There’s something undeniably magical about that cultural institution of the Christmas movie. There are so many of them; and most of them are terrible.
But even the terrible ones somehow seem more palatable if they happen to be screened during Christmas week; maybe it’s ‘Christmas spirit’ making us more charitable for that brief window.
This post, in any case, doesn’t deal with that plethora of cheesy, festive TV-schedule filler, but with the 5 very best Christmas films that have ever been made.
Also there are distinctions; there are numerous films set at Christmas, but which I don’t count as ‘Christmas films’, like Home Alone or Die Hard, for example. Or Batman Returns, which is replete with seasonal atmosphere, but which I’d be deluding myself to include as a “Christmas movie”.
There are also Christmas films in the more religious sense; films set in the Nativity, for example. I’ve chosen not to include those types of films or the Biblical epics, as they probably fit into a different category. Otherwise Ben Hur, which I consider one of the greatest movies ever made, would certainly be on this list.
At any rate, whatever film or TV you happen to watch this Christmas, I’d highly recommend that one (if not all) of these five classics be on your list…
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece; unashamedly sentimental, but bleak at times too, the movie famously flopped on its initial cinema release, but became a seasonal classic due to the advent of television and repeated TV showings every Christmas. It went on to become the standard by which Christmas films are measured.
It helps to have the eternally likeable everyman James Stewart as lead; but really the entire cast, even down to bit characters and walk-ons, was so perfectly placed that it’s difficult to imagine the film with any of them missing.
Without doubt one of the most endearing, likeable films ever made – even if it does overdo the sentiment slightly at the end (as was Frank Capra’s calling card). Anyone who hasn’t seen it qualifies as suspect and should watch it at least one Christmas in their life.
Another film not all that fussed over during its initial release; an 80s New York take on the Dickens Christmas Carol motif, with Bill Murray’s corporate, soulless TV executive in the Scrooge role, haunted by three ghosts to show him the true meaning of Christmas and save his soul.
Although some of its sentiments – particularly the snipe at eighties’ style corporatism – may seem very of its time; in actual fact the film is probably even more a commentary on today’s soulless, corporate-driven consumerist culture and should be made more of in the 21st century than it was in 1988.
I saw this film when I was about twelve and have watched it periodically ever since. It has everything you’d want; atmosphere, humour, cynicism and sentiment in equal measure, and of course Bill Murray.
Highlights include Carol Kane’s unforgettable Ghost of Christmas Present in the form of a particularly violent pixie and Bill Murray being mistaken for Richard Burton by a bunch of homeless drunks. Including guest turns by Miles Davis and Robert Mitchum, it’s a very eighties film, but a Christmas standard nevertheless.
And much more likeable and less annoying than virtually every other Christmas film that’s been made since.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
There may be a case to be made for The Corpse Bride being an even better film; but Nightmare Before Christmas remains one of my favourite all-time movies.
Quintessentially Tim Burton, it stands out head-and-shoulders above the plethora of animated movies out there for its inimitable style, Gothic tone, abundance of atmosphere, painstaking detail, extreme cleverness, great music courtesy of Danny Elfman (who incidentally also did the music for Scrooged), and unforgettable central characters in the form of Jack Skellington and Sally.
Hard to believe this absolute masterpiece is almost twenty years old; I’m not sure there’s been a single big-screen animation as good as this since. The entire thing is pure genius: total immersion cinema that absorbs your consciousness into its weird, off-beat and addictive world.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1999 – a made-for-television film)
Obviously there are multiple film versions/adaptations of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, from the classic 1951 version with Alistair Sim, to the Muppet’s Christmas Carol or Disney‘s shorter take, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, among others.
Although I like all of those adaptations, my preferred version is this more recent US version starring Patrick Stewart as the miserly Scrooge. The tone and feel of seasonal Victorian London feels absolutely right here, with Stewart making the perfect Ebeneezer Scrooge. Again good casting, such as Richard E. Grant as Cratchit or Dominic West as Scrooge’s nephew, help breathe new life into Dickens’s unassailable cultural benchmark.
Most of all it’s the palpable sense of atmosphere throughout; the real sense of being transported back to a time and place, not unlike reading Dickens’ original text. Though, really, everyone should read the book at least once in their lives too.
MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947)
No, not the 80s remake, but the proper 1940s original, which includes a very young (and adorable) Natalie Wood in a fine piece of child acting that manages – unlike most child performances – to be endearing rather than an annoying necessity of plot.
The brief moment ‘Mr Cringle’ lights up the face of a home-sick Dutch orphan by speaking to her in Dutch is genuinely a touching moment in a film where you wouldn’t expect that. Certainly sentimental; best approached with a sprinkle of child-like willingness, but enjoyable enough for the adult viewer too.
Genuinely uplifting and properly seasonal. Didn’t need to be remade.
That’s my top five. I thought about including the early 80s Santa Claus: The Movie too – which, surprisingly, still holds up as a feel-good, spirited little film, even it is a total cheese-fest. But a top six doesn’t look as good. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone…