Every year, there are numerous films that epitomise the spirit of Christmas. Some of these are very good indeed, while others are of more dubious value. But there’s no doubt that, after a few glasses of mulled wine and lashings of turkey, stuffing and mince pies, that one’s usual critical faculties go out the window and that the difficult Eastern European three-hour examination into the innermost workings of the human soul (in black and white, naturally) can wait until the New Year to be appreciated to its utmost. Christmas viewing is all about entertainment, relaxation and fun.
This does not mean that the films have to be watched unironically. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable ways to spend Christmas – even if this year is going to make it virtual rather than in person in many cases – is to fill a glass with eggnog, Bailey’s or champagne, whatever takes your fancy, and pick holes in some of the more outrageously unlikely developments that occur in these pictures. So sit back, pour yourself a large glass of something, and step into the Yuletide season with these festive films.
It’s A Wonderful Life
Frank Capra’s masterpiece is one of the greatest films ever made, and there’s not much more to say. For years, it – bizarrely – had a reputation of being sentimental and unthreatening, leading many bores to hold it up as a barometer of all that’s cosy and tame. Given that the storyline revolves around James Stewart’s saintly George Bailey at the lowest ebb in his life and contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve, this would seem to be an egregious misunderstanding of a film that, while it’s undeniably heartwarming, is much tougher and more deeply affecting than many might believe.
It’s especially relevant at the moment, because Stewart’s town – Bedford Falls – and his community can be viewed as America in microcosm, with the villainous banker Potter, who precipitates George’s downfall, representing every greedy and duplicitous figure who has cared more for themselves than those around them. And while George is helped to discover the value of love and friendship with some angelic intervention, the ending, in which he realises how important those around him have always been, is proper ‘something in my eye, honest’ stuff.
Will Ferrell’s inimitable comic persona and schtick is an odd one. In some films, it works extremely well, and in others, it sticks out like a sore thumb and becomes extraordinarily annoying. But in what many still regard as his masterpiece, Elf, it’s perfectly judged, and it’s no wonder that the film has become a mainstay of Christmas viewing. Of course, there is cheesiness and sentimentality, but as Ferrell’s man-elf Buddy heads to New York to find his biological father, it’s more than compensated for by genuine wit and invention.
Credit has to go to James Caan as Buddy’s father, who plays the role of an exasperated hard-nosed publisher entirely naturalistically, resisting the urge to ham it up, which makes the dynamic between the two characters a more interesting and affecting one than a more cartoonish one would have allowed for. And it’s great to see a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage in a particularly hilarious cameo as a famous children’s writer who Buddy accidentally insults, too.
A lot of my friends unironically adore the films of Nancy Meyers. While acknowledging that very few of them are particularly good by critical standards (although the Goldie Hawn-starring Private Benjamin still holds up superbly), they claim that she creates an all-enveloping aspirational world of luxury and cosiness that you want to be part of for two hours. So it proves with the star-studded The Holiday, which assembles the ultimate Rolls-Royce cast (Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black, Rufus Sewell and even Dustin Hoffman and James Franco in cameos) and puts them all in the service of an unchallenging and undemanding role-reversal Christmas comedy that has still become a perennial festive favourite.
Winslet, at the peak of her fame, tries to actually act in the role of a lovelorn journalist who finds herself relocated to LA as part of a house-swap with Cameron Diaz’s film executive, who herself heads to an idyllic country cottage in the Cotswolds. There are fewer big laughs than you would have hoped, and Law – so excellent in so many other films – is content to coast by on charisma and a smirk, but this is still one of the standards of contemporary Christmas entertainment.
Oh, how people hate Richard Curtis’s festive-themed romantic comedy. They hate it for its (now) deeply dodgy sexual politics – step forward Andrew Lincoln stalking his best friend’s wife – and they hate it for Curtis’s decidedly monoethnic view of contemporary London, in which Martine McCutcheon is the closest that the film comes to presenting a major character who isn’t privileged and middle-class. They hate it for its cornucopia of storylines, some of which barely register (why are Martin Freeman and Joanna Page forever naked in what seems to be an ‘adult’ film?) and some of which, such as Colin Firth rounding up an entire village to track down a woman he barely knows but seems to have become obsessed with, make you wonder if Curtis has had any normal human interactions in the past few decades.
And yet…and yet. Silliness and stalking aside, it’s still got some of the most entertaining scenes in British comedy in the past decades in it, whether it’s anything involving Bill Nighy’s has-been rocker Bill Mack or Hugh Grant’s charming but blundering Blair-esque Prime Minister. And when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Laura Linney and Emma Thompson dealing with the more emotionally engaging material, it can’t help but be moving, despite some of the oddness and silliness around it.
Miracle On 34th Street
There are two versions of this film, a 1947 one starring Edmund Gwenn as the mysterious ‘Kris Kringle’ and a 1994 remake with Richard Attenborough in the same role. It’s the latter that most people are familiar with, and which you’re most likely to watch. Like The Holiday, it isn’t a particularly good film, with bland performances from Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott as the romantic leads and a pre-Matilda Mara Wilson as the child who really does believe in Father Christmas. But it’s Attenborough’s film all the way. By this stage in his career, he was either best known for directing lavish period dramas such as Gandhi and Shadowlands or having appeared in Jurassic Park, but he is perfect as the jovial Kringle, who is hired by a big department store to be their Santa, and manages to convince all around him that he is, in fact, the true Father Christmas.
In the midst of a silly and often contrived film, Attenborough manages to make Kringle come to life as the epitome of likeability and decency. He comes to be the contemporary cinematic incarnation of Santa who you would be genuinely delighted to see coming down your chimney, in need of a glass of something warming and a mince pie, before he carries on his festive frolics.
A Christmas Carol
There are endless versions of Dickens’s evergreen Christmas classic, and the major question revolves around what suits you best as a family. It came as something of a surprise that last year’s TV version, scripted by Steve Knight and starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge, contained nudity, violence and swearing, but it has now taken its place in the canon, alongside more traditional versions starring the likes of Alastair Sim, George C Scott and Patrick Stewart.
Many would argue that The Muppet’s Christmas Carol is as good a version of the story as has ever been told – and it’s hard not to agree, given how closely it sticks to Dickens’s storyline and allows for one of Michael Caine’s best performances – but, for me, it’s Scott’s contemplative, rueful Scrooge in an underrated 1984 version of the story that is the greatest one on screen, as the director Clive Donner allows for both pathos and genuine chills en route to Scrooge’s final, cathartic redemption at the end.
The Railway Children
This children’s classic adapted from the famous novel by E. Nesbitt used to be a stalwart of the Christmas TV schedule.
The Westbury family get an unwelcome Christmas surprise when, on Boxing Day, their father is inexplicably arrested. The destitute family move to Somerset to a house by the railway where many railway-themed adventures ensue and the truth about their father slowly unravels.
Jenny Agutter’s restrained performance as older sibling Bobby made the 1970 film the definitive adaptation. When she utters the immortal words ‘Daddy, my daddy!’ at the end, there’s rarely a dry eye in the festive living room.