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Catch Me If You Can
Photograph: DreamWorks Pictures

The 15 best films to watch on TV this Christmas

Netflix? Tired. Watching the telly? Wired!

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Sure, there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and myriad other streaming options to chose from, but there’s something kinda nice about settling in for a movie on the telly at Christmas... you know, like in the old days. And, of course, the next week or two is a boon time for movie lovers on TV, with the terrestrial stations all screening a Santa sack’s worth of feel good flicks, cast-iron classics and rarely-seen treasures.

This Christmas sees stirring epics, iconic action-adventures, family-pleasing animations and a double bill of timeless Marilyn Monroe comedies on the small-screen. Here’s a dozen small-screen delights to circle in your inner Radio Times.

What films are on TV over Christmas this year?

North by Northwest
Photograph: Warner Bros.

1. North by Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s fizzy thriller is one of the master’s purest fun rides. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, ad man turned wrong man, who is misidentified by James Mason’s communist spy ring as a US secret agent. Cue saucy train banter with Eva Marie Saint, deadly crop dusters and an iconic face-off atop Mount Rushmore.

1.40pm, Dec 24. BBC2

Chariots of Fire
Photograph: 20th Century Studios UK

2. Chariots of Fire (1981)

The only people doing any meaningful exercise this Christmas are to be found in this Oscar-winning Brit flick in which sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell compete for glory in the 1924 Olympics. It’s stirring stuff, especially the bit where they all run down the beach in slo-mo to a Vangelis banger. We’re pretty sure watching it will burn a few calories, too. 

4.55pm, Dec 24. BBC2

Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

On-screen pairings don’t come much more perfect than in this bittersweet ’80s classic. The plot forces together Steve Martin’s misanthropic ad man and John Candy’s annoyingly upbeat travelling salesman in a comedy of logistical errors that will have you thanking your lucky stars that you don’t have to travel much further than your local this Christmas.

1.25pm, Dec 24. Channel 5 

Some Like It Hot
Photograph: United Artists

4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)/Some Like It Hot (1959)

Put this year’s stony-hearted Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde in the rearview with a double helping of Monroe magnificence. It kicks off with a way-ahead-of-it-time Howard Hawks musical that teams her up with Jane Russell as two travelling showgirls, followed by Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing classic – a shoo-in on any list of great comedies worth its itching powder. 

3.10pm/4.40pm, Dec 25. BBC2 

Catch Me If You Can
Photograph: DreamWorks Pictures

5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

An effervescent crime caper that was practically made for a lazy, overstuffed Christmas night, Catch Me If You Can is Steven Spielberg’s Ocean’s 11. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr, a young conman whose industrial levels of chutzpah and nimble thinking take his life off in some outrageous directions – usually with Tom Hanks’s FBI man in hot pursuit. 

10.55pm, Dec 25. Channel 4

The Magnificent Seven
Photograph: The Mirisch Company

6. The Magnificent Seven (1960)

A movie that leaves most of its stars brutally gunned down in the dust has rarely been more uplifting than this cantering relocation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to Mexico. Bullets fly as Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and co twirl their six-shooters in defence of a poor Mexican villagers as Eli Wallach’s bandit torments them. 

5.30pm, Dec 26. BBC2

Great Expectations
Photograph: General Film Distributors

7. Great Expectations (1946)

Charles Dickens at Christmas needn’t just be about picking the best movie version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (NB it’s The Muppet Christmas Carol). David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations is an evergreen delight, with John Mills fittingly lovelorn as Pip, Alec Guinness a peppy Herbert Pocket and Jean Simmons as the capricious but wounded Estella.

9.15pm, Dec 26. BBC2

Photograph: Warner Bros. Pictures

8. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Tune in for swashbuckling, tight-wearing capers courtesy of Errol Flynn as Sir Robin of Locksley swinging, sword fighting and otherwise getting right up the nose of Melville Cooper’s dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. There’s never a bad time to settle down to this all-time classic, but it’ll make for a particularly cockle-warming morning’s viewing after Christmas. 

9.35am, Dec 27. BBC2

NeverEnding Story
Photograph: Warner Bros.

9. The NeverEnding Story (1984)

A joy for all the family or pure nightmare fuel? For our money, it has all the ingredients for a timeless adventure: a young boy, his magic book and a malignant force called the Nothing that curses the land of Fantasia, a little like those squidgy Brussel sprouts will curse your Christmas dinner. Sure, it’s a bit ‘The Princess Bride on hallucinogens’, but it’s not nearly as scarring as The Dark Crystal and who doesn’t love Falkor?

11.30pm, Dec 27. BBC1

The Untouchables
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

10. The Untouchables (1987)

Brian de Palma’s depiction of FBI man Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his increasingly personal battle with Al Capone (Robert De Niro) is a big-canvas crime epic full of gun battles, speakeasy raids and at least one scene straight out of a Costner western. Always worth a rewatch, it’s got a hundred things to recommend it, from Sean Connery’s Irish beat cop and Ennio Morricone’s score, to Mafia hitman Frank Nitti ‘dropping in’ on that cab. 

12.05am, Dec 28. Channel 4

THE THIRD MAN, Orson Welles, 1949
Photograph: British Lion Film Corporation

11. The Third Man (1949)

A film that the red button was invented for, this noir feast of underworld subterfuge is one of the greatest British films of all time. Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton are the headline acts as a shadowy black marketeer and the writer – and old friend – who tries to track him down in a bombed-out Vienna, with composer Anton Karas and his haunting zither not far behind. If you haven’t seen it before, do not miss it.

9.35am, Dec 28. BBC2

Rosemary’s Baby
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

12. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Jesus isn’t the only bubba in town this Christmas. Satan is getting in on the act, siring a devil child in an upscale New York apartment courtesy of a traumatised Mia Farrow in this horror masterpiece. Few filmmakers weaponise the claustrophobia of urban living as effectively as Polanski, and his occult slice of antenatal anxiety, made at the hungover end of the ’60s, is a dark treasure. 

1.50am, Dec 28. Channel 4  

Jerry Maguire
Photograph: TriStar Films

13. Jerry Maguire (1996)

Let this joyous romantic-comedy complete you this Christmas. It’s a feel-nice story of an idealist sports agent (Tom Cruise) and the epiphany that leads him to the door of a single mum (Renée Zellweger) and her moppet son (Jonathan Lipnicki). Cuba Gooding Jr nearly steals the show in an Oscar-winning turn as a fading NFL star, but the movie – and its unquenchable spirit of optimism – is the real star here. It’s not a Christmas movie, but it sure feels like one.

12.05am, Dec 30. Channel 4 

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

14. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Pro tip for late Christmas: gather the family round the telly for a pre-New Year’s screening of Indiana Jones’s first brush with the Nazis and everyone will thank you for it. An action-adventure so perfect, it seems to float on air, it’s a pure sugar rush of puzzle-solving, truck fights, snake pits and melting Nazis.

8pm, Dec 30. Channel 4

Stan and Ollie
Photograph: EntertainmentOne

15. Stan & Ollie (2019) 

This rather brilliant British comedy-drama captures the magic of Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy as the two silent film stars try to rekindle their waxing stardom on an underwhelming tour of UK theatres. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are perfect as the little-and-large double act, bringing heart and belly laughs to the pair’s bickering bromance. 

10.40pm, Dec 31. BBC 4

The 50 best Christmas movies.

How many of the best movies of 2022 have you seen?

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