Top Ten Christmas Movies

This is my selfish, personal and most loved set of movies that complete Christmas for me.

The movies that return childhood memories of Christmas afternoons in front of the fire, and the hungover couch-hugging sessions of my twenties and early thirties and the more laid back, food focused years of late.

We're talking the flicks that make me think of home, the smell of Christmas cooking and knowing that I'm going to feel a little ill later but it'll be ok because it's Christmas.

So here we go and with the exception of the first, which is my favourite, they are in no particular order.

A Muppet Christmas Carol - 1992

A feel good interpretation of the Dicken's classic with all the usual Henson magic. Michael Caine plays an imposing Scrooge and Kermit his overworked employee, Bob Cratchett. Great songs, great ghosts and a good balance of jokes and tear jerk moments.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - 1971

I truly love this movie. One line pinched from a poem, sums up the concept of the original book. Wonka is enthusiastically showing the group of parents and children his "lickable wallpaper for nursery walls". They are tasting the various pictures of fruit as Wonka lists them off in the creation. Veruca Salt reacts when Wonka says "The snozberries taste like snozberries":

"Snozberries? Who ever heard of a snozberry?" she says aggressively. Without hesitation Willy Wonka grabs her by mouth, turning her head towards him and says slowly, "We are the music makers, and We are the dreamers of dreams." 

The line comes from an 1874 poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy called "Music and Moonlight" and has been sampled in numerous tracks by various artists, including my favourite "We are the music makers" by Aphex Twin.

National Lampoons "Christmas Vacation" - 1989

Clark Griswold is back! 

The movie follows the exploits of Clark as he tries desperately to host the perfect Christmas for his family. Much slapstick buffoonery and many catastrophes later; he succeeds.

Randy Quaid puts in a fantastic performance as Clark's red neck cousin Eddie, who defines the pitch of the movie with the famous line "Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!" (is everything on YouTube??)

Note the young Johnny Galecki playing Rusty, now experiencing phenomenal international success with The Big Bang Theory. 

Home Alone - 1990

This movie is simple and brilliant. A couple have a huge family so going anywhere with all of the kids is like herding cats; add in aunts and uncles and their respective children and it's very easy to lose track. The title conceals nothing, there's no need for a twist - a child left home alone by accident and along come the two most inept burglars in the city; despite having been at least smart enough to stake out a neighborhood and determine when each family is leaving for their Christmas break.

Joe Pesci, as good with this slapstick comic role as when playing the terrifying Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, and Macaulay Culkin in the role that made a star of the precious youngster.

Countless classic moments - iron in the laundry chute, baubles on the floor, paint can on a rope and supermarket shopping.

Before fails were fails; the bottoms fell out of Macauley Culkin's shopping bags:

It's a Wonderful Life - 1946

I didn't watch "It's a Wonderful Life" when I was young; I thought it was overly sentimental and of course, as a kid, I thought it was boring by default because it was black and white. It fell off the radar and I ignored it on the Christmas TV schedules. In my late-twenties, I ended up watching it by accident one night while I was staying up late waiting to collect my other half from her office Christmas party.

Two surprising things happened;

First, I cried within ten minutes (wtf?); when the young George Bailey stops the drunk pharmacist from poisoning a customer. I may have had some beer beforehand.

Second, I got it. Everyone's aware of the difference between US and european cinema when it comes to sentimentality  European movie makers tend to rely on subtlety and the Hollywood approach is to labour the point; to make sure it's there for everyone to pick up. When I - because there was nothing else on - watched long enough to get myself past the saccharin presentation of the characters that night; I clicked with the story and got sucked in. It's the intensity of pressure that builds up around George as his life jumps from compromise to compromise; getting more and more entrenched through constantly helping and acquiescing to others' needs. It makes the movie painful in places; the scene which always grabs my attention is when his old friend rolls up to the construction site in his fancy new car and George begins to crumble.

The Santa Clause - 1994

I really hated this film the first time I saw it. The kid drives me up the wall, there's a certain haircut given to over pampered Hollywood kids that you know is going to spell annoyance in performance and this one is no exception. Thankfully Tim Allen saves it, the result being a very amusing film about accepting responsibility in work and personal life. Tim Allen's transition into Santa is really funny and makes me want to stuff my face and drink loads of Baileys Cocoa each time I watch it and I'm sure that's what the cocoa made for Santa by Judy the Elf really is.

While annoying me with his haircut the kid does have one of the best lines in the movie, as spoiled by the trailer:

"It IS Santa... you killed him!"

The Miracle on 34th Street - 1947

Not to be confused with its lesser remake in 1994, The Miracle on 34th Street has everything a Christmas movie needs. I like it because Santa is not in complete control, other factors (apparently) beyond his influence contrive to get him through - particularly the Judge Harper's concerns of re-election! .. I can't make a comparison with the 1973 version because I didn't know it existed until this morning when I went to IMDB to look up the name of the actor playing Alfred in the 1947 movie.

As with "It's a Wonderful Life" you have to go into watching this movie with a different mindset to  more recent films. The yawning difference between western society then and now, is apparent from the get-go. For example, everyone is appalled at not only seeing drunk Santa on the parade float but also Mrs. Walker merely holding a bottle of booze while it is shown as perfectly acceptable for Mr. Gailey to sit smoking his pipe, blowing smoke straight into little Susie's face. 

The movie has much more depth than the 1994 remake, which really dumbed it down - the side stories of Mr. Sawyer, Alfred the janitor, the supreme court judge and the prosecutor all add to the whole. Choose the 1947 movie over the 1994 one if you have seen neither and want to take a look. It's no surprise that the movie one the "Best Screen Writing" Oscar for its screen play that year.

Elf - 2003

Will Ferrell is now well known for his physical approach to comic acting, and this sits perfectly awkwardly in contrast to James Caan's Grinch-like portrayal of his father. The combination is addictive and adds up to a movie that I watch every year, even if some moments make me cringe and hide behind the couch (e.g. the "angry elf" scene).

By the way, if you really want to see an actor at his best, check Will Ferrell out in Stranger than Fiction. If he could find his way into more roles like this one, he could ascend to a new level instead of remaining type-cast as he is now.

Trading Places - 1983

Shamelessly 80s flick and an absolute classic with Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott et al. One which many people don't think of as being a Christmas movie, yet it is set at Christmas time and includes the legendary scene of Winthorpe - approaching the end of his tether - stealing a whole side of smoked salmon while dressed as Santa Claus, which he then attempts to eat through his fake beard.

Groundhog Day - 1993

Groundhog Day has it all: Bill Murray, a brilliantly put together script - which they somehow managed to make into a coherent movie - a bloody awful performance by the bloody awful; Andi MacDowell and a bloody brilliant performance by the bloody brilliant; Stephen Tobolowsky, playing my favourite character; Ned Ryerson "Rowrrrrrrrrrrrr"!

The outdoor, wintry scenes, holiday themes and cosy indoor shots make this movie settle right in as a Christmas flick. Bill Murray smoothly plays Phil's transitions from jaded z-lister, to self-announced deity, to suicidal wreck, to life-saver and finally to a redeemed soul. The parallels with It's a Wonderful Life are clear but enhance this equally true classic. I have no idea how many times I've watched this movie and never want to find out.

Others worth seeing that have not made the main list:

  • Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark .. should really be on the main list. Not sure why it isn't.
  • Gremlins - Everyone has their own favourite scene; perhaps the kitchen, the fountain or the stair lift..  and who hasn't sung along with the theme tune?  "Na na na na na na. Na na na na na na!"
  • The Polar Express - the animation and the conductor spook me in this one.. it makes me uncomfortable.
  • When Harry met Sally; the best; meet you, hate you, get together, break up, make up, hate you, like you, love you, make up, break up, love you, hate you, love your movie of all time.
  • A Christmas Story - Another true classic; a boys relentless adventure to get the present he wants - I initially found this movie unsettling and I'm still not sure why; could be the era driven styling but now I love it.
  • Starwars IV - VI - Nothing to do with Christmas but before the era of on-demand movies, Christmas was the time to catch Luke battling to save the universe on TV.
  • Die Hard - the true star: Alan Rickman.
  • Some newish ones that have joined the list are the recent adaptations of some of Terry Pratchett's novels; The Colour of Magic, Going Postal and the Hogfather, all worthy Christmas viewing.