A-Z of the best and worst Christmas movies

Time Out Film's ultimate guide to festive films

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You may think Christmas movies are all about snow, Santa and saccharine sentiment, but from cosy suburbia to outer space, from gangsters to Grinches, from Charles Dickens to Charlie Brown, there’s a whole world of entertainment to be had come the holiday season. We round up the 100 best (and worst) festive flicks, handily categorised, alphabetised and delivered straight down your digital chimney. Ho ho ho!

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A is for Animation

Cartoons and Christmas are a perfect fit, which is presumably why every year the festive DVD shelves are stocked with knock-off, keep-the-kids-quiet sludge about magic reindeer and happy elves.

But rising above the mire is a brace of classic titles, chief among them the original animated take on Dr Seuss’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ (1966), and, of course, the perennially awesome ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965), one of the sweetest, most beautiful films ever made for children.

Christmas scenes pop up in a fistful of Disney flicks – from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) to ‘Toy Story’ (1995) – but if your family is of a darker turn of mind, there’s always Tim Burton’s stop-motion freakfest ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993).

B is for Brian

Not a Christmas film per se, but we would be remiss if we didn’t flag up the Pythons’ sidelong tilt at the life story of the guy who kicked the whole thing off. No, not Jesus Christ, but his Nazarene neighbour, Brian Cohen. Unhinged, irreverent, uproarious and entirely respectful of Christian ideals, ‘Life of Brian’ (1979) is the perfect festive comedy for those of a certain bent.

Trapped in Paradise’ (1994) is another skewed Yuletide treat that witnesses Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey as bank robbers stuck in a schmaltz-drenched snowglobe of stifling small town values that reduces them to tears of frustration, anger and disappointment. Similar sentiments swirl through the purported comedy of baffling Christmas-set Harrelson/Snipes shouting match ‘Money Train’ (1995) – but for entirely different reasons.

C is for Capraesque

Love it or loathe it, Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) is one of the key Christmas movies, its themes of brotherhood, generosity and forbearance in the face of adversity striking a chord with viewers worldwide. So it’s hardly surprising that the film has proved a massive influence on Hollywood depictions of the festive season through the ages.

Movies as diverse as ‘Miracle on 34th St’ (1947) and ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ (1994) either celebrate or satirise Capra’s twinkly all-American aesthetic, but the fondest and most savage Capra pastiche is undoubtedly ‘Gremlins’ (1984), in which director Joe Dante takes all those cosy small-town clichés and has them torn to shreds with sharp little teeth.

D is for Dickens

When Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ (just one of over 20 seasonal stories he published), how could he possibly have known what a world-conquering monster he’d created? The internet lists no less than 21 straight adaptations of Dickens’s story – but considering that list doesn’t even find space for sarky, sour-pussed Bill Murray comedy ‘Scrooged’ (1988), we can safely assume there are many more.

Among the favourites, the ever-so-cosy 1951 version starring Alastair Sim stands out, though not literally, unlike Robert Zemeckis’s slightly-too-slick 2009 3D version with Jim Carrey. But without doubt the maddest, most entertainingly off-the-book version has to be the woolly and wonderful ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ (1992) – more of which later in the list.

E is for Elves

Considering the sweatshop conditions and arctic temperatures they have to endure, it’s no wonder that elves are, in the main, a feckless, unruly bunch. Big-boned manchild Will Ferrell is the exception that proves the rule as the winningly credulous hero of Jon ‘Favs’ Favreau’s ‘Elf’ (2003), but not even he can balance out the scales.

Marcus, the drunken, foulmouth turncoat elf of 2003’s X-rated Xmas classic ‘Bad Santa’ is closer to the norm. Vicious, materialistic and greedy he may be, but elfing is seasonal work and the little man has to afford his cocaine and Filipino mail order brides all year round. But lest we start feeling too sorry for Santa’s Little Helpers, consider the murderous critters in unnecessarily Nazi-themed cheapjack slasher ‘Elves’ (1989), who bring a whole new meaning to the term White Christmas.

F is for Families at War

For every film that holds Christmas up as a frosted prism through which to glimpse the cloying ideals of twinkly fireside sentimentality, there is another that is all too eager to present it as a rusty barometer with which to gauge all that is wrong in our lives.

Simmering familial spite-fiestas as disparate as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ (1979), Icelandic gem ‘101 Reykjavik’ (2000) and ‘The War of the Roses’ (1989) – previously described in these pages as ‘possibly the most gleefully unhinged and dark-hearted mainstream film to have ever been served up as a comedy by a major Hollywood studio’ – all feature memorable Xmas episodes.

But King Boss Daddy of them all is ‘The Ref’ (1994), in which burglar Denis ‘Yo-Ho-Ho!’ Leary forces bickering yuppies Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey to enjoy the festive season. At gunpoint. Sometimes that’s what it takes…


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