15 Dec 2017
What makes a Christmas film? (An expert’s top five festive flicks)
Andrew Dix, Lecturer in American Studies at Loughborough University, breaks down five Christmas films to watch during the festive period.
What makes a Christmas film?
The mere inclusion of scenes set at Christmas seems too weak a criterion: otherwise, something like Red (2010), an action film beginning with a gunfight during this season that sends bullets flying into decorative snowmen, could make the cut.
Instead, a stronger definition of the genre, if it can be called that, is required. In this spirit, the films chosen here take Christmas not simply as setting but as theme, as material for self-conscious reflection. To quote one of the selection’s Santas: ‘Christmas isn’t just a day – it’s a frame of mind.’
While spanning sixty years, and genres that range from noir through animation to horror, the list that follows is necessarily exclusive. No room is available at this particular inn for films such as White Christmas (1954), or Bill Murray’s Scrooged (1988), or Bad Santa (2003). Or for perhaps the oddest of all Christmas movies: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), in which spiritually arid Martians, anxious at their children’s enthusiasm for Father Christmas, capture him and bring him to a spacecraft whose fittings would have cost little more than a box of bargain crackers.
People jaded by the compulsory jollity of this holiday period may be energised again by the complexities and challenges of the Christmas films selected here. Their versions of the festive season are not saccharine: instead, bitter ingredients are to be found in their eggnog, as it were.
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, dir. Frank Capra)
This film’s status as sugary Christmas fare is the product of inattentive viewing. To witness James Stewart late on as George Bailey, harrowed features framed in close-up, is to see someone who would be more at home in decidedly non-festive cinema. David Thomson is spot on when he writes that, for all its affectionate attention to the textures of Middle America, It’s a Wonderful Life ‘is also a film noir itching to get out and infect the small-town assurance’. The film’s conclusion cheers, undoubtedly – but it is not absolutely clear that George’s existential doubts won’t be renewed once the decorations come down.
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, dir. Brian Henson)
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, dir. Henry Selick)
- Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, dir. Jalmari Helander)