My 10 favorite Hallmark Channel 'Countdown to Christmas' movies
Some people constantly play Christmas music in their car in around-the-clock in November and December - I'm the same, but with TV and the Hallmark Channel. I am an unapologetic lover of Hallmark Channel's 'Countdown to Christmas.'
This was not always the case. Several years ago, I scoffed at Hallmark's holiday offerings. Each movie looked indistinguishable from the next. Everyone bakes and everyone wears sweaters. There’s some weird ‘meet cute’ and usually some friction between the two leads. Most movies even star the same stable of a dozen or so lead actors. At some point, I started hate-watching one movie. Then a few more. And before I knew it, I had watched several dozen.
I then discovered something amazing: all the Hallmark Channel movies seemed formulaic … because there literally was a Hallmark Channel formula - a mandated list of rules to all their movies. The at-first-blush homogeneity is by design. Be funny and not sad. Only hugging and kissing - not cheating and definitely nothing perverted. "All stories must have happy endings."
This was a revelation - it meant that all Hallmark Channel movies played by the same rules. The "good" ones had the most fun with their limited toolkit, while the "bad" ones were lazy and leaned on the worst trappings of “what makes a Hallmark" movie. This simple and obvious revelation changed the way I looked at "Countdown to Christmas" movies - and made consuming the sugary marathon fun.
Watching tons of these movies warmed me to their likability and the mandated guidelines finally gave them definition - criteria to distinguish the genuinely heartwarming stories from the saccharine, thin movies.
With all that said. here are my 10 favorite Hallmark Channel ‘Countdown to Christmas’ movies:
Seems right to kick off this list with a movie starring Candace Cameron Bure, the de facto face of 'Countdown to Christmas' in recent years. She’s a wedding expert who envisions the perfect wedding – but she’s obviously with the wrong guy. (Funny sidenote, the “wrong guy” is played by an actor who is regularly cast as the “wrong guy” in several Hallmark movies. He’s practically made a career of being the “man who the girl shouldn’t be with”.) Obviously she’s forced to road trip with a guy who no longer believes in love. Two polar opposite characters falling in love is most Hallmark movies, but the movie chugs along nicely due its “welp, we’re stuck together” road trip angle.
Yep, another Candance Cameron movie – this time it’s just a Hallmark mashup of “Northern Exposure” … and Santa Clause? This time she’s a med student with dreams of becoming a big-time doctor – but finds herself stuck working general practice in a small Alaskan town. The “guy” here is just some guy (you’ll find the male leads rarely matter in these movies), but the odd quirk of this movie is Brian Doyle-Murray as some Santa-looking guy who runs a toy factory … who also owns reindeer … in a town that isn’t on any map. The commitment to the “this might be the North Pole” weird b-plot makes this one an odd little delight.
By now you’re thinking “does Hallmark cast anyone besides Candance Cameron Bure?” No. The answer is no. She’s once again an uptight, career-driven executive – but this time she’s out to destroy a cozy, family-run mountain resort! Her father/boss (Alan Thicke) dispatches her to check out their new property – wherein her business interests are warmed over by the sweet, down-to-Earth people who manage the lodge.
Finally a movie *not* starring DJ Tanner! Brooke D'Orsay is a (wait for it) career-focused TV producer who must find the perfect Christmas tree for her channel’s annual big city tree unveiling. Not unlike “Let It Snow,” she re-learns the holiday spirit of loved ones, by spending weeks in a small town as she tries to convince some guy to give up his family tree. D'Orsay’s unyielding pluck is the key to this film’s charm.
At long last, a movie where both lead characters matter! Jaime King and some guy are strangers who make a pact to pose as a couple to get through the holidays. This is one of the rare, purely character driven ‘Countdown to Christmas’ movies, and it’s nice to see a story compelled by the two leads dynamically interacting – and not merely have the story pushed along by an endless series of arbitrary/random plot points.
Henry-fricking-Winkler. End of discussion. He has enough delightful heart to make you forget that the “wrong guy” is ridiculously arch almost to the point of parody – and the fact that the girl-with-it-all is willing to completely upend her life after spending a few days in the general vicinity a patently good guy. Pull Winkler out of this movie, and it’s preposterous even by Hallmark Channel standards.
The entire gimmick of this one: Meredith Hagner is a girl who starts receiving gifts from her “one true love,” all with the theme from the 12 days of Christmas. She, along with her best friend – clearly the guy she’s really meant to be with – try to figure out who is sending her the gifts. The reason why this one is this list – the ending has a rather nice and unexpected twist … one that actually fits completely organically within the greater story.
Yes, more than one Hallmark movie uses the 'she's marrying an actual prince' gimmick - but none of those other movies have Jane Seymour as the regal yet sharply disapproving mother figure. Also, it’s a nice change of pace to not have the story focus on “will they or won’t they” (you know they will), and have fun with a character who isn’t entirely happy prince charming found his princess.
Set aside the mountain of absurd coincidences required to make this story happen at all, and what’s nice about this small little flick is how focused the story actually is. The fate of the town isn’t at stake. The future of a business isn’t hanging in the balance. For as rather high-concept the basic premise is, the heart of this film is Alicia Witt’s book store owner falling in love not just with some nice guy – but his family and their tightly-knit home.
The chemistry between leads Chyler Leigh and Paul Campbell is the absolute key to why this might be my favorite overall Hallmark holiday movie in the vast catalog. Their back-and-forth actually has some crackle and pop, as their characters actually feel genuinely adversarial as they compete for a main job. Their bristling banter is playful but barbed, without feeling forced or insincere. And it’s a small thing: but it’s one of the very few Hallmark movies set in a major city.