We are coming into the time of year when a little self-indulgence is okay. So if, like me, you enjoy a good session in front of the television, here are ten treats that I hope will add to your enjoyment. Most, if not all, are likely to be on Freeview over Christmas, although schedules weren't released at the time of writing. In the meantime, we have provided links to let you know where to find them. So, in no particular order, here are 10 must-watch Christmas movies.
Die Hard (1988)
You know it’s the season of goodwill when the Nakatomi building is ablaze, and John McClane announces, ''Now I have a machine gun, yo-ho-ho’’. Bad guy Europeans are taking over the building, shooting people as they hum Ode to Joy in that effete European way of theirs. McClane is the only one capable of stopping them, and luckily, he’s in town visiting his estranged wife, Holly. He’s going to have to put in some tough hours to get this job done, and you won’t want to be in oily villain Hans Gruber’s shoes when Bruce Willis finds you. Undoubtedly, one of the best action movies made and a great Christmas movie. As for the age-old question, is Die Hard really a Christmas movie? Admittedly the body count is higher than your typical Christmas fare, but it's set at Christmas, has, ‘Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow' and McClane's wife is called Holly. That’s enough for me.
Streaming: Now TV. Buy on Amazon £3.49
A Christmas Carol (1999)
If you’re going to be redeemed, Christmas is a perfect time to do it, and there are few better redemptions than Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Unless you were born before 1843, you will have grown up with the story and, like me, want to revisit it at this time of year. There have been scores of adaptations. The Muppets did a good one, and there are musical versions, contemporary takes, and even an episode of the X-files based on the story. I chose this version because it sticks closely to the Dickensian original and has spot-on performances from Patrick Stewart as Scrooge and Richard E Grant as Bob Cratchit.
Comfort and Joy (1984)
Following the wonderful Local Hero, Bill Forsyth produced this Christmas cracker. Radio DJ Allen ''Dicky'' Bird's (played by Bill Paterson) life goes pear-shaped after being dumped by his girlfriend a few days before Christmas. As he buys ice cream from a Mr Bunny ice cream van, three men arrive and smash it to pieces with cricket bats. Dicky gets caught up in the attack and, through a series of hilariously surreal incidents, becomes the chief negotiator in a turf war between two rival families selling ice cream in Glasgow. The humour is typical Forsyth - charming, witty, wry, and not always obvious. You may not ‘bust a gut’ watching Comfort and Joy, but it is one of those life-affirming films that keeps giving no matter how many times you watch it.
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Love Actually (2003)
One of the Yuletide big hitters. An ensemble cast tells ten separate stories set in the five weeks leading up to Christmas (there’s an epilogue a month after). Writer/Director Richard Curtis threw the kitchen sink at this one, and if you don't like one of the plot threads, don't worry, there’ll be another one along in a minute. Although Love Actually wasn’t a hit with the critics when it came out, everyone else adores it, and it's an essential part of Christmas. I would maybe like to see fewer characters; I'm primarily interested in Jamie and Aurelia (Colin Firth and Sienna Guillory) and David and Natalie (Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon). John and Judy’s (Martin Freeman and Joanne Page) story is sweet, but the sex simulation parts are chair-squirming if you're watching with the family. That's the time to jump up and offer granny another sherry.
Streaming on: Netflix & Amazon
Jingle All the Way (1996)
In this part of Arnie’s career, when he wasn’t brandishing an Uzi 9mm, he played it for laughs. Again, the critics were not keen on the movie when it was released - one critic described Schwarzenegger’s performance as ‘so wooden you have to sweep up the pine needles around his feet’. But in the ensuing years, it has crawled up the ‘Best Christmas Movie’ lists and become an integral part of the festive season. Jingle All the Way is perfect for a Christmas morning where you can still slip in and out of it without missing much. The plot is simple. Loving but inattentive dad Arnie fails to order the action figure (Turbo-Man) he promised his son. So he goes out to buy one on Christmas Eve, but, you guessed it, they are all sold out. So to avoid disappointing his son, Arnie has to go on a consumerist odyssey, competing against a determined rival. The film works hard to satirise consumerism but works well as a light, bright comedy.
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In one of his best performances, Will Farrell goes into man-child mode playing Buddy, one of Santa’s elves, who heads to New York City in search of his biological father. You see, he’s not a real elf but a human raised in Santa’s grotto. When he finds his lost dad (James Caan), he turns out to be a miserly book publisher devoid of any Christmas spirit. To make things worse, dad is on the ‘naughty list’ and wants Buddy out of there. The whole idea sounds ridiculous. After all, why would you want to get rid of a fully-grown man dressed as an elf who loves tickle fights and displays symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? The plot may seem ridiculous, but it’s funny and uplifting. Elf is on well the way to becoming a classic, and the even biggest Christmas grinch will warm to it.
Sean Evans of Back to the Movies told us: "Elf is the go-to hilarious holiday movie for me. A role that Will Ferrell was born to play and a film that you can rewatch over and over again and still laugh at the same timeless gags. It really isn’t Christmas without seeing Elf."
Streaming on: Now TV. Rent on Amazon £3.49
Flint Street Nativity (1999)
Not a movie but a feature-length British television comedy of a play within a play. The ensemble cast of Frank Skinner, Neil Morrisey, Jane Horrocks, Stephen Tompkinson, Mark Addy, Ralf Little and others regress to primary school level and reveal the infant power politics that go on while putting on their school nativity play. We get glimpses into their home life and watch them behaving like mini versions of mum and dad. There are typically funny but poignant moments, like when one little boy gazes into the audience and says, ''Look, there's my dad,'' while the other lifts his cardboard donkey’s head and says, ''There’s my social worker’’. Stephen Tompkinson’s performance is heart-wrenching. When the parents meet for mulled wine and mince pies after the performance, we get to see that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Described in the Guardian by Hull Tuck as ‘’a Kindergarten version of The Godfather,'' this will have you laughing and crying at the same time.
Gremlins is a kids monster movie that will give some youngsters nightmares for weeks. In a typical Spielbergian set-up, an idyllic snowbound American town finds out what happens when you get a mogwai wet. Spoiler: the results are unpleasant. Hordes of malevolent little monsters wreak havoc during the holiday. They take great delight in torturing the protagonist’s mom, sending an old lady's stairlift haywire and generally running amok among Christmas preparations. Extremely funny and nasty at the same time, you’ll need a sick sense of humour and strong stomach to enjoy watching the gremlins get their comeuppances in various kitchen appliances. Director Joe Dante sends up both the Christmas film and the horror genre and serves up a slice of horror mischief with cartoon-style mayhem on the side.
Streaming Now TV. Rent on Amazon £3.49
The Great Escape (1963)
As far as I remember, Christmas isn’t mentioned in this movie. Nevertheless, it is now as much a part of Christmas as mince pies. Watching The Great Escape is as much part of the Yuletide ritual as decorating the tree. These films have a comforting familiarity, like sitting in your favourite chair. They are all great ‘Twixmas’ watches and perfect post-Christmas Day when the days fuse together, and you’re not sure who’s visiting or whether it’s the day to put the bins out. The stellar cast of home-grown thesps and Hollywood stars playing plucky Brits, sassy Americans and noble Poles do a great job portraying every war film stereotype in the book. There is humour, tension, excitement - the motorbike stunts are still considered the best ever - and a stirring theme tune. I just hope that Steve McQueen can clear the barbed wire this time.
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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Seventy-five years old and still number one on most ‘best Christmas movie’ lists. It’s a Wonderful Life is has gone beyond classic status and is imprinted in the DNA of Christmas. George Bailey, who else could it be but Jimmy Stewart, has given up his dreams to help others in his community. As he stands alone contemplating suicide, an angel intervenes and, through a series of flashbacks, shows him the effect his life has had on others and how much worse the world would have been had he not been born. Eventually, he realises he’s not a failure but ‘‘the richest man in town’’. It’s a Wonderful Life was loosely based on a Christmas Carol. Director Frank Capra examines despair and greed (not exactly merry themes), showing us that goodness, generosity, and connection with those around us are the things that lead to a wonderful life.
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Image Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons