Christmas only comes once a year, but if you wanted to watch every Christmas film by the time that day arrives, you would likely have had to have started in January. We’ve whittled down that list to 19 classic films full of Christmas cheer, fear and frolics. There’s innocent fun, demonic terror, more than a little festive firepower and one or two Santas whose behaviour isn’t quite in keeping with the seasonal cheer.
For the Young (at Heart)
Smeerensburg isn’t the most welcoming of places. In fact, it revels in its misery. The town has long been weighed down by age-old feuds, making children’s lives a burden. Enter new postman Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), who discovers that reclusive toymaker Klaus owns a veritable treasure trove of old toys. Together, they set about distributing them to the town’s youngsters, with surprising results. A novel take on a tale of Christmas spirit, this Netflix animation release feels fresh and original.
The Polar Express (2004)
Before the first Avatar (2009) changed the landscape of immersive 3D cinema, there was this innovative festive treat from the director of Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994). Robert Zemeckis’ fantasy, the first all-digital-capture film, features Tom Hanks as a benevolent train guard who takes a young boy who is sceptical about the existence of Santa Claus on a journey to the North Pole. It’s a sweet tale, bolstered by dazzling effects, for when it was made.
The Snowman (1982)
A simple Christmas tale, told simply. Taking inspiration from Raymond Briggs’ 1978 book, including his rough-hewn illustrations, Dianne Jackson’s gorgeous short is a transporting fantasy. Briggs’ book was mostly dialogue-free, so the film makes the most of Howard Blake’s music, which featured the hit song ‘Walking in the Air’. The tale’s slightness is its strength. Far more than a whimsy, yet feeling no need to overburden viewers with exposition, it is exactly what its central character, a young boy, enjoys most – a flight of fancy.
Christmas in July (1940)
Strictly speaking, outside of the film’s title, this isn’t a Christmas film. But when it’s by Preston Sturges, firing on all cylinders at the height of his success as one of Hollywood’s most gifted comedic writer-directors, who cares! It centres on a couple (played by Dick Powell and Ellen Drew) desperate to escape the economic doldrums. He is subject to a practical joke that goes too far and threatens both their livelihoods. Like his later Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), Sturges unleashes a barrage of comedy situations and one-liners guaranteed to offer Christmas cheer.
Bad Santa (2003)
A film for those who prefer their Christmas spirit to come out of a bottle, this is an outrageous, expletive-laden, anti-Yuletide comedy dominated by Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as the kind of Santa you don’t want to know exists, let alone have your kids sit on their knee. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, who was responsible for the excellent documentary Crumb (1994) and early Scarlett Johansson feature Ghost World (2001), this debauched tale turns out to have a soft heart, but before that’s revealed, brace yourself for some not-so-festive jinks.
White Christmas (1954)
The innocent Ying to Bad Santa’s foul-mouthed Yang, Michael Curtiz’s Christmas favourite is cheesier than your average smörgåsbord, but it’s also an engagingly sweet confection with moments of heartfelt emotion and, thanks to its four leads, some cracking comedy and musical set-pieces. Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby are two old war buddies and entertainment circuit regulars. Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are sibling performers. They all end up at a country lodge run by the two men’s army commander. There’s a winsome set-up about bringing a show into town, but that’s not the reason to watch the film. It’s for the charisma of its stars and the numbers they sing. All except for Snow, which must be one of the worst songs to ever make it into a musical.
Black Christmas (1974)
Forget the recent remake. Go back to this original slasher movie, which would influence John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). It was inspired by an actual series of murders that took place in Montreal and stars B-movie legend John Saxon as a cop investigating a young woman’s disappearance. Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder are the three young students whose lives are at risk from an anonymous killer. It’s the perfect entertainment for late on Christmas Eve.
Die Hard (1988)
It’s the night before and all is quiet, save for the mayhem unfolding at the Nakatomi Tower in downtown LA. It's easy to forget that John McTiernan’s action masterpiece takes place on the cusp of the holidays. But for anyone watching, this is a feast as good as anything that will be served on Christmas Day. Bruce Willis was rarely better as John McClane, a New York cop visiting his wife – who works as an executive for the Nakatomi Corporation – and children in LA. As the company enjoys its Christmas party, Alan Rickman and his heavily armed henchmen crash the celebrations. What they don’t know is that McClane is about to become a painful thorn in their side. With its mix of intelligence, wit, brashness and jaw-dropping set-pieces, Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies ever made.
Batman Returns (1992)
Gotham is the last place anyone would want to spend Christmas. But for Tim Burton, the festive season gives him the opportunity to up the ante on his gothic vision of this world. After the runaway success of Batman (1989), Warner Bros wanted a sequel. Tim Burton only agreed to direct on the proviso that he had greater creative control. The result is darker, messier, indulgent and, for the most part, a thing to relish. The production design is more baroque, narrative takes a back seat to more detailed character development and there’s an abundance of villains – none more impressive than Danny Devito’s Penguin. Michelle Pfeiffer is perfect as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, while Michael Keaton appears more comfortable in balancing his Bruce Wayne/Batman personas. Ultimately, it’s Burton’s show – albeit with more than a little help from regular composer Danny Elfman’s Wagner-tinged score. It’s essentially a very expensive vanity project. And a mordantly enjoyable one to boot.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
It’s not fair that guys have all the fun and guns… Enter Geena Davis’ Charlie Baltimore, an ass-kicking former spy who, following an assassination attempt, loses her memory and has spent the last decade living as Samantha Caine, an at-home mom whose life is perfect save for the fact that she has no memory of her past. But one Christmas, it all comes back, followed in quick succession by the people who want her dead. Written by Shane Black, whose Lethal Weapon (1987) and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) were also set during Christmas, this is a witty take on the action genre, with Davis excellent in the lead and Samuel L. Jackson magnetic as her comic foil support.
Tom (Adam Scott), Sarah (Toni Collette) and their son Max (Emjay Anthony) have invited the family round for Christmas. They’re a miserable bunch. (Conchata Ferrell’s aunt, on seeing the table laid out and tree decorated, scathingly notes, ‘It’s like Martha Stewart threw up in here.’) After a fight with a cousin, Max tears up his letter to Santa and throws it away, which summons a different kind of Christmas spirit. Its name is Krampus and it is the shadow of St. Nicolas – taking rather than giving, with little mercy going spare. Michael Dougherty’s jump-scare chiller gets the tone right from the outset. It’s all chaos in the household, but that’s nothing compared to what’s on its way…
Violent Night (2022)
David Harbour rocks up as a sweet, charitable and fighting fit Santa in this most recent Christmas-themed feature. The Lightstones, a wealthy family, have been taken hostage by heavily armed mercenaries intent on robbing them of the vast fortune that’s kept in the safe on their property. Santa has arrived to deliver a present to Trudy, the youngest member of the family. When one of the robbers tries to kill Santa, things don’t go quite to plan. Moreover, the man in red and white is now thoroughly pissed off. With Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Nazi zombies in winter horror Dead Snow (2014), director Tommy Wirkola never set out to be the subtlest of filmmakers. But he knows how to have fun and that’s what this surprisingly brutal Christmas slay ride is.
Edward Scissorhands (1991)
Arguably Tim Burton’s masterpiece (along with that of his composer Danny Elfman), this tale of a man created out of spare parts is a reminder of their brilliance. Burton grew up in the California suburbs and his antipathy for it is evident in the portrayal of a bland, pastel neighbourhood where violence simmers beneath the surface. It’s no surprise that everything culminates as Christmas approaches. A stellar cast that includes Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, Vincent Price and a fabulous Kathy Baker offer strong support, but this is Johnny Depp’s show.
Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
It’s 1903. The Smith family reside in the titular city. In nine months’ time, the World’s Fair will open there and everyone is excited. But before that, the family will experience a multitude of small domestic issues. Vincente Minnelli’s lavish musical drama is one of the greatest Hollywood films and a surprisingly insightful portrait of family life. Judy Garland is the star and she gets all the best numbers to sing, but the film’s dramatic heft and best coming moments are stolen by Margaret O’Brien as ‘Tootie’, the youngest member of the family. Watch it for its resplendent colour, the ‘Trolly Song’ sequence and Garland’s peerless performance of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) comes close, but this Alistair Sim version of Dickens’ tale remains the finest adaptation. And it’s all down to the actor’s stunning realisation of Ebeneezer Scrooge. He successfully captures the character’s pantomime villainy while imbuing him with enough humanity for us to feel some concern when the Ghost of Christmas Future presents him with the bleakest of visions. And his conversion is beautifully done – his jubilation at having survived the night and with an opportunity to change the future is genuinely affecting.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
In many ways this is a perfect Christmas film. It would also make a great double bill with Charles Dickens’ festive classic. Both offer a vision of a darker world. But in the case of James Stewart’s George Bailey, it’s not because of any misdeeds he may have committed, but what the world would be like had he not existed. What’s most remarkable about Frank Capra’s film is how close it teeters towards an abyss of despair. He – and we – are saved by the deus ex machina appearance of an angel. But George’s real-world worries, unfolding in the aftermath of a catastrophic global war, must have hit a nerve. In the end, though, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a cheering drama on the importance of family and community.
White Reindeer (2013)
Suzanne Barrington likes Christmas. Yes, the spirit of glad tidings, but mostly the superficial glitziness of it. When her husband is shot and killed during a burglary of their house, Suzanne decides to throw herself into celebrating the kind of Christmas she wants, as a way of living in a world that has been turned on its head. That even includes bonding with the stripper she finds out her husband had an affair with. Zach Clark’s film is as subversive as Bad Santa, but minus the juvenile antics. It celebrates trash culture as a release for some – a therapy for the masses. And through Anna Margaret Hollyman’s stunning central performance, it’s easy to see how Suzanne gradually finds a way to reconnect with the world through it.
Therese meets Carol in a department store at Christmastime. She works there. Carol is a customer who accidently leaves one of her gloves on the counter. When Therese returns it, it’s clear an attraction exists between the women. Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (beautifully written by Phyllis Nagy, who recently directed Call Jane), is as sumptuous a period drama as one would expect from the filmmaker behind the Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven (2002). Drawing heavily on the influence of 1950s photographer Saul Leiter and played out with remarkable emotional restraint by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, Carol is sophisticated and emotionally engaging cinema.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
No matter your own family woes, things could be far, far worse. You could, for instance, be a member of the Vuillard family. Ruled over with an iron will by matriarch Junon (a fabulous Catherine Deneuve), the family cowers in her presence. But when an invite to the family home at Christmas arrives, all attend. That’s when Junon drops her bomb. Director Arnaud Desplechin is a master of exploring bourgeois life. Here, he finds a sweet spot between tragedy and farce, as recriminations between siblings are revealed and everything short of an all-out-war appears to be on the menu. Desplechin regular Matthieu Amalric is in fine form, as are Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s real-life daughter), Emmanuelle Devos, Anne Consigny and Jean-Paul Roussillon. But this is ultimately Deneuve’s show, and she is magnificent in it.
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