Christmas time is rearing it’s yuletide head again, in fact in most shops it’s been rearing right up in my business since October – and bloody Debenhams had christmas crap up in August! Just let that thought marinade for a moment. August. That’s still summer! But if you’re mind hasn’t yet been numbed to the whole concept of Christmas by high street over-egg, then you’re going to need to know which festive flicks to watch this crimbo. Luckily, I’m here with my top five to help you plan what to watch – and if any of this is new to you I’ll be amazed, because let’s be honest there hasn’t been a great Christmas film in nearly twenty years. Oh, one more thing. You might disagree with the list I’ve assembled, and if you do please rest assured that you are wrong. Because these really are the best it gets for seasonal cinema.
Father Christmas Ho Ho Hold up! There may be some spoilers ahead in Santa’s Grotto, so don’t say I didn’t warn you if you read on Father Christmas
#5 – Scrooged (1988, Richard Donner)
This film is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol – regarded as arguably the second best Christmas story of all time (after that one about the baby who gets given some solid gold for his birthday. I mean what’s he gonna do with that, eh? Invest it? No, he’ll chew it. I’m watching you, King Melchior – if that’s even your real name). Unlike other adaptations, more emphasis is placed on the comedy side of things, though it still finds its dramatic and sentimental marks too. Even more unlike other adaptations, the central character isn’t actually Scrooge. Here we follow Frank Cross, a high-flying TV executive who is determined to broadcast an ambitious and extravagant live production of A Christmas Carol. As the stress begins to pile up on Frank, he is haunted by the ghost of his mentor, who informs him three spirits will visit him to help him mend his ways – he’s going to get ‘scrooged’.
Bill Murray takes the lead role, and is on top form as both the cutting, bitter and yet paranoid Cross – but he also gets a chance to go full goofball after his spiritual salvation. I have always believed Murray to be not only a very talented comedian, but also a powerful dramatic actor – a belief born out by the likes of Lost In Translation, Where the Buffalo Roam, and Groundhog Day (a film with a similar redemption message, here using time travel in place of ghosts). The part of Scrooge is one that’s there for an actor to sink their teeth into, it’s a complex and complete journey from misanthrope to philanthrope – and Murray nails it. Even while he is wrapped up in miserly misery, Murray can shoot a glance which shows us that the warmth is still in there – aching to be set loose. No need for words, just one look – and this is the stuff of great screen acting.
We all know that A Christmas Carol is, perhaps, the ultimate festive feel-good story – but Scrooged makes it feel even more good. Because it’s Hollywood, baby. Instead of Scrooge’s long lost romance being gone for good, Frank is actually able to right those wrongs and get the girl (Claire, played by the excellent Karen Allen). This is one of a few twists to the usual narrative, the most fun of which is the reinvention of the spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past is here depicted as a demonic taxi driver, the fare on his meter showing the year we travel to – like a haunted Back to the Future. Christmas Present is an aggressive fairy who brings all of the slapstick violence – all of it. It’s like the writers binge-watched Bottom the night before they wrote her scenes. And Christmas Future is a tall, black-cloaked figure with a TV instead of a head. Naturally, being affixed to a body, the TV has bad reception and so we’re treated to lots of spooky static. The film is funny and inventive and presents a really unique spin on a well-known classic, and it even has Bobcat Goldthwait in it (that guy with the weird voice from the Police Academy films). Plus, this new spin on the tiniest of Tims will melt even the coldest heart. So grab a mince pie, stick this film on and have yourself a very Murray Christmas.
#4 – Gremlins (1984, Joe Dante)
From executive producer Steven Spielberg (ET, The BFG), writer Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter series) and director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers, Looney Tunes: Back in Action) comes a Christmas classic for all the family, about a young boy whose work-away neglectful father tries to make up for the psychological scarring of an absent father figure by buying him an exciting present: an animal that rapidly multiples and turn into bloodthirsty monsters that go on a festive murder-spree, leaving the town and its occupants lives in ruins. Yay Christmas?
The film is set at Christmas in an idyllic American town called Kingston Falls (likely a nod to another Christmas film which only just missed out on a place on this list, It’s A Wonderful Life). The film starts off along the well-beaten track of a father who doesn’t make enough time for his son wanting to make amends, but before we know it we’ve strayed from said path into who knows what. He buys his son a Mogwai, an animal cute enough to build a merchandise empire on. However the Mogwai, named Gizmo, comes with three rules, which are all broken fairly sharpish. Honestly, why do people never pay attention to the instructions? Don’t get it wet, don’t feed it after midnight and don’t put it in sunlight. To be fair to Gizmo, he never sets out to break the rules – so it’s not his fault when he gets wet, and starts sprouting a whole brood of wholly malevolent Mogwai, and when these guys chow down after the clock strikes twelve… they turn into gremlins. It’s not that big of a shock, given the name of the film.
Soon enough they’re overrunning the town with darkly comic or comically dark nonsense. From there on out the film is Perry much a black comedy as these monsters straight up murder a grab-bag of residents. It’s all very over the top and tongue in cheek, but in a good way. This is a very funny film, and the puppets are top banana (as great as cgi is, and these days it really is great, I still prefer a puppet to sprite – but that doesn’t mean I’d endorse Kermit the Frog playing Gollum. Actually, on reflection I would most definitely endorse that.) – especially the extra adorable Gizmo. This is a fun, funny and inventive choice for a Christmas film and one everyone should give a go ho ho.
#3 – Scrooge (1951, Brian Desmond Hurst)
This film is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, ‘A Christmas Carol’ – regarded as arguably the second best Christmas story of all time (after that one about the baby who gets given some aromatic resin for his birthday. I mean what’s he gonna do with that, eh? Light it like incense and breath in the soothing vapours? No, he’ll chew it. I’m watching you, King Caspar – if that’s even your real name). For me, this is the definitive film adaptation of Dickens’ book – the music choices, the sets, and the cast are all spot on, especially Alastair Sim in the titular role of Scrooge. Sim manages to hit the comedic and the dramatic with equal precision,
We kick off with ominous music, that fades into one of those really creepy 1950s carol recordings, and a shot of a bookcase, all in black and white of course (don’t watch the version where colour has been applied, just embrace the fact but every film needs to have lots of pretty colours), and a mysterious hand takes a copy of A Christmas Carol from the shelf, which has the credits inside it. What better way is there to kick off this story? There isn’t one, so there. Hurst (the director) has a real talent for framing a shot, and he loves a crossfade or two or thirty-eight. Plus he occasionally whips out some really interesting nonsense gems, such as representing time travel by showing an hourglass slowly floating away down a tunnel that all too much resembles the interior of an intestinal tract that is undergoing a blizzard. Come on, this is great.
This is maybe the most faithful adaptation of the book, and even finds time for a new subplot, in a series flashbacks covering the origin story of Scrooge and Marley’s firm. This is a tight and well-acted affair, which gets the whole Scrooge story across in a very efficient 86 minutes. Sim is a joy to watch, having just as much fun calling everyone a humbug as he does dancing down the street, reborn as King Christmas. The whole film really captures the spirit of the books, and is everyone is so delightfully ‘50s posh, even the poor characters. This is a real slice of film history so do yourself a favour and get it watched.
#2 – Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)
It’s Christmas eve, and New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is about to attend the worst Christmas party of his life. First off he’s only there to see his estranged wife (awkward), secondly it’s her work party in Los Angeles and he doesn’t know anyone there other than her (extra awkward), and thirdly a group of heavily asked terrorists are about to take control of the whole thing (super awkward). With all other guests taken hostage, McClane has no choice but to take down the group by himself.
Die Hard is, for me, the greatest action film of all time, being the origin of many its genre tropes, and launching Bruce Willis as an action super-star. The film has a tight and interesting story (based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp), with the terrorist tag a decoy to disguise their true intent of stealing bearer bonds to the tune of $LOTS. The directing demonstrates McTiernan’s ability to keep things tense, but also fun. In this film you never feel certain McClane will make it (unless you have the foreknowledge of the four sequels, and for your own good I hope you only have knowledge of three of them). McClane then goes about taking down the bad guys one by one, this saving Christmas. Huzzah!
What truly elevates Die Hard above all other action films is the quality of the acting on display. Alan Rickman is always a pleasure to watch, and he’s on top form here as the villainous Hans Gruber – but the real star is Willis. He’s on his own for most of the film, a very difficult trick to pull off, but Willis makes it feel easy. You have to bear in mind that this is 80s Willis, who wanted to make it as an actor rather than 2010s Willis who has made it and seemingly has no fucks left to give. If you haven’t yet seen Die Hard, you’ve probably seen something aiming to emulate it – and why settle for anything below the best? And the best is Die Hard. Yippee Ki-yay, Father Christmas!
Honourable mention: Jingle All The Way (1996, Brian Levant)
There are two types of film which star Arnold Schwarzenegger: films about wooden action heroes work pun fixations, who shoot everything and everyone, and films where Arnold Schwarzenegger has been miscast. Sometimes the miscasting is purposeful for comic effect, and sometimes it’s actually funny! And this is one of them. The film is absolute nonsense, but it’s a got a really strong nonsense of fun.
Arnie plays a neglectful father trying to make it up to his son (back on well-trod track). He’s been too wrapped up in his work, which I assume is at a research centre dedicated to working out why a man called Howard Langston, who has clearly been written as an American, has such a strong Austrian accent. But he can make amends if he can get his son the present he wants, a Turbo-man action figure. Along the way he has to fend off the overly amorous next door neighbour (played by the tragically late and great Phil Hartman) and a postman (played by nobody’s favourite 90s comedian, Sinbad). Embrace it for the nonsense it is: the film where Arnold Schwarzenegger shouts “Put the cookie down NOW!”
#1 – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, Brian Henson)
This film is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, ‘A Christmas Carol’ – regarded as arguably the second best Christmas story of all time (after that one about the baby who gets given some bitter perfume for his birthday. I mean what’s he gonna do with that, eh? Use it to help create a mood which is somber, yet fragrant? No, he’ll drink it and get the shits. I’m watching you, King Balthazar – if that’s even your real name). Yes, three of the top five are incarnations of A Christmas Carol. To be fair, it’s really good – so props to you, Mr Dickens. But if you want to improve on something, there’s a very simple way to do it – add Muppets.
It will surprise few people to see this film atop the Christmas pile, because Henson and Co straight up nailed it. It is amazing how well the established Muppets characters fit their roles: Kermit as the downtrodden Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as his Scrooge-hating wife, The Great Gonzo as Dickens narrating, and the curmudgeonly Statler and Waldorf as Jacob Marley. New Muppets are created for the spirits, and Michael Caine comes in as Scrooge (only pipped to the title of best Scrooge ever by Alastair Sim).
The music is full of Disney magic, with that comic twist The Muppets provide, and at ye end of the film even Caine gets in on the singing action, for better or for worse. This is a witty and warm retelling of the story, and its popularity has only strengthened over the years. I’ve been to a good many packed out screenings, it always pops up on Facebook this time of year, and even I love it. I’ve watched this film about 25 times and I will keep on watching it every Christmas until I’m stopped or the world ends or something worse happens. So there is is, the best Christmas film ever. And if you disagree you’re wrong.
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