If ever there is a month associated with tradition, it is December, dominated as it is by the repeated patterns of Christmas. Whether those traditions involve mass at midnight, stuffing down platefuls of dry turkey or donning that playfully disgusting jumper from the back of your cupboard doesn’t matter. The point is you do it every year because that’s what you do at Christmas. It’s tradition.
I’m the same. As soon as the calendar gets flipped over to the cat in the Santa hat, then it’s full on festivity: Christmas music, Christmas lights, excusing everything that you shouldn’t do by adding ‘Ah well it is Christmas’ (which includes trying Advocaat year after year in the hope that it will taste different this time) as well as binge watching Christmas films.
You have to be particularly careful with that last one because now that we have channels dedicated 24/7 from October onwards to the screening of made-for-TV Xmas movies there’s an awful lot of crap out there. And unlike Advocaat, which makes you queasy long before you can get pissed on it, you could easily while away the whole of December being slowly anesthetised by a slew of poor quality, done to death Christmas films without noticing.
My Top Twelve Festive Films
As an aficionado of the Christmas film therefore, I give you my twelve watch-every-year Christmas movies which, in my opinion, will not disappoint. So, let’s begin our festive countdown.
12) Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
This 1993 animated musical is the dark fantasy tale of Jack Skellington, the King of Hallowe’en Town, who has grown bored with his town’s traditional celebrations for Hallowe’en and takes off to find something new. In a forest he stumbles upon seven trees representing different holidays and finds himself sucked through a portal into Christmas Town.
Enchanted by the joy of the season– the lights and the presents, the red and white striped candy canes and of course the King of Christmas himself, “Sandy Claws”– Jack wants the people of Hallowe’en Town to take over Christmas. What could possibly go wrong?
11) Jingle All The Way
This is slapstick family comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as workaholic Howard Langston and Sinbad as an unhinged postman both in a desperate race to buy a Turbo Man action figure for their young sons on Christmas Eve. But as the most popular toy of the season, there is not one to be had anywhere and it looks like Howard will have to add this to his ‘broken promises to my son’ list.
Or will he? Add in a sleazy neighbour, an angry reindeer, a counterfeit toy racket, a long suffering motorcycle cop and a holiday parade missing its Turbo Man actor and you’ve got a perfectly, non-taxing Christmas movie.
10) A Good Man in Africa
Okay so this isn’t actually a Christmas film as such, but it starts out at that time of year so has become one of my Christmas staples. My list, my rules!
Based on William Boyd’s excellent novel, this 1994 film starring Colin Friels, Sean Connery (who is the eponymous good man), John Lithgow and Diana Rigg is the tale of expat-life in Kinjanja, an African nation recently freed from British rule. Anyone who has worked abroad in those kinds of circles will testify to how realistic this is. Morgan Leafy (Friels) drinks too much and screws around too much. (It’s what you do when you work abroad…) Dr Alex Murray (Connery) just wants to do a good job and play a bit of golf. He definitely doesn’t want to get involved in expat life or its shady politics. And Arthur Fanshawe (Lithgow) is the British High Commissioner who desperately wants to leave Africa as quickly as possible but finds himself responsible for a minor royal coming out for a visit and needs everything to run smoothly. But Innocence the maid is lying dead in the driveway and no one will go near her…
Feeling festive yet?
9) The Holiday
It took me a while to warm to this cheese-fest but now it’s an annual favourite. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet trade homes one Christmas, both of them escaping their less-than-perfect romantic lives to find themselves on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Starting over in each other’s houses and mixing with the other one’s friends and relatives, they eventually find new loves and new purpose and everyone lives happily and cheesily ever after.
8) Love Actually
This one looks set to climb further up my festive chart the more times I see it but having only watched it twice so far it’s currently stuck at number 8. 8 is also the number of stories interwoven in this Christmas tale of love and loss as it follows a group of disparate people in the run up to Christmas in London.
It’s very much a Richard Curtis film so you know exactly what you’re getting (ignoring The Boat That Rocked…which is truly dire) and what you’re getting is that lovely warm Christmassy glow thanks to a fabulous non-cheesy script and an A List cast comprising Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson…I could go on but I’m absolutely sure you’ve already seen it!
There will be plenty of you who think it a travesty to place Scrooged above Love Actually, but I say again, my list, my rules!
There have been so many re-imaginings of Dickens’ Christmas Carol but this is one of the best, and hugely funny to boot. In this modern retelling, our Scrooge character is Frank Cross (Bill Murray) a successful, driven but extremely selfish TV executive who has organised a live TV extravaganza to be aired on Christmas Eve because what else could anyone have to do on Christmas Eve but work?
Of course, a visit from three ghosts will make him see the error of his ways and reunite him with a lost love. I think Dickens would be proud!
6) The Family Man
This idea of being shown an alternative reality at Christmas is a popular theme and one which is explored in this film with Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni. High-flying businessman Jack Campbell is given the chance to swap his Ferrari and his Wall Street ways for long-lost love Kate Reynolds, along with small-town suburbia and working in his father-in-law’s tyre business, for that is the life he might have now if he had made a different choice thirteen years ago.
But of course you can’t go back and have a complete do-over. As Jack finally wakes up back in his swanky Manhattan apartment, it looks as though he will have to console himself with his multi-million dollar deals and lavish bachelor lifestyle…until he calls Kate’s mobile number to see what she wants after all these years. Can they start again? As the snow starts to fall outside I’d say that’s a yes!
5) The Family Stone
The Stone family, with a matriarch (Diane Keaton) who is dying of cancer, are a fiercely protective bunch who make it extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It is even more so this Christmas, given a pervasive feeling of time running out on them due to the worsening of Keaton’s health. Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays uptight business woman Meredith, has the unenviable task of spending the holiday with the Stones for the first time and quickly finds herself at odds with all of them. Tensions rise even further when Meredith’s partner Everett (Dermot Mulroney) asks his mother for his grandmother’s ring so that he can propose.
But it’s a Christmas film and it will all come good in the end, I promise!
4) The Polar Express
This CGI animation is the wonderful tale of a young boy who is just starting to doubt the magic of Christmas as he grows up. However, he gets it all back and then some once he boards a magical train to the North Pole with Tom Hanks as its time-harried guard. The boy along with the other pyjama-clad children on board this special train are off to meet Santa as the big man prepares for his annual sleigh ride across the world on Christmas Eve, but of course the journey is as important as the destination and they will all learn something special along the way. Pure magic.
My Top Three
3) It’s a Wonderful Life
This truly is a Christmas classic, not just by dint of its age (made in 1946) but also its story. George Bailey (James Stewart) has grown up in a small American town but always had big dreams to get away and see the world. However, it wasn’t to be. Instead, he took over the family business and watched his brother have those adventures instead.
Now, with the business failing, George feels he has nothing to live for and is contemplating suicide. At this point Clarence Odbody, a rather bumbling angel, is sent to save him and shows him what life would have been like had George never existed. The timeline of the town without George Bailey in it is considerably more grim, for George has overlooked just how important and loved he truly is.
Love wins out, the town rallies round to save George and his business and Clarence finally does something right and earns his wings!
2) Lost Christmas
It’s very possible that you have not heard of this minor gem but I urge you to seek it out and watch it immediately!
‘Goose’ is a young boy who doesn’t want his firefighter father to work on Christmas Eve so he hides his car keys. This just forces his mother to take her husband to work, with tragic consequences. We then flash forward to a year from now and see the effects of those consequences on Goose, whose life has spiralled down into a world of petty crime whilst living with his dementia-addled Nan.
Then we meet ‘Anthony’ (Eddie Izzard) who wakes up on a Manchester street with no recollection of how he got there but who has a gift for finding lost things and in returning them to their owners can make lives whole again. What is the connection between Goose and ‘Anthony’? How can the young boy’s life be repaired? It all starts with a gold bangle…
This urban fairy tale is the magic we all need at Christmas.
And finally, in first place, the father of all Christmas tales has to be….
1) A Christmas Carol
Just the sheer volume of knock-offs and spin-offs means that there can be no other movie sitting here at Number One. And it doesn’t really matter which of the twenty-plus versions is your favourite, or what form it takes (animation, black and white, 3D, musical…) this story, and this alone, truly deserves to be heard Christmas after Christmas after Christmas.
My personal favourite is the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge and Richard E Grant as Bob Crachit. You, of course, know the story…Ebeneezer Scrooge is a mean-spirited money-lender, hardened by life and its losses, who is about to see the error of his ways when he is visited by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, urging him to change his miserable life around. Follow that with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and the glimpses he sees of himself and his world are enough to make him rethink his miserly ways, throwing his head out of the window on Christmas morning and shouting to a local boy… “What day is this?”…well, you know the rest! Brilliant.
So, what do you think? Did I miss anything out?