Feature: What to watch this Christmas

It's A Wonderful Life.
It's A Wonderful Life.
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Everyone loves a good film on the telly at Christmas, but thanks to streamed subscription services and the like we don’t have to wait for TV executives to schedule a cracking Christmas film for us.

Here’s Graham Keal’s personal top 20 of what he reckons are the all-time best films to get us gathered round the goggle box at Christmas.

It's A Wonderful Life.

It's A Wonderful Life.

1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, b/w): Frank Capra’s heart-warming masterpiece, with Oscar-nominated James Stewart so winning as a suicidal small-town businessman who thinks he’s a failure. Guardian angel Henry Travers makes him see things differently. Sentimental – and it has its dark side, but still the ultimate Christmas feel-good movie. The film initially failed to break even, but nearly 70 years on it still jingles all the right bells.

2. Toy Story (1995): The first-ever feature-length computer animation, directed and co-written by Pixar’s presiding genius John Lasseter. Cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) feels his favourite toy status threatened by the arrival of bone-headed Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Still fresh, funny and filled with suspense. Worldwide box office takings on release were over $350m. For my money, still the best 
of the three Toy Story 

3. Lincoln (2012): An odd Christmas choice, maybe, but if you’ve consumed too much and don’t feel like moving for two-and-a-half hours, mesmeric Daniel Day-Lewis in the inspirational title role should keep you rooted to the settee. Lincoln is seen battling on two fronts – the bloody Civil War against the Confederate South, and the seemingly hopeless political battle to abolish slavery. Utterly absorbing, brilliantly played and expertly directed by Steven Spielberg. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field give memorable support.

4. E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): A very different slice of Spielberg, this time of course following a troubled 10-year-old (Henry Thomas) whose parents have divorced but whose innate courage and kindness save a friendly alien. The special effects are still special, the story is wonderfully warming and John Williams’ Oscar-winning score still soars.

5. The Wizard of Oz (1939): Judy Garland’s Dorothy leads the fabulous fantasy-adventure, one of the most-repeated films on TV at Christmas. Bizarrely, this was another all-time blockbuster that failed to gain big audiences when released, though it made up for it later. Six Oscar nominations helped. Shirley Temple was MGM’s first choice for Dorothy, but 20th Century would not release her. ScarecrowRay Bolger was originally Tin Man. He then swapped roles with Buddy ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ Ebsen, but Buddy dropped out when the metal paint on his costume made him ill, passing the role to Jack Haley.

6. The Thief of Baghdad (1940): Magical, amusing fantasy with special effects that still amaze and delight, all in glorious Oscar-winning Technicolor. Sabu charms as Abu the thief, helping Ahmad (John Justin) depose hissable usurper Conrad Veidt. And if the kids want a genie for Christmas, booming Rex Ingram will do nicely.

7. The Lion King (1994): 
The cartoon feature that showed Disney could still do it. This story of a displaced lion cub’s ultimate assumption of his birthright has to represent all the classic Disney cartoon features that deserve a listing – Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia, Snow White and The Seven Dwarves… every one of them a tour de force in their day and still delighting all ages.

8. Scrooge (1951, b/w): Movie versions of A Christmas Carol abound, but this is still the best. Alastair Sim glowers as the miserable miser shown the error of his ways. They don’t make faces like that any more, and Hollywood hunks certainly can’t match Sim’s jowly lugubriousness. The contrast when his face lights up with belated benevolence is a sight to see.

9. Holiday Inn (1942, b/w): Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas enhances this light-weight musical made special by brilliant Irving Berlin songs. The movie White Christmas was a partial remake 12 years later and in colour, but this is the one to watch.

10. Bad Santa (2003): If a surfeit of sugary seasonal schlock is overwhelming you then this outrageously funny comedy might amuse, but probably not in front of the children. Billy Bob Thornton is a degenerate Department Store Santa who is actually a safecracker preparing his annual heist. Steer clear if swearing offends you.

11. Mary Poppins (1964): OK, so Cockernee Dick Van Dyke’s is funny for all the wrong reasons, and the second half meanders a bit, but the magical Nanny appointed to sort out two Edwardian children is still an entertaining Christmas confection. Made topical by the release of Saving Mr Banks, with Emma Thompson as Mary’s pernickety creator, P.L. Travers.

12. Nanny McPhee (2005): Emma Thompson again, this time in a warts-and-all portrayal of the Scottish Mary Poppins rival, a fearsome nanny who takes on the wild, motherless, brood of well-meaning widower Colin Firth. Fun for all, and the warts fade as behaviour improves.

13. A Night At The Opera (1935, b/w): The Marx Brothers at their hilarious best. Though Duck Soup runs it close, this vintage comedy has the contract negotiations on the Party of the First Part, complete with Sanity Clause – though as Chico says, “You can’t fool me – there ain’t no Sanity Clause!”

14. Home Alone (1990): Hit comedy thriller with Macaulay Culkin as the eight-year-old boy inadvertently left at home while his parents spend Christmas in Paris. As well as fending for himself, he fends off two bungling burglars. Takes time to get cracking but the climactic scene is worth it.

15. Life of Brian (1979): “On a midnight clear 2,000 years ago, three wise men enter a manger where a babe is wrapped in swaddling clothes. His name is Brian...” Irreverent parody acknowledged as the funniest film they ever made by the recently-reforming Pythons.

16. Miracle on 34th Street (1947, b/w): Charming old comedy-fantasy with Oscar-winning Edmund Gwenn as a department store Santa out to convince a sceptical young Natalie Wood he’s the real deal.

17. Gremlins (1984): Frequently revived for Christmas TV schedules, these pesky munchkins seem the perfect Christmas gift, but it doesn’t take much for them to start causing mayhem.

18. Meet Me In St Louis (1944): “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sings Judy Garland, along with The Trolley Song and other delights in this entertaining romantic musical set against the 1903 World’s Fair.

19. Men In Black (1997): Great sci-fi/comedy combination as Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones counter threats to the planet posed by aliens already among us, including some very nasty specimens. Great fun, hugely inventive and with an unflagging pace.

20. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): Amusing adult comedy (certificate 15) with Robert Downey Junior as a petty thief taken for an actor and paired with Val Kilmer’s tough-guy ’tec. 
Mums may enjoy the male leads while dads will appreciate Michelle Monaghan’s take on the standard Santa outfit.