We are sliding into my favourite time of the year, despite its obvious difficulties. I see it as an opportunity for us to watch as much of the good stuff as possible, because what else can we do? That being said, our Christmas viewing experience does deserve a wee bit more wholesomeness and awesomeness than usual.

Yes, you’re free to binge all the ‘Harry Potter’ movies, of course. You can re-watch the ‘Home Alone’ franchise for the umpteenth time. You can even stick it to anyone who’s ever said that the ‘Die Hard’ flicks aren’t Christmas viewing material at all. Knock yourselves out. But what if we can kick it up a notch for 2020?

It has taken years of hits and misses and wasted hours to put together a compelling and definitive holiday guide. There are only twelve films in it, matching the twelve days of Christmas. Some of the glorious titles didn’t make it into the guide—honourable mentions here for ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ (1947), ‘White Christmas’ (1954), and the delightfully cluttered ‘Love Actually’ (2003), to name but a few, but what follows will make even more sense.


The First Day: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991)

For over a decade, my Christmas tradition has been to hunker down with a bowl of popcorn and go through a proper Disney Classics marathon, starting with ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and going all the way up to ‘The Princess and the Frog’ (2009). My favourite is and will always be ‘Beauty and the Beast’, however, which is the perfect tale for any winter.

There is plenty of snow, and there is love budding in the most difficult circumstances between a bookish girl—mind you, not the regular Disney princess per se—and a most terrifying beast. Splendidly embellished by a cast of dancing and singing household objects and drawing its roots from Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s original fairy tale, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is one of the best animated productions to ever come out of Walt Disney Studios.


The Second Day: ‘Elf’ (2003)

Before he delivered awe-inspiring creations such as ‘The Mandalorian’ (2019), Jon Favreau gave the world an everlasting gift with ‘Elf’, the spirited and good-natured family comedy featuring the legendary Will Ferrell as Buddy, accidentally raised at the North Pole as one of Santa’s elves. Increasingly aware that he doesn’t quite fit in among the tiny helpers, Buddy travels to New York and tries to connect with his real father.

Naturally, this results in a string of chaotic incidents and silliness, but it’s the hilarious clash of childlike innocence and contemporary adult cynicism that really turns ‘Elf’ into a precious Christmas story. I dedicate it to every grown-up who still enjoys tapping into the inner kid during the holidays. We need that cheer and sweetness, now more than ever.


The Third Day: ‘Joyeux Noël’ (2005)

Five months into the First World War, a series of unofficial ceasefires were enacted along the Western Front for Christmas. It was a brief moment in the history of mankind when soldiers from both sides took a break and tapped into the better aspects of humanity. Christian Carion brought this true story to the silver screen with ‘Joyeux Noël’, a film which imagines said moment through the eyes of four unlikely individuals from opposing camps.

It’s a heart-crunching reminder that despite the blood soaking our battlefields, we are still capable of peace and kindness. With superb performances from Diane Kruger and Gary Lewis, ‘Joyeux Noël’ feels like a stern yet hopeful portrait of us all—an invitation to try and do better for ourselves and for the generations to follow.


The Fourth Day: ‘Little Women’ (1994)

Greta Gerwig’s 2019 remake starring Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson is absolutely gorgeous, but I will stick to the first and slightly quainter adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. Gillian Armstrong’s ‘Little Women’ screenplay was penned by the illustrious Robin Swicord, whose literary sensitivity transpires through several other cinematic oeuvres—including ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (2005) and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (2008).

Alcott’s story follows the March sisters as they grow and come of age in post-Civil War America. With dazzling performances from Winona Rider, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon, ‘Little Women’ is a timeless tale that will never cease to tug at one’s soul. It’s an essential Christmas treat.


The Fifth Day: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)

To be fair, I was tempted to go with ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) as a Tim Burtonesque entry for this special guide, but it’s the stop-motion animation masterpiece that truly deserves the Christmas Classic label, in the end. It’s a stunning work of art, a visual spectacle that pushes the very boundaries of creativity while also cementing Mr Burton’s reputation as a weird genius of cinema.

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ tells the marvellously creepy tale of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweentown, who is bored with the usual spooky routine and ends up kidnapping Santa Claus in order to bring Christmas to his world of dead things. As expected, his entire plan goes awry, resulting in a strange but utterly charming film that is an absolute seasonal darling.


The Sixth Day: ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ (1944)

Judy Garland’s musical talent is undeniable, but she certainly takes it to a whole new level alongside Margaret O’Brien in this enchantingly precious musical directed by Hollywood heavyweight Vincente Minnelli. Hailing from the golden age of MGM studios, ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ follows four sisters just as the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair is about to begin. Focusing primarily on the girls’ education as they step into adulthood, the film delivers generously in matters of life and love through the stereotypical but ever-pleasant boy-next-door.

Filled with musical dance numbers and adorned with artful period costumes—courtesy of a truly superior production design, ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ not only further establishes Judy Garland as a shining star of the silver screen, it makes for a warm and sparkling Christmas viewing. Marshmallows dipping in hot chocolate are optional but recommended on the side.


The Seventh Day: ‘The Best Man Holiday’ (2013)

Winter festivities from all cultures are mostly about family and love. A time when we come together—brothers and sisters, children and parents, grandparents and aunts, lovers and spouses and everything else in-between, as friends and as human beings. Naturally, such celebrations wouldn’t be complete without a heart-warming, Black-powered drama like ‘The Best Man Holiday’. Designed with broad strokes of humor and romantic sparks, the film brings old friends together for Christmas in a formula that cannot and will never disappoint.

Fifteen years after their last gathering, a group of college friends finally meet once more for the holidays. While their lives have changed substantially over the years, they quickly come to realize just how easy dead rivalries and old passions can come ablaze. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee and enriched with vibrant performances by Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, and Harold Perrineau, ‘The Best Man Holiday’ is one of those relatively light but essential seasonal delicacies.


The Eighth Day: ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ (1948)

Let’s go back to the ‘olden days’ for a bit. Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven lead this Henry Koster Christmas tale of supernatural intervention and human character. There has been one remake of ‘The Bishop’s Wife’, titled ‘The Preacher’s Wife’ (1996)—directed by Penny Marshall and featuring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston; while I like that version almost as much, I can’t help but stay loyal to Mr Koster’s original for the purpose of this guide.

‘The Bishop’s Wife’ sees Niven’s Bishop Henry Brougham struggling to raise money to build a cathedral and praying to heaven for assistance. Shockingly, he is immediately graced with the presence of Grant’s Dudley, who claims to be an angel. The bishop is sceptical at first, then irritated as the so-called angel starts drawing the attention and affection of his wife, Young’s Julia Brougham. As expected, conflict unravels, and the bishop decides to challenge heaven. Given Christmas’s close ties to Christianity, some angelic mischief is mandatory.


The Ninth Day: ‘While You Were Sleeping’ (1995)

This is my guilty pleasure, and I shall never apologize nor stop recommending it as part of winter’s movie playlist. Rom-coms were never the elite of the silver screen, but there are a few that withstand the quality test of time. ‘While You Were Sleeping’ happens to be one of them, and it’s mostly because of Sandra Bullock’s brilliant comedic performance.

The formula is further improved with Bill Pullman as her love interest and with Jon Turtletaub directing this frosted gem in which lonely transit worker Lucy pulls her crush Peter from the path of an oncoming train. Things get complicated quickly at the hospital, where doctors report that he is comatose, and Peter’s family is accidentally led to assume that Lucy is his fiancée. The story further twists as our adorably awkward heroine finds herself falling for Peter’s slightly more aloof brother, Jack.


The Tenth Day: ‘Bad Santa’ (2003)

While most would suggest one of the Grinch’s big screen renditions for our holiday guide, I’ll rather set my sights on Billy Bob Thornton’s gleefully offensive take on Santa, instead. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, this Christmas cult classic isn’t for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as clean family fun, but it is nonetheless an enticing story, and its lead’s performance alone deserves a rowdy round of applause.

The dark comedy follows Willie T. Stokes as he reunites with his partner, Marcus (Tony Cox) for a proper Christmas con where they pose as a mall Santa and his elf. Their chemistry is riotous, and the string of incidents that follows along with Willie’s depression and alcoholism simply builds up until a little boy comes along and brings out the kinder side of our otherwise ‘Bad Santa’. And to think this almost didn’t get made!


The Eleventh Day: ‘Un Conte de Noël’ (2008)

‘A Christmas Tale’ is a French jewel of contemporary cinema, an exceptionally sharp black comedy built around a messy family gathering which brings forth radiant performances from the stupendous Catherine Deneuve. Don’t even get me started on the rest of the cast, as I’m an eternal fan of Mathieu Amalric and ‘Black Spot’ headliner Laurent Capelluto. Arnaud Desplechin’s chaotic family tale has everything you need to get through pretty much any kind of Christmas.

Deneuve’s matriarch Junon is stricken with a leukaemia diagnosis, so she asks her children and grandchildren during their holiday dinner gathering to see if any of them are eligible bone marrow donors. This unexpected turn of events draws out the worst from everyone, putting everything on the table: animosities, sibling friction, and grief. It’s truly a brilliant cocktail of drama and comedy with that typical French sting that one can never get enough of.


The Twelfth Day: ‘Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale’ (2010)

I was actually torn between this Finnish chunk of goodness and ‘Tokyo Godfathers’ (2003), which you might as well consider an added bonus for our holiday guide. But ‘Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale’ is a surprisingly smooth mix of straight-faced comedy and Christmas-themed horror. That is a dangerous combination, and less than frequently successful, yet director Jalmari Helander pulls it off with sheer proficiency.

In this twisted tale, we root for Pietari and Juuso, two boys who suspect that a secret mountain drilling project near their home in northern Finland has somehow uncovered the ancient tomb of the real Santa Claus. Mind you, this version of the ol’ St Nick isn’t cheerful nor jolly, but monstrous and evil. Throw in a feral old man, missing children, and Pietari’s baffled father, and we’ve got ourselves one hell of a reindeer murder mystery. It’s weird and original, therefore deserving of the twelfth spot.


There are plenty of other titles worth perusing every year around Christmas, sure, but few are as unique and as splendidly put together as the above. While I don’t mind revisiting delectable classics like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) or ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ (1964), consider this the ultimate Christmas experience. We’ve earned it.