Christmas is about five things: family, food, booze, gifts and TV. Ok, for some people there’s the nativity, carols and the big fella in red, but when it comes down to it, if you removed all those things, people would still gather in mid-winter to stuff their faces full of meat and sprouts, drink way too much, spend way too much and indulge in hours and hours of fantastic television – most importantly, as far as I’m concerned, the films (and maybe Doctor Who). The Queen’s speech? That’s just there to help you doze off while you digest your spuds.
The only problem is choosing which films to watch; there are so many showing across the myriad channels that it would be psychologically inadvisable and physically impossible to watch them all (without recording them and staying in until March). When I was a kid, there were only three or four channels (I remember the fourth one coming into existence – heady days) and it still required a solid day of working my way through the TV Times and Radio Times to plan out my festive viewing. But fear not. I plan to use those years of experience, plus the fact that I’m supposed to know something about film, to give you a few suggestions on choosing what to watch this year.
In my opinion, there are two types of ‘good Christmas film’:
1. Films about Christmas
These have two very simple prerequisites: they are either set at Christmas (e.g. Die Hard; 14 & 20 Dec 9pm E4) or feature one of your principal ‘Christmas characters’ – Father Christmas, elves, Rudolph, your embarrassing Uncle Barry. They often involve an ordinary person ‘saving’ Christmas (e.g. The Santa Clause; 23 Dec 1.40pm BBC1 & 7.30pm BBC3) or sow a seed of doubt in adults’ cynicism. And you’ll nearly always get a ‘true meaning of Christmas’ message in there which you can usually boil down to materialism being bad. These films should always leave you with a warmer feeling in your belly than a hastily-eaten Christmas pudding.
2. Films you associate with Christmas
Now this is a much broader and more subjective category – it all depends when, where and how you grew up – but there is one kind of film that seems to have made the Christmas TV schedule its home: the epic. Perhaps because this is one of the few times of year that we can sit in front of a TV for three hours without interruption, or perhaps it’s because their mighty span allows us to doze off for 20 minutes and not really miss that much, but if you can watch The Great Escape (21 Dec 12.30pm Five USA) or Spartacus (19 Dec 1.50am ITV) and not feel Christmassy, I’ll eat my elf hat.
So, how to choose what to watch? Well, the joy of repeats – yes, the joy of repeats – on some channels and the ability to record programmes, means that clashes are less common and also that you can often be more choosy about when you watch your ‘must see’ movies. But there are some guidelines I suggest you follow:
1. Unless you’ve got some really potent coffee to hand, I’d avoid watching films you really want to see after big meals. There’s nothing worse than waking up to the climactic finish and not knowing how the hell everyone got there. Plus you’ve now seen the end, like reading the last page of a book. Who wants to know the final score in Escape To Victory (Christmas Eve 3.15pm Film4) before you even know how Sylvester Stallone ended up in goal?
2. There’s a lot of niceness in Christmas films, so have some late night ‘grown-up’ titles (no, not that kind of film) lined up to balance out the general feeling of good will. And you might as well take advantage of not having to go to work in the morning. Some good’uns to look out for include Scarface (13 Dec 11.40pm ITV4) and, if you really can’t sleep waiting for Santa, Alfonso Cuaron’s excellent Children of Men (25 Dec 1.05am ITV4)
3. Use it as an opportunity to brainwa… sorry, introduce kids to your favourite films, particularly in the days leading up to the big morning. After all, with all the benefits of being ‘good’, they’re going to be like little angels, and they might just learn that there were good films made before Pixar. If you’re my age, there’s one stand-out choice: The Goonies (18 Dec 6.45pm & 23 Dec 4.45pm 5*)
Finally, if the generous gift of advice above isn’t enough to fill your knowledge stocking, then here are my top five (well, technically six) must-see picks for the festive period. If you enjoy them, merry Christmas! If you don’t, bah humbug!
Toy Story 3 (Christmas Day 3.20pm BBC1)
Ok, it goes against my ‘no great movies after lunch’ rule, but if anything’s worth chucking a double espresso down you, it’s this funny, tear-jerking, near-perfect trilogy-closer.
Hot Fuzz (Boxing Day 11pm ITV2)
Another slice of a threesome, but this time the ‘Tarantino-does-Midsomer Murders’ middle section of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s cornetto trilogy. Perfect post-pub viewing.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2 (Boxing Day 7.15pm, New Year’s Day 8pm ITV)
The Potter films are weaving their way into the fabric of Christmas – all eight of them! They’re all showing somewhere at some point, but I’d opt for the final two if you can only cope with so much wizadry.
The Shawshank Redemption (21 Dec 9pm ITV2)
When was the last time you watched Frank Darabont’s prison break classic? If it was more than a year ago, then you need to refresh matters. Why not now?
It’s a Wonderful Life (24 Dec 1.10pm Channel 4)
Hankies at the ready for a true Christmas classic. If you’re not feeling like life is a patterned jumper by now, then this will knit the spirit of Christmas around you. It’s a wonderful film.
Want to comment (politely, of course)? Then find me on Twitter: @andrewdickens