The IMDb lists over 1,500 feature films with the plot keyword ‘Christmas’, though that may seem a conservative figure to anyone who’s spent enough years channel-hopping their way through the festive season. All over the TV schedules and bolstered at the cinema each December by at least a couple of new releases, the Christmas movie has long been a genre unto itself.
Yet few other genres inspire such partisanship as can take over film lovers once the winter settles in. We all have our different favourites, and no matter how jaded we may be at the thought of yet another annual viewing of one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol, when the discussion comes up we’ll still happily leap to the defence of our preferred Scrooge incarnation, like Doctor Who fans debating their favourite Doctor. Mickey’s Christmas Carol or the Muppets’? Alastair Sim, Albert Finney or George C. Scott? Bill Murray or Michael Caine?
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Christmas films come teary and classic (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946; Miracle on 34th Street, 1947), bright and boisterous (The Santa Clause, 1994; Elf, 2003) or mulled with altogether darker spices (Black Christmas, 1974; Gremlins, 1984). But whether saccharine, cynical or sinister, they’re rooted in the same essential, cosy appeal: when the season comes around, watching movies set at Christmas time is an all-important part of the ritual for getting in the festive mood.
Without further ado, here are 10 Christmas classics that never disappoint.
Making Christmas Crackers (1910)
Production company: Cricks and Martin
At first sight, this 7-minute silent short might seem an odd-man-out alongside 9 classic Christmas features. But of course it dates to the days before feature-length fiction had quite reached its unassailable ascendancy over everything else. And it certainly holds its own as perfect Xmas Infotainment. What I particularly like is that it fits so snuggly into its (already by 1910) well-worn genre: the industrial film that, step-by-step with the help of intertitles, shows us a product being made then ends with a scene of the product in use – with bells on.
The footage of crackers being assembled is fascinating stuff (it’s meant to impress its 1910 viewers with the efficiency of the firm’s machines, the loving manual craftsmanship of its staff and the overall quality control). Then there’s the merriment of the final scene, culminating in a seasonal ‘surprise’ (or possibly not). Altogether it’s a perfect instance of form matching content: a film that, like the humble cracker, is small and perfectly formed, comfortingly familiar and does what it says on the tin – then ends with a bang.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Director: Frank Capra
How did Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that begins with a suicide attempt on Christmas Eve, become traditional viewing during the holiday season? In an iconic role, James Stewart plays George Bailey, a man who overcomes the sadness of sacrificing his dream when an angel demonstrates how much he means to his family and friends.
The most memorable moments include the Charleston dance sequence, a romantic pledge to “lasso the moon”, and of course the final scene, the one that beautifully illustrates Jacques Lacan’s old saying, “To love is to give what you haven’t got”, meaning that true love is only possible when we recognise what we lack and give it to the other, offering something that goes beyond the self. The interplay between agonising darkness and soaring light makes this an authentic, life-affirming film, and thus an ideal end-of-year exercise in introspection and gratitude.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Director: Henry Koster
Ice skating – check. Snowball fight – check. Cute button-nosed kid – check. Heartwarming message of goodwill to all men – check. The Bishop’s Wife has all the essential ingredients of a corny Hollywood Christmas film, but garnished with a knowing twinkle in its eye that some seasonal favourites lack.
It’s the festive season and Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is on a mission: to raise enough money to build a cathedral. Beset by difficulties, he prays for help and in walks Dudley (Cary Grant), his heaven-sent salvation. An angel in the shape of Cary Grant is a good argument for prayer if ever there was one, but Dudley’s methods are somewhat unorthodox. To Henry’s annoyance, he wins the hearts of everyone he meets, including his wife, but his divine nature must remain secret, leading the clergyman to tie himself in knots. Rather than helping Henry to construct the edifice he’s fixated on, Dudley teaches him to value what is important in life: family, friends and simple pleasures.
As well as gently irreverent humour, the film has many other pleasures to offer. Made at the peak of the ‘Brits in Hollywood’ era, it features some of our finest expat talent, from Elsa Lanchester’s maid to Gladys Cooper’s wealthy dowager. But the chief appeal of the film is the marvellous biplay between Niven’s exasperated bishop and Grant’s unflappable angel; with just a glance the 2 stars are able to convey more than any dialogue could and, watched closely, they occasionally appear to be in danger of collapsing into giggles.
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
“I wish to be left alone”, says Ebeneezer Scrooge at the beginning of Brian Desmond Hurst’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But left alone he is not, visited first by the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley (a fabulously over-the-top Michael Hordern) – doomed to walk the earth in chains of his own making – and thereafter by the spirits of Christmases past, present and future, who seek to show him the error of his miserly ways.
Many actors (and one cartoon duck) have attempted the role of the mean-spirited Scrooge, but none so definitively as Alastair Sim, who truly embodies every aspect of the character’s journey. His performance is light and shade; bitter and sweet. In the final scenes, he is a comic delight, scampering about like a small boy on Christmas morning, pulling his hair into tufts and doing handstands in armchairs. While Hurst’s film takes several liberties with the original story, it successfully captures both Dickens’ strong sense of social justice and his humorous turn of phrase. It deserves to be considered a true Christmas classic, inspiring laughter and tears in equal measure – rather like the season itself.
The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
Director: George More O’Ferrall
This marvellous, exquisitely acted British melodrama deserves to be far better known. A troubled family gathers to celebrate Christmas at the house of the widowed pastor father. The would-be revellers include 2 scene-stealing aunts, an immature cadet son (a young Denholm Elliott), a dutiful daughter (Celia Johnson) hampered by familial duty, and, best of all, the beautiful black sheep of the family (Margaret Leighton). Secrets and tensions are gradually revealed as the holiday progresses.
The sharp dialogue and strong characterisation are worthy of an Alan Ayckbourn play. The film will appeal to both those who seek the dark undercurrents behind the veneer – the scene featuring Leighton’s drunken collapse is worthy of Douglas Sirk – and to those who want an old-fashioned merry Christmas ending. Superb.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s epic family drama (5 hours in its extended TV version) begins with the lavish Christmas Eve celebrations of the Ekdahl family in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden. With the streets outside piled high with snow, we see table places being set and presents put under the tree. The extended family arrives, wine is poured and a feast laid before them. Later, dinner gives way to games and dancing, the young sister and brother of the title joining servants, parents, uncles and aunts in a jubilant dance around the house.
Drawing on the director’s own memories of childhood, Fanny and Alexander finds the usually astringent Swedish master in a rare nostalgic spirit. It’s not all seasonal merriment: there is family sniping, hints of declining health, and bitter marital contempt is unleashed behind closed doors. But while the film harbours no illusions about the compromises of adulthood, the children’s-eye-view of festive rituals such as bedtime magic lantern shows and a torchlit troika ride through the snow make the first section of Bergman’s magnum opus one of the most enchanting depictions of Christmas on film.
Trading Places (1983)
Director: John Landis
Trading Places is the perfect film for the festive season because it has all the hilarity and debauchery of a top-notch office party without the hungover regret. It’s a yuppie rejig of The Prince and the Pauper set in Philadelphia that features 2 of the 1980s finest comic talents just on the cusp of superstardom: Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy.
Smug executive Aykroyd’s pomposity is soon deflated when his scheming broker uncles conduct a “scientific experiment” to see how he fares when homeless conman Murphy usurps his domestic luxury and professional responsibilities. Among many great supporting roles, Jamie Lee Curtis is a kindly prostitute who helps the hapless Aykroyd, while Paul Gleason is even slimier than he appears in The Breakfast Club (1985) and Denholm Elliott arguably steals the show as a wily butler.
In parts John Landis’s film is formulaic, occasionally gratuitous and old-fashioned – but so is Christmas. By the end, viewers will have spotted a man eating a salmon through a fake Santa beard, Eddie Murphy performing the best prison karate scene in cinema, and James Belushi dressed as a gorilla. Trading Places: more fun than a dog in jelly.
Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
A brutal attack on a Los Angeles corporate skyscraper by thieves posing as terrorists might make for unlikely Christmas viewing but surely no list of best Christmas films would be complete without John McTiernan’s action classic Die Hard?
Bruce Willis’s resourceful hero John McClane tangles with creepy Euro-terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his gang on Christmas Eve and soon tinsel, trees, eggnog and baubles are being caught up in the not inconsiderable crossfire. Not your average festive film then (though beneath the mayhem there’s a simple and appropriately festive tale of a man just trying to get home to his family for the big day), but as an antidote to the hours of feel-good TV movie schmaltz routinely served up at this time of year it just can’t be beaten.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Director: Brian Henson
When Jim Henson’s troupe of madcap creatures took on Charles Dickens’ timeless parable about the redemption of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, it proved an unexpected meeting of minds. From the atmospheric opening shot, gliding over rambling London rooftops, the Muppets perfectly capture the spirit of this greatest of Christmas novels, maintaining its mix of comedy, sorrow and ghostly scares, keeping the storyteller’s voice (with Gonzo as Dickens, narrating to camera) and adding good-humoured songs by Oscar-winner Paul Williams. Michael Caine is wonderfully scornful as Scrooge, so straight-faced that he seems unaware his co-stars are frogs, pigs and chickens.
An assortment of known, unknown and indeterminate species, the Muppets always take for granted their interaction with each other and with humans, and that celebration of individuality and togetherness reflects exactly Dickens’ vision of mankind as a whimsical, jostling swarm of people of every type, all morally bound to look after one another, with happiness conditional on doing so. The Muppets couldn’t have told a finer story, and Dickens couldn’t have asked for better messengers.
Director: Jon Favreau
Recent Christmas films, particularly those that involve Santa Claus, have to perform a tricky balancing act to engage all members of the family. The magic and mystery of Father Christmas must enchant the more innocent members of the audience, while the precise pragmatics of his gift-giving will often appease the cynics. The best films, such as Jon Favreau’s Elf, make this look easy, having their Christmas cake and eating it too.
Will Ferrell’s Buddy, one of Santa’s elf toymakers, discovers he is really human so travels to the US to find his natural father. Ferrell is perfectly cast as the man-child in a green felt and fur-lined suit. Whether spinning in revolving doorways until sick, shredding the furniture to make winter wonderlands or gluttonously devouring candy breakfasts, Ferrell’s Buddy is joyously unrestrained id. His havoc-wreaking across corporate New York makes for vicarious viewing, to be especially enjoyed during the indulgent run up to Christmas.
Originally published: 11 December 2014