For all of us there are certain things that are synonymous with Christmas time. Slade, the Coca-Cola adverts, mistletoe and wine, all vital parts of the festive season. For me though, the one thing above all others which reminds me that it is truly that most wonderful time of year are Christmas movies. Those special films that get revisited year after year without fail and are granted abnormal longevity thanks to their specialist nature. Of course, they may not always be the finest examples of cinema you will see but nevertheless it doesn’t really feel like Christmas until you’ve seen them. With that in mind, here’s my top ten Christmas Movies for your viewing pleasure.
#1 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The ultimate Christmas movie and also a definite exception to the rule, It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a great festive film; it’s also one of the greatest feel-good movies of all time. I assume most of us have seen Frank Capra’s classic by now, but for the un-initiated, let me say this, I genuinely envy you. Seeing this for the first time is a truly special experience and my advice is, if at all possible, seek it out at your nearby cinema this Christmas and see it on the big screen. If this isn’t an option, buy the DVD, set a night aside and prepare to feel uplifted.
The film follows one George Bailey (James Stewart), a kind and generous family man who continually sacrifices his own hopes and dreams in order to help others. When an unfortunate error sees his family business face a substantial shortfall in their accounts, George begins to despair and on Christmas Eve, with a warrant out for his arrest, he contemplates taking his own life. He then gets a visit from his guardian angel Clarence who shows George what the world would be like had never been born. Needless to say, the town of Bedford Falls is not a nice place to live without George’s influence. I won’t spoil too much of the ending, just in case, but the movie’s moral is undoubtedly a timely one. One man can touch so many lives and the more you help other people, the more they will in return help you. *Sniff* pass the tissues, I’ve gone again.
#2 The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol may be an extremely dark and haunting supernatural tale but in the hands of The Muppets it also becomes an unashamedly joyous occasion that can’t help but put you in the festive mood. Obviously certain more gruesome elements of the novel are omitted from this adaptation, but the story is still fairly loyal and is blended with trademark Muppet humour and catchy musical numbers to boot.
Michael Caine is on fine form as Ebenezer Scrooge and while Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are often the films central focus as our fearless narrators, Caine provides a strong central presence and a vital human heart to proceedings. The usual Muppet gang are all present and correct too mind you, with Kermit taking on Bob Cratchitt, Fozzy become Scrooge’s old employer Mr Fozziwig and even Sam the Eagle turns up as young Ebenezer’s old School master. The songs are catchy (with the exception of the dreary ‘The Love is Gone’ but luckily the depressing love scene which this appears in was wisely edited out of the DVD release) and there is every chance you will be humming ‘There Goes Mister Humbug’ for days afterwards. Dickens has definitely never been so much fun.
#3 Scrooged (1988)
Bill Murray is on top form as the sarcastic and heartless Television executive Frank Cross in this darkly comic retelling of A Christmas Carol. The action has been moved to New York City circa 1988 but the message remains the same. A wealthy businessman who distances himself from those loved ones and feels no compassion towards his fellow man is offered the chance of redemption on Christmas Eve thanks to the intervention of three ghosts. Ultimately, Frank sees the sad future that awaits him lest he become a better person and he vows to change his ways. His ghostly encounters are all particularly memorable but perhaps none more so than David Johansen (of New York Dolls fame) as the ghost of Christmas past reimagined as a cigar chomping cabbie.
Murray is undoubtedly the star of the show though and he gets some of his vey best one liners along the way. Highlights include, “I’ve never liked a girl enough to give her twelve sharp knives” and “Well, I’m sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples.” The ending may be a little corny for some, but Murray gets away with it and delivers easily the funniest movie on this list. All together now, “put a little love in your heart!”
#4 Die Hard (1988)
“Now I have a machine gun….ho…ho….ho.” Some may not consider this a Christmas movie as such but for some of us it’s must-watch festive fare. Die Hard may be considered simply a generic Hollywood blockbuster by some but thanks to its Christmas setting it has happily worked its way onto this list.
The film centres around New York cop John McLane who is visiting his estranged wife at her Los Angeles workplace for Christmas. The terrorist-related shenanigans he then encounters are well documented, but just in case you are unfamiliar I’ll provide a concise summary….German Terrorists take rich business types hostage, John McLane kills them all and saves the day. That’s all you really need to know. The film itself is high octane action at its best and has spawned three sequels as well as dozens of imitators.
Ask yourself therefore, this Christmas time, amidst the saccharine and schmaltz of most Christmas offerings, why not go for something a bit different? Why not go for a rugged cop in a dirty vest shooting the shit out of some terrorists while running around in his bare feet? What could be more festive than that? Ok….. they play “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” over the end credits, are you happy now?
#5 Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York (1992)
Both of the first two Home Alone movies can lay a decent claim to being on this list but for me it’s the second outing set in New York that really gets me in the Christmas mood. There’s something about New York City that makes it the perfect setting for Christmas movies. The memorable landmarks glistening with snow and the bright lights twinkling in the streets give the whole city a magical mystique that just suits the festive season.
This time out Kevin McAllister (Macauley Culkin) gets separated from his family at Christmas yet again but this time he finds himself alone in the Big Apple. Naturally, Kevin does what any one of us would do in that situation and rents a room at the Plaza hotel and takes a chauffer driven Limo to the biggest toy shop in town. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern return as the hapless Wet/Sticky bandits and Tim Curry excels as the pompous English hotel clerk. With a fine festive soundtrack including Darlene Love’s ‘All Alone at Christmas’ and Johnny Mathis’s ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ it’s impossible not to watch and dream of a white Christmas in the big city.
I also still to this day want one of those Talkboy things Kevin uses. “Credit Card….you got it.”
#6 Scrooge (1951)
Now I know we already have two fairly varied versions of A Christmas Carol already on this list, but as great as the Muppet and Bill Murray versions are, neither can lay claim to being a close representation of Dickens’s gloomy vision. This 1951 adaptation is arguably the closest thing to a classic Hollywood version of the novel and Alistair Sim is undoubtedly the finest screen Scrooge to date. Sim’s Ebenezer is a cold and heartless figure but he gives the character an obvious inner pain that many movie Scrooges just don’t convey.
The film doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of the novel and moments such as the wailing phantoms at Scrooge’s window and the horrific emergence of the twin personifications of Ignorance and Want are both used to great effect. As well as maintaining the haunting aspects of Dickens’ tale, the movie also conveys the novel’s noble message regarding the dangers of ignoring the plight of your fellow man. After the doom and gloom that surrounds huge swathes of the film, Scrooge’s redemption at the end, as exemplified by Sim’s childlike glee, is truly a joy to behold.
#7 Bad Santa (2003)
The ultimate un-pc Christmas film with Billy Bob Thornton as the ultimate festive grouch. By day he’s Willie, a half-arsed Santa in a Mall, usually drunk and always rude. By night he’s a half-arsed criminal who robs the various stores in the Mall where he works. Alongside his dwarf partner in crime Marcus, they plan out a fresh heist on a new mall each Christmas and this year is to be no exception. The duo attracts the attentions of the head of Mall security, played by the late great Bernie Mac and also those of a lonely overweight kid call Thurman.
Willie takes advantage of naïve young Thurman and moves into the house of the boy’s senile old Grandmother. As the movie progresses Willie eventually shows signs of growing a conscience thanks to his involvement with Thurman and a bartender called Sue.
It’s a great black comedy and one that proves genuinely touching in parts. Thornton is pitch perfect as Willie and revels in delivering such un-festive lines as “things are fucked up at the North Pole. Mrs. Claus caught me fucking her sister, now I’m out on my ass.” Fun for all the family it is not.
#8 Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The 1994 remake was a solid effort with Dickie Attenborough perfectly cast as the possible Santa Claus, Kris Kringle. For me though it’s the 1947 original which hits the right Christmas spot. Kris Kringle is on first glance merely a department store Santa, giving out present to eager young kids at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. It soon becomes clear however that Kris actually believes himself to be the real thing. Is he crazy, or could the old fella be right all along?
The film charts the trial of Kris as he is forced to prove to a judge that he is indeed the real deal and not just a slightly deranged old man. As corny as it sounds, there’s something incredibly heart-warming about the movie and when the US Postal Service turns up just in time to save the day, you’ll start to believe Kris is the real Santa too. The 1947 original was far jollier and light hearted than the 1994 remake, which layered on a strong religious subtext, which of course there’s no place for at Christmastime.
One tip though, don’t watch this with very young children, it could lead to some rather awkward questions.
#9 Santa Claus The Movie (1985)
First of all, let me make this clear, this film is nothing but over the top cheesy Christmas schmaltz. I know this is true. Yet after watching it as a kid and loving it back then, I still can’t resist watching it year in year out. Santa Claus (played by the bloke who is the Big Lebowski) and Mrs Claus (played by her who was married to Onslo in Keeping up Appearance) are kidnapped by elves and forced into eternal servitude at their behest. At least that’s one interpretation.
The more festive way of looking at it is that this caring and generous old man who never had kids of his own, takes on the role of Santa Claus. Every Christmas Eve he delivers toys to all the boys and girls of the world, eventually developing the tried and tested naughty/nice system that has become synonymous with his operation. The action really gets going however when we reach modern times. Runaway elf Patch (Dudley Moore) arrives in good old New York City and starts working for evil corporate businessman B.Z., played with absolute relish by John Lithgow (“FOR FREEEEEEEE???”) As B.Z. and Patch seek to compete with Santa for the hearts of children everywhere, they put a magical powder into candy canes that can make the eater fly. Unbeknownst to Patch though these canes will explode when exposed to high temperature, a fact B.Z. knows and keeps secret. It falls to Santa to rescue Patch and save the day.
Now, if you haven’t seen this movie before, I know exactly how it sounds. In fact, if you’ve never seen it before adulthood, don’t both watching it. It really won’t do anything for you. If you watched it when you were younger though and haven’t seen it for a few yeas, stick it on and revel in the schmaltz and gross product placement for McDonalds and Coca-Cola.
#10 Joyeux Noel (2005)
For my tenth and final entry I was weighing up a whole sleigh-load of movies that hadn’t quite yet made the cut. In contention were White Christmas and Holiday Inn (too schmaltzy by half), Elf and Fred Claus (not as funny as everyone makes out) and A Nightmare Before Christmas (hasn’t stood the test of time for me) but they all just felt short alas. Instead I’ve gone for this Oscar Nominated drama set in the trenches during World War 1. Aren’t I quite the maverick?
The story of the informal Christmas truce of 1914 is well known and there’s something incredibly moving about the brief respite and love for ones fellow man that takes place in amidst so much bloodshed. On Christmas Eve, French, British and German troops put their difference aside and meet in no man’s land to exchange gifts, sing carols and generally forget their awful predicament for just a short while. The men learn they have much in common with foreigners they have been trained to despise.
One of the striking things you take from the film is that while the Army Generals are appalled by the idea of a truce, the actual men doing the fighting and dying share a common bond that knows no border. It’s a timely and heart-warming message that is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that soon these men will once again be forced into killing each other. Not your typical Christmas movie, but an incredibly moving one nonetheless.