Christmas is without doubt a charming time of year, but it is fair to say, certainly in the Western world, that it has grown into a somewhat superficial one also, and the festive season usually brings out the worst in people’s film tastes; even seasoned film fans find themselves disarmed by sappy sentimentalism and the tinsel-wrapped sparkle of capitalism taking over the holidays. It’s the only way a film such as Love Actually can continue to make it on ‘Best Of” lists of any kind, albeit the traditionally eclectic Christmas kind. But, wait! Hold your missiles for just a moment – before you ready yourselves to launch the Christmas tree and all beneath it in this direction, take a breath and hear that important, impending ‘but’. Yes, lower your yule logs! Ready?
But… Christmas is no doubt a cinematic time of year. Christmas brings with it a host of films – some quintessentially Christmassy and others less so – that families can gather around and share together at a special time of year. Christmas films have a doubtless twinkle in their eye with greens, reds, and golds spelling an iconography of community, spirit, and cheer to accompany the festive holidays.
In order to be deemed an appropriate Beginner’s Guide to Christmas, it is worth determining what can and can not be called a Christmas film. The first type is perhaps the most obvious: films about Christmas itself. These would include such films as A Christmas Carol (1938), Holiday Inn (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983), Home Alone (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), The Grinch (2000), Elf (2003), yes, Love Actually (2003), not to mention more recent films such as The Polar Express (2004) and Arthur Christmas (2011); of course, this list must also include the definitive Christmas film, Frank Capra’s admittedly brilliant It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) which for many is the staple film event of the season. These films are united by the fact that Christmas itself provides their narrative thrust and they tend to climax with the Christmas spirit proving to be a strong aspect of their dramatic denouements – Will Ferrell’s Elf has proved a particularly successful example of this tradition.
The second type of Christmas film is the film that is set at Christmas. The object of the story is not so much Christmas itself but something else, and yet Christmas and all its associated iconographies pervade the film’s aesthetic design, definitively marking it a Christmas film. One might also call many of these ‘Ironic Christmas Films’ for the festive setting often seems to contradict the darker thematic content contained within – this also might otherwise be known as the Shane Black effect (who even managed to set an Iron Man film at Christmas). These films include The Apartment (1960), Black Christmas (1974), Gremlins (1984), Brazil (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1988; 1990), Batman Returns (1992), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Bad Santa (2003), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), In Bruges (2008), Rare Exports (2010), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).
Admittedly, a few of these films are somewhat difficult to place; Gremlins, Bad Santa, and Rare Exports could rightly be argued to be films about Christmas, however they prove to be in more appropriate company here, their subversive use of the festive season aligns them perfectly beneath that aforementioned title: ironic Christmas film. Those put off by the offerings of the previous list might find more favourable cinematic selections here where Christmas is less about presents and more about witty one-liners, dark or adult subject matter, or explosive action.
The third type of Christmas film is perhaps the most problematic, partly because it is also the most personal: these are the films that we, as film and Christmas lovers, associate with Christmas. Many (British) readers will no doubt picture the Christmas period littered with terrestrial re-runs of the James Bond franchise (1962-), or annual showings of such classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Great Escape (1963), The Towering Inferno (1974), Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), or the Harry Potter films (2001-). These films are not Christmas films per se, but are films associated with the season as a result of being repeatedly thrown at us year in and year out as appropriate family viewings for cosy afternoons around Christmas Day. (Other, non-British readers might have similar films in mind, if so please share them with us in the comments section below).
So what makes a good Christmas film? It ultimately depends upon two things. Firstly, what are your views on Christmas? For some viewers the schmaltz of Love Actually or Elf might prove too much for any time of year; to these Scrooges, point yourselves towards Bad Santa or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, two excellent films that subvert expectations on the relation between the season and the medium while providing just enough Christmas to keep the soul warm. Secondly, what are your film tastes? Film is a beautiful medium with something for everyone and yet traditional Christmas films are usually romantic and/or sentimental; to those who prefer their Christmas films fuelled by warmth and cheer, perhaps dig out The Nightmare Before Christmas or Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (for perhaps the hundredth time) – do not be ashamed for knowing you want to. Whatever your tastes, this is the time of year to wrap up warm and throw on a Christmas film with the family, no matter whether it is Black Christmas or Home Alone.
Five films to watch this Christmas:
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): This is almost certainly a grandparents’ favourite; Judy Garland charms in Vincente Minelli’s Technicolour wonder. Famous for Garland’s original rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’; this is cinema to soothe the soul.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946): A favourite for all ages; Frank Capra’s masterpiece rightly tops most ‘Best Of’ lists this time of year; it also has a truly magnificent ending.
Die Hard (1988): The other best Christmas film of all time! Bruce Willis’ Christmassy action-thriller was actually released in July, but has since claimed its place as the perfect anti-Christmas Christmas film of all you die-hard Scrooges out there.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): Shane Black’s ice cool Christmas noir is a masterclass of clever plotting and whiplash dialogue. It also features Val Kilmer’s best role in years and the best Russian roulette scene since The Deer Hunter – a must-watch!
Rare Exports (2010): Jalmari Helander’s weird but fascinating festive horror film reassesses the myth of Santa Claus. It is striking, original, and rather unsettling, and would make for a great companion piece to Henry Selick and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.