The 12 genres of Christmas movies

There's nothing more festive than machine guns, soroity girls and alien invasion. Wait, what?

  • Monster movie: ‘Gremlins’ (1984)

    Arguably the single greatest moment in a Christmas movie comes roughly midway through Joe Dante’s small-town satirical juggernaut, as winsome barmaid Phoebe Cates, recovering from an extended bout of verbal and physical abuse by a gaggle of drunken green monsters, recalls the night her beloved father disappeared. We won’t spoil it for those (few) readers who’ve not seen it; suffice to say the idea of Santa merrily slipping down the chimney will never seem quite the same again.

    Cockle-warming credentials: More cackles than cockles.

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  • Animation: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965)

    Pea-headed masochist Charlie Brown and his muckle-mouthed chum Linus, repelled by the crass commercialism and insane cosmic fury of the festive season, attempt to divine the true spirit of Christmas, bumming everyone else out in the process. A cast-iron cracker that still packs a Proustian wallop, the first and best of the Peanuts animated specials is a grubby bauble whose sparkle remains undimmed.

    Cockle-warming credentials: This is about as cockle-pleasing as it gets.

  • Courtroom drama: ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ (1947)

    Santa on trial! Yes, the idea of a kid-friendly courtroom drama sounds about as much fun as an adult-oriented Tinkerbell adventure, but this ’40s charmer has a lot to recommend it (which is more than you can say for the ’90s remake, which attempted to coast by on the avuncular charm of our own Sir Richard Attenborough). And while it’s sometimes tough not to side with the prosecution (frankly, locking up a guy who wants to break into your kid’s bedroom sounds like a pretty sound idea), the film’s twinkly, child-eyed charm should win over the hardest hearts.

    Cockle-warming credentials: The hottest cockles in Christendom.

  • Comedy: ‘National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation’ (1989)

    Bad Santa’ may be smarter, ‘Elf’ sweeter and ‘Home Alone’ louder, but ‘Christmas Vacation’ has Chevy Chase in a housedress, and therefore wins. The funniest of all the National Lampoon movies (which is a bit like being the best Jimmy Buffett album), ‘Christmas Vacation’ features in its phenomenal cast Juliette Lewis, Elaine from ‘Seinfeld’ and Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop. To paraphrase Chevy himself, watch this and you’ll have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapdanced with Danny fucking Kaye.

    Cockle-warming credentials: If you don’t crack a festive smile, you’re dead inside.

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  • War: ‘A Midnight Clear’ (1992)

    Perennial second-stringers Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon and Arye Gross yomp their way through the frozen countryside of war-torn France during the Battle of the Bulge in a solid adaptation of a novel by William Wharton (‘Birdy’). Crimbo also formed the backdrop of ‘Joyeux Noël’, which told the of 1914’s football-based First World War truce so beloved of Sir Paul McCartney.

    Cockle-warming credentials: Bloodied and battered, but still warm in the middle.

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  • Sci-fi: ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ (1964)

    Is there anything Santa Claus can’t do? Not only does he shower us with cut-price electronics on an annual basis, but in the late ’60s he led the counter-insurgence against a battalion of imperialist Martians who attempted to kidnap him and put him to work on their godforsaken planet. Looking like it was made using the contents of skip found next to a recently out-of-business Mexican knocking shop, the Martians themselves resemble nothing more than a cadre of clueless extras with green crayon on their faces and salad bowls on their heads.

    Cockle-warming credentials: It’s Christmas, Juan, but not as we know it.

  • Melodrama: ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ (1946)

    Admitting that you don’t care for Frank Capra’s Yuletide parable is the cinematic equivalent of confessing that you spend your weekends throwing seal pups in front of trains. This heartbreaking paean to health, home and happiness isn’t just a saccharine-sweet parade of small-town jollity, it’s actually one of the darkest, most psychologically probing Xmas movie in the canon.

    Cockle-warming credentials: They take a while to warm up, but by the finale they’re piping hot.

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  • Thriller: ‘R-Xmas’ (2001)

    Not everyone gets to bask in the noggy goodness of the festive period: just take Abel Ferrara’s underseen ‘R Xmas’, about a husband (Lillo Brancato) and wife (Drea de Matteo) out to make a big pre-Crimbo drug score that goes south before anyone gets to even glance at the wrapping paper. So instead of a stint of carefree capitalism, she has to hit the streets and amass as much cash and drugs as possible to pay a ransom to the gangsters (led by Ice-T, no less) who have kidnapped (and are threatening to whack) her hubby. Happy Christmas!

    Cockle-warming credentials: Frostier than a snowman’s undercrackers.

  • Musical: ‘White Christmas’ (1954)

    Lengthy, aimless and only tangentially concerned with Xmas, Michael Curtiz’s partial remake of 1942’s ‘Holiday Inn’ – minus the questionable ‘blackface’ Abraham Lincoln number – endures because of its irrevocable connection with its title song (which was also used in ‘Holiday Inn’!). Danny Kaye and ba-da-Bing Crosby are agreeable as a couple of war buddies turned song and dance men, but it’s otherwise a bit of a turkey.

    Cockle-warming credentials: It’s got that cockle-warming croon – but precious little else.

  • Horror: ‘Black Christmas’ (1974)

    No, not the rudimentary blaxploitation Christmas movie that everyone was waiting for, but a thoroughly nasty slasher movie from those lovely folk in Canada. The film follows a group of hopped-up, scantily-clad college students who decide to host a Christmas party in their sorority house. Like clockwork, a murderous pervert has – in homage to St Nick – sidled up the side trellis with an arsenal of regular household items – most famously, a sandwich bag – to dispatch the shrieking lovelies one by one.

    Cockle-warming credentials: If you like ‘em raw and bloody, this one’s for you...

  • Arthouse: ‘A Christmas Tale’ (2008)

    We all feel obliged to return to the family nest for Christmas, and this superb drama from French director Arnaud Desplechin shows that behind all the hugging and roll-neck cashmere sweaters lurks deep-set familial abhorrence. The film has a wonderful ensemble cast, with special mention going to Mathieu Amalric as the eccentric black sheep son, and Catherine Deneuve as the glamorous matriarch.

    Cockle-warming credentials: 'Qu'est-ce-que c'est un "cockle"?'

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  • Action: 'Die Hard' (1988)

    For a whole generation of messed-up moviegoers, nothing says Christmas quite like Bruce Willis in a dirty white vest cussing up a blue streak while gunning down miscellaneous murderous mittel-Euros with an Uzi. This thoughtless appropriation of the goodwill season for distinctly badwill ends may rankle the religious purists, but what would you rather have: a bearded terrorist who dies for his beliefs, or Alan Rickman getting lobbed out of a window?

    Cockle-warming credentials: Warmer than any ‘Die Hard’ film since.

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Monster movie: ‘Gremlins’ (1984)

Arguably the single greatest moment in a Christmas movie comes roughly midway through Joe Dante’s small-town satirical juggernaut, as winsome barmaid Phoebe Cates, recovering from an extended bout of verbal and physical abuse by a gaggle of drunken green monsters, recalls the night her beloved father disappeared. We won’t spoil it for those (few) readers who’ve not seen it; suffice to say the idea of Santa merrily slipping down the chimney will never seem quite the same again.

Cockle-warming credentials: More cackles than cockles.

Read review

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