To my readers who don’t celebrate Christmas, and are tired of its ubiquity, I apologise for perpetuating it and advise you to skip this post.
I do understand and appreciate the problems with Christmas. That said, it is absolutely my favourite holiday.
I love that it celebrates familial and platonic love. I love that it’s about warmth and happiness even in the depths of winter. I love the food. And I love how it’s so heavily ritualised, but everyone’s rituals are different.
My family’s rituals involve watching many, many TV shows and films, some of which we’ve been watching every single year since I was a baby. There are the standard classics, of course – we watch Elf and The Muppets Christmas Carol and Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life (my dad’s favourite film of all time). But there are also quite a few, generally my favourites, which no one else seems to have heard of. It’s a terrible shame, and something I’d like to rectify. Here are a few recommendations that you may not have had before.
Bernard and the Genie (1991)
This film was my go-to Christmas favourite for many years, and I still love it a lot. It’s so bizarre to me that a Richard Curtis film starring Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, and Rowan Atkinson would be completely unheard of, but I’m glad that I got to see it at least.
It follows the story of Bernard Bottle, whose Christmas starts terribly when he is unfairly fired from his job and learns that his girlfriend has been sleeping with his best friend. The girlfriend returns to their shared flat to get her stuff, which is apparently everything they own except an old lamp containing a genie from Biblical times.
The film is silly, but it’s a lot of fun. There’s the obvious wish-fulfilment angle, but there’s also a lot of good jokes about the genie suddenly waking up in modern day London and learning everything that’s changed. It’s got the usual Richard Curtis charm and wit, an excellent cast, and some great use of music as well.
Christmas Eve (2015)
I only watched this for the first time last year, but it’s already a favourite. The concept is simple: there’s a power cut in New York on Christmas Eve. People get trapped in elevators all across the city. The people inside talk. We watch a few of them.
I absolutely adore the ‘trapped in a lift’ trope, and it so rarely gets used in a non-romantic set up as it does here. I did watch it entirely because of the concept and it is a concept-heavy film, but I think that’s what film as a medium should be used for. It executes the concept well and with a great cast (including Patrick Stewart, Jon Heder, James Roday, and Cheryl Hines). There’s a nice twist to the ending. That’s about everything I can say about it.
The Greatest Store in the World (1999)
Probably the most family-oriented film on this list, The Greatest Store in the World is about a single mother and her two young daughters who find themselves homeless over Christmas, and so hide out in a department store (think Selfridges/Harrods) so they don’t spend it on the street. It stars Dervla Kirwan, Peter Capaldi, Brian Blessed, and some impressive child actors who are sisters in real life. Also, S Club 7 are there, because it’s 1999.
I love this film. It’s so genuinely sweet and heart-warming. The initial concept seems a little upsetting for a Christmas film – and there are definitely some upsetting scenes – but at its core, it’s about a mother who would do anything for her daughters, and it does feel nice and cosy. For years it was the only thing I had ever seen Peter Capaldi in, and his character is my favourite, so even after seeing him in so many other things and as the Twelfth Doctor himself, I still think of him as Mr Whiskers.
A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (2014)
I don’t really get why this film was so universally hated in reviews. I can definitely see why it wouldn’t be some people’s cup of tea, particularly if you’d heard that one of the last films Robin Williams worked on before his death was a Christmas film and were looking forward to its release, but it’s not like it was objectively terrible. Personally I quite enjoyed it, but then it was only the second Robin Williams film I’d ever seen.
The film follows an extended family get-together at Christmas, only it’s a family who don’t really like each other and who had a difficult childhood. The protagonist (Joel McHale) realises late on Christmas Eve that he left the presents of his son, who still believes in Santa, at home. He and his father (Williams) spend the night driving across the country to pick up the presents and deal with their strained relationship.
I bought the DVD of A Merry Friggin’ Christmas (here titled A Merry Christmas Miracle) on the strength of the impressive cast (Lauren Graham and Tim Heidecker also star, among others) and director (Tristram Shapeero), and I have to say, it was not what I expected either. It’s hard to summarise it with just the synopsis, because it is weird. It’s a really weird, dark film. There’s a lot of characters and a lot of elements and a lot of random stuff thrown in. I don’t know what it was trying to achieve. It was funny. There’s some well-developed relationships. It doesn’t feel very cosy-Christmassy. But I did find it compelling, and enjoyable enough that I’ve rewatched it every year since I’ve bought it.
A Christmas Carol (2000)
Alright, so yes, The Muppets Christmas Carol is amazing and funny and has fantastic songs. But this is my favourite adaptation of Dickens’ classic.
Written by Peter Bowker, ITV’s A Christmas Carol is a modern retelling starring Ross Kemp as Eddie Scrooge, an intimidating loan shark who still isn’t over his nurse ex-girlfriend. Not only is it an excellent modernisation, which considers the issues of racism, the working class, healthcare, and homelessness in 2000 London, it also makes several changes to the structure which I feel improve the story. There is something of a Groundhog Day situation – which returning readers will know is another favourite trope of mine – where after each ghostly visit, Scrooge must live his Christmas Eve again, and so we can see his attitude change more gradually. This also allows the film to address one of the criticisms of the original, as to why Scrooge changes his ways. Initially, his good deeds are performative, to prove that he’s learned his lesson and to impress his ex. It’s only after he learns to be good for the sake of being good, even if he doesn’t get credit or recognition, that he’s able to be happier and to improve his life, which is something you find you do really want for Eddie.
I also like that rather than indefinable ‘spirits’, the ghosts who visit Scrooge are actual people from his life – his father as The Ghost of Christmas Past, a second visit from Jacob Marley to be The Ghost of Christmas Present. It’s a really lovely, compelling, warm film that I cannot wait to watch every year, and it’s a shame ITV never decided to release it on DVD.
The older films on this list are all TV movies, so can be a little hard to get your hands on, but if you can track down a DVD or recording or just happen to catch it on TV, I absolutely would urge you to watch any of them. If you have seen any of these before PLEASE talk to me, since I don’t normally get the chance to chat about them. Do let me know too if you’ve added any of these to your list, or have any films you think I would like in return.