more worth watching (there’s a third Vanessa Hudgens? And she’s a villain? Did someone hire the Riverdale writers for this franchise?).
A bitter, defensive woman named Sloane (Emma Roberts) who thinks all men are evil commitmentphobes and a bitter, defensive man named Jackson (Luke Bracey) who thinks all women are crazy stalkers decide to be each other’s “holidates.” In other words, they accompany each other to various holidays in order to avoid being alone while also avoiding actual commitment. When they inevitably catch feelings, whatever will they do?!
Why it’s #4
Firstly, the characters suck. Sloane is a sort of run-of-the-mill modern-gal commitmentphobe who’s supposed to be “witty” and instead veers right into being an asshole for no reason, like getting mad at Jackson for taking too long in the line at the mall ahead of her. And she makes fun of his Australian accent behind his back, so she’s xenophobic, too. Meanwhile, Jackson is just a straight-up misogynist who has decided all women are crazy because he dated one woman who dared to … buy him pants? … after giving him a blowjob? And he’s mad because, no joke, he didn’t get her a present. Sometimes you think that Hollywood movies are getting so “woke” it’s almost like it’s not cool to be a feminist anymore… and then you see drivel like this and realize that no, a whole lot of people are still making a whole lot of money off of bullshit stereotypes like this.
Secondly, it’s just unpleasant to watch. This movie was in some ways better than I expected, in that I expected something bland and cheesy (based on nothing more than the title) and I instead received something bitter and aggressive, which I mildly prefer. But it went way too aggressive. There is diarrhea and an accidental public flashing. I could’ve gotten on board with the flashing, but why do so many rom-coms involve diarrhea? I mean, I get it: having diarrhea in your movie telegraphs, This love is REAL. It’s not like MOVIE love where everything is sunshine and rainbows and the characters never so much as burp. These people love each other and they also poop, that’s how you know this is real life! But now diarrhea in rom-coms has become its own cliché, so this movie is far from being as original as it thinks it is.
And in another supposed rebellion against rom-com cliches, Sloane and Jackson tell everyone that they’re fake-dating. (OK, I’m not sure if it’s everyone or just some people, because TBH I was watching this on a treadmill and only using about half my brain to pay attention. But this script didn’t exactly seem to be aimed at people who want to use all their brains to watch a movie, so I think it was a fair choice and I still feel 100% qualified to write this pan.) The point is, there isn’t even the enjoyable tension of watching them act out a lie and realizing it’s the truth. It’s just a movie about jerks having trouble starting a relationship because they’re jerks.
On the other hand, Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey have decent chemistry and the movie, on the whole, makes sense, which puts it above…
5. Love Hard
A young woman gets catfished by a lonely nerd, then pretends to be his girlfriend in front of his family while also using him to get insider info on how to woo the hot guy whose picture he originally lured her with. No, seriously, that is the premise.
Also, she loves Die Hard and believes it is the best Christmas movie ever made. I point this out because the movie obviously thought it was important enough to nod to in the title. I will have more thoughts in my rant below. (Caution: there are spoilers, so if you are actually planning to watch this unabashed travesty against filmmaking and Christmas, read at your own risk.)
Why it’s #5
Love Hard is so bad that I wrote this entire post just to have an excuse to complain about how bad it was. It is so bad that I have complained to pretty much everyone I knew about it in every other venue as well, including a WhatsApp group of college roommates who never asked my opinion, my parents who were never gonna watch it in the first place, and every friend I’ve seen in person in the last month. It is SO BAD, you guys.
Let’s start with Nina Dobrev’s character, Natalie. She’s a struggling blogger living in LA, and her main problem is that she’s gone on a million failed dates as fodder for her blog but is now convinced she’s old and will never find love. Naked desperation based on outdated ideas of women becoming completely unappealing at 30! What a great character motivation!
Now let’s talk about Jimmy O. Yang’s character, Josh, the lonely nerd. He’s a straight-up catfisher, which is already, you know, not great. But then also, the reason Natalie originally falls for him (and the thing that makes her realize they’re supposed to be together at the end) is his oh-so-original profile, which actually starts with “passionate about life and all things outdoors” (gee, passionate about life? You don’t say! How original) and then says, “Looking for a woman who is spontaneous and drama-free,” which everyone knows is how men announce to women that they are assholes. (To translate: What they mean by spontaneous is, “If you expect me to make plans more than an hour in advance, I’ll accuse you of being uptight.” And what they mean by drama-free is, “Whenever there’s a problem in the relationship, I will blame it on you being irrational and loving drama, even if I clearly caused it by being rude, unfaithful, or flaky.” The word drama is low-key a sexist dogwhistle.)
I mean, this profile is so bad that I assumed the lesson Natalie was going to learn at the end was to stop falling for such obvious sexist tropes. Spoiler: that is not the lesson she learns. The movie actually thinks this garbage profile full of clichés indicates a man is worth falling in love with. And the horribly boring banter that they exchange before meeting in person, like arguments about how one of them hates Die Hard and the other one loves it, is I guess supposed to indicate that they have a true connection, or something? I don’t know.
Now let’s talk about Darren Barnet’s character, Tag. When Natalie shows up to Josh’s house, realizes she’s been catfished, and then spots Tag at a bar, she thinks it’s fate because the guy whose picture she was catfished by has suddenly appeared. But it’s not fate! Tag is there because Josh catfished Natalie using a picture of someone he knew—and she knows this—and it’s a tiny town in upstate New York with a population of like 500. Of course Natalie would run into Tag! It has nothing to do with fate or love, and the only remarkable thing about it is that he’s hot, which is clearly why she actually wants him.
All of this happens in the first half hour or so. At this point, Natalie agrees to be Josh’s fake girlfriend to satisfy his parents, and in exchange he agrees to tell her what he knows about Tag so that she can pretend to be the kind of girl Tag would like, i.e. someone who likes rock climbing and Thoreau. And honestly it’s so shallow and stupid that it almost makes Natalie seem too shallow for Josh, even though Josh catfished her and uses the word “drama-free” non-ironically, which clearly indicates that Josh sucks.
I could go on and on, but I’ll just leave you with this: this movie asks you to believe that Natalie is a vegetarian writer who’s too feminist for Thoreau and that she’s obsessed with Die Hard, a movie that could not be more old-fashioned in its notions of what masculinity and manhood are. It is completely on trend with how utterly inconsistent and unbelievable the entire script is. Also, they could have massively improved this movie with one small tweak. Both the men hate Die Hard—but if Natalie had met Tag in the bar and, instead of deciding it’s fate because she likes his handsome face as much in person as she did online, what if they had a deep conversation about how much they both love Die Hard and that’s what convinces her they’re meant to be? It would still be stupid, but it would have been about 1000% less stupid than what we actually got, which is a completely inconsistent character note that doesn’t actually advance the plot.
The only thing I liked about this movie, other than the fact that it started with Natalie pulling a Christmas tree into her sad single lady apartment in a clear nod to While You Were Sleeping, was that it made Jimmy O. Yang seem legit sexy. This is cool because he’s a somewhat not-classically-handsome Asian man, which is not typically Hollywood’s go-to demographic for leading men. And let’s face it, it’s impressive for a movie to make anyone look sexy when they’re being compared to Darren Barnet, otherwise known as Paxton Hall-Yoshida from never Have I Ever. (Janes always says that Nina Dobrev can have chemistry with anyone, and that probably has something to do with it, though TBH her character was such a black hole of inexplicable choices that I really didn’t see chemistry between them per se.) Hooray Asian representation! (Darren Barnet is part Asian too!) But boo, shitty movies that make no sense.