It has been a while since I’ve done a best of list, but Christmas is upon us and it’s time to pile up the DVDs for Christmas those peaceful moments between eating too much chocolate and arguing over who took the last roast potato. A good Christmas film is like a peace accord between warring factions, in which we all stop and ask ourselves “who is that guy? Has he been in anything else?” With that in mind, here are my five favourite Christmas flicks.
Joe Dante’s classic makes the perfect antidote to a lot of the over sentimentality that seems to fall upon people during the season of good will. The ultimate tale of a Christmas present gone wrong, Gremlins takes us to a small little town right out a Capra movie (more on him later), but chaos soon erupts after the town is invaded by hideous monsters. A perfect match of comedy and mild horror, Gremlins is a masterpiece family film that revels in the kind of uninhibited mayhem ten year olds love without ever being seriously frightening. Couple that with a sharp sense of humour and some pretty good special effects work and you have a winner.
This has been one of my favourite films for such a long time, I can’t even remember the last time I sat down and watched it and yet I still know it by heart.
I feel like I’m cheating a bit by sticking two of these niché “anti-christmas” flicks on my list, but I really do like Scrooged. On its surface, this is essentially a modern re-telling of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, starring Bill Murray as a misanthropic TV exec, but what really makes this film great is the level of self awareness. In the story, Murray’s character is working on a twee adaptation of A Christmas Carol for his network while being forced to live out a far more horrific version of the tale in reality. There’s a lot of laughs in it, but what’s remarkable is just how unsettling the film can be. The Ghost of Christmas Future is usually a pretty sinister affair, but the film takes on a haunting, almost surrealistic vibe during these sequences that really works well. It’s not perfect, it ends on a very weird sing along that I’ve always hated, but there are a lot of highs along the way.
3) The Muppets Christmas Carol
And now I’ve gone and included two version of A Christmas Carol too. I feel no shame, I also don’t care that I’m sticking by The Muppet’s version too. For me, this is the ultimate adaptation of Dickens’ classic story. This is partly because The Muppets are hilarious throughout, but also because when The Muppets aren’t the story’s focal point, the film plays everything so straight and so true to the book, it’s hard not to admire just how excellent a production it actually is. The joining of the two is weird and a little silly at first, but by the end of the story it’s hard not to be totally invested in the whole thing. Some Dickens fans will probably tell me this is heresy, but I could watch this a hundred times before I’d sit through that god-awful Jim Carrey CGI vomit again.
2) The Snowman
This seems to be totally unknown outside the UK. That seems sort of fitting for this little animated piece, which has always felt like a quiet respite in the middle of the chaos of Christmas. A short animated film based on the book by Raymond Briggs, the Snowman tells the story of a young boy who builds a snowman at Christmas that comes to life. Told silently, we see the boy and the Snowman explore the house and ride a motorbike through the forest before the Snowman lifts the boy into the air, and the fly to a distant land where Snowmen have gathered for a festival. The tone is perfect and it’s hard not to get captivated by its beautiful hand drawn animation. If you’re from the UK you probably know it intimately, but for those of you in the rest of the world, I really recommend you give it a look.
1) It’s a Wonderful Life
Ah, what can I day about It’s a Wonderful Life that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Originally made in 1946 by Frank Capra, it was a failure in its time. In fact, it was so much of a failure that nobody was really paying any attention when its copyright lapsed. This turned out to be the best thing that ever happened for the film as it was picked up by small cable channels like PBS, who aired it as an alternative to more commercial, excessive Christmas scheduling. The film’s anti-capitalist message resounded with people and decades after its release, this gem had a second wind.
The film follows the life of George Bailey, who wants to travel and see the world, but due to circumstances beyond his control, spends most of his life working for the same Savings and Loan his Father did. As time moves on, George feels more and more like life is passing him by, until his despair becomes so great he wants to end his life. Only then is he allowed to see the true impact he has had on his small community. It sounds hokey, and at times it is, but the film is also philosophically so at odds with the direction the world has moved in since its production, it’s hard not to love its commitment to its ideals. This is a film that explores where we drive our self worth, what makes life worth living, and why the consequences of our actions are of more value than our advancement. There’s no other way of saying it, it is required viewing.
Special Mention: Batman Returns
Batman Returns doesn’t really belong on a list of Christmas films, but I just couldn’t move on without mentioning. Especially since I already left off Nightmare Before Christmas because everybody puts that on their list. However, I do love Batman Returns’ bizarre philosophy of taking Tim Burton’s interpretation of Batman from the 1989 film and setting it in a surrealist urban Christmas that seems very much at home with Burton’s Edward Scissorhands universe. It might not be a Christmas movie, but it’s not really a Superhero movie either. It’s some sort of bizarre hybrid in which Batman’s villains are a bird-man who lives in a snow covered amusement park, Catwoman, and a man who looks like a sort of industrialist Jack Frost runs a Christmassy department store. It’s a movie in which circus performers live under the snowy streets in an arctic themed lair, and creep out at night to steal children in a festive steam train. A gang of circus thugs emerges from a giant Christmas present, and a beauty queen is killed after being thrown into the city’s tree.
If you’re feeling like a very bizarre Christmas film this year and you’re bored of Nightmare, try out Batman Returns. It’ll be an experience.