A-Z of the best and worst Christmas movies
Time Out Film's ultimate guide to festive films
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!
S is for Suicide
Those who view the classic Hollywood Christmas canon as an endless wasteland of sugar and schmaltz should take another look. In the real world, Christmas is a time of loneliness and loss for many – a fact reflected in a fistful of the finest holiday flicks: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946), ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ (1940), ‘The Apartment’ (1960) and ‘Trading Places’ (1983).
Think of Jimmy Stewart staggering on to the bridge, willing himself to jump, or Jack Lemmon bursting into his bedroom to find Shirley MacLaine passed out on his bed on Christmas night following an overdose of sleeping pills. These are some of the most shocking scenes in cinema – but they also display a deep understanding of human pain, and what it takes to survive it: love, companionship, warmth. And what could be more Christmassy than that?
T is for Terrorists
‘Now I have a machine gun. Ho… Ho… Ho…’ Yes, it’s time for the shootiest, smashiest, sweariest of all the great Christmas movies: ‘Die Hard’ (1988), in which Bruce Willis plays Bad Santa to Alan Rickman’s gang of gun-toting Eurotrash terrorists, slipping down the chimney and filling ‘em full of lead.
But these aren’t the only armed revolutionaries looking to misbehave on the holiest night: a pair of dystopian shockers show exactly what could happen if you mess with Jesus’s birthday. In ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995), the bad guys have already won, subjecting the world to a killer virus which strikes over the festive season, while in ‘Brazil’ (1984), Jonathan Pryce must deal not only with his own insecurities, a psychotic best mate and a terrorist bombing campaign, but the fact that every bugger he meets wants to palm him off with this year’s special executive Christmas gift.
U is for Unwanted Visitors
There’s a fifth wheel at many a Yuletide gathering. But spare a thought for the drunken, interloping chancer at the office Christmas party or the sob story from the pub that you end up inviting back for a turkey dinner, because they, like Jim Carrey’s bitter, twisted, hairy green spoilsport in Ron Howard’s ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ (2000), are probably decent enough at heart.
The same can’t be said for undead Eurotrash gatecrasher Vigo the Carpathian in ‘Ghostbusters II’ (1989), who wants to spoil the party by turning the streets of Manhattan into rivers of malevolent karmic slime. And lastly, spare a thought for Billy Crystal in ‘Rabbit Test’ (1978) (directed by, yes, you guessed it, Joan Rivers) who spends Christmas in the full bloom of male pregnancy. Now THAT’S what you call an unwanted guest!
V is for Violence
Just because it’s the season of goodwill doesn’t mean human nature is about to improve. We’ve already covered some of the finest festive shoot ’n’ beat-em-ups elsewhere on this list – ‘Die Hard’, ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’, ‘R Xmas’ – but there are so many more to choose from: check out the wonderful ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005), in which Robert Downey Jr’s struggling actor must solve a murder mystery – and stay alive – over a sweltering LA Christmas season.
Festive cheer is also notable by its absence in the likes of ‘Zodiac’ (2007), in which the first murder takes place shortly before the big day, ‘Eastern Promises’ (2007), which opens with a slap-up Russian Orthodox feast, ‘First Blood’ (1982), in which Sly Stallone goes bugnuts batshit in true holiday style, and of course the terrifying ‘Home Alone’, in which a miniature maniac on a sugar jag tears seven strips off two hapless burglars.
W is for War
They say war is hell. They also say that hell is Christmas. Therefore Christmas must – at least for the purposes of this waning metaphor – be WAR! It’s certainly the case in Spielberg’s engorged slapstick folly ‘1941’ (1979), a jabbering aria of unhooked militaristic lunacy taking place in the aftermath of the December bombings of Pearl Harbor. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 Deutsche U-boat classic ‘Das Boot’ also contains some memorable festive sequences, as does Billy Wilder’s ‘Stalag 17’ (1953).
And while the midfield truce of Battle of the Bulge armistice near-miss ‘A Midnight Clear’ (1992), starring Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon and Gary Sinise, elicits genuine feelings of détente, let’s not forget the seasonal sci-fi sports day promised by Cold War fever dream ‘Rocky IV’ (1985), in which Sly Stallone decides Christmas isn’t spicy enough already and so schedules a title fight with godless Russian killing machine Ivan Drago for the big day. Insert your own Boxing Day zinger here.
X is for Xmas or Christmas?
Commerce or Christianity? Carol service or boozing session? ‘Life of Brian’ or ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956)? ‘Jingle All the Way’ (1996) or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? It’s the eternal festive debate, and the movies haven’t reached any kind of conclusion as yet.
Indeed, most Christmas flicks try to have it both ways, following the template set by the venerable Charles Dickens: 90 minutes of aggro, rampant consumerism, familial strife, supernatural hi-jinks and general misery followed by five minutes of sappy sermonising, hugging, learning, growing, nog-sipping and appreciating the Baby Jesus. Well, he was pretty brilliant.
Y is for Youth on the rampage
When you’re young, innocent and parentally unsupervised, Christmas is yours to make of it what you will. Painfully well-adjusted munchkin Macaulay Culkin treats his parents’ disappearance over the festive period as a golden ticket to pranks and jinks in ‘Home Alone’, but poor little Thurman Merman in ‘Bad Santa’ isn’t quite such a livewire and his holiday season has descended into a cheerless, unchaperoned mire of corn dogs and snot.
The tearaways of Doug Liman’s all-but-forgotten teen-Tarantino workout ‘Go’ (1999) have put away childish things to indulge in a night of speedy debauchery in Vegas, while the ageing juveniles of ‘Diner’ (1982) spend Christmas realising that the carnival is over and the drear fog of adulthood is pulling them into the night. Blub!
Z is for Z-grade
While the above films are, for the large part, a decent clutch of serviceable movies – with the odd iced gem (‘Trading Places’, ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, ‘Christmas Vacation’) twinkling like fairy lights above the rest – it would be disingenuous of us not to admit that most Christmas movies are very, very bad indeed.
Blame TV: most festive films aren’t made for the multiplex, but for endless rotation on the telly while everybody’s too busy, distracted or drunk to care, as long as there’s the occasional glimpse of snow, a rosy-cheeked oldster in a red jumpsuit or an animatronic reindeer every time they look up from wrapping presents, butter-balling the turkey or emptying the drinks cabinet. So we get the likes of Michael Keaton’s grossly misjudged and sinister reincarnated snowman caper ‘Jack Frost’ (1998), Martin Freeman wading through the primary school treacle of ‘Nativity!’ (2009) and killer Christmas tree howler ‘Trees 2: The Root of All Evil’ (2004).
But though we reserve a special category of dread for bizarro Jewsploitation misfire ‘The Hebrew Hammer’ (2004) – starring Andy Dick as a Santa bent on destroying Hanukkah – the bottom of the barrel must surely be reserved for hideously overextended shopping mall infomercial ‘Christmas in Wonderland’ (2007), which treats the festive season like a punching bag full of vomit. Happy viewing, folks!
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