At this time of year newspapers, magazines and websites routinely feature lists of the best Christmas movies. I am always surprised by some of the inclusions, invariably disappointed by the omissions, and frequently mystified by the choice of certain interpretations of a Dickens classic over the others available. That said, picking one’s favourites is an inherently subjective exercise – bounded by age and the arc of childhood memory as much as anything – so I thought I would assemble my own list of 10. Well 11 actually, but I’ll get to that.
What follows is what I would hope my nephew and nieces have already seen, or might be persuaded to watch as they grow older. Some have long since entered the classical canon; the others will, I think, stand the test of time. Most have obvious Christmas themes; the others are closely associated with Christmas by virtue of their setting.
1. The Shop Around the Corner
One of the best films of all time and Lubitsch’s personal favourite. Spawned passable remakes (the Garland musical In The Good Old Summertime in 1949 and Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail in 1998) but nothing approaching the original. The romance between Stewart (Kralik) and Sullavan (Novak) is superbly played by both, but it is the rest of the cast – Morgan (the owner of Budapest’s Matuschek and Company where everyone works), Schildkraut (as the two-faced Vadas), Bressart (as Kralik’s kindly, if perpetually nervous, friend Pirovitch) and Tracy (who rises from errand boy to clerk) – that elevates this film from great to sublime. A lonely Matuschek describing a proposed Christmas Eve dinner to new delivery boy Rudy near the film’s end is magical.
2. Scrooge / A Christmas Carol
Has any story been retold on screen so many times, and in so many different forms (animated short, animated musical, animated feature, big screen feature, made-for-TV feature, Muppet musical and more)? I can’t think of one offhand. Alastair Sim, who starred in some of the more memorable comedies of my childhood, is, for many, the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, splendidly transitioning from stony-faced through scared, sad and sorrowful, to sheer unalloyed joy on Christmas morning. The cast is very fine, with Michael Hordern as Marley’s Ghost and a young George Cole as the younger Scrooge, and the black-and-white cinematography serves only to enhance the performances and mood. Apparently there is a computer colourised version – it is to be avoided.
Accepting that 1951’s Scrooge is the preference of most, I must confess that, for reasons that I may not adequately detail here, I prefer the George C. Scott version from 1984. Scott may be more restrained than Sim, but for me his stature makes him more forbidding and his cold stare more malevolent. His face and voice convey suspicion and sorrow so keenly that his understated portrayal seems perfectly pitched. For me Warner and York are the definitive Cratchits, Rees plays a fine nephew and narrator, and the magisterial Woodward is how I think Dickens wrote the Ghost of Christmas Present. Call it choice 2b if you must, but this is the version I return to most often and the reason I expanded my list to 11.
3. The Dead
Though it might not be an obvious choice of Christmas film, its atmospheric primary setting is an Epiphany party given by two elderly sisters in Edwardian Dublin. John Huston’s final film, it was adapted from Joyce’s The Dead – the last, longest, and perhaps best, short story in Dubliners – by Huston’s son Tony and stars his daughter Anjelica (as Gretta Conroy). Featuring several fine performances from a largely Irish cast, it is in the main faithful to Joyce’s text, and is anchored by a supremely graceful Huston and a wonderfully wistful McCann (as her husband Gabriel). McCann’s interior monologue at the film’s close is beautifully done.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life
This appears on most every list I’ve seen and for good reason. Its habitual place on the Christmas TV schedule might have lead to an excess of familiarity but that is easily remedied by returning to it only infrequently. As with many of the best films much of its strength lies with the supporting cast and not just the principals. Travers (as Clarence the angel seeking his wings by saving Stewart’s George Bailey), Barrymore (as the villainous Potter), Mitchell (as George’s Uncle Billy), Bondi (as George’s mother) and the various inhabitants of Bedford Falls are all testament to Capra’s vision. Though there are a number of Capra works I love more (1934’s It Happened One Night, 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to name but three) this only adds to his stature as a cinematic master.
5. Miracle on 34th Street
Another movie that appears on every Christmas TV schedule. Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Kris Kringle, and it is he along with the supporting cast – Lockhart (as a judge concerned with reelection), Frawley (as the judge’s astute political adviser), Cowan (as the D.A. charged with prosecuting Kringle) and others – that make this movie a gentle delight that has managed to avoid becoming timeworn or mawkish. The courtroom exchange between the D.A. and his young son, called by attorney Payne to testify to the existence of Santa Claus, is a delight.
6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Many lists now reference the full length feature from 2000 directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch, but I much prefer this earlier, and much shorter, animated TV special. The characterisations of the Grinch, Max his dog, and Cindy Lou Who are particularly lovely, but it is Karloff’s singular narration and the wonderfully inventive lyrics from the song You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch that make me pause and watch it again almost every time I spot it on the channel guide. It has lost none of its appeal with age.
7. The Polar Express
Critics appear divided on this relatively recent animated feature, with some disliking the human character animation and its somewhat creepy air. Maybe the Zemeckis use of motion capture isn’t for everyone but I think the result is visually stunning, I love the tangents the story takes, and there is an extraordinary creativity to many of the film sequences, some details of which I did not catch the first time around. The train barely negotiating a frozen lake and the song and dance routine that accompanies the serving of hot chocolate on board are two of the more memorable scenes. The tone is darker than expected but it is haunting rather than terrifying, and it is precisely what sets it apart from much of the triter Christmas fare.
8. Die Hard
There were four sequels to this McTiernan action film – some enjoyable enough, some poor – but nothing that is as fresh as the original where Willis (as NY Detective John McClane) battles with Rickman (as Hans Gruber) and his heavily armed thieves in a Los Angeles office tower on Christmas Eve. The special effects and stunts are really well done, and the pace never flags. The movie made Willis an action star but it is Rickman’s redefinition of the villain role as a perfect mix of high intelligence, polished civility and viciousness that makes this worth watching. Veljohnson, as an LAPD sergeant trying to help McClane, and Atherton, as a sleazy journalist, are very good in supporting roles. The film’s influence is evidenced by how many subsequent, similarly-themed action features were given the tag line ‘Die Hard on a —‘ (insert bus/plane/ship as appropriate).
9. Trading Places
Murphy (as street hustler Valentine) and Akyroyd (as smarmy commodities broker Winthorpe) play very well off each other, both Elliot (as a butler) and Curtis (as a prostitute) are eminently likeable, but for me it is the inspired casting of Bellamy and Ameche (as the Duke brothers who set the whole plot in motion with a bet on nature versus nurture) that makes this a comedic gem.
10. Christmas in Connecticut
Those familiar only with Stanwyck’s later dramatic TV roles may not realize that she had a real flair for big screen romantic comedy, though this film is not the finest example (see Ball of Fire or The Lady Eve, both from 1941). Stanwyck plays famous food writer and domestic goddess, Elizabeth Lane, who is in reality clueless about cooking, and the film is a light – some critics have described it as fluff as if that’s necessarily a pejorative – but enjoyable, old-fashioned screwball affair that rises above the ordinary thanks largely to Sakall (as Lane’s friend Felix, a chef) and Greenstreet (as Lane’s publisher Yardley).
Worthy of Mention
The Bishop’s Wife from 1947, with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, Elsa Lanchester, Gladys Cooper and James Gleason. While it could arguably displace one of the films on the lower end of the list, it’s not Niven’s best (for me that can only be the Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death from 1946) or Grant’s either (I can name 10 or more of his that I would rank higher). While I find some of the scenes between Grant (as the angel Dudley) and Young (as the bishop’s wife Julia) a little cloying, the film’s heart is in the right place, and the support provided by Woolley (as Professor Wutheridge), Lanchester (as housekeeper Matilda) and Cooper (as the widowed and wealthy Mrs Hamilton) is very good indeed.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, a 25 minute animated TV special which premiered on CBS in 1965 and which has appeared on US network television every year since. Written by Charles M. Schulz, and based on his Peanuts comic strip, it is perhaps best known for Linus’s recitation of the Annunciation to the Shepherds from the Gospel of Luke.