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, in order to accommodate all of the major moods and occasions that the silly season can throw your way.
With this in mind, I’ve prepared the following list of Christmas-themed movies for your convenience. Whether you’re full of cheer, about to go on a ho-ho-homicidal spree, or somewhere inbetween, there’s bound to be something on this list for you!
For when it’s 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 date night.
The most obvious choice is Love Actually. It stars roughly 90% of the UK’s major, non-silver haired acting talent, and features approximately 76 storylines all based around love and set in the lead up to 25 December, making it pretty much perfect fodder for couples everywhere.
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for this film, although like all movies by Richard Curtis, I like it less and less each time I watch it. I know that certain readers will consider what I’m about to say a form of 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 whole thing crunches gears trying to transition between gleefully contrived ode to the power of love and something a bit more grounded (such as the truly moving stories of Laura Linney’s self-sacrificing sibling or Emma Thompson’s jilted wife).
All that said, Love Actually is entertaining more often than not, and that all star cast I mentioned is uniformly brilliant – particularly Bill Nighy in his breakout performance as an aging rocker on a seemingly-impossible quest for Christmas number one single glory.
As “God Only Knows” blares during the film’s finale, you and your special someone will both find yourselves convinced that love actually IS all around.
For when you’re just not feeling it…Bad Santa
Let’s face it: staying positive throughout the entirety of the Christmas season can be a struggle.
I mean, there’s just so much to turn you sour – crass commercialisation, needlessly tense family interactions, hectic shopping queues, and more. It goes without saying, then, that some nights you might not be too inclined to tune in to a movie about the unfettered joys of the Yuletide time of year.
Enter: Bad Santa. The ideal cinematic companion to 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, and how he comes to live with an obese child who may or may not be mentally impaired.
So…yeah, this pitch black comedy speaks to every crappy sentiment you might be feeling towards life in general or Christmas in particular.
However, what makes the movie truly special is that director Terry Zwigoff and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are able bring it to a close with an ending that will make you fall back in love with both existence and the festive season, all in a way that never feels even slightly forced.
It’s a trick that wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the outstanding cast, particularly Billy Bob-Thornton, who was pretty much born to play Willie, and John Ritter, hysterical in has last ever performance as the overwhelmed mall manager.
For when your Christmas needs more explosions…Die Hard
The other film starring Alan Rickman on this list, Die Hardmay well be the best action movie ever made.
Certainly, it provided the template for virtually every action movie that came after it, and so many of the clichés that now plague the genre were born fresh right here. It’s also funny, smart, and exciting, and contains a degree of character depth 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, resulting in a violent – and quite frankly, highly entertaining – game of cat and mouse.
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.
Similarly, this was the movie that first brought Rickman to Hollywood’s attention, and his sneering villain Hans Gruber is possibly the best thing to happen to cinema, ever.
For when you’re looking for a reminder of what it’s all about…It’s A Wonderful Life
The more jaded of you are probably rolling your eyes right now, but trust me – It’s A Wonderful Life is a considerably less schmaltzy than its reputation would have you believe.
Sure, there’s the whole angelic aspect to the plot and the famously upbeat ending, but even cynics and non-believers (like me) should still find themselves 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 two hour (with change) runtime, we’re shown that good deeds commonly 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.
It’s A Wonderful Life explores some surprisingly heavy territory before the closing credits roll, and the lightness of the notoriously happy ending – which reminds us what makes life and Christmas so special – ultimately feels earned thanks to the darkness that has come before it.
For when you crave something a little less conventional…Brazil
Terry Gilliam belongs to that rare breed of filmmakers who are incapable of making a wholly bad film. Even when he occasionally slips up and allows the plot to get a bit muddled, Gilliam’s movies are always visually arresting and thematically interesting.
Thus, it goes without saying that when he gets all the ingredients right, the end product turns out to be a cinematic classic, and 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.
The narrative follows Sam Lowry, a man attempting to track down a beautiful woman who appears in his fairy tale inspired dreams, even as he contends with his dreary job within a totalitarian society.
I’ll grant you, 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 considering the true nature of freedom and happiness.
For when you want to immerse yourself in literature…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.
Ebeneezer 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 whilst surrounded by puppets.
All in all, The Muppet Christmas Carol is funny, spooky, and disarmingly moving, and kids and adults alike are sure to get something out of it.
For when you have to quench your appetite for nostalgia…Home Alone
Granted, watching most of these movies is an exercise in nostalgia, but for anyone from my generation, this one is a biggie.
Yes, for those of us who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, Home Alone represents the 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 does he get to do whatever he wants, but he also ends up rigging his house with booby traps so that he can battle inept burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, which I’m going to go out on a limb here and call practically every kid’s dream.
Viewed without rose coloured glasses, Home Alone is 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 when viewed from an adult’s perspective.
It also has a lot to say about families – 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.
For when you’re in a bit of a Goth mood…The Nightmare Before Christmas
According to legend, producer Tim Burton got the idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas when he saw Halloween decorations being replaced with those for Christmas in a store front window.
Director Henry Selick takes this fun premise – Halloween and Christmas colliding with one another – and milks it for all it’s worth.
When Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, discovers a doorway into Christmas Town, he is enchanted with this new and different holiday.
Upon returning home, he announces that the ghouls of Halloween Town will 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 all as part of everyday life, if we would only take the time to appreciate it.
(Oh, and it 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…).
For when you want to believe in Santa…Miracle on 34th Street
There are several versions of Miracle on 34th Street, and which you prefer really comes down to personal preference.
For me, I grew up with the 1994 incarnation starring Richard Attenborough as an elderly gent who may or may not actually be Santa Claus, and Mara Wilson as the sceptical little girl he has to convince.
Honestly, I have trouble getting fully into movies like Miracle on 34th Street, mostly because I struggle with any story which seems to say, “You should believe in something because it feels good, regardless of any reasonable doubts”.
Nonetheless, the movie 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.
It doesn’t hurt that Attenborough is utterly convincing as Santa, and 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.
For when you need a bit more Bill Murray in your life…A Very Murray Christmas
I think this one speaks for itself.