In the build-up to Christmas, many things become part of the seasonal fabric – music, decorations and loathsome clichés – but none generates excitement quite like watching an old Christmas film or waiting for the special of your favourite television comedy. Owing to the lack of Christmas films in cinemas this winter, there is no better time to peruse the very best offerings from the past.
British comedies have a strong tradition of producing fantastic Christmas specials. The first mention must go to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, whose The Office and Extras specials are standalone masterpieces. Both are funny, bittersweet, satirical, and their portrayals of festivities are sharp reflections of real life. In The Office’s two-part special, David Brent has recently lost his position as boss of Slough paper merchant Wernham Hogg. Brent is unable to quite let go of his old life, and he returns to the office Christmas party in the show’s climax. Gervais and Merchant show their almost unparalleled talents for depicting human life as we watch the employees unwind from their unfulfilling jobs. The party soundtrack achieves the perfect blend of nostalgia, emotion, comic tackiness and Christmas spirit. The Extras special is equally emotional. Andy Millman has finally climbed his way toward the top of the showbiz ladder, but success is not as he imagined it, and he has estranged his friends along the way. Fame becomes like a drug, and Millman agrees to appear on Big Brother – which Gervais and Merchant parody excellently – where he pours his heart out over the regrets he has about the way he has led the past few months of his life. The single episode almost acts as the payoff for the entire series.
British sitcom Only Fools and Horses released a string of Christmas specials, many of which attained viewing figures in excess of 20 million. As a comedy, Only Fools and Horses can be hit-and miss, but the heart which kept the 22 year series beating is something universally relatable. One of the series’ more emotional moments comes in the 1996 Christmas special Modern Men, in which brothers Del Boy and Rodney are trapped in a lift following Rodney’s wife’s miscarriage. It is testament to John Sullivan’s ability as a writer that the line between comedy and tragedy is so frequently and considerately toed.
The British certainly hit the right note when it comes to Christmas television, but Hollywood has spawned dozens of fantastic Christmas films, several of the most popular of which were released during the Golden Age. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a heart-warming, life-affirming piece which stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who sees how life would be in his town had he never existed. Miracle on 34th Street, released a year later, is an equally uplifting film about a department store Santa Claus who claims to be the real thing. Despite the apparent corniness of some major films from this era, they contain timeless messages about the nature of good will, a very important theme within Christmas stories.
Although many recent Christmas movie attempts have been ghastly, there have been some fantastic offerings over the past couple of decades. Home Alone is a common inter-generational favourite, and for good reason: Macaulay Culkin is one of a rare breed of child actors who can lead a film without making it trite and cringe-worthy. Music is a particularly vital component of Christmas films, and John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score is fantastic, giving the film a magical edge. The sequel is equally entertaining, but parts three and four are simply atrocious spin-offs. Elf is another strong Christmas comedy, a markedly rare thing in the 21st century. Robert Zemeckis’ take on the greatest Christmas story ever, A Christmas Carol, was unfairly criticised on its 2009 release, but the film is a good animated adaption which succeeds in telling the story to a modern generation.
If sentimentality isn’t your thing, there are also plenty of thrillers and action films with just a hint of Christmas spirit. Die Hard has become a cult Christmas favourite, and even American Psycho has a Christmas party scene which serves as light relief from the disturbing scenes throughout the rest of the film.