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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times