Christmas films are overrated. There: I said it. Christmas films are underrated. I said that too. I’m not deliberately trying to be awkward – that comes naturally to a film critic I suspect – as both statements can, and do, coexist truthfully.
To call something a ‘Christmas film’ is to categorise it instantly, broadly placing it within a box holding our set opinions. I call Christmas films overrated because mainstream audiences, and I’m generalising wildly here, do seem to experience a fuzz of warm nostalgia when it comes to remembering – or perhaps miss-remembering – festive fare. Take Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990 – don’t string me up yet!), it’s a good, typically solid film from Columbus and a surprisingly violent one too for what it’s worth. Released at any other time of the year, I’d wager it’d be fondly remembered but never hailed as anything more than it is. Perhaps in the vein of Stuart Little (Rob Minkoff, 1999) or Spy Kids (Robert Rodriguez, 2001) say. However, Home Alone is a ‘Christmas film’ and, as such, considered by many to be a classic. By this default it is allowed to be unrealistic, that’s fine; it can get away with an over-sugared conclusion and it’s overlooked that, as a story, the film’s almost entirely screen-deep. Christmas is the time of year when audiences want to forget the real world (frankly, after 2016 we deserve a break) and need to believe in a message of hope. Is being rewarded for surviving another year, however, quite the same thing as watching a brilliant film?
I love Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and fully accept that a big part of that love stems from nostalgia, with my local cinema showing it as an annual tradition on Christmas Eve – once even with mince pies! It’s a Wonderful Life is considered a Christmas essential, just like Home Alone and this is where I gain my inescapable niggle that ‘Christmas films’, or rather a proportion of them, are underrated. Capra’s film is, like Michael Buble’s Christmas album and, bizarrely, pigs-in-blankets, only allowed out of the cupboard once a year, to experience it during any other month…well that would be sacrilege. How far can we call It’s a Wonderful Life a Christmas film though? A closer look reminds us that only perhaps a third of the film’s runtime actually takes place in the holiday season, whilst the remainder is hardly the fuzzy, warm film fun that the so-called genre dictates. The moment in which George Bailey (James Stewart) opts to jump from the bridge is as shocking as anything by Hitchcock whilst the terrifying instance of his discovery that his wife no longer knows him and that his children were never born is what truly harrows. Mary (Donna Reid) is no longer the concerned, loving wife with loose hair and bright disposition, Capra finds her now wrapped up, drawn and alone. The initial flop of the film is well known but more significant is the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life remains the only ‘Christmas film’ on the AFI’s Top 100 Movies list, where it ranks higher than any other of Capra’s works and also even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a feature of the famed critic Roger Ebert’s own list of greatest movies. So why limit it? As the Ghost of Christmas Present declares in Scrooge: ‘We spirits of Christmas do not live only one day of our year. We live the whole three hundred and sixty-five’.
I’m not saying that I’d name It’s a Wonderful Life as the greatest of all time but merely suggesting that our adoration of it limits it to a genre that has provided a plethora of genuine duds. Bill Murray is a brilliant comic actor but Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988) is a very contrived and unnecessarily angry hour and forty-one minutes of the lead shouting before an entirely undeserved saccharine conclusion. Then there’s the Nativity! series (Debbie Isitt, 2009, 2012, 2014) where both sequels somehow made more at the box office than the charming original despite being progressively worse and an increasingly painful experience. If Martin Freeman staging a nativity play in Coventry cathedral is ludicrous, being sweetly handled allows it to remain heartwarming. It’s two follow-ups, Danger in the Manager and Dude, Where’s my Donkey? I have no tolerance for on the other hand, each taking advantage of our yearly over-sentimentality to leap across the lines of sanity.
For every The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992) produced there’s cheesiness from A Carol Christmas (2003, Matthew Irmas) to let the side down. For every Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff) there’s a (just plain bad) The Santa Clause (1994, John Pasquin). With that in mind, the following ten films are not my ‘Top 10 Christmas Films’, they are my ‘Top Ten Films to Watch at Christmas’ – we still need the nostalgia even when the slack’s cut after all.
The Top Ten
10. Elf: Clearly written after the consumption of a LOT of maple syrup, this ones maybe a bit too sweet for some but cheery all the same.
9. Home Alone: Don’t try this at home, watch and laugh instead.
8. Nativity!: If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, don’t scrutinise it!
7. Holiday Inn: Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby make for dreamy companions of a white Christmas.
6. Frozen: This couldn’t feature on a list of actual Christmas films, but with a reindeer and one heck of a snowstorm I’ll take this musical showstopper any cold December night.
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol: My Dad’s favourite, Michael Cane acts a more terrific Scrooge than you might imagine from the puppets, whilst the film is rewardingly funny and festive.
4. Bad Santa: An antidote to schmalz; take the perfect amount of bad and combine with just enough Santa.
3. Scrooge: Traditional and faithful to a fault and all the better for it – by far the most effectively chilling A Christmas Carol adaption.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas: Beautifully animated (the detail!) and wittily written, with great songs and a good bit of a bite – can be watched for Christmas or Halloween…Easter too!
1. It’s a Wonderful Life: Because we’ll always need something to remind us that it really is.
Love Actually: It’s a tad too long but really quite nice actually.
Get Santa: A recent edition, feels very much like something you’ve seen before but watch it for the inspired casting of Jim Broadbent as Santa himself!
Die Hard: It’s not really a Christmas film but it is a hoot.