Christmas is about family, food, and forgiveness… as well as movies
There’s nothing quite like tucking down with a box of Quality Street and a seasonal classic if you’ve overindulged and are suddenly unable to budge from the sofa, or if you simply need a break from having the same awkward discussions with your family. Movies will be even more comforting than normal for those of us whose Christmas plans have been ruined by the epidemic.
Here is a ranking of the greatest of them, which range from sheer schmaltz to low-key drama.
1) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s true that during around 120 minutes of this film’s 130 minutes, life isn’t all that lovely. In fact, this heartbreaking storey of a down-on-his-luck bank clerk (James Stewart) who is on the verge of committing suicide when a trainee angel shows him what the world would have been like without him (spoiler: much worse) is emotionally taxing. But it’s also a well-deserved classic that’s warm, hilarious, ageless, and life-affirming.
2) Home Alone (1990)
After a brief indulgence in every child’s ill-conceived dream – “I made my family disappear,” Kevin, played by Macaulay Culkin, declares after his family goes on vacation without him – The plot of Home Alone then abruptly shifts gears, introducing two filthy robbers into the equation. Prepare to witness some of the most creative and startling violent self-defence tactics you’ve ever seen.
3) Elf (2003)
This out-of-place comedy, in which one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) finds that he’s a human and sets out to locate his father in New York, could have been irritating if Ferrell hadn’t given his all to his ridiculous part. Elf manages to be both self-aware and fiercely uncynical, thanks to outstanding performances from James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Zooey Deschanel.
4) The Snowman (1982)
Though this lovely, wordless animation is not generally known outside the UK — it was initially shown on Channel 4 in 1982 and has been broadcast annually since then – it is definitely worth 26 minutes of anyone’s time. The picture is on a small child and a come-to-life snowman (kind of like Jack Frost, but not as bad), and it concludes with a stunning flourish, as the two glide over England’s icy plains to the sad strains of “Walking in the Air.”
5) Love Actually (2003)
By now, we’ve all read the Jezebel piece and know that Love Actually is riddled with flaws. However, there is much too much to appreciate in this ensemble romcom to dismiss it, particularly Emma Thompson’s stunning, highly lauded performance as Alan Rickman’s mistreated wife.
6) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Who’d have guessed that a group of wise-cracking puppets would provide one of the greatest versions of Charles Dickens’ Christmas fable? Michael Caine swore to act “like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company” in his part as Ebenezer Scrooge, regardless of the absurd shenanigans going on around him. His strategy paid well.
7) Happiest Season (2020)
A glossy, mainstream Christmas rom-com featuring a gay couple at its centre had been long overdue, and writer-director Clea DuVall did not disappoint with Happiest Season. The film, starring Kristen Stewart as Abby, a good-hearted Christmas sceptic who must pretend to be straight when her closeted girlfriend (Makcenzie Davis) brings her home for the holidays, broke streaming records when it premiered on Hulu – the silver lining of its Coronavirus-affected theatrical release. The film has its detractors – for some, the hilarious farce veers too close to true emotional agony – but it’s a fantastic place to start in the long, patient effort to make the holidays a little gayer.
8) Carol (2015)
There’s no shortage of love and romance in Christmas movies, but it’s all overwhelmingly heterosexual. Even Love Actually recorded a homosexual plotline among its 524 intertwined stories before deciding it should be removed from the film, leaving the monstrosity “Colin travels to America” untouched. Carol, a wonderfully photographed version of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 book in which department store employee Therese (Rooney Mara) falls in love with a mysterious older lady (Cate Blanchett) in the run-up to Christmas, is a refreshing respite from hetero norm-nativity.
9) Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
The fact that the Home Alone franchise dragged on for three films too long is commonly known, yet its initial sequel is shockingly fantastic. Sure, it follows virtually exactly the same structure as the first and just relocates to New York City, but it’s hard to complain about a formula this brilliant with Macaulay Culkin still on board (he wisely dropped out after this one). If you’re looking for holiday happiness, skip Donald Trump’s brief appearance.
10) Gremlins (1984)
To keep a gremlin from creating havoc, follow three easy rules: don’t expose it to light, don’t get it wet, and never feed it after midnight. Naturally, all three of those criteria are disregarded throughout this Christmas comedic horror. The resulting mayhem is hilarious to see.
11) Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Judy Garland almost turned down her part as the lovesick Esther Smith in this musical comedy because she was tired of portraying immature characters. Her unpredictable behaviour damaged the production when she eventually decided to do it — she would routinely show up on set hours late or not at all. “It was some years later before I fully learned what she’d gone through,” her co-star Mary Astor later stated, referring to Garland’s difficulties with mental health and addiction – but you’d never know it watching this sweet, lovely picture. It’s also responsible for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” one of the finest Christmas carols ever written.
12) A Christmas Carol (1999)
There have been over a hundred cinematic versions of Charles Dickens’ renowned novella, in which a penny-pinching miser is forced to alter his ways after visiting the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. Though this made-for-television picture isn’t the most well-known reinvention, it is one of the greatest, owing in large part to Patrick Stewart and Richard E Grant’s precisely tuned performances.
13) Die Hard (1988)
Whatever side you take in the eternal discussion over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie (Bruce Willis disagrees), it’s impossible to argue that it’s a fantastic action film. The fact that the movie takes place on Christmas Eve and includes lines like “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho,” makes it great holiday watching as well – especially if you’re tired of the usual holiday fare.
14) The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife, based on Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, stars Cary Grant as probably the most endearing angel ever to grace the silver screen. Grant’s Dudley unwittingly falls in love with the eponymous Julia while taking on human form to rescue a struggling bishop (David Niven) and his damaged marriage (Loretta Young). But he’s an angel, not a thief, and everything turns out OK on Christmas Eve.
15) White Christmas (1954)
White Christmas was supposed to reunite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire for their third Irving Berlin showcase musical, with a reinvented version of the title song, which Bing Crosby had performed in Holiday Inn over a decade earlier. When Fred Astaire denied the role, Danny Kaye was cast as an aspiring entertainer with Bing Crosby. The film that resulted was a box office triumph and a cult favourite. Astaire was unable to attend.
16) Happy Christmas (2014)
Joe Swanberg’s low-budget, totally improvised film is an unassuming and underappreciated masterpiece from the “mumblecore” actor-director. The film’s secret weapon is Melanie Lynskey’s brilliantly nuanced performance as an irresponsible twenty-something who crashes, uninvited, back into the life of her older brother Jeff (Swanberg). Anna Kendrick is typically charismatic as an irresponsible twenty-something who crashes, uninvited, back into the life of her older brother Jeff (Swanberg).
17) The Holiday (2006)
Over the holidays, film trailer editor Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and wedding writer Iris (Kate Winslet) swap houses in an attempt to get away from their bad relationships. This Nancy Meyers classic is as predictable as its false movie posters, yet it’s charming and amusing, with a bizarre but beautiful storyline featuring a nonagenarian Oscar winner.
18) Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
It’s impossible to argue with Richard Attenborough’s portrayal as Kris Kringle and Mara Wilson’s performance as the precociously cynical Dorey, regardless of whether you consider this picture a heartwarming gem or an insult to the 1947 original.
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19) The Apartment (1960)
“What about the unfortunate schnook who has to climb into the lovers’ still-warm bed?” wrote writer and filmmaker Billy Wilder in his notebook after seeing Brief Encounter, in which two individuals use a friend’s residence to conclude an affair. The Apartment is the product of that doodle, a picture that never puts a foot wrong thanks to its absurd yet well-crafted plot and career-best performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
20) The Santa Clause (1994)
When Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) unintentionally murders Santa Claus (a good, light-hearted start to a family film), he is expected to step in and take his place. He first refuses, but when his hair turns white, a beard and belly appear overnight, and youngsters approach him with wish lists, he grudgingly accepts the mantle. It’s stranger and darker than it should be, yet it’s entertaining to see.