Christmas movies, they tend to get a bit of a free pass. Most of them aren’t all that good, but if you’re in a compliant mood and somewhat soporific, they’re fairly inoffensive. As such, this list is perhaps not infinitely variable, but only the top half of it could withstand a battering at any other time of year. And, since the season’s wholesale sentimentality can be something of a turn-off, there’s a good sprinkling of the caustic in this Christmas countdown.
(1988) If you can get past, or rather stop before, the indigestible ending, where Bill Murray gets all emotional about the true spirit of Christmas (he looks like he’s way out of his depth attempting sincerity, improv-ing for all he’s worth, and it’s toe-curling and horrific to behold), there’s much to enjoy in this umpteenth version of the A Christmas Carol (three of which are on this list, evidence of how few really good Christmas tales there are). Murray’s network exec Frank Cross is putting on an all-singing, all-dancing production of A Christmas Carol (see what they did there? Alistair Sim’s Scrooge is also referenced) but, being a cynical, self-involved ’80s greedmonger, he needs a liberal helping of spirits of the season to nudge him into changing his ways.
Nothing here really strays from what you’d expect of a Christmas Carol retread, and Richard Donner’s acumen in the comedy field is much better melded with the action genre (as The Night the Reindeer Died, with Lee Major saving Santa at the South Pole, attests). But Karen Allen is adorable as the lost object of Frank’s affection, and Carol Kane steals the movie (no easy thing with Murray front-and-centre) as the Ghost of Christmas Present, laughing like a loon and inflicting exhilarating physical violence on her subject.
(2003) Any number of high-profile crowd pleasers have become Christmas mainstays in the last quarter of a century, from Home Alone (over-exposed), to The Grinch (just appalling), to Love Actually and The Holiday (simply add snow to a standard feel-good romance, wind it up and make a killing at the box office). Most probably, none of those dreadful Christmas movies with Vince Vaughn are likely to gain such places in the affections, but they’ll always be available as seasonal schedule filler, along with anything featuring Tim Allen. Will Ferrell is fortunately still far from the stage where he has to resort to yuletide cheer to fill his holey bank account, despite a pretty high miss ratio.
Elf came out just as he was making an impression on the big screen, and his idiot man child – but endearing with it – persona has been repeatedly trotted out in the decade since, although rarely to such an enthusiastic response from audiences. Ferrell’s human elf goes to New York to meet his biological dad, and amiable anarchy ensues. This was also Jon Favreau’s first big hit as a director, and Zooey Deschanel’s first big Manic Pixie Dream Girl lead, making Elf something of turning point in its main players’ movie careers. No one could call the picture tightly wound (something, rather like his less-than-svelte physique, that has been true of all Favreau’s movies), but it’s resolutely likeable, and makes great use of the cantankerous sides of James Caan (his only side?) and the now renowned Peter Dinklage (“You’re an angry elf!”)
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas
(2011) In the Bad Santa category of not really being Christmas fare for the entire family, this third (and final, it seems) outing for Harold and Kumar, older but nevertheless ending up stoned, and on a quest for Christmas trees, sees them encountering the incredibly straight Neil Patrick Harris, incredibly silly 3D, an incredibly delightful Wafflebot and an incredibly festive and therefore incredibly unlikely Danny Trejo (a montage of his response to an incredibly beautiful tree requires seeing to believe). It’s scattershot, as comedies that use overt crudity as a crutch often are, and the Claymation sequence is a bust, but A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has a high-enough gag hit ratio and, if isn’t the most heart-warming or life-affirming of Christmas movies, it’s still funnier than most.
Muppet Christmas Carol
(1992) Charles Dickens (Gonzo) and his assistant Rizzo the Rat introduce us to yet another (see entries 4 and 10) version of A Christmas Carol, in which Michael Caine plays a rich man who’s mentally out of shape. Fortunately, there are several ghosts to glass him proper, and they do this kind of thing for a living (or dying). This is a musical version, like the Albert Finney one (not on this list), and, perhaps surprisingly, includes a couple decent tunes in the batch. Caine may not be the best singer in the world, but he doesn’t leave you clawing at your ears either. More importantly, he transitions from miserly misery to cheerful dispenser of bounty with exactly the right degree of dedication, leaving it to the Muppet interludes to offset the drama. Of the ghosts, Statlor and Waldorf make the biggest impression in an otherwise undistinguished bunch, as Marley and Marley.
(1983) More a Christmas-period movie than specifically set at Christmas, although it does submit Paul Gleason to particularly festive gorilla rape. A deft update of both Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and The Million Pound Bank Note, incorporating both class and race commentary (Dan Aykroyd blackface included), Trading Places sees Eddie Murphy’s street hustler Billy Ray Valentine exchange places with Aykroyd’s privileged Louis Winthorpe III following a nature-nurture bet between super rich commodities traders Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. Of course, the rich and powerful get their comeuppance, quite unlike in real life, amid a market trading plotline you really have to follow to keep track of (hey, this is supposed to be a comedy!)
John Landis called the shots in the wake of The Twilight Zone accident, and the movie was his first collaboration with Murphy (things wouldn’t go so well next time, notwithstanding Coming to America becoming a big hit) and second with Aykroyd. Both are on good form, although this is really Murphy’s to steal, and he does so accordingly, early in a six-year window where he was at the peak of his powers and could do no wrong in audience’s eyes. Ably supported by an eclectic cast including Denholm Elliot’s butler and Jamie Lee Curtis’ hooker (both garnering BAFTAs, although the latter’s most memorable scene was unlikely to have been shown as part of awards season clips), Trading Places is that rare hit Hollywood comedy (let alone Hollywood Christmas comedy) with brains and heart.
(2003) Dyspeptic yuletide begrudgery with a disgruntled heart of gold, as foul-mouthed, inebriated, self-soiling (while on Santa duty) Billy Bob Thornton gets to grips with robbery, romance (of a sort) and surrogate parenting (the alarmingly named fat kid Thurman Merman) during a rancidly sunny Californian Christmas season. Marvellous support from Bernie Mac, Tony Cox (as an elf) and Lauren Graham. A picture available in three different versions, I haven’t seen director Terry Zwigoff’s preferred darker, downbeat cut, but I’m quite happy with the extended Badder Santa. Much as I enjoy a hard-nosed Xmas toffee, I don’t think this particular picture is harmed by odd moments of sentimentality or ending on an overtly positive note. Nor do the producers about to embark on (the probably ill-advised) Bad Santa 2, I expect.
(1951) Sometimes the simplest telling is the best one, particularly when you’ve cast Alastair Sim as the definitive Scrooge, transforming from ghoulish grim into ghoulish grin. And you’ve got Sim protégé George Cole as his younger self and Patrick Macnee as Young Marley. True, Tiny Tim is particularly insufferable, Brian Desmond-Hursts’ direction isn’t the most captivating, and, aside from a marvellous Michael Horden as Marley, the ghosts aren’t so memorable, but it’s the energy and conviction Sim brings to the show that carries and elevates this adaptation. His polka really has to be witnessed. This Scrooge finding his lost yen for life and appreciation for others is in direct contrast to Bill Murray’s fetid attempts at the same in Scrooged; we’re entirely with Ebeneezer when he announces “I’m as merry as a schoolboy. I’m as giddy as a drunken man”.
(1988) “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho”. Being how Christmas is the season for peace and love of one’s fellow man, what could be better than lashings of ultra-violence immediately hitherto? There are an awful lot of action movies set at Crimbo, most of them written by Shane Black, but very few of them feel really Christmassy. Die Hard’s an exception, complete with a masterful soundtrack – including Christmas in Hollis, Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! and Michael Kamen adding festive jingles to the score at appropriate moments – and dialogue peppered with festive one-liners. It is, after all, a tale of an estranged husband (possibly) returning home to see his family at Christmas, and it’s the very extreme disorder he encounters that hastens his marital reconciliation.
Of course, there’s an argument this is all very regressive – man shows up and saves independent ’80s career woman, thus showing her who really wears the pants – but for the most part, Die Hard flies through being sufficiently smart and self-aware of such elements (even those taking its zero-tolerance policy to terrorists as a Republican endorsement might note, “Whoever said we were terrorists?”) Some of Die Hard doesn’t stand up very well, although this is true of many an ’80s movie, and the overt endorsement of the cop who regains his confidence and masculinity (Sergeant Al Powell) through some goddam killing is perhaps the low point. But there are so many highs here, not least a splendidly cast Alan Rickman as mastermind Hans Gruber and Bruce Willis in his action movie debut, never to quite rise to the delirious heights of Nakatomi Plaza again.
(1984) If Die Hard is the exemplar of the Christmas action movie, Gremlins is its horror movie equal, albeit on a fairly safe 12-certificate, Spielberg-produced horror movie level, and one that’s really more of a black comedy than an out-and-out horror (but nevertheless throwing some very tasty shocks into the mix). Joe Dante would never equal the commercial success of Gremlins, and it created a disproportionate expectation that he was the kind of guy who could make big blockbuster hits (his subsequent ’80s career, and Gremlins 2, put paid to this notion).
But here, he had the alchemy of cuteness, anarchy, and a perfectly cosy, movie world confection; filmed on the studio lot, Kingston Falls consciously echoes the artificial milieu of It’s a Wonderful Life (with stereotype villain Mrs Deagle and even a clip from the 1946 film), adding hugely to the fairy-tale telling that is Hoyt Axton’s framing narration. Young leads Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates remain endearing, but the real stars are Chris Walas’ puppet creations, including the adorable Gizmo (scarcely conceivable he was set to vanish from the movie with the introduction of the Gremlins, a case of Spielberg’s wiser head prevailing, as it’s hard to imagine it would have been the hit it was without the Mogwai’s presence throughout) and the mass of clever, mischievous, diabolically funny Gremlins themselves, led by one Spike. Yum yum indeed. And very much not Gizmo ca ca.
It’s a Wonderful Life
(1946) I played devil’s advocate regarding this movie in a review last year, observing that Frank Capra’s “be grateful for what you’ve got” tale could be seen as a slap in the face of those with a hint of aspiration, its protagonist George Bailey (James Stewart) bullied into a life of mediocrity, downtrodden by all those around him. Clarence’s apprentice angel opts not to take the tack of showing George what he might have accomplished had he not been so dutiful (to those overtly manipulating him), putting others first at every turn and generally being a doormat, so we never learn whether he would have gone on to far greater things for the world had he set sail for pastures new. There’s a nagging feeling that the film’s co-writer-director wants the common person to know their place (the rich villain Potter gets off Scott free).
And yet, the quality Capra strives for, and that George embodies, of the essential goodness of man, shines through his manipulations and those of his characters. It’s a Wonderful Life is a paean to seeing the glass half full, after all, achieved through a dose of A Christmas Carol-inspired divine shock therapy. Unlike Scrooge, though, we don’t have the benefit of knowing if George Bailey’s “fix” stuck following the soothing balm of yuletide, once the cold harsh realities of January and February set in. Which is further evidence of why it’s perfect Christmas fare, the “sentimental Hogwash” Potter despises; seen through a fog of wine, turkey and fairy lights, the realisation George Bailey comes to, surrounded by his family and friends and ensconced in his after-all delightful little town, is about as perfect a vision of Christmas one can get.
And on Television:
The Box of Delights
(1985) Perhaps the ultimate Christmas treat, this BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s classic oozes rum butter from every pore of its pudding. The Box of Delights has been doing the rounds as a potential Hollywood property in recent years (thanks to the broadening of the fantasy and Young Adult markets, and the prospects of boffo box office for good traditional family fare such as the Narnia pictures), but it’s difficult to believe it could possibly be as well-catered for as it is here, an entirely unreconstituted vision of public school, privileged kids having frightfully jolly adventures in an idyllic English yesteryear.
Except, it’s actually a rather interesting confection, an unabashed fusion of Christmas tradition and Olde English heritage, as Kay Harker (Devan Standield, that rare non-obnoxious child lead) embarks on a voyage through pre-Christian myths, lore and landscapes, taking in Herne the Hunter, Roman rule, shape-shifting, and the clash of white and black magic. The old wise mentor, Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton, in one of his last, and most memorable roles) has been around since pagan times, having to remember himself in front of the bumbling bishop, and things turn quite demonic and incantatory during the finale, when Abner Brown (a deliciously evil-and-loving-it Robert Stephens) starts summoning like crazy as the prize begins to slip through his fingers.