The 10 greatest Christmas movies of all time


It's Christmas! The wreaths are out, the lights are on and, no doubt, the meals are being prepped.

It's time to celebrate the festive season with our essential list of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, ones that invested us with a warm, seasonal glow.

10. Nativity! (2009)

The first of the popular Nativity films stars Martin Freeman as Paul Maddens, an under-achieving teacher at St Bernadette’s Catholic primary school in Coventry, who once had aspirations of a career as an actor or director. He is put in charge of producing the school’s annual Nativity play, along with his new, and frustratingly over-enthusiastic, teaching assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton).

The movie mixes a sneaky helping of cynical humour into the schmaltzy Christmas mix – Paul hates Christmas because his ex-girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen), who attended drama school with him, decided to leave him on Christmas before he had a chance to propose to her. Plus, there's a wonderful British ensemble including Pam Ferris as headteacher Mrs Bevans, Jason Watkins as rival teacher Gordon Shakespeare and, of course, Extras star Jensen as Jennifer.

Directed by Debbie Isitt, Nativity! draws much of its humour from improvised dialogue, as did the two sequels. Yet the film also has a big festive heart – as things start to spiral out of control and his pupils get increasingly excited about their imminent moment in the spotlight, Paul is forced to rely on Mr Poppy to save both the day and his faltering career. Funny, charming and ever so British, Nativity! has since gone on to spawn two sequels, keeping Wootton gainfully employed in his role as the bumbling Mr Poppy.

9. The Ref (1994)

The Ref is probably the only festive flick in our tinsel-draped rundown that you’ve never heard of. An outrageously overlooked gem, this bruise-black comedy headlines Denis Leary as a cantankerous cat burglar who finds himself saddled with a couple of bickering hostages (played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) on Christmas Eve.

Like the similarly potty-mouthed Bad Santa, The Ref (which was released in the UK under the title Hostile Hostages) is a movie that gives us a refreshingly sour alternative to the glut of over-sweetened Xmas fare.

But despite a sharply funny script from The Horse Whisperer writer Richard LaGravenese and top-of-the-class performances from its vinegar-tongued leads, The Ref failed to tickle the box office in 1994. It may not sound that Christmassy (thuggish thief keeps a couple on the brink of divorce hostage in their own home), but its festive trimmings (which aren’t exactly low-key – this movie is swimming in Christmas cheer) have made this an annual must-see.

8. While You Were Sleeping (1995)

While You Were Sleeping – a Christmas movie? Of course it is.

Orphaned and alone, the highlight of transit worker Lucy’s (Sandra Bullock) day is when handsome commuter Peter (Peter Gallagher) passes through her turnstile. But when he's mugged one morning and falls on the train tracks to land in a coma, she comes to his rescue, accidentally inserting herself into his life in the process.

This film is so nineties in all the right ways. Bullock is endearing as the romantic Lucy, who inadvertently charms Peter’s family but can’t fool his cynical brother Jack (played by nineties everyman Bill Pullman). Everyone can sympathise with Lucy, who’s drawn to Peter’s big rowdy family as much as she is to him. Heartwarming, funny and with a predictably happy ending, what more could you ask for in a Christmas romcom? 

7. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

With the strapline 'Yule crack up', the producers of the third National Lampoon film set expectations for Christmas-related mirth pretty low, and yet it is widely regarded as a festive comedy classic.

Unlike the previous road movies in the series, this instalment finds the Griswalds at home in Chicago as they prepare for a good old-fashioned family Christmas. But instead they find themselves stuck between their bickering in-laws, wrestling with Christmas trees and lights, and struggling to maintain appearances round the dinner table.

Of all the National Lampoon films, this one is arguably the best of the bunch, poking fun at the seasonal traditions we all cling on to, and the rose-tinted image of harmonious, Christmas jumper-clad families presented in so many other festive films.

Perhaps most endearing is Chevy Chase’s performance as Clark, who is determined to have the Christmas he’s been hoping for, even as events fail to match up to expectations, and his much-anticipated Christmas bonus is replaced with a year's membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.

6. Love Actually (2003)

It takes a lot of courage these days to stand up and be counted as a Richard Curtis fan. Sure, his dewy-eyed chocolate box picture of London bears scant relation to the smoggy reality and its denizens may lead enviably cushy lives of flowing wealth and endless dinner parties, but there’s something pure-hearted and sincere about his world view, which is too easy to mock in our increasingly cynical culture.

It’s a movie jammed with great performances, though Bill Nighy steals the show with his turn as the faded rock star attempting a comeback with his festively retooled cover of ‘Love Is All Around’. And what other movies could boast a cast list that includes Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Andrew Lincoln, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Billy Bob Thornton, January Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Denise Richards, Claudia Schiffer and Martin Freeman’s bare bottom?

It may be the cinematic equivalent of gorging on a tin of Quality Street – but what's wrong with that?

5. Elf (2003)

Will Ferrell can go one of two ways with us. He's either manic and seriously funny (see Anchorman) – or he's manic and a bit annoying.

Thankfully, director Jon Favreau's Christmas classic veers towards the former, as Ferrell's human-raised-by-elves Buddy ventures to New York to track down his real father (played by a wonderfully grumpy James Caan). This of course means run-ins with Christmas department store Santas, lots of candy eating and an attempt convince the inhabitants of Manhattan that Santa Claus is in fact real.

Directed with a nice dash of acerbic humour by Favreau, plus plenty of the sweetness we expect from a Christmas movie, the film hinges on Ferrell's delightfully endearing performance. And it's also, refreshingly, brought back to Earth by Caan's Christmas-resistant grouch. Watch out too for Zooey Deschanel as the woman with whom Buddy falls in love.

4. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Got a favourite movie Scrooge? Alastair Sim perhaps? Albert Finney? Maybe even Patrick Stewart? Well, scratch all of those legends. It's Michael Caine, star of The Muppet Christmas Carol, and arguably the greatest Scrooge to ever appear on the big screen.

Not only is the movie a festive classic – it's also arguably the greatest Muppet movie ever made. Look at how Jim Henson's creations are able to add a sense of irreverence to Charles Dickens' timeless story without ever compromising its dark undertones or gloriously cathartic sense of redemption.

This careful balance becomes immediately apparent in the opening sequence where our narrators, Gonzo and Rizzo, introduce the catchy opening number 'Scrooge' as Caine stalks the desolate, snowy streets of Victorian London (Shepperton Studios standing in brilliantly for the real thing).

The movie sticks pleasingly close to Dickens' tale, as humbug miser Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, visitations that will help him ultimately become a better man. Caine's casting helps enormously in this regard: he's genuinely convincing as a sour, unpleasant character, which makes his eventual swerve into heartfelt emotion all the more affecting and believable.

3. Home Alone (1990)

Looking at it now, Home Alone really shouldn't work as well as it does. Precocious central character Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) is, frankly, a little brat who dreams up such ridiculously over-elaborate traps for two hapless burglars who invade his home that he could be the progenitor to the Jigsaw killer from Saw.

Added to this: Kevin's family are frankly grotesque, thinking nothing of humiliating him in front of everyone (c'mon, he's just a kid!) and then abandoning him at home whilst in a hurry to get to Paris for their smug Christmas holiday. And yet, and yet... The film remains an absolute charmer, even after 24 years.

Written by Ferris Bueller wunderkind John Hughes and directed by reliable family director Chris Columbus (Mrs Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potter movies), the movie's success resides in the way that it's both sweetly sentimental and ever so slightly nasty at the same time. Take for example my aforementioned moaning at Kevin's treatment of robbers Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern).

Cruel it may be – but as a kind of live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, it's also very funny. Plus there's the ever welcome presence of Pesci himself – looking genuinely reluctant to embrace any form of Christmas cheer, the Martin Scorsese regular is an important asset in leavening a film that would otherwise be far too mushy for its own good.

And there's also a pleasing sincerity in the way the film embraces the traditional Christmas spirit, perhaps best exemplified in the beautifully shot scene where Kevin makes amends with ostracised neighbour Marley (Roberts Blossom) in a local church. To the strains of John Williams' delightful original carol 'Star of Bethlehem', this sequence reminds us that the film also has a big heart.

2. Die Hard (1988)

What do you mean Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film?! It is totes Christmassy. There’s a tree, a party, a Christmas song at the end, and even a homemade Christmas jumper – albeit one that’s worn by a dead guy and made with a sweatshirt and a marker pen.

Before John McClane could possibly know that the same s**t would happen to the same guy not just twice, but in several more sequels of varying quality, he was a young, roguish New York cop, visiting his estranged family in LA for the holidays. Resplendent with not only more hair, but also the ability to convey that McClane can take care of himself and knows what he’s doing, Bruce Willis plays the character with charming aplomb.

Even while he’s trying to single-handedly take down the terrorists who are holding a skyscraper full of office workers hostage, he still has time to make amusing quips and leave hand-written notes for the bad guys. You’d trust this guy with your life – wouldn’t you?

Alan Rickman has never before or since had such a memorable role. Hans Gruber and his vaguely German accent had so many great lines and was as cold-hearted as a proper baddie should be. "Shoot the glass" doesn’t sound like that much of a threat, but it’s the way he says it. A true eighties classic, Die Hard is deservedly high on our list of favourite Christmas films. Yippee ki yay!

And our number one choice is...

1. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Just as Charles Dickens altered our perceptions of Christmas with his landmark story A Christmas Carol, so too did director Frank Capra create a festive masterpiece for the ages in the form of It’s a Wonderful Life.

The movie is frequently dismissed as sugary hogwash (indeed the film’s antagonist Mr Potter would likely describe it as such). But the magic of the film is in the way it extracts a timeless moral from a story about a decent man contemplating suicide.

As portrayed by James Stewart, arguably the Golden Age’s finest purveyor of human decency, George Bailey becomes the most vital, believable and sympathetic protagonist ever seen in a motion picture. We trace his wonderful life from the start, when he saves his brother from drowning in a frozen lake, to his marriage to childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) to his eventual financial struggles. 

Along the way, he is forced to give up his dreams of travelling and is locked in an eternal struggle with the aforementioned, odious Dickensian villain Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But it is only when George, on the verge of suicide, is visited by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) that he realises what a plethora of humane riches he has bestowed on those around him.

Clarence shows George the bleak horror of alternate life in which he never existed. George finds his town of Bedford Falls has been transformed into Pottersville; his brother Harry was unable to save the lives of comrades on a transport in WWII (because George wasn’t there to save Harry as a child); his wife is a spinster; and his mother doesn’t recognise him.

It’s subsequently a much darker film than is commonly suggested, making George’s final push for redemption one of the most magical, gut-wrenching journeys seen on the big-screen. After all, it is about a man contemplating suicide and the circumstances that have brought him to such a position. 

Stewart, bringing his traumatic World War II experience to bear on the role, makes the simple struggle to remain a good man the most gripping story of all. Throughout, we will George to fight against the darkness and bitterness within him, desperately wanting to cry out that he needn’t yield to life’s cruelty.

Miraculously, it’s never corny; just a celebration of love, courage and genuine emotion. As Auld Lang Syne reverberates on the heart-strings during the climax, and George comes to realise the magnitude of his apparently insignificant life, it’s impossible not to be moved. 

It’s not just the potent, heart-wrenching emotion that we register on Stewart's face; it’s the well-spring of humanity that has come bubbling up to wash over the audience. Never again would cinema work such wonders. Were that we to get a film this good every time a bell rings.

What are the movies you simply can't do without at Christmas? Tweet your choices @Cineworld.