This Christmas is set to be a rather lowkey affair – and after the year it’s been, we can’t say we’re complaining. If, like us, you’re counting down the days to the holidays, you’re probably already compiling your list of the best films to watch with a glass of mulled wine in hand, and a selection box in lap. But we thought we’d save you from all that scrolling (and the ensuing familial arguments) by rounding up some of the best films to watch over the Christmas break.
Remotes at the ready….
The best films to watch over the Christmas holidays
Widely acclaimed as the greatest movie ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is the hardest of acts to follow. David Fincher holds his nerve with this dazzling portrait of the man who shared with Welles Kane’s only Oscar, screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman’s ‘Mank’ is a larger-than-life creation, nimble witted and compulsively self-destructive, an inveterate gambler, irredeemable drunk, and an incorrigible biter-of-the-hand-that-feeds who pours his disillusionment with the Hollywood studio system into the screenplay the 24-year-old Welles has commissioned. Fincher, however, takes rhapsodic delight in recreating this lost era. His film’s lustrous black-and-white photography supplies an instant hit of nostalgia, while the snappy repartee of Mank and his fellow screenwriters echoes the screwball comedies they had a hand in writing at the time. Oldman holds centre stage throughout, but he gets vivid support from Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, sharp-witted mistress of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the man widely seen as the inspiration for the eponymous Kane. There are fine turns, too, from Lily Collins as Mank’s prim English secretary and Arliss Howard as odious MGM boss Louis B Mayer, to mention only two of the film’s large gallery of characters. Fincher’s movie isn’t perfect. Written by the director’s late father Jack, it leans a little too heavily on film critic Pauline Kael’s discredited thesis that Mankiewicz was the true creative force behind Citizen Kane, not Welles (played here by Tom Burke in what is little more than a walk on part). The notion does not hold up to scrutiny but it doesn’t prevent Fincher’s film from being terrifically accomplished and hugely enjoyable.
Director: David Fincher
12, 131 mins
Showing on Netflix from 4th December
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis make a winning couple in this joyous seasonal rom-com, which gives an inclusive twist to a typical Christmas movie plot. Stewart’s grad student Abby is putting aside her aversion to Christmas to accompany her journalist girlfriend Harper (Davis) home for the holiday. She even plans to use the occasion to propose. Unfortunately, unbeknown to Abby, Harper hasn’t come out to her conservative family. Worse lies in store. Harper’s perfectionist dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, her finicky mother (Mary Steenburgen) is micro-managing everything, and Harper’s competitive rivalry with sister Sloane (Alison Brie) is primed to explode. Director Clea DuVall and her co-writer Mary Holland (who plays Harper and Sloane’s endearingly kooky sister Jane) have created a beguilingly lovely comedy that deserves to become a holiday staple. The cast hit exactly the right tone (shoutouts, too, for supporting players Aubrey Plaza and Daniel Levy), producing laugh-out loud moments and heartfelt ones in turn – the film’s slapstick farce goes hand in hand with genuine emotion and genuine, real-world dilemmas. The overall mood may be cosy but as the plot unwinds we get a real sense of jeopardy over Abby and Harper’s future. There are corny bits, for sure, but they only seem to make the movie more charming.
Director: Clea DuVall
12, 102 mins
Available on Digital; and on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 19th December
Sofia Coppola reunites with her Lost in Translation star Bill Murray for another bittersweet comedy that partners him with a younger female co-star. And she again manages to make her leads’ rapport both wistfully tender and terrifically funny. Rashida Jones’s affluent New Yorker fears her businessman husband (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair, and her retired art dealer father is only too keen to find out if her suspicions are true. By rights, Murray’s incorrigibly flirtatious Felix ought to be insufferable. Thanks to the star’s weapons-grade charm, he’s simultaneously exasperating and endearing. The scenes in which he drags Jones’s Laura into a series of mischievous, detective-like adventures are a joy. And so, too, is the pair’s beguiling father-daughter bond.
Director: Sofia Coppola
12, 97 mins
Available on Apple TV+
Rachel Brosnahan, a world away from her character in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, plays a pampered 1970s housewife who ends up as a fugitive from her crooked husband’s criminal associates in this absorbing thriller. To begin with, Brosnahan’s Jean hasn’t a clue what’s going on – and we are similarly in the dark. She is also, at first, singularly helpless but gradually learns some crucial survival skills with help from one of her husband’s old partners (Arinzé Kene) and his family. There’s a baby in the mix, too, adding further jeopardy to Jean’s plight. You will need patience to find out how everything fits together, but Brosnahan’s captivating performance, plus bursts of action and suspense, make staying the distance well worth the effort.
Director: Julia Hart
15, 120 mins
Showing on Amazon Prime from 11th December
Meryl Streep and James Corden go full-bore camp as hilariously self-absorbed New York stage stars in this exuberant musical comedy based on the hit Broadway show. The pair’s latest show – a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt – has just bombed and they need a cause to restore their tarnished personal brands. Reinventing themselves, less than credibly, as celebrity activists, they trek to small-town Indiana, where 17-year-old lesbian Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) has been banned by her high school’s PTA from taking a girl to the prom. Director Ryan Murphy (Glee) has great fun with the culture clash that arises as the narcissistic duo – accompanied by long-in-the-tooth chorus girl Nicole Kidman and Juillard graduate/waiter Andrew Rannells – encounter middle-American bigotry (chiefly represented by homphobic PTA head Kerry Washington). The story sags a little in the middle, but tuneful songs and boisterous choreography keep us engaged, and the movie as a whole is playfully silly and sweet, with an uplifting message and bags of heart.
Director: Ryan Murphy
12, 130 mins
Showing on Netflix from 11th December
Greta Gerwig follows up her beguiling coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird with another growing-up tale – a terrific adaptation of 19th-century author Louisa May Alcott’s classic autobiographical novel about four New England sisters living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott’s book has inspired numerous screen versions – George Cukor’s 1933 film and Gillian Armstrong’s from 1994 being the best loved. Writer-director Gerwig’s bold but respectful take on the story is easily their equal. Saorise Ronan brims with headstrong energy as tomboy heroine Jo – the role famously played by Katharine Hepburn in 1933 and by Winona Ryder in 1994. Emma Watson counterbalances her restless spirit as Jo’s more conventional elder sister Meg, as does Eliza Scanlen as the timid, sickly Beth. Best of all is Florence Pugh, who turns the vain, selfish Amy into a much more complex and sympathetic figure than her usual portrayals. Laura Dern adds a touch of steel to the maternal warmth of the sisters’ beloved ‘Marmee’, Timothée Chalamet oozes playful, raffish charm as next-door neighbour Laurie, and Meryl Streep is amusingly tart as rich Aunt March. Along the way, Gerwig draws out the progressive strands in Alcott’s original, emphasising its latent feminism. She departs most strikingly from her predecessors, however, in telling the story in a non-linear way, going back and forth in time to illustrate Jo’s growth to maturity as a woman and a writer. It may seem odd, but this daring approach works remarkably well and makes several of the story’s most emotional scenes even more powerful.
Director: Greta Gerwig
U, 135 mins
Available on DVD & digital; and on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 11th December
Irish animator Tomm Moore returns to the well of Irish folklore he drew from for his Oscar-nominated films The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014) for this beautiful and stirring fantasy adventure set in Kilkenny in 1650. The heart of the movie is the friendship between two young girls – the English Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), whose widowed father (Sean Bean) is a wolf hunter for the colonising Lord Protector Simon McBurney doing Oliver Cromwell in all but name); and fiery, flame-haired Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who lives with her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) in the surrounding woods. It turns out that Mebh and Moll are shape-shifting Wolfwalkers, able to communicate with wolves and even to adopt lupine form while they are asleep. Moore and his co-director, Ross Stewart, push the story along with exciting sequences of peril and escape, while gently nudging ideas of sisterhood and empowerment into the frame. The animation is glorious, with contrasting woodblock and watercolour looks establishing the gulf between the sharply angular townscape and the autumnal woods. An enchanting score by Bruno Coulais and Irish folk group Kila add to the movie’s magic.
Directors: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
PG, 103 mins
Showing on Apple TV+ from 13th December
The legacy of black suffering and white exploitation is forcefully addressed in this screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play, part of his epic cycle chronicling, decade by decade, the African-American experience in the 20th Century. The setting here is a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, where groundbreaking blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is due to lay down some tracks, if her white manager and white producer can satisfy her capricious demands. Ma Rainey is a diva, for sure, but Davis’s scorching performance convinces us that the source of her whims is an unquenchable rage at oppression. Hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman, crackling with live-wire intensity in his final film role), one of five band members rehearsing for the session in the basement, also has cause for anger, as becomes clear as the afternoon wears on. The film is undoubtedly stagey but the cast more than have the measure of Wilson’s hypnotic verbal riffs, while the music packs a soulful punch. Above all, though, this is a showcase for Davis and Boseman, and both are utterly spellbinding.
Director: George C Wolfe
15, 94 mins
Showing on Netflix from 18th December
An exquisite weave of gothic romance and haute couture comedy, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s spellbinding movie traces the battle of wills between an ultra-perfectionist dressmaker in glamorous 1950s London and the young woman who serves as his mistress, model and muse. The frocks are fabulous; and so are the movie’s leads. Acting in what he says is his last film, Daniel Day-Lewis is in immaculate form as the exacting designer. Yet little-known Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, like the deceptively strong-willed character she plays, proves more than a match for her illustrious co-star. Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock, imperious head of a preeminent Mayfair fashion house, dresses the crème de la crème of high society – everyone from English heiresses to American socialites and European princesses. His older sister Cyril, played with chilly briskness by Lesley Manville, ensures that his life and work run smoothly – and that his girlfriends never outstay their welcome. So when Reynolds woos Krieps’ young waitress Alma, an orphaned immigrant, no one expects her role as a live-in lover to last very long. Alma, however, turns out to be far more shrewdly tenacious than she looks… A story of a beautiful young woman taming a powerful older man has more than a hint of fairy tale and fable about it (just think of Bluebeard or Beauty and the Beast), not to mention a touch of Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. But there is droll social comedy here as well, accompanied by an atmosphere of swooning luxury. Costume designer Mark Bridges deservedly scooped an Oscar, although Day-Lewis – an Oscar winner when he last worked with Anderson on 2007’s There Will Be Blood – had to settle for a nomination. All the same, the sumptuous, dazzling Phantom Thread remains a perfect film for him to bow out on.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
15, 130 mins
Showing on BBC2, 21st December
Tessa Thompson and Nanamdi Asomugha play lovers separated by circumstance in this slow-burning, ravishingly old-fashioned romance set in late-1950s/early-1960s New York. She’s the daughter of a Harlem record store owner who dreams of becoming a TV producer, and he’s a talented tenor saxophonist. But she already has a fiancé and he has a work offer in Paris. Writer-director Eugene Ashe’s film recalls the melodramas Douglas Sirk was making at the time the story is set (but with black leading characters) and has the look of the era’s Technicolor films and a swooning jazz soundtrack. Thompson and Asomugha’s chemistry is gorgeous, too.
Director: Eugene Ashe
12, 116 mins
Showing on Amazon Prime from 23rd December
Pixar brought a young girl’s growing pains to life with dazzling wit and tender wisdom in Inside Out. In Soul they do the same for a school music teacher’s mid-life crisis. New Yorker Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is an inspirational teacher but his burning passion is jazz. Then, just when he is on the cusp of winning a spot as the pianist in a top-flight jazz quartet, an accident leaves him stranded in a bizarre realm between life and death. The only way he can get back to earth is by helping crabby unborn soul 22 (Tina Fey) find her own true passion. The pair’s quest features race-against-time-adventure, bustling body-swap comedy and metaphysical flights of imagination. Plus, of course, stunning animation and a fabulous soundtrack.
Director: Pete Docter
PG, 100 mins
Showing on Disney+ from 25th December
A spunky 12-year-old boy goes in search of his musical idol in the land of the dead in this Oscar-winning animated adventure, another visually dazzling triumph for Pixar and a vibrant celebration of Mexican culture to boot. Young hero Miguel (spiritedly voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is desperate to become a musician like the great Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a celebrated actor-singer from the first half of the 20th Century. Ernesto hailed from Miguel’s hometown. Could he, in fact, have been Miguel’s great-great-grandfather? However, Miguel’s family of shoemakers has upheld a ban on music for generations and on the day of the talent competition he secretly intends to enter, his stern grandmother smashes his prized guitar. In his quest for a replacement, Miguel breaks into Ernesto’s crypt, only to end up magically transported to the colourful, bustling land of the dead. Significantly, it is the Día de los Muertos, the day when Mexican families visit the graves of their ancestors bearing food and gifts, and Miguel will be unable to return to the land of the living unless he obtains the blessing of his dead relatives. Miguel’s quest – which must be completed by sunrise – provides Pixar’s animators with abundant opportunities for action, spectacle and humour. The land of the dead teems with visual invention and wit, there are lively songs (including the Oscar-winning ‘Remember Me’), and the characters are vivid – from Bratt’s puffed up, vainglorious Ernesto to Gael Garcia Bernal’s poignant trickster Hector, Miguel’s skeletal underworld guide. Yet what makes the film so heartfelt and resonant is its rich exploration of family, love and memory.
Director: Adrian Molina, Lee Unkrich
PG, 149 mins
Showing on BBC1, 25th December
Emma Thompson tries to channel the spirit of Richard Curtis’s Love Actually as co-writer of this shiny festive bauble starring Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke and Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding. Clarke’s Kate is a hopelessly messed-up would-be singer who works as an elf in a year-round Christmas shop in Covent Garden, and Golding’s Tom is the charmingly enigmatic stranger who wanders in and shakes up her life. What follows is part Curtis-style rom-com, part George Michael jukebox movie (note the title), part personal redemption tale and part mystery story. There’s a dash, too, of anti-Brexit polemic thrown in for good measure, plus a groan-inducing twist (note, again, the title) and a role for Thompson as Kate’s Croatian immigrant mum. Put all this together and it’s no surprise that the movie is something of a mess. Fortunately, Clarke and Golding have charm to burn – and just about manage to make their very contrived characters work. Clarke’s Kate is a sofa-surfing trainwreck who strews chaos in her wake and strains the patience of her friends. Her self-identification with George Michael (‘we’re both underappreciated’) is pretty tiresome, too. Somehow, Clarke makes her funny and almost likeable, while Golding lends more substance to his mysterious character than there is in the script. The great Michelle Yeoh, however, can do nothing with her role as Kate’s stern tiger-lady boss, while Thompson’s weepy Slavic mum is borderline embarrassing and her clumsy efforts to shoehorn burning political issues such as immigration, racism and rough sleeping into the story are even more jarring. Happily, there is one strand of the movie that unequivocally works as Tom introduces Kate to the magic and beauty of hidden corners of London, inviting her to do something we would all do well to copy: ‘Look up’.
Director: Paul Feig
12, 103 mins
Available on DVD, digital, Sky Cinema and NOW TV
And one to avoid…
The screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster stage musical is every bit as awful as you’ve heard: a true cat-astrophe. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba and their fellow stars must be coughing up hairballs after joining the film’s giant litter of singing and dancing felines, whose weird digital fur and creepy features make them all look as though they’ve been dragged in from the Island of Dr Moreau. Director Tom Hooper brought Les Misérables to the screen with a barnstorming gusto, but he comes a cropper here. What worked on stage, certainly doesn’t on screen. The stylised sets and hyperactive choreography only accentuate how disturbingly strange the film’s human/feline hybrids are (the sight of Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots is enough to set off nightmares). Only Taylor Swift, who sings a brand new song as flirtatious Bombalurina, somehow emerges with her dignity intact.
Director: Tom Hooper
U, 110 mins
Showing on Sky Cinema & NOW TV from 26th December