Trying to choose the best Christmas films takes me back to wandering the aisles of Toys R Us when my children were young: so much gaily-coloured product yet so little of it likely to linger in the affections. The trick is finding the movies that we not only return to year after year, but which capture the season’s mix of the celebratory and the melancholy. (As Billy Crystal puts it in When Harry Met Sally: “Boy, the holidays are tough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Year’s.”) Here are ten titles that do just that.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Not only a contender for the greatest Christmas movie, but one of cinema’s most enduring and faithful Dickens adaptations, up there with David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations and Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit from 1987. Paul Williams’s songs are bona fide ear-worms, the gags wouldn’t disgrace the classiest Christmas crackers, and Michael Caine is a sour-faced delight as Scrooge. As Gonzo says: “If you like this, you should read the book.”
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Dickens’s influence persists, too, in Frank Capra’s hardy perennial starring James Stewart as George Bailey, who is about to kill himself when an angel shows him how much poorer the world would have been had he never existed. Panned by contemporaneous critics (the Telegraph predicted that it would “be gone like a Christmas tree smothered with sweets and crackers”), it continues to fascinate. A reputation for straightforward sentimentality is undeserved: at the end the Scrooge-like banker (Lionel Barrymore) is neither vanquished nor realises the error of his ways.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
The best action film of the 1990s is also a fully-fledged Christmas spectacular complete with reindeer, festive parade, ice-skating and a climactic stunt in which fairy lights play a vital part. Geena Davis is the housewife whose repressed memories of her former life as an assassin prompt her to shake off her fluffy suburban persona: she’s beastly to her little girl, has a sparky near-romance with a wisecracking con-man (Samuel L Jackson) and dispenses untold rounds of ammo.
Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark directed A Christmas Story, which contains more sugar than a shelf of selection boxes, but he was no stranger to the other side of the chocolate coin, as proved by this slasher movie, the source of that now-ubiquitous cry: “The call is coming from inside the house!” The pick-and-mix cast includes Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Margot Kidder (later best-known as Lois Lane in the Superman movies) and Keir Dullea (slumming it after 2001: A Space Odyssey). But which of them gets stabbed with a glass ornament while their dying cries are drowned out by carol singers?
Rarely has the “Bah, humbug!” spirit made for such gleefully nasty fun. The very act of gift-giving leads directly to a violent frenzy when the present itself, an exotic fluffy pet, spawns legions of marauding offspring. In case the barbed Christmas sentiments weren’t clear enough, Santa is trussed up in fairy lights and savaged by the rampaging beasties.
Fraught festivities for Cate Blanchett in early-1950s New York as she separates from her husband, fights for custody of their daughter and falls in love with a bewitching younger woman (Rooney Mara), whom she meets while shopping for Christmas presents.
Terry Gilliam’s surreal comic nightmare, a tribute to Orwell that was originally titled 1984½, takes place in a retro-futuristic Britain full of bulbous pipes, freedom-fighting plumbers, bizarre plastic surgery and terrorist bombs. At Christmas!
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Ernst Lubitsch’s joyful comedy, with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as Budapest gift-shop colleagues falling in love at Christmas, was remade for the digital age as You’ve Got Mail.
Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
A distraught child smashes up the snowmen in her garden, while Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, possibly the most equivocal festive song. “We’ll have to muddle through somehow,” indeed.
Many of the films on this list are conflicted about Christmas. An exception is this effervescent comedy with Will Ferrell at his most ebullient as Buddy the Elf, who leaves Santa’s grotto for the big city. Resurrecting the character for Asda’s current ad campaign, however, should earn him a spot on the naughty list.
[See also: The best film and TV of 2023]