Trawling through the internet looking for the best and worst Christmas films, it’s possible to find some patterns emerging in what people consider to be good or bad in these sorts of films. Some of these are fairly predictable: old fashioned sentimentality is good but modern slushiness is bad. Some are not so obvious.
One of these less than surprising trends is a penchant for Christmas films from the 1940s. These gentle, nostalgic festive movies make the top ten in every favourite Christmas film countdown. Particular favourites are Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which made Rotten Tomatoes’ number 1 slot, and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) which made Time Out’s number 1 slot. The appeal of these films is the sense of genuine sentimentality and nostalgia for a ‘simpler time’. People often feel that there is something more authentic about the emotions and atmosphere expressed in these films than in modern Christmas films and that is why they remain so popular.
A film that embodies the type of modern forced sentimentality that keeps coming up in lists of the worst Christmas films ever, is Jack Frost (1998) staring Michael Keaton. This film gets slated again and again for simply trying too hard to be poignant when it was actually a fairly daft concept Although some reviews stated that it was “heart-warming” or “tear-jerking”, most people agreed that was just rather soppy and lame.
Moving away entirely from sentimentality, a less obvious addition to the best Christmas movies of all time are a number of action films. The most notable one being Die Hard (1988) staring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. Far from the gentle whimsical comedies of the 1940s, this film features a classic scene where Alan Rickman reads a message written across a dead man’s chest out loud in his dead pan and, let’s face it, dodgy German accent which says, “Now I have a machine gun, ho, ho, ho.” It’s this sort of dark humour that makes the film so popular, however, and it is the complete break from the traditional view of Christmas that people find so appealing.
However, breaking too much from tradition and entering the land of the downright bizarre does not go down well with festive film viewers. Another repeat offender in the lists of worst Christmas films ever is the 1964 film Santa Clause Conquers the Martians. This bit of genre bending did not raise Christmas cheer, it just left people scratching their heads and asking “why would anyone think this was a good idea?”
Comedy would seem to be an obvious genre for a Christmas movie and there have been many successful attempts over the years such as Elf (2003) staring Will Ferrell. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case and there are a long list of comedies which dominate the worst Christmas films lists. Rom-coms are particular culprits when it comes to Christmas clangers as both Deck the Halls (2006) and Four Christmases (2008) regularly appear in the top ten worst films. They are not the absolute worst though. The film that has the dubious honour of being most frequently voted the worst Christmas film of all time is the 1996 disaster Jingle All the Way staring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The unlikely combination of the muscular action star in a silly Christmas comedy does not pay off as the whole thing comes across as slightly frightening with piles of gratuitous slapstick and unfunny one liners. Clearly, comedy has to be done very well to make a successful Christmas movie.
Oddly enough, the lists of the best Christmas films seem to be dominated by one director and it isn’t Steven Spielberg. It’s Tim Burton. The master of the macabre is also a wizz at making Christmas movies, it would appear. Batman Returns (1992), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) all feature in the top ten best Christmas movies of all time on various websites. Unlikely as it seems, dark and twisted is all the rage at Yuletide. These films feature such jolly scenes as a beauty queen falling off a roof onto a Christmas tree full of bats, a man in a leather jumpsuit with scissors for hands creating ice sculptures and a Halloween pumpkin man trying to take over Christmas.
It seems, therefore, that people are not always predictable when it comes to which films they prefer in the festive season. The popularity of Tim Burton films and action movies may be down to a kind of rebellion against the prescribed image of Christmas as a time for peace and bright shiny cheerfulness. Being too weird or too sentimental does not go down so well and unfunny comedies are the worst of all. Despite the trend to move away from a tradition view of Christmas, it can’t be ignored that two classic Christmas films from the 1940s came top in two fairly prestigious film review websites’ lists so maybe we like a bit of nostalgia and sentiment after all.