’Tis the season to be jolly – unless you’re being dragged to some awful, syrupy, schmaltzy festive flick. Luckily, we’ve got the antidote: every film on this list of Christmas movies is guaranteed to charm, entertain and in the odd case terrify.
Tinged with magical passages, buckets of good will and an alternate plotline with the disturbing kick of a ‘Black Mirror’ 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.
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 story cherishes holiday cheer; in a genre that’s become generically saccharine, this is one modern Christmas movie that’s genuinely sweet.
As bad Christmas Eves go, few are worse than the one had by NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), whose reconciliation with his estranged wife in an L.A. skyscraper is interrupted by a bunch of machine-gun-toting terrorists. Filled with killer set pieces and a memorably hissable villain (Alan Rickman), John McTiernan’s crowd-pleasing action film is the hard-R gift that keeps on giving.
He drinks like a fish, swears like a sailor and the less said about his sexual proclivities the better. Billy Bob Thornton’s department-store St Nick is the furthest thing from a saint. 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 goodwill to all men – is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Plenty of Christmas presents come with instructions, yet none are as ominous as the following: Never expose to bright light, never add water and, crucially, never feed after midnight. Joe Dante’s horror-comedy turns a well-intentioned gift into a nightmare. Meanwhile, a traumatised Phoebe Cates tells the saddest Christmas story ever.
Scripted by John Hughes, this is the film that made adorable moppet Macaulay Culkin a star. It’s heavy on the slapstick, but against all odds, a sentimental Christmas streak does shine through, even though Kevin doesn’t seem all that upset that his Paris-bound family has accidentally left him behind for the holidays.
One of the first Johnny Depp performances to suggest he was more than just a set of cheekbones, the actor’s gothed-out title character is a study in pain and pathos. Tim Burton’s suburban fantasy wouldn’t be nearly as touching without Depp’s sad-eyed hero at its center – or its context of Christmas, a time of acceptance, charity and Winona Ryder dancing around ice sculptures.
Small-time crook Robert Downey Jr hits Hollywood in this witty crime comedy featuring a memorable turn from Val Kilmer as a private investigator hired to give the wannabe actor background for a role. There are as many complications as belly laughs, while Michelle Monaghan puts in a break-out turn in a sexy Santa costume.
By now as iconic as the story of Kris Kringle himself, this Peanuts-based perennial sends viewers into happy spasms of neck-tipped dancing year after year. Its most lasting achievement is Vince Guaraldi’s breezy jazz score – whimsical and lovely like a falling snowflake.
Tim Burton’s second stab at the Caped Crusader is actually a slight improvement on his original 1989 blockbuster, mainly due to Michelle Pfeiffer’s uncommonly fierce performance as Catwoman (the finest work she’s ever done). If you forget, Gotham is dusted with a layer of snow: It’s an especially downbeat Christmas.
Christmas-themed ‘comedies’ like ‘Fred Claus’ not enough of a lobotomy for you? Here’s the flabby, smug, overextended SNL skit that made such movies fashionable in the first place. Still, it must be said that Bill Murray is perfectly cast as a smug corporate TV exec in store for some ghostly comeuppance.
It might be better known these days for SNL’s classic “Lazy Sunday” skit (‘Pass the chronic – what? – cles of Narnia’), but this snowy Christmas treat based on C.S. Lewis’s novel is, indeed, a dreamworld of magic. There’s both a Father Christmas and a White Witch, the latter played by Tilda Swinton.
Geena Davis (married to director Renny Harlin at the time) is a suburban housewife who, during the Christmas holidays, gets into a car accident. When she emerges, she remembers she was once an ass-kicking spy. Samuel L. Jackson plays her sidekick, a private investigator helping her remember her past. This one’s a fun alternative to the usual festive picks.
Michael Caine as Scrooge, Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit – just three of many reasons to love this witty, warm-hearted take on the immortal story. Despite the presence of Muppets, it is (believe it or not) one of the more faithful versions of the book.
There’s something incredibly lovely about first-rate stop-motion work, and this gorgeous musical about a botched Halloween-Christmas merger ranks up there with the old Rankin/Bass Xmas toons. Who else but Tim Burton, the project’s patron, could have come up with such appealingly macabre mayhem?
Bridget (Renée Zellweger) thinks she might have met the man of her life (Colin Firth) – but spots him sporting a hideous Christmas jumper. This seasonal wardrobe error plays a pivotal part in the sharp romantic comedy-drama, which also features fellow festive favourite Hugh Grant.
Did you forget that Terry Gilliam’s dystopic classic is set around Christmas? Its vision of the future is both hilarious and chilling, blending bits of Monty Python, George Orwell and Harold Pinter into a unique, unforgettable ’80s masterpiece. Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro and Michael Palin are among the cast.
This is either unbearable schmaltz or a festive heart-warmer, depending on who you ask. Love is certainly all around in this ensemble comedy-drama set in the holiday season: even a school nativity play is an opportunity for romance. Comic standouts include Bill Nighy as an ageing rock legend who’s reduced to competing in the race to land a Christmas Number One.
Cameron Diaz romancing Jude Law in a cutesy country cottage should spell pass-the-sick-bucket, but there’s something unbearably lovely about this festive comedy. It doesn’t hurt that the LA-set secondary plot features Kate Winslet on peak form and Jack Black at his most adorably goofy.