Christmas is traditionally a time for being stuck indoors, and if 2020 has already made us more familiar with our own 4 walls than most of us ever hoped to be, at least the promise of some festive viewing is the one thing COVID can’t ride roughshod over this year. As always, the TV schedules are stuffed tighter than a turkey with films old and new, offering a fairly safe but oh-so comforting platter of premieres, perennials and – just occasionally – some more offbeat pleasures too.
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
When’s it on? Saturday 19 December, 1.05pm, BBC2
Winner of the Oscar for best picture back in 1957, this epic adventure is the kind of thing Saturday afternoons in front of the television were made for. David Niven plays Jules Verne’s globe-trotting adventurer Phileas Fogg, headlining one of those casts that keeps you watching just to spot the next starry cameo. Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, John Gielgud, Buster Keaton… the list is nearly endless.
The Big Sick (2017)
When’s it on? Sunday 20 December, 12.10am, BBC1
A mite overlong though it may be, The Big Sick delivers that elusive blend of laughs, chemistry and pathos that defines the best romantic comedies. Kumail Nanjiani plays the Pakistani-American Uber driver and stand-up comedian who hits it off with Zoe Kazan’s psychology student but finds the path of true love runs rather bumpily after she contracts a mysterious illness.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
When’s it on? Monday 21 December, 1.10pm, BBC2
David Lean’s epic romance brings together Egyptian star Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, one of the faces of swinging London, as the star-crossed Russian lovers whose intense affair plays out against the backdrop of the revolutionary turmoil of the early 20th century. With its famous balalaika theme by Maurice Jarre, Lean’s adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel was a huge hit at the box office and still rewards a wallow decades later.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
When’s it on? Monday 21 December, 2.55pm, Paramount Network
The events leading up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral are given suitably mythic treatment in this western masterpiece from John Ford. Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, while Victor Mature is the hard-drinking Doc Holliday. Their shootout with the Clanton gang has been done many times on screen, but never with the grace that Ford delivers here in poetically shot black and white.
High Society (1956)
When’s it on? Tuesday 22 December, 10.30am, BBC2
If you’re going to do a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940), you’re going to need stars big enough to match that film’s trio of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Fortunately, this sparkling 1950s confection manages just that. Grace Kelly steps into Hepburn’s shoes as the socialite bride torn between suitors old and new – Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby – while her wedding band is none other than Louis Armstrong and his ensemble, playing themselves.
When’s it on? Tuesday 22 December, 10.40pm, BBC2
Beginning Michael Mann’s forward-pushing adventures in shooting digitally, Collateral is another of his intoxicating crime films set against the hum of a big city at night. The city is Los Angeles and Tom Cruise plays the besuited hitman who gets into Jamie Foxx’s cab and offers him big bucks to drive him around on an increasingly dangerous nocturnal errand. Mann’s brooding neo-noir is the business.
When’s it on? Tuesday 22 December, 1.25am, Film4
One of the great American films of the last decade, Todd Haynes’ rapturous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt also contains some of the most swoon-inducingly festive scenes in just about any Christmas film. Rooney Mara plays the department store clerk in 1950s New York who falls for Cate Blanchett’s worldly married woman.
Phantom Thread (2017)
When’s it on? Wednesday 23 December, 10pm, BBC2
Perhaps the most unmissable premiere on TV all Christmas is this effulgent period romance from Paul Thomas Anderson set in the London couture world of the 1950s. Daniel Day-Lewis plays dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who meets and falls for a young waitress (Vicky Kriepps) who unexpectedly proves to be more than a foil for his exacting ways. The rippling, romantic score is by Jonny Greenwood.
Midnight Run (1988)
When’s it on? Wednesday 23 December, 11.15pm, Film4
Robert De Niro plays the bounty hunter enlisted to transport Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant across the States to Los Angeles in this smartly written and winningly played entry in the 1980s buddy-movie cycle. Fresh from Beverly Hills Cop (1984), director Martin Brest delivered an action comedy in which laughs, thrills and the lived-in roguishness of its 2 leads create an irresistible package.
The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
When’s it on? Wednesday 23 December, 6.35pm, Talking Pictures TV
Not nearly as well known as it could be (and buried with a well off-the-mark 2-star rating in the RadioTimes each year), this vintage British Christmas film sees disparate family members repair to rural Norfolk for a get together with their parson father (Ralph Richardson). It’s snowing, there’s carol singing, and much baring of family tensions and secrets. Refreshingly, this is no mush fest either, but a film that touches on strained bonds and faith in the modern world in ways that play like a very stiff-upper-lip British answer to Chekhov or Bergman.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
When’s it on? Thursday 24 December, 1.25pm, BBC2
Set in the eponymous midwestern city at the turn of the 20th century, Vincente Minnelli’s evergreen musical stars Judy Garland as one of the 4 Smith sisters facing the upheaval of a move to New York while confronting the various joys and challenges of childhood and growing up. This is the MGM dream factory working at the top of its game, and there are so many classic moments to cherish here: the tram-set ‘Trolley Song’, the nightmarish Halloween sequence and Judy’s mournful rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, sat at the window of their St Louis homestead.
Happy Christmas (2014)
When’s it on? Thursday 24 December, 2.15am, Channel 4
A welcome antidote to the usual festive perennials on TV this Christmas is this yuletide-set mumblecore movie from Joe Swanberg. Done in Swanberg’s typically off-the-cuff, improvised manner, it stars Anna Kendrick as the directionless twentysomething who goes to live with her brother and his family following a break-up with her boyfriend.
When’s it on? Thursday 24 December, 1.35am, Film4
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is also screening on Film4 this Christmas, but his Tangerine gets our vote this time as it boasts a seasonal setting. Not that it looks like your run-of-the-mill Christmas movie – this tale of the misadventures of 2 transgender prostitutes one Christmas Eve in Los Angeles is fresh, subversive and foul-mouthed. It was all shot on an iPhone too, so provides ample inspiration for locked-down Christmas creativity.
When’s it on? Friday 25 December, 3.10pm, BBC1
BBC1 has a peppering of Pixar favourites in primetime slots over the Christmas break, just as the studio’s latest, Soul, arrives on Disney+. Airing on Christmas Day, 2017’s Coco is the animation giant’s gloss on the colourful festivities of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. We follow young Miguel, a wannabe singer growing up in a family with a mysterious ban on music, whose fate sets him on a path to the Land of the Dead in search of a musician ancestor.
El Cid (1961)
When’s it on? Friday 25 December, 6pm, Talking Pictures TV
As ever, the schedules offer plenty of afternoon-filling epics and one of the finest is this excursion to medieval Spain in the company of Charlton Heston. Coming off a decade of landmark westerns, director Anthony Mann luxuriated in a 3-hour running time to tell the story of legendary Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz and his efforts to drive the Moors from Spain. It’s magnificently shot by Robert Krasker, the Australian cinematographer who filmed Brief Encounter (1945) and The Third Man (1949).
Stranger on Horseback (1955)
When’s it on? Friday 25 December, 6am, Sony Movies Action
Along with his masterful noir Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur is best known for atmospheric horror films like Cat People (1942) and Night of the Demon (1957), but he was a very safe pair of hands for westerns too. Shot around the buttes of Sedona, Arizona, and running barely over an hour, Stranger on Horseback sets up its central conflict with admirable clarity and economy. Joel McCrea plays the outsider lawman attempting to throw the rule book at an unruly town where one powerful ranching family doesn’t take kindly to interference.
The Winslow Boy (1948)
When’s it on? Saturday 26 December, 3.10pm, Talking Pictures TV
Robert Donat plays the most respected barrister in the land in this legal drama based on a real case that rocked Edwardian Britain back in 1908. His services are called upon to clear the name of young Ronnie Winslow after the boy is expelled from naval college for the theft of a postal order – a petty crime that contained the seed for a national sensation. Under Anthony Asquith’s direction and with Terrence Rattigan adapting the script from his own play, The Winslow Boy makes for gripping drama.
When’s it on? Monday 28 December, 11.25pm, Film4
A lysergically coloured nightmare intrudes upon the forest haven of Nicolas Cage and his family in this once-seen-never-forgotten horror treat from Panos Cosmatos. Brutally violent, steeped in midnight-movie tradition yet quite unlike anything else out there, Mandy awaits the unsuspecting channel hopper on Film4 on 28 December.
Love & Friendship (2016)
When’s it on? Tuesday 29 December, 1.35pm, BBC2
Not just another Jane Austen adaptation, Whit Stillman’s treatment of her posthumously published epistolary novel Lady Susan unexpectedly ranked among the funniest films of the 2010s. The master of waspy indie comedy proved a perfect fit for the wit and wisdom in Austen’s writing, ably abetted by Kate Beckinsale’s delicious turn as the machinating widow attempting to bag new husbands for both herself and her daughter to secure their financial future.
Night Mail (1936)
When’s it on? Tuesday 29 December, 3.35am, Talking Pictures TV
Find 24 minutes in your seasonal schedule for this unimpeachable classic of British documentary produced by the General Post Office’s film unit. At a time when the postal service is working around the clock to deliver cards and presents in time for Christmas, this rhythmically edited account of a postal train’s operations between London and Glasgow is perfect programming. W.H. Auden wrote the verse commentary, while Benjamin Britten provided the score.
North by Northwest (1959)
When’s it on? Wednesday 30 December, 2.50pm, BBC2
Films don’t come any more entertaining than this immortal Hitchcock thriller. Cary Grant plays the Don Draper-style advertising exec who gets mistaken for a spy and pursued across America by both intelligence agencies and a cadre of secrets smugglers led by James Mason. The score, the set pieces, the witty script by Ernest Lehmann – nothing is less than perfect.
Little Women (1994)
When’s it on? Thursday 31 December, 4.05pm, Sony Movies
Greta Gerwig’s version may now be the go-to adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s enduring novel, but this meticulous 1994 effort by Gillian Armstrong stands up very well too. The cast is a who’s who of 90s talents, including Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and a very young Kirsten Dunst as the March sisters, Susan Sarandon as their mother, and Christian Bale as boy-next-door Laurie.
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
When’s it on? Friday 1 January, 1am, Talking Pictures TV
Not seen as widely as their Technicolor classics of the 1940s like A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948), A Canterbury Tale nonetheless belongs among the finest films made by that irrepressibly imaginative duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Poetically shot amid the Kent countryside, it’s both a bizarre crime story about a rogue attacker pouring glue into women’s hair and an endlessly resonant musing on faith, the landscape and Englishness.