When my son Sam is home for the holidays we watch a film most nights, so I thought I’d make a list of the best ones we saw this Christmas. It’s mostly for my own reference, but if you’re looking for something to watch you might find a recommendation here. They’re a very mixed bag - some classics Sam hadn’t seen, some things we stumbled on by accident, and a few old favourites.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (James Mangold, 2023)
I gather the reviews were mixed, but this turned out to be just the thing for keeping three generations of Reeves entertained after a heavy Christmas dinner. I don’t have any affection for the original Indiana Jones films, so I didn’t feel it was trampling on my memories of the originals, or failing to live up to them. It bangs on a bit too long, and James Mangold is no Spielberg (who is?) but it delivers plenty of inventive chases through exotic locations, before taking a startling left turn in Act Three which I really enjoyed. Definitely worth a look if you Like That Sort Of Thing.
Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002)
Divorced mum Jodie Foster and her daughter (Kirsten Stewart) move into a cavernous New York townhouse whose former owner equipped it with a high tech panic room. This comes in handy when a gang of burglars break in on their very first night in the new place. But oh no - who could have guessed - the treasure the burglars seek is inside the panic room! A pretty solid thriller, with good performances from the leads, including Forest Whitaker, excellent as a burglar who’s brighter and less violent than his colleagues (Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam). The camera swoops around like ghost, passing through gaps you wouldn’t think a camera would fit through, it’s all very stylish.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
I don’t need to say much about this one - Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, Barbara Stanwyck. If you’ve seen it you’ll know it’s a deathless classic, and if you haven’t, go and watch it.
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
More Billy Wilder, but here he’s the writer: the director is Howard Hawks. I’d never heard of this until I saw it recommended on Twitter recently, and it’s a blast. The plot is a kind of riff on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: the inventor of the electric toaster, annoyed at not getting an entry in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, has left money to have a new encyclopaedia written in which he’ll get his due, and eight eccentric professors (including Gary Cooper and a bunch of familiar faces from Casablanca etc) are holed up in an old house writing it. But their peaceful existence is shattered by the arrival of Barbara Stanwyck as a gangster’s moll on the run from the police, and magnificent screwball capers ensue. I’m not sure if Stanwyck’s character is Snow White, or if that’s Gary Cooper and she’s the handsome prince. Anyway, she’s terrific, and the film is very funny, very sweet, and highly recommended.
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
This, according to People On The Internets, is a hilarious American classic. It’s a set of overlapping subplots focused on the run-up to Christmas and young protagonist Ralphie’s attempts to ensure he gets a BB gun as his main present. Like most things that are hailed as hilarious it turns out to be just very mildly amusing. It has something of that twinkly, homely, gosh-darn quality that Ronald Reagan used to trade on, and which obviously went down well in ‘80s America. The writer, Jean Shepherd, provides the narration, and I’m afraid he’s quite irritating. So is the music, which telegraphs each impending gag and goes Wah-Wah-Wahhhh when it arrives. So are the occasional fantasy sequences. So I don’t recommend it. But I’m glad we stuck with it, because there were some decent laughs eventually, and it does actually capture something truthful about childhood - the intense excitement and anxiety that surrounds Christmas. The scene where Ralphie visits a cynical shopping mall Santa is particularly good.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
This is a proper Christmas classic, always darker and more beautiful than I remember. I don’t need to say anything about this one, do I?
Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992)
The film that inadvertently revolutionised Saturday night TV schedules, and launched Baz Luhrmann on an unsuspecting world - a bit of a questionable legacy, since he became a bit of a menace (I still contend that Australia may be the worst movie of the 21st Century). But Strictly… still retains the charm that made it a hit when it came out. It’s big about little things, treating the niche world of Australian ballroom dancing competitions as if it’s the stuff of world-shaking drama. With hindsight, the fantasy sequence that explains the hero’s father’s past foreshadows the tacky excesses Luhrmann would unleash when he was let loose on a bigger budget, but it works well enough in context. People scoff at the way Fran becomes beautiful as soon as she takes off her glasses, but there’s a reason why that’s a cliché: it’s a perfectly serviceable metaphor for what happens when you fall in love with someone.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is one of my absolute favourite films of recent times. I don’t like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as much, but it has many of the same strengths - engaging characters, a twisty plot, goofy humour and a admirable ability to disguise vital plot points as throwaway lines. Robert Downey Junior’s narration is a hoot. The weird thing about The Nice Guys is that it feels sweet and feel good despite being blisteringly cynical: KKBB is crueller and darker (literally - it’s almost all shot at night). There’s a backstory about child abuse which feels far too grim for the knockabout plot to support. There’s also a Surprise Spider, my least favourite thing in film or TV (or bathtubs, etc). But it’s a fairly small one and not on screen for long.
Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995)
Cut from similar cloth to Kiss Kiss… but lighter and more effective, I reckon. From a novel by Elmore Leonard, this is a crime comedy about a movie buff mob enforcer (John Travolta) who, sent to LA to collect on a debt, winds up embroiled in low-rent movie producer Gene Hackman’s efforts to get legendary actor Martin Weir (Danny DeVito) to star in his next project. It’s twisty and wry - all the gangsters want to be movie people, all the movie people want to be gangsters - and the supporting cast is incredible: Delroy Lindo, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, James Gandolfini… Travolta has seldom been better.
When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989)
Every five years or so I find I’ve forgotten enough of this that I can go back and watch it again. It is still great, and Nora Ephron really knew how to put a button on a scene. Somehow I’d forgotten it’s a New Year movie. (Did Billy Crystal’s climactic sprint through New York to reach the party in time inspire all those Richard Curtis movies? Never mind, I forgive it.)
Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
I’ve been hearing good things about this since it came out, but I found it a bit so-so. It’s a lot more like a ‘seventies movie than a ‘nineties one: a violent, convoluted thriller about a group of operatives brought together to grab a mysterious suitcase that’s wanted by the Russians and some dissident Irish Republicans. It reminded me of films I saw on TV in my teens that felt terribly grown-up, but which I now realise were just a bit grim. France looks nice (except for all the endless shoot outs and car chases, in which innocent bystanders keep getting gunned down.) Sean Bean does a nice turn early on as a chippy Brit who gets kicked out of the team for being too flakey - I kept expecting him to turn up again, and it might have been a better film if he had.
Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
I hadn’t seen this for years and, again, I’d forgotten how good it is. Startlingly dark, playful, theatrical, it looks and feels more like a great silent movie than a talkie (I was surprised it’s from as late as ‘55). Robert Mitchum is magnificently evil as the psychopathic preacher pursuing the children of a bank robber to get at his money, and the chase takes them down a dreamlike, studio-bound version of the Ohio river until they reach sanctuary in the home of Lillian Gish, who is as good as the preacher is bad. It was a flop on release, and Laughton’s only film as director, but you can see its influence in so many later films. (The Coen Brothers are big fans, I suspect.)
Theatre Camp (Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, 2023)
Another film hailed as hilarious which turned out to be mildly amusing… at least, that’s what I thought at first, but it grew on me and I ended up liking it a lot. A mockumentary about the stage-struck kids and ditzy teachers at a theatre summer camp in the Adirondacks, it has a lot of charm and some big laughs towards the end. Ayo Edibiri has a small part and is very good in it. She’s the reason we kept watching The Bear, which became our favourite TV thing of last year - she just has some kind of star quality. Co-director Molly Gordon is in The Bear too, and is very good here as a rather pretentious, New Agey actress whose sweet and chipper exterior conceals a lot of disappointment.
The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023)
An actual film at the actual pictures! The Barn Cinema at Dartington was like an icebox on the last night of Sam’s holidays, but the film was good enough we didn’t care. I don’t think I’ve seen a Studio Ghibli film on the big screen before, and I loved it. It feels like a classic children’s story - an unhappy boy moving into a new house, and finding his way into a strange world that I presume is based on Japanese myths but also feels very like the fairyland of western folklore, where nothing is quite as it seems. It’s brilliant and beautiful and you should definitely watch it,