As Santa’s annual visit draws nearer, here’s a breakdown of what’s on my Christmas watchlist year after year to get those perfect Christmassy butterflies going
There’s no feeling on this planet that matches the magic of waking up on Christmas Day as a child. The wintry sunshine peeking through from behind the curtains, all remnants of sleepiness pushed away with the earnest, unwavering certainty that Santa had paid you a visit. The excitable fug through which you experienced the whole day, greeting family, unwrapping gifts, tucking into the mountains of food that on any other day would have been overindulgence, but on Christmas, it feels earned.
If there were a way to bottle that feeling, I’m sure it would have been done by now. Narcotics aside, that is.
Unfortunately, that all consuming Christmassy sensation tends to fade. As a child, there’s much more to mark the occasion. Stopping school for the Christmas holidays for one; the obligatory learning of Christmas carols for some sort of festive performance, and making Christmas cards, the city centre suddenly decked out in all the lights… As an adult, however, lots of this falls away, and is replaced by the practicalities: “I don’t know what to get Jim’s wife… How much have I spent? … God the queues are long … Why didn’t I get all my shopping done sooner?”. None more so has the magic of Christmas been depleted than 2020. What with shops opening and shutting at the drop of the hat, and Christmas guidelines changing like the wind, there’s been more to be anxious about than ever, and just like Cindy Lou Who many of us are sat wondering “Where Are You Christmas?”.
As life has plodded on (as life has a habit of doing), that Christmassy feeling has become less of a certainty and more of a fine neural balancing act. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but something I have carefully curated and manufactured in what I surround myself in during the festive season. That Christmassy sensation is as much about comfort and relaxation as it is about excitement for what presents you’re going to receive, or the people you are going to see. In that spirit, here are all of the things on my watchlist for the festive season year upon year.
I mean, obviously. Love Actually actually celebrates its seventeenth birthday this year, which, as it happens, is also how old Keira Knightley was when filming it. Yup, try getting that out your head while you’re watching it. No, I’m not certain how she’s managed to not age between seventeen and thirty-four but I’m trying, desperately, not to think about it. Love Actually was sort of groundbreaking upon release. While it’s a formula that has been replicated – poorly – in films such as Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Day (both American, I hasten to point out), the concept of many interlocking storylines is actually really cleverly done here. It also allows for many emotional climaxes and subplots throughout the film to maintain the audience’s interest, plus fifty times the amount of cheese that one would normally get in a Christmas film that’s only got one romantic declaration. With the exception of Laura Linney’s incredibly irritating storyline that I spend every year rolling my eyes through (Just DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE LAURA. IT’S NOT THAT HARD; I DO IT ALL THE TIME), all of the storylines feature brilliantly emotive climaxes, and most of the characters are massively likeable and easy to root for. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s written by seasoned romantic comedy writer, and all around genius, Richard Curtis. It’s saccharine, it’s cheesy, for sure, but it’s just what you need in the Christmas season. Just uplifting, heartwarming fluff, with some good jokes thrown in for good measure.
I wrote a full review of The Holiday last year, and I stand by all that I said about it. The Holiday is hardly a revolutionary romantic comedy; in fact, with the exception of the snow that litters the ground, it actually spends depressingly little time on Christmassy activity (a very savvy move by the producers to get that Christmas money in annually), but it successfully toes the line between romance and being over the top. Everything feels very sincere and genuine, and much of that comes from the brilliant performances from our leads Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black. Though I very much doubt there’s anybody reading this list who hasn’t already seen this film, but if you have not, add it to your list immediately. Cameron Diaz falling in love with a very dashing widower Jude Law, while Kate Winslet befriends an elderly man in Los Angeles? What’s not to like?
How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Adapted from Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this live action 2000 version starring Jim Carrey may not be a terribly good film. It’s certainly more macabre and sinister than I remember it being, and yet there’s something about it that just screams Christmas season to me. It was also the first film I saw at the cinema that started on time (it’s a talking point every Christmas in my household), so that when the film zooms out at the end to reveal that everything was on a snowflake, I thought that was the plot twist of the century. As it transpires this was, in fact, explained right at the beginning of the film, we’d just been busy finishing our Pizza Hut meal. Lots of the joy of this film comes from the humour contained within, and the feeling of togetherness accomplished by the Grinch’s transformation at the end. I have known some viewers (my fiancé, not that I’m mentioning names or anything, but my fiancé specifically) whose Christmassy spirit is somewhat marred by the Grinch’s sadism, which I get, but fortunately I find curmudgeonly behaviour and slapstick comedy deeply hilarious, so this doesn’t affect me in much the same way. At the end of the day, every time I get dressed up I’m still going to emulate Jim Carrey’s “Ooooh….aaaaahhhhh…that’s it I’m not going” long after it’s stopped being funny. (Reader: it’ll never stop being funny)
Mark, are you crazy? You have just used an adaptation of the Grinch on your list! Yes. Yes I have. And do you know why? Because it’s my list, and I’ll do what I want.
2018’s The Grinch (full review to be found here) is full of delightful Christmas cheer. The Grinch is portrayed here as antisocial but not a sociopath, which does make him more relatable. Indeed, as a whole, the community of Whoville is much more familiar to a viewer, and the story of Cindy Lou Who is much more sympathetic on the whole. The Grinch’s redemption, and his own backstory, is massively touching and ultimately it becomes a story about the importance of togetherness and community at Christmas – a message I’m sure we can all get behind.
Arthur Christmas brings a technological twist to Good Old Saint Nick, replete with Mission Impossible-style elves, who chuck themselves through windows and use hi-tech gadgets to gift all the children in the world toys on Christmas Eve night. Unfortunately, due to a present falling off a conveyer belt, one child is left without, and idealistic younger son of Santa Arthur takes it upon himself to return it, even though his older brother and Santa himself view it to be a waste of time. Full of Christmas cheer, and with a likeable hero, Arthur Christmas is just plain fun, and features an impressive vocal cast featuring James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, not to mention the elf Bryony, who provides much of the film’s humour, played by Ashley Jensen.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a 2020 Netflix original production (full review here). It features wonderfully melodic, catchy songs, an endearing and plucky heroine, Journey, and a touching, heartwarming tale to boot. Add in some classic Victorian snowy vistas, and you have all you need for a cosy, noncommittal Holiday watch.
Premiering on UK’s Disney+ this year, Noelle is great fun (full review here). Anna Kendrick stars as Noelle Kringle, who must pursue her brother to Arizona when he flees before Christmas. She finds herself a true fish out of water, and over the course of the story develops from out-of-touch, gift-obsessed inhabitant of the North Pole, to truly selfless and keenly aware of the realities of the world. Kendrick gives Noelle such a warm spirit, and it becomes a truly emotional, triumphant journey by the close of the film.
The Princess Switch
Okay sure, The Princess Switch is objectively quite dreadful, but there’s something quite reassuring and pleasant about watching something that isn’t too cognitively demanding. Vanessa Hudgens stars here as gritty, down to earth baker from Chicago Stacy DeNovo, whose longtime friend and business partner Kevin (Nick Sagar) signs her up for a baking competition in Belgravia. When arriving in Belgravia, Stacy comes face to face with…well, her own face, as Vanessa Hudgens also stars as Margaret Delacourt, Duchess of Montenaro, who has a spurious accent and is also betrothed to Prince Edward of Belgravia (Sam Palladio). Stifled as she is by her duty and her lack of experience of a regular life, Margaret suggests the pair swap for two days, allowing herself an escape before her marriage. Inevitably, the pair find themselves getting rather accustomed to the swap situation, and there are some great moments throughout, cheesy and saccharine as it is, but with a snowy non-descript fictional European town involved, with an orphanage scene and a tense baking competition (avec sabotage, no less) thrown in for good measure, what’s not to like?
The Chronicles of Narnia
I mean, sure, this isn’t technically a Christmas film, but it was released in December and there’s load of snow. I will be taking no questions at this time.
The Sound of Music
If it isn’t a Christmas film, why is it always on the Christmas TV schedule? Hmm? Exactly what I thought.
TV Christmas Specials
What’s Christmas without a good TV special episode? One that’s certainly less bright. And I’m not talking about the dross that is Mrs Brown’s Boys (how that’s still on the air, I have no idea). I’m talking about beloved TV shows, such as Vicar of Dibley, Doctor Who, Blackadder and Miranda, all of which have absolutely brilliant Christmas instalments – though, of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Seeing our favourite TV characters entrenched in their own Christmas traditions and having a merry old time is equally as powerful as watching a terribly cliched Christmas movie, if not more so because of the existing attachment to the characters. Geraldine’s Christmas wedding, for example, is a particular Christmas highlight, and it’s also been the stage to multiple Doctor Who regenerations too.
Part of recapturing the joy of one’s Christmas childhood is a sense of turning the clock back. Those days of youth are gone, undeniably, but Christmas is a time for giddy nostalgia, as you can use TV – or, indeed, books, songs or any activity – to take your mind back to when this was your life, and it was real. This sense of comfort is, of course, different for everybody. For me, I envelope myself in Famous Five, The Worst Witch, and a host of other bizarre things that I, for some reason, associate with Christmas. Some of these are for obvious reasons. For example, I will always associate the classic Doctor Who stories of “Genesis of the Daleks”, “Horror of Fang Rock”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Five Doctors” and “The Key to Time” with Christmas, as those were the first DVDs of Classic Who that my Dad bought me one Christmas. It’s also why I associate Torchwood Series 1 with the Christmas season. Others can be as simple as having been watched for the first time around Christmas, like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I watched the last time I saw one of my friend’s parents. Also, Music and Lyrics, simply because it was the last film my Dad and I watched together – at, you guessed it, Christmas. Star Wars, too. Always Christmassy, perhaps just because it’s the only time in the year when I’ll think “Hey, I’ve got enough time to sit and watch Star Wars now”.
Christmas is a time of tradition. Everybody’s traditions look different, and much of Christmas is built around that sense of routine and structure, and what Christmas means to everybody. Christmas isn’t just a day. It doesn’t mean just one thing. Undeniably, this year, it looks a little different as well. For some, it may not feel like Christmas without everybody surrounding them. But, we all have what we always have: ourselves. Christmas can be a tremendously triggering time for lots of people, from bittersweet memories of Christmases past, or people who we’d love to share it with, but cannot. Even though it isn’t easy, and isn’t simple, we are all worthy of that giddy excitement of a frosty Christmas morning. So, while we may all feel a little glum that this Christmas isn’t as joyous as it could be, wrap up in your favourite blanket, pop on a good film, and give yourself that escape. Even if just for an hour or two. You deserve it.