He doesn’t like children, swears too much and behaves disgracefully. Billy Bob Thornton’s department-store Saint Nick is the furthest thing from being a saint, to say the least. The fact that Terry Zwigoff’s misanthropic comedy somehow turns this pathetic sad sack into a sympathetic hero—and the movie into a foul-mouthed ode to good will toward men—is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’s classic tale has been adapted into everything from a musical to a star vehicle for the Muppets. This British film featuring the incomparable Alastair Sim as converted humbug Ebenezer Scrooge, however, is the definitive version. We dare you not to get a lump in your throat when Glyn Dearman’s Tiny Tim says, “Bless us, one and all.”
Will Ferrell’s overgrown-child persona hilariously complements this comedy about a guileless giant elf searching for his dad in NYC, but the film’s focus isn’t just on the funny bone. There’s an abundance of heart and soul in the way the film cherishes holiday cheer; in a genre that’s become generically saccharine, this is one modern Christmas movie that’s genuinely sweet.
Eight or nine plotlets, a cast list the size of a rugby scrum and the accomplished hand of screenwriter Richard Curtis – this is firmly in the love it or hate it territory. If you can overlook the fact that Alan Rickman could ever be involved in a love affair (Severus Snape, really?), that Colin Firth is a serial loser (Mr. Darcy, Really?) and that Hugh Grant is prime minister of Great Britain (Seriously now?) then you have already invested enough goodwill to get plenty back in return. The show is stolen, as usual, by an excellent Bill Nighy and will easily have you humming carols and redecorating your tree to keep up with the festivities.
It is soppy, British-centric and predictable but we can’t help but like this festive family film. Starring a cast of British comedians (a between starring Hollywood roles Martin Freeman being the most recognisable) it focuses on a school’s attempt to stage a nativity play. The kids are not the most lovable and the writing isn’t razor sharp but the show-must-go-on mentality and positive message (we think it is ‘even rubbish people deserve a chance’) is enough to warm even the most wintry of hearts.
Update on the Dickens classic, with Bill Murray as a miserly TV network president who rejoins the human race following spectral visitations. The tone is set by a machine-gun assault on Santa's North Pole toy workshop and the timely arrival of the first of a series of guest star drop-ins (Miles Davis busks in the wintry streets). Scrooged is not subtle stuff, and since Murray's comic persona is uniquely hands-off in terms of emotion, his final impassioned speech about the true meaning of Christmas is a bit odd but it is well worth a viewing for a darker update on the family favourite.
The Polar Express
One Christmas Eve, a boy lies in bed, listening hard for the bells of Santa's sleigh, which he has been told do not exist. Later that night he hears not bells but a very different sound as he joins a group of kids on board conductor Tom Hanks’ mystery train to be whisked away to have their (materialistic) beliefs reaffirmed by Mr. Claus. Cue a roller-coaster ride, stunning camera angles and superb sound effects.
Jingle All The Way: This satire on the rampant commercialism of Christmas strays into Home Alone’s slapstick and sentimentality territory as under pressure dad, Arnold Schwarzenegger, chases around the city in search of the last available Turbo Man action doll for his son. Arnie’s comic touch gets a good run-out in one of his more under-rated performances.
Miracle on 34th Street
Might a Macy’s department store Santa be the real thing? And will he survive his insanity trial? The vibe of this immortal studio favorite is snappy and comedic, but it also packs the wallop of an essential holiday truth: Christmas magic often requires us to rise to the occasion of being charmed.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Trust Goth-godhead Tim Burton and animator Henry Selick to concoct the perfect dose of alt-holiday fun in this musical comedy about the king of Halloween taking over yuletide festivities—with ghoulishly giddy results.
Accidentally left by himself for Christmas, precocious tyke Kevin McCallister (iconic child star Macaulay Culkin) protects his suburban home from a bumbling pair of thieves—in between binging on junk food and violent movies. With this surprise blockbuster, director Chris Columbus (and screenwriter John Hughes) fulfilled every eight-year-old’s family-be-gone fantasies.
It’s A Wonderful Life
Tinged with magical passages, buckets of good will and an alternate plotline with the disturbing kick of a Twilight Zone episode, this tribute to the efforts of a small-town do-gooder (James Stewart, in his most beloved role) cements the idea of Christmas as a time for giving.
The Snowman/The Snowman and the Snowdog
For British television viewers this is as much a part of Christmas as turkey dinners, tinsel and crackers. Broadcast every year since 1982, it tells the tale of a young boy’s magical relationship with the snowman he makes in his garden. Wordless except for the inclusion of the song Walking in The Air it relies on a touching musical score and pencil drawn animation to deliver humour, drama and heart-breaking emotion. 2012 saw the release of a sequel to critical acclaim. Turn your air-conditioning up to freezing and watch them back to back with a mug of hot chocolate.