Some people know it’s christmas when a 2008 X-Factor runner-up or Big Brother contestant comes and turns on the lights on their town hall. Others know it when they first see the Coca Cola advert (which is spookily popular given we live in a society predominantly consuming content on demand now). For me, Christmas starts when I sit down and kick off the month-long movie marathon.
To put this into some context, I’m insufferable at Christmas. As soon as 1st December hits, the tree gets dragged out of the cupboard and any playlist on rotation in the car gets binned in favour of Bing Crosby, Slade and friends. My movie-watching habits are no different and as soon as I can I’m gathering the family around the idiot box and sticking on The Snowman. Usually there are cries of “But Dad, I want to watch Charlie & Lola” or “Christ, darling. Do we have to?” to which I laugh a hearty belly-laugh like Santa himself as I pop in the bluray.
Now usually my lists on here are in no particular order. My top five is normally just a representative selection of the best examples in no specific heirarchy. Not this time. The five films I’m about to babble through are, in this order from fifth-best to first-best, the holy quintology of festive cinematography. If the joy of Christmas is a broad church then my movie list is a narrow galley kitchen in the basement of that church and someone is using it to store carpet offcuts and that has made it even narrower.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
Sixth place – Scrooged
Scrooged is the ultimate spooky-but-hilarious christmas movie for me. It was released when I was a kid and I remember seeing it when I was way too young. As a result it has always been indelibly locked in my mind alongside Back to the Future and Star Wars. Like many Christmas movies it follows the rough beats of A Christmas Carol, with the predominantly grumpy protagonist being subjected to a series of eye-opening scenes from his christmas past, present and yet-to-come. The lead role in this version belongs to Bill Murray as cynical tv executive Frank Cross who, having once been an easy-going, loveable fellow, has been crushed and embittered by a lifetime of hard knocks and tough choices.
Cue the series of spectres who visit Frank to set him back on the path to happiness. The ‘Jacob Marley’ role is taken up by Frank’s mentor who returns spiritually (if not entirely physically) to introduce the haunting trio that will take Frank on a disturbing tour of his own mistakes. The ghost of Christmas past is played by New York Dolls’ David Johansen (“Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel”) as a cigar-chewing cab driver. The timeless portrayal of the angelic yet violent ghost of Christmas Present is by none other than Carol Kane who younger viewers are more likely to recognise as either Lillian from Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Oswald Cobblepot’s long-suffering mother in Gotham. Finally, although I’m keen to avoid spoilers, the ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come is something that still haunts me to this day but also stands as a testament to the creepiness of 1980s creature effects.
Equal parts unsettling, heartwarming and hilarious, Scrooged is a twisted fantasy tale that has always felt a lot to me like “Christmassy Ghostbusters” which still does it a huge disservice considering how much else is in there.
Fifth place – Home Alone
Home Alone is every parent’s worst nightmare and every kid’s dream come true. To have all the grown-ups disappear and leave you in a massive house full of ice cream, toys and unsuitable movie choices was particularly appealing to me as a kid. In this timeless tale, Kevin McCallister is forgotten when his forgetful parents and (mostly horrible) extended family go abroad for Christmas. Rejoicing in the realisation that he appears to have wished his nearest and dearest out of existence, he makes the most of his isolation by gallivanting around the house making the most of the lack of parental supervision. Of course the fun really starts when two hapless home invaders try to break in and Kevin is forced to assemble a Machiavellian series of elaborate traps to stop the crooks from beating him to death with the family silver.
It’s a hilarious festive adventure and only in adulthood do you begin to ask some of the larger questions. For example, what the hell does Kevin’s dad do for a living that he basically lives in a castle and can afford an overseas trip for about 20 people? Does Kevin’s mother ever face legal recompense for leaving a minor at home while they leave the country? Why isn’t his dad WAY more freaked out? I think the answers are all probably related to Mr McCallister’s mob connections but don’t let that spoil an awesome movie.
Fourth place – Elf
In recent years Elf has become a runaway hit with millennials, probably because it epitomises their own reluctance to accept adulthood, but try not to think about that too much because Elf has fast become as much a Christmas staple as The Snowman or farting grandparents. Following the journey of Buddy the Elf to find his birth father, Elf reminds us of how the magic of Christmas still has a place in the cynical world of stark reality.
Buddy, having no particular common sense, street smarts or even vague understanding of life outside the north pole, careens from scene to scene causing mayhem and magic in equal measure. If you’ve ever tried to look after a drunk friend in a department store, the themes at work here are going to be particularly familiar. Featuring a pre-fame Zooey Deschanel as the adorably cynical love interest, we see Buddy’s pursuit of his dad’s affections and clumsy integration into modern life away from his polar roots.
Elf is a great feel-good movie and an ideal one to sit down and watch with the kids. Just be prepared to explain why they can’t also eat spaghetti with syrup and smarties for breakfast.
Third place – Die Hard
This movie will always be a bone of contention for many. There’s a school of thought that Die Hard is a Christmas movie and there’s an equally vehement school of thought that it’s merely an action movie set at Christmas. As interesting and diverse as this discussion can get, it’s really just a testament to how some perfectly intelligent people can be completely and utterly wrong.
Die Hard is the quintessential Christmas action movie. Nothing says Merry Christmas like a corpse in an elevator being used as a post-it explaining that an off-duty policeman hiding several floors up in a besieged tower block has now acquired an assault rifle. Ho-ho-ho indeed. Everything from the chauffeur hiding out in the basement to the fellow police-officer outside arguing with the feds is literally oozing with Christmas excitement. I’d go so far to say that Christmas doesn’t truly start until *spoiler alert* a certain German fellow goes plummeting over the side of Nakatomi Plaza.
The movie is best watched with an extra-large glass of Baileys and a few mince pies to pop in your gob whilst you shout “YIPPEE-KAY-AY like a maniac.
Second place – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
When it comes to Christmas comedies, sassy newcomers like Elf and Bad Santa are always going to pale in comparison to the true heavy-hitting classics of the eighties and there are a lot to choose from. Gremlins is technically a comedy despite terrifying the pants of most of us as kids and Ernest Saves Christmas still gets played on heavy rotation in our house. But above all of those, the true comedy king of the festive season has to be Clark Griswald and family. Every minute is filled with the sheer frustration of trying to pull everything together and pull off an epic Christmas despite circumstances trying to derail it at every turn.
Eagle-eyed movie nerds will spot Johnny Galecki (Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hoffsteder) as the long-suffering Rusty and Oscar-nominated indie star Juliette Lewis as his sister Audrey.
First place – A Muppet Christmas Carol
This may seem like a curious choice to put on my number 1 spot but make no mistake, A Muppet Christmas Carol is the ultimate Christmas movie. From a personal point of view it is literally a tunnel back to my Christmas childhood and isn’t that what we all look for in our Christmas movies? I remember sitting down playing with my freshly opened toys on Christmas morning and the smell of turkey wafting out of the kitchen. Without fail A Muppet Christmas Carol is what was on the telly.
It has everything the original tale has and much, much more. It has spookiness, cuteness, musical numbers, a blue thing, a rat and most importantly it has the best Scrooge in living memory, Sir Michael Caine.
Now I have a particular beef with the most popularly available version of the movie on DVD and most download services because it IS NOT the version that I watched on VHS until the tape wore thin. The huge difference is that right in the middle of the movie, there’s supposed to be a haunting musical number called ‘When Love is Gone’. It’s the heart of the whole movie and shows where Scrooge gives up the love of his life, Belle, instead choosing the pursuit of wealth. It mirrors the closing song ‘When Love is Found’ and in my nerd-ragey opinion, the film is unbalanced without it. If you’re watching it this year, do yourself a favour and watch this YouTube video when you’re at the right bit.
As if by magic, here’s some merry festive links with which to grab my beloved movies. Are my choices the same as yours? Let me know in the comments or on social media. Have a lovely Christmas everyone!!!