It’s holiday season, and what better way to celebrate than by vegging out on the couch in front of some decent Christmas classics? And yet, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. After all, while Christmas may be “the most wonderful time of the year”, it’s also one of the most emotionally complex. One minute you’re singing carols proclaiming the glory of the new born Christ, the next, you’re screaming his name as your prize turkey goes up in flames.
As such, it’s critical to have a robust programme of Yuletide flicks at your fingertips that can accommodate all the major moods that the silly season can throw your way. So, whether you’re full of cheer, about to go on a ho-ho-homicidal spree, or somewhere in-between, you’ll find something on this list for you!
10. For date night: Love Actually
There’s a certain romance to Christmas, what with the snow, the lights, and the general sense that people are trying to be nice. So it makes sense to have a viewing option up your sleeve for a festive-themed date night, and the most obvious choice is Love Actually. It stars roughly 90% of the UK’s major, non-silver haired acting talent, and features approximately 1,000 storylines all based around love and set in the lead up to 25 December, making it perfect fodder for couples everywhere.
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for this film, even though (like all movies by Richard Curtis) I like it less and less each time I watch it. I know that some readers will consider what I’m about to say blasphemy, but Love Actually is very, very far from perfect. Some of the scenes that left me cheering as a teen now make me wince (Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s “rousing” speech), and the movie frequently crunches gears trying to transition between gleefully contrived ode to the power of love and something a bit more grounded (such as the vignettes that focus on Laura Linney’s self-sacrificing sibling or Emma Thompson’s jilted wife).
That said, Love Actually is entertaining more often than not, and its all-star cast are uniformly brilliant – particularly Bill Nighy as aging rocker Billy Mack, who embarks on a seemingly-impossible quest for Christmas number one single glory. As The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” kicks in for the film’s finale, you and your special someone will be well and truly convinced that love actually is all around.
9. For when you’re over it: Bad Santa
Let’s face it: staying positive throughout the entirety of the Christmas season is a struggle. I mean, there’s just so much to turn you sour – crass commercialisation, needlessly tense family interactions, hectic shopping queues, and more. Some nights you might not be too inclined to tune in to a movie about the unfettered joys of the Yuletide time of year, and that’s where Bad Santa comes into its own.
The ideal cinematic companion for anyone fed up with Christmas cheer, it tells the story of Willie, an abusive, ill-tempered, drunken Santa who – along with his foul-mouthed dwarf accomplice – robs department stores every December. As part of his latest heist, Willie winds up living with an obese, mentally-impaired child, and slowly starts to learn the meaning of Christmas.
So… yeah, this pitch black comedy speaks to every crappy sentiment you might be feeling towards life in general or Christmas in particular, then reminds you why we bother in the first place. It’s a “have your mince pie and eat it, too” trick that’s only possible thanks to the sly direction of Terry Zwigoff and finely tuned script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, not to mention Bad Santa‘s outstanding cast, particularly Billy Bob-Thornton, who was born to play Willie.
8. For when you need some action: Die Hard
The other film starring Alan Rickman on this list, Die Hard is easily one of the best action movies ever made. This 1988 classic provided the template for virtually every action movie that came after it, and many of the clichés that plague the genre were born fresh right here. What’s more, Die Hard is funny, smart, and exciting, and boasts a level of characterisation unusual for the genre before and since.
Set on Christmas Eve, Die Hard sees cop John McClane face off against a heavily armed criminal organisation after he is unwittingly drawn into their heist plans. This results in a violent – and quite frankly, highly entertaining – game of cat and mouse, as our all-too-human protagonist tries to outwit the crooks and save their hostages (including his estranged wife!).
Die Hard was responsible for Willis transition from small screen comic actor to big screen action star, and he proves a great fit for the very human, very likeable McClane. It was also the movie that brought Rickman to Hollywood’s attention, with his sneering villain Hans Gruber among the best things to happen to cinema, ever.
7. For when you need to be inspired: It’s A Wonderful Life
The more jaded among you are probably rolling your eyes right now, but trust me: It’s A Wonderful Life is way less schmaltzy than its reputation suggests. Sure, there’s the whole “angel gets its wings” sub-plot and the famously upbeat ending, but even cynics and non-believers (like me) will be enthralled by the most iconic Christmas film ever made.
It’s A Wonderful Life introduces us to George Bailey, a man who has constantly sacrificed his own desires to put others first. When things look especially grim one Christmas Eve, ol’ George finds himself contemplating suicide, and only divine intervention seems likely to save him. For all its amazing production values and top notch performances, It’s A Wonderful Life really makes its mark by being a Christmas story brave enough to address the fact that yes, sometimes life just doesn’t work out the way you had planned.
Director Frank Capra doesn’t go soft on this point either. Over the course of the film’s 2-hour (with change) runtime, we’re shown that good deeds regularly go unrewarded, and that decent people often do the right thing, not because they want to, but because they know that if they don’t, no one else will. Because of this, It’s A Wonderful Life explores some surprisingly heavy territory before the closing credits roll, which means its notoriously happy ending – which reminds us what makes life and Christmas so special – ultimately feels fully earned.
6. For when you need something unconventional: Brazil
Terry Gilliam belongs to that rare breed of filmmakers who are incapable of making a wholly bad film. Even when he slips up and allows the plot to get a bit muddled, Gilliam’s movies are always visually arresting and thematically interesting, so when he gets all the ingredients right, result is invariably cinematic gold. Such is the case with Brazil.
One of my absolute favourite films, the best way to describe Brazil would be to call it 1984 with a lighter, Yuletide bent. It follows Sam Lowry, a man attempting to track down a beautiful woman who appears in his fairytale-inspired dreams, even as he contends with his dreary job within a totalitarian society.
Admittedly, the film is only tangentially related to Christmas (there are a handful of scenes set during the season), but there’s never a bad time to watch this timeless satire on commercialism and bureaucracy. Gilliam expertly offsets the grittier aspects of his tale with a whimsical, dreamlike quality, and the haunting ending – which is both depressing and bizarrely uplifting – will leave you mulling over the true nature of freedom and happiness.
5. For when you want a bit of culture: The Muppet Christmas Carol
I think we all know the plot of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol: a horrible old rich guy is visited by three spirits who show him his past, present and future in an attempt to make him kinder. Even if you’ve never read the book, there are a multitude of decent big screen adaptations to choose from, with the bonkers all-CGI version by Robert Zemeckis only the most recent. That said, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll take my version of Dicken’s festive novel loaded up with Muppets.
The Muppet Christmas Carol does pretty much what it says on the tin: it re-tells the original story, only with Kermit the Frog and friends substituting in for many of the roles. Ebenezer Scrooge himself is played by acting legend Michael Caine, and he is wonderful in the part, believably depicting Scrooge’s gradual change of heart, all while surrounded by puppets. Thanks to this committed performance (not to mention several earworm tunes), The Muppet Christmas Carol is funny, spooky, and disarmingly moving, and kids and adults alike are sure to get something out of it.
4. For when you’re feeling nostalgic: Home Alone
If you grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, Home Alone was probably your earliest (and ultimate) wish fulfilment fantasy: Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin is accidentally left behind when his family goes on holiday at Christmas, leaving him with the house all to himself. Not only can he do whatever he wants, but he also ends up rigging his house with booby traps to thwart inept burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this entire scenario every kid’s dream.
Viewed without rose coloured glasses, Home Alone is still a decent enough effort by director Chris Columbus. There’s a generally pleasant vibe to the whole thing and the comedy mostly works, although the slapstick violence is a bit harder to handle watching as a grown-up than as a kid. Home Alone also has a lot to say about families – namely, that even when you can’t stand your relatives, life’s infinitely better with them around – and the genuinely touching moments between Kevin and mum Catherine O’Hara really encapsulate what Christmas is all about.
3. For when you’re suffering from ennui: The Nightmare Before Christmas
According to legend, producer Tim Burton got the idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas when he saw Halloween and Christmas decorations sitting side-by-side in a store front window. Director Henry Selick takes this fun premise – Halloween and Christmas colliding – and milks it for all it’s worth.
In The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, discovers a doorway into Christmas Town, and is immediately enchanted by this new and different holiday. Upon returning home, he announces to the ghouls of Halloween Town that they’ll be taking over Christmas this year, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that things don’t exactly go swimmingly!
The Nightmare Before Christmas is brought to life through first class stop motion animation, and its hand-crafted charm, coupled with its weird vibe and romantic core, single it out as a festive season favourite. It speaks to anyone tired of living the same old life day in, day out, even as it gives a shout out to the magic that surrounds us as part of everyday life, if we would only take the time to appreciate it.
(It also has some of the catchiest songs of any Disney film, ever; I defy you not to wake up humming “What’s This?” the next day…)
2. For when you’re feeling the Christmas spirit: Miracle on 34th Street
There are several versions of Miracle on 34th Street, and which you prefer really comes down to personal preference. I grew up with the 1994 incarnation starring Richard Attenborough as an elderly gent who may actually be Santa Claus, and Mara Wilson as the sceptical little girl he has to convince.
I typically have trouble getting into movies like Miracle on 34th Street because I struggle with any story which can be boiled down to “You should believe in something because it feels good, regardless of any reasonable doubts”. But what makes Miracle on 34th Street work for me is that it also examines whether the value derived by believing in something outweighs its basis in actual fact, and taken on these terms, it’s an enjoyable bit of business.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Attenborough is utterly convincing as Santa. His portrayal of the character will remind you that Kris Kringle is more than simply a lie told to control children, but a symbol of kindness and the desire to bring joy into the lives of others.
1. For when you need some Bill Murray in your life: A Very Murray Christmas
This star-studded Netflix ensemble comedy, helmed by Oscar-winning director Sofia Coppola and headlined by Hollywood icon Billy Murray, is truly a Christmas oddity. Indeed, A Very Murray Christmas is so bonkers that it demands to be seen, and the musical number that sees out the special – a duet between Murray and Miley Cyrus, with George Clooney mixing cocktails off to the side – is not easily forgotten.