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The greatest family Christmas films

BY James Oliver

24th Dec 2019 Film & TV

The greatest family Christmas films

Because, sometimes, there's nothing better than snuggling up with your family on the sofa and watching a feel-good festive flick

Ah, Christmas! A time for food, frolics and—oh yes!—family. As we all know, though, that last can be a problem: no one can irritate you more than those you love best and yuletide is a prime time for bust-ups and bickering. 

The enforced proximity of the festive get-together is ready-made for drama: no wonder so many filmmakers have used it as a setting. Here we present a guide to a few of the most noteworthy: no matter how much you're dreading the celebrations, they can't possibly be as bad as some of those included here... 


Meet Me In St Louis  

Although it starts in high summer, a Christmas conclusion has ensconced this as a festive flick: everything comes to a head in the bleak midwinter. It's the story of a happy midwestern family whose good humour is tested when the father's job requires him to move to New York. But when he sees how his daughters react—trashing snowmen, singing “have yourself a merry little Christmas”—he changes his mind and they stay put and enjoy a lovely family Christmas. Emotional blackmail has never been so endearing. 


Christmas in Connecticut  

One of the great stresses of Christmas is that it can never match up to the ideals we see in adverts, on TV and, yes, in films. But don't worry—as Christmas in Connecticut shows, this anxiety is nothing new. The very great Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, America's favourite domestic goddess who spreads her recipes and tales of family perfection through a widely read newspaper column. So she's an obvious choice to host a Christmas luncheon for a wounded war hero (it was made in 1945). 

Trouble is, her dutiful housewife act is exactly that—an act: she's a singleton who can't even boil an egg. She finds a family to help her out but the illusion will be harder to sustain than she might like. 


The Holly and the Ivy 

What of a good British Christmas? Here is the spirit of Christmas past. Made in 1952, it's set in Norfolk, where the grown-up children of a country parson (played by Ralph Richardson) come home for the festivities. All of them are carrying emotional burdens they don't feel able to share with their distant papa, but things will change. A warm-hearted and generous film, it's not as well known as it might be but a well-timed re-release allows us to put that right. 


The Lion in Winter 

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As with The Holly and the Ivy, The Lion in Winter is set back in the day: in 1183, if we're being specific. The family here is especially dysfunctional, which is a nuisance because they are the most powerful in all England, and most of France too—King Henry II and his estranged Mrs. Queen Eleanor (Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn respectively), and their offspring Richard (the future lionheart), John (the Magna Carta fella) and Geoffrey (who did nothing much to justify these brackets but it would be rude to leave him out). 

Christmas in the castle is a time of endless argument and politicking; with nearest and dearest like these, no wonder Richard was so keen to get away to do some nice crusading.  


The Apartment  

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A bit of a cheat this, and not just because it extends up to New Year's eve. Rather, it's because the “family” here aren't relations, but something a bit more makeshift. They are CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon, never better) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine, probably ditto), his boss's squeeze. They're thrown together under inauspicious circumstances over the holidays and—y'know—fall in love, which is nice. Sometimes, “family” is more than just blood ties. 


Fanny and Alexander 

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Not quite Ingmar Bergman's swan-song but his last major work and his most directly autobiographical: the story is based on his own early life. Much of that time was unhappy but there are always moments when the cloud breaks.  

Fanny and Alexander begins with one of the most purely lovely things he ever did, an evocation of a Christmas through a child's eyes: the clan gathers and there is the hint of magic in the air. Best of all, because it's Sweden, there's snow on the ground, just the way it ought to be. 


National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 

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From the sublime to the ridiculous, gloriously so. This film reunites us with the Griswolds; you may remember them from National Lampoon's Vacation and National Lampoon's European Vacation but it hardly matters if you don't—you will quickly get their measure as they make a hash of the most wonderful time of the year, from buying an unnecessarily oversized tree, causing power-outages with their house illuminations and, of course, finding room for their kith and kin. There can be no higher praise than to say it is utterly daft. 


A Christmas Story 

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While there’s always room for a nice heart-warming tale at Christmas—note the success of Last Christmas—there are some films that use the season as a backdrop for something more waspish. A Christmas Tale brings together the Vuillard family to hear bad news. Matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve on imperious form) has leukaemia and she needs the bone marrow of one of her children to survive. 

Much influenced by The Royal Tenenbaums but more astringent than Wes Anderson's masterpiece, A Christmas Tale is not about to usurp It's A Wonderful Life as a festive fave anytime soon. Maybe wait until the turkey's finished and everyone's gone home before sticking it on: you'll probably be in just the mood for it then... 

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