If you’re like me, then you probably have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Christmas. Present-giving and copious amounts of food? Definitely the highlights. Not so wonderful, are the endless crowds and modern pop or rap interpretations of Christmas carols. Similarly, for every genuinely funny or heartwarming Christmas film release, there’s undoubtedly a Jingle All the Way or Christmas With the Cranks or anything starring Tim Allen. So, in this season of spending time with the family and of TV Christmas specials, I feel it necessary to cast a different light on festive films. Ten films that are festive, but more than watchable than say, Fred Claus.
What do I classify as a good holiday film? Well, firstly they have to feature the holiday season. Duh. Secondly, a good dose of heartwarming cheer is probably necessary. Not quite “IT’S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!” heartwarming, but still feel-good. Thirdly – and this is all-important – they are not allowed to feature annoying small children, or copious amounts of schmaltz or cheese. So, the following films may have Christmas cheer, but they’re not going to make you spew or cringe. Call it the brain-child of someone who’s had enough of terrible viewing on TV in the days and nights leading up to the big day.
Fear not! This list features minimal small children.
Calm yourself! You won’t have to sit through vomit-worthy sentimentality.
And I promise, no Tim Allen.
10. The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder’s superb, Oscar-winning romantic dramedy (I hate that word, but it’s fairly apt) is one of the first films I thought of when pondering this list. It tells the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) a young man working at an insurance firm, who loans out his apartment to his work superiors for their extramarital affairs. He’s unhappy with the situation, but the managers that take advantage of him write glowing praise of him so he continues. While trying to juggle the trail of suits and floozies going through his apartment though, he’s also found himself falling for the elevator girl at the office, Fran Kubelik, superbly portrayed by Shirley MacLaine. She positively glows with charm and warmth, as does Jack Lemmon. Both leads were nominated for Best Actor/Actress Oscars, and certainly it’s easy to see why. Both are unlucky in love, somewhat unhappy, yet are also fully of life and light up the screen. The Apartment tackles themes such as infidelity, depression and suicide, and could have been an incredibly downbeat film in other hands. However, with Billy Wilder at the helm, the film is heartwarming, funny, and even the scenes in which Ms Kubelik is at her most depressed and despairing, you know that everything’s going to turn out alright. Watching two people finding each other, finally, realising they’ve been perfect for each other all along, during the holiday season – in my opinion, a perfect candidate for Christmastime viewing.
9. Hebrew Hammer (2003)
Imagine a world where a Jewish superhero must battle Santa Claus’ evil son Damian in order to save Hanukkah. This is the world that Jonathan Kesselman’s Jewish take on the blaxploitation genre places us. Adam Goldberg’s Mordechai Jefferson Carver is the Hebrew Hammer, a Certified Circumcised Dick, who has sworn to defend Jews everywhere. When Santa Claus’ evil son Damian (Andy Dick) kills old man Claus and vows to make everyone celebrate Christmas, it’s up to the Hebrew Hammer – with some help from Kwanzaa brothers, a great cameo from Mario van Peebles – to save the day. It’s un-PC, it’s irreverent, it’s pretty stupid and it’s also pretty funny. Adam Goldberg is great as Mordechai, strutting around in a get-up that’s Hasidic Jew via 70s pimp, kicking asses and wooing ladies. Andy Dick is occasionally irritating as Damian, but The Hebrew Hammer (to me at least), hits far more than it misses. If you like your Christmas film fare a little politically incorrect, here’s your winner.
8. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Remember that terrible Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks vehicle from the late 90s called You’ve Got Mail? Remember it briefly, then cast it from your mind. Ernst Lubitsch’s amazing film of 1940 The Shop Around the Corner is the masterpiece it’s based on. In turn, The Shop Around the Corner was based on a Hungarian play called Parfumerie but that’s totally not the point. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan play Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak, employees at Matuscheck and Co., in Budapest. They loathe each other, constantly bickering while at work. However, unbeknownst to them, the pen pals they’re writing to and falling in love with are none other than each other. There’s really no way to overstate how lovely, darling and heartwarming this film is. For those of you unfamiliar with Ernst Lubitsch, please let this film be your introduction to him. In his hands, The Shop Around the Corner is utterly enthralling, romantic yet controlled, without ham-fisted sentimentality. The “Lubitsch Touch”, as it was called, abounds here. The leads are exceptional. This film brings an unabashed tear to my eye. Oh, and Christmas? Yeah, it’s in there. The climax to the film takes place during the holiday season. It’s perfect Christmas day watching, funny, romantic and touching.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This one’s obvious, no? This Henry Selick-directed (co-written and produced by Mr Burton) stop motion film is loved by countless fans, for the music, imagery, characters and genuine warmth it exudes. I too, am a fan. Despite that it’s an overly obvious choice, I’m fairly adamant The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves a place on this list. Jack Skellington is the “Pumpkin King” of Halloween Town, who accidentally opens a portal to Christmas Town. Santa is kidnapped, Sally falls for Jack, Jack goes around the world giving “presents” to children, which only terrifies them (not surprising, given the presents are severed heads and snakes), Jack sees the errors of his ways. Christmas is restored! All this going on, with terrific score and songs by Burton and his frequent collaborator Danny Elfman, and truly inspiring visuals and imagery from Selick.
6. Die Hard (1988)
What says “Christmas Eve” better than Bruce Willis rampaging through a building, single-handedly taking down criminal mastermind Hans Gruber? I don’t know. Not much. The first of the Die Hard films, John McClane’s Christmas Eve adventure sees him traveling to LA to reunite with his estranged wife. Unfortunately, plans are put out of whack when Hans Gruber and his men take control of the building. They pose as terrorist extremists, but in reality they’re after millions in bearer bonds. The office party is taken as hostages, and it’s up to John McClane to save the day. Simple. Simple, BUT AWESOME. One of the best action films of all time, with one of the best action heroes of all time, with one of the best villains of all time. On Christmas eve! Bruce Willis, in all his rugged, smartass, singlet-wearing glory, provides all the leading-man charm you’d want from a Christmas movie. And explosions! There’s romance, a happy ending, a Christmas miracle. And explosions!
5. Bad Santa (2003)
Bad Santa, like Hebrew Hammer is what you need if you like your Christmas time viewing irreverent, rude and un-PC. Directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), co-written by the Coen Brothers, and starring Billy Bob Thornton, you’d expect as much. Thornton plays Willie, a drunken, hedonistic con-man who takes jobs as shopping mall Santa Clauses with his partner, Marcus (Tony Cox). Every year they get those jobs, then rob the stores. Easy. This year however, Willie finds himself in a relationship with Sue (Lauren Graham), a woman with a Santa fetish, being pursued by head of mall security Bernie Mac, and spending time with The Kid (Brett Kelly). Even then, the film remains demented and somewhat deranged. The Kid is almost stalker-like, attaching himself to Willie. Willie teaches The Kid how to box, and beats up some neighbourhood bullies for him. “I beat up some kids today”, he says, but that it was for a reason and that makes him feel good. Thornton is superb as Willie, the foul-mouthed, depressed barely functioning alcoholic, lead who screws mothers in the plus-size dressing rooms. The entire cast is great, all helped a great deal by a cracking, profane, inspired script. As far as a feel-good ending, I won’t reveal what happens but it certainly ain’t heartwarming in the same way Miracle On 34th Street is. See this with a beer in hand, and without a single child in the room.
4. Joyeux Noel (2005)
Joyeux Noel tells the true story of a truce between French, German and Scottish soldiers on a Christmas Eve during WWI. It’s 1914, and through the eyes of six or so soldiers, we the audience in turn witness enemies fraternising in the no-man’s land between them, after being taught to hate and kill each other. A lesson in human spirit, keeping in the Christmas-y love thy neighbour vibe? Check. Diane Kruger plays Anna Sorensen, a Danish singer who insists on traveling to the front lines to sing for troops (although the real reason is so she can see her lover, a German soldier). As she sings, French and Scottish troops start to watch, poke their heads above the trenches, then eventually lay down their arms and the fraternising begins. They sing carols, they play football, hold a mass, and are able to bury their dead. They all discover that despite their differing countries of birth, they are men that are quite alike. Unfortunately they’ve been given orders to kill each other, which makes the act of sheltering each other in opposing trenches during an artillery fire even more of a touching move. It’s quite a moving film, especially given that this actually happened (although probably not quite as dramatically staged as in the movies). Certainly not as violent and definitely more akin to a fairy tale than most modern war films, but a winning choice for Christmas watching.
3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Okay. THIS is the movie that gets me every single time. Without fail. Every time. Meet Me in St Louis is a cinematic classic, for so many reasons. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Judy Garland, featuring “The Trolley Song” and debuting “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, it’s truly gorgeous, glorious viewing. The Smiths are a large family living a comfortable middle-class existence in St Louis at the turn of the century. The Worlds Fair is coming to town, it’s summer, the girls are in love. Esther (Garland) is in love with “The Boy Next Door”, although he hasn’t really noticed her yet. However, after a few adventures starring Tootie, the youngest Smith and after Esther finally gets her guy, patriarch Alonzo Smith announces the family will be moving. So ensues family despair, a gorgeous Christmas Eve ball, and Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her forlorn youngest sister. Now, that short paragraph isn’t doing Meet Me in St Louis nearly as much justice as it deserves. That’s not even mentioning the other great songs, the great cast, the fabulous characters, the wonderful scene in which Esther dances with her grandfather, at the ball which gets me EVERY SINGLE TIME and ends with me blubbering and claiming bad hayfever. It’s a sentimental favourite yes, a fabulous holiday film, but in my opinion it never descends to schmaltz and cheese, which is testament to the superb performances. Get this film in your eyes, now.
2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
There’s no overstating how much I hate the usual “zany family Christmas movie” fare being churned out of Hollywood of recent times. Seriously, without a trace of a lie, they irritate me no end. Which is why it is such a testament to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation that it has clocked in at #2 of this list. The third of the National Lampoon vacation series, it sees Chevy Chase reprising his usual role of Clark Griswald, the ever-embattled family man. All he wants his a good, old-fashioned family Christmas. Given that this is National Lampoon however, that’s exactly what he isn’t going to get. The lights don’t turn on, the tree’s a disaster, and his insane relatives turn up, wreaking havoc. Written by John Hughes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, a screwball family comedy that does have some of the warm Christmas sentimentality that you’d expect from that sort of film, but man, is it ever amusing. The film belongs to Randy Quaid, and of course to Chevy Chase. This is the one film that I’ll make sure to watch if it’s on TV on Christmas eve, even though I’ve seen it countless times before. Best viewed with a Dad guffawing in the background and with the Christmas tree lights on.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I know that this film tops most “BEST CHRISTMAS FILM” list, and it’s really a shame that so many probably now think it’s somewhat lame. To me however, It’s a Wonderful Life is a gorgeous, uplifting classic film. Yes, sometimes a little sentimental, but so what. Sue me. Jimmy Stewart is a great enough actor that I tend to forget any sappiness when I watch it. If you can believe it, Frank Capra’s Christmas classic was a flop when it was released, both commercially and critically. You might even call the fact that it’s now considered one of the best films of all time, a “Christmas Miracle!” unto itself. No, let’s not go that far. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey however, finds himself in the midst of a Christmas miracle however (what a segue!). It’s Christmas Eve and he’s despairing. He’s had enough, of work and family, and life in general. In fact, he’s about to commit suicide. It’s at that moment however, that Clarence, Angel Second Class comes to his aid, to show him a life in which he doesn’t exist, to earn his wings by saving George’s life. He shows George, who has spent all of his life putting the needs of others before him sees a world without him, sees what he’s leaving behind. And so he sees the error of his ways and races back home to his family, right in time for Christmas. Lovely, no? This is probably one of the finest performances of James Stewart’s career, and Frank Capra’s most well-known and loved film (at least, nowadays anyway). If there were ever a film to lose yourself in during the festive season, it’s this one. It’s exactly what you need Christmas time, ’tis the season for it.