24 films to watch on TV this Christmas

Time to plan your festive viewing...

20 December 2023

By David Parkinson

Scrooged (1988)

Once upon a Yuletide, when there were only four channels, it was a doddle to choose which films to watch on television over the festive period. Nowadays, it’s not so easy, with streaming platforms adding to the temptations available on cable, satellite and free-to-air channels. No wonder the Radio Times weighs more than the Christmas pud.

You might have guessed that the firm family favourites set in Dickensian London, the Emerald City and Bedford Falls are all present and correct this year, and that there are plenty of Hitchcocks, Christies, musicals and war films on show into the new year. Talking Pictures TV has even rounded up a few classic ghost stories for some late-night shivers.

But if the schedules still look a bit daunting, here are a few suggestions to keep you going through the mad whirl.

Scrooged (1988)

When’s it on? Saturday 23 December, Channel 4, 14:35

Scrooged (1988)

Putting a 1980s slant on Charles Dickens’ timeless tale, Richard Donner’s satire still hits the mark 35 years on. Returning to screens for his first leading role since Ghostbusters (1984), Bill Murray gets to mend his cynical ways after three spirits visit his self-centred TV executive before a live transmission of A Christmas Carol.

Casablanca (1942)

When’s it on? Saturday 23 December, BBC2, 14:55

Casablanca (1942)

The BBC has a thing about Humphrey Bogart double bills at Christmas. Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) precedes Michael Curtiz’s wartime classic, which reached British cinemas 80 years ago. Bogart and Ingrid Bergman couldn’t be better as Rick and Ilsa, while the supporting cast is impeccable. But it’s the Oscar-winning screenplay that makes this so exceptional.

Hairspray (2007)

When’s it on? Sunday 24 December, ITV2, 18:45

Hairspray (2007)

This reworking of the Broadway hit inspired by John Waters’ 1988 trash classic may not be the most garlanded musical on the schedules this year. But John Travolta dragging up to play obese agoraphobe Edna Turnblad in 1960s Baltimore is pure pantomime, and there are lots of sly swipes at entrenched social attitudes.

The Christmas Tree (1966)

When’s it on? Monday 25 December, Talking Pictures TV, 11:35

The Christmas Tree (1966)

Determined to spread a little cheer to some kids in hospital, young William Burleigh enlists the help of his two siblings to transport a tree 30 miles for a Christmas Eve party. As one might expect from the Children’s Film Foundation, the adults in this amusing monochrome escapade are either officious, crooked or dim.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

When’s it on? Monday 25 December, BBC1, 15:10

Toy Story 4 (2019)

Best watched with wrapping paper still festooning the floor, this Pixar gem provides a timely reminder that toys are not just for Christmas. Kids will revel in the road trip storyline, but most grown-ups will watch Woody and Buzz’s last hurrah with fond memories of their own cherished childhood playthings.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

When’s it on? Monday 25 December, 5 Action, 18:40

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

Screening as part of a Clint Eastwood season, this Mexican odd-couple odyssey began as a Budd Boetticher vehicle for Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Elizabeth Taylor brought it to Eastwood’s attention. But Shirley MacLaine took the title role of the revolutionary prostitute posing as a nun and, in so doing, gave Clint a run for his money.

Brief Encounter (1945)

When’s it on? Tuesday 26 December,  BBC2, 12:45

Brief Encounter (1945)

Roger Livesey’s loss was Trevor Howard’s gain, as director David Lean insisted on pairing the latter’s married doctor with the Oscar-nominated Celia Johnson’s suburban housewife in this discreetly daring tale of forbidden love. The script was expanded from Still Life, a one-act play by Noël Coward, who can be heard as the railway station announcer.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

When’s it on? Tuesday 26 December, C5, 13:25

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

A wartime Christmas concert plays a pivotal part in this tearjerking biopic of the bandleader who taught American jazz to swing. Taking a break from their sequence of game-changing psychological westerns, James Stewart and director Anthony Mann convey the grind of a jobbing musician’s existence, as well as the joy of jamming with Louis Armstrong.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

When’s it on? Tuesday 26 December, Legend Extra, 23:10

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

The 21st London Film Festival was responsible for salvaging the reputation of John Carpenter’s cult crime thriller. Inspired by Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), the story of the rearguard mounted by a skeleton staff at a decommissioning police station is punishingly gripping. But it also refuses to shy away from the racial tensions in South Central Los Angeles.

Clueless (1995)

When’s it on? Wednesday 27 December, Film4, 19:10

Clueless (1995)

Beloved literary adaptations are scarce this Christmas, but Jane Austen fans will still warm to Amy Heckerling’s witty meld of the 1815 novel Emma and Sally Field’s 1960s sitcom Gidget. Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon were all considered for the meddlesome Cher Horowitz. But the casting of Alicia Silverstone proved to be inspired.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

When’s it on? Thursday 28 December, Talking Pictures TV, 13:15

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)
Image credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Silent slapstick used to be an essential part of the festive schedules, but TPTV has found a 70th anniversary niche for Jacques Tati’s masterclass in comic timing. Playing out at their own pace, the gags arising from Hulot’s mishaps have a rhythmic precision that enhances the humour, whether he’s playing tennis, painting a boat or gatecrashing a funeral.

Respect (2021)

When’s it on? Thursday 28 December, BBC2, 21:00

Respect (2021)

After Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (2018) had launched Saturday’s disco night, BBC2 kicks off its Aretha Franklin evening with this 2021 biopic. The Queen of Soul knew precisely who she wanted to play her, and, while the screenplay sanitises certain aspects of her early life, Jennifer Hudson doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the vocals.

Alien (1979)

When’s it on? Thursday 28 December, BBC3, 21:00

Alien (1979)

Amazingly, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic is 45 years old. The role of Ripley had been written for a man, enabling Sigourney Weaver to create cinema’s first female action hero. Doubtless, there would now be a state-of-the-art method of digitising the chestburster. But John Hurt’s Nostromo crewmates had not been forewarned, and the shock on their faces is entirely genuine.

Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head (1967)

When’s it on? Friday 29 December, ITV2, 10:30

Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head (1967)

Originally released without its prefix, the 13th film in the Carry On series was the first overseen by Rank. A slight increase in budget allowed producer Peter Rogers to use three stately homes for key scenes in a lampoon of the Scarlet Pimpernel story that sees Sidney James at the peak of his powers as Sir Rodney Ffing.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

When’s it on? Friday 29 December, ITV4, 23:10

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

With Flowers of the Killer Moon set to go up against Barbie during awards season, it seems appropriate to flag up the Martin Scorsese barnstormer that, a decade ago, made Margot Robbie a star. Whether they’re flirting or feuding, she upstages Leonardo DiCaprio. Yet he still excels as wheeler dealer Jordan Belfort in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese.

Petite maman (2021)

When’s it on? Saturday 30 December, Channel 4, 02:25

Petite maman (2021)

A leap of imagination is all that’s required to enjoy this treatise on childhood, which Céline Sciamma produced during lockdown. Twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are delightful as the eight-year-olds who meet in a French wood, but Sciamma uses their intuitive performances and the exquisite photography and décor to drop hints about the true nature of their relationship.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

When’s it on? Saturday 30 December, BBC2, 12:20

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Chaim Topol was among the film folk to depart in 2023, but he left us this towering performance. Faced with marrying off three daughters in a 1900s Imperial Russian shtetl, Tevye the Jewish milkman has the weight of the world on his shoulders. But singing relieves the burden, and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s song score is potent and poignant.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

When’s it on? Saturday 30 December, 5 Star, 15:45

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Each title in this fleet-footed franchise is on view over the holidays, including the 1960 Rat Pack original and the all-female Ocean’s 8 (2018). But we’ll highlight Steven Soderbergh’s slick ensemble caper, which sees George Clooney’s Danny Ocean put a crew together for a Las Vegas heist that still seems unfeasibly audacious no matter how many times you see it.

Next Goal Wins (2014)

When’s it on? Saturday 30 December, Sky Documentaries, 09:00

Next Goal Wins (2014)

Four days after Taika Waititi’s Disneyfied account of lowly American Samoa’s bid to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup hits cinemas, there’s a chance to see the actuality that inspired it. At the heart of this uber-underdog delight are Dutch coach Thomas Rongen and Jaiyah Saelua, a fa’afafine who was the first transgender player to compete at this level.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

When’s it on? Saturday 30 December, Legend, 17:15

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

The festive season wouldn’t be the same without a good ghost story, and director Basil Dearden’s final feature is splendidly unsettling. Despite having played James Bond, Roger Moore considered Harold Pelham – the London businessman whose life spirals out of control after his devious dopplegänger is unleashed following a car crash – to be his favourite character.

Bridesmaids (2011)

When’s it on? Sunday 31 December, ITV2, 21:00

Bridesmaids (2011)

If you’re uncertain whether to laugh or cry at the prospect of a new year, Paul Feig’s ensemble comedy is the perfect companion, as you will howl and weep as thirtysomething baker Annie (Kristen Wiig) strains to compete with domestic goddess Helen (Rose Byrne), the new bestie of her childhood friend and bride-to-be, Lillian (Maya Rudolph).

Climax (2018)

When’s it on? Monday 1 January, Film4, 02:05

Climax (2018)

An alternative means of coping with New Year is provided by the Film4 double bill of David Lynch’s Mullholland Dr. (2001) and Gaspar Noé’s 2018 musical horror set in an abandoned country school. Combining pounding techno and Sadean Steadicam, the shift from hipster dance routine to improvised badinage and LSD freak out is bold, bewildering and bothersome.

Moana (2016)

When’s it on? Monday 1 January, BBC1, 14:20

Moana (2016)

By eschewing a romantic subplot and having a grandmother inspire a Polynesian teenager (who refuses to see herself as a princess) to reunite the goddess Te Fiti with a mystical pounamu stone, this is surely the first Disney animation to pass the Bechdel Test. With evocative visuals, positive messages and upbeat songs, it gets 2024 off to a rousing start.

Paths of Glory (1957)

When’s it on? Monday 1 January, Great Action, 19:05

Paths of Glory (1957)

Each of Kirk Douglas’s collaborations with Stanley Kubrick are showing over Christmas. They bickered over Spartacus (1960) but concurred that this First World War court-martial drama was anti-war rather than pacifist. Hence, the fury of Colonel Dax’s tirade against the incompetent and corrupt commanders who had ordered a suicide mission. No wonder the French banned it for 18 years.

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