BBC Culture

Ten great but overlooked Christmas movies

About the author

Christian Blauvelt is deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • Prancer (1989)

    Christmas films are remarkably evergreen. Year after year, audiences turn to the same movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas. You would think, based on the perennial re-airing of some of these films, that the canon of Christmas movies is relatively small – you’d be mistaken. Many have been unjustly neglected in favour of the more famous titles. Others aren’t thought of as Christmas movies but would make worthwhile seasonal viewing nonetheless.

    A hint of magic pervades John D. Hancock’s magnificent neo-realist Christmas movie. Young Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) doesn’t have much in life other than her Christmas records: her mother recently died; her father, wallowing in grief, is unreachable; and the threat of foreclosure hovers over their Michigan farm. When a wounded reindeer wanders into the family barn, Jessica decides that it must be Santa’s very own Prancer. Bracingly unsentimental, Hancock’s movie is a powerful examination of the ineffable nature of faith, anchored by an astonishing cast and powered by a soulful score from Lawrence of Arabia’s Maurice Jarre. (Orion Pictures Corporation)

  • A Christmas Carol (1984)

    There have been other great versions of A Christmas Carol: MGM’s 1938 production with Reginald Owen, the 1951 version with Alastair Sim, and of course, The Muppet Christmas Carol. But the single greatest film adaptation of Dickens’ timeless morality tale may actually be a 1984 version starring the great George C Scott that was difficult to see for years due to rights issues. Why is it great? For one, director Clive Donner filmed on location in Shrewsbury, England for full 19th Century flair. Then there’s the acting – an astonishing ensemble that includes David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees, Edward Woodward, and Joanne Whalley. Scott invests Ebenezer Scrooge with a bitterness fueled by regret and heartbreak unique among actors who have played the character. This is the one film adaptation of the story that includes a genuine dose of tragedy woven into its triumphant climax. (Columbia Broadcasting System)

  • We’re No Angels (1955)

    For those who like their Yuletide festivities seasoned with a little black comedy, take Michael Curtiz’ wickedly entertaining romp. Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov star as escaped convicts from Devil’s Island who serve as three wise men to a down-on-his-luck shopkeeper (Leo G Carroll) and his family. Or rather, three wise guys. They use their forgery skills to favourably alter the man’s accounts, and they use a poisoned snake to…well, we wouldn’t want to be a Grinch and spoil it for you. We’re No Angels proves that sometimes the holiday season needs a dash of the macabre. (Paramount Pictures)

  • Remember the Night (1941)

    American comedic master Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for this moving fable of a film that paired Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray three years before their acidic noir Double Indemnity. Babs plays a shoplifter whose prosecuting attorney, MacMurray, takes pity on her and bails her out of jail just for Christmas. He takes her to spend the holiday with his loving family and sees how appreciative she is for his kindness and how devoid of generosity her life has previously been. Of course, he falls in love with her, even though he knows he has to try her case and win a conviction. It sounds sappy, but Remember the Night is actually a comedy – just one with a fiercely beating heart. (Paramount Pictures)

  • Meet John Doe (1941)

    The same year as Remember the Night, Barbara Stanwyck made another infinitely more serious Christmas film. In Meet John Doe, directed by It’s a Wonderful Life auteur Frank Capra, Stanwyck plays a cynical newspaper reporter who concocts a sensational – and phony – story about a guy who plans to jump to his death on Christmas Eve in protest of society’s dysfunction. When her falsehood comes to light, her editor has her hire a tramp (Gary Cooper) to play the role of the suicidal John Doe. He quickly becomes the unwitting figurehead of a new fascist movement in the US, with possibly devastating implications. In the end, he ascends to the top of a tall building on Christmas Eve after all. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, with its ultimately warm-and-fuzzy celebration of the status quo, this Capra film will make you squirm in your seat – in a good way. (Warner Bros)

  • Fanny and Alexander (1982)

    Ingmar Bergman’s sprawling, novelistic masterpiece is hardly lacking praise from cinephiles – but it isn’t acknowledged as much as being among the all-time greatest Christmas movies. Its lengthy first act – an entire hour in the five-hour TV miniseries version – consists of an apparently plotless depiction of a lengthy Yuletide celebration. A wealthy middle class Swedish family gathers together, feasts, dances, sings and listens to a reading from the Bible. Watching it makes you feel like you are a guest who has been invited to the conviviality. (Embassy Pictures)

  • The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

    A touch of surrealism pervades this adaptation of the comedic play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart. No wonder. Where Luis Buñuel imagined dinner guests unable to leave their dining room, The Man Who Came to Dinner is about an irascible crank (Monty Wooley) who willingly chooses never to leave the home of his hosts. Soon Christmas comes around and then the situation gets really crazy. Wooley was a master of snark before that term even existed. Prepare yourself for the ferocity with which his comedic barbs fly. (Warner Bros)

  • Little Women (1994)

    Gillian Armstrong’s definitive adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel is celebrated for many reasons: its teasing out of Alcott’s proto-feminism and beguiling performances by Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne among them. Less often stated is that it is also one of the most vivid cinematic depictions of winter. Inside their nest of a home the March sisters create their own warmth to keep out the frost. On Christmas they perform plays, share books and oranges, and relish one long-awaited reconciliation. Little Women makes the case that Christmas is a time to be savoured, for the experiences you share, not the trinkets that fill your stocking. (Columbia Pictures)

  • All That Heaven Allows (1955)

    Douglas Sirk’s critique of American suburban inauthenticity is the very definition of a blue Christmas – but is still lustrous to behold. Jane Wyman plays a recent widow who falls in love with a younger man, Rock Hudson. Her grown-up children are against this romance, and to please them she calls it off. To fill the void in her heart, her son gives her a very particular Christmas present: a television – as if a TV set will take the place of human companionship. Luckily, Sirk’s gorgeous cinematography of frosty windowpanes and delicate snowfall make this bitter Christmas pill much easier to swallow. (Orion Pictures Corporation)

  • Desk Set (1957)

    The office Christmas party to beat all office Christmas parties takes place roughly halfway through this sorely underwatched Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy romantic comedy. Hepburn plays a researcher at a TV network; Tracy is the computer whiz whose newfangled electronic adding machine threatens to put her out of work. All their tensions – professional and sexual – come out during their holiday party, for their pain and our pleasure. It’s a fizzy screwball comedy that pops like champagne. (20th Century Fox)