Christmas movies aren’t for everyone. That’s something I was reminded of when I tried and failed, several times, to get my family to watch just one Christmas movie with me so far this month. I, on the other hand, have always been a fan.
I will admit that some Christmas movies are entirely too cliché and unoriginal to be worth watching, especially when it comes to those romantic Christmas movies. But there are still many that make for an enjoyable hour and a half or so.
Over the years, I’ve watched and enjoyed a number of Christmas movies from classics like It’s a Wonderful Life to much more recent and light-hearted Christmas comedies like A Bad Moms Christmas.
Some of the Christmas movies I’ve seen I really didn’t care much for, and never even considered watching again – I’m thinking about you Bad Santa. Others were a decent way to pass the time but weren’t worth watching more than once. Some of those I enjoyed, I watched them multiple times – such as family comedy Elf, romantic comedy The Holiday, and several retellings of the Scrooge story. But only a few of those are movies which I really love to sit down and rewatch, and which I’m quick to think of when the Christmas season once again approaches.
Beware: Spoilers ahead
Below I discuss several Christmas movies which are quite old but if you haven’t seen them, be aware that my discussion does contain spoilers. You have been warned.
He’s (not really) a mean one
I love a relatable/understandable villain.
That’s why I really appreciated Thanos as a villain in the Marvel movies. His methods were messed up, but you can’t say he didn’t have a point. It’s also one of the reasons why Once Upon A Time, which finished more than two years ago, remains close to my heart. For the most part, the show did a great job of humanising fairy tale villains and making them relatable. My love of a relatable/understandable villain is also why How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) likely tops my list of Christmas favourites.
The Grinch’s tale is a sad one to begin. At the beginning of the movie, the Grinch is a bitter recluse living at the top of a mountain, far, far away from the town of Whoville, below. And why? Because The Grinch, after being bullied and rejected as a young boy, turns to anger and hatred to protect himself. He casts himself as the villain, helped along in his decision by the Whos that see him as an “other”; as a “What” rather than a Who.
It’s quite easy for me to sympathise with the Grinch. Yes, he derives some pleasure from scaring the Whos and ruining things for them every now and then, but that’s only because he still hasn’t gotten over the hurt of his childhood experiences. And though he certainly had a bad boy streak in him to begin with, I think the movie makes it clear that the right influences early on might have helped him better take part in Who society.
My ability to sympathise with the Grinch is only made easier by his Who peers – mostly Mayor Augustus Maywho (played by Jeffrey Tambor) – who continue to ostracise him even in adulthood, and even when the Grinch makes an effort to assimilate. (Here, I’m thinking specifically about the scene where the Grinch ruins the Whobilation, but only after the mayor taunts him by gifting him with a razor. A reminder of a painful childhood memory. The mayor follows up by proposing to a girl that he knows the Grinch was in love with growing up, in front of him.)
Because I can recognise and understand his pain, I can’t help but root for the Grinch. Maybe not to ruin Christmas for the Whos, most of whom are only guilty of believing the rumours they hear about him and following the mayors lead in disliking him. But I do root for the Grinch to get a happier ending than his beginning.
Expectedly, because it’s a family movie, the Grinch gets his happy ending. And he gets it because of a “little, not-to-be-taken-seriously girl, who hasn’t even grown into her nose yet”.
Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) spends the entire movie trying to understand what Christmas means. Through her efforts, she finds an answer for herself, and it’s one that the older Whos, and even the Grinch, come to realise as well. It’s about people over presents, about being with the ones you love and not things.
As the Grinch puts it: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
Those are the words the Grinch says before his heart grows three times in size. And that leads to a series of other touching moments at the end of the film, with the highlights including the Grinch giving back the Christmas things; him getting the girl (and it still tickles me to this day to see The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski as a Who); and getting a kiss on the cheek from little Cindy Lou. All ends well.
In short, the Grinch is the story of an outsider being brought into the fold, a trope which can easily tug at the heartstrings, especially with the right delivery. Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Grinch goes a long way in making that the case. He pulls off the emotional moments while also playing a character that is over-the-top and comedically dramatic enough to make the movie fun to watch, even as it delivers a nice message. Carrey’s performance is, without a doubt, the biggest reason I enjoy this movie so much.
While I’m on the topic of the Grinch, it’s worth mentioning that I have seen the 2018 animated movie The Grinch. It tells a slightly different story to the 2000 live-action movie, with the Grinch’s isolation being a result of internal factors as opposed to external, though delivers the same message. Cindy Los (voiced by Cameron Seely) also has a slightly different arc, spending the movie trying to get a very thoughtful gift for her mother – a less difficult experience as a single mother. But it’s still Cindy who triggers the Grinch’s eventual change of heart.
Though I still prefer How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I liked a lot about the animation.
Cumberbatch’s Grinch, while not is funny as Carrey’s in my opinion, came with his own appreciated brand of humour and his own touching moments throughout the film.
Additionally, I thought the use of animation had advantages over live action. Primarily, I think the visuals were more exciting and the physical comedy more elaborate and comedic at times. The use of animation also meant that Max (voiced by Fred Welker), the Grinch’s dog, could be more of a character and do more than just bark and look at the Grinch.
The Grinch might not be a favourite for me right now – and I say right now because maybe it’ll grow on me – but I can see why it could be for others.
And, regardless of whether it grows on me or not, I don’t regret watching The Grinch. It was enjoyable enough to hold my attention for its duration (mostly) and I can’t say outright that I’ll never want to watch it again. So, worth at least one watch, in my opinion.
Where there’s a Claus and a Clause
That’s right, the Christmas movie – or rather the Christmas series – which I’ve enjoyed over the years almost, if not as much as How the Grinch Stole Christmas is The Santa Clause trilogy. And I count them together because it’s hard for me to separate them in my opinion of them. At least when it comes to the first two.
The Santa Clause movies follow Scott Calvin – played by Tim Allen – after he becomes Santa following the accidental, tragic, and very-glossed-over death of the previous Santa. (Seriously, even the elves didn’t seem to care.)
The first Santa Clause movie – released in 1994 – tells the story of a father and son finding a way to connect again. Because of their shared experience in the North Pole and the shared secret of Scott’s newly-acquired role, Scott, and his son Charlie (Eric Lloyd), start to grow closer after experiencing some difficulties in their relationship.
Due to his taking up the mantle of Santa Claus, Scott also develops from a workaholic father and inconsiderate ex-husband into a father that is more considerate of his son’s feelings and of the time he spends with him, as well as a more cooperative co-parent. This is even as comes to terms with and prepares to begin a rather demanding new job. Charlie goes through a bit of his own journey becoming more able to share his father with his job while learning that his father’s absence doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about him.
The Santa Clause 2 (2002) somewhat continues with its look at Scott and his involvement in his son’s life and his participation in his ex’s family life. We see that though he may not always be able to be there for Charlie he tries to be home when he’s most needed, and that’s apparently often enough for his ex-wife’s daughter to call him “Uncle Scott”.
Some might consider this level of closeness with an ex strange, but I’ve always rather liked what this says about the family dynamic Scott now has. He not only tolerates his ex and her new family for his son’s sake, but it genuinely seems that everyone gets along and enjoy being each other’s family.
But family isn’t the primary focus of the second movie. The main plot of The Santa Clause 2 is actually romantic in nature – which is perhaps why I often consider it my favourite of the three. (If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. I’m a sucker for romance.)
In The Santa Claus 2, Scott, while looking for a wife because of a second “Santa Clause”, falls for the trilogy’s new resident non-believer Carol Newman (Elizabeth Mitchell), who takes over from the previously sceptic Scott. As they spend time with each other we see Carol start to open up to Scott and Scott start to genuinely fall in love rather than just find an acceptable woman to marry. And, of course, this is all as Scott encourages Carol to appreciate Christmas and everything it has to offer with that child-like wonder that we typically lose as we grow up. (It is still a Christmas movie, after all.)
For me, despite it being a romantic story set at Christmas, The Santa Clause 2 is much better than most other romantic Christmas tales which are arguably more cliché and, in my opinion, quite saccharine and superficial. In part, I think this is because the movie explores aspects of family, which lends heart to the story on another level. It’s also more enjoyable because the humour and storytelling are, in my opinion, better than you’d find in the average made for TV (or Netflix, or Amazon) romantic Christmas movie.
The final instalment of the Santa Clause trilogy, while not my favourite, is not without merit either. It also continues to explore more relatable, non-magic aspects of Scott’s story and, in this movie, we see Scott struggle with balancing his responsibilities as a new husband and soon-to-be-father (to a second child) during his busiest time of year.
He has a tough go of it for the majority of the movie, even when he tries to make things better. And his situation isn’t helped by being sabotaged by someone who actually envies Scott’s life – for his title and role as a beloved Legendary Figure, if not for his family life.
In the end, after the inevitable teachable moment, Scott realises that hectic as his life is as Santa, he wouldn’t give it up if that meant losing everything else that came as a result – his relationship with his son, his ex-wife and her family, and his new wife and unborn kid. And he comes away from his lessons more willing to open up and trust to his newly-extended family – namely is new in-laws – and he also comes back to find all of his family and friends helping him to get through his tough time at work.
Overall, The Santa Clause movies explore family, friendship, romance, and love, and the difficultly that comes with those, especially when trying to balance them with work and other responsibilities. It’s a light series, and fun, with laughs to be had, but there’s also some heart, and it’s the well-handled combination and balancing of those aspects which I think finds me queueing up the series for another rewatch come Christmas time.
“Love actually is all around”
I’m sure you’ve already guessed based on the subhead – which is taken from Hugh Grant’s narration from the opening scene of the movie – which movie I’m now going to discuss next. If you haven’t guessed, however, it’s Love Actually.
I did already say that I’m a sucker for romance, didn’t I? And there’s plenty of romantic love to fondly regard in Love Actually.
There’s Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurélia’s (Lúcia Moniz) comedic lost-in-translation love, which is really only just beginning when the movie ends (marriage proposal aside). John (Martin Freeman) and Judy’s (Joanna Page) romance is there to illustrate that love really can be found in the strangest of places. David (Hugh Grant) and Natalie’s (Martine McCutcheon) awkward office flirting is admittedly conspicuous and questionable in its nature given this post-MeToo era, but still sweet if you let yourself forget about that. Even Sam’s (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) puppy love for Joanna (Olivia Olson) is cute to watch play out.
But Love Actually is actually about more than just romantic love, and there are other types “all around”, which allows more depth as the movie explores these other types of human connection.
Mark (Andrew Lincoln) shows his love and loyalty for his friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) by avoiding Peter’s new wife Juliet (Kiera Knightley), who he happens to be in love with. Admittedly, it would be more admirable if not for the “carolling scene” near the end, but Mark does seem to declare “enough” after that, so that’s…something.
We see more love between friends through musician Billy (Bill Nighy) and his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). Billy insults Joe in basically every scene he’s in during the movie – to comedic effect – and yet at the end declares Joe the love of his life. Because who better to love than the man who has been by your side through the tough times. And there’s Daniel (Liam Neeson), his love for his stepson Sam and his desire to keep being a good father to him even after the tragic loss of his wife, Sam’s mother.
And, stopping the movie from being too saccharine in its view of love, it also shows how love can sometimes hurt.
In addition to Daniel, who has just become a widower, we see a different kind of heartbreak from loss through Jamie, whose wife cheats on him with his brother. Love is also shown to hurt through the choices it leaves us to make. This is most memorable for me through Karen (Emma Thompson) who we see stay with her husband (Harry, played by the late Alan Rickman), even after sussing out his (almost) affair. (Even after multiple rewatches, my heart breaks for Karen every time she goes to silently cry in her bedroom after realising that the present she secretly found and thought was for her, must have gone to another woman.)
Despite its many threads, Love Actually is full of memorable moments which help storylines stand out and which can inspire enough nostalgia in me to make me go back and watch the whole thing again. Jamie going back to France to win Aurélia and then wandering through the streets with an entire crowd following him that wants to see how things play out, for example. And I can never forget the image of Hugh Grant (as David) dancing through what 10 Downing Street is supposedly. Even the tough emotional scenes, like with Karen crying in the bedroom, remind me of why Love Actually is one worth rewatching.
The formula for Love Actually has been attempted by other star-packed holiday movies that look at love and interconnecting lives and stories in a similar way. But, in my opinion, none has ever been able to pull it off as well. Whether that’s is because Love Actually was the first movie of its kind which I saw and all subsequent similar movies subsequently seem like poor imitations, or because this movie is somehow genuinely better, I can’t say. Either way, my opinion is what it is.
Sure, the movie is not without its faults. In addition to David and Natalie’s questionable romance there’s Harry’s almost affair with his secretary, and don’t even get me started on the unfounded insistence of multiple characters that Natalie is fat (which I’m sure it’s there for comedic purposes, but honestly, I don’t think it’s funny).
Even so, I can’t help but enjoy the majority of the movie each time I watch it. And, if I’m quicker to see flaws in it given the social climate and my increasing maturity with each year, then at least I can separate what makes it a good movie, and what I overlook because I like it so much; what is sweet and romantic, and what is definitely out of bounds in real life.
Maybe one day the impact of parts that I enjoy will be outweighed by that of the aspects that have not aged well, but that is yet to be the case. So for now, Love Actually remains a Christmas movie I love to rewatch.
The role of nostalgia
Much as I enjoy these Christmas films, I can recognise that they’re not perfect. Love Actually has the flaws I’ve already mentioned, and I can admit that How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Santa Clause series, are childish in ways. They are family movies, after all. And all of the movies are at least a little cheesy at times.
But still, I enjoy them.
Nostalgia, and the affection I had for these movies when I was watching them as a kid or a teen no doubt plays a big part in why I still enjoy them now. But there’s also a lot to be said for what the movies are in and of themselves, comedies with some heart that just happen to revolve around, or take place during, Christmas. It’s a formula which I evidently enjoy, and most of all in the way that my top Christmas picks succeed at.
But the fact that I enjoy these films now and have for some time is not to say that they will always be my favourites. Maybe, in future, they will be joined or replaced by Christmas movies I’ve only seen for the first time relatively recently – like the heart-warming Klaus (2019) or Netflix’s LGBT+ Christmas movie A New York Christmas Wedding (2020). Or maybe by Christmas movies I have yet to see.
What I find more difficult to imagine changing is my ability to enjoy Christmas movies at all. Yes, Christmas movies can be cheesy, childish, and sometimes cliché but they can also be funny, and sweet, and generally quite enjoyable.
They may not be critically acclaimed cinema, but they can be a decent way to pass the time when the Christmas season hits and they’re just another fun way to indulge in the spirit of the season. And that’s the whole point of them, isn’t it?
To those of you who made it through this incredibly long post, thanks for sticking with it, and I hope you enjoyed reading it.
Merry Christmas to you all. I hope you’re able to make the best of it this year.