An Alternative Christmas Film List

Film

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.

‘Loving Vincent’

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.

‘Topsy-Turvy’

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.

‘Joyeux Nöel’

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.

 

 

 

29 comments on “An Alternative Christmas Film List”

  1. Paul Graham says:

    On the Blunden front caveat emptor, the digital version I last rented had been butchered, as if someone had attempted a charm-ectomy.

  2. snowy says:

    A little querying reveals the version offered by the streaming platform with a penchant for hiding paperbacks is 15 mins shorter than the theatrical print, but what was cut and why is undetermined.

    A film? Imagine if somebody mashed up the Nativity with Assault on Precinct 13?

    You don’t have to, it’s been done: Legion [2010]

  3. Roger says:

    You ought to see It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s a lot less sentimental than you’d think, as David Thompson makes plain in his wonderful Suspects. I suggested that the NFT did a Suspects season – showed all the films absorbed in the book – a few years ago, but they turned the idea down.

    Le père noël est une ordure has the full loathing and misanthropy that assails some of us at Christmas.

  4. Tony Walker says:

    I have ‘Joyeux Noel’ and ‘Topsy Turvy’ on DVD, and they are both watched on a regular basis, not always in the Xmas season.

  5. Roger says:

    Forgot to say:
    There’s an irony of fate in that the “insecure performer” played by Timothy Spall in Topsy-Turvy was George Grossmith, whose Diary of a Nobody has outlasted the Savoy Operas in popularity.

  6. Paul C says:

    Suspects is a brilliant book – I dip into it all the time. His novel ‘Silver Light’ is in a similar vein : based around the film ‘Red River’ and worth a look if you like old westerns.

    I prefer darker fare to the sentimental glop at Xmas :

    Nightmare Before Christmas
    Rare Exports : A Christmas Tale – from Finland
    Black Christmas (1974)

  7. Peter T says:

    With Roger on Wonderful Life. There’s some sentiment, but it’s a very good film with some excellent acting. It makes a clear contrast between warlord capitalism and a more caring society – all very relevant in the present political climate.

  8. admin says:

    We could add ‘Krampus’ ‘Cold Prey’ 1 & 2 and ‘Saint Nicholas’, with its demonic Santa galloping across the Amsterdam rooftops!

  9. Brian Evans says:

    “The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan” can be bought from a Website called Film Jems. It is a mere snip at £1.99.

    Funnily enough I saw ‘tom thumb’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a double bill c1973 at the ABC in Catford, Sarf London.

  10. Tony says:

    I have watched IAWL annually for about fifty years but when I see it now I am only able to think about Jimmy Stewart’s heroic service in the recently ended war as a bomber pilot and how very glad he must have been to be, unlike so many of his comrades, still alive.

  11. Porl says:

    Im still a bit advocate (advocaat? stop it now, no yolking….) for The Bishop’s Wife over Its a Wonderful LIfe. You get the same amount of schmaltz, the same cheeky kid, but a more comfortable running time and the bonus of David Niven and Cary Grant. And snowy shops and ice skating on ponds and all that.

    Another nice snowy / creepy one you must check out is “The White Reindeer”

  12. Porl says:

    Im still a bit advocate (advocaat? stop it now, no yolking….) for The Bishop’s Wife over the over-exposed Its a Wonderful LIfe. You get the same amount of schmaltz, the same cheeky kid, but a more comfortable running time and the bonus of David Niven and Cary Grant. And snowy shops and ice skating on ponds and all that.

    Another nice snowy / creepy one you must check out is “The White Reindeer”

  13. John Howard says:

    I’ve sent this link to an actor / adopted son (or so my daughter tells me) who played “one of the Scottish soldiers”. He will be chuffed it’s on the list.

  14. John Howard says:

    Oh yes – That last post should have read:

    One of the Scottish soldiers in Joyeux Noel ( Doohh)

  15. Davem says:

    I worked in Frankfurt for quite a time and colleagues were alway recommending ‘A Dinner For One’

    It is very amusing.

  16. SteveB says:

    I love Topsy Turvy
    Dinner for One I never even heard of till I was in Germany, until then I only knew Freddie Frinton from Meet the Wife
    By the way @Davem I’m in Frankfurt now
    Ive got a soft spot for Amazing Mr Blunden and also Alastair Sim as Scrooge

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    Bill Murray in Scrooged is very watch able, although Alistair Sim is the best Scrooge. The animated Jim Carey starer A Christmas Carol version (more CGI animation) works well.

    Always liked the 2 Die Hards as Christmas films.

    I’ve got a copy of the Shape of Water, must sit down and watch, having said that I only watched ET this year, they weren’t joking about Spielberg’s dad problem at the time.

    Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt has a splendid Christmas segment, All Through the Night with Joan Collins. Dead of Night the old Ealing portmanteau has a nice Christmas segment too.

    Gremlins is a fun Christmas movie, and set at Christmas The Children is a better horror film. if you like the more ropey horror films, how about London set slasher Don’t Open ‘Till Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night and then there is Christmas Evil where the killer actually has a naughty and nice list.

    Wayne.

  18. admin says:

    I worked on Scrooged and the original script was dazzlingly cynical and dark. The director wrecked the film by literally cutting out every good joke from the script (with scissors!)
    All Through the Night does have Joan Collins but a much better version was done by the Tales From The Crypt series, written by Robert Zemeckis.
    I love The Children, Black Christmas (the original) and the Gremlins ‘Santa in the chimney’ monologue.

  19. Kristina says:

    I would also suggest Rare Exports, a dark horror-comedy from Finland where well-meaning archaeologists dig up a slightly more psychotic and murderous Santa Claus..

  20. David says:

    Dinner for One was mildly amusing but watching it every year is unfathomable.
    Die hard 2 and The Shop Around the Corner are two of my staple festive viewings. The Man Who Came to Dinner is another I watch, if showing. Three films covering some gratuitous violence, a bit of schmaltz and a load of ascerbic wit. Hardly alternative but puts me in the festive spirit.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    If you are a Christmas hater like me, then ‘Gremlins’ is a must see, as is ‘Scrooged’, and ‘Die Hard’. I’m also very fond of the odd movies that would appear in the run up to the 25th – movies like: ‘Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines’; it’s sequel, ‘Monte Carlo Or Bust’, both featuring Terry-Thomas at his best, as the proto Dick Dastardly, Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, who would have been great in a ‘Flashman’ style book series: ‘Mouse On The Moon’, the sort of odd movie only the British could make: the two Peter Cushing ‘Dalek’ movies, both of which I have watched possibly too many times to be healthy; likewise, George Pal’s beautiful ‘The Time Machine’, and Nathan Juran’s genuinely alarming in places, ‘Jack The Giant Killer’: anything by Ray Harryhausen, but preferably ‘Jason And The Argonauts’; ‘The Mysterious Island’, and ‘The First Men In The Moon’. Nothing of any great depth here, but all stuff which is just fun, and there’s not a lot of that about this year.

  22. admin says:

    I must track down ‘Jack the Giant Killer’. ‘Monte Carlo Or Bust’ is frankly unwatchable now, I find, with its stereotype Europeans watching for punchlines to land. Ken Annakin was never a top-tier director. Yet I had to see the film so many times because it was always on the lower half of double bills.

  23. Brian Evans says:

    I’m afraid mention of “Monte Carlo or Bust” has got me into “pub bore” mode. It’s not so much the silly stereotypes that annoy, more the loudness of the picture. It confuses shouting and very loud music with humour. This also happens in other Ken Annakin films-eg “Three Men in a Boat”, “The Fast Lady” and “You Know What Sailors Are” to name but three. I must stick up for Annakin though, he did make some very good jobs of very popular films, most notably “Holiday Camp” and “Swiss Family Robinson”. He has written a fascinating autobiography “So You Wanna Be a Director?” I have just looked him up in IMDB, and for total trivia how about the fact he was born in Beverley, Yorkshire, and died in Beverley Hills Calif?

    As Mr Admin says, MCOB was often shown as the second half of double bills. I saw it as a re-issue programme, propping up “The Italian Job”. It was one of the longest double bills I have sat through. I thought I was going to miss the last bus home.

    More trivia-I saw it at the Hippodrome in Liverpool. a huge barn of a place and former variety theatre. There were only 10 of us in the circle. (The upper circle had been closed off when it went over to films”. Despite showing the trailer for next weeks picture-another car film “Winning”- it closed on the Sat at the end of that week. For anyone who is still awake, if anyone looks at the Cinema Treasure” website, one of the contributors is Ken Roe. He was trainee manager at the Hippodrome when it closed.

    Now, back to the plot. My fave Christmas watch film is “The Holly and the Ivy”, based on the still performed play of the same name. About a typical Christmas which naturally ends in a row. Brilliant performances by Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    I like those movies, because of the old cars, and do prefer ‘T.M.M.I.T.F.M.’, as all the aircraft were recreations of real ‘Dawn Of Flight’ machines. The AVRO Triplane, and the Bristol ‘Box Kite’ featured in the movie can be viewed (C-19 Permitting) can be viewed at the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire. They still fly, too. The movie was also partially filmed at Brooklands racetrack, before it was almost completely obliterated by industrial units. Looking at those ancient aircraft, one thing is clear: the people who flew them had balls of steel.

  25. Roger says:

    Never mind double bills!

    The old repertory cinemas used to do Sunday triple bills – the ones I remember are “The complete Godfather” (the trouble was Godfather3, which I sat through for completist reasons) and “All the Man with No name Westerns”.
    Riverside Studios used to do the whole of Bondarchuk’s War & Peace (starring the entire Soviet army) as a day-long session every few years.

  26. snowy says:

    The Goodies episode ‘Earthanasia, [a nihilist deconstruction of the festive season in 30 mins], will probably get an outing again.

    As will ‘Scrooged’ which contains all one would expect from a children’s film: an animated rotting corpse, a frozen body, loose eyeball floating in a glass and mouse abuse. Scooped by others, therefore… er… ‘Brazil’ by Gilliam T.

    But to find things people might not have seen, one has to go a little deeper.

    The Ref (1994) a comedy vehicle for Dennis Leary doing the shouty thing.

    Fancy a bit of French?

    La Nuit du Reveillon (2011), a dinner party is rudely interrupted.

    Sheitan (2006) You really shouldn’t go into les bois…

    Le Calendrier (2020) a former dancer now confined to a wheelchair is given a gift, but it’s more than it appears…

    Or Spanish perhaps?

    Cuento de Navidad (2005) made for TV but bound to be lingering somewhere on streaming platforms, two boys find a woman in a hole, who is she and why is she dressed as Santa Claus?

    As a complete oddity, ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’ (1971), Plot? I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that; The fat woman who is probably the real reason the SS Poseidon tipped over hosts an annual party for orphans, but it all goes a bit ‘Bates Motel’.

    ‘Oliver!’ and ‘Heidi’ are involved somehow and then Ralph Richardson and Lionel Jefferies pop up, for reasons not readily apparent, rated AA on release so not a ‘film for all the family’, [might be the mummified body that did that?], but much too childish a plot idea to draw in a Teenage/Adult audience, I’m sure somebody thought it a good idea at the time, for Brit-Flick Fans only.

  27. Nick says:

    I will heartily endorse the previous comments about It’s A Wonderful Life and urge you to watch it. Yes, there are moments of schmaltz (which I normally cannot abide), but here they are extremely few and far between, and you’re so emotionally involved in the characters by those points that it doesn’t matter. Tear up? You may well do.

  28. Kevin Woolard says:

    Still quite proud that my son is in a “blink and you’ll miss it” scene from Anna & The Apocalypse. And a deleted scene from the extras at that!

  29. Helen Martin says:

    We cherish those scenes, Kevin, because it’s a long slow uphill for most actors. My son was an alien in an X Files episode. The costume was so complete that he had to be led around and warned about obstructions as in, “Alien, step up carefully.”

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