Monday, 12 December 2011

Movie Monday: Christmas must-sees

I'm sure all have our favourite Christmas movies, the ones that we watch every year and have become part of our own Christmas traditions, as much as the tinsel, tree and turkey (or alternative.) Just as I have to reread A Christmas Carol and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, go to a candle-lit carol service and dig out my earrings in the shape of Christmas trees, there are certain films that just have to be watched in December. Others are less compulsory, but help me to feel that yes, Christmas really is coming.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol. I have seen so many adaptations of Charles Dicken's famed ghost tale, and yet this version, with the Great Gonzo as the narrator, claiming to be Dickens himself, much to his friend Rizzo the Rat's disbelief. There is a wonderful mix of human and Muppet actors, with such great names as Michael Caine as the avaricious, cold-hearted Ebeneezer Scrooge, supported by Kermit the Frog as his good-natured employee Bob Cratchit (Miss Piggy, of course, is Mrs Cratchit!) and Statler and Waldorf as not just one ghost of Marley, but two! Despite the anachronisms, heckling, fourth-wall-breaking and other muppetry, it is a faithful adaptation of the novel, and with lots of memorable songs.

2. It's A Wonderful Life. Oh, how I love this film, though every time I watch it, I find myself blinking back tears in the first minutes. George Bailey is a bright, ambitious man, but his life hasn't turned out quite the way he planned. When George finds himself in desperate trouble, due to be arrested for fraud as a result of his uncle's carelessness and business rival's cruelty, he decides the world would be better off without him and contemplates suicide. Enter Clarence, a funny, bumbling little chap who claims to be his guardian angel. Clarence shows George what a dark place the world would be if he'd never been born, and he learns what a profound effect his ordinary life has had on everyone around him. A flop at the cinema when first released, It's A Wonderful Life has become one of the must-see films of Christmas.

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation in cinemas, my friend and I just hugged each other with excitement, barely even taking in the details, but knowing that the feel of it was perfect. This is the earliest story I can remember reading/viewing the TV series when I was three and an old animated film that just wasn't quite right. The 2005 film was perfect, magical, my childhood brought to life on the big screen. Although the 1980s BBC series was good for its time, watching it nowadays it seems dated and the acting a bit clunky. This new film, well, it just was Narnia. I can't fault it. The moment when Lucy walks through the wardrobe into the snowy wood, and sees the lamppost is just sheer magic. The casting is superb, the setting wonderful and the CGI a long way from the flying lion effect of the BBC drama. Wonderful.

4. The Hogfather. Not technically a film so much as a two-part TV dramatisation, Hogfather is the first live-action adaptation of any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. A strange, surreal tale of when Death had to step in for the Hogfather - the Disc's version of Father Christmas - to save the world from catastrophe. Sky One did an excellent job of bringing the Discworld to life, and it feels less of a fantasy story, and more of an alternative Victorian-esque reality which just happens to contain magic. The level of detail is astounding, the casting spot-on, especially the Wizards, the Assassins, and Susan (Michelle Dockery, now known as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey.) The kids are wonderfully real - not cutesy-poo but a bit ghoulish and cynical. Marc Warren is creepy as disturbed Assassin Teatime ("It's pronounced Teh-ah-tim-eh.") Every time I watch this, I feel like I'm seeing the Discworld brought to life for the first time. 

5. The Holiday. I often protest that I don't do the mushy stuff, but I have two "chick-flicks" on my Christmas film list. The first, The Holiday tells of two women (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) who, wanting to get away from it all, swap houses for the Christmas break. Kate Winslet finds herself in a luxury LA mansion, befriending an elderly screenwriter and a young musician, while Cameron Diaz discovers a cosy cottage in the middle of nowhere, and Jude Law, who plays Kate Winslet's brother. Kate Winslet's cosy cottage is far nicer than all but the fanciest English homes I've ever been to, and it's a very idealised sort of middle-of-nowhere, but it really is a lovely film that touches the heartstrings and makes me feel all cosy inside.

6. Love Actually. I only discovered this film recently, having previously been sure I'd hate it, but instead I found myself feeling all soft and gooey inside during the opening minutes, when Hugh Grant's Prime Minister narrates about how love, actually, is all around. There is an all-star cast, everyone who's anyone in the British film industry appears, including many of the faces familiar from Jane Austen adaptations and Harry Potter. About ten different stories are told in this form, about love in all its forms: father and son, friendships, new and old romances, unrequited loves and happily-ever-afters. Another (mostly) happy film, though there are a couple of teary moments too.

Interestingly, when I saw this recently, about the time when Bill Nighy was performing "Christmas Is All Around" - naked - my sister texted me to say she'd just passed him in the street in London. "In the two seconds of eye contact the thought that I'd seen him playing guitar naked did spring to mind," she said.

7. The Lord of the Rings. Though not actually Christmas films, these were released into cinemas at Christmas time from 2001-2003, and have since become part of my traditions to watch in December or early January.

8. Harry Potter. Similarly, though most of these films have Christmas scenes, it is the magic and possibility and childlike innocence coupled with adventure - especially in the early films - that makes this series perfect for a cosy festive marathon in front of the fire on dark winter nights. Alas, I have only the Christmas and New Year weekends off, but I have plans to watch each of these films in the evenings over the next few weeks.

9. The Doctor Who Christmas Specials. We never used to watch TV at all on Christmas day - except, sometimes, the Queen's Speech if we'd finished lunch and done the washing up on time. But in the last few years, an exception has been made for Doctor Who. From David Tennant's first episode when he spent most of the hour in his pyjamas and defeated the aliens with a satsuma, this was immediately established as a tradition. During the Tennant era, most of these episodes took place in-between companions, so without that familiar viewpoint character, the quality was patchy. A one-off companion, Donna, the Runaway Bride returned for a series in the Tardis. With Steven Moffat as writer, the Christmas Specials appear to be tackling familiar stories from a new angle. Last year it was A Christmas Carol, this year is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's turn. And Matt Smith's Doctor, with Moffat's writer, is strong enough that you don't necessarily need the regular companions. I got so excited to recognise what this year's special was going to be.

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