On Friday I gave you my best ever vintage Christmas films, and today comes a list of my favourite modern Christmas films (by modern in this context, I mean post-60s). After a slight lull in the 60s and 70s, the tradition of the Christmas movie came back into full force in the 80s and hasn’t slackened pace since. This doesn’t always mean the best quality (the unfortunate Fred Claus being a recent example of festive un-funniness), but it does give us plenty to choose from at this time of year. Here are my top picks for yule viewing from the 80s through to today.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Funny and festive and romantic. Sandra Bullock has made some dodgy film choices in her time, but this is an absolute winner, and in the same vein as any classic screwball comedy of the 30s. Sandra has an enormous crush on Peter Gallagher, but when he is knocked unconscious on Christmas Day and she is mistaken for his girlfriend, she finds herself falling for his brother (the dishy Bill Pullman) instead. Shenanigans ensue.
It has all the Christmas essentials – a personal journey of discovery, romance, songs and dance, comedy, decorations, presents… and, err, skeletons and monsters and ghouls and creepy crawlies. Jack Skellington is feeling jaded with Halloween, so when he discovers Christmastown, it seems like the perfect new project to sink his teeth (so to speak) into. Shenanigans ensue.
The Snowman (1982)
This is the British version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, in that it is a classic that seemingly everyone must watch at Christmas. Like IAWL, I had never seen it until this year. Like IAWL, it made me cry. It is only half an hour long, and all the better for not being too drawn out and with no words spoken. A simple and adorable story of a little boy who builds a snowman that comes to life.
Just looking at pictures of the large and gangly Will Ferrell dressed as an elf make me want to laugh. After being raised as an elf at the North Pole, Will Ferrell causes one disaster too many and is sent to the US to build a relationship with his real father. Shenanigans ensue.
Bad Santa (2003)
This film is so wrong on so many levels. And yet so right. Billy Bob Thornton is THE most obnoxious, disgusting, immoral Santa you will ever see. And his ‘journey’ of redemption is the antithesis of all the usual heartwarming and sincere stories we see this time of year. Billy Bob is a drunken Santa impersonator who scopes out department stores before robbing them on Christmas Eve. An accidental friendship springs up between him and a not-very-clever little kid, while his elf-partner gets more and more fed up with his incompetency. Shenanigans ensue.
Die Hard (1988)
Alan Rickman is the best baddie ever. And Bruce Willis one of the best heroes (his pursed lips have a role all of their own). Things turn bad at the Nakatomi Plaza staff Christmas party, when the building is taken over by terrorists led by the brilliantly-name Hans Gruber. Luckily, John McClane is on hand to run around barefoot in a grubby vest taking them down one by one. Add a wise traffic cop, an incompetent police chief, and a sleazy reporter, and you guessed it – shenanigans ensue.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
It is pretty hard to star alongside a talking frog and not be outshone, but Michael Caine manages to hold his own with the Muppets, and in doing so became one of the best Scrooges to ever grace the screen. In a twist on the classic tale, Gonzo stars as the narrator Charles Dickens, Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Waldorf and Statler as Marley and Marley, Rizzo the rat as an office clerk, and Fozzie Bear as Fozziewig. Not to mention the singing fruit.
Christmas Vacation (1989)
I can’t even count how many times I have seen this movie. And it still makes me laugh. The whole way through. The other ‘vacation’ movies I can take or leave (leave, preferably), but the Christmas version is absolutely top notch. Chevy Chase is the over-enthusiastic Clark Griswold, who manages to meet disaster after disaster in his quest to create the perfect family Christmas. The scene when he finally blows his top in a rage-filled, foul-mouthed tirade is movie magic.
Bernard and the Genie (1991)
A little known Christmas cult TV movie made by the BBC. It can be hard to come by and comes on TV rarely, which is a huge shame because it is really enormously funny. Written by ‘Four Weddings’ Richard Curtis, it stars Alan Cummings as Bernard, Lenny Henry as the Genie, and Rowan Atkinson as Bernard’s repellant boss. In the space of one day Bernard loses his job, his girlfriend, and all his possessions – but things turn around when he rubs a dusty old lamp and a genie pops out. Shenanigans etc etc.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
In 50 years time, this will be as much a classic as White Christmas (even if only for Colin Firths’ reindeer jumper). Beginning and ending at Christmas, the story follows the delightfully klutzy Bridget as she is torn between the charms of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. Hilarious from start to finish, and the restaurant fight scene is absolutely iconic.
Little Women (1994)
I have to admit I haven’t yet seen a version of Little Women that has lived up to the book, but the 1994 version is still rather lovely with some very pretty snowy Christmas scenes. Four sisters grow up under the watchful eye of ‘Marmee’, learning (with difficulty at times) how to grow into the sort of women they would like to be. Delightful.
Life of Brian (1979)
The bulk of the film might not be very festive (and the ending more appropriate to Easter), but any movie that beings with the three wise men snatching away their just-given presents and assaulting a man in drag has to be worth including on any Christmas list. “Well, weren’t they nice? Hmm. Out of their bloody minds, but still.”
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
With various Christmas and New Year scenes throughout the film, and one of the most endearing couples in movie history, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is the Bridget Jones of the 80s. Harry and Sally meet just after university and instantly dislike each other. Over the course of years and several chance meetings, they eventually become friends – but the big question it caused everyone to ask was, can men and women ever be ‘just friends’?
Home Alone (1990)
Home Alone was so popular when it came out that it quickly became a victim of its own success, and it became deeply uncool for anyone to like this movie. After a deep internal struggle, I decided I don’t care. It is super Christmassy, and has some great festive music, and Macaulay Culkin was such a cute kid, and the villains are both bad and funny, and Kevin’s numerous ways of foiling them totally ingenious. Uncool and AWESOME.
Like ‘While You Were Sleeping’, this is a love story inspired by romcoms of the 30s. Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack meet by chance one Christmas while both reaching for the last pair of black cashmere gloves. They spend a few wonderful hours together but are both attached to other people, so agree on a few signs. If those signs ever reappear, it will mean they really were meant to be together.
Hooves of Fire (1999)
A wonderful half-hour film from Aardman Animations, Robbie the Reindeer arrives in the North Pole to take the place of his father at the front of Santa’s sleigh team. However he has to fight for his place on the team, and the best place to show his worth is at the annual Reindeer Games. Any fan of British TV will love this for the cameos – Robbie is voiced by Ardal O’Hanlon (Dougal from Father Ted), Father Christmas is Ricky Tomlinson, Steve Coogan is Blitzen, and Robbie Williams the narrator. Utterly brilliant, but non-Brits might miss some of the jokes.
Love Actually (2003)
The events in Love Actually take place around Christmas, mostly in London, and are a reflection on all the different stages and kinds of love. Following various couples and singles, the individual stories are variously sad, sweet, complicated, funny and tender. An all star cast and a brilliant script from Richard Curtis combine to make this a classic for any time of year.