The 30 best Christmas movies - with trailers
Cambridge Independent film critic Mark Liversidge reveals his favourite festive films.
Since so many things are more difficult this year, let’s take comfort in one traditional thing we can do: snuggling up at home in the warm with a mince pie and one of our favourite Christmas films.
Before I get into my own personal selections, we ought to establish exactly what a Christmas film is. There are, logically, only two real options: firstly, something involving a baby sleeping in a feeding trough because his parents couldn’t get an inn booking; or secondly, whatever you want it to be, because there are no real rules. (And if you want something with an infant Jesus, may I suggest Monty Python’s Life of Brian, even if the wise men go to the wrong place first.)
Since even I – as both a film critic and a Christian – would struggle to come up with a list of good baby Jesus films, let’s agree to go with definition number two. All of the films on my list feature a decent amount of time spent at the Christmas season, and that’s good enough for me. I’m ruling out short films, with apologies to The Snowman, and rubbish films, with no apologies to Love Actually. But here’s what I’ll be bingeing at home while I try on my latest Christmas jumper.
30 The Man Who Invented Christmas
Dan Stevens (the one my mum fancied in Downton Abbey) is Charles Dickens, struggling to get to grips with the festive tale he’s writing, so he imagines conversations with the characters from his new novel, including a certain Scrooge.
29 Arthur Christmas
Aardman put down their Plasticine and turned to co-producing this CGI family favourite. Arthur (James McAvoy) is the son of Father Christmas, who sets out with his grandfather and an elf to get a missing present to a young girl before her Christmas is ruined.
28 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The French musical that was an inspiration to Damien Chazelle when he made La La Land, it also brought Catherine Deneuve to a wider audience and culminates in a snowy scene at a petrol station on Christmas Eve.
27 Die Hard 2: Die Harder
How can the same stuff happen to the same guy twice? Well, not quite the same, as this time John McClane (Bruce Willis) is tackling terrorists at an airport on Christmas Eve while his wife’s plane circles overhead.
26 Batman Returns
Tim Burton seems to have a fondness for the Christmas season (with Edward Scissorhands also a popular choice at this time of year), but for me the battle’s between Michael Keaton’s incarnation of the Caped Crusader and Danny De Vito’s Penguin, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman purring on the sidelines.
25 The Polar Express
If you can get past the CGI – which made many of the characters look disturbingly creepy – then there’s a lot to enjoy about Robert Zemeckis’ Christmas fantasy which features Tom Hanks in a number of roles.
24 Anna And The Apocalypse
Scottish zombie musical set at Christmas? Don’t mind if I do. The original songs are great, Ella Hunt (who appeared in the revival of Cold Feet) is a strong lead in the title role and there are some fun zombie moments among the snow and decorations.
23 Home Alone
It launched a franchise but the original is the one to return to, with burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern outwitted at every turn by a young Macauley Culkin. John Williams also provides a classic festive score to get you in the mood as well.
22 While You Were Sleeping
Sandra Bullock rescues a man from in front of a subway train on Christmas Day who she has a crush on, before becoming accidentally engaged to him and then falling for his brother (Bill Pullman).
21 Trading Places
It does finish on January 2, but the pivotal second act of the film is Christmas through and through. Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy end up living each other’s lives, as a wealthy commodities broker and a street hustler respectively.
20 Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
As well as writing Home Alone, John Hughes also co-scripted this remake of the 1947 classic. Here, Richard Attenborough plays Kris Kringle, who ends up on trial to prove that he is the real Santa and not just a shop-working facsimile.
Sean Baker’s film is notable not only for being a Christmas-set film in sunny Hollywood, but also for being shot with three iPhones. Transgender sex worker Sin-Dee spends most of Christmas Eve trying to sort out her life and that of her friend Alexandra.
18 White Christmas
The song which has become synonymous with Christmas didn’t actually make its debut here – that was in Holiday Inn, 12 years earlier – but Bing Crosby does get to sing in both films, and this film is the one to get you in the Christmas mood.
17 Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
This Finnish fantasy film offers a rather different perspective on the holiday season, with a Santa Claus that boils misbehaving children in a cauldron, and the community living nearby who discover the truth.
16 Scrooge (1951)
Probably still the most famous version of Dickens’ seminal Christmas tale, Alistair Sim takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by three ghosts attempting to soften his heart on Christmas Eve.
15 National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Not only another John Hughes film set at Christmas, but probably the best of any of the ‘Vacation’ films under this banner. Chevy Chase keeps the family at home instead of heading out on the road, but there’s plenty of seasonal laughs.
14 In Bruges
Watching Ralph Fiennes hunting down Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in the titular Belgian city may not be the most festive of films, but it is set at Christmas, and it features some of the most memorable dialogue of recent years from writer-director Martin McDonagh.
There’s a fair amount of darkness on this list, but hearing Phoebe Cates relating the story of why she’s not a fan of the season is about as dark as it gets. The rest of the film, with cuddly brown and white creatures mutating if you ignore their care plan, is tremendous fun.
12 The Apartment
Another film that spans the Christmas season and runs up to New Year, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine shine in Billy Wilder’s classic. Controversial on release, Lemmon is a corporate drudge who lends his flat to his bosses for affairs.
11 The Muppet Christmas Carol
I would argue that this isn’t the best Muppet film, as the core Muppets barely feature (The Great Muppet Caper remains my favourite, thanks for asking), but Michael Caine gives his all as Scrooge and Gonzo and Rizzo make an appealing double act.
10 Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The original – and best – of the versions of the story, originally released in this country as The Big Heart. Here, Edmund Gwenn is Kris Kringle and Maureen O’Hara is the woman fighting his corner when he ends up in court.
I challenge you to find me someone who doesn’t love Bill Murray, and it’s his version of Dickens’ tale which holds the fondest place in my heart. Karen Allen is Murray’s old flame, while David Johansen and Carol Kane are good value as two of the ghosts.
8 Bad Santa
Billy Bob Thornton does a great job of putting the ‘bad’ in Bad Santa, who takes on the role of a department store Santa before making off with the store’s goods. His life is changed when he ends up having to care for a young boy who thinks he’s the real deal.
If you’d like to know how excited I get about Christmas every year, then it’s essentially ‘Will Ferrell-in-Elf’ levels of excited. He plays a baby raised at the North Pole, who heads to the big city when he finds out that his real father (James Caan) is on the naughty list.
6 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Shane Black films could fill out large parts of this list – everything in his back catalogue from Lethal Weapon to Iron Man 3 has scenes set at Christmas. But for me, this is the best combination of festive setting and a great film, with Robert Downey Jr as a private investigator both helped and hindered by his unlikely partner, Val Kilmer.
5 The Nightmare Before Christmas
The joy of this Tim Burton-produced stop-motion animation is that you can watch it for Hallowe’en, and then get it out again a month later and enjoy it all over again. Composer Danny Elfman also sings as Jack, the head of the Hallowe’en town that discovers how great Christmas is.
4 The Shop Around the Corner
Another film that had a serviceable remake – this time with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail – but, as with the others, it’s the original that’s most worth seeking out. James Stewart is the shop worker engaged in a romantic correspondence, without realising that he’s sending the letters to his annoying co-worker Margaret Sullavan.
Todd Haynes’ film is another that is set at Christmas, but his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt is too good to pass up. Rooney Mara is the aspiring photographer who becomes attracted to a customer (Cate Blanchett) at the store where she works.
2 Die Hard
It’s set on Christmas Eve, and it’s about a man fighting for good and attempting to reunite with his family; if you want something more from your Christmas films, I really can’t help you. Bruce Willis runs around in a vest and spouts pithy witticisms while Alan Rickman launches his film career as the suave Eurovillain after the bearer bonds in a high-rise safe.
1 It’s A Wonderful Life
It’s another film with a streak of darkness running through it, but that only serves to make its light shine brighter. It’s only become a classic with the benefit of hindsight, but James Stewart finding out how life in the town of Bedford Falls would have been different if he’d never been born after he contemplates suicide has now become the ultimate Christmas film.