The best of the best…
I think it’s pretty clear by now that I don’t know shit. I once gave Amazing Spider-man 2 10 out of 10. I bad mouthed Sinister, not realising that it was actually one of the best horror movies of the decade. RobScene is basically just a litany of sticks to beat me with. But if there is one thing I do know, it’s Christmas movies. Long time readers will know that every year, around Christmas time, I put myself through 12 days of Christmas films. 12 Christmas films in 12 days. I have done this for five long years. For five long years I have missed social occasions, strained my marriage and spent too long staring at Tim Allen. That is 60 Christmas movies maths fans. This year I realised that I have basically ran out of Christmas films, so it’s time to collate what I have found. Here are 10 of the best of them…
10. Elf (2003)
I’ll be honest… I don’t share some people’s undying love for Elf and it barely scraped this list in place of Bad Santa but there is no denying its power as a modern classic of Christmas films. Perhaps if I’d have been a little younger when it came out I might appreciate it more. That being said, Zooey Deschanel is adorable, Will Ferrell has a lovely time in the titular role and James Caan quietly steals the show as the Scrooge of the story.
9. Black Christmas (1974)
Sadly not a hip-hop retelling of the nativity but no list that I have created is complete without at least one horror film.
Black Christmas sees a bunch of interchangeable teenage girls being stalked by a mysterious stranger. Joining the fun is John Saxon, who has played a cop so often now that he probably thinks he is one, and Margot Kidder, who would graduate from her role as a foul mouthed, drunken hussy in Black Christmas to become none other than hard hitting journalist Lois Lane in the Superman movies. A trajectory that absolutely nobody would have seen coming on the strength of her performance in this movie.
There are various other characters you would never encounter anywhere but in 70’s cinema. The cackling policeman, the lampshade wearing drunken housekeeper, the one facial expressioned father. Its flaws only add to the overall charm however and Black Christmas is surprisingly creepy in places. Add in a super effective ending and we have a very decent horror film that still holds up today.
8. Arthur Christmas (2011)
Jessssus Christ. When I sat down to watch a low key British animation film called Arthur Christmas, I didn’t expect it to end with everybody in my front room being in floods of actual tears. I didn’t feel that emotionally drained at the end of Schindler’s List for God’s sake.
Arthur Christmas starts out as an interesting concept with Santa’s two sons vying for the big man’s attention while trying to deliver a present that was missed on the first run. By the end, the film has turned into an emotionally devastating character study that reduced to me a gibbering wreck. Some of you will be sceptical. I urge you to watch it.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Miracle on 34th Street is so old it could lay claim to being one of the first ever Christmas films. Certainly one of the first not adapted from a certain Charles Dickens novel. It’s so old in fact that Edmund Gwenn who plays Kris Kringle was born in 1877. To put that into context that is 21 years before Queen Victoria died.
Despite being nearly 70 years old there is no doubt that Miracle on 34th Street is a quintessential Christmas film. It is certainly one of the most influential, along with It’s A Wonderful Life, which came out the year before.
While the 1994 remake has it’s charms, notably that Richard Attenborough plays Santa as less of a dick than Gwenn does, as a whole it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. Miracle on 34th Street won three Oscars upon release and is rightly considered one of the all time greatest Christmas films. No arguments here.
6. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
#25 in the IMDB top 250 and with Oscars coming out of its arse like stuffing from a turkey, we are talking about the daddy of Christmas films. The strange thing is until the final half hour there is barely a mention of Christmas. The ending is so uplifting and so famous however and that is what people remember.
Director Frank Capra takes a long time to convey the simple missive that we should be thankful for what we have, over two hours in fact, but it is the performance of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey (surely one of the most likeable movie characters ever) that pushes this film along and keeps the viewer engaged.
It is a testament to the film’s quality that nearly 70 years and untold cultural shifts later, It’s A Wonderful Life still stands up and will continue to find a new audience at Christmas time for years to come.
5. Love Actually (2003)
In the wake of Brexit and Trump and people having their heads chopped off all over the place, it is difficult to imagine that a film like Love Actually could possibly exist in this day and age. For a start, that bit when Jojen Reed runs past airport security at the end would no doubt have climaxed with him being gunned down after 20 yards before asylum seekers cut off his skin to drape on theirs, in a desperate attempt to look younger in order to gain entry to the UK…
And this is a shame. Because while there is a nagging doubt that Love Actually might be a bit shit, it tugs your heartstrings in all the right places and features loads of lovely British icons and also Martine McCutcheon at the absolute peak of her feminine powers. No prime minister in living memory is turning McCutcheon down at her best, not even Thatcher.
Elsewhere, we have Liam Neeson before Taken changed the way we view him forever (I have a certain set of skills, I will teach my stepson to play the drums and then pursue you to the airport). We have Andrew Lincoln sliming his way into Keira Knightley before he became the Walking Dead and she became a great actress. We have Colin Firth and Hugh Grant trying to out gentleman each other and Alan Rickman playing an evil monster for the second time in a Christmas film (shout out to Die Hard). That’s before we come to Bill Nighy and Rab C. Nesbitt drinking and whoring their way across the UK.
Joking aside though, I said earlier this kind of film just wouldn’t be made any more and that is true. Cynical audiences and tensions between races, sexes and everybody else mean that the world is a meaner and less loving place. As much as it is easy to mock and it’s a bit saccharine, I definitely enjoyed Love Actually, actually. One of the finer Christmas films.
4. Scrooged (1988)
Part remake, part spoof of the classic Dickins tale, Scrooged is a weird film even by ’80s standards. Just as comfortable with cartoonish violence as with heart-tugging emotion, it could have been an utter disaster if not for Bill Murray’s brilliant performance as the protagonist. Murray can make anything funny but he has a genuinely clever and witty script to work with here, and there are countless laugh out loud moments. Crucially, most of the effects are simple and effective and they still hold up today, and the ones that don’t are so ridiculous it doesn’t matter that they look a bit dated. Also, any film that contains Bill Murray uttering the immortal line ‘well, I’m sure Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples’ is absolutely fine by me.
3. Home Alone (1990)
Home Alone is still in the top 50 highest grossing films worldwide and it made a huge star of Maculey Culkin albeit briefly. The real stars of Home Alone however are the hapless and brilliantly named Wet Bandits portrayed by the always hilarious Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. I have also loved John Candy since seeing Cool Runnings and Uncle Buck as a kid so his cameo as Gus Polanski – polka king of the Midwest – is also a plus point.
Culkin is certainly confident and he has a certain charm but it is difficult to see why he became such a massive star on the strength of this film. I much prefer Devin Ratray as Culkin’s bullying older brother Buzz. I have often longed for a spin off pairing Buzz up with Biff Tannen from Back to the Future where they go on a spiritual and existential journey but alas nothing has materialized.
Home Alone is not a brilliant film from a technical standpoint but it is a real, bona fide classic and for many people of my generation it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
2. Gremlins (1984)
Ahh Gremlins. Made in that glorious time in ’80s cinema where all characters had the same haircut. Male, female or gremlin.
Gremlins was written by Chris Columbus of The Goonies fame so he seems to have the timeless classic thing pretty mastered. There are loads of laugh out loud moments throughout, and it is actually darker than you remember which is sometimes necessary at Christmas.
I I loved Gizmo as a child but I now realise his evil counterparts actually have a really brilliant time (in the 24 hours they have been alive one of them has hilariously adapted a penchant for drinking alone in jazz bars) so I have sided with them now. I’m going to leave you with this outrageous admission: I actually prefer Gremlins to ET.
1. The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992)
There is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to Christmas films. You can’t look at one Christmas film and say that is definitely better than another one. Your preference depends on what you were brought up on. Just as there is no answer to the Coco Pops vs Sugar Puffs debate, one could not provide an unequivocal winner in a battle between Scrooged and Miracle on 34th Street. For me you can forgot the tree going up, the Coca Cola advert or my Dad starting to drink a single malt with every meal, Christmas begins when I watch The Muppets Christmas Carol.
Before Adventure Time and Pixar, The Muppets followed the trail blazed by Looney Tunes in not talking down to children. The Muppets Christmas Carol takes in themes of omniscience, death, regret and redemption while still staying faithful to Dickins’ beautiful prose.
At the heart of this anthropomorphic retelling of the Dickins classic is a wonderful performance from Michael Caine as Scrooge. He plays it razor straight and adds gravitas to the heavier scenes, particularly those shared with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (always the life and soul of any party).
The juxtaposition of classic literature with familiar Muppets classics such as heckling old men, singing mice and talking frogs, always seems surprisingly natural and it never jars. The songs are mostly on point, even when Michael Caine starts warbling like someone’s uncle at a New Years party, and because of the aforementioned refusal to patronize the audience there are many genuinely funny moments throughout.
For me The Muppets Christmas Carol simply IS Christmas. And if you don’t agree you you should be boiled in your own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through your heart.
Merry Goddamn Christmas!
A Christmas Story
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation