Ed Elf: Not that a busy woman like Mrs. C gets much chance to sit around all day watching films, you understand.
Mrs. C: The silver screen has a special magic – no more so than at Christmas.
Ed Elf: Have you mentioned “Elf” yet? That’s a great film, that is.
Mrs. C: Give me chance, impatient one. All bias aside, “Elf” is indeed a splendid comedy for Christmas. But there are so many more: black and white classics, tearjerkers, animations and ghost stories. This season is awash with festive film delights and How to Christmas will direct you to the movies you need to watch to add that Tinseltown sparkle to your holiday season. That includes the latest cinema arrivals in our Movie Releases page.
Our 30 Essential Christmas Movies
Click on the movie title to take you to a brief synopsis of the film or scroll down to read them all
2 – “Elf”
9 – “Bad Santa”
10 – “Scrooge” (1970)
11 – “The Bishop’s Wife”
12 – “Arthur Christmas”
13 – “Home Alone”
15 – “Joyeux Noel”
17 – “The Santa Clause”
18 – “A Christmas Story”
19 – “The Grinch”
21 – “Four Christmases”
22 – “The Holiday”
23 – “Nativity!”
26 – “The Apartment”
27 – “Get Santa”
29 – “Love Actually”
30 – “Trading Places”
Starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.
Frank Capra’s classic is as essential as it gets when it comes to Christmas movies. James Stewart plays George Bailey, whose life doesn’t take the path he had hoped and finds himself making good the lives of his fellow townsfolk in spite of the best efforts of the wicked Mr. Potter – played superbly by Lionel Barrymore. A cruel turn of fate leaves George ready to end it all. Enter Clarence – his angel without wings. George learns: “No man is a failure who has friends.” How this realisation is reached is the stuff of movie legend and guaranteed to crack even the hardest heart. Stewart is sweaty in the bridge scene because he’s been running around town…but also because it was 90 degrees on the day of filming. Bizarrely, it has been reported that the movie had an FBI file, allegedly because some paranoid folk back in the forties thought the plot was communist ploy to undermine the banking industry.
(Movie Magic: Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. Congratulations Clarence. The book inscription about friends induces tears every time.)
Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel.
A human baby is raised in an elf’s world, only to discover the truth by accident. It sends him on a journey of discovery to New York City at Christmas, where he finds his father – a non-believer whose on the naughty list – a brother, love and the world’s greatest cup of coffee. Christmas spirit on earth is waning. Santa is in trouble. Maybe some elf-help will save the day. Will Ferrell in comedic brilliance mode, so magically capturing the childlike qualities of Buddy the Elf. If you watch just one Christmas comedy this festive season, make it this one.
(Movie Magic: Buddy the Elf, on his journey to New York, meets an irate racoon and asks: “Does someone need a hug?” As he holds out his arms to the angry animal, the racoon leaps at him and attacks him by the throat. It’s just the start of a host of innocent Buddy gems.)
Starring Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley.
This is the definitive film version of the magnificent Charles Dickens book “A Christmas Carol”, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Alastair Sim is Scrooge. Alastair Sim is genius. The younger Scrooge is played by George Cole – he of “Minder” TV fame. Other treasured British actors Michael Hordern and Jack Warner also make glorious cameos.
(Movie Magic: Ebenezer Scrooge’s realisation, after his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future, that he is still alive and has the chance to change his fate. No one captures it better than Alastair Sim.)
Starring Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
Of all the versions of Charles Dickens’s timeless ghost story “A Christmas Carol”, this is truly one for all the family. It is both funny and touching, with memorable songs, and has ghosts past and present – if not quite future – that won’t scare the kids. As Miss Piggy, playing Mrs Cratchit, gets caught filling her face with chestnuts while preparing Christmas dinner, she declares to her suspicious daughter: “I wasn’t eating them, I was checking them. It’s a chef thing, dear.” Well, this film is a Muppet thing and on viewing you will understand why it has long had classic status.
(Movie Magic: After being dragged through the woods by the Ghost of Christmas Past story narrators Gonzo and Rizzo land safely – slap bang in front of a cat. Rizzo sighs in relief on landing, saying: “Safe at last.” The cat meows behind him and they’re off again. It is these extra Muppet touches that make the movie.)
5 – “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)
Starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn.
This film is a joy. Edmund Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Kris Kringle, who is hired by Doris Walker as Macy’s Santa Claus. Her daughter Susan, played by a young Natalie Wood, doesn’t believe in him. He puts a house on proving her wrong. There are black & white and colourised versions of this film. Either way, it’s pure movie gold.
(Movie Magic: At the core of the film is the age-old question: do you believe in Santa Claus? Watch the splendid Gwenn in all his Kris Kringle glory – making believers of us all.)
Starring Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara and Nona Gaye.
This computer-animated Robert Zemeckis film is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg. A young boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan is questioning his belief in Santa Claus. The Polar Express stops outside his house on Christmas Eve and takes him on a journey sure to test his level of denial. There are howling wolves and a curious ghostly figure amid the tension of the perilous journey. There are valuable lessons to be learned for each child on board – some as plain as the ticket in their hand. And then there’s the magic of Santa, his reindeer and his multitude of elves. As for the boy: a silver sleigh bell will decide his fate. Tom Hanks multi-tasks rather wonderfully.
(Movie Magic: The Christmas Eve scene at the pole. A child’s Christmas dreams come true in a beautiful nutshell.)
Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen.
Irving Berlin classics in this film include “Blue Skies”, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “Sisters” – as well as a couple of moving renditions of the title song. After the war, in which Phil Davis has saved Bob Wallace’s life, they team up to become a top showbiz double act. They help, then follow to Vermont, a sister act that are booked to perform for the holidays at Columbia Inn. There’s no snow, which means no custom and trouble for the owner of the inn – Davis and Wallace’s old army general. But the boys have a plan.
(Movie Magic: Danny Kaye’s character Davis tries to tempt Bing Crosby’s character to Vermont, hoping he’ll fall for Betty Haynes – played by Rosemary Clooney – and free up some time for Kaye to “get a massage or something”. Bob Wallace says: “Miss Haynes, if you’re ever under a falling building and somebody runs up and offers to pick you up and carry you to safety, don’t think, don’t pause, don’t hesitate for a moment, just spit in his eye.” Miss Haynes replies: “What did that mean?” Wallace: “It means we’re going to Vermont.” Beautifully delivered. And so the fun begins.)
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.
The fantastic sequel to “Home Alone” is set in the Big Apple. Young Kevin McCallister doesn’t miss the family flight this time – he instead boards the wrong flight. So while the clan are in Florida, he’s in New York. And there’s nowhere better than New York at Christmas – unless, of course, your burglar pals are on the loose and on your case. Academy Award winner Brenda Fricker plays the bird lady of Central Park, while Kevin’s illuminated ears make for early laughs. And wait until you see what poor Cliff has allegedly been up to in the Plaza Hotel.
(Movie Magic: Daniel Stern’s marvellously clueless Marv takes brick-upon-brick full in the face from the top of a New York townhouse as Harry, played by Joe Pesci, goads Kevin for missing his head.)
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac and Lauren Graham.
A black comedy which – be warned – is liberally sprinkled with bad language and actions sure to outrage and offend some people. But if you’re not “some people”, you’ll love it. Billy Bob Thornton plays a crude, safe-cracking robber of a store Santa who is befriended by a naïve, overweight, curly-mopped boy named Thurman – whose constantly wanting to “fix sandwiches” for his new houseguest. Willie’s partner in crime is Marcus, who plays elf to the abusive Santa – until he reaches breaking point and turns on the disgrace of a man in the red suit. Betrayal comes with unexpected consequences.
(Move Magic: Willie’s letter to Thurman, narrated in magnificently deadpan fashion by Thornton. Hilarious.)
Starring Albert Finney, Alec Guinness and Edith Evans.
This musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” includes the Oscar nominated song “Thank You Very Much” and a musical score composed by Lesley Bricusse. Albert Finney is a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge, whose performance earned him a Golden Globe. Another fine British actor Michael Medwin plays the nephew of Scrooge, despite being 12 years Finney’s senior. Watch and be Christmassy. You’ll have little choice in the matter.
(Movie Magic: Anton Rodgers, who achieved TV fame alongside Julia McKenzie in 80’s sit-com “Fresh Fields”, delivers “Thank You Very Much” in brilliant brace-snapping, Cockney style.)
Starring Carey Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young.
David Niven plays Bishop Henry Brougham, who believes he is on a divine mission to build a cathedral. He is unwittingly neglecting his wife and daughter, while becoming ever more desperate to raise funds. He offers up a prayer. Help appears in the shape of Carey Grant – an angel not averse to mischief or feelings of the flesh. He is not so neglectful of the Bishop’s wife. Not everyone will enjoy a happy ending. Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston made an ill-advised remake called “The Preacher’s Wife”. Steer clear of that and watch this jewel of a forties festive film in its black & white or colourised version. It’s angelic.
(Movie Magic: On a visit to a dear friend, the professor, the Bishop’s wife introduces her angelic companion who soon ensures the old man’s sherry bottle is never half-empty again. The accompanying visual effects are a forties movie marvel.)
Starring James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie and Jim Broadbent.
This wonderful animated feature sees the passing of the crucial festive baton from generation to generation. Steve appears to be the heir apparent to dear ol’ Santa, until a bicycle isn’t delivered to one deserving child. Steve’s younger brother Arthur can’t rest until the little girl has her present and his relentless pursuit of Christmas Eve perfection changes the course of Santa history.
(Movie Magic: Bryony – the elf who wraps – Grand-Santa and the ever-stoic, ever-capable Mrs. Claus are Christmas heroes one and all.)
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.
Macaulay Culkin plays eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, who is mistakenly left to fend for himself and fight off burglars when his family fly to Paris for a Christmas holiday. It’s a festive comedy classic in which the hapless robbers, Harry and Marv, learn the harsh way: you don’t cross kids at Christmas. Actor Daniel Stern, who played clueless Marv, fears spiders and only agreed to do the classic tarantula scene if it was completed in one take. His ear-piercing scream was added later in the edit. If Stern had screamed like that in real time, the tarantula would have fled…or had a quick bite. In another quirky tale from the set, the photo of Buzz’s girlfriend (looking non-too-pretty) is actually a boy. He’s the art director’s son in teenage drag. Director Chris Columbus thought it would be too cruel to humiliate a real actress with the punchline of “woof!” “Home Alone” is one of the highest grossing comedy films of all-time and very much stands the test of time.
(Movie Magic: John Candy tries to reassure Kevin’s mother that her son will be fine by telling the story of the young son he left alone all day with a corpse in a funeral home. “After six-seven weeks, he came around, started talking again….kids are resilient like that.” Apparently, Candy improvised the scene.)
Starring Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.
Another offering of “A Christmas Carol” – but different enough and enchanting enough to add to the fabulous Scrooge creations of Alastair Sim and Albert Finney. Jim Carrey is superb. He plays Scrooge, and the three ghosts who haunt him, in captivating style. A box office smash.
(Movie Magic: Christmas in Victorian London is captured in breathtaking, sweeping moves through the streets of the capital. In 3D or not, it’s marvellous.)
Starring Diane Kruger, Guillaume Canet and Benno Furmann.
Written and directed by Christian Carion, this is a moving French film – partly in English, partly with subtitles – which explores the famous World War I Christmas truce of December 1914, as seen through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers.
(Movie Magic: A German soldier lifts a decorated Christmas tree from the trenches in a show of goodwill to the enemy watching on from across no man’s land. An outpouring of understanding and peace ensues.)
Featuring the voice talents of Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara and Chris Sarandon – from an original poem by Tim Burton.
Stop-motion animation at its best as Jack Skellington, the Halloween king, stumbles into Christmas Town and discovers delighting children rather than scaring them might prove a self-satisfying change of direction. Will Christmas as we know it be lost forever?
(Movie magic: Uber-baddie Oogie Boogie does his best to steal the show. But he’s forgotten the golden rule: never interfere with Santa’s big plan.)
Starring Tim Allen, Eric Lloyd, Judge Reinhold.
What happens when Father Christmas falls from your roof and you have to complete the Christmas Eve delivery run? Make sure to read the Santa clause or you could end up with a new career, that’s what. Such a fate befalls Scott Calvin – but some people take more convincing of the new ‘him’ than others in this festive comedy. Cue the support of young son Charlie.
(Movie Magic: Judge Reinhold’s dubious sweater gets the sarcastic Tim Allen treatment. Scott Calvin piles on the pounds and sees his hair turn white as he turns ever more into Santa. He shaves his white beard – but in seconds it grows back, leading him to acknowledge: “I’m in big trouble – uh uh!”)
Starring Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon.
Ralphie is a nine-year-old boy in forties Indiana whose dearest Christmas wish is to own a genuine Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Rifle. There’s one major problem: his Mother point blank refuses his request, saying: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But Ralphie has a plan. From triple-dog-daring to leg-shaped lamps, from canine turkey robbing to a frozen flagpole mishap, this American classic has so much to offer.
(Movie Magic: When Ralphie’s father receives his prize and the container reads: “Fragile”. Dad exclaims: “Fra-gee-lay….it must be Italian.” Just wait until you see the prize.)
Starring Jim Carrey and narrated by Sir Anthony Hopkins.
This is based on the legendary cartoon “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966). The recommendation is to watch the animated version first: just 26 minutes long and narrated by the brilliant Boris Karloff, it will set up the Jim Carrey version to come. Only then will you see how Carrey marvellously brings this animated figure to life. Dr. Seuss wrote the 1957 book about the Grinch, who is an American Christmas mainstay. The cartoon is an annual must there. It should be so here in the UK.
(Movie magic: Boris Karloff’s narration – Jim Carrey’s creation.)
Starring Sir Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott.
Elizabeth Perkins plays Dorey Walker, organiser-in-chief of the Cole’s department store Thanksgiving Day parade, in this remake of the 1947 classic. Her Santa Claus is drunk, so she asks a white-bearded old man to replace him in her desperation. He claims his name is Kris Kringle and believes he is the real Santa Claus. After being framed for assault and locked up, Kris faces a trial in which his lawyer friend Bryan Bedford must prove Kris is the one and only Santa. Dorey’s six-year-old daughter, played by Mara Wilson, has been taught not to believe in him by her overly pragmatic Mum. If Kris can convince mother and daughter, he might just make believers of us all.
(Movie Magic: A twinkling of light darting across a Christmas tree turns a little girl’s Christmas morning misery into hope and belief.)
Starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon.
A couple normally canny enough to holiday together over Christmas rather than visit all four of their divorced parents’ homes are grounded by fog. When they are interviewed live on TV at the airport, there is no escaping the fact: this year they will have to endure four Christmases. In the process, they learn more about each other than they had previously been keen to share. A stellar cast includes Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen. The comedy pours from every awkward, violent, embarrassing, dysfunctional Christmas.
(Movie Magic: Vince Vaughn’s character Brad in a Christmas Day moment he’d rather not be having with his mother’s new man, Darryl, who says: “Look, Brad. I’m not trying to be your father, you already got one of those. I’m just hoping for a chance to be your friend.” Brad replies: “You were my friend, Darryl. You were my best friend. We grew up together, we rode bikes together, we used to smell each other’s hands. But now you’re sleeping with my mom and it’s a little bit weird for me. Can you appreciate that?” Darryl ploughs on: “I never had a sexual thought about your mom until I was 30.” Tremendous!)
Starring Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black.
Curl up on the couch and indulge in a romantic comedy of English chocolate box cottages and Hollywood dream homes, set around the Christmas and New Year holidays. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet are strangers lost in love and life, who do a trans-Atlantic house-swap to escape their festive woes – only to discover their new holiday homes have unexpected attractions. There are clunky lines like: “I’m a book editor from London, you’re a beautiful movie trailer maker from LA…” as Law states the obvious to anyone idiotic enough not to have gathered that’s so. Such spoon-feeding aside, the overall effect might just make you believe in love, fate and happy endings.
(Movie Magic: Cameron Diaz discovering she can cry after all.)
Starring Martin Freeman and Ashley Jensen.
What do you do when you are a frustrated, lonely, unlucky-in-love primary school teacher who hates Christmas? Why, stage the greatest school Nativity ever, worthy of Hollywood, of course. But you might need the devotion of Mr. Poppy. Debbie Isitt directs.
(Movie Magic: Improvised scenes with Nativity auditionees, X-Factor style. Out of the mouths of babes…)
Starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Based on the John Grisham novel “Skipping Christmas”, this appealing simple American comedy sees Luther and Nora Krank opt to give the holiday season a miss. With their daughter Blair Krank away on Peace Corps duty, Mum and Dad decide to spend their usual chunk of Christmas cash on a cruise. Their neighbours aren’t impressed that the Kranks’ house is a festive-free zone. There are menacing carollers and relentless cries of “we want Frosty!” as the locals demand the appearance of a giant rooftop snowman. Then comes an unexpected call from Blair – and Christmas is back on. But how?
(Movie Magic: When Luther Krank’s frosty heart melts and he insists his neighbours, one of whom is seriously ill, take the tickets for the cruise.)
Starring Dudley Moore and David Huddleston.
How did Santa come to be? His very own movie attempts to explain all. The opening sequence is magical as a peasant woodcutter and his wife Anya deliver toys to a village, mid-blizzard. Dudley Moore plays an elf with ambition. But when he is naively tempted to the villainous side by John Lithgow’s greedy toy manufacturer, Christmas is thrown into serious jeopardy.
(Movie Magic: How did Santa Claus end up wearing a red outfit? Check out Mrs. Claus and her eye for portly fashion.)
Starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
This comedy-drama was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. A significant slice of this black & white Billy Wilder classic is set at Christmas, with the festive backdrop offering a stark contrast too the mood of Shirley MacLaine’s elevator operator Fran Kubelik. She becomes desperate in the apartment occupied by Jack Lemmon’s wonderfully portrayed Calvin ‘Bud’ Baxter. Her boss Jeff Sheldrake insists he loves Fran, but heads home to his wife and family in the suburbs for Christmas. Baxter has loaned out his apartment to executives in his company for their illicit liaisons so he can climb the corporate ladder. But enough is enough – especially where his true love is concerned. A magnificent film.
(Movie Magic: Lemmon and MacLaine at their finest and the line that says all could be well after all: “Shut up and deal!”)
Starring Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall and Kit Connor.
What’s this? Santa on the run from the police? Santa in Prison? We could be talking Bad Santa III at this rate. But no, this is a much gentler British comedy with family appeal. The wonderful Jim Broadbent stars as Santa Claus, who needs the help of nine-year-old boy Tom and his Dad Steve to save Christmas when he ends up ‘inside’ after a sleigh crash – while his reindeer roam loose in London. Broadbent also voiced Santa in the 2011 animated movie “Arthur Christmas” – capturing perfectly the incompetent Malcolm Christmas, Arthur’s father. Rafe Spall plays Steve, Kit Connor his son. Warwick Davis, Jodie Whittaker and Stephen Graham also star. They film is directed and written by Christopher Smith. Locations include Yorkshire hubs Leeds, Bradford and Wetherby, where the town hall becomes the Albatross Theatre.
(Movie Magic: Jim Broadbent delivers joy as he superbly brings Santa to marvellous life. His interactions with the prison inmates are priceless.)
Starring Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Morgan Freeman and Dame Helen Mirren.
This in an elaborate and visually breathtaking Disney reimagining of the book and ballet “The Nutcracker”. The soundtrack is a clever combination of Tchaikovsky’s famous music for the ballet and composer James Newton Howard’s new work. It was recorded by The Philharmonia Orchestra in London, with esteemed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The magical story takes place on Christmas Eve, but there’s a darker side to this festive movie tale and the young star of the piece must summon all her courage to emulate her queen of a mother and save the four realms from wicked rule.
(Movie Magic: The stunning visuals, the captivating soundtrack, Keira Knightley effectively playing a cake and more Christmas trees of magnificence than you can shake a stick at.)
Starring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Martine McCutcheon and Rowan Atkinson.
Written and directed by Richard Curtis, “Love Actually” boasts a stellar cast in an interwoven fabric of ten stories. Love, of one kind or another, is at the heart of each tale. Some are more satisfyingly performed than others. Suspension of belief is key when it comes to Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s love for and pursuit of junior member of No. 10’s staff Martine McCutcheon, but not when Emma Thompson’s character Karen discovers the necklace she finds in her husband’s coat pocket is not her Christmas gift after all. Her realisation there is another woman is portrayed with heartbreaking brilliance to the sorrowful strains of Joni Mitchell.
(Movie Magic: Rowan Atkinson’s elaborate wrapping of Alan Rickman’s clandestine purchase almost blows the secret of the necklace; Bill Nighy’s ageing rocker finds love is not so much all around as with his trusty manager Joe.)
Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Christmas is the backdrop, but not essential, to the plot of greed, ruin and revenge in this classic comedy. Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are perfectly detestable as the brothers who put the lives of two men on the line for the sake of a one-dollar wager. Deliciously watchable whatever time of year: a gentle way to ease into festive viewing.
(Movie Magic: Eddie Murphy’s incredulous look to camera when he’s condescendingly told by Ralph Bellamy what ingredients might be found in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.)