1. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
George Bailey, a building society manager, played by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s Christmas staple, spends his life ensuring that the corrupt baron Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) cannot take over the American town of Bedford Falls. But when some money goes missing and Bailey realises the town might fall to mean Mr Potter, he considers suicide. At which point an angel shows him what the place would be without him. Pretty grim, it turns out, and renamed Pottersville, with the friendly bar a crude honky tonk dive, the townsfolk now villainous. Contrarians have argued in favour of the fun, socially ambitious Pottersville and dubbed Capra’s Bedford Falls a “communitarian dreamland”. However, most agree with Capra’s sentiment: small is beautiful and one person can change the world.
2. THE BISHOPS WIFE (1947)
Another visitation from an angel – this time Cary Grant’s Dudley, who comes to earth to help Bishop Brougham (David Niven) who, while attempting to extract money for a new cathedral from a wealthy widow, feels his calling draining away. Dudley is charming, debonair and popular, but the bishop doesn’t trust him and suspects he has his heavenly eyes on his job. As Dudley gains traction (not least with the bishop’s wife Julia, played by Loretta Young), the bishop begins to question heaven. Originally, Niven was to play the angel and Grant the bishop until the director Henry Coster convinced them to swap. It’s one of Grant’s strongest roles and Niven’s bishop is a Christmas miracle.
3. THE APARTMENT (1960)
All we want for Christmas is an exquisite seasonal Billy Wilder screwball comedy. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends out his Upper West Side apartment to executives at his company – and their lady friends – in an increasingly complicated rota set up to ensure his own career promotion. When he falls for Fran Kubelik, the elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine with a fashion forward elfin cut), he has skin in the game. And when he learns she has had a thing with his boss and that boss wants to bring Fran to Baxter’s own bachelor pad, things become complicated. Wilder and IAL Diamond’s script is one of the best ever with exchanges such as:
CC Baxter: ‘The mirror… it’s broken…’
Fran Kubelik: ‘Yes I know, makes me look the way I feel.’
It’s set on December 25 and the story’s timeline runs to New Year’s Eve, making it one of the best Christmas and New Year’s Eve movies.
4. PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)
This holiday perennial, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, is likely to tickle the most curmudgeonly house guest. Neal, a marketing executive (Martin), and Del, a shower curtain ring salesman (Candy), are forced together when their flight from New York to Chicago is diverted. So begins a mission to overcome their blighted travel plans and their own idiosyncrasies and get home for Neal’s Thanksgiving dinner with his family. The plot was based on a real incident when writer-director John Hughes was an advertising copywriter and, trying to return to Chicago for the holiday, had a five-day delay ending up in Phoenix, Arizona via Wichita, Kansas. The film was a risk for Hughes who had become famous as the king of the teen movie (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), not comedies about adults and travel chaos. Yet as with It’s a Wonderful Life – not a huge success on its release – it has become a festive favourite, even if it’s probably not, strictly-speaking, a Christmas movie.
5. DIE HARD (1988)
Talking of which, of course this is a Christmas movie. Don’t we all celebrate this happy season by walking over broken glass in our bare feet while wearing a bloodied vest? Bruce Willis’s NYPD Detective John McClane lands in LA to win back his wife, a big shot at a company housed in the Nakatomi Plaza that’s under terrorist attack by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, sneering for Britain) and his machine gun-wielding cronies. Gruber has taken the staff hostage during a festive party. McClane must save his wife Holly, her colleagues and Christmas. It’s the perfect action movie but what could have been a pure high octane shoot ‘em up is given a throbbing heart by the relationship between McClane and Reginald VelJohnson’s doughnut-buying cop with his own redemption story.
6. HOME ALONE (1990)
It’s a premise with lasting appeal. A big noisy American family leaves for a Christmas holiday in Paris. It’s only when the plane has taken off that the mother Kate, played with panto precision by Catherine O’Hara, realises that they have left behind their youngest son, Macaulay Culkin’s eight-year-old Kevin, in their large, otherwise empty home. A pre-cell phone era and a plot-convenient problem with the landline means they can’t reach him. Then bad weather makes the mother’s journey back long and complicated (in 1990, movie dads didn’t sweat it when their kids were alone on another continent). Meanwhile, Kevin, after treating himself to fast food and violent TV, has to navigate his brother’s pet tarantula and set up increasingly elaborate booby traps to defeat Joe Pesci’s dastardly burglar. Holy cow, as Kevin says, it’s still the best.
7. LITTLE WOMEN (1994)
If you can’t be sentimental at Christmas… Gillian Armstrong’s nineties’ version of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-biographical novel, set in 1860s Massachusetts during the civil war, is casting perfection. Not even a magnetic Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s game 2019 adaptation, can trump Winona Ryder as fiery Jo March. Throw in a lovelorn Christian Bale as Laurie, Susan Sarandon as a firm, fair and furious Marmee and Kirsten Dunst’s blissfully infuriating Amy and you have the acting equivalent of a supergroup.
The scene to, well, die for, is when Beth (Clare Danes, a magnificent invalid) briefly recovers from scarlet fever to stumble down the stairs and lead the family on the piano in a singalong of Deck the Halls. We know, or can sense, what’s coming, which makes this festive moment as bittersweet as a sharp, cranberry sauce.
8. ELF (2003)
It takes Will Ferrell, playing Buddy, a human who, at first, thinks he’s an elf, to make the jaded folk in the real world rediscover the wonder of Christmas – and life itself. The on the nose slapstick is too much for some and the relationship between Buddy’s outsized festive helper in yellow tights and his store girl love interest Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) can feel a little creepy in 2023, but it’s impossible not to submit. ‘Tis the season to put your cynicism aside and enjoy Buddy’s naive joy at the wonders of the modern world, compared to his childhood with Santa in Lapland, as he brings round his steely publishing executive father Walter (James Caan) and teaches him how to love and enjoy his family.
9. BAD SANTA (2003)
If Elf is too sugary for you, this sour old story, released in the same year, should do the trick. Who else but Billy Bob Thornton to play a sweary Santa who robs and has casual sex, eventually coming to the attention of the mall boss who brings in security. Our hopes of a Damascene moment for this very bad Father Christmas – he meets a sweet, believing boy who lives with his senile grandmother – are short lived. Thornton puts in the performance of his career, helped along by the sort of out of control darkness that you might expect of a Christmas film touched by the Coen Brothers, its executive producers.
10. KLAUS (2019)
This animated Santa origin story won a BAFTA in 2020 as the Spanish debut director Sergio Pablos ditched the traditional tale of St Nicholas for that of a reclusive Norwegian toymaker named Klaus (voiced by JK Simmons). Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a lazy postman, is placed in Smensburg, an island above the Arctic Circle whose inhabitants barely talk to each other, let alone exchange letters. Jesper is exasperated until he meets Alva, a teacher, and Klaus. As they become friends the traditions of Christmas are formed as letters are penned, neighbours discover their generosity and stockings are hung up by the chimney. Now, add to that list: “watching Klaus each year”.
Written by Alex O’Connell, Arts Editor of The Times