Ralph McLean reviews his top ten festive favourites to make the season of goodwill go a little bit faster
What do most of us spend the majority of the festive season doing? Eating our own body weight in calorific confectionary? Guzzling gassy grape-flavoured soft drinks? Regaling family members with our personal takes on 'Let It Go' before being ejected from the party bake first?
Well, if you are like me, all of the above. Chances are, however, you will also spend more than your fair share of time plonked on a sofa as a seemingly endless conveyor belt of seasonal cinema offerings play out in front of your poor aching eyeballs.
Many of those movies you will probably have seen countless times before – some will be worth viewing again, and some won't. The following ten films, listed in order of my preference, are Christmas holiday crackers to make the season of family bliss and goodwill to all cobblers go just a little bit faster.
10 – Diehard (1988)
All that cop John McClane wanted for Christmas was a little peace and quiet in the bosom of his estranged family. What he got, however, was embroiled in a murderous action movie plot with a diabolical European kidnapper and thief played by Alan Rickman, which involved him wearing little more than a white vest and a sardonic sneer in the coldest month of the year. Diehard is arguably the best Bruce Willis film ever from the days when he had hair and a wicked way with a neat one liner.
9 – Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
A Japanese prisoner of war camp may seem an unlikely setting for a Christmas film cracker, but the war movie – from The Great Escape down – is a great tradition of the season on the small screen. Also, it’s hard to beat a bit of Bowie at this time of year. Here, he plays Jack Celliers, a defiant English soldier captured by the Japanese during the Second World War. Add a quick spin of the Thin White Duke’s 'Little Drummer Boy' duet with Bing Crosby on the dancette before screening for the full on Bowie effect.
8 – Planes, Trains And Automobiles (1987)
OK, it’s essentially a film about the American holiday of Thanksgiving, but the heart-warming message of friendship and sharing at the heart of this film makes it perfect viewing for a snowy festive afternoon. Steve Martin’s irritated traveller trying to get home but having to share his journey with the relentlessly upbeat but secretly sad John Candy is a perfect mix of great gags, seasonal sentimentality and quality slapstick best captured when the odd couple are forced to reluctantly share a hotel bed. Altogether now, 'Those aren’t pillows!'
7 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
No Christmas viewing list should ignore the traditional charms of an old fashioned James Bond adventure film and, as festive secret agent fun goes, it’s hard to beat On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set in the season, boasting more snow-bound settings and bob sleigh related antics than any other Bond beano, it may mark the only appearance in the lead role for ex-Milk Tray man George Lazenby, but it does contain the gorgeous Diana Rigg as his main squeeze and the certifiably nuts Telly Savalas as the arch enemy Blofeld. Now that’s a result in my book.
6 – Porridge (1979)
Many people will tell you that cinematic spin offs of great TV comedies never work. I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. Porridge has it all: the much-loved Ronnie Barker reprising his finest role as seasoned lag Norman Stanley Fletcher, a storyline involving a Christmas break out from Slade prison and a script from the Lennon/McCartney of TV writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. With the best gags reserved for the pathetic celebrity football match that takes place between the prisoners and a team of miserable TV celebrities, this is an undervalued festive gem just screaming out for reappraisal.
5 – Lethal Weapon (1987)
Old Mel Gibson might not be welcome in everyone’s house at Christmas time, and the gun-blazing, drug ring-busting thrust of the first in a series of Lethal Weapon movies might not seem all that conducive to the season of good will, but it does open with 'Jingle Bell Rock' and includes a memorable shoot out in a Christmas tree lot, which means it’s good enough for me, frankly.
4 – Elf (2003)
Forget Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, Buddy the elf has got to be Will Ferrell’s finest screen role. This story of an overgrown Santa's little helper who finds out that he is actually a human in a world of elves and sets out to trace his real father in New York City – spreading old fashioned Christmas cheer to the cynics he meets along the way – is simplistic, sentimental and soaked in festive spirit. Ferrell’s adventures as he makes his way round the big city in his bulging elf suit, greeting everyone with a child-like sense of innocence, never grows tiresome. A proper modern Christmas classic.
3 – Scrooged (1988)
No Christmas movie list would be complete without a dollop of Dickens, and no movie list in general would be complete without an appearance from the Denizen of deadpan himself, Mr Bill Murray. Richard Donner’s Scrooged gives us both. Murray is a cold-hearted television executive charged with producing a new take on A Christmas Carol who soon finds himself forced to examine his own personal failings in great detail. Sardonic, pointed and featuring a splendid turn as a taxi driving Ghost Of Christmas Past from New York Doll front man David Johansen, this is just about perfect festive fare from start to finish.
2 – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Maybe it’s the excessive intake of egg nog or having to listen to rarely-seen relatives for prolonged periods of time, but nobody wants to have to think when they’re watching a comedy at Christmas, do they? At this point let me introduce the great Chevy Chase, who rolls up with a comedy that’s cheap, cheerful and crammed to the gills with dumb gags. Everything you could possibly want from a seasonal smile fest, in other words.
1 – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Alright, it’s predictable, but sometimes a classic is revered for all the right reasons. Capra’s masterpiece has everything a great festive film needs: James Stewart as good-hearted George Bailey, who’s about to end it all on Christmas Eve until his guardian angel intervenes to show him how his life has impacted on others; a script that’s just the right blend of saccharine and sharply pointed; and an ending that would bring a tear to a glass eye. 'Every time a bell rings another angel gets its wings.' I’m filling up just thinking about it. Merry Christmas, everybody!