The 21 best films on TV this Christmas

Festive season couch-fodder to tick-off your must-see list.

David Parkinson

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

No line-up of films on telly over the festive season would be complete without The Wizard of Oz (1939; 1 Jan, ITV4), White Christmas (1954; 23 Dec, C4) or The Sound of Music (1965; 2 Jan, BBC4). There may be no chance of catching It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on free-to-view this year, while subtitles are rarer than Santa selfies with Rudolph. But there’s still plenty to put on the must-see list this Christmas.

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When it’s on? 23 December, 19.20, Talking Pictures

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

This Christmas card from a bygone Britain encapsulates the postwar spirit of change, as widowed parson Ralph Richardson realises that adult offspring Celia Johnson, Margaret Leighton and Denholm Elliott have their own lives to lead. Think Chekhov in Norfolk, with the discussions of family and faith radiating a nostalgic warmth.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

When’s it on? 24 December, 12.45, Channel 5

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Somehow, a story about the abduction and incarceration of six virgins has retained its popularity, as Plutarch is transposed to 1850s Oregon in one of MGM’s most profitable musicals. The score is studded with toe-tappers, including the eight-minute barn-raising ballet that’s staged with infectious brio by director Stanley Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd.

Unforgiven (1992)

When’s it on? 24 December, 22.00, ITV4

Unforgiven (1992)

The third western to win the Oscar for best picture presents an unflinchingly brutal depiction of frontier life, as Clint Eastwood’s reformed outlaw straps on his six-shooter to avenge a prostitute who is denied justice by Big Whiskey sheriff Gene Hackman after she’s disfigured by a couple of rapacious cowboys.

Scrooge (1951)

When’s it on? 25 December, 13.25, C5

Scrooge (1951)

It simply wouldn’t be Christmas without Alastair Sim’s lugubrious masterclass in festive humbug. The supporting ensemble is also impeccable, as Noel Langley’s screenplay deftly revises Charles Dickens’ timeless tale of spectral redemption. Beware, however, as Variety’s review warned this could give children “the screaming-meemies”.

Back to the Future (1985)

When’s it on? 25 December, 14.35, C4

Back to the Future (1985)

It’s hard to believe that Robert Zemeckis’s time-travelling fantasy is 35 years old. But it now has twice the nostalgic value, as 1985 seems as kitschily quaint as 1955, as Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is accidentally transported in a souped-up DeLorean to the Hill Valley where his parents first met.

Candyman (1992)

When’s it on? 25 December, 1.45, Film 4

Candyman (1992)

No wonder Jordan Peele has followed up Get Out (2017) by scripting a 2020 “spiritual sequel” to Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror, as this adaptation of Clive Barker’s story about the undead son of a slave seeking revenge for his lynch mob murder shares many insights into America’s entrenched attitudes to race.

The Magic Box (1951)

When’s it on? 26 December, 18.50, Talking Pictures

The projected moving image celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2020 and no film has better captured the excitement and frustration of cinema’s prehistory than the Boulting brothers’ fond, if fanciful, all-star profile of William Friese-Greene, the Bath-based photographer-cum-inventor, who is played with engaging ingenuity and touching humility by the peerless Robert Donat.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

When’s it on? 27 December, 18.55, Sony Action

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Two-thirds of John Ford’s magisterial ‘cavalry trilogy’ are screening on Sony Action, with Fort Apache on at 8.00am. But you’ll have to look elsewhere for Rio Grande (1950). Cinematographer Winton Hoch won an Oscar for his Technicolor views of Monument Valley, as John Wayne leads a rag-tag detail to round up some rampaging reservation renegades.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

When’s it on? 28 December, 2.00, Talking Pictures

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

A Cold War parable that’s acquired fresh relevance in the era of the climate crisis, Val Guest’s sci-fi classic steers clear of boffins and brass hats to focus on how the parching of the planet impacts upon ordinary people like journalist Edward Judd. Guaranteed to sober you up after the festive excesses.

Peeping Tom (1960)

When’s it on? 28 December, 21.40, Talking Pictures

Peeping Tom (1960)

Sharing the opprobrium meted out earlier in 1960 to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s steely-eyed treatise on the corrupting nature of cinema has grown in stature, as viewers have come to recognise the psychological sophistication of the depiction of camera compulsive Carl Boehm and his predatory crimes against defenceless women.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

When’s it on? 29 December, 14.25, Sony Movies

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning account of the career of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is as postcolonially discomfiting as Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers (23 December, 17.05, Talking Pictures), But the visual potency of this epic spectacle continues to astonish and you should invite yourself round to the friend with the biggest telly to watch it.

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

When’s it on? 29 December, 16.00, Talking Pictures

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Given the potentially precarious state of the union, this Ealing comedy feels curiously contemporary, as it posits independence as an escape from austerity. Screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke might have been a mild-mannered rabblerouser, but several ideas and quips strike a chord, as the eponymous London district discovers it belongs to the Duchy of Burgundy.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

When’s it on? 30 December, 12.20, C4

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

With all due respect, what a mercy that Toms Cruise and Hanks lost the lead of Tim Burton’s fantasy, as its enduring charm is rooted deeply in Johnny Depp’s eyes, as he learns to wield the razor-sharp appendages given to him by inventor Vincent Price. Ice sculptures notwithstanding, this is truly heart-warming.

The Apartment (1960)

When’s it on? 30 December, 13.00, BBC1

The Apartment (1960)

Showing with Some Like It Hot (1959) in a Billy Wilder-Jack Lemmon double bill, this best picture winner puts an offbeat #MeToo spin on the festive ménage that forms between browbeaten pen-pusher C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), naive lift operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) and their exploitative boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).

The Railway Children (1970)

When’s it on? 31 December, 11.20, BBC1

The Railway Children (1970)

Films bring families together at Christmas. So why not make this delightful adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s classic novel about three Edwardian city children making the most of their rustic Yorkshire exile part of a festive twosome with another gem directed by Lionel Jeffries, The Amazing Mr Blunden (1 Jan, 15.25, Talking Pictures)?

The Big Country (1958)

When’s it on? 31 December, 11.30, BBC2

The Big Country (1958)

The kind of unexpected treat one hopes to find in the Christmas TV film listings, William Wyler’s epic 1958 western manages to lay bare the divisions in postmillennial America, as it pitches educated easterner Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) into a frontier feud between the Terrills and the Hannasseys that crackles with socio-sexual rage.

The Sting (1973)

When’s it on? 31 December, 18.25, ITV4

The Sting (1973)

It was this or The Ipcress File (1 January,  BBC4 – 21.00), but the seven Oscars and the final pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford swung the deal. Scott Joplin’s ragtime score is an added incentive to catch this slick depiction of Depression grifting that keeps springing surprises no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

Point Break (1991)

When’s it on? 1 January, 2.00, BBC1

Point Break (1991)

Kathryn Bigelow once dubbed this account of the efforts of rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) to infiltrate the criminous Ex-Presidents gang led by surfer Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) a “wet western”. Transforming the Hollywood actioner, it remains a rare example of a female gaze flick that acquired a fanboy cult following.

Carry On Cleo (1964)

When’s it on? 1 January, 6.10, Channel 4

Carry On Cleo (1964)

There are several Carry Ons dotted around the Christmas schedules, but this one really kicks asp. Using costumes and sets junked by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), it’s perhaps the most lavish entry in the entire series. Everyone’s on mid-season form, but Sid James’s Mark Antony is in a league of its own.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

When’s it on? 1 January, 21.00, C4

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Despite the narrative twists, there’s no point pretending that the sixth MI outing is rooted in Le Carré-like authenticity. But, with Tom Cruise putting his body on the line, as Ethan Hunt hurtles around the globe to retrieve three nuclear time bombs, few will be focussed on anything other than the nerve-shredding stunts.

The 39 Steps (1935)

When’s it on? 2 January, 11.35, BBC2

The 39 Steps (1935)

For a last hurrah before reality bites, settle back and let the Master of Suspense weave his spell. Working from a novel by John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock revels in depositing Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in dastardly dilemmas and watching him extricate himself in order to track down an enemy agent missing a fingertip.

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