Ten Christmas films with not a sleighbell in sight

Not having a merry Christmas - Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. Photo: Paramount Pict

Not having a merry Christmas - Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. Photo: Paramount Pictures - Credit: Paramount Pictures

Mark Edwards selects ten films with Christmas links that may surprise you.

Noel noir - Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. Picture: Wikipedia

Noel noir - Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. Picture: Wikipedia - Credit: Archant

The film industry loves Christmas. It is holiday time and it is freezing so there is a captive audience happy to hunker down in a warm cinema and be transported. The TV companies also know we are emotional wrecks at this time of year. We spend time with all the friends and family who mean the most to us and remember those just as dear no longer with us, all the while pickled with alcoholic drinks we would never normally go anywhere near - advocat anyone? No wonder we cry so much we have to be put on a saline drip after watching It's A Wonderful Life for the 12th time or hug our children until they actually start biting us to escape our clutches watching the moist-eyed charms of Richard Attenborough as an is he, isn't he? Santa in the Miracle on 4th Street remake. We are putty in their hands.

Films and Christmas require a similar willing suspension of disbelief among their audience. As the opening credits roll we want to believe in miracles and are hearts are warm and full of love for mankind. There are plenty of wonderful Christmas films that are a conduit to such emotional candour like The Snowman, White Christmas, Elf, A Christmas Carol and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. OK, maybe not that last one.

There are also many films just given a desultory ring of sleighbells and tinsel topping in an effort to market them over the holidays. This year we have Daddy's Home For Christmas, the 'festive' sequel to Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg's fighting fathers comedy Daddy's Home. It is essentially the same film, but the cast this time are in in Christmas jumpers - but obviously there will be a scene in which Ferrell loses his, cavorting his dad bod around to the mortification of all his family and friends. Don't be too hard on it, though, after all Ghostbusters II did pretty much the same thing and that was great.

But what about the releases that never market themselves as Christmas films, yet draw on the festivities, often in quite subversive ways, often to isolate their protagonists in stark contrast to the season of goodwill? There are many fantastic and surprising films in this list and I've selected 10. So on December 25 when the family is stuffed with dinner and the call goes up to suggest a Christmas film you can watch together you can suggest The Godfather and provide a sound case to back up your choice. Good luck!


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1. Edward Scissorhands

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It's surprising given the gothic stylings of Tim Burton's films that the director seems enchanted by Christmas, but many of his films draw on the festivities, albeit in their own macabre way. The opening sequence of Batman Returns has a Christmas lights switch-on ceremony interrupted by delivery of an exploding present full of murderous clowns and later Batman and Catwoman share a miseltoe moment. Burton also had production credits on the Halloween vs Christmas stop motion face-off The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, it is this 1990 dark fantasy, starring real-life couple at the time Johnny Depp and Wynona Ryder, which is his festive masterpiece. Much of the film takes place in preternatural technicolour as the snipping skills of Edwards, a sort of goth Pinocchio, entrance the residents of a small suburban town. But it is the wintry scenes that top and tail the film, narrated by horror acting legend Vincent Price, in his last major role, with Edward's furious ice sculpting and the reveal of why it always snows on Christmas Day that will melt the coldest of hearts.

2, Die Hard

You may blanche at a Christmas film that for its feel-good moment depends on a security guard haunted by a mistaken shooting finally being able to kill again, but Die Hard is set over the holiday period. In its own way it has become as much a Christmas classic as It's A Wonderful Life, just with a far higher body count. Terrorists have taken over the skyscraper offices of a Japanese company in LA on Christmas Eve. New York City cop John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, has a vested interest in getting there - his wife works for the company (he also spends much of the movie in a vest). Cue Willis wisecracking his way through a huge amount of explosions and Alan Rickman relishing his role as the villainous terrorist leader Hans Gruber. The much-missed British actor has quite an on-screen legacy of anti-Christmas roles. In Robin Hood, his Sheriff of Nottingham's list of privations on his revolting subjects include banning the holiday and he even ruins Christmas in Love Actually, cheating on his wife, played by Emma Thompson. A right Christmas cad!

3. The Apartment

If you feel lonely and left out the Christmas period can often deepen that isolation. So it goes in Billy Wilder's 1960s classic set amid a predatory Mad Men-era office culture as the holidays approach. Two dislocated souls striving for that sense of belonging are CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Baxter is a low-grade office employee who loans out the use of his apartment to his sleazy superiors so they can conduct their extra-marital affairs in homely secret. Kubelik is an elevator girl in the office building and one of the 'other women' at these apartment trysts, hopelessly in love with her boss Jeff D Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who has no intention of leaving his wife and family for her.

While these cosy couplings go on Baxter is forced to walk the freezing streets past festively decorated shop fronts and carousing parties spilling out from bars and restaurants. Director Billy Wilder uses Christmas iconography to emphasise the have and have not divide between Baxter and Sheldrake. In one telephone call Baxter is stood beside his threadbare Christmas tree while Sheldrake is seen before his towering, immaculately decorated spruce while the sounds of family laughter can be heard in the background. Things do get dark - there are suicide attempts and it is heartbreaking to see the puppyish charms of Baxter and the whipcrack smarts of Kubelick so broken by their predicaments, but ultimately this is a film of hope and a perfect Christmas watch.

4.Trading Places

There is plenty to like in this Prince and the Pauper update - like It's A Wonderful Life bankers are portrayed as villains, it catches Eddie Murphy early when he was still funny and he has wonderful chemistry with its other leads, Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Ackroyd. The latter is the upper cruster who swaps places with vagrant Murphy at the evil whim of morally bankrupt billionaires the Duke Brothers. The nadir of the fall of Ackroyd's character has him steaming drunk and dressed in a ratty Santa suit gatecrashing the office Christmas party. The sight of him shoving an entire salmon down the front of his soiled suit may well spoil your appetite for supper. Despite Christmas being rather incidental to the plot the film's theme that you don't need money to live a good life and the way the central trio, once they realise they are pawns in an elaborate game, become like a family to support each other is what the season is all about.

5. The Thin Man

The TV schedules like to put some noir in your Noel - there always seems to be a Philip Marlowe film or The Maltese Falcon showing. There is no more Christmassy example of the genre, though, than 1934's The Thin Man. The movie is based on the novel by Dashiel Hamnett, one of the fathers of noir, and has detective Nich Charles (William Powell) and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) staying in a luxury New York Hotel Suite over Christmas. The couple are drunk in love and also just a bit drunk. The film starts with Nick detailing how to make the perfect martini, his sixth and it is still morning. Nora then comes in and orders five, just to keep up. A Christmas game in which you down an alcoholic drink every time Nick and Nora do is not for novices - or anyone who values the continued function of their liver. The couple host cocktail parties and lavish Christmas dinners in their hotel suite that attract friends and some of Nick's enemies. Nick is shot by an intruder to the suite, which he deals with, as he does everything, with urbane good grace. 'I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,' says Nora. 'He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids,' counters Nick. There is a crime plot in here somewhere, but it would be wise not to try to follow it, especially if you are trying to keep up with Nick and Nora's drinking. Best just to soak in the witty dance the couple's conversations and the cosy opulence of their festively-decorated suite that never feels threatened even by the murderous intent of some of the guests.

6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service

'Egg nog, shaken, not stirred.' Yes, Bond films are a staple of Christmas TV, but this one might be a surprise choice as it stars not Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Daniel Craig, but George Lazenby, who was never asked back for the role. However, it is set at Christmas among the wintry snow covered Alps and this time Blofeld's evil scheme involves sending Christmas presents to supermodels which hypnotise them to do his bidding. Add to this Lazenby's Bond seems to be hit by all the Christmas sentiment, lets his womanising macho guard down and gets married - to Diana Rigg, who apparently was so unimpressed with the Australian model as her co-star she gobbled down cloves of garlic before their love scene. Still, definitely the most Christmassy Bond film and much better than its reputation suggests.

7. The Godfather

Not an immediate choice for a Christmas film, after all a surprise package to wake up to by the bed among the Corleones would more likely be a horse's head than a stocking full of Christmas gifts. However, director Francis Ford Coppola does add some Christmas scenes, such as a very sweet one of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) shopping with Kaye Adams (Diane Keaton), before things turn sour and the film was supposed to be released at Christmas but Coppola's production, true to form, overran. It also has Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas on the soundtrack. If Christmas is a time for the family, albeit a crime family here, and the church then The Godfather is the perfect film.

8. Gremlins

Most people cast aside the instruction leaflet that comes with their Christmas present in an effort to get playing immediately, but never have there been product guidelines more vital to heeding than 'Don't get him wet, keep him out of bright light, and never – ever – feed him after midnight' from Gremlins. When a young man, Billy, is given a Mogwai, Cantonese for 'monster', as a pet by his father and breaks these three golden rules the cute creature spawns an army of evil reptilian versions that cause havoc in the town. The film is not set at Christmas, although its sequel was, but Billy's Mogwai, who he called Gizmo, was given as a gift and the film made Gizmo toys the Christmas present of choice in 1984. Despite the merchandising, Gremlins is prestty scary for a kids' film - it got a 15 certificate at the time - and the Gremlins do kill people, although the nasty Mrs Deagle, who the creatures rocket out of her house by stair lift, deserves all she gets. The film's one true Christmas moment is also rather downbeat with Billy's girlfriend telling one of the saddest festive tales ever on how she lost her father. Sill Gremlin leader Stripe is a great Christmas villain and the film has an anarchic energy that is hard to beat.

9. Jacob's Ladder

This underrated psychological horror from 1990 stars Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, a Vietnam War vet who is tormented by hellish visions. It was quite a departure for director Adrian Lynne, previously best known for sexually charged thrillers such as 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction, but it works as a genuinely disturbing horror with affecting reflections on mortality and loss. Is Singer losing his mind or is there a military cover-up determined to keep him and his fellow veterans quiet? Its Christmas link? At one point, Singer is kidnapped by armed men who had been trailing him in a car. Flinging himself from the speeding vehicle, he lies dazed and injured on the ground. A man dressed in a Santa costume seemingly comes to his aid, but then rifles through his jacket to take his wallet and then wander off. When Singer is eventually picked up by ambulance he has a hard time convincing paramedics of the miltary conspiracy and the reason he has no ID is Santa robbed him. A thought-provoking film with ideas and special effects that will stay with you.

10. Fanny and Alexander

Ingar Bergman's opulent Swedish family drama is the kind of epic made for a sated post Christmas-lunch audience. It's over three hours long, and that's the shorter version, but has such a bawdy Dickensian scope of memorable supporting characters it draws you in from the start. It begins with an extended Christmas feast scene which makes this year's Nigella's Christmas Table look like sharing a Pot Noodle in comparison. As the camera follows a dance involving hundreds of party guest linked arm in arm that snakes around the Ekdahl's palatial home individuals break off and reveal themselves as they drink, flirt and plot. As in so many great Christmas films family is paramount. The Ekdahl family is a loving one with parents who run a theatre company and are adored by their children Fanny and Alexander. However, their father dies unexpectedly and the siblings end up in the joyless home of a stern bishop when their mother remarries. The bleak situation gradually grows worse as the bishop becomes more controlling, but dedicated relatives within the Ekdahl family make efforts to come to their aid. Another classic Christmas element is the presence of ghosts and magic, which Bergman presents amid the sureties of everyday life. A cinematic banquet to follow your festive food.

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