A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens’s classic tale has been adapted into everything from a musical to a star vehicle for the Muppets. This British film featuring the incomparable Alastair Sim as converted humbug Ebenezer Scrooge, however, is the definitive version. We dare you not to get a lump in your throat when Glyn Dearman’s Tiny Tim says, ‘Bless us, one and all’.
A Charlie Brown Christmas: By now as iconic as the story of Kris Kringle himself, this Peanuts-based perennial sends viewers into happy spasms of neck-tipped dancing year after year. Its most lasting achievement is Vince Guaraldi’s breezy jazz score—whimsical and lovely like a falling snowflake.
Gremlins: Plenty of Christmas presents come with instructions, yet none are as ominous as the following: Never expose to bright light, never add water and, crucially, never feed after midnight. Joe Dante’s horror-comedy turns a well-intentioned gift into a nightmare. Meanwhile, a traumatized Phoebe Cates tells the saddest Christmas story ever.
Elf: Will Ferrell’s overgrown-child persona hilariously complements this comedy about a guileless giant elf searching for his dad in NYC, but the film’s focus isn’t just on the funny bone. There’s an abundance of heart and soul in the way the film cherishes holiday cheer; in a genre that’s become generically saccharine, this is one modern Christmas movie that’s genuinely sweet.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: They previously leveled the American Midwest and Europe, so for the hilarious third installment in the Chevy Chase–starring comedy series, the Griswold clan plays it safe by staying home for the holidays. Disaster comes anyway, in the form of squirrel-infested Christmas trees, holiday dinner misadventures and Cousin Eddie’s overflowing septic tank.
Love, Actually: Eight or nine plotlets, a castlist the size of a rugby scrum and the accomplished hand of screenwriter Richard Curtis – this is firmly in the love it or hate it territory. If you can overlook the fact that Alan Rickman could ever be involved in a love affair (Severus Snape, really?), that Colin Firth is a serial loser (Mr Darcy, Really?) and that Hugh Grant is prime minister of Great Britain (seriously now?) then you have already invested enough good will to get plenty back in return. The show is stolen, as usual, by an excellent Bill Nighy and there is enough going on in the four weeks running up to Christmas that you will soon be humming carols and redecorating your tree to keep up with the festivities.
Nativity!: It is soppy, British-centric and predictable but we can’t help but like this festive family film. Starring a cast of British comedians (a between starring Hollywood roles Martin Freeman being the most recognisable) it focuses on a school’s attempt to stage a nativity play. The kids are not the most lovable and the writing isn’t razor sharp but the show-must-go-on mentality and positive message (we think it is ‘even rubbish people deserve a chance’) is enough to warm even the most wintry of hearts.
Arthur Christmas: This smart 3D animation from the Aardman stable opens with one of life’s great questions: how does Santa visit so many homes so quickly? The answer, it seems, is a high-tech army of elves dispatched, SAS-style, from a silent spaceship disguised as a cluster of stars. But it never used to be like this, not before Santa’s eldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), modernised the operation. Nevertheless, one parcel slips through the net, so it’s left to Santa’s sensitive younger son, Arthur (James McAvoy), and the retired, grumpy Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to deliver the package using reindeers and sleigh.
Fanny and Alexander: This late gem from Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman is a marvellously engrossing and thought-provoking film, filled with dazzling dramatic set-pieces and witty, knowing allusions to its creator’s artistic conceits and deceits. Especially when the children are subjected, thanks to their well-meaning but misguided mother to the harsh regime of the Bishop Vergerus, the film also packs an emotional punch, so that the elegant recreation of early-twentieth-century life feels alive in a sense barely dreamt of by most makers of ‘costume drama’. It can be heavy-going at times (expect more than four hours of Swedish subtitles) but, for the opening Yuletide feast alone it is essential Christmas viewing.
Scrooged: Update on the Dickens classic, with Bill Murray as a miserly TV network president who rejoins the human race following spectral visitations. The tone is set by a machine-gun assault on Santa's North Pole toy workshop and the timely arrival of the first of a series of guest star drop-ins (Miles Davis busks in the wintry streets). Scrooged is not subtle stuff, and since Murray's comic persona is uniquely hands-off in terms of emotion, his final impassioned speech about the true meaning of Christmas is a bit odd but it is well worth a viewing for a darker update on the family favourite.
The Muppet Christmas Carol: Acted to the parsimonious hilt by the human Scrooge (Caine), and framed by author-narrator Charles Dickens (the Great Gonzo) addressing his rodent audience (Rizzo the Rat), the story survives. All the pen-pushing glovesters in Scrooge's office run on fear of dismissal, a topical note, with Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog) negotiating but nervous. Not so his wife Miss Piggy, ready to have a go at Scrooge. The three ghosts of Christmas are wonderful and this is a fun adaptation of the classic story.
The Polar Express: One Christmas Eve, a boy lies in bed, listening hard for the bells of Santa's sleigh, which he has been told by a friend do not exist. Later that night he hears not bells but a very different sound as he joins a group of kids on board conductor Tom Hanks’ mystery train to be whisked away to have their (materialistic) beliefs reaffirmed by Mr Claus. Cue a roller-coaster ride, stunning camera angles and superb sound effects.
Jingle All The Way: This satire on the rampant commercialism of Christmas strays into Home Alone’s slapstick and sentimentality territory as under pressure dad, Arnold Schwarzenegger, chases around the city in search of the last available Turbo Man action doll for his son. Arnie’s comic touch gets a good run-out in one of his more under-rated performances.
Miracle on 34th Street: Might a Macy’s department store Santa be the real thing? And will he survive his insanity trial? The vibe of this immortal studio favorite is snappy and comedic, but it also packs the wallop of an essential holiday truth: Christmas magic often requires us to rise to the occasion of being charmed.
The Nightmare Before Christmas: Trust Goth-godhead Tim Burton and animator Henry Selick to concoct the perfect dose of alt-holiday fun in this musical comedy about the king of Halloween taking over yuletide festivities—with ghoulishly giddy results. For those who prefer to have themselves a scary little Christmas, this is the go-to movie.
Die Hard: As bad Christmas Eves go, few are worse than the one had by NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), whose reconciliation with his estranged wife in an LA skyscraper is interrupted by a bunch of machine-gun-toting terrorists. Filled with killer set pieces and a memorably hissable villain (Alan Rickman – the true spirit of Christmas?), John McTiernan’s crowd-pleasing action film is the gift that keeps on giving.
Home Alone: Accidentally left by himself for Christmas, precocious tyke Kevin McCallister (iconic child star Macaulay Culkin) protects his suburban home from a bumbling pair of thieves—in between binging on junk food and violent movies. With this surprise blockbuster, director Chris Columbus (and screenwriter John Hughes) fulfilled every eight-year-old’s family-begone! fantasies.
It’s A Wonderful Life: Tinged with magical passages, buckets of good will and an alternate plotline with the disturbing kick of a Twilight Zone episode, this tribute to the efforts of a small-town do-gooder (James Stewart, in his most beloved role) cements the idea of Christmas as a time for giving.
The Snowman/The Snowman and the Snowdog: For British television viewers this is as much a part of Christmas as turkey dinners, tinsel and crackers. Broadcast every year since 1982 it tells the tale of a young boy’s magical relationship with the snowman he makes in his back garden. Wordless except for the inclusion of the song Walking in The Air it relies on a touching musical score and pencil drawn animation to deliver humour, drama and heart-breaking emotion. 2012 saw the release of a sequel to critical acclaim. Turn your air-conditioning up to freezing and watch them back to back with a mug of hot chocolate.