Sunday 22 April 2018

Yule be glad you watched

Christmas is a time for giving -- and good films, so here are the top festive favourites

Choosing one's favourite Christmas movies is a surprisingly contentious business. First of all it's not easy to agree on what constitutes a Christmas film. Some of you, for instance, might wonder why Some Like It Hot is not on my list: it's a very fine film, but is set in Miami, contains not a single reference to the yuletide and takes place primarily in blazing sunshine.

The Great Escape is another movie people associate indelibly with Christmas Day and chronic indigestion, but a film in which a load of daring chaps bravely break out of a PoW camp only to be mown down by the Nazis does not seem especially festive to me. Die Hard, on the other hand, is violent but unmistakably Christmassy, and does make my list.

Christmas films should contain some reference to the season, but should also be accessible and broadly appealing -- who wants to settle down and watch an Ingmar Bergman box set on St Stephen's Day? Not even me.

All of these films either have something important to say about Christmas or are inextricably linked with this time of year. Most of them will be on your TV screens during the coming weeks, so enjoy them if you see them, and a very Happy Christmas.

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

Vincente Minnelli's glorious musical melodrama actually covers all the seasons, but its unforgettable climax happens at Christmas time. The Smith family are about to get ready to leave their beloved family home in St Louis for New York, and are not one bit happy about it. Things get particularly mournful when Judy Garland sings 'Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas' while Margaret O'Brien furiously decapitates snowmen in the backyard.

But when Papa Smith (Leon Ames) calls them together on Christmas Eve to announce that they'll be staying put, it's hard to restrain a festive tear. Minnelli and Garland fell in love while shooting Meet Me in St Louis and were married the following year.

White Christmas (1954)

This lavish technicolor reworking of the 1942 film Holiday Inn is classic Hollywood Christmas fare. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play a couple of vaudeville entertainers who arrive at a troubled New England Hotel to help out its owner, their former wartime commander. The hope is that their nightly shows will draw in the punters. The romances take over.

Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney (George's auntie) play a couple of singing sisters in a film replete with snow, sentiment and dodgy Christmas jumpers. The songs are wonderful, especially a splendid rendition of 'White Christmas' itself.

Bad Santa (2003)

This Terry Zwigoff comedy was considered a bit too black by some on its release, and sentimental critics berated Disney for having backed a film that mocks the very spirit of Christmas. Actually it doesn't, and though Bad Santa's comedy is very dark, the film has a heart too.

Billy Bob Thornton is hilarious as Willie T Stokes, a hard-drinking, womanising shopping mall Santa who always robs the malls on Christmas Eve with the help of his dwarf accomplice. Willie is seldom sober and doesn't really believe in anything, but begins to reassess his priorities when he meets a bullied and neglected boy called Thurman.

Bad Santa is great fun, and an antidote to all the yuletide schmaltz.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Almost 65 years on, the charm of this whimsical Hollywood classic remains irresistible. English actor Edmund Gwenn starred as Kris Kringle, a rosy-cheeked old fellow who's hired to play Santa in the Macy's annual New York Thanksgiving Parade after the previous incumbent was fired for being drunk.

Kris plays the part so well that the event's director, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) hires him to be the Santa at Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. He goes down a bomb with parents and children, but when he begins telling people that he really is Santa Doris gets worried, and a surreal court case ensues.

Gwenn steals the show, and watch out for a young Natalie Wood playing a little girl in mourning.

Home Alone (1990)

Greeted by critical indifference when originally released, Chris Columbus's Home Alone has since become a much-loved Christmas classic.

Macauley Culkin starred as Kevin McCallister, a precocious eight-year-old whose parents accidentally leave him behind when they take a Christmas vacation to Paris. At first Kevin delights in his newfound freedom, but when two dimwitted burglars decide to break into the house, Kevin must defend the family homestead with only his toys as weapons.

Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern play the hapless criminals in a film that has stood the test of time surprisingly well.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

In Tim Burton's enchanting and eccentric stop-motion animation, a playful ghoul decides to steal Christmas. Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween Town, a dreamy place populated by goblins, ghosts vampires, werewolves and witches. Every Halloween Jack leads his people in a blood-curdling celebration, but has grown tired of this old routine and covets the popularity of Santa Claus.

After kidnapping Santa, Jack mounts his sleigh and attempts to deliver the traditional Christmas Eve service. But his presents of shrunken heads and poisonous snakes bring more terror than joy, and Jack is about to learn a very valuable lesson.

Christmas Holiday (1944)

This sombre 1940s melodrama is one of the classiest Christmas films ever made. Directed by Robert Diodmak and loosely based on a novel by W Somerset Maugham, Christmas Holiday starred Deanna Durbin as a mysterious young woman who breaks down during a Midnight Mass and tells an army officer the story of her tragic marriage to a suave murderer.

Gene Kelly was cast against type as the killer, Gale Sondergaard was his controlling mother, and Siodmak's stylish film noir pulls no punches in its bleak and brutal account of one woman's very unhappy Christmas.

Die Hard (1988)

It's become a tradition to show this seminal 1980s action blockbuster on Christmas Eve, which is fitting because it's also set on Christmas Eve.

Bruce Willis is John McClane, a New York cop who arrives in Los Angeles to reconcile with his estranged wife who's working for a Japanese finance company. When he meets her at the Nakatomi tower block, an office Christmas party is interrupted by the arrival of a ruthless gang of German terrorists, who claim grand political motives but are really interested in cracking the company's safe.

McClane escapes to the upper floors and sets out to foil the terrorists' plans. With its witty asides and star-making performance by Bruce Willis, Die Hard is an enduring Christmas favourite.

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Charles Dickens's moral Christmas novella has been filmed dozens of times, including an acclaimed 1960s musical version and the hilarious Muppet Christmas Carol. But this 1951 British version is perhaps the best and most faithful to its source.

Alastair Sim is terrific as Ebenezer Scrooge, the parsimonious London accountant who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing until he's visited one Christmas Eve by a group of spirits who show him the error of his ways.

Michael Horden played Scrooge's late associate Jacob Marley, George Cole was the young Scrooge, and Hattie Jacques, Mervyn Johns and Jack Warner were among the fine supporting cast.

It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

The Christmas film to end all Christmas films, Frank Capra's comic melodrama stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a smalltown businessman whose Building & Loan bank has kept the poorer residents of Bedford Falls going for many years.

But when his uncle mislays a envelope full of cash, George ends up at the mercy of local bigwig Mr Potter, and contemplates suicide. He is saved by a trainee angel called Clarence, who shows him what Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never existed.

The parallels with A Christmas Carol are obvious, but It's a Wonderful Life has a charm all of its own, and only a sociopath would fail to find the film's teary climax moving.

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