Frozen to Die Hard: all the best films on TV this Christmas
Last Train to Christmas
On a train back to Nottingham on Christmas Eve 1985, Stringfellow-esque club owner Tony Towers (Michael Sheen) discovers that if he moves between coaches he can visit his past or future life. With his business and relationship with his brother Roger (Cary Elwes) in peril, Tony tries to rewrite history in his favour, only to make things worse for everyone. A smart, twisty reboot of A Christmas Carol from Julian Kemp, with Sheen sporting a series of wonderfully cringe-worthy hairstyles and clothes.
Saturday 18 December, 1.45pm, 8pm, Sky Cinema Premiere
The greatest Charles Dickens film adaptation to date, David Lean’s atmospheric 1946 drama gave us the iconically cobwebby Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) and a truly menacing Magwitch (Finlay Currie). The redoubtable John Mills plays the fallible hero, Pip, as a young adult, after a secret benefactor has transformed him from country lad to gentleman about town. As always with Dickens, some of the depth and character colour is discarded in the script-to-screen process, but Lean’s eye for detail makes this cautionary tale sing.
Saturday 18 December, 2pm, BBC Two
Scrooge: A Christmas Carol
Alastair Sim set a standard for Scrooge in this 1951 film that has rarely been bettered in the many subsequent attempts at Dickens’s festive favourite. Whether being properly mean, convincingly freaked-out or giddily happy, Sim is a joy to watch as his miser learns a lesson in humility and humanity, helped by director Brian Desmond Hurst’s inventive treatment of the light and dark of snowy London. A host of solid British character actors are in support, including Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit and George Cole playing young Scrooge.
Saturday 18 December, 5.55pm, Channel 5
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Spike Lee’s glorious concert film of a Broadway date on the erstwhile Talking Head’s 2018-19 tour is worthy of a place in the concert documentary pantheon next to Stop Making Sense. Dressed in grey suits to match his hair, the ever amusing Byrne and his impressive musicians weave their way through songs from his long career (lots of Talking Heads tunes, thankfully) plus a cover of Janelle Monáe’s political anthem Hell You Talmbout. Annie-B Parson’s courtly choreography and Lee’s up-close camerawork add colour to a joyous musical experience.
Saturday 18 December, 6pm, Sky Arts
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Despite being separate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this terrifically creative animation’s multiverse plot seems to have influenced the direction of the main Avengers series. Taking sustenance from the comics, directorial trio Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman deliver many dimensions of Spidey, principally Shameik Moore’s Black teenager Miles Morales, but also Spider-Woman, a film noir version and Peter Porker, a web-slinging pig, as evil is vanquished yet again.
Sunday 19 December, 6.45pm, Film4
The Invisible Woman
A corrective to the seasonal Dickens love-in, this biographical drama directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes is taken from Claire Tomalin’s book about the Victorian author’s lover, teenage actor Ellen Ternan. In the 45-year-old Dickens, whose great novels and compelling theatrical readings have made him a star, Ellen (Felicity Jones) finds a kindred spirit but realises the path she is taking could lead to disgrace. Fiennes portrays Dickens as an emotionally complex figure – egotistical and cruel to his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), but also with a love of life in his bones.
Sunday 19 December, 11.45pm, BBC Two
Being the Ricardos
Although Lucille Ball isn’t a huge name over here, in the 1950s 60 million US viewers watched her TV sitcom I Love Lucy. Aaron Sorkin’s fascinating, sharply witty biopic is structured round the production of one weekly episode, when a press rumour that Ball (a sparky Nicole Kidman) is a communist gains traction. Also, her trust in the fidelity of her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) starts to falter. The politics of state, Hollywood and gender come into play, as Ball and Arnaz fight her corner.
Tuesday 21 December, Amazon Prime Video
Yippie-ki-yay! John McTiernan’s seminal 1988 action movie shows how to bring a family together at Christmas – all you have to do is defeat heavily armed bank robbers. As NYPD cop John McClane, Bruce Willis went from TV comedy regular to bona fide film star in one multistorey leap. McClane’s attempt to reconcile with wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at an LA skyscraper is interrupted by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber taking the building hostage. Luckily, Stallone and Schwarzenegger turned down the role, as Willis’s ordinary Joe shtick fits the tale perfectly.
Wednesday 22 December, 10.45pm, ITV
Don’t Look Up
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play Randall and Kate, two astronomers who discover a comet is heading straight for Earth – it will hit in six months and cause an extinction-level event. Taking the news straight to President Orlean (an effortlessly facile Meryl Streep), they expect swift action … but midterm elections, a celebrity breakup and a TV interview meltdown by Kate lead to possibly fatal delays. Throw in Mark Rylance as a Bezos-like big tech billionaire with the ear of the president and Cate Blanchett as a ratings-grabbing TV host, and all hell breaks loose. Adam McKay’s latest satirical drama is a funny, disconcerting deep dive into what happens when an incontrovertible disaster butts heads with a social media-obsessed world. A film for a post-Trump age when truth has become a commodity or a negotiation.
Christmas Eve, Netflix
Featuring songs by composer of the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, this Colombia-set animated musical fantasy has built-in family appeal and a rainbow of colours bursting from every frame. Stephanie Beatriz (of Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame) voices Mirabel, the only member of the Madrigal clan without a special ability, and that includes their house. However, she discovers that the magical home – created after the family escaped armed conflict – is under threat of destruction.
Christmas Eve, Disney+
One of the highest-grossing films of all time, earworm generator and irritant to parents of obsessed small children, Disney’s 2013 animated feature remains a fantastical triumph. It moves on traditional fairytale material such as The Snow Queen into new territory: the relationship between two sisters – Elsa (Idina Menzel), who can turn things to ice but fears her powers will alienate those she loves, and the naive Anna (Kristen Bell). Add in the songs (Let It Go etc), a beautifully created frosty world, and Josh Gad’s comic snowman, Olaf, and what’s not to love?
Christmas Eve, 1.30pm, BBC One
Forget the fun but mostly forgettable recent reboot, Home Sweet Home Alone, and return to the source for all your Christmas slapstick needs. Chris Columbus’s 1990 comedy, scripted by John Hughes, takes the routines of silent comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and gives them to a scarily sadistic small boy, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), and the two bungling robbers (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) trying to get into his home when he’s accidentally left there by himself at Christmas.
Christmas Eve, 6pm, Channel 4
Aretha Franklin’s 1972 live gospel album, Amazing Grace, recorded at a Baptist church in Los Angeles, was meant to be accompanied by a concert film. But technical difficulties with the sound, and Franklin’s own reluctance, meant that only in 2018 did the remarkable footage get released as this documentary. Any footage of the great soul singer is to be treasured but here she is in her pomp, wringing out every emotion with her brow beaded in sweat; in thrall to the religious message in the songs but also the power of the music to move us.
Christmas Eve, 11pm, BBC Two
After Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Richard Curtis decided to expand his romcom remit with this 2003 film, featuring at least eight variations on the theme. Its overlapping stories include the prime minister (Hugh Grant, naturally) and a No 10 staff member (Martine McCutcheon); widower Liam Neeson’s young son and a classmate; and Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as film body doubles. There’s adultery and unrequited love, too, to add tartness to a mostly sweet experience.
Christmas Day, 10.40pm, ITV
Mary Poppins Returns
Emily Blunt was perfectly cast in this sparkling 2018 sequel to the Julie Andrews classic. Her magical nanny reappears to supervise the children of her former charge, Michael (Ben Whishaw), now a widower with a cashflow problem. With a twinkle in her eye and a fine singing voice, Blunt doesn’t stray far from the original – and neither does the film, even featuring a hand-drawn animation/live-action scene. Lamplighter Lin-Manuel Miranda (who else?) is a slightly better cockney than Dick Van Dyke, and Marc Shaiman’s songs stand up well to their forebears.
Christmas Day, 3.10pm, BBC One
Like TV’s Call the Midwife, Lone Scherfig’s 2016 drama delivers hard historical incident alongside comforting light entertainment. Gemma Arterton shines as Catrin, a secretary from Wales who finds herself part of the film script team at the Ministry of Information in London during the second world war. As the group plan a propaganda fiction based on the Dunkirk evacuation, she proves her ability to head writer Tom (Sam Claflin). Bill Nighy, as is his wont, dominates most of his scenes as an ageing thespian involved in the shoot.
Christmas Day, 9.35pm, BBC Four
Michael Bond’s accident-prone Peruvian bear comes alive for a new generation, thanks to this masterful 2014 comedy. The CGI bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) blends in seamlessly with his live-action, adopted family the Browns – led by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins – as he comes to London to find the British explorer who encountered his uncle and aunt in the rainforest. Mild peril comes in the shape of chilly taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), who covets Paddington’s rare hide. The sequel can also be seen on Monday 27, on BBC One.
Boxing Day, 4.20pm, BBC One
The Suicide Squad
You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve been here before, but the “The” is the sign this isn’t the 2016 supervillain film but its 2021 sequel. James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame writes and directs the pulpy misadventures of a bunch of convicts, including Margot Robbie’s returning Harley Quinn, Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, John Cena’s Peacemaker (soon to get his own HBO series) and Sylvester Stallone as a shark-human hybrid, who are offered lighter sentences if they infiltrate an island nation and destroy its secret weapon.
Boxing Day, 11.45am, 8pm, Sky Cinema Premiere
Director Bill Condon reunites with the great Ian McKellen, star of his 1998 film Gods and Monsters, for this deft, affecting 2015 tale, taken from Mitch Cullin’s novel about an ageing Sherlock Holmes. The Baker Street detective has retired to rural Sussex and is facing a losing battle between his brilliant mind and dementia. As he struggles to remember his final case (recalled in flashback), which he fears must have been a failure, he befriends Roger (Milo Parker), the attentive young son of his unhappy housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney).
Boxing Day, 1.10am, BBC Two
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s new take on the stage musical is currently in the cinema, but you could do worse than stay on the sofa for Robert Wise’s Oscar-laden 1961 version. In this Romeo and Juliet tale updated to mid-50s New York, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood may not be the most vital of leads (Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon were employed as their “ghost singers”) but with support from George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, and a rollcall of jazzy numbers from Leonard Bernstein and his lyricist Stephen Sondheim, it’s the swingiest thing.
Monday 27 December, 4.35pm, BBC Two
Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve – currently wowing the crowds with Dune – was on a hiding to nothing in making a sequel to Ridley Scott’s venerated 1982 sci-fi thriller. But despite its epic length, this is both a visual marvel and an engrossing rumination on the nature of identity and existence. Ryan Gosling plays a replicant “blade runner”, a cop hunting rogue members of his own kind. When he finds out a replicant has given birth, he is charged with eliminating the child, but finds his own past called into question.
Monday 27 December, 9pm, BBC Two
A Star Is Born
Every generation gets its version of this rags-to-riches tale, and gen Z’s boasts the splendid Lady Gaga in a role already graced by the likes of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Bradley Cooper – also the director and co-writer – co-stars as over-the-hill, alcoholic country singer Jackson, who discovers Gaga’s younger waitress Ally doing a number at the drag bar where she works. Seeing her potential, he mentors her to success and they inevitably fall in love. However, the less Ally needs him, the more Jackson resents her fame and changing musical direction. A remake that has fascinating things to say about the power balance in relationships.
Wednesday 29 December, 9pm, BBC One
The Remains of the Day
Merchant-Ivory’s finest film, a devastatingly sad 1993 drama superbly adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1930s-set country house novel. Anthony Hopkins is repression personified as Stevens, the loyal-to-a-fault butler to James Fox’s Nazi sympathiser Lord Darlington. But when new housekeeper Kenton (Emma Thompson) arrives at the estate and shows an interest in him, there are hints of a thaw in his character. Hopkins and Thompson are on the top of their game, nuanced but on point emotionally, in a world hidebound by class and tradition.
Thursday 30 December, 4.50pm, BBC Two
“Unreliable and uninsurable” – that’s Judy Garland in late 1968, just before she flies to London for a five-week run of concerts at the Talk of the Town nightclub, in Rupert Goold’s biographical drama. The actor and singer is a figure in sad decline: underweight, hooked on prescription drugs, often drunk and missing her children back in LA, whom she can’t afford to take care of. But still, in Renée Zellweger’s outstanding portrayal, she can knock your socks off with a song and inspire adoration from her many fans. A tragedy about the uses and abuses of talent.
Thursday 30 December, 9pm, BBC Two
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel is a stark exploration of motherhood – its pleasures and burdens, plus the general expectation that all women should have parental feelings. All this comes out through the story of Leda (the peerless Olivia Colman) who is on holiday alone at a Greek seaside village. The appearance of Dakota Johnson’s unhappy young mum forces memories of Leda’s choices into the present (Jessie Buckley plays Leda in flashbacks) and reawakens her pain.
New Year’s Eve, Netflix
Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead celebrations provide fruitful subject matter for Pixar’s blend of joy and nous in this entertaining 2017 animated fantasy. Aspiring young musician Miguel is trying to find out more about his supposed great-great-grandfather (father to his beloved relative Coco) but after a magical trick finds himself in the world of the dead. It’s a race against time to find his ancestor before he is trapped there for ever. For a film about living with death, Lee Unkrich’s film is a remarkably cheery experience, with a soundtrack of fantastic Latin tunes.
New Year’s Eve, 2.40pm, BBC One
When Harry Met Sally
Tonight’s scheduling of Rob Reiner’s 1989 romcom is no accident – its climactic scene (no spoilers) should occur around the time real-world folk are singing in the new year. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan do full justice to Nora Ephron’s scintillating script, as two New Yorkers in their 20s who fall in and out of friendship over several years, despite being clearly meant for each other. Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher as their respective best mates offer their views on love, as do a series of fictional talking-head couples recalling how they met.
New Year’s Eve, 10.40pm, BBC Four