It’s officially the festive season, which means early nights, cold long ones at that and a chance to settle in with a film and your loved ones and pig out. We’re here to give you twenty-five festive movies ranging from the bizarre to the classic and the awful along the way. Be warned some might only be passingly Christmas related but they all count towards your festive intake.
25) JINGLE ALL THE WAY
(BRIAN LEVANT 1996)
The inherent issue with any film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is that he doesn’t look like a normal guy, he looks like an Austrian bodybuilder from Mars. Many films play to this strength – The Terminator, Predator, Conan – are all movies that play up his larger than life persona and accent. Jingle All the Way is a film that wants us to believe that Arnold is a mattress salesman called Howard Langston.
The film follows him trying to track down a Turbo Man toy for his son Jake Lloyd (the once and only Anakin) to impress both him and his wife Rita Wilson (Mrs Tom Hanks to you). The film does feature him getting smacked about by a reindeer, and the always reliable late great Phil Hartman as an annoying neighbour, but it has us believe Sinbad is a physical match for him. The cookie scene is very funny though, but not much else.
24) MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR LAWRENCE
(Nagisa Oshima 1983)
Sometimes it’s important to remember that even in this time of jolly, holly and far too much that there are wars raging. Usually Christmas and war are brought down to that story of the Christmas day football match during World War 1 (crassly used by Sainsbury to goose sales by guilt), but any war lasting twelve months will cover December 25th. This WW2 prison drama sees David Bowie (not singing a weird Little Drummer Boy rendition with Bing Crosby) and Tom Conti are the POWs watched over by the likes of Takeshi “Beat” Kitano and Ryuichi Sakamoto in Japan.
The film is a moody, and oftentimes moving look at differences in sides during war and how people can change, people are victims and that universally, there is at least one season where good will reigns over. It’s tough but deeply moving.
(Chris Columbus 2005)
Chris Columbus loves Christmas, he co-wrote and produced Jingle All the Way, he’s also director of both Home Alone films, but his 2005 adaptation of the broadway smash is a weird story. Following a group of bohemians who struggle to deal with paying their rent, their sexuality and drug habits all while under the spectre of AIDS in 1989 is itself a modern retelling of La Boheme.
The film is earnest, and very happy to show different races and sexuality, but lacks flair visually which means all the more effort has to be given to the cast which includes Anthony Rapp, Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs. The film is calling out for a redo with a little more urgency, but even so, the songs and performances are more than moving and the film has the smack of authenticity in its message.
(Todd Haynes 2015)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol follows the forbidden love between an aspiring photographer and an older woman going through a divorce. The film has the glow of evening lights as the festive season looms in the background and the 1950s sheen is well done. For those who prefer their Christmas films low of jingling bells and high on good performances, this has two Oscar nominated turns from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, while Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson are also incredible good, the film is a slow understated film that wants you to be drawn in as the icy beginning gives way to a warmth that cannot be denied.
(Jon S. Baird 2013)
Based on the jet black comedy novel by Irvine “Trainspotting” Welsh, Baird’s un-festive crime black comedy tells the story of Scottish copper Bruce “Robbo” Robinson and the cruel games he plays on his friends and colleagues while going through a drug and booze-fuelled manic episode over the Christmas season.
To call this dark is an understatement, featuring crossdressing, racism, freemasonry, jokes about child molestation and more than one Frank Sidebottom reference, the central role is played to perfection by James McAvoy in his best performance yet, making you warm to Robbo even as he plays his “games”. The expansive supporting cast includes Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Imogen Poots, Emun Elliott, John Sessions, Shirley Henderson, Gary Lewis, Jim Broadbent and a random and quite off-putting cameo by David Soul. If you can stomach it, it’s both dark and very funny, but be warned it’s not for everyone.
20) HOSTILE HOSTAGES / THE REF
(Ted Demme 1994)
Riding the high from his 1993 stand up release No Cure For Cancer (it’s on Netflix and very funny), Leary and director Demme teamed up for this festive favourite. Sometimes known as Hostile Hostages, though in the wake of a number of high profile situations has now become known solely as The Ref sees Leary as a thief who ends up taking angry married couple Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis hostage on Christmas Eve and helps work through their marriage issues.
The film is thoroughly predictable but gets by thanks to the three leads all giving great performances and the film playing to Leary’s strengths. The film might be a cliche but when it comes to festive comedies you could do a lot worse than putting on this much-forgotten gem and having a good 90 minutes.
19) THE NIGHT BEFORE
(Jonathan Levine 2015)
Your enjoyment of this might depend on your tolerance level of Seth Rogen, but this festive stoner comedy is high on both laughs and the plant of choice. Rogen, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt re-team 50/50 director Levine and with added Anthony Mackie team up for a one-last binge for old time sake and to find a mythical Christmas Eve party.
Things naturally go wrong for the trio, but along the way there’s some fun to be had with supporting roles by Ilana Glazer, Jillian Bell and Lizzy Caplan, while Tracy Morgan does well with his narration, though it’s Michael Shannon’s offbeat role as enigmatic Mr Green that gets the big laughs, basically channelling Christopher Walken in Envy. The film actually has a decent amount of heart, and something to say about family being those you love regardless of blood relation, and the fact that Rogen spends the film is a Jewish Jumper in lieu of a Christian-festive one is a good sight gag. Ultimately it falls into too much madness and one too many cameos, but by the end you’ll be glad to took a festive puff of this likeable comedy.
Read next: 12 films that were banned in the UK
18) RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE
(Jalmari Helander 2010)
Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes, Rare Exports is one for the horror fans looking to get a little grisly around the season of good will. The film is an adaptation of the 2003 short film Rare Exports Inc. and posits Father Christmas is actually a trainable old man-creature that is found in the wild. The film is gory but also wildly inventive and fun. Too few festive horror movies deliver of the festive but with its unpicking of the tropes of Santa and his crew, this is one for fantasy fans, horror fans or people who like a different look at the world and legend, be warned though this Santa couldn’t give a candy cane if you’re naughty or nice.
17) KISS KISS BANG BANG
(Shane Black 2005)
Marking the directorial debut of Shane Black, and his screenwriting comeback along with the first proper movie starring Robert Downey Jr. since getting sober, along with Val Kilmer’s best reviews in years this black comedy thriller set over Christmas (as are most Black-projects), is a post-modern neo-noir thriller. Downey Jr is Harry Lockhart is a would-be thief who is mistaken for a method-actor who teams up with Kilmer’s Gay Perry van Shrike a private investigator to uncover a mystery.
The film is very hip and knowingly flippant, but as a last-chance movie for three main men it gave them all a shot in the arm that at least two of them used to good effect. The Christmas setting is much for the story but the call backs to A Christmas Story and other classic tales makes for good fun, and it’s one of the best thrillers of recent years.
16) HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK
(Chris Columbus 1992)
Home Alone 2 is a dreadful film, make no mistake, with a similar Die Hard 2 style “how could this happen AGAIN!” plotline and repeats of the jokes that made the first film work, so why is it on this list? Well, not only does feature Tim Curry on shark-grinning form as the nasty hotel concierge, the only performance by Rob Schneider that isn’t mind-numbing, and some great physical comedy from Pesci and Daniel Stern. But really the reason the film makes it onto the list is the song “All Alone on Christmas” written by Steve Van Zandt and sung by Darlene Love. The song, much better than the movie, has gone on to become a Christmas hit, and is one of the most festive to get repeat airtime.
15) HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
(Ron Howard 2000)
Adapting the fairly slim tale by Dr Seuss, Howard’s lush inventive live-action cartoon is held up by a born-for-this-role Jim Carrey as the titular baddie-turned-goodie who plots to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville. Taylor Momsen makes her debut as tiny little Cindy Lou Who who sees something in The Grinch that could make him a better man.
The film is helped by good support from Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin and Molly Shannon while Anthony Hopkins soothing narration keeps the Seuss element. James Horner’s score is as lush as you’d want, and the moments of musical make for a “tap your toes” feel. But, the MVP is obviously Rick Baker’s award winning make-up that turns everyone into characters ripped from the page. It might have a bit more vulgar humour that Seuss himself would have liked, but it keeps the message and the spirit in tact while beefing it up to a proper movie.
14) TRADING PLACES
(John Landis 1983)
Before John Landis became acquitted for the untimely deaths of three people, before Dan Ayrkroyd became a crazy person and before Eddie Murphy went through a divorce that nearly upended his career, they made Trading Places.
This re-telling of the Prince and the Pauper sees Aykroyd as a upper-class broker and Murphy as a street-wise hustler who are made part of an elaborate bet. Perhaps becoming best known for a topless Jamie Lee Curtis by horny teenage boys everywhere, Curtis and Denholm Elliot raise the movie sky high while the leads rangle the most out of the comedy potential of the film. The Christmas setting is a little unimportant, but it adds an extra layer of setting and provides Aykroyd with his most iconic outfit in the muddy Santa. Some of its humour is dated – Murphy’s 80s output is very dated today – but it holds up as a glimpse into what was.
13) THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES
(Clay Kaytis 2018)
The Netflix produced movie that made everyone consider the prospect that they might want to bang Santa, sees Kurt Russell as a gruff no-nonsense Santa who on Christmas Eve teams up with siblings Kate and Teddy (Darby Camp and Judah Lewis) after a kidnap gone wrong. The Elves might be a little too cartoony, but the underlying theme about children trying to deal with Christmas in the wake of a parental death is often moving and one many children might need to see, while the film never lingers on the darkness for too long. If that’s not enough for you, Russell has a musical number in prison with sexy helpers, and Goldie Hawn cameos – it’s a bit weird, but fun.
(Jon Favreau 2003)
The film that made a movie star of Will Ferrell and probably gave Favreau the nuts to say he could make Iron Man has become something of a family favourite. Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf is the sort of role some actors could only dream of, a showcase for what he can do. It’s a physical, vocal comedy performance that requires the right amount of naive innocence and commitment to heart that few comedy actors could have pulled off – too childish it becomes creepy, too adult it becomes scary. James Caan, Mary Steenburgen and Zooey Deschanel are all game for the madcap plot while Ed Asner and Bob Newhart do the most with their roles. It’s often very quotable and the big finale is as camp and silly as you’d want, plus, it features a small role for Peter Dinklage which we need.
11) BATMAN RETURNS
(Tim Burton 1992)
Thanks to more creative freedom this second Burton Batman movie is a bizarre perverse affair that has less interest in fidelity to the comics and more to being a weird Burton fever dream. Michael Keaton is much more confident this time around as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, having the triple threat of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle / Catwoman bent of seducing the Bat and romancing Bruce, Danny DeVito’s gnarly Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin a scorned aristocrat with a biblical plot to become mayor or ruin Gotham, and Christopher Walken as shady business tycoon Max Schrek a clear Trump stand-in that gives Walken his best-worst hairdo ever.
Danny Elfman’s score is bolder and more Elfman-y than ever, and the action often gives way to camp comedy and more than one poo joke from DeVito. It’s dark, perverse, deeply weird and all the better for it. Before Nolan saved Batman, this was the bar to beat, and remains one of the Dark Knight’s best outings. Side note: we had a toss up between this and another Burton film Edward Scissorhands, but that film doesn’t have the immortal line: mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it, a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it. So, this movie won out, plus DeVito makes poo jokes.
10) LETHAL WEAPON
(Richard Donner 1987)
Shane Black writes, and Richard Donner directs, this yuletide tale of redemption. From the outset it’s a Joel Silver produced buddy cop movie starring total sexy boy Mel Gibson and reliable Danny Glover alongside pre-actually mental Gary Busey. This first film is actually a bit deeper than that, with Gibson’s Martin Riggs on the verge of suicide thanks to the death of his wife three years prior. Forced to team up with 50-year old Roger Murtaugh (Glover), the film sees the power of friendship in healing wounds as the film sheds its tough guy act to really be a love story between two guys who find they might actually have common ground after all. Plus, it’s violent as balls.
9) LOVE ACTUALLY
(Richard Curtis 2003)
Covering the full extent of Christmas stories in London over the run up, not all of it works and some work more than others. It being a film written and directed by Richard Curtis it’s heavy on the emotion and sentiment. The stand-out scene being Emma Thompson silently crying to Joni Mitchell, while the funniest might actually be Hugh Grant as Prime Minister trying to come to terms with wanting to have awkward sex with Martine McCutchin. It works for the most part – expect a boring subplot with Laura Linney that is too slow and leaves a sour taste, but Hugh Grant dances, Liam Neeson watches Titanic and Alan Rickman is his usual smarmy self.
(Joe Dante 1984)
For a little festive horror, Dante is king. The story of a little critter that can’t be fed after midnight or gotten wet is a creature feature for all ages (well most ages). From the annoyingly upbeat theme tune, to scenes of genuine horror, Gremlins is one of those films that gets constant repeat viewing for the darker elements, including one being blended. The horror might sit uneasily with some among the horror, and the shop might be problematic, but the film holds up because Gizmo is so cute and the gremlins are so nasty.
7) THE SANTA CLAUSE
(John Pasquin 1994)
Like Santa Claus: The Movie meets The Fly, this story of a cynical toy marketer Scott Calvin played by then big-time Tim Allen who accidentally causes Santa to fall and die and becomes the new one is a bizarre comedy for the family. Perhaps bolstered by some knowing winks to the adults, the correct amount of 90s charm and a feeling that it likes the holiday even while mocking in, The Santa Clause ultimately provides the correct amount of emotion when needed – plus it features the immortal line “Merry christmas to all, and to all a good night, in the morning I’m getting CAT scan.”
6) BAD SANTA
(Terry Zwigoff 2003)
Nasty, vulgar, and utterly hilarious Billy Bob Thornton’s booze drenched Willie T. Soke a Santa more interested in hoe hoe hoes than ho ho hos, the film marks the final performance on screen for the late great John Ritter. Thornton does well as the would-be thief posing as the jolly fat man chain smoking and dropping more F-bombs than your usual St Nick. It’s crass, and not to everyone’s taste but getting so close to Christmas you need a jet black piece of coal to cleanse yourself.
5) HOME ALONE
(Chris Columbus 1990)
There was a time when John Hughes WAS the man, and when Macauley Culkin was as bankable as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone. Home Alone is the pinnacle of that, a high concept hit in the making. When little put upon Kevin is forgotten by his large and obnoxious family he thinks his dreams have come true but then Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern try to rob his gaff and he turns into Jigsaw for kids. The slapstick comes thick and fast and while the emotional core with Roberts Blossom about love and acceptance is good, it’s the weird side plot – including a random supporting role from John Candy as a polka player who helps Kevin’s mother Catherine O’Hara.
4) MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
(George Seaton 1947 / Les Mayfield 1994)
The story of a man who claims to be Father Christmas having to prove it in a court of law is one of the all time favourites for any festive film fan. In either version Edmund Gwenn’s Oscar winning turn (yes actually), or Lord Richard Attenborough’s loveable turn, there’s no denying the love and affection that people have for the film that ultimately tells us to keep the magic alive all year round.
3) THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL
(Brian Henson 1992)
Charles Dickens classic tale has been made several times, this year sees a BBC version with Guy Pearce but none capture the magic quite like the Muppet version. Michael Caine is pitch perfect as Scrooge capturing the abject hatred of his fellow man but also the pathos of a man changing his ways. Subtle things, like the way he looks at the Ghost of Christmas Present and begins to find his sense of joy once more.
2) DIE HARD
(John McTiernan 1989)
It’s a Christmas film, get over it, and a bloody good one. The set up? Bruce Willis wants to mend his relationship with his wife on Christmas Eve so leaves his NYPD job for a little LA jolly-time but Alan Rickman and his band of robbers raid the plaza the party is in and things go bad. From then on it’s quips, shoot outs, yippe-kai-yays and ho ho his. The performances are all solid, especially Willis, Rickman and Reginald Veljohnson as Sergeant Al Powell who helps Willis from the ground. It’s big on 80s tropes, but it’s a helluva lot of fun.
1)IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
(Frank Capra 1946)
A film so strong with emotion it’s impossible not to cry. James Stewart is the everyman George Bailey who believes life has dealt him too many duff hands that life isn’t worth a dime, but thanks to wannabe angel Clarence he finds that life is not only worth living but all the better for having him in it. It’d rightfully seen as a benchmark of filmmaking, and a Christmas classic and to watch on the Eve of the day is to remember that being decent, and kind, and honest will make you rich beyond your dreams, because it will give you love. Atta boy Clarence.