Would Christmas be Christmas without downing sherry on your mum’s sofa and watching ITV’s 3pm showing of Elf?
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, festive films are a firm fixture of the Yuletide season. The TV schedule is packed to the rafters with them, and now Netflix is getting in on the act. It’s the classics that remain our favourites, though - there’s always going to be something comforting about watching Emma Thompson cry about being given a Joni Mitchell album (even if Love Actually’s gender politics are a bit questionable).
From black and white classics to bombastic 80s blockbusters, these are our 15 favourite Christmas films of all time.
15. The Santa Clause
This all-American festive favourite follows a divorced dad played by Tim Allen, who takes Santa’s place to deliver presents on Christmas eve, hoping to reconnect with his family. The plot is actually pretty strange — Allen’s character is fighting for custody of his son after a bitter split from his wife, and the Christmas ‘dream’ sequence sees him accidentally kill a man. We suppose the key is not to think about it too much - it’s also the peak of 90s Christmas movie sappiness and Allen’s physical transformation into a rotund Saint Nick is worth a watch on its own.
1984's Gremlins is our go-to Christmas horror film, and it’s surprisingly dark. While the 1990 sequel was a more family-friendly affair, the original is a scary seasonal treat and a fairly violent watch to boot. The story follows a struggling inventor who gives his son a strange gift from Chinatown, a mogwai. There are some strict rules to keeping the furry creature and when these invariably get broken, all hell breaks loose – including murder.
13. Batman Returns
Not only is Batman Returns among the best of the films in the Batman franchise, it’s also a fantastic Christmas movie. Set in the run-up to December 25, it sees Michael Keaton’s Batman battling it out against Danny DeVito’s Penguin in wintertime Gotham. A superb cast, which also includes Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken, Burton’s phantasmagorical direction and a genuinely creepy villain all add up to an excellent watch.
12. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Everyone’s favourite entry level goth Christmas film, this anti-festive classic saw Tim Burton and director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) create an spine-tingling world that has been charming audiences ever since. An oddball romance, as well as some of the best original film compositions of the decade, saw it become popular upon its 1993 release, while the animation and Burton’s trademark weirdness helps it stand the test of time even 15 years on.
Before Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, it was the inspired Christmas movie Elf which made Will Ferrell a household name in 2003. The actor stars as the loveable Buddy, a human raised by elves, who seeks the love of his father (James Caan) after arriving in New York. It also marked the first major directorial project for Jon Favreau, who would go on to direct some of the biggest blockbusters of the next 15 years, including Iron Man, The Jungle Book and the Lion King reboot.
10. The Holiday
Everybody needs a bit of cheese from time to time, and The Holiday has it in bucket loads. Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz star in the 2006 romcom, playing two women who swap their (quite fancy) homes for the holidays, leaving everything behind – and meeting someone new. Jude Law and Jack Black star as their respective fancy men. Grab the gin and stick it on, it’s called “getting into the Christmas spirit” (or something).
9. The Polar Express
This wonderful film by Robert Zemeckis achieved its distinctive look using live action motion capture, which was somewhat ahead of its time back in 2004. It was far more than a technical exercise though, with the film capturing a child's anticipation of Christmas morning perfectly, as the young protagonist sets off on a journey to the North Pole in the dead of night. Even better, everyone’s favourite Hollywood nice man Tom Hanks voices six (!) characters.
8. A Muppets Christmas Carol
God bless Michael Caine in Muppets Christmas Carol — he brings gravitas to this film despite his co-stars all being made of felt and stuffing. It’s a loveable take on Dickens’ well-trodden story, and you’d have to be a real Scrooge to resist it.
7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Jim Carrey was the perfect choice to play the Grinch in this 2000 flick, delivering a typically physical comedic performance. As well as showing off his impeccable timing and flair for visual gags, Carrey’s depiction proved to be far more than a caricature, with the viewer developing real empathy for him after he’s ridiculed by the residents of Whoville — whose prosthetic noses are, incidentally, way creepier than the Grinch could ever be. The 2018 reboot was also well received by critics, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s family movie judged a real crowd-pleaser, but it's Carrey's portrayal that remains the gold standard.
6. Love Actually
Emma Thompson’s performance alone is enough to make Love Actually worth revisiting this Christmas. The sequence in which she unwraps a Christmas present from her husband (Alan Rickman) and discovers he is pursuing another woman is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s not all upsetting though — inspired turns by some of the biggest names in UK film, including peak Hugh Grant cutting shapes around 10 Downing Street, make it a real joy. The film also boasts the perfect Christmas soundtrack and more shots of Colin Firth in a turtleneck than you ever realised you needed in your life.
5. The Snowman
This beautiful adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s book ruined a million childhoods. It manages to capture the wonder of Christmas, telling the story of a young boy and his friendship with a snowman, before shattering out hearts into a million pieces with it’s sobworthy ending. The instantly recognisable score was actually performed by chorister Peter Auty in the original, though Aled Jones released a version of the song three years later which made him a star at the age of 11.
4. Home Alone
In many ways, Home Alone is the ultimate Christmas kids’ film. The movie has been parodied and copied hundreds of times, but the original has never been bettered. Also, the fact that Joe Pesci starred in both Home Alone and Goodfellas in 1990 is pretty amazing in itself, and seeing him trying to get through a kids’ film without swearing as the villainous home invader Harry Lime is enough of a reason to give it a watch.
3. Miracle on 34th Street
Richard Attenborough’s Miracle on 34th Street from 1994 is a rare example of a Christmas remake that does the original justice. While the 1947 film is rightly regarded as a festive classic, the remake added a new sense of wonder and warmth to the classic story and brought it to a new generation of fans. It also marked the first film role for prolific child star Mara Wilson, who played the lead in Matilda a year later.
2. Die Hard
Is it a Christmas film? We say yes. Bruce Willis plays New York cop John McClane, a man forced to fight off German terrorists when they take over a Los Angeles skyscraper on December 24. As well as Willis’s depiction of all-American everyman McClane, the film features one of the finest movie bad guys of all time in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber (who's only marginally more evil than Rickman's other Christmas turn, in Love, Actually).
1. It’s a Wonderful Life
They don’t come better than this: It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas movie ever made. The 1946 film focuses on George Bailey, a man struggling to balance failing finances with an unhappy home life. After travelling to a bridge with the intention of ending his life, he encounters Clarence, his guardian angel, who gradually reminds George of all the joy, love and happiness in his life. It’s life-affirming, even after too much turkey and a 3pm nap.