It is all pretty obvious what makes a film a ‘Christmas Film’, but a good Christmas film is surely another matter. Every year a whole collection of truly awful films that are as cheap, tacky and nasty as Christmas itself are released: A couple get a box office release, the rest often go straight to DVD or even straight to some cheap movie channel never to be seen apart from by accident. Just like Christmas music, we tend to love to hate them, or just hate them and wish they would simply go away. Well, occasionally there are genuinely good Christmas films, and here is my personal top 10 of the best of the bunch (in my humble opinion).
Oh, and to save getting a torrent of abuse for not including it: The Nightmare Before Christmas would be at number 11.
1. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
Christmas is apparently a time for generosity, forgiveness and good will to all men (except Danny Dyer) and all these virtues have been severely tested by a majority of Bruce Willis’ output in the last five years or so, but to serve us as a reminder that he was once bloody good is Die Hard, surely one of the best action films of all time? And yes of course this is a Christmas film; it all takes place on Christmas Eve, and the festive timing of Alan Rickman’s group of terrorists attempting to take over the Nakatomi Plaza provides the basis for many extremely hilarious scenes!
2. Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988)
Of the plethora of movie adaptations of the immortal festive tale, this for me is by far the best; The greed infested setting of 1980s Manhattan providing the perfect setting as nasty old TV chief Frank Cross (Bill Murray) gets the expected three spiritual visits. The contemporary setting and darker take on the tale, combined with the slapstick and dry humour perfectly suit Murray’s unique style and thankfully it avoids the cheese till the very, very end.
3. Elf (Jon Favreau, 2003)
In a decade where Hollywood really did churn out big stars in terrible Christmas films (Ben Affleck in Surviving Christmas anyone?), the film that elevated Will Ferrell into the mainstream as a human raised by elves trying to meet his real dad (James Caan) is a genuinely funny festive treat. There is a good enough combination of subtle satire, over the top comedy and intelligent scripting to make the inevitable clichés genuinely enjoyable and just about forgivable.
4. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
Like Die Hard, a great film that can be watched all year round, but the festive setting only enhances the fun! As scaly monsters with an extremely dark sense of humour attack a town, the fact it looks as peaceful, snowy and perfect as any on a typical Christmas card adds a festive feeling to the chaos and ensuing destruction. Of course how can we forget the Christmas decorated department store finale involving many potential Christmas presents. And avoid that stair lift!
5. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
We all know the songs about Father Christmas, well none of them seem to take on the slightly more sinister tone of this delightfully dark Finnish film. Here the Santa of legend is a demon that has been buried deep under a snowy mountain and there is a good reason for that; he and his group of ravenous elves kidnap and kill any child that has been naughty. There is an underlying sense of humour and fun (admittedly with a dark twist), and a genuinely thrilling budget stretching finale in what is a very unique Christmas film. Perhaps not one for the whole family to watch together while the Christmas dinner goes down, so maybe best to watch the Bond film first and save this dark little treat when the kids have gone to bed!
6. It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
Though it would certainly be possible to question whether Frank Capra’s celebrated melodrama was ever intended to be a Christmas film, there is no denying the festive setting adds poignancy to the films emotional climax. Though the first 90 minutes have nothing to do with Christmas whatsoever, they do provide the necessary context for what is to come when viewing the film. The initial dark tone of the famous climax only enhances the emotional satisfaction of seeing George Bailey realise the true meaning of happiness and Clarence the Angel getting his wings, no matter what your take on life or what time of year it is.
7. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992)
Without a doubt enhanced by Michael Caine’s incredibly commanding performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, The Muppets surprisingly tinker very little with the source material to produce an incredibly enjoyable and faithful take on the famous festive tale. Providing plenty of heart, fun and good songs, it is impossible for viewers of all ages not to be engaged as Gonzo narrates as Dickens, while all the other famous Muppets play all Dickens’ famous characters.
8. Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989)
Christmas can often be a farcical time when so many things go wrong, and there is quite simply no better festive farce of a film than Christmas Vacation. As poor old good natured Clark Griswold tries his very best to make it a perfect (and extremely well lit) family Christmas, but his impossible family members and some serious bad luck intervene with his plans. Extremely silly and painfully funny, they just do make them like this anymore!
9. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
Trust the French to give us a Christmas film that is long (150 minutes), serious and dialogue heavy. However this dark tale of an extremely dysfunctional and embittered extended family gathering for Christmas will strike a familiar chord to anyone who has experienced those traditional awkward festive moments when certain family members can no longer pretend they actually like one another. It is hardly the most uplifting Christmas film with a tense and mysterious atmosphere often delivered with chilling subtext throughout, but there is however a biting sense of humour to proceedings, great acting, very familiar characters and some surprising twists and turns to keep things engrossing the whole time.
Click to read my full review here
10. Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
A snowy and festive Gotham City provides the perfect setting to Tim Burton’s second Batman outing as The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Christopher Walken try to take advantage of the festive good will of Gotham’s citizens and take over the city. With a slightly more comic (and perhaps more enjoyable) tone than Burton’s first effort, the festive season plays a key role in many of the stories key developments and paves the way for Catwoman’s trademark innuendo’s. It ends with Bruce Wayne all alone with only a cat for company on a lonely snowy Gotham night saying to Alfred “Merry Christmas Alfred, and Good will to all men……and women”, and then Danny Elfman’s haunting score kicks in, a very festive end I would say!