Top Christmas Movies

I have to admit that I am a sucker for Christmas. It’s the time of year when the night’s are growing longer and the days are getting colder, but Christmas brings a bit of light and warmth to an otherwise desolate season. Winter has its charms, of course, but as a part time gardener as well as an actor, having first hand contact with the wintery elements makes you appreciate why a mid-winter festival was created in the first place. We need a bit of jollity in our lives at the best of times, particularly in 2018 when there is so much uncertainty around the globe.

While appropriated as a Christian festival when infant Christianity absorbed the European pagan celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice into their own festive calendar, Christmas is my favourite holiday. It warms my atheist heart like few things do these days, and Christmas movies never fail to get me in the festive mood. So, as the big day approaches, I thought I’d do a round up of my top five favourite Christmas films!

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

There are few films which capture the madness of inter-generational family gatherings quite like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I find it rather strange including this film in my top five as I used to dread watching it when I was a child – it’s one of my mother’s favourites so we did often watch it during the Christmases of my childhood. I found the second hand embarrassment of Chevy Chase dealing with his difficult relatives as his vision of a perfect family Christmas rapidly crumbles to dust far too excruciating to watch.

The comedy is still excruciating, but my constitution for such things has improved with age and I can appreciate the intelligence of the writing and the hilarity of the performances. It’s somewhat of a nostalgic watch, casting a view into middle class America at a time when the USA was still an unquestioned powerhouse, quietly ignoring all the problems that came with that position. Nevertheless, the frustrations, the farcical and physical comedy, and the conflicts strike a chord, because while Christmas can be a time of joy and love, it can also be a time when you have to endure a great aunt’s antiquated views or a distant cousin justifying why they voted from Brexit. Family isn’t always easy and Christmas Vacation encapsulates this brilliantly.

Nativity! (2009)

The most recent addition to my favourite Christmas movies, Nativity! is a wonderful slice of British humour during the holiday period. I love director and writer Debbie Isitt’s style of comedy; she often brings out the best from her cast in terms of honest, yet hilarious performances. Martin Freeman is a master of improvised comedy and bringing a sense of immediacy to his performances – Freeman rarely ever sounds like he’s reading from a script in anything he does, and this style works particularly well in grounding the somewhat zany premise of Nativity! He is an excellent foil for Marc Wootton’s childlike Mr Poppy and, for me, it is Freeman’s dynamic with Wootton which makes the first Nativity! film so brilliant; while David Tennant (star of Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger) and Martin Clunes (star of Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?) are both fine actors, they never quite balance out Wootton’s madness like Freeman does in the original.

Pam Ferris (a firm favourite of mine) is also utterly brilliant as the headmistress, Mrs Bevan – her portrayal of an overworked, over strained headmistress of an under-performing primary school is both hilarious and painfully realistic. The child actors themselves are excellent as well, their natural comedy being captured masterfully by Isbitt and her team. It’s a rather charming film, if not erring on the side of silly – but then, I do love a bit of silly!

Elf (2003)

Speaking of silly, there are few films more delightfully silly than Elf. Don’t get me wrong, Elf is actually a pretty heartfelt story – if you think about Buddy’s story too much it is actually genuinely distressing. Yet what I adore about Elf is the celebration of difference. Buddy (played masterfully by Will Ferrell) is an outsider, both in the magical world of the North Pole and the human world of New York City. However, unlike many films where an outsider is taught to conform to societal norms (often concerning appearance or behaviour), Buddy never compromises who he is to try and fit in. He is a figure of joy and light, bringing warmth to his estranged father’s family and reminding his father that his family is as important if not more so than his career.

With some fabulous minor performances from Peter Dinklage and the king of self-deprecating, neurotic humour Bob Newhart, Elf has the usual charm of a Jon Favreau film. It is the perfect tonic if you ever feel a bit down or low at Christmas.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

In all honesty, there’s only one Grinch for me, and he is Jim Carrey’s Grinch. I grew up during the golden age of Jim Carrey’s comedy film career, so to me, Carrey is like an old friend; an old friend who I have grown increasingly distant from with the passing of time, but he is still a part of my childhood. The zany, crazed physical humour Carrey brings to Dr Seuss’ creation is something which I am somewhat in awe of, being an aspiring comic actor myself. I don’t think I or indeed anyone else could ever match Jim Carrey’s insane energy.

Director Ron Howard creates a Whoville which feels like a somewhat surrealist version of the set of Happy Days at Christmas, all of which adds to the charm of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I pine for the days of old style animation, real sets and make up special effects, and the sets, costumes and make up of the 2000 Grinch are still, for me, more magical than anything CGI or mo-cap could create.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

My ultimate Christmas film – The Muppet Christmas Carol. I adore The Muppets, having grown up in a household where my father encouraged me to watch the master works of Jim Henson and his Creature Shop – resulting in my childhood nightmares about the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. But for me, The Muppet Christmas Carol is the perfect Christmas film. It is comedic, scary, thoughtful and heart warming. Of course the film owes its plot to Charles Dickens’ original 1843 novella, but I think Michael Caine makes an excellent Scrooge, while the familiar Muppet characters of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Rizzo and Gonzo make what could be a somewhat daunting text accessible to youngsters. Indeed, The Muppet Christmas Carol was my first excursion into the Dickensian world, a world which I have since studied at degree level.

Even now, at twenty five years of age, I can’t get into the Christmas spirit without watching Brian Henson’s directorial debut. In the past four years, it’s become a tradition in our house to watch it on Christmas Eve, and this year is no different.

 

So whatever your own favourite Christmas films are, I hope this year you can settle down and enjoy them over a mince pie and mulled wine or hot chocolate! Merry Christmas, folks!