It’s Christmasssss! Northern Soul writers pick their favourite festive films
Christmas, as we all know, is a time for traditions. For some that might mean decorating the tree, writing cards, going out carolling or visiting relatives. Here at Northern Soul, though, our very favourite festive tradition is the Buying of the Bumper Radio Times and Circling the Films You Want to See.
Because Christmas is the perfect time for watching films. A big, daft old movie is an indulgence, a laugh, a thrill, a treat. It can be enjoyed while snuggling down with children/partners/pets/a humungous box of Roses (delete as you see fit). This is a time for fun, relaxation and escapism, and watching a beloved film can fit that perfectly.
For your delectation, then, the Northern Soul team have donned their elf-eared thinking caps and come up with their favourite movies for cool Yule viewing. We’re a varied bunch, so, as you’d expect, it’s a varied list.
Star Wars (aka Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977)
To this day, any viewing of Star Wars seems wrong without the Granada Christmas Careline number scrolling across the foot of the screen. I’m from the VHS generation where recording films on the telly box was the only way to see them again. Well, before Christmas rolled around again, anyway. So, for me, Star Wars will always be inextricably linked with the festive season, as it undoubtedly is for my younger sister. Both of us now own the super-duper digital enhanced versions of the trilogy – and the prequels and sequels and, oh, I could go on. But none of these mega-pricey, state-of-the-art Lucas enterprises will ever affect me or her in the way that the analogue, pretty crappy, peppered with adverts and charitable endeavours screenings of that glorious first episode did – and then some. I miss those days.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This feels like an obvious choice but it’s an essential festive pick. I mean, come on! Does it get any better than this? It’s a cold, cold heart that doesn’t look forward to this Christmas favourite. When I interviewed the actor Steven Mackintosh for Northern Soul a couple of years back, there were a myriad of questions scratching at my brain. Yes, he’d been in award-winning dramas and yes, he’s a stand-out performer of his generation. But early on he’d appeared as Scrooge’s nephew in quite possibly the best Xmas film ever made. He told me: “It was incredible. I was so young then and I’d only made one other feature film. To be asked to be in a film with Kermit and Michael Caine – I thought, you’ve got to be kidding. Talk about all your Christmases all at once.” I’ll admit to having a ginormous crush on Mackintosh, a love I have nurtured for countless years. But I’d swap all that for a chance to be close by when those immortal lines were uttered: “Light the lamp, not the rat! Light the lamp, not the rat!”
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Yes, I know, boring option. Bear with me though, I come at this from a different angle. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those Christmas stalwarts; every bugger has seen it and seen it countless times. It’s so familiar that no one feels the need to explain the plot or anything else about it. But, until two years ago, this film was a mystery to me. I had a vague sense that it was the ultimate in festive movie goodness, the kind of film that made you glad to be alive. So imagine my horror when, on Christmas Eve 2014, I popped my Wonderful Life cherry. Oh my dear god! What was this? No George, don’t do it, don’t do it! Holy crap, I’d been sold a pup. But I came out the other side. It’s a Wonderful Life is now permanently on my must-see Christmas film list.
Talk about throwing a curveball. But doesn’t every family have a movie that has absolutely nowt to do with Christmas but that’s when you watch it anyway? This is that film for the Nugent girls. And man, what a work of art. Released 30 years ago, Jumpin’ Jack Flash stars Whoopi Goldberg and the honey-voiced Brit actor, Jonathan Pryce. Without wanting to give too much away, the plot hinges on a Cold War intrigue and a case of mistaken identity. I don’t want to say much more than that apart from, if you’ve never had the pleasure, WATCH IT NOW. And for the asthmatics among you, have that inhaler ready for the belly laughs. Rather appropriately, my sister gave me the DVD some years back on Christmas Day. Just thinking about this gem of film makes me want to dust off that plastic-backed cover.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite Christmas film is the blockbuster Escape to Victory (1981). There’s nothing inherently Christmassy about it, except that it always used to be on during the Christmas holidays, and so lying down on my stomach in front of the gas fire in the lounge waiting for Russell Osman to say ‘but we can win this!’ and Michael Caine and Pele persuading Sylvester Stallone to go back on the pitch for the second half became a regular part of the festive period for me.
In many ways it’s a ridiculous and preposterous film, but that’s part of its appeal. Mike Summerbee, Bobby Moore and a cosmopolitan collection of early 80s footballers (Ossie Ardiles, Kazimierz Deyna, and half of Bobby Robson’s UEFA Cup-winning Ipswich side) play a motley assortment of Allied PoWs who take on the Nazi German national XI and a biased ref in a showpiece match in Paris. And beat them. With Sylvester Stallone in goal. What’s not to like?
And if you think the ending is far-fetched, the original script called for Stallone to dribble the ball out of his own penalty area, go up the other end, and score the winner. If you don’t believe me, read the novelisation by Yabo Yablonsky. I bought it in a charity shop once, for 99p.
My OH and I have a regimented series of pre-Christmas viewing. For films it’s always the following:
Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
He’s adamant this isn’t a Christmas film. Judy Garland sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, for crying out loud
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
For the last seven years we’ve watching this in a box at the Liverpool Phil every Christmas Eve with our oldest and best friends. Life has changed considerably since we started the tradition, but it means a lot to all of us. We meet at lunchtime in the same pub. It’s become as much of a tradition for the pub as it has for us. The landlord says he always knows Christmas Eve begins when we arrive. Then he saves a table for us, in a bustling rammed city centre pub at Christmastime. It sounds really strange, but it’s like a reset for all of us. We don’t see enough in the year, we love each other very much and it’s our chance every year to hold everyone’s hands and say how much we mean to each other.
So this Christmas I reckon I’ll be attempting to shoe-horn these beauties in between the Queen’s speech and a sprout butty at my Ma’s place.
The first one. Only the first one. The turkey gets thrown in the bin, there’s a massive argument, and a pair of turtles (rather than doves). Actually the first two might actually happen at Thanksgiving but I can’t tell one big-bird-massacre-festival from another. Besides, what could be more festive than bashing the hell out of some raw meat?
Is there a Christmas scene in Withnail and I? I can’t remember (which is why I’m watching it again this Christmas). If there isn’t there should be. Picture the scene – Danny decorates his Camberwell carrot with tinsel, Withnail douses the pud with lighter fluid and Uncle Monty pursues Marwood about the tree with a sprig of mistletoe stuck in his flies.
Think you’re having a shit Christmas? Not as bad as Bruce Robertson, the protagonist copper and all round arsehole in the film of Irvine Welsh’s misanthropic novel. He’s working Christmas Day with a hangover the size of the Forth Bridge painting project. Plus, his wife has left him and he still hasn’t told anyone. For extra entertainment, a man drops dead while out Christmas shopping with his wife (though we’ve all felt like doing that) and Robertson makes a dirty phone call pretending to be Frank Sidebottom.
The Snow Queen (1995)
This animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale (a precursor to the sensation that is Frozen) was a childhood staple of mine growing up. It’s scary enough to be thrilling but not enough to be objectively terrifying for most young children. It also boasts some British acting legends – Hugh Laurie, Helen Mirren and Rik Mayall chief among them.
Though I’m not a great fan of the festive season – it offends my basic communist, atheist and general ‘bah-humbug’ tendencies – I am a great fan of The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Also, Die Hard (1988), especially its combination of seasonal jollies and extreme violence. And despite it technically being a Thanksgiving film, Trains, Planes and Automobiles (1987) conveys the true spirit of the season.
Star Wars (aka Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977)
Any old excuse for me, really, but who can resist a dusk-ridden Sunday afternoon with no lights on, travelling to a galaxy far, far away for the original fight against the Death Star? (hopefully given a new lease of life after a trip to see Rogue One at the flicks)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Once I’ve done my vocal warm-ups and ensured the Quality Street chocs are within arm’s length, I’m ready to fly away to Oz and lose myself in this classic. The routine can also be adapted for Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Grease.
Nothing says Christmas like evil reptile-like monsters attacking a town and sending a poor old lady through an upstairs window on a souped-up Stannah stair lift. Even so, it’s a Christmas classic.
Has to be Fargo (1996), one of my favourite Coen Brothers’ films of all time. Snow, blood, a madcap plot and sublime acting from some of the Coens’ favourite actors – Frances McDormand, William H Macy and Steve Buscemi.
I would then grab a box of mince pies and follow it with the The Big Lebowski (1998) – and lament the passing this year of Mr Lebowski himself, David Huddleston.
I think I was about seven-years-old when I first realised the TV schedules went haywire at Christmas. This is still more or less the case of course, but now that we can watch whatever we want at all hours of the day or night, it’s a far less noteworthy fact. Back then, though – and I really do mean way back then when there were only three channels and you were lucky if you reached the end of Call My Bluff without yet another power cut – the novelty of working your way through a selection box at 11am while watching It’s a Christmas Knockout was hard to beat.
The best bits of those crazy TV line-ups were the light-hearted themed film seasons that not only gave you another excuse to skewer a date, crack open the Matchmakers and put your feet up, they also delivered an accidental crash course in movie history. But while they may have been inadvertently educational, it remains the case that life has offered me few experiences more delightful than running downstairs in my jimjams to watch another classic feature with Abbott and Costello, or collapsing on the sofa in time for my third Peter Sellers offering of the day.
It’s for this reason that these kinds of films always feel Christmassy to me. I’d go so far as to say that it isn’t a film’s subject matter that makes it festive, it’s more to do with the time of day that it’s on. So in this spirit, my top Christmas film choice wouldn’t be a single movie, it would be a series of Marx Brothers classics – Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), all the greats – but they must be shown at random times between late morning and mid-afternoon on consecutive days throughout the holiday. On broadcast TV of course, not Blu-Ray.
Whatever time they appear, I’ll be there with my Radio Times Christmas double issue spread across my knee, learning more about slapstick, wordplay and American social history of the 1930s than anyone ever told me at school. And laughing my head off, naturally.
When Noel (2004) was first released, nobody – myself included – seemed to notice. Directed by Chazz Palminteri, it boasts a fantastic cast including Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Paul Walker, Alan Arkin and an uncredited Robin Williams.
I stumbled upon Noel in the DVD bargain bin the next festive season. I’m glad I gave it a chance because it’s been a guilty pleasure every year since. It features just the right amount of melancholy, something that most of us, if we’re being honest, experience at some point during the season of being ‘jolly’. As the film progresses, you might think you’d be on the ledge ready to jump well before this movie ends. But hold off jumping into the bath with the toaster, because somehow all the ingredients just work. It’s genuinely touching because it plays with the notion that we’re supposed to feel happy at Christmastime. Dig out this hidden gem and see the festive season from another perspective.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Gremlins (1984) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are all favourites of mine, but I’m going for Dean Spanley (2008), an overlooked delight. Starring Sam Neill, Peter O’Toole and Bryan Brown, and featuring such themes as paternal relationships and canine reincarnation, it’s brimming with festive cheer and a few drops of melancholy. Best enjoyed with a few glasses of Hungarian Tokay wine – Christie’s recently sold a bottle for just shy of two grand. Bargain.
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
This isn’t set at Christmas. There’s nothing Christmassy about it. But I watched it for the first time late at night on Channel 4 one Christmas Day during the late 1980s. Actually, that was a genius bit of scheduling. It might not be schmaltzy family-friendly fare, but in its own unique way Gregory’s Girl is so utterly warm and human that it suits the festive season down to the ground. The same goes for many of Bill Forsyth’s other films, too, especially Local Hero (1983) and, obviously enough, Comfort and Joy (1984).
Because it’s beautiful, funny, thrilling, inspired and strange. It’s the perfect film to watch on Christmas Day. Or, come to think of it, any of the other 364 days of the year.
Batman Returns (1992)
Back before he turned into a third-rate Tim Burton plagiarist, Tim Burton made a whole run of wonderful, cherishable films. Many of them had a twisted sort of Christmas element in there somewhere. Edward Scissorhands scores highly here, but my festive pick would be Batman Returns. Weird it might be, but it’s chock-full of barmy drama, redemption, troubled love and huge rideable rubber ducks. Basically, it’s got a bit of everything, and for me it remains the best superhero film ever made, as well as being thoroughly Christmassy.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) / Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
When our eldest son was tiny, a family friend with fine taste bought him a cracking present: a DVD set of the vintage animated Christmas specials made by Rankin/Bass. I’d heard of them, but never seen any. They weren’t as well known over here as much as they were in the States. They tug at the heart-strings in a curious way, making me feel nostalgic for a childhood I didn’t actually have. Now, watching them together marks the start of our family Christmas every year. Though these days our eldest isn’t so keen on me reminding him how scared he used to be of the Abominable Snow Monster, Rudolph’s nemesis.
Technically this last choice is cheating because they were made for television. In fact, several of the Northern Soul writers gave the nod to festive TV dramas, among them The Box of Delights and the BBC’s annual Ghost Stories for Christmas. They might be just outside our remit here, but I reckon they deserve a mention because they’re smashing.
To be honest, I often spend December rewatching the 1960s Doctor Who epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, which stops off halfway though for a knockabout Christmas Day interlude involving approximations of the Keystone Kops and characters from Z-Cars. Each to their own, though, eh? Especially at this time of year.
So, happy viewing, and a merry Christmas to all of you at home!
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