It’s Christmas! My Top 10 Favourite Festive Movies
As Roy Wood of Wizzard once sang, “I wish it could be Christmas every day.” Well, since I started scratching out a living writing about movies, every day kind of is. I only got to sit around all day in my PJs eating biscuits and watching films during the festive period before, and now it’s my full time job!
Christmas time has always been great for binge-watching movies. As a young film buff, I always loved it when that big fat festive edition of the Radio Times hit the doormat, then excitedly going through it with a pen marking all the movies I wanted to watch over the holidays.
I’m a bit older and more sceptical now, bracing myself every November for the oncoming avalanche of schmaltz and cynical commercialism. Even so, nothing quite sets off a bout of the festive tingles like a great Christmas movie. Here are my favourites...
The Snowman (1982)
Like the Queen’s Speech, arguing about the latest John Lewis ad, and trying not to open the big tin of Quality Street before the Big Day, The Snowman is an essential part of Christmas in the UK. The short film first took flight on Channel 4 all the way back in 1982 and has aired every year since. It’s such a beautiful adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ wordless book, with the pencil ‘n’ paper animation style that feels so tactile and lived-in compared to today’s endless churn of CG family features.
Personally, I can live without the antics when the snowman first comes to life, and the Snowman’s Ball malarkey at the North Pole. I keep coming back for two things. The exhilarating “Walking in the Air” sequence is pure magic, and I always seek out the original introduction by Briggs himself, rather than the starry David Bowie version. Watching a middle-aged man trudging through a field on a wintry day to the sound of crows evokes strong memories of England to me, and somehow it compliments the film’s gentle, melancholy tone.
This is easily one of the best modern Christmas movies, so warm and funny and suitable for the whole family. I’m not usually a big fan of Will Ferrell’s style of humour, but he’s perfectly cast as Buddy the Elf - I’d even say this is his best performance. The concept gave him so much to work with, and director Jon Favreau was happy to let him just riff on it, resulting in moments like Buddy’s inability to contain his excitement about Santa coming to his department store. It’s such a great fish-out-of-water comedy, with the impossibly cheery elf counterbalanced by gruff, cynical New Yorkers.
Elf also benefits from a sparkling cast, including a fantastically grouchy James Caan as Buddy’s dad and Mary Steenburgen as his kindly wife; Zooey Deschanel as the sad store colleague Buddy falls for; Bob Newhart as Buddy’s surrogate elf father; and a hilarious cameo from Peter Dinklage as a superstar children’s author who definitely doesn’t like being called an elf.
Favreau also kept the CG to a minimum, opting for cuddly old-school stop motion in Buddy’s North Pole home that evokes the style of Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials which, I’m ashamed to say, I have never seen. There isn’t a single thing I’d change about Elf - it really is a perfect Christmas movie.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I grew up thinking It’s a Wonderful Life was just this cosy happy movie that gave me the Christmas feels every year, without fully realising that it’s all the really dark stuff that makes its conclusion so joyous. I guess a lot of it didn’t register when I was younger. So while it is still the ultimate feel good Christmas movie, it goes to far darker places than most, including that subgenre of Christmas horror flicks.
George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man trapped in his hometown of Bedford Falls and frustrated by his thwarted ambitions, with his dreams forever postponed. That’s sad enough, but he’s also broken by the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), facing bankruptcy, scandal, and suicide. The courage of Frank Capra to take Bailey to such depths of despair is the film’s masterstroke, and anyone missing the last ten minutes might think, “Phew, that’s a pretty bleak movie!”
Stewart is incredible in the role, charting a good man’s fall from a good-natured wannabe traveller to a bitter wreck who resents his wife and kids for holding him back. The cast is also packed by a whole host of familiar faces from Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Die Hard (1988)
Disputing the merits of Die Hard as a Christmas movie has become a popular part of the holiday tradition over the past ten years or so. While few people argue that John McTiernan’s white-knuckle blockbuster is anything less than an action masterpiece, some feel a little squeamish about a Christmas movie including multiple deaths, an exploding skyscraper, and the most famous use of the word “Motherf*cker” in film history.
Those people are wrong, and I’ll tell you why. The greatness of Die Hard as a festive flick goes much deeper than its Christmas Eve setting at a Christmas party, the sleigh bell laden score, and the well-chosen needle drops on the soundtrack from “Christmas in Hollis” to “Winter Wonderland”. It’s so full of Christmas that even the hero’s wife is named Holly.
The key factor is that, beyond all the kills and swears, Die Hard still follows a traditional “change of heart” character arc that is so central to many great Christmas stories, from A Christmas Carol to The Grinch. Wise-cracking New York cop John McLane (Bruce Willis) is separated from his family and estranged from his wife at the start of the film, but over the course of a deadly hostage situation, he comes to realise how much he loves her.
Reginald VelJohnson’s beat cop Sgt Powell, who McLane forms a friendship with over the radio, even acts as a Clarence-like figure, helping the outgunned and increasingly bloodied McLane realize what he’s missing out on. By the end of the film, we have little doubt that he has a change of heart and will reconcile with his wife. By the time the sequel arrived, McLane had moved across the country to work for the LAPD and Holly had reclaimed her married name.
Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973)
Although Václav Vorlíček’s wonderful fairy-tale adaptation has been broadcast in the UK and US in the past, it has sadly never found the same popularity as in many European countries. In its country of origin it is a Christmas staple, the kind of Czech equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Libuše Šafránková, who sadly passed away this year aged 68, is enchanting as a thoroughly modern Popelka (Cinderella), giving her handsome prince a run for his money in the horse riding and sharpshooting stakes. There’s nothing particularly Christmassy about the story, but it is set in a crisp snowy wonderland with a tinkly score, spirited performances, colourful costumes and a general sense of good cheer.
Vorlíček, who made several other family favourites, directs the hell out of it, too.
There have been dozens of film and TV adaptations of Dickens’ famous novella going all the way back to 1901, with the silent short Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost. Ebenezer Scrooge is one of those characters that actors just love playing, and there have been some great interpretations of the crotchety old miser over the years, from Albert Finney to Patrick Stewart, Reginald Owen to Basil Rathbone, and Bill Murray to Jim Carrey. Animation has featured too, with Scrooge McDuck having the least of a stretch to get into character in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Two of my favourites are Michael Caine in A Muppet Christmas Carol, who wisely played it almost completely straight as most of his co-stars are brightly coloured puppets; and Alastair Sim, in the 1951 version Scrooge.
Sim was a wonderful character actor, looking like a live action muppet in the best possible sense. With the balding head, prominent brow, deep-set eyes, and expressive face, he was a master of the deadpan delivery, often bringing a droll, rather sinister aspect to even his more benign characters. Ebenezer Scrooge was a pure showcase for his range as an actor, leaning into his meanness with real relish and surprising harshness, making his eventual redemption such a joyous transformation. The rest of the movie is pretty decent, too.
Sometimes when Christmas stock starts appearing in stores in early November and you hear Noddy Holder bellowing “It’s Christmas!” for the 570th time, don’t you just wish a horde of malicious monsters would come along and just tear this whole Christmas thing down?
That’s the joy of Joe Dante’s gleefully wicked Gremlins, the original anti-Christmas movie. The set up is classic high concept - there is a cuddly creature who you mustn’t get wet, feed after midnight, or expose to sunlight. Bad things happen if you do, like unleashing a mob of cackling gremlins on your picturesque, Bedford Falls-esque hometown.
The human cast, including cult actor and Dante regular Dick Miller, are all fine, but the star of the show is Gizmo the Mogwai and his vicious offspring. Dante would go on to lampoon his own formula in Gremlins 2, but the original is still the perfect blend of comedy and horror.
Bad Santa (2003)
Christmas movie lovers had it great in 2003, with Elf and Bad Santa. The latter is the polar opposite of Favreau’s cheery family favourite, a strictly adult comedy which still finds a feel-good festive story under its Grinch-like exterior. Billy Bob Thornton is fantastic as Wille T. Soke, the alcoholic, sex-addicted, suicidal robber who masquerades as a store Santa each year just to access their safe. This sorry excuse for a human being finds some sort of redemption through an unlikely friendship with a bullied kid.
Foul-mouthed and raunchy with something to offend just about anyone, it’s nevertheless a spirited, well-written comedy with plenty of heart. A lot of this is down to director Terry Zwigoff, who has a genuine affinity for misfits and losers, as he showed in his equally wonderful Ghost World.
Home Alone (1990)
1990 was a great year for Joe Pesci, playing pocket-sized loose cannon Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas and then Harry, the slightly smarter half of the Wet Brothers in Chris Columbus’s popular tale of child neglect and home invasion.
In telling the story of Kevin McCallister, an eight-year-old kid defending his home against a pair of bumbling crooks, screenwriter John Hughes flipped the premise of his earlier seasonal hit, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Instead of the protagonist trying to get back home for the holidays, his family needs to get back to him. The stakes are raised because he’s a vulnerable young kid.
Hughes and Columbus lightly touch upon darker elements - Kevin suspects an old man in the neighbourhood is a murderer, for instance - but mostly play up the wish fulfilment aspect of the scenario. The extended set piece where Kevin sets a series of hilariously painful traps for the house breakers is the highlight, but there is plenty of fun watching him enjoy his newfound independence and use his resourcefulness to order essentials like pizza. After all, who didn’t enjoy having the run of the house when their parents were away?
With Columbus’ transparent direction, Home Alone feels very much like a John Hughes joint, and watching again recently I was surprised by how great Macaulay Culkin is in this movie - he really holds the whole thing together and isn’t schmaltzy at all.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
The Christmas period is a lot scarier in Europe. Here in the Czech Republic, December kicks off with Saint Nicholas Day, or Mikuláš, where kids are visited by St. Nick, an Angel, and a horned Devil. The latter’s job is to carry naughty kids off to hell in a sack, and it can be quite intense for small children. The Devil figure is known as Krampus in neighbouring countries, with Krampusnacht celebrated in Austria and Germany. There is another horned Yuletide creature in Finland called the Joulupukki, which is central to the dark comedy horror Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.
It plays as a bizarre backstory for Santa. After a British research team uncover an immense horned creature imprisoned in ice in a Lapland mountaintop, a farmer’s reindeer herd is slaughtered by an unknown predator. Initially suspecting wolves, they discover it is the work of feral naked old men who are driven into a murderous frenzy by people doing naughty things like smoking, swearing and drinking.
With its origins in a short film about a team of specialist hunters who capture, tame, and export genuine Lapland Father Christmases each year, Jalmari Helander successfully expanded the one-joke premise into a genuinely atmospheric horror comedy, told with typically black, deadpan Scandinavian humour.
So there you have it, those are my 10 favourite Christmas movies. What are your picks? Let us know!
Thanks Lee! Whatever your religion or beliefs, we wish you all a Very Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year!
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.