Every December, the TV schedule fills with themed TV episodes, specials, and classic films to celebrate the Christmas season.
Many of these are much-loved and still considered mandatory viewing, but they’re re-run every year, and what do you do if you and the family are finally bored of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas?
Here are some great holiday movies you might have forgotten about, or missed the first time around.
There’s no better tale for Christmas Eve than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and no shortage of adaptations. 1951′s Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim, is still the definitive version, but check out these alternates:
Mickey’s Christmas Carol: (Animated) The big problem in sharing Dickens’ story with very young kids is the ghosts. This Disney version – featuring Scrooge McDuck, if you couldn’t guess – is the safest, and shortest, at a bedtime-friendly 26 minutes.
The Muppet Christmas Carol: (Michael Caine) The Muppets made a big comeback last year, so now’s a good time to show kids just how good they were back in the day. Caine is a fantastic Scrooge and straight-man to the craziness around him.
Scrooged: (Bill Murray) Dickens for the 80s, as a cynical TV executive gets the Three Spirits treatment. A touch too salty for younger kids, but Murray is in great snide form, and there’s a lot of entertaining slapstick.
See Also: Various made-for-TV versions starring Henry Winkler, George C. Scott, and Patrick Stewart as the old humbug.
Today’s spoiled viewers are often afraid of older movies. Remind them that snow on Christmas Eve has the same colours as black-and-white film. These are well-loved for good reason:
Miracle on 34th Street: A kindly old fellow claiming to be Santa Claus will be committed to a mental institution unless a kindly lawyer can help defend him in court. And just what if he is the real Santa? The 1947 version starring Maureen O’Hara and Edmund Gwenn is best, but if you must, the 1994 version starring Richard Attenborough isn’t too bad.
White Christmas: (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye) You hear Bing singing the song on the radio all through the season, but have you seen him sing it? This story of two song-and-dance men saving the failing inn of their former commanding officer isn’t the first to feature the title song – it first appeared in Holiday Inn – but that film is mired in controversy over a musical number featuring Crosby in blackface. White Christmas is much more appropriate.
The Greatest Story Ever Told: (Max von Sydow) Jesus is the reason for the season, but there are remarkably few Christmas movies featuring its central figure. This star-studded production probably comes closest, though in presenting the full life of Christ, the Nativity is over with fairly quickly.
Laughter reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. Fire up one of these when you get home from the shopping mall:
Home Alone: (Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern) Heartwarming and hilarious. Young Kevin is mistakenly left at home as his large family leaves to visit cross-country relatives, then has to defend his house from two bumbling bandits. Beware kids copying the Roadrunner-style violence.
A Christmas Story: (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin) All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun, but everyone is afraid he’ll shoot his eye out. A very funny reminiscence of Christmas in a simpler time, and McGavin is great as the oddball dad.
Elf: (Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan) Buddy, a human raised by Santa’s elves, visits New York to find his birth family and get his father off the Naughty List. A little Ferrell goes a long way for some, but this story is quite charming – it may grow on you.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: (Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid) Ah, the Griswolds. Dad Clark, poster-child for bad luck, can survive everything the holiday throws at him, as long as he gets his Christmas bonus. Some coarse language and mature situations, but classic-80s comedy from Chase in his prime.
FOR COUPLES, AFTER THE KIDS ARE IN BED
Even if the two of you are just up late assembling toys, these romances make good background viewing with your sweetheart:
Love Actually: (Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, many others) One of those giant-cast-multi-story deals, with an assortment of A-List British stars and a nice balance of humour and drama. Something for everyone is here – I like Nighy’s aging rock star best.
The Shop Around the Corner: (Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart) You may have seen You’ve Got Mail, but the original version is far better. Sullavan and Stewart have brilliant chemistry as gift shop employees who can’t stand each other, yet don’t realize they are anonymous pen pals falling in love through the post.
See Also: The Bishop’s Wife (Cary Grant!), or if you must, The Preacher’s Wife (Denzel Washington!).
EXTRA STOCKING STUFFER – No kids? Hate the season? Try a Non-Christmas Christmas Movie!
A surprising number of movies take place at Christmas, though the holiday is often little more than a backdrop. Not much that’s heartwarming here, but with all the holiday pressure, sometimes you just want some counterculture programming. (Warning: These are only suitable for older teens and adults.):
Die Hard: (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman) The modern template for countless lone-hero-versus-terrorists action classics. Sly cop John McClane visits his estranged wife’s office Christmas party, just as a bunch of bad guys (led by the awesome Rickman) crash the proceedings. (See also: Die Hard 2, Lethal Weapon)
Gremlins: (Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates) Beware odd curio shops when last-minute Christmas shopping! A young man receives a very strange creature as a gift, then breaks all the rules of its care and feeding, resulting in an infestation of nasty, lizard-like imps. Spooky, gruesome fun.
The Ref: (Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey) Think your family get-togethers are dysfunctional? Check out this family, taken hostage by a burglar when a Christmas-time home robbery goes wrong. As the squabbling gets worse, it’s the burglar who feels like a hostage.
Christmas being such a popular season, this list only scratches the surface. Share your favourites in the comments. And Merry Christmas to you and yours!