An Alternative Christmas Film List
I have never seen ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.
It wasn’t a Christmas perennial in our house and I only became aware of it long after I’d grown up. I still haven’t seen it but intend to this year, although I’m allergic to schmaltz. When I was growing up, in the wonderful world of two TV channels, it was a choice of ‘tom thumb’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
We tend to forget that despite the dominance of Hollywood, film popularity varies greatly country by country, so my Christmas films shift a bit from the average. The list remains flexible but must include some of the films below.
If you have any feeling for Vincent Van Gogh, you’ll overlook the slight structure of the plot and find this film simply stupendous. It takes a police procedural approach to uncovering a truth about the tragedy of the artist’s death. A labour of love created over seven years, it uses 100 artists to hand-paint each frame of the story with oils on canvas. The rotoscoped cast includes Chris O’Dowd and Saoirse Ronan, and finds time to include 300 of the paintings Van Gogh produced (in his working life of just nine years he finished, by my reckoning, a painting every three days). Critics were generally approving but flummoxed by the whole bonkers idea of such an enterprise. Incredibly, the film was criticised for having too much artistic style. It’s a joyful and innovative enterprise.
Mike Leigh will be the first to admit he’s a bit Marmite (he is a pugilistic conversationalist who does not honour fools) but this is the hard stuff. I’m pre-sold, of course, as it covers a crucial period in the lives of Gilbert & Sullivan (unlike the delightful but little-seen gem, ‘The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan’, which hurls you through an overview of their careers).
The time frame covered here was partly decided by the fact that Allan Corduner and James Broadbent were the correct ages for the roles, and the approach is rigorously true to life. Gilbert is stung by the feeling that as the ‘king of Topsy-Turveydom’ he is past his best. What saves them and their backers, the D’Oyly Cartes and the cast of the theatre, becomes their greatest success, ‘The Mikado’. The portrait of Gilbert is rounded, dark and complex, but everyone from his ever-patient Kitty (Lesley Manville), haunted by dreams of childlessness) to insecure performer Timothy Spall, comes out at their peak. It’s easily the best film about theatre ever made in English. Or as Gilbert says, ‘It’s not grand opera, it’s low burlesque in a little theatre on the banks of the Thames.’ The scene where the entire cast petition Gilbert for the re-instatement of the Mikado’s song is a breath-catcher. ‘Oh sir, we do think it’s a shame to cut it.’ I’m tearing up.
If I’m tearing up now I might as well get a good blubber out of my system, and this is the film to do it. It’s a fable about the Christmas Day armistice. A bitterly cold night, dead men frozen into trenches, and the apparatus of remote-controlled warfare breaks down under its sheer inhumanity. They manage to squeeze in a beautiful opera singer performing ‘Silent Night’ at the front line as it starts to snow and everyone makes friends and it seems almost believable, especially as the bones turn out to be true; Wilhelm, the German Crown Prince, sent an opera singer to the front lines and brought WW1 to a standstill on 25th December 1914. The film was a Europudding of a production (it seems to be German, Spanish, French and Scottish), a perennial favourite and no-one here except me and Ian Luck seems to have seen it.
‘Three Wishes For Cinderella’
Think Cinderella with a feminist twist. A 1973 film, Tři Oříšky pro Popelku, originally released in Czech and German (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel), is a seasonal tradition in Eastern Europe, where it’s broadcast every Christmas Eve. Instead of a Fairy Godmother, three hazelnuts grant Cinderella’s wishes, but Cinders gives as good as she gets and os a better shot with a bow than the prince, so that he has to win her hand. It’s sentiment-free and all the better for it.
‘A Dinner For One’
This film’s a total ledge, broadcast across Germany as a seasonal must-watch, but I have still never seen it. I’ll rectify that this year. It details the birthday of an upper-class English woman, whose friends have all passed away. The dutiful butler takes on the personas of the former guests at the dinner. The result is one very drunk butler, a tipsy Miss Sophie and a lot of laughs. A hidden classic, apparently.
‘The Shape of Water’
Did Guillermo del Toro realise he’s made a future Christmas classic? Surely not. Crassly described as ‘Amelie’ meets ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’, it’s very much its own beautiful beast – a swooning, fantastical fable with set-pieces of taut suspense and an emotional uppercut. What lifts potential B-movie material is the director’s eye for detail, the presence of water in nearly every scene, the old TV and movie clips that comment on the action, the surreal moments of elation and the colour palette of tactile greens and browns. Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer do their best work and there’s a Fred and Ginger pastiche in there too.
‘Anna & The Apocalypse’
So we have to have a Christmas musical and a Christmas ghost story. This is one of the few apocalyptic Scottish Christmas high school zombie musicals in recent memory. It’s low budget but delightful, and has become a bit of a cult. What is it about musicals set in Scotland in which the main character dreams of being as far away from the place as possible? Anna dreams of going to Australia. In ‘Sunshine on Leith’ they want to go to America (although I think that was dictated by the Proclaimers’ song title) although of course for four years after nobody wanted to go there. And Scotland is such a fantastic place, especially at this time of year – go figure. The sheer charm of the thing skates us over the ropey bits, and there are Christmas songs galore.
‘A Christmas Tale’
Victoria Wood said, ‘If you want to discover how truly weird families are, spend a Christmas with them.’ It’s Christmas and mum (Catherine Deneuve) needs a bone marrow transplant, but the only one with the right genetic mix is the black sheep son who got kicked out. The heartwarming ending can be seen coming from Mars but Arnaud Desplechin’s film is much more chaotic and sharper than expected. The sprawling family gathers under one roof as rivalries and conflicts explode. Hankies out for the ending.
I could have included ‘Scrooge’ (the Alistair Sim version OBVS), ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ (Celia Johnson emoting in flawed Chekovian Christmas drama), ‘The Railway Children’ or Lionel Jefferies’ underrated follow-up ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’, and Ralphie and his BB gun in ‘A Christmas Story’ still delights. Having sat through the streamer ‘Jingle Jangle’, admirable for its uniformly excellent African-American casting but tooth-rottingly cute in all other departments, I’ll be seeking out alternatives.