January this year, my best friend was pottering around my apartment, readying for work. “So what’s on for today?” he asked me. I rolled my eyes. “What is it that you think I do all day?” I asked. He gestured to my computer. “Watch Christmas films.”
Fair call. This year I’ve watched close to 700.
Reflective of my masochism, sure, but I’ve spent the year writing a book about the portrayal of Christmas in films (to be published in mid 2017).
And as I watched terrible after terrible celluloid travesty about workaholic single moms who have lost the spirit of Christmas - but, thankfully, found it in penis-form before the credits roll - I made my own little list of gems.
A little later that month, the same friend asked whether I’d seen Santa Buddies (2009). At that stage I hadn’t; it would later cement my loathing for films where pets save Christmas. “Is it any good?” I asked. “For a Christmas film,” he replied.
Yep, good point. I have about 70 recommendables on my list which I’ll drip feed you throughout December. Few of these however, would make it onto my all-time greatest hits list. They’re good films, yes, but ones built for a very specific purpose.
Most of the year I’d absolutely rather watch a film like Arrival or Nocturnal Animals (both which are currently in my year’s top 10). But sometimes, and - generally this nonsense only plays out in December - there’s a yen to watch something prescriptive, with a reminder about how we’re supposed to feel during this elongated season of forced family and merriment.
And, of course, there’s something festively cathartic about having a good sob when that reunion, reconciliation or rebirth plays out.
I’m not presenting a ranking, I’m not delivering you the titles in any particular order, rather, the 5 films listed below are simply the first in the post I’ll make throughout this month suggesting titles fit for the season.
I should flag that the debate on what constitutes a Christmas film interests me less than watching Santa Buddies again. I’m near-finished writing a book on how Christmas is portrayed in cinema rather than, specifically one on “Christmas films” (a nebulous “genre” if ever I heard one). Which means, yes, I watched and wrote about Die Hard (1998).
Whereas a recent re-watching of High Fidelity (2000) sadly didn’t stand up to that second looksee, I’ve seen About a Boy quite a few times, and again recently as part of my research. It stands up. Independently wealthy, layabout bachelor, Will (Hugh Grant), is befriended by preteen Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Sweet and funny, with a great soundtrack if you go for broody British tracks. A favourite with a couple of lovely Christmas scenes.
Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is the venomous titular character who has a Christmstime doorstep slip and fall, and who is thus compelled to spend the season with the Stanleys. Sheridan is a hilariously wretched houseguest, hurling out a barrage of catty lines like “Shut your nasty little face” and “my headache is gone with the wind.” Bette Davis and Billie Burke - best known as Glinda the good witch - also make appearances.
Few films stand up to a second viewing - least of all Christmas films - but I loved this one when I first saw it at the cinema and once again when watching it for scholarly purposes. I do think it needed a better editor, but it’s nicely weird tale of a doctor (Tom Cruise) who deals very poorly - if happily perversely - with his wife’s revelation of a sexual fantasy. Beautifully shot with a New York Christmas providing an exquisite (if well-worn) backdrop.
A live action presentation of Dylan Thomas’s poem of the same title. Beautiful prose read by Denholm Elliot, who plays grandpa Geraint, nostalgically reflecting on the Christmases of his childhood.
I can’t offer you a trailer, but the full version is (currently) available on YouTube.
With so many offerings from the Christmas film factories, this one is a surprisingly good one. Anna (Katrina Law), a struggling artist who has Christmas spirit in spades. She becomes a personal shopper and teaches her only client, Marc (Aaron O'Connell) - a curmudgeonly workaholic advertising executive - the true meaning of Christmas. Love - and cliché - abound.
This post is an instalment from a 15-part series on my favourite Christmas films. The consolidated version - 75 Christmas Films Worth Watching - is now available.