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!

G is for Gangsters

Tipsy singalongs, grossly overelaborate sit-down eating rituals, teary admissions, the overarching threat of irrevocable interfamilial violence – the checklist of any suburban Christmas Day already sounds like the plot of a Mafia movie, so it’s no surprise that so many gangster films embrace the festive season.

Brando’s Don Vito gets plugged while buying some Christmas apples and oranges for the little 'uns in ‘The Godfather’ (1972), Irish pugs Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson take in the high Yuletide of the Low Countries in the peerless ‘In Bruges’ (2008) and Ice-T goes postal in Abel Ferrara’s Christmas kidnap caper ‘R Xmas’ (2001).

But while it might be a lower league cinematically, perhaps the pick of this badass bunch is the unfairly maligned Ben Affleck thriller ‘Reindeer Games’ (2000) which features a crack team of Santas robbing a casino – surely the true and eventual culmination of the entire American Dream if there ever was one!

H is for Horror

What is it about the festive season that makes folks want to slash and kill? Or should we be surprised that more Christmas films don’t involve psychos on the rampage?

Holiday horror first surfaced with Ealing portmanteau piece ‘Dead of Night’ (1945), as an upper-crust family soiree is visited by the ghost of a murdered child. The subgenre really hit its stride with ‘Black Christmas’, the film which singlehandedly invented the holiday-themed slasher, and spawned not just an cheapo ’80s Santa-based knockoff – ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ (1984) – but a duff 2006 remake.

The best film in the nightmare-before-Christmas canon has to be ‘Gremlins’ (see C), but keep an eye out for oft-overlooked serial killer thriller ‘Christmas Evil’ (aka ‘You Better Watch Out’) (1980), the story of a man whose realisation that Santa doesn’t exist drives him to murderous madness.

I is for Insanity

Other than a memorable scene in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975) and the lingering suspicion that Robin Williams’s dangerously pent-up corporate douche in ‘Hook’ (1989) is actually clinically insane rather than joyously in touch with his inner child (cf ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’), the insanity of Christmas is best highlighted in Nora Ephron’s woeful 1994 Michaelmas madness misstep, ‘Mixed Nuts’ (based on a 1982 French film titled ‘Santa Claus is a Bastard’). Such top-notch talents as Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis, Garry Shandling, Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber – among many, many others – all over-egg the comedic nog to an embarrassing degree in what might well be cinema’s one and only high-octane suicide-helpline farce.

J is for Joyeux Noel!

If you, like us, have long cherished the belief that Christmas is only celebrated in English-speaking countries and was invented by Charles Dickens as a way to boost his underperforming taffy concession, then cinema tells us otherwise. It seems that Continental types enjoy the festive season as much – and possibly even more – than the Toys R Us charge-card holders of the US and the UK.

Just look at Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (1982), in which the Swedish chattering classes of the early 1900s come together to gorge on sweet meats, prance around the house and fart in each others’ faces. Italian director Ermanno Olmi covers that horrendous spectacle of the Christmas office party in his brilliant 1961 film ‘Il Posto’. The brutality of Japanese PoW camps even gets a Yuletide sheen in Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ (1983), as Takeshi Kitano’s draconian prison guard yells out the film’s title as his only words of English. Or what about Arnaud Desplechin’s ‘A Christmas Tale’ (2008), in which the festering grudges of an extended French family only bubble to the surface after the kids have put on a little Nativity and the olds are using Super Soakers to spray port and lemon over each other.

K is for Kermit the Frog

Even more than traditional cartoons, there’s something about puppetry and stop motion which just yells ‘festive’. Perhaps it’s the link to childhood toys, perhaps it’s their fuzzy-blanket exteriors, but the Muppets do Christmas better than just about anyone else, as a fistful of marvellous TV specials and their timeless, riotous, utterly sacreligeous 1992 cracker ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ conclusively prove.

Elsewhere, it’s slim pickings: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a favourite but it’s hardly a heartwarmer, while ‘The Wrong Trousers’ (1993) may be a British seasonal classic, but there’s no mention of Christmas in it. But keep an eye out for Rankin/Bass’s loveably old-school ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus’ (1974), in which Father C is memorably voiced by the great Mickey Rooney.

L is for Lampoon, National

With respect to the many other fine, fine films in this rundown, we felt it was only fair to accord the magnificent ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ (1989) a section all to itself. After detonating the American Dream (‘Vacation’, 1983) and pummelling the Old World into submission (‘European Vacation’, 1985), the universal away day of Christmas seemed like the only institution for Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold and his squawking family of reliably mutinous materialistic brats left to ruin.

Rowdy in-laws, mind-of-their-own decorations, incinerated trees, four-letter tirades, exploding Santas, imploding turkeys, improbably salty nog, supercharged sledding and overflowing septic tanks add up not only to ‘the jolliest bunch of assholes this side if the nuthouse!’, but also make for the one truly seminal modern Christmas movie.


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