‘Tis the season to be jolly – and also the season to bury yourself in sofa cushions, stoke up the fire and cram mince pies into your mouth while watching seasonally-appropriate films.
Yes, watching Christmas movies is one of the many guilt-free pleasures this time of year provides, and those of you with streaming service subscriptions have plenty of festive fare to pump into your eyeballs. Much of it, predictably, is absolute dross (A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby, anyone?), which is why we’ve made our own Santa-style “nice list” of some of our faves to help you organise your viewing binge.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The story of Jack Skellington opening up a portal between Halloween Town and Christmas Town is executed in glorious stop-motion with fantastic, dark and spindly animation.
Word of warning: it is a musical. But it’s the good kind of musical. It is, after all, from the wonderfully offbeat brain of director Tim Burton.
It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s not easy turning a film about attempted suicide into a festive family favourite – but Frank Capra and his leading man James Stewart did exactly that with It’s A Wonderful Life. In fact, this fantasy tale about considering all the ways in which we touch others’ lives throughout our own is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies ever made, and its sentimentality is ideal for this time of year.
So when you realise you’ve left your other half’s presents behind at the last minute on Christmas Eve, don’t panic too much or else you might be plagued – we mean, helped – by a well-meaning angel called Clarence.
One of the greatest Christmas movies of all time? Why not? Home Alone is now over 30 years old, but for many of us Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas until we’ve spent 90 minutes watching Macaulay Culkin terrorising a pair of hapless burglars. In fact, director Chris Columbus only spends a relatively short third act of the film depicting 8-year old Kevin McCallister’s rampage, with the rest of the movie setting it up and exploring what a kid gets up to when his family have inadvertently left him behind in their huge Chicago home at Christmas.
Romantic comedy specialist Nancy Meyers takes on the Christmas season in this glossy, schmaltzy transatlantic yarn that raises a few laughs while not being quite as vom-inducing as Love Actually. And if that sounds like faint praise… well, it is. But hey, sometimes you’ve just got to indulge in a bit of lifestyle escapism.
In The Holiday, two rich white women swap homes for the festive season: Cameron Diaz comes to leafy Surrey, while Kate Winslet trades her cottage for a luxurious Los Angeles pad. Both end up meeting men who may or may not be right for them and if you can’t predict how this one ends, every day of your life must be a source of constant delight and amazement.
Forget the tedious discussion about whether Die Hard is or is not “a Christmas film” (spoiler: it is). What’s not up for debate is its place in the action movie canon, thanks to its killer combo of charismatic, relatable hero (Bruce Willis in a career-defining role and a career-defining vest), memorable villain (the sorely missed Alan Rickman in full scenery-chewing beast mode) and assured, non-showy direction by John McTiernan.
For sub-rock dwellers out there who don’t already know the setup, the plot is simple: Willis’ New York cop comes to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife for Christmas, rocking up at her work party in a swanky hi-tech hi-rise just as the building is hijacked by Rickman and his gang of terrorists. Cut off from the outside world, outmanned and outgunned, Willis must use his wiles to save the day. Wonderful stuff to watch, any time of the year.
To some people, the thought of watching Love Actually is more likely to make them sick than overindulging on Christmas day. But to many, many others it’s a vitally important festive ritual, a Richard Curtis-choreographed dance through an unrecognisably clean London, with its equally well-scrubbed middle class denizens (plus Martine McCutcheon as the token cockney geezette) experiencing the L-word in its many forms.
While there are a truckload of issues with it – not least the bloke who declares his love for his mate’s new wife through the medium of cue cards on her doorstep like some kind of massive weirdo – in a season where most topical films are about a fat man who delivers presents to everybody on the planet, a child protecting his home from two burglars through the application of extreme violence, or an elf going to New York in search of his biological father, there’s no harm in treating Love Actually like the similar fantasy it is.
One of those finding-your-true-self-at-Christmastime absurdities – but with a violently green Will Ferrell-shaped twist. And in spite of Ferrell’s propensity to irritate, the PG-rated humour and the sickeningly festive subject matter, you’ll probably find your true self guiltily giggling into your eggnog.
When Ferrell’s North Pole-dwelling elf – one of Santa’s not-so-little helpers – discovers he’s in fact human, he ups sticks to New York to track down his biological father (James Caan). Holiday chaos ensues as he endeavours to bring festive cheer to all he encounters – whether they like it or not.
If you have a child between the ages of two and eight, you may already know this one. Or rather, you may already know EVERY SINGLE WORD OF EVERY SINGLE SONG, which character is singing them, what they’re wearing at the time, what happens next and what it means for Disney’s profit margin. You may also be able to pinpoint the exact moment at which your brain turned to mush at the sheer, relentless onslaught of it all.
That said, Frozen is an excellent modern-day Disney film. It’s not horribly sexist, in that the lead characters are strong-willed, independent girls who don’t need saving, the animation looks great, the story is gripping and funny without overdoing it on the cheese – and yes, there’s no denying the power of the songs. So, definitely one to settle down with and watch together as a family – but just be aware that you will have those tunes lodged firmly in your head well into 2022.
A late 1980s-set take on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, made all the more entertaining by the presence of Bill Murray in the lead role as Frank Cross, an egotistical, cynical US television producer who thinks it an acceptable idea to staple antlers to a mouse.
Cross must find his redemption through interactions with the crude, cigar-smoking Ghost of Christmas Past, the hyperactive, ball-busting ghost of Christmas Present and the ominously creepy Ghost of Christmas Future. Murray reportedly felt that Scrooged could have been a minor Christmas comedy classic had director Richard Donner exercised a little more restraint, but as it stands it’s an enjoyably broad romp with Murray in fine form.
He’s not rotund, he’s not kind, and he definitely isn’t jolly. But Billy Bob Thornton’s whiskey-fuelled, chain-smoking, potty-mouthed, womanising Santa Claus is beautiful in his own dysfunctional dark comedic way.
A strange friend in the form of a socially inept boy called Thurman Merman makes the off-the-rails Santa see the error of his ways after years of drug abuse and robberies. Heartwarming and filthy at the same time – and a leading candidate for the ultimate alternative Christmas movie. As is the sequel, which we’ve included below.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Ordinarily, the rule is that if a film’s colour scheme alone makes you sympathise with the baddie – the Grinch, Scrooge, Danny Dyer and the like – it should be avoided like the great chestnut plague of 1972.
Yet however kitsch and clichéd this (non-animated) Grinch movie is, and no matter how tiresome you find Jim Carrey’s deliberate overacting, Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of the Dr Seuss classic bounces along with enough momentum to make you raise a glass of egg nog.
Trading Places has all the elements required of a Christmas movie: an appropriate winter setting, an underlying fable about money not being important, and of course love and family (even if it is the atypical kind). Oh, and Santa – a drunk, depressed, salmon-stealing Santa, but a Santa all the same.
The film’s unconventional heroes – a street hustler (Eddie Murphy), an arrogant yuppie (Dan Aykroyd) and a prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis) – aren’t exactly your typical pillars of good, but compared to a pair of sinister millionaires, they’re easy to root for.
The Santa Clause
Do you wish it could be Christmas every day? How about actually being Santa? Tim Allen took time out from some, er, home improvements to accidentally knock the beardy benefactor off the roof on Christmas Eve. Not wanting to ruin the rest of the world’s festivities, he takes up the sleigh reins and sets about doing the work of – no, becoming, Santa. Festive silliness that wouldn’t do at any other time of year.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Let’s be honest, the majority of Charles Dickens’ misery-fuelled masterpieces could be vastly improved by a few puppets to lighten the mood. Just think: The Muppet Bleak House or Fozzie Bear’s Old Curiosity Muppet Shop. Anyway, here Jim Henson’s beloved creations star in a reimagining of Dickens’ festive fable. If Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t get you chuckling, you’re probably overdue a visit to Dr Bunsen Honeydew to have your funny bone examined.
Gremlins isn’t your typical horror movie, despite its grotesque villains and ability to rack up some tension. It’s actually a remarkably light-hearted, family-friendly take on the genre, with very little visible violence or gore, buoyed along by its wholesome Christmas setting.
In fact, it skirts the line so well that it actually inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating. Those not around in the 1980s may not be aware of the movie’s plot-starter, but it’s quite clever: when a teenager is given a cute, cuddly and friendly creature as a gift, he’s warned not to get it wet or feed it after midnight – but not what happens if he breaks those rules. We quickly find out the answer to that question, and the rest of the film concerns dealing with the terrifying consequences.
The Night Before
This laddish 2015 comedy sees a trio of old friends (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie) decide to take their traditional Christmas Eve bar crawl to the next level by locating the Holy Grail of Christmas parties: the Nutcracker Ball, a semi-mythical New York party that they’ve never managed to get into before.
Armed with a boxful of narcotics, the trio embarks on an epic quest through the Big Apple, getting into all manner of scrapes involving mothers, nosebleeds, ex-girlfriends, and an enigmatic high school pot dealer played with relish by Michael Shannon.
If your Christmas spirit is in short supply this year, beware: according to legend, those who are selfish, miserly or generally act like Grinches during the festive period won’t be visited by Father Christmas but by his dark counterpart. We’re of course referring to Krampus, the mythical pagan demon (and antagonist of this horror-comedy), who punishes wrongdoers at Christmas – and we’re not talking about leaving lumps of coal in a stocking here, but something more like “dragging you down to spend an eternity in the underworld”. That kind of stuff.
When a feuding family find themselves snowed in at Christmas, their bickering is interrupted by a series of creepy goings-on. Can they survive long enough to open their presents, or will Krampus teach them all a deadly Yuletide lesson?
Black Christmas (2019)
A rare “serious” Christmas horror film, albeit not a particularly gory one: you can tell it’s been heavily edited to avoid too restrictive a certificate, and as a result this tale of sorority sisters stalked by a mysterious robed killer over the holiday break doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should.
Still, it almost counts as a clever satire on cancel culture, the patriarchy’s influence on the college education system and gender politics, if that’s your bag – but, as with the scares, we do wish it expressed its points with a little more force. If you only watch one creepy festive film this year, make it The Nightmare Before Christmas or Krampus rather than this.
Deck the Halls (2006)
Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito play small-town neighbours embroiled in a festive feud in this goofy family comedy. Broderick’s buttoned-down Steve Finch sees himself as the custodian and curator of the town’s holiday festivities, ensuring everything remains restrained and tasteful, but DeVito’s brash newcomer Buddy Hall isn’t interested in doing things by halves: he wants his house so stacked with Christmas lights that it’s visible from space, and doesn’t care if he offends his neighbour’s sensibilities while doing so. Cue slapstick warfare and everybody eventually learning the true meaning of Christmas – again.
Bad Santa 2
It’s not often that a sequel arrives a full 13 years after the first film, but Bad Santa 2 did just that – and while the world might have moved on since 2003, Billy Bob Thornton’s misanthropic safe-cracking Santa hasn’t.
He’s still the disgusting, deviant drunk we met in the first Bad Santa, and with nothing to show for his life of crime, his thoughts have turned to suicide – until he gets a package from a certain little person with a ticket to Chicago and the promise of one killer heist. Cue reunions, binges, fist fights and things that are unmentionable on a family website.