What makes a Christmas movie work? Here are the essential ingredients for festive flicks

Christmas, like the next recession, is just around the corner. And as your blood pressure spikes, your teeth grit and your arteries clog, we recommend you skip the cloying carols and the soul-sucking sales and, instead, enjoy Christmas the only way it truly can be enjoyed… through the prism of someone else’s imagination. 

Sometimes it feels as though festive films are the only thing we have left to remind us of the good old days. Dreams of a white Christmas are melting away thanks to global warming, while that Elf On The Shelf has imbued Santy with Stasi-like levels of menace. So increasingly it seems like the only place you can get a real sense of that traditional ring-ting-tingling is on your telly.

Why else would we sit through the tepid dalliances of 2006’s The Holiday other than to marinate in the winter wonderland that is Kate Winslet’s Surrey?

Is it not the sense of catharsis rather than the comedy that draws us back, year after year, to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), to watch the travails of a man as tortured as we are?

And when Jack Skellington tries to celebrate the season but makes a mess of it in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) you can’t but feel better about your own half-baked attempts.

We’ve compiled a list of movies that can soften the sting of Yuletide not being as festive as you wanted it to be, filmic fantasies that can sustain us through the disappointing reality of dried-up turkey, feigned merriment and simmering resentment.


Part of the joy of Christmas fades between the time you come of age and before you have your own kids. But by mainlining The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1996), Elf (2003) and How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) the magic and mayhem so sadly lacking since our childhood crimbos can be regained, at least momentarily.


Sure, Aunty Mary is a pain in the neck, but by watching The Family Stone (2006) together, you can appreciate that there are probably worse families to come home to. Home For The Holidays (1996) provides further proof that it’s not just you that’s in danger of drowning in the gravy boat.


If you’re the type who’s alarmed by the thought of a fat man spying on you, taking note of your behaviour before breaking into your home to fiddle with your stockings, try Rare Exports (2010), a Finnish flick whose characters are not dashing through the snow but running for their lives from a kidnapping, reindeer-slaughtering Santa who is surrounded by ravenous, naked elves.


Having spent an age trying to get the house ‘proud’ for any visitors that may drop by, there is a purifying joy in seeing Macaulay Culkin make a massive mess as he fends off America’s dumbest criminals, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, in the first two Home Alone movies.


In an era when the bad guys seem to just get promoted, watching Bruce Willis liven up the world’s worst Christmas party and riddle the bullies with bullets in Die Hard gives us the justice we’re never going to get in the real world. See also, Trading Places (1983).


While nothing says happy holidays as definitively as pondering death (It’s A Wonderful Life) or terminal illness (Last Holiday), watching James Stewart realise  how he shaped the world around him, or seeing how Queen Latifah finds her self-worth after cashing in her life insurance, reminds us that we might just be OK after all.


The bittersweet moment when Judy Garland sings ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ in Meet Me In St Louis (1944), knowing it would be her last one in her family home, or watching Angelica Houston’s Greta lose herself to thoughts of her first love as ‘The Lass Of Aughrim’ floats down the stairs in The Dead (1988) conjure up our own past losses.


For anyone that’s thrown up in the wrong bathroom one too many times, there’s a kindred spirit in Anna Kendrick’s Jenny from Happy Christmas (2014). She’s a millennial drunk who upturns her brother’s and sister-in-law’s lives in unsuspecting ways when she comes, literally, to crash with him.

The fear

Watching the titular Gremlins (1984) terrify a small, snow-covered town in the days running up to Christmas Eve will reframe your own bad behaviour during The Twelve Pubs of Christmas in a more positive light. The cuteness factor is like Alka-seltzer for the eyes.


If you’ve ever engaged in a futile attempt to get into the swing of the season and not been successful, you will relate to Bill Murray, playing himself, desperately trying to raise the spirits of residents trapped in a hotel by a blizzard in A Very Murray Christmas (2015). When some of the most spectacularly awful warbling fails to rouse their spirits, he passes out drunk and has some very peculiar dreams.


Christmas In Connecticut (1945) will be relatable for anyone who has ever been in over their head when it comes to hosting duties. Barbara Stanwyck’s single gal ‘influencer’ ­— who has lied about being the perfect housewife — must now become just that to save her job when her boss and a war hero invite themselves to Christmas dinner.


When you’ve been touched up more than a Vogue photoshoot at the office Christmas party, you can feel thankful that it could have been so much worse, as proven by Sandra Bullock’s psychotic Lucy in While You Were Sleeping (1996), who confuses a coma for consent before cuckolding her fantasy for his brother. Meanwhile, Andrew Lincoln’s creepy obsession with his best friend’s wife in Love Actually (2001) has been framed as some grand romantic sacrifice.

Read more: Top 12 underrated Christmas movies from Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping

The best alternative Christmas movies of all time 

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