The underappreciated art of the Christmas movie

The underappreciated art of the Christmas movie | Soho House

With House cinemas celebrating the season of goodwill, Hanna Flint dissects what makes a good festive flick – and reveals the ones you should be watching

Saturday 3 December   By Hanna Flint

It’s officially December, which can only mean one thing: the scourge of Christmas movies has begun. Only joking. I adore Christmas films and love to while the hours shut away from the cold outside with some indoor festive cinematic magic – ideally with a chocolate selection box in reach. 

But what makes a good Christmas movie? And I’m not talking about the non-Xmas related fodder that BBC pops on the schedule each year like The Wizard of Oz. I mean the specific, festive period stories that have become a must-watch staple during what Andy Williams says is ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. I put this question to my therapist during our latest session and she said a good Christmas film is ‘relatable’. I don’t think I can argue with that. 

The underappreciated art of the Christmas movie | Soho House

The films that always seem to make the top 10 lists have some form of relatability in regard to the narrative’s emotional vulnerabilities and imperfect characters. Take Die Hard – no debate here, it’s 100% a Christmas movie. John McClane is just your average cop flying in from New York to LA to see his kids and attempt to save his marriage. When some rude German terrorists take his wife and her office hostage that festive plan is thrown out the window. ‘Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs,’ John remarks with his brow bloodied, white vest mucked up, as he hides out in an air vent. He doesn’t save the office party but he certainly saves the McClane family Christmas.

Workaholic/absent/depressed fathers is a recurring theme in some of the Christmas greats. It’s A Wonderful Life, Klaus, The Bishop’s Wife (and its 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife), Elf, Gremlins, The Santa Clause and Jingle All The Way all offer endearing daddies trying to do right by the kids in their life at Christmas time. The chaos of Jingle All the Way is amplified by two rival dads vying to get their child a Turbo Man action figure and it’s a reminder how spoiled we were by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad during the 1990s. 

The film encapsulates the stranglehold of consumerism at Christmas, the commercialisation of the religious holiday about giving, loving and selflessness and it’s that sort of thematic direction that makes Scrooged my favourite adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the book as a response to child poverty and that message isn’t felt less in its 1980s update, with Bill Murray playing the cynical TV exec visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. It’s sharp, quippy, campy with grit – and has a love plot thrown in to melt my particular romantic heart.

The underappreciated art of the Christmas movie | Soho House

The trials and tribulations of romance feel especially potent at Christmas, whether you’re cuffed or not, and that’s why Love Actually, The Shop Around The Corner and The Holiday will always curry favour. Sure, some of Love Actually’s plotlines might not hold up in the light of 2022, but if watching Emma Thompson silently cry to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, after realising her husband’s a cheater, doesn’t move you then I might have to prescribe you her Clouds album.

The relatability of familial strife over the holidays always makes for entertaining, if not visceral, viewing. Krampus, Boxing Day, Home Alone and, of course, the at-times excruciatingly awkward The Family Stone are perfect ways to remind yourself that drama is not exclusive to your household. 

Ultimately, a great Christmas movie is one that reminds you of our humanity. That we are fallible beings who might not have everything together, we might not get everything right, but we are trying our best. Often, the best thing we have to offer is not gifts, but ourselves. 

A Christmas song wouldn’t hurt though.

The underappreciated art of the Christmas movie | Soho House

Woman on Top

Sight and Sound magazine revealed the results of its once-a-decade Greatest Film Of All Time poll and for the first time in its history, a female-directed film has claimed the top spot.

The late Chantal Akerman’s Belgian drama, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), knocked Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo off the top spot, having been in 36th place in 2012. Full disclosure: I was invited to take part in the poll by submitting my top 10 films of all time, but even writing that statement makes my brain hurt. 

Even as a conscientious objector I appreciate the result. Jeanne Dielman is a brilliantly minimal film about the mundanity of a single mother’s life, pairing domestic duty with sex work before nuances in her routine change, leading to climactic results. By doubling the number of voters from 2012 and including more diversity in its voting body, a monumental change has happened to reflect filmmaking excellence beyond the dominant male standard. Maybe in 10 years’ time a film by a filmmaker of colour will claim that top spot. Until then, congrats Chantal! Rest in cinematic peace.

Read our guide to the best festive films around our Houses here