A-Z of 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!

M is for Musicals

One suspects that, apart from in ‘Eastenders’, the era of the Christmas sing-song is a thing of the past: try and pull off a few verses of Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’ now and you’ll no doubt be banished to the bottom of the garden so everyone can soak up the nightmare karaoke of ‘The X Factor’.

But it wasn’t always like this: Vincente Minnelli’s ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ (1944) contains one of the greatest Christmas sing-songs ever, as Judy Garland laments her impending departure from her hokey hometown with a stirring rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. And what about Albert Finney’s musical-minded take on the miserly anti-hero of Ronald Neame’s ‘Scrooge’ (1970)?

But if there’s one man in cinema who is unable to keep his wild enthusiasm for Christmas under wraps, it’s Bing Crosby, star of the one-two punch of ‘Holiday Inn’ (1942) and ‘White Christmas’ (1954). Both films are as saccharine and gloopy as an eggnog tsunami, but that’s exactly what you want on a cold December morn.

N is for Naughty or Nice?

There are as many different movie depictions of Saint Nick as there are a-lords a-leaping. For drunk, intransigent and sociopathic, try ‘Bad Santa’ (2003). Ancient, pustulent and montrous: see ‘Rare Exports’ (2010). Bleach-balding amnesic pro-wrestlers saving an orphanage: Hulk Hogan’s ‘Santa With Muscles’ (1996) should cover it. Psychopathic bank robbers: meet Christopher Plummer in softly-softly Canadian crime curio ‘The Silent Partner’ (1978).

For a schlubby Jewish Santa, call Paul Giammatti in ‘Fred Claus’ (2007). Dangerously reckless vice cop: Gene Hackman’s lunatic turn as a street-legal Santa in the opening scenes of ‘The French Connection’ (1971) might fit the bill. A Satan-baiting Mexican redsuit from another planet: 1959’s Tex-Mex camp classic ‘Santa Claus’. Space-rocked Oklahomans celebrating mankind’s first Noel on the Red Planet? Surely it’s time for The Flaming Lips’ ‘Christmas on Mars’ (2008). And… well, you get the idea…

O is for Once Upon a Time...

It could be argued that most Christmas movies are fairytales of one kind or another, but there are a few which get the kid-friendly pitch just right. The best of these is undoubtedly ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (see A), but you also can’t go wrong with ‘Miracle on 34th St’, a cosy old charmer in which Santa gets banged up for… well, being Santa, the implication being that fantastical figures have no place in the real world. It was convincingly remade in 1994, with a twinklier-than-thou Richard Attenborough in the lead.

Perennial Stateside favourite ‘A Christmas Story’ (1982) has never really made a splash on these shores, unlike Robert Zemeckis’s slightly creepy but nonetheless popular CG romp ‘The Polar Express’ (2004). For slightly older kids, ‘Home Alone’ (1990) never fails to get ‘em up and screaming, while those with a thirst for mayhem will go for ‘Gremlins’ every time.

P is for Poverty

‘Jingle bells don’t jingle when you’re poor,’ sang headline-ripping folkster Phil Ochs, and the movies don’t intend to let us forget it. Depictions of seasonal poverty begin with Dickens and ‘A Christmas Carol’, whose Bob Cratchit is the ultimate festive pauper.

But Cratchit’s antecedents have popped up in many forms, from a burly rugby player in ‘This Sporting Life’ (1955) to a mealy-mouthed boxer in ‘Rocky’ (1976), from the struggling auto-plant workers in Michael Moore’s ‘Roger & Me’ (1989) to the snowbound poverty-line heroines of US indie masterpiece ‘Frozen River’ (2008).

But if you’re looking for the most heartbreaking single image of Christmas on the breadline, check out ‘Trading Places’ (1983), in which Dan Aykroyd’s former Wall Street exec wanders the mean streets of Manhattan clutching a pistol, suicidal in a Santa suit.

Q is for Quests and Journeys

Ever since Bing Crosby warbled ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’, we’ve been inundated with images of families struggling to make it back – or, indeed, get away – over the festive break. The best home-for-the-holidays movie – ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (1987) – is actually set over Thanksgiving, but for a suitable alternative, check out Renny Harlin’s delirious action comedy ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ (1996), in which Geena Davis’s voyage home involves wiping out half the CIA.

Those looking to avoid family ties should go for either ‘The Sure Thing’ (1985), in which John Cusack heads for LA in search of nookie, or ‘The Holiday’ (2006), a saccharine-sweet guilty pleasure romcom in which Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz find unexpected love in foreign climes.

R is for Romance

Christmas is a time for families rather than couples, but that specific sense of loneliness which descends on the lovelorn over the festive period can add a certain spark to the most average romcom – case in point ‘Love Actually’ (2003), a reprehensible slice of Britcom treacle in which Bill Nighy’s sad Christmas rocker is the only palatable portion.

Many great romances visit Christmas fleetingly – see ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989) or ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) – but the most successful festive schmaltzathon must be ‘While You Were Sleeping’, (1995) a deeply drippy, wholly loveable Noo Yoik love story in which Sandy Bullocks falls for subway crash victim Peter Gallagher, only to realise that she should be with his 100 per cent less comatose bro, Bill Pullman.

The best movies to see this Christmas

It’s that time of year when cinemas fill with people of all ages, all looking to escape leftovers and rubbish television. But what to watch? We've scoured the films in UK cinemas over Christmas and picked the best movies to suit every taste and age. Think of it as a Christmas gift, from us to you.

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