THE festive edition of the Radio Times makes for grim reading. Long gone are the glory days of 30million viewers watching Del and Rodney’s Batman and Robin routine, Eric and Ernie singing in the rain, and Dirty Den serving Angie divorce papers.
This year’s biggest offerings are Downton Abbey’s drawn out farewell and Call The Bloody Midwife – again. Coma-inducing. So reach for the DVD drawer and pop on some of these festive family favourites as we countdown the 10 greatest Christmas films of all time…
This black comedy set at Christmas was oddly released to cinema audiences in June 1984, before Warner Bros had truly mastered the art of squeezing every festive penny from parents worldwide. Lead character Billy is given a curious fluffball pet that he’s frankly too old for.
Billy’s failure to adhere to simple safety guidelines results in his mogwai spawning several less cute reptilian siblings which embark on a destructive rampage through the neighbourhood. The film teaches us many lessons and raises great philosophical debate: 1) Never buy animals from mysterious strangers in Chinese antique shops. 2) Small creatures do explode when microwaved. 3) At what point after midnight is it safe to feed a mogwai again?
This 80s classic spawned an inferior 1990 sequel, leaving many teenage boys (not me) in a state of sexual confusion due to the inclusion of a strangely attractive female Gremlin. Not even Greta could recapture the charm of the brilliant original.
9. THE SNOWMAN
It’s only 26 minutes long but was nominated for at the 1982 Academy Award for best animated short FILM so that’s good enough for me.
Based on Raymond Briggs’ 1978 book of the same name, The Snowman is a poignant wordless tale of a boy’s magical adventure with his frosty creation set to the tune of Walking In The Air (performed by chorister Peter Auty, pub quizzers, NOT Aled Jones who later milked a full career from a cover version).
Now an annual viewing tradition across the nation. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I won’t spoil the finale, but it does end with a very upset young man and some pieces of coal sat atop a sorry looking pile of slush.
8. HOLIDAY INN
A film so good it spawned 3,000 budget hotels worldwide. No joke. Consider the inclusion of this 1942 song and dance classic as a Werther’s Original – something for the old people.
It merits its place though, if only for spawning the song White Christmas, one of a dozen musical numbers written for the movie by the legendary Irving Berlin. We all know the term legend is bandied about too freely these days, but I’ll use it twice more without remorse because the film also stars singing legend Bing Crosby and dancing legend Fred Astaire. A proper classic.
7. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Nothing says Christmas like a pumpkin-headed puppet opening an inter-dimensional portal, a coffin sleigh pulled by skeletal reindeer and a gambling addict bogeyman kidnapping Santa.
This all comes from the twisted brainbox of professional fruitloop Tim Burton – and it’s up there with his finest work. Certainly the greatest Christmas-themed stop-motion musical-fantasy-comedy film ever made. It delivers all the important messages of Christmas, but replaces the schmaltz with vampire teddy bears and toy ducks with sharp teeth.
6. DIE HARD
A Christmas party gone horribly awry is the foundation of the best action film ever made. Bruce Willis is in career-defining form as filthy-vested John McClane, risking his life to save his estranged wife (as if) who is being held hostage by a terror squad led by panto villain Alan Rickman. Bah-ha-ha-ha.
Willis was approximately 34th choice for the lead role after it was turned down by a host of well established action heroes like Arnie, and even Frank Sinatra, who I struggle to envisage using a fire hose to abseil, bloodied and bare-footed, down the Nakatomi Plaza. But he would have been a great guest at the party.
And so, to paraphrase John McClane (and Alan Partridge), yippee ki-yay, you mother.
5. LOVE ACTUALLY
A second appearance in the list for perennial baddie Alan Rickman. I can just about forgive him for leading a band of international terrorists on a killing spree for financial gain in Die Hard, but cheating on national treasure Emma Thompson is another story.
Thompson shines as brightly as ever as the heartbroken wife in an all-star cast directed by Richard Curtis – meaning Hugh Grant plays Hugh Grant, errrr, obviously. The film was a miss with critics upon release but the British public have taken it to their hearts in the years since.
It isn’t perfect – At least four of the nine entwining stories are guff, and Keira Knightly is in it, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the closing montage set to the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows will leave you wanting to give a huge hug to the neighbour you hate for the other 364 days of the year.
4. A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Charles Dickens invented Christmas as we know it. A Christmas Carol led a mid-Victorian reinvention of the festivities – a season that should promote social reconciliation and love for your fellow man. The original novella even popularised the term ‘Merry Christmas’. In short, it’s the daddy.
Thirty-plus times this story has been committed to film. Some would argue there hasn’t been a cinematic version to do the literary work justice, a suggestion that the 2001 animated version starring Nicolas Cage does little to dispel.
But it’s hard to make a sow’s ear out of such great source material. Honourary mentions go to The Muppet Christmas Carol, Bill Murray’s Scrooged and George C Scott’s faithful 1984 effort. But Alastair Sim’s 1951 version is rightly regarded as the definitive production.
3. HOME ALONE
The definition of a festive family favourite. Macauley Culkin is left to defend the family home when his heartless mother leaves him locked away while flouncing off to Paris with the rest of her snot-nosed brood. Two hapless house burglars then succumb to Macauley’s ingenious brand of slapstick ultra violence.
A sequel followed after social services failed to adequately respond to this serious case of child neglect. After again being left to his own devices, this time in New York, Macauley understandably grew up maladjusted, made friends with Michael Jackson and is now the subject of annual Twitter hoaxes inaccurately reporting his death.
2. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
It would be easy for me to be pretentious and sing the virtues of the brilliant 1947 original but, for me, the 1994 remake is near perfect.
The modern spin makes it more accessible to today’s youngsters and it stars the actual Santa Claus/Kris Kringle – Dickie Attenbrough, who sadly died in August of this year, leaving me very anxious about whether there will be anything in my stocking this year.
1. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Widely regarded as the greatest of them all, I mildly disliked IAWL on my first viewing. It centres on George Bailey, a man who always tries to do the right thing, but whose life amounts to nothing but struggle. I always found Scrooge a superior role model – make lots of money and be rude to people for half a century and then repent in time to sneak into heaven.
But I gave George and IAWL a second viewing. And a third. And found it more rewarding with each subsequent watch.
Having been pushed to the brink of suicide (George, not me) the happy ending feels earned, not forced, and makes us realise that we all make a vital difference to the lives of others. EVERY ONE OF US. Apart from you, Keira Knightly.