Christmas movie classics that you can start watching now

We're on the countdown to Christmas, and that means it's the ideal time to settle down with your favourite Christmas movies

Too early? Never! Let's face it, given the year we've all had it's more important than ever to bring cheer and goodwill into our lives. Here's our Cineworld blog list of 24 festive classics, ranging from sentimental and wholesome dramas to creepy chillers and rib-tickling comedies.

 

1. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

One of the greatest movie musicals of all time comes from director Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza). The veteran stage director brought his experience with live performance to this uniquely atmospheric and heartwarming drama, which is coated in the sort of wholesome snowy radiance one might expect from a Normal Rockwell painting.

Judy Garland delivers another of her iconic performances as Esther Smith, the second-oldest of five children, who observes family strife and personal heartache in the build-up to the 1904 World's Fair. With her tremulous delivery of 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', Garland delivered one of the all-time great festive milestones, cementing a musical staple that would endure throughout the later generations.


2. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Actor James Stewart and director Frank Capra's third collaboration is a candidate for best film of all time, let alone Christmas film. It's a Wonderful Life is dismissed in some quarters as a fluffy, sugary and mawkish tale of redemption, but there's a harder edge to this classic Yuletide fable that tempers the sentimentality, making that cathartic climax all the more powerful.

Stewart plays George Bailey, an honest to goodness nice guy whose best intentions are continually waylaid by mishaps and tragedies. Or so he thinks. On the verge of committing suicide in the face of bankruptcy, George is visited by an angel who shows him that the fabric of his seemingly ordinary life is far richer and more profound than George dares to think. In fact, he's touched the lives of everyone in his local community of Bedford Falls without truly realising it.

It's possibly the most beautiful message in any movie, channelling the spirit of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol through Stewart's impeccably moving performance. Any number of scenes and lines from the movie have gone down in history, but it's hard to top the tear-jerking power of the final ten minutes.


3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Which Miracle movie do you go for? The 1940s original, or the much-loved 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough? In truth, they're both excellent, the reason being that the essential message is pure and lovely.

Set between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, the movie taps into a vein of wonder as a department store Santa named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn in the original) claims to be the real thing, prompting reflection from young girl Susan (an early role from Natalie wood) and her divorced mother Susan (Maureen O'Hara).

Largely filtered through the eyes of Wood's character, Miracle on 34th Street is subsequently invested with an air of magic realism, in which the audience is also forced to question the essence of Christmas. Nominated for several Oscars, and accepted into the feted National Film Registry in 2009, it continues to cast a spell over generations of Christmas movie lovers.


4. Scrooge (1951)

There have been many different adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, almost certainly the defining Christmas story of the 20th and 21st centuries. Dickens' tale recounts the story of Victorian miser Ebenezer Scrooge who faces a powerful reckoning when he's visited by three spirits. These ghosts, representing the past, present and future, offer Scrooge a summary of his existence, not to mention its lasting impact, prompting a redemption that continues to enthrall readers to this day.

The best take on the material came in the 1950s movie starring Alastair Sim. Both effectively chilly as the penny-pinching miser, and appreciably joyous as the transformed Scrooge of the final act, Sim gets under the skin of Dickens' character like few others have managed. The black and white photography also helps in establishing the wintry, bleak location of Victorian London, through which Scrooge's eventual euphoria is able to pierce.

 

5. Black Christmas (1974)

It's less sleigh bells and more slay bells in this cult classic festive shocker. Bob Clark's creepy Yuletide slasher is in many ways a precursor to John Carpenter's more celebrated Halloween, and the film boasts an effectively chilly atmosphere that will make you look at Christmas in a new light. When a group of sorority girls is stalked and killed by a maniac in their sorority house, the survivors must aim to expose the killer before their numbers are whittled down even further.

In a brilliant touch, we never actually see the culprit – Clark suggests the murderer's presence through suspenseful and disturbing impressions, such as an eye looking through a door-jam, or a disconcerting whisper coming from an upstairs room. The film's discrete qualities only serve to make it more frightening, forcing us to speculate on the killer's madness as any notion of festive goodwill is abruptly stripped away. Black Christmas has suffered two inferior remakes but neither has captured the prickly thrill of the original.


6. The Snowman (1982)

Whereas American kids have The Grinch, we in Britain have Raymond Briggs' The Snowman. This hand-drawn animation has lost none of its vibrancy, bringing to life the story of an enchanted snowman and his boy best friend who both take a trip to the North Pole. 

The movie's deceptively humble appearance masks intricacy and depth, expansive vistas opening before our eyes as Father Christmas makes his long-awaited appearance. Like Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Lous before it, The Snowman also unleashed a pop culture phenomenon in the form of its central song. 'Walking in the Air' (performed initially by Peter Auty, later covered by Aled Jones) sums up the awe and tender grace of Briggs' story, before that devastating climax brings us back down to Earth with a bump.

Whereas American festive movies tend to coddle and reassure, the pragmatic and moving climax to The Snowman is perhaps more indicative of a British sensibility, reminding us that life's pain, as well as its beauty, is an important learning curve.

 

7. Gremlins (1984)

Who says that all Christmas films have to wrap us in a blanket of bonhomie? Joe Dante's peerless comedy-horror Gremlins offers no such assurances, veering wildly between gentle affection and full-on monster movie savagery. Backed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Chris Columbus (later of Home Alone and Harry Potter fame), this is the tale of mischievous monsters who wreak havoc on a small American town.

When adorable furball Gizmo spawns dozens of menacing offspring, his owner Billy (Zach Galligan) must leap into action. Dante's malevolent sense of humour comes to the fore in sequences such as the infamous kitchen massacre, which saw the movie slapped with the fledgling PG-13 rating for violence. There's also a morbid Santa Claus story that disturbs as much as it amuses. But underpinning everything is the sweet friendship between Billy and Gizmo, a reminder of goodwill and decency amidst all the carnage.


8. Santa Clause: The Movie (1985)

Here's a Christmas movie that proved influential, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Santa Clause: The Movie was perhaps the first festive film to show the North Pole as a production line, populated by elves fashioning and churning out toys for children around the world. It was a corporate message that would be extended, to increasingly lesser returns, in rubbish like 2007 Vince Vaughn vehicle Fred Claus.

This film gets away with it largely on the strength of the performances, chiefly British comic Dudley Moore as plucky elf Patch. David Huddleston, in his final film role, is agreeably cordial and cuddly as Father Christmas while John Lithgow chews the scenery as an evil manufacturer who looks to exploit Patch's toy-making abilities.


9. Scrooged (1988)

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was treated to another variation in this frenetic, anarchic comedy. Bill Murray is typically deadpan and cynical as a heartless TV executive living a garish corporate existence in New York. But when he's visited by three spirits, he soon learns the error of his ways.

Directed by Richard Donner (The Goonies), Scrooged struggled for impact on its initial release. But it's now recognised as something of a cult classic, largely because of the range displayed by Murray. He's both hilarious and melancholy as his isolated character Frank Cross comes to terms with the emptiness of his life. And the all-American twists on the classic Dickens mythology are smartly done, including a demonic New York cab driver (David Johansen) who whisks Frank along on his journey of redemption.


10. Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis may dispute it, but come on, Die Hard is a quintessential Christmas movie. Quite apart from the setting, the Los Angeles Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve, the magic of the season is threaded through this classic action-thriller in both subtle and obvious ways.

From the sleigh bells adorning Michael Kamen's tense score to the ironic delivery of Alan Rickman's career-defining villain Hans Gruber ("It's Christmas, Theo. It's the time of miracles"), Die Hard revels in Yuletide magic.

In fact, the movie takes great delight in contrasting wholesome festive iconography against the violent storyline, as Willis' New York cop John McClane takes on Gruber and his men singlehandedly. A Christmas tree topples in the wake of a massive explosion, McClane's LA police department ally Al (Reginald VelJohnson) is heard singing Frank Sinatra's 'Let It Snow' (gloriously reprised over the end credits) and a daring vault heist threatens to reward the terrorists with the greatest Christmas gift of all. Sorry, Bruce, you're plain wrong about this one.


11. Home Alone (1990)

Until the release of The Hangover: Part II in 2011, Home Alone was the highest-grossing comedy film of all time. Directed by Chris Columbus and scripted by John Hughes, the movie hit the sweet spot between child rebellion flick, anarchic slapstick and sugary, sentimental Christmas emotion. Add to that Macauley Culkin's precocious central performance as stranded youngster Kevin McAllister, John Williams' tear-jerking, Oscar-nominated score, and two scene-stealing villains in the form of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, and it's not hard to see why the film resonated with audiences.

Everyone remembers the classic showdown as plucky Kevin takes on the hapless Marv and Harry, two crooks aiming to rob his family home. But there are treasures to be found elsewhere, including the redemptive scene between Kevin and old man Marley (Roberts Blossom) in the church. As Williams' heavenly original hymn 'Star of Bethlehem' plays in the background, it's a reminder that there's more to Home Alone than meets the eye.


12. Father Christmas (1991)

The Snowman isn't the only Raymond Briggs animation to define the UK Christmas scene. This overlooked follow-up does a wonderful job in recasting Father Christmas as a crotchety, worn-out old man who just needs a break from looking after the world's children. Adding to the humour is the fact that he lives in an ordinary townhouse with his reindeer.

Mel Smith voices Santa to wonderful effect as the hand-drawn animation evokes the same sense of gentle whimsy as The Snowman. The movie is, in fact, adapted from two Father Christmas books by Briggs, and it's been suggested that both this film and The Snowman take place in the same universe.


13. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Michael Caine once said that his favourite acting experience was appearing alongside the Muppets in this festive treat. Certainly, Caine gives a terrific performance as the icy Ebeneezer Scrooge, for whom Christmas is one big superficial lark. But three ghosts are on their way to remind him of the spirit of the season, and the value of his own life.

Caine's avowedly straight-laced performance only serves to make the surrounding Muppet mayhem even funnier. But at the same time, this take on Charles Dickens' story is surprisingly faithful to the source, lifting entire sections of the prose and staying true to its darker undercurrents. And this being the Muppets, the songs are wonderful, particularly the euphoric 'Thankful Heart' in which Scrooge transitions from a figure of cruelty into a fleet-footed, smiling embodiment of Christmas. (Watch out for the shop sign reading 'Micklewhites' – Caine's original surname.)

 

14. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Conceived by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas occupies that twisted hinterland between dark and light, malevolence and mushiness. This enchanting stop-motion musical begins in Halloweentown where the locals take pride in their ability to terrify children. But curious Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) wonders if there's more to life than this, and when he stumbles upon the land of Christmas, he devises a plan to kidnap Santa Claus.

Buoyed by Danny Elfman's typically witty and inventive songs, the movie does a brilliant job in suggesting kinship between the two different realms. As the inhabitants of Halloweentown are at pains to point out, scaring is "our job, but we're not mean", indicating they have more in common with Santa than it appears. Along the way, Skellington and his pals have to deal with the malevolent Oogie Boogie, plus his sidekicks Lock, Shock and Barrel, but ultimately, The Nightmare Before Christmas allows the twisted and the sentimental to live together in harmony.


15. The Santa Clause (1994)

One grumpy dad becomes the embodiment of the Christmas season in this odd blend of festive sentiment and mild body horror. Prior to his vocal role as Buzz Lightyear, actor Tim Allen plays Scott, a man who accidentally kills Santa on Christmas Eve. This hastens his transformation into St Nick, eventually growing a grey beard and pot belly as he comes to accept the spirit of the season.

A solid box office hit, the movie was later followed by two critically derided sequels. Sneering aside, the first Santa Clause movie does go some way towards reclaiming the innocent whimsy and wide-eyed joy of the best festive movies.

 

16. Jingle All The Way

Cue the Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions: "Put that cookie down, now!" Etc etc. Let's face it, it's impossible to watch this 1990s family hit without quoting it verbatim. Continuing his slide from 1980s action icon to, erm, 1990s family movie star with a bodybuilding physique, Arnie stars as a hapless dad on the search for the perfect Christmas present. He's looking for a Turbo Man doll to give to his son, which involves him coming into contact with all manner of greedy and avaricious parents in the countdown to Christmas.

This includes Sinbad as a rival father, who eventually engages Arnie's character in a cos-play recreation of Turbo Man's battle with his dreaded nemesis, Dementor. The critics hated the movie but it was a box office hit, proving the combination of the Austrian Oak and the festive season was pretty indestructible. 


17. The Grinch (2000)

Rubber-faced comic Jim Carrey is buried under mounds of yak hair and prosthetics to portray Dr. Seuss' classic Christmas creation. A famously energetic performer, Carrey found the experience of playing the Grinch so claustrophobic and upsetting that he had to be trained by a CIA specialist to deal with the make-up.

In truth, this is more of a Carrey vehicle than a loyal Seussian one, director Ron Howard indulging his star's penchant for gurning mannerisms and flailing body language. As the Grinch prepares to destroy Christmas in Whoville, it takes an innocent young girl to make him see the error of his ways. Certainly the incandescent colour scheme suggests a more commercial, contemporary universe than Seuss' more traditional tale, but at least narrator Anthony Hopkins is on hand to reinforce the author's famous poetry. In 2018, Benedict Cumberbatch voiced the character in Illumination's CGI animation.

 

18. Elf (2003)

Director Jon Favreau fashions a contemporary Christmas classic in this story of an elf in New York. Favreau collaborates with Will Ferrell, effectively harnessing the latter's overgrown man-child act to bring us the story of Buddy, a human raised as an elf in the North Pole. When Buddy decides he must track down his real father, he comes to the Big Apple where he falls in love and runs up against fake department store Santas. ("You sit on a throne of lies," is one of the movie's many quotable lines.)

Ably balancing sweetness and cynicism (largely via the presence of James Caan as Buddy's prickly pops), Favreau delivers both a salute and a subversive swipe to the Christmas season. The sight of Ferrell's hapless yet well-intentioned character grappling with Peter Dinklage's so-called "angry elf" never fails to make us laugh, a scene that mixes Ferrell's knack for physical comedy with just the right amount of cheeky humour. 


19. Bad Santa (2003)

Director Terry Zwigoff's bittersweet black comedy maintains a solid cult following. Bad Santa has no time for the usual mawkish depiction of Santa Claus, instead throwing us headlong into the story of drunken crook Willie (a career-best Billy Bob Thornton). He's remaining incognito as a department store Father Christmas in the wake of his latest job, which means he has to dispense fabulously cynical cynicism to the kids lining up with Yuletide wishes.

However, the movie has a lot of heart as well, teased out via Willie's tempestuous friendship (not that it begins as such) with overweight kid Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). Laced with equal amounts of nastiness and platitudes, Bad Santa is the movie for people who hate Christmas movies. Just avoid the sequel – it's dire.

 

20. Love, Actually

Richard Curtis's multi-stranded Christmas rom-com can feel like gorging on an entire box of Quality Street. By that, we mean you'll emerge stuffed and slightly giddy from too much sugary bonhomie, and along the way, you're guaranteed to hit some flavours that you won't like. That said, the movie does contain several joyously funny moments, and some emotionally powerful ones, as it puts several of the UK's finest actors and comedians through their festive paces.

Among the storylines: Hugh Grant's love-struck Prime Minister, who dances to the Pointer Sisters (which Grant hated doing), Colin Firth's author who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper and Liam Neeson's widowed father who teaches his young son to love. However, the show is stolen by Emma Thompson as the loving mother and wife who suspects her husband (Alan Rickman) of cheating on her. Amidst the comedy contrivance, it's refreshing and striking to be faced with a scene that feels tear-jerkingly authentic.


21. The Polar Express (2004)

Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis made his first plunge into CGI motion-capture with this fantastical adventure. The Polar Express is based on the story of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg (also the writer of Jumanji, trivia fans), detailing one disbelieving young boy's journey to the North Pole on the titular locomotive. On the way, he interacts with a number of characters, several of whom are played by Zemeckis regular Tom Hanks. And yes, that is Hanks playing Santa Claus in the final act, a perfect marriage of casting and character.

At the time of its release, The Polar Express was criticised for its zombified, dead-eyed CGI avatars. True, the visual effects were clearly in their embryonic stage back in 2004, but Zemeckis' typically nimble camerawork, a soaring score from his regular composer Alan Silvestri and a traditional dollop of Christmas goodwill see this sometimes bumpy journey through to the end. 


22. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

We now hop over to Finland for an altogether darker take on the Christmas story. Amidst the frozen wastes of Lapland a drilling team unearths a vicious monster from folklore, one that acted as the antecedent of the contemporary Santa Claus. This creature, however, doesn't augur presents and goodwill to all men but carnage and chaos. And he's got help in the form of his evil elves – Dudley Moore in Santa Clause: The Movie, this ain't.

By taking the archetypal Christmas tale back to its twisted origins, this entertaining fantasy-horror reminds us that many of our beloved icons, Christmas-themed or otherwise, have their origins in something far more unsettling. (Just look at the relationship between Grimms fairy tales and Disney as another example.) Rare Exports (based on two preceding short films) is also a jolting showcase for a different kind of Christmas movie, demonstrating that the genre can morph and take on many different shapes.


23. Arthur Christmas (2011)

British institution Aardman briefly left their stop-motion roots behind with this slick CGI animation. James McAvoy is endearing as the titular Arthur, Santa's endearing but bumbling son who finds himself appointed with an important task. The movie depicts a high-tech North Pole operation that is effective, if somewhat soulless. That's where Arthur steps in: recognising that his dad's hi-tech ship has failed to deliver one girl her present, Arthur sets out to deliver it to her.

Despite the glossy appearance of the movie, this is still built on Aardman's core tenets of character and compassion, adorned with plenty of Christmas sparkle. The all-star voices cast also includes Jim Broadbent as Santa, Hugh Laure as Arthur's business-oriented older brother Steven and Bill Nighy as GrandSanta.


24. Krampus (2015)

It's back to festive chills and spills for the final movie on our list. The dark side of Saint Nicholas casts a shadow over one warring family in this delightful offering from writer-director Michael Dougherty. When one boy (Emjay Anthony) tears up his letter to Santa, his cynicism invites Krampus and his malicious sidekicks, who promptly invade the house and cause terror for all involved.

Like Gremlins before it, Krampus takes great delight in off-setting Christmas sweetness with genuinely alarming moments of terror. Sweet and sour are mixed with a message of being careful what one wishes for, with the toy attack scene in the attic inviting particular chills.

 

What's your favourite Christmas movie of all time? Tweet us your choices @Cineworld.