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The 10 Best Christmas Movies

1. Die Hard
Year: 1988
Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedalia, Reginald VelJohnson

Arguably the greatest action movie ever made, and now the greatest Christmas movie ever made, too. Bruce Willis’ John McClane may seem like an unlikely Santa Claus – he doesn’t have enough hair for one – but what better Christmas present is there than the gift of terrorists getting taken down as they try to take Nakatomi Plaza hostage during a Christmas party in order to carry out an elaborate theft? Not for Empire readers the cutesy Christmas trees of other Christmas movies, or the sight of people in ill-advised knitwear drinking eggnog. For you guys, nothing says deck the halls like jumping off a roof tied to a fire hose, and nothing says season of goodwill like a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

2. It's A Wonderful Life
Year: 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell

Frank Capra’s perennial classic may not make the top spot here, but it remains essential Christmas viewing. The story of George Bailey, a man trying to do the right thing and finding his options gradually reduced to nothing, is genuinely tough watching at times during the first hour or so, and it’s made even tougher when we see the nightmare of life without his well-intentioned efforts, thanks to angelic intervention. So that happy ending, when it comes, feels earned rather than fluffy, and Christmassy rather than schmaltzy.

3. Gremlins
Year: 1984
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Corey Feldman, Jackie Joseph

Gremlins roasting in an open microwave, gremlins nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by gremlins, and folks screaming and running for their lives. Er, something like that anyway. This most festive of monster movies has great fun ripping the trappings of Christmas to pieces and cackling gleefully all the way. It also has one of the great monologues about the tragedy of fathers who try to mimic Santa Claus, but let’s not dwell on any strange smells coming from the chimney, eh? Just be careful of any new pets you receive this year, and don't feed the little blighters after midnight.

4. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Year: 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Starring: Michael Caine, Frank Oz, Steven Mackintosh, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson

Michael Caine singing to a bunch of puppets: it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The Muppets slot perfectly into Charles Dickens winter’s tale, but bring their own anarchic comedy stylings with them (“Light the lamp, not the rat!”). Gonzo, who clearly has no place in the 19th century, does a creditable job as narrator, using language lifted directly from the book for the most part, and Caine somehow keeps a straight face to give us one of the most faithful movie Scrooges, and one who always convinces as he undergoes his transformation from miser to mensch.

5. Trading Places
Year: 1983
Director: John Landis
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliot

It’s a Christmas-set story where a couple of evil old bankers get their comeuppance, but the Frank Capra comparisons end there. After all, George Bailey never hung out with hookers, nor did he have the fast-talking street-slang of Eddie Murphy in his prime. Still, this is a morality tale, and while it doesn’t all take place over Christmas, that marks the low point in the fortunes of disgraced stockbroker Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) after his bosses, the Duke Brothers (Ameche and Bellamy) ruin his life on a whim. And that alone makes a nice change from some films’ ultra-happy Christmases.

6. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Year: 1993
Director: Henry Selick
Starring: (voice) Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens, William Hickey, Greg Proops

The wonderful thing about Henry Selick’s stop-motion classic, based on Tim Burton’s story, is that you can legitimately watch it any time from Halloween on, which enables you to cope with those early Christmas cravings (it can’t be just us, right?). What’s more, as Pumpkin King Jack Skellington learns about Christmas, Selick and Burton manage to both undermine all the cutesiness and underline the bits of Christmas that really matter – like the bit where your toys don’t bite you or turn into snakes. That bit’s really important.

7. Scrooged
Year: 1988
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Alfre Woodard, Robert Mitchum

There have been many spins on A Christmas Carol – but in movie terms at least this is the best. Ebeneezer Scrooge is transformed from cold-hearted businessman into yuppie TV exec, and made almost likeable despite his obnoxious behaviour by Bill Murray, on sardonic and sarcastic form. It's so good that we don’t even mind the fact that it finishes up with a singalong song. MVP, apart from Murray, goes to Carol Kane’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who has the delightful habit of hitting her charge with a toaster when necessary. And even when not.

8. Batman Returns
Year: 1992
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough

Why yes, it’s a Christmas movie! Tim Burton’s second Batman outing manages the difficult trick of juggling multiple villains and some Yuletide greetings, and teaches us the useful lesson that mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it (although a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it). Batman, Catwoman, the Penguin and Max Schrek tussle through a Gotham nestling under a snowy Christmas blanket and even use the decorations against each other when necessary. Christmas trees: a handy hiding place for bats. Who knew? It's also a hugely underrated action / comic book romp, which deserves far more love just for the way that Michelle Pfeiffer purrs.

9. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Year: 2005
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen, Dash Mihok

Admittedly, apart from Michelle Monaghan’s Santa outfit this isn’t an enormously Christmas-centric movie. But then again, for many viewers that fur-trimmed little red number is the very essence and spirit of Christmas in one neat package, so perhaps that’s good enough. Also, judging by the box-office figures you probably haven’t seen this one, and it’s worth seeking out Shane Black’s twisted, delirious take on the film noir, as thief-turned-actor Downey and private eye Kilmer investigate a murder in Christmas time LA and trade insults like most people trade presents. Both funny-peculiar, in that there’s nothing quite like it out there, and funny ho-ho.10. Bad Santa
Year: 2003
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter

Santa: we all know him, right? Jolly, fat, basically decent even if he does break-and-enter every Christmas night. Except that here he’s a swearing, hard-drinking, bullying, self-loathing, chain-smoking, rogering, safe-cracking, store-robbing bastard. And, as it turns out, he’s more loveable than ever. Billy Bob Thornton was born to play the role of a curmudgeon who’s slowly won over, not by a cute and perky child, but by the weirdest, fattest little boy in history. If he learns anything, it’s mostly by accident, and if he adopts the Christmas spirit it’s largely in self-defence, making this perfect viewing for those who consider themselves immune to the season.

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