The best movies on TV this Christmas

Our guide to the season's cinematic offerings

Once upon a time every household had one. Its hallowed pages worn, relentlessly plundered, curled around the edges. A good book which gave guidance to the satiate multitudes, slouching towards the remote control, grafted to the sofa in the misty depths of winter.

That book is, of course, the Christmas edition of the Radio Times. All 280 glossy pages of the 2012 edition landed on my desk this morning, and having trawled through the listings, it appears we are in for a season of sequels, classics and “family friendly” tripe. Same as it ever was.

But this is no reason to despair. Christmas viewing is unlike any other. It takes place in a world outside time, in a sherry-fuelled vortex in which all films are transfigured, forgiven the usual prejudices simply because they are on, and the audience has lost all motivation to do anything but watch TV.

Five years ago, squinting at a small TV in the attic of my auntie’s house in Northern Ireland, I watched a man cut off his own tongue. In that moment, having flicked onto the film by accident, I was introduced to the wonders of Korean horror. And so, in that spirit, here are a handful of recommendations culled from the thousands of films scheduled to be broadcast over the festive season. Most of them are playing in the wee small hours, when the family are in bed, the wine is flowing, and the snow (delete as appropriate: rain, sleet, apocalypse) is setting in.

23 December

The action starts on Sunday evening, so use your Saturday to maximum effect. Stock the fridge and have all presents ready to be wrapped. Lock the door, usher the kids upstairs (profanity ensures), pour a drink and tune in for In Bruges (11pm, C4) to see why director Martin McDonagh’s recent Seven Psychopaths was a step in the wrong direction. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson hide out on the continent, awaiting instructions from their gangster boss (Ralph Fiennes) after Farrell’s character Ray accidentally kills a young boy on his first day as a hitman. This lurid and evocative exploration of guilt and redemption is a must – the film for which McDonagh earned his stripes, and the eager attention of Hollywood investors…

If you’re lucky enough to have the digital movie channels, The Descendants will debut at 10.15pm on Sky Premier, for those who fancy something more straightforwardly dramatic. The film, by Sideways director Alexander Payne, sees George Clooney in a Hawaiian shirt, giving what could his most honest and impressive lead performance as the sole trustee of a large stretch of undeveloped Hawaiian land. He must juggle two daughters and a comatose wife, who has just discovered was cheating on him before hospitalisation. The setting, music, pace and power of Clooney’s set pieces opposite family members makes this a memorable tear-jerker well worth seeing. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a lighter touch, Superbad is on Channel 5 (11pm) – a douche bag high school comedy starring the one from Arrested Development (Michael Cera) and the young Mr Potato Head (Jonah Hill).

24 December

Christmas Eve is a little tepid this year, but you could do worse than introduce any uninitiated youngsters to the Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s infectious and at times genuinely creepy Nightmare Before Christmas (9.10am, BBC2). Elsewhere there are four cinematic adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (A Christmas Carol, 8.30am, C4; The Muppet Christmas Carol, 11am C4; Scrooge, 4.10, C5; A Christmas Carol, 6.45, BBC1), and he night brings Joe Cornish’s directorial debut Attack the Block (9pm, Film4). Best known as the hairier half of BBC 6 Music duo Adam and Joe, Cornish’s film is a sci-fi thriller set on a fictional south London estate, in which a group of ruffians are forced to work together when a batch of Gremlin-like beasties fall from the sky. For fans of Kick Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Shaun of the Dead.

Though not quite a movie, most Twitter-patter is likely to revolve around The Snowman and The Snowdog (8pm, C4), a sequel to the animated flat white that was The Snowman (1978). The “film” lasts 24 minutes and is made up of 200,000 individual drawings, based on the original cartoon, and approved by Snowman creator Raymond Briggs, who says:

It would have been cashing in to do it before. Now it won’t do any hard, and it’s not vulgar and American. I’ve never touched a computer, or anything like that. CGI makes everything too perfect, but [the filmmakers] are sticking to the old ways.

For some colourful frolicking in a writers’ colony on the south coast, there’s always Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe (10.40, BBC HD), adapted from the (superior) comic strip by Posy Simmonds.

25 December

Moving on, Channel 4 are offering a chance to watch the three Lord of the Rings films this year, one each day, beginning on Christmas with The Fellowship of the Ring (5.40, C4). This slot tends to be reserved for a notable premier, but with The Hobbit currently causing headaches and Gollum impressions up and down the land, screening the trilogy will provide viewers an opportunity to confirm that a) yes, they were better and b) 3 hours is more than enough time in which to adapt a book. Even a long one.

Later in the evening, after bidding farewell to loved ones and knocking up a Turkey sandwich, the Bourne Identity (9pm) will be playing for thrills on ITV2, after which Woody Allen’s Scoop (11.15pm, BBC HD) and Airplane! (1.05am, C4) will provide some light relief. And if you haven’t already seen it, push yourself to try out something a little darker in Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy (11.20pm, Film4), which has rather bizarrely played every Christmas over the last few years. This unforgettable revenge tragedy, which channels the nightmares of ancient Greece into a dystopian Korea, has been remade by Spike Lee, and will be in cinemas in late 2013.

While I’m trying to stick to what I still anachronistically refer to as the “analogue” channels, or at least the ones available for free through a set-top box, the digital film channels are doing great things this Christmas, including back-to-back screenings of the last four Harry Potter (3.45pm) movies, followed by the timeless Taxi Driver (1.45am, Modern Greats). The Coen brothers’ impeccably executed remake of the John Wayne western True Grit (8pm, Indie) will play before Quentin Tarantino’s misshapen but remarkable cult classic Pulp Fiction (10pm). For those seeking romance, witness the birth of the modern rom-com and the late Nora Ephron’s best-loved work in When Harry Met Sally (11.10, TCM).

26 December

Boxing Day this year belongs to Alfred Hitchcock. In HBO’s The Girl (9pm, BBC2), Toby Jones plays a convincingly monstrous Alfred Hitchcock, who develops a tortuous obsession with the model Tippi Hedren, played by the comparably wide-eyed and much-photographed Sienna Miller. Jones throws down before Anthony Hopkins, who will star in the biopic Hitchcock, to be released in February next year, giving Hollywood more than a run for its money. Following this is the real Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut from 1940, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (10.30pm, BBC2), which is in turned followed by Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock (12.35am, BBC2) - the comedian’s “interview” with the dead auteur from a few years back. Yet more franchise action awaits on Channel 4, and if you’ve not yet watched them, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film trilogy is excellent, and kicks off at 10.30pm on Channel 4.

In Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (11.15pm, ITV1), set in the years leading up to, including and after the second world war, there is a long tracking shot across a Dunkirk beach, spattered with wounded soldiers and smoking guns. The camera moves up a sandbank in search of leading man James McAvoy, passing a young soldier staring at a book with a rife in his lap. That, dear reader, is me. £50 a day and three hot meals. The life of an extra is very fine indeed.

And the rest

Christmas viewing need not end on Boxing Day. Picks for the following week include 2011’s Wuthering Heights (11.10pm, C4, 29th), by the superbly talented director of Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, and Duncan Jones’s / Zowie Bowie's Moon (10pm, BBC2, 30th), which offers a final curative to any lingering holiday sentimentality. The appropriately named actor Sam Rockwell plays a contract operative mining on the far side of the moon and planning his return to earth after three years away, who is stopped in his tracks when felled by a mysterious accident. On New Year’s Day Pixar’s best effort in recent years Up (6.30pm, BBC1) will prove pleasurable for viewers of all ages, and on the 2nd you can ready yourself for the Royal year ahead by watching Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby (1.05am, C4), in which a powerful and incestuous cult take charge of a young woman’s womb.

“I’m telling you, Mary, the Hobbit is a two-parter at best.” It’s a Wonderful Life (7pm, Sky Classics, Christmas Eve)

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror