Rockin’ around the Christmas tree at the Christmas movie stop! That’s right: You’ve reached the North Pole of movie recommendations, where our toymakers (read: film critics) have been hard at work sifting through titles all 2022 long.
It’s easy to think of holiday movies as the one area of cinema audiences have permission to practically forget about the rest of the year. With a limited window between Thanksgiving and Christmas, most film lovers can only make time for a handful of seasonally appropriate screenings before New Year’s snaps our attention back to awards season and the big Best Picture contenders. Plus, with new yuletide offerings hitting theaters and streaming platforms in a steady flurry throughout December, there’s only so much time to enjoy Christmas classics while staying current on new holiday fare.
Selection is made even more complex when you get into the Christmas genre’s inexplicable tendency toward gatekeeping. It’s a frustrating reality of the movie machine that some titles, for no real discernible reason, get saddled with debates that have relatively little to do with their stories. Such is the case with John McTiernan’s “Die Hard”: the 1988 action-packed crowdpleaser starring Bruce Willis that’s become synonymous with the contentious classification of so-called “Christmas movies” and the separately defined “movies set at Christmas.”
In curating this list, we’ve disregarded that delineation, allowing Stanley Kubrick’s psychosexual thriller “Eyes Wide Shut” and Bob Clark’s slasher “Black Christmas” their rightful spots alongside traditional TV specials, from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The 25 best Christmas movies, as defined here, make up a collection of films celebrating and/or challenging the holiday while using its motifs and themes to explore the light and dark sides of the human spirit. Selections have been ranked with both Christmas relevance and overall film quality in mind.
Honorable mentions include the following, listed chronologically: “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940); “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944); “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945); “Scrooged” (1988); “Batman Returns” (1992); “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993); “The Ref” (1994); “Enemy of the State” (1998); “Serendipity” (2001); “Four Christmases” (2008); and “Klaus” (2019).
Check out IndieWire’s guide to 15 of the best Thanksgiving movies.
25. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964)
Considering the prevalence of his origin story, it’s a wonder Rudolph hasn’t enjoyed a more successful run in film. Sure, Santa’s ninth reindeer appears in some form or another for most of the big man’s movies; even “The Nightmare Before Christmas” gives Jack’s ghost dog Zero an excuse to cosplay as his yuletide counterpart. But as far as standalone Rudolph outings go, nothing has surpassed the 1964 stop-motion TV special (first aired on NBC) and the instantly recognizable franchise it would inspire.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” joyfully expands on its namesake poem (and song!) with a story introducing new characters, from love interest Clarice to the Abominable Snow Monster. That tradition would continue in prequel and sequel films, most notably with the iconic Heat Miser in 1974’s “The Year Without Santa Claus.” Still, this is one instance where, if you only have time to enjoy a single film, the original can’t be beat for its hand-crafted care and inherent nostalgia.
24. “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (2020)
Netflix has attempted more than its fair share of Christmas movies, including Best Animated Feature nominee “Klaus” in 2019. But “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” stands out from the streaming service’s crowd — offering everything from a Dolly Parton musical to Kurt Russell as Santa — with writer/director David Talbert’s delightfully overstuffed celebration of holiday excess.
A blistering race through Christmas spectacle, musical bangers, top-notch acting, and maybe (read: definitely) one too many steampunk-inspired visual effects, “Jingle Jangle” makes for a snow globe-like display akin to a modern spin on the chorus line musical extravaganzas of yesteryear. Originally envisioned as a stage production, the 2020 straight-to-streaming film follows Forest Whittaker’s inventor character as he bonds with his brilliant granddaughter, portrayed by Madalen Mills. Together, they pull off a harrowing rescue mission, unravel a dastardly plot, and find new hope in the holiday spirit.
23. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966) and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000)
For the only tie on this list, we offer up two adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (knowing full well there are at least two other features you could consider that don’t make the cut).
The 1957 children’s story was adapted first by “Looney Tunes” artist Chuck Jones and his longtime collaborator Ben Washam in a brilliantly crafted animated special, which aired on CBS in December 1966. This version boasts Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch: a performance that would shape the humbug-turned-unlikely hero for decades to come.
Channelling Karloff’s rendering and the curling physicality of Jones and Washam’s illustrative design, Jim Carrey totally embodies the fabled mean one in Ron Howard’s live-action outing from 2000. The aughts favorite is perhaps most celebrated for its quotable lines (“Am I just eating because I’m bored?”) but is infamous for its intense prosthetics and costuming, which Carrey reportedly despised. Still, it earned three Oscar nominations and won for Best Makeup.
22. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
Winona Ryder’s red-headed Kim dancing in the flurries of “snow” beneath Edward’s ice sculpture. That unforgettable image is what takes Tim Burton’s 1990 suburban fairytale from a movie that just so happens to be a Christmas to the status of bonafide holiday classic.
Aesthetically wrapped in the magic of the season but with a plot too often devoid of goodwill towards men, “Edward Scissorhands” at once weaponizes the annual stratification that comes with “My consumerist nightmare is better than your consumerist nightmare!” discourse while also allowing its characters to take refuge in the season’s pockets of joy. Featuring a memorable appearance by Vincent Price as Edward’s inventor, the film starring Johnny Depp intertwines a fairly predicated story of an outcast thrust into society with a unique character concept that elevates the rest of his sweet and sorrowful saga.
21. “Little Women” (2019)
Unafraid to challenge the filmmakers who came before her, Greta Gerwig remade “Little Women” in 2019: the triumphant sixth film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s well-loved tale of four sisters growing up in Massachusetts at the turn of the century. The Best Picture nominee reunited its writer/director with “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan as Jo alongside Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk played the girls’ parents with Timothée Chalamet rounding out the cast as love interest Laurie. Oh, did we mention Meryl Streep?
In the most literal sense, “Little Women” is a Christmas film because it sets two pivotal scenes on the holiday. Alcott’s book famously opens with the girls grappling with a meager celebration on Christmas morning: an economic consequence of the American Civil War raging in the background. The second holiday in their story underlines the loss of one of the March sisters in a heartbreaking sequence that marks one of Gerwig’s most successful tragedies. But more than that, the film is brimming with love and sisterly affection as winter provides a fleeting backdrop to the heroines’ individual weighing of sorrow, acceptance, spirit, and defiance.
20. “Bad Santa” (2003)
The Grinch may reign supreme as cinema’s most instantly recognizable Christmas scoundrel. But Billy Bob Thornton’s titular “Bad Santa,” a conman named Willie T. Soke who once a year teams up with his partner Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) to steal from shopping malls in a dastardly Santa scam, easily ranks among the top five holiday movie hooligans.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, this 2003 dark comedy achieves the kind of naughty fun later films (think the aptly named “A Bad Moms Christmas”) would attempt, but with an earnest nastiness that heightens its humor to near-flying sleigh heights. As Willie’s myriad addictions and intense selfishness threatens the criminals’ partnership — against a backdrop of scheming from a cast that includes Lauren Tom and Bernie Mac, plus the much-celebrated performance of then 8-year-old Brett Kelly — the explosively violent fallout forces the titular coal receiver to reconsider his life. “Bad Santa” was eventually followed up 2016’s “Bad Santa 2,” which offers some of the same fun but is significantly more clumsy than the first.
19. “Babes in Toyland” (1934)
On par with “The Music Box” and “Way Out West” as a matter of family fun, this Laurel and Hardy musical from 1934 adapts parts of Victor Herbert’s 1903 stage production for a fantastic fairytale adventure revolving around a home mortgage dispute (yes, really). The film’s slap-happy concoction of over-the-top physicality, show-stopping musical numbers, and recognizable storybook characters – including the big man himself, Santa — makes this comedy of errors in Toyland, also known as “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” the best version to date. There have been multiple “Babes in Toyland” movies made for TV, as well as Disney’s 1961 theatrical feature and 1997’s animated take from MGM.
18. “Last Holiday” (2006)
“Last Holiday” wouldn’t stand out in the metaphoric rom-com Christmas tree lot without shining star Queen Latifah perched atop its scraggly story. When a terminally ill woman discovers her health insurance won’t cover the price of a necessary operation (seriously dark, but that’s American healthcare for you!), she decides to blow the last of her money on a solo vacation to the Czech Republic.
With LL Cool J as her strapping love interest, Latifah’s Georgia breathes endless life into a wintery adventure that sees her new outlook seriously confusing hotel staff and guests. A case of mistaken identity (with an extra layer of irony, once you know the film’s ending) leads Georgia down a bow and holly-adorned adventure of fine dining, mud masks, snowboarding, and pissing off Timothy Hutton’s pompous antagonist that’s nothing if not fun.
17. “The Holiday” (2006)
Before the (surprisingly demanding?) era of Airbnb, swapping homes for Christmas break provided a romantic premise for Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday.” Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz star as a Brit and an American — both spinning in the wake of infidelity in their relationships — who agree to stay in one another’s homes for the last two weeks of December. Once landed in Los Angeles and London respectively, the women run headlong into two aughts rom-com plots: prepared to their most satisfyingly saccharine.
Jude Law plays opposite Diaz as a handsome book editor reeling from the loss of his late wife and struggling to cope with single parenthood. Back in the States, Jack Black charms Winslet as a movie score composer whose affable charisma would make him an obvious love interest, if he wasn’t already taken. Like a crushed down “Love Actually,” “The Holiday” hits familiar beats but keeps the story fresh with its four-hander structure.
16. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989)
National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise consists of four films starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. (There’s five if you count the 2015 reboot with Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, and six if you count the straight-to-video spinoff “Christmas Vacation 2”: a Randy Quaid vehicle from 2003 that barely makes it out of the metaphoric parking lot.)
While there are merits to each of these harebrained family trips/events — particularly the original 1983 outing to Wally World directed by the late Harold Ramis — few would deny that writer/producer John Hughes and director Jeremiah S. Chechik’s “Christmas Vacation” is a top-of-the-tree, crowning achievement for the series. Reprising their parts as Clark and Ellen Griswold, Chase and D’Angelo are joined by the best ensemble cast the franchise ever saw with a sprawling family that’s only sometimes lovable but always believable. The 1985 comedy boasts supporting performances from then-kid actors Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki — the best Griswold kids ever cast — as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the Griswolds’ memorably awful neighbors. (“Why is the carpet all wet, Todd?” “I don’t know, Margo.”)
15. “Black Christmas” (1974)
Appearing on IndieWire’s list of the best feminist horror movies ever made, this historic, final girl-defining slasher was directed by Bob Clark. Yes, that Bob Clark: the director behind the family favorite “A Christmas Story” among others. “Black Christmas” and “A Christmas Story” are tonally disparate projects, to be sure. Still, you’ll find a familiar glow akin to the Parker family’s Christmas tree lights framing plenty of frames in the the earlier horror flick: a warm halo around the suspense – and carnage — still to come.
Set at a sorority house during the holidays, “Black Christmas” stars Olivia Hussey as protagonist Jess. When menacing phone calls turn to bumps in the night and finally someone turns up dead, our heroine is forced to confront a killer lurking closer than she thinks. With a seriously vexing conclusion — that’s effective but still maddening — “Black Christmas” is best saved for those willing to weather a yuletide nightmare only to come up with metaphoric coal come the ending.
14. “Die Hard” (1988)
What do NYPD detective John McClane and classic holiday singer Bing Crosby have in common? They’ll both be home for Christmas. John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” chronicles the ill-fated reunion of Bruce Willis’ starring action hero and his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s Christmas party in Los Angeles. McClane’s plans to win his wife back come undone when a high-stakes heist disguised as a terrorist attack takes over the festivities thanks to Alan Rickman’s notorious villain Hans Gruber.
At its core, “Die Hard” is a tale of redemption. Sure, he’s not as on-the-nose naughty as the Grinch or Scrooge, but McClane is paying for past mistakes through the hellish ordeal that unfolds before/beneath/beside/above him in an explosive act of absolution. Even more memorable is the story of Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), an LAPD officer whose history on the force motivates the film’s heroic climax. If that worthy Christmas message isn’t reason enough for you to check it out, then trust that the script is full of holiday gems: from saccharine platitudes (“It’s Christmas, Theo! It’s the time of miracles…”) to season’s greetings (“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers!”)
13. “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s final movie is unlike any other of the holly-jolly titles on this list, but there’s no denying the late filmmaker had something to say about Christmas with his sordid tale of a husband and wife’s thorny encounter with an underground sex cult. Finished just days before Kubrick’s death, “Eyes Wide Shut” stars Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a raw nerve of a couple whose growing resentment culminates in a would-be affair spun out of control.
Tinsel and lights offer an obvious (and ominously gorgeous) seasonal background for the film, released in July 1999. But it’s Kubrick’s repeated presentation of the holiday’s innate consumerism that drives home his thesis — or at least one interpretation of a thesis! — that marriages and families can be hungrily consumed by the vapid mundanity of self-obsession and competitive capitalism.
12. “White Christmas” (1954)
Need a break from…everything? Let director Michael Curtiz’s 1954 Christmas spectacle transport you back in time with its old-world cool, polished performances, and gleefully bonkers musical logic. Princes of the silver screen Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play friends Bob and Phil, who become singing and songwriting partners after nearly dying in World War II. (Like we said, musical logic!) When the men run across sisters Betty and Judy, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the four embark on a jazzy journey to the shockingly not-so-snowy Vermont.
Say what you will of the Technicolor film’s story, but there’s no debating “White Christmas” contains masterful music. The namesake tune won Best Original Song in 1942 and is prolific enough that it’s likely playing in your head right now. But for this writer, there’s just no beating the imagery evoked in the lesser-known “Snow,” sung by the four stars aboard a train car. (“It won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow….” “I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow….”)
11. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)
There are two film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” appearing on this list, with many, many more available. And though Brian Henson’s 1992 family favorite ranks lower than its competition, we can confidently say it’s got the better puppets.
With Kermit the Frog (performed by Steve Whitmire) as its Bob Cratchit and Michael Caine playing Ebenezer Scrooge, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” stays remarkably close to its Gothic source material: a smart grounding move that heightens the film’s bursts of Muppet parody to among the funniest in the ongoing franchise. Come for the promise of punny characters (Fozziewig!) and catchy musical numbers (“It feels like Chriiistmaaas!”). Stay for the goofy witticisms only the Muppets can do justice: “You’re a little absent-minded, spirit.” “No, I’m a large absent-minded spirit!”
10. “A Christmas Carol” (1951)
For even some readers who first encountered the ghostly tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge on the page, the late Scottish actor Alastair Sim is the face of literature’s most famed redemptive protagonist. Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, this 1951 black-and-white adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” — also known as “Scrooge” — enjoys an otherworldly quality emanating from its now-antiquated filmmaking and Dickens’ illustrious prose: exploring the supernatural side to Christmas in a winding story of a greedy businessman confronting his misdeeds via poltergeist.
Sim’s turn as Scrooge sees the seasoned actor dexterously scale the philosophical work’s Jacob’s ladder, guiding the unlikely hero from a horror-esque villain to a soft-smiled man making peace with his life. He’d lead Guy Hamilton’s “An Inspector Calls” as the titular inspector calling just two years later, in 1954.
9. “Love Actually” (2003)
There’s an unabashed schmaltziness to writer/director Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually”: a Christmas rom-com that’s at once intoxicatingly cheery in its sentimentality and sharply clever with its intricate design and British wit. Mainly set in London, with one subplot taking us to the French countryside and later Portugal, the 2003 title has become synonymous with a specific story structure. And though that moniker is sometimes doled out disparagingly (here’s looking at you, Garry Marshall’s “Mother’s Day,” “Valentine’s Day,” and “New Year’s Eve”), there’s a reason so many tenderhearted movie lovers keep coming back to it. A star-studded cast — Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Laura Linney, Billy Nighy, and the late Alan Rickman, among others — charm their way through nine holiday tales tied together by character relationships and some iconic wrap-around narration from Hugh Grant, who plays a lovestruck prime minister.
8. “Gremlins” (1984)
Let’s be real: “Gremlins 2” is significantly more fun than its 1984 predecessor. If you don’t already know that in your bones, then you should prioritize seeing the nonseasonal sequel — and possibly its spot-on “Key & Peele” parody — first.
That said, “Gremlins” is the holiday half of Joe Dante’s creature duology, and it has more than enough zip to satisfy fans of ’80s camp looking for a quintessential horror holiday. When a traveling salesman (the late Hoyt Axton) brings home a strange new pet for his son, known as a “mogwai,” hero Billy Peltzer (Zach Gilligan) is tasked with abiding by three rules of care: no sunlight, no water, and no feeding it after midnight. Naturally, it takes no time at all for Billy to screw up and unleash the consequences of his adorable Christmas present on his unsuspecting town.
“Gremlins” qualifies as top holiday viewing not only because its zany antics take place at Christmas, but because it also includes one of the most baffling beats in “Home Alone” director Chris Columbus’ screenwriting history. Truly, Phoebe Cates’ infamous Santa-in-a-chimney monologue is one tonal mystery that keeps on giving.
7. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)
It takes a special kind of balding, depressed, zig-zag-wearing kid to anchor not one, not two, but three major holiday specials. Four if you count “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “A Charlie Brown Valentine” (though that last one might be on the fringes of modern popularity and there are other lesser titles we’re not mentioning).
After Lucy asks Charlie Brown to direct the Christmas play, he’s thrust into a challenging leadership position that sees him battling Schroeder’s piano and the rest of the gang’s antics for attention. Simultaneously, Linus considers the biblical origins of the holiday and ponders what we owe to one another. The best friends’ journeys meet at night in a cold lot, where Charlie Brown picks out what may very well be the most instantly recognizable Christmas tree in TV and film history.
6. “Home Alone” (1990)
“I made my family disappear.” In the role that turned a 10-year-old into a household name, Macaulay Culkin stars as “Home Alone” hero Kevin McAllister. Written and produced by John Hughes with Chris Columbus serving as director, this 1990 slapstick classic follows the MacGyver-esque Kevin after he’s accidentally left behind on his family’s Christmas vacation and forced to battle two home invaders back in his sleepy Chicago suburb.
Jazzy Christmas carols and zippy one-liners (“Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”) bind Culkin’s gleeful starring performance to Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s brilliant duo of burglars. But it’s Catherine O’Hara’s scenes, melting down as Kevin’s guilty and panicked mom Kate, that give the movie its enduring heart. “Home Alone” was followed up with a 1992 sequel set in New York City, once again starring Culkin, Pesci, Stern, and O’Hara. It’s a lesser movie, but still funny and well worth watching if you don’t already know what happens when Kevin spends a night at the Plaza.
5. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)
Not to be confused with its 1994 remake (though the Mara Wilson vehicle does have its moments), 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” is the masterwork of writer/director George Seaton that continues to shape how New Yorkers honor the holidays. The black-and-white film stars Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle: the new Santa at a Macy’s department store who shocks the city when he claims to be the real Saint Nick. An 8-year-old Natalie Wood plays Susan: a little girl whose faith in Kringle becomes central to the fairytale’s message. “Miracle on 34th Street” was nominated in multiple categories at that year’s Oscars, including Best Picture. It won three: two for writing and one for Gwenn, who clinched Best Supporting Actor.
4. “Carol” (2015)
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara will knock the breath from your chest in Todd Haynes’ “Carol.” Adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy, from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 “The Price of Salt,” this lesbian period romance (a subgenre done to death, we know) chronicles the swelling attraction between the shop girl/aspiring photographer Therese Belivet and the magnetic soon-to-be divorcee Carol Aird.
At first blush, one might clump the women’s love story — featuring clandestine looks framed in artificial snow and an understated meet-cute involving a Santa hat — with other seasonal romances, such as “You’ve Got Mail” or “Love Actually” (also appearing on this list). But where those romantic comedies cut their lovers’ budding tension with holiday antics, “Carol” dares to stare deep into the melancholy thoughtfulness that comes with this time of year by incorporating a heart-rending story of a gay woman fighting to be with her daughter. The result gifts romance fans a slow-burn consideration of the bold futures we choose to allow ourselves and a final shot that will make your heart grow three sizes.
3. “Elf” (2003)
Will Ferrell brings the Christmas spirit and then some in Jon Favreau’s fish-out-of-water (elf-out-of-snow?) 2003 comedy about an effervescent Christmas enthusiast visiting gritty New York City. After spending his entire life with Santa in the North Pole, Buddy the Elf arrives in Manhattan like a breath of syrup/candy/spaghetti-infused air: challenging his nasty Scrooge of an estranged father (the late James Caan) to accept his seemingly boundless love and affection.
From picking out an ill-conceived gift for that “special someone” to cutting down a tree in Central Park (a serious and illegal whoopsie!), “Elf” is chockfull of familiar traditions twisted to their most misguided and extreme. It’s a crowdpleaser not just for fans of Ferrell and kids who grew up in the aughts, but anyone needing a reason to enjoy the season. After all, say it with me: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”
2. “A Christmas Story” (1983)
Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story” has a rhythmic familiarity for some families: celebrated each year in an all-day marathon on TBS, seamlessly looping from Ralphie’s initial request for a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun (that’s the “200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time,” of course) to the warm glow of Christmas morning when he discovers whether or not his dream present made it in under the tree.
Along the way, Jean Shepherd, who co-wrote the script with Clark and Leigh Brown (not to mention narrates as an older Ralphie), imbues the Parker family with details from his real life, first appearing in his short stories. The road-weary marriage of Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin’s Mrs. and Mr. Parker stands out as a testament to parents pushing to their absolute limits to make Christmas miracles.
1. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Maybe it’s cliched to crown director Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” the best Christmas movie of all time: what with the seemingly endless references and homages to it appearing in other holiday films. And yet, to deny hero George Bailey’s all-time heartbreaker the top spot feels just about as nice list-qualifying as denying Santa his cookies. Plus, who really needs to justify giving a James Stewart performance — arguably, his best (though the legendary actor would only win an Oscar for 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story”) — supreme accolades?
Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift,” this 1946 black-and-white fable considers the melancholia and existential despair characteristic for so many at the holidays. When news of a man’s suicidal thoughts reach heaven, Henry Travers’ guardian angel character Clarence Odbody intervenes. For those with a heavy heart this time of year — or any for that matter — “It’s a Wonderful Life” offers a hopeful salve from an old world.
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