12 best Christmas films to watch with the family

Nothing violent, nothing unpleasant: think drama, comedy, romance, adventure, inspiration and, above all else, schmaltz, says Jonathan Self, as he presents the 12 films you simply must see this Christmas.

Pause for a moment, if you will, and contemplate the films of Christmas past. When I was a nipper, the BBC could only afford to buy very old or very unpopular films. Thus, according to my diary, we watched ‘The Crosican Brothers’ (1941) in 1966, ‘The Last of the Mowhecans’ (1936) in 1967 and ‘Captain Blood’ (1935) — note how my spelling was improving — in 1968.

According to my 1967 Radio Times (me, a hoarder?), we were also treated to The Flute and the Arrow (1957), a decade-old ‘Swedish drama film that was entered into the 1958 Cannes Film Festival’. Yet although I remember laughing at the director’s name — Arne Sucksdorff (no, really) — of either the flute or the arrow, I have no recollection.

Of course, rather like Dickens’s ghost, anything one watched on television in the 1960s ‘fluctuated in its distinctness’ and my overriding memory of Christmas film viewing during this period is of standing in a corner with the aerial held over my head, as my father, wearing a paper crown, banged the set and swore. All of which is an extremely roundabout way of explaining why, if I make old bones and some youngster asks me what is the biggest improvement I have witnessed during my lifetime, I shall reply without hesitation: ‘The Christmas film experience.’ Thanks to Sky, Netflix, HBO Max (you’ll need a VPN to get this from the UK), Disney+ and all the other film streaming sites, it is now possible to watch almost any film ever made.

With so much choice and the holiday stretching ahead in all its lazy, roaring-fire, mince-pie, hot-Port, candlelit, pine-needle-scented glory, which Christmas films should one aim to see? To my mind, nothing violent, nothing unpleasant. What one wants is drama, comedy, romance, adventure, inspiration and, above all else, schmaltz! Below, I have chosen a dozen of my favourites — one for every day of the festive season.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

A scene from ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’, 1992. Directed by Brian Henson. Credit: Alamy

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According to the World Wide Web, there are something like 135 versions of Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, but this is my personal favourite. Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge straight and you would never imagine that he is actually acting with a cast of puppets. The narrator is Gonzo, by the way, and Kermit and Piggy play the Cratchits.

I would rather watch this than read the book. There, I have said it.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)

Perhaps the most famous and popular Christmas film of all time, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life flopped at the box office, almost certainly because it was released in America after the holidays were over, in January 1947. James Stewart stars as George Bailey, a man whose generosity has helped more people than he realises.

It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946, an RKO Radio Pictures film with Donna Reed and James Stewart. Credit: Alamy

Facing a scandal caused by his own goodness, Bailey plans to die by suicide, until he is saved by an angel with the unlikely name of Clarence. It has everything — drama, darkness, redemption, romance and a political message (kindness trumps capitalism) — plus an outstanding performance by Stewart.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Frank Capra was supposed to direct this film, but changed his mind to work on It’s a Wonderful Life (as an aside, 1947 was a great year for Christmas films, as it is also when Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife were made). Every year, millionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) leaves his Fifth Avenue mansion for the holidays and homeless Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) secretly moves in. McKeever is soon joined by a Second World War hero and O’Connor’s runaway daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), who doesn’t admit that this is her family home. The house grows more crowded, the plot becomes more complicated and ends with… but I won’t spoil it for you.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Kris Kringle, perhaps the real Father Christmas, perhaps not, is annoyed to find that the man assigned to play him in an annual parade is drunk. When he complains to the parade’s organiser, Doris Walker, she persuades him to take his place.

He does so well that he is hired to play Santa Claus at Macy’s store on 34th Street. What follows is part fantasy, part romance, part (sort of) courtroom drama. A young Natalie Wood turns in a stellar performance.

The Polar Express (2004)

Chris Van Allsburg’s wonderfully illustrated children’s classic comes to life in this spectacular animated film by director Robert Zemeckis. On Christmas Eve, a young boy embarks on a magical adventure to the North Pole on the Polar Express, learning about friendship, bravery and (oh, all right, pass the sick bag) the spirit of Christmas.

A Christmas Tale (2008)

This isn’t exactly a conventional Christmas film (and perhaps not for younger eyes), but it is very funny in places and captures perfectly what can happen when adult children return to their dysfunctional family home for the holidays. Worth watching for Catherine Deneuve’s performance as a devious matriarch alone and, of course, its delightful Christmassy Frenchness.

The Apartment (1960)

Another unconventional Christmas film. Billy Wilder’s charming comedy about an insurance clerk (Jack Lemmon) who falls for the building’s lift operator (Shirley MacLaine) has its dark side, involving, as it does, infidelity and loneliness. Luckily, however, it has a happy ending.

Trading Places (1983)

A bet made by two billionaires has wealthy Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and conman Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) trading places. A feel-good film, yes, but also hysterically funny and anarchic — though not one to watch with the kids.

Dan Akroyd in Trading Places (1983). Credit: Alamy

Home Alone (1990)

John Hughes came up with the idea for this, the first of the ‘Home Alone’ series, as he was packing for a holiday and, apparently, the script more or less wrote itself. A young boy, played by Macaulay Culkin, finds himself unexpectedly left behind when his family accidentally flies to Paris without him.

Panned by the critics, but beloved of adult and child audiences for more than 30 years, the film has some harsh scenes. I hadn’t watched it all the way through since it came out, but did so when researching this article. I was delighted by how well it has stood the test of time.

White Christmas (1954)

I generally fall asleep about 15 minutes into White Christmas and only awake towards the end, when Bing does his stuff. I believe it is a jolly good film and, this year, I absolutely intend to see it all the way through.

Bing Crosby in White Christmas. ©Alamy

3 Godfathers (1948)

There aren’t many Westerns with a Christmas theme, which is a shame as I have a soft spot for the genre, and it is always cheery to see a bit of sun and sand at this time of year. 3 Godfathers was made by John Ford and stars John Wayne as one of a trio of bank robbers who agree to care for a newborn child as they flee the law in Death Valley. It is a tale of redemption and rebirth and shows that Wayne could actually act when he put his mind to it.

Joyeux Noël (2005)

As every First World War history buff knows, in December 1914, against the wishes of high-ranking officers on both sides, troops put down their weapons and turned the German frontlines into one big no man’s land filled with festive feeling. Joyeux Noël is depicted through the eyes of French, German and Scottish troops and was made in French, German and (no, not Gaelic) English. Gruelling war sequences and sentimental, but gripping for all that.