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The 12 films of Christmas

19 December 2014

Our film critic Stephen Brown hand-picks some screen gems to provide a different kind of Christmas cheer this year


Walking in the air from The Snowman

Walking in the air from The Snowman

CHRISTMAS is essentially about a story - in John Betjeman's words, "this most tremendous tale of all". Its truth lies not so much in details about Mary, Magi, or mangers, but belief in God's desire that the holy child of Bethlehem be born in us.

Film-makers have seized on this to screen stories that may sometimes touch only tangentially on the Gospel birth narratives, but essentially reflect and celebrate incarnation.

Here are my 12 picks. Some of these may be screened on TV over the festival; but, if not, they are certainly worth renting or buying. Of course, there are others, but these are a good place to start.


1. It's a Wonderful Life (U)

It is Christmas Eve. George Bailey (James Stewart), a pillar of Bedford Falls society, faces imprisonment because of the ineptitude of his dizzy uncle, and the wickedness of Scrooge-like Mr Potter. Townsfolk, sensing George's troubles, are praying for him; but, as mortals weep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. They send Clarence to the rescue.

The initial attempts of this second-class angel fail, until he hits on the idea of showing George what the world would have been like if he had never been born.

This could have been a very schmaltzy movie, but it isn't. It's warm-hearted and funny, but also quite dark. The director, Frank Capra, back from the horrors of war, places the name of the film in quotation marks, treating his title as if it were a hypothesis.

Is it, can it be, possible to claim this life as "wonderful", when virtue appears unrewarded and evil goes unpunished? And yet, there is a theological optimism running all the way through the piece. Like the unlikely circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, there is hope for things unseen, and, whether or not it is always clear to us, the world is unfolding as it should.

2. Of Gods and Men (15)

The kernel of Xavier Beauvois' film is based on the abduction and execution by Islamic extremists of seven Cistercians living in Algeria in 1996. The monks hold fast to their faithful commitment, not relishing likely martyrdom nor shying away from it.

Gethsemane parallels give way to a tableau suggestive of da Vinci's Last Supper. The monks sit at table listening to a recording of the Grand Theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and Beauvois has the camera pan along the table, taking in the varying facial expressions of the Brothers. Viewers will be not only moved to tears, but left haunted by its impact.

Shortly after being harassed by the jihadists, the abbot speaks to the Brothers at their Christmas meal. "That time when Ali Fayattia and his men left, all we had to do was live. And the first thing we did . . . we celebrated the Christmas vigil and Mass. It's what we had to do. . .

"We welcomed that child who was born for us, absolutely helpless, and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found our salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. . . Day after day we had to resist the violence. And . . . each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It is to be born. 

3. The Fisher King (15)

The late Robin Williams excels as Parry, a deranged down-and-out who was an unsuspecting victim of a shocking mistake made by Jack, a radio DJ (Jeff Bridges). Parry turns out to be the wounded healer in this New York City re-enactment of the Arthurian legend.

God had instructed the Fisher King to protect the Holy Grail, receiving a debilitating injury for his sinful pride. A Fool naïvely asks him about his suffering, to which he replies that he is parched. The Fool offers him water. The King perceives the cup to contain the Holy Grail. Astonished, he enquires how it was found. But all that the Fool ever saw was that his King was thirsty. Meek souls such as Parry perceive what the worldly-wise fail to see. And, although losing his wife to a violent death has clearly damaged him, the DJ and the former academic become Christ to one another.

Parry is the Knight whose quest is to find that vessel of divine grace. The director, Terry Gilliam, helps us to see that, even if this ends in failure, we ourselves are the earthen pots in which God's glory resides.

4. The Gospel According to St Matthew (U)

Pier Paolo Pasolini takes the Evangelist almost entirely at his word, and transcribes the Gospel on to celluloid. The infancy narrative is beautifully played among the Italian peasantry who served as his actors.

There is inevitably interpretation on Pasolini's part: the Magi are gentle, their garments far from royal in appearance; the angels are all too human. Mary finds little to smile about - but who can blame her, beset by potential persecution from Herod's soldiers and moral opprobrium from her peers? Strangely, or not so surprisingly, it took an existential Marxist to make the best film ever about Jesus. 

5. X-Men (12) 

A young boy realises that he is a mutant with extraordinary powers. As time goes by, Magneto (Ian McKellen), intent on dominating the world, teams up with a fellow mutant, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who, as his name suggests, wants to bestow on human beings similar abilities to his own. These X-Men visit a summit conference on Ellis Island, New York. The world leaders are sceptical, suspicious even. Drawing heavily on biblical language the X-Men speak of God "as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding". Fear is what prevents people seeing their own potential.

This is the judgement - straight out of John 3.19 - that light has come into the world, but humanity prefers darkness. Whereas Magneto wishes to use power to serve his own purposes, Xavier's agenda is more akin to the Prologue in St John's Gospel, which demonstrates the purpose of the birth of Jesus

To those who accept him, Christ gives power to become children of God. There is a cosmic battle going on between the forces of light and darkness. In the case of this film, it occurs (very entertainingly) at the top of the Statue of Liberty. We huddled masses of ordinary humans have, like the X-Men, serious choices to make.

6. High Plains Drifter (18)

Westerns are full of Christ-figures (High Noon, Shane, etc.): lone saviours who, against all odds, squeeze righteousness out of evil. That makes it hard to choose one movie from this genre. I've plumped for Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter because of the hero's morally ambivalent, enigmatic character. The Man With No Name rides into the settlement of Lago, and meets immediate hostility. He sees what a fallen race he's happened upon.

Flashbacks tell us that Marshall Jim Duncan was flogged to death while law-abiding residents stood idly by. We are given to suppose that the stranger could be the reborn lawman come to judge them. The Eastwood character paints the town red, and renames it "Hell". He exalts the humble and meek, making a put-upon dwarf the mayor. He exposes the preacher for the charlatan he is. Villains are only dispatched after they have recognised who the stranger truly is. "You know, I never did know your name," the mayor says. "Yes, you do," Eastwood says, and leaves.

7. Nativity! (U)

This is the first of the series - Nativity! 3 is currently doing the rounds. St Bernadette's Primary School, in Coventry, is putting on a Christmas show with its under-achieving pupils. Mr Madden (Tim Freeman), goaded by a supercilious teacher at an independent school, Oakmoor, announces that Hollywood is making a movie about St Bernadette's show. But how is it going to happen? With the help of childlike Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton), it does.

The children bring a joyfulness without too much sentimentality. The spirit of Christmases past lingers in the air because, in experiencing this contemporary nativity play, we are likely to get in touch with memories of when we wore tea towels on our heads and did our bit in the school production. The director, Debbie Isitt, attributes the making of this film to having played Mary at her Roman Catholic school in Coventry. Achievements come in many ways, not always recognised by OFSTED, but, we hope, by God.

8. Scrooge (U)

There are more than 100 film versions of A Christmas Carol, but the one that sticks out, for me, involves Alastair Sim's portrayal of the old miser in the 1951 production. Sim is able to bring to the story a sense of how past hurts can fashion a soul. If he is now joyless and twisted, we learn why. Contrast is made with Mervyn Johns's downtrodden Bob Cratchit, who can see amid the winter snow what Christmas is truly about. The three ghosts may frighten, but chiefly they encourage old Ebenezer to enter into the joy of new birth. 

9. The Terminal (12)

Just as his home country, "Krakhozia", experiences a coup, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK airport, New York. Rendered stateless, he is stuck for months in that hell on earth: the international transit lounge. He earns his keep by doing favours for passengers and staff, earning much respect through his kindness. Viktor unwittingly becomes saviour to people in fear of deportation, others caught up in destructive relationships, and so on. He typifies "love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be". that Steven Spielberg manages to steer us through with great charm and credibility.

10. Superman (PG)

Richard Donner's 1978 film has many elements of the nativity story about it. He begins with a baby who literally comes down to earth from heaven, and is cared for by an unlikely couple, Ma and Pa Kent. They name him Clark, gradually realising that this is a wondrous child, one whose astonishing powers they will need to keep secret.

As he grows into adulthood, Clark is employed by the newspaper The Daily Planet, thus putting him at the cutting edge of news. He is able to learn immediately what is happening in the world as it occurs. Christopher Reeve, when not in Superman mode, is entirely believable as the self-effacing journalist with a soft spot for Lois Lane.

In a way, Superman presents us with the age-old Christological dilemma: how could Jesus be both fully man and fully divine? If the film ultimately gives us a figure more like a Greek god taking on the appearance of a human being, it is only reluctantly. Kent, in many ways, epitomises the Christ Jesus of Philippians 2.6-7. He does not use his supernatural powers to his own advantage, but "empties himself . . . being made in the likeness of men". But the moment you see Kent whizz into a telephone booth, you know that he is about to save the world. Again and again.

11. Love Actually (15)

When Bill Nighy, the ageing rocker, re-records the old Troggs' hit single "Love is all around", he changes the lyrics to: "Christmas is all around me Come on and let it snow". It's a neat substitute, because we have first been given the original lines. In effect, the rest of the film is about how Christmas and "Love all lovely, Love divine" are synonymous. A tad sentimental for some tastes, and perhaps too many storylines going on.

What makes it so tender and amusing is the way it infuses so many of the secular elements of Christmas - snow, office parties, gifts, family gatherings, etc. - with the sense that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 

12. The Snowman (PG)

This is not just for children at Christmas. Apart from Peter Auty singing "Walking in the Air", there is no dialogue. There is no need for words. Actions - loving ones - speak for themselves in this piece. A little boy builds a snowman, who becomes a creature in his own right. He has a life of his own. Initially, the boy has to instruct his new friend in the ways of our world, and how it celebrates Christmas.

Whatever the version, the author, Raymond Briggs, has shaped a wonderful Christmas homily, even if he may himself be a sceptic. At the very least, it is a case of: if you believe, then you will receive. Unless we become as little children, we will never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven.

The Snowman is only ever going to be a temporary figure in the life of the young boy. He shows him what to look for in this magical world of ours. As the song puts it: "Children gaze open-mouthed, taken by surprise Nobody down below believes their eyes." As a result of watching this film, we down below might start developing the eyes of faith. And the Snowman leaves behind a tell-tale reminder of his eternal presence: a scarf, for the boy to wrap around himself.

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