Love Actually is often broadcasted throughout Christmas
That may be because since its release, the calibre of Christmas movies generally has been in steady decline. The early 2000s saw a run of Christmas films you can probably still remember, and which made money.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas was the sixth biggest film of the year 2000, taking $345million.
Then there was The Holiday, which, like Love Actually had starry casts from and settings on both sides of the Atlantic, Polar Express and Arthur Christmas.
Nativity! was popular enough to sustain not one but three sequels.
But this period now seems like a lost golden age. Because we now predominantly get films so dire they’re beyond “so bad, they’re good” redemption.
See, for example, Netflix’s 2021 A Castle For Christmas in which Brooke Shields plays a writer who leaves New York to spend December in a fantasy evocation of Scotland where she falls first for the local castle and ultimately its laird, Cary Elwes.
Or 2019’s super cheesy London festive rom-com Last Christmas with Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding – which had a twist so predictable it deadened the film as much as the deceased character it pertained to. So it’s no surprise that viewers are tempted to revisit the more accomplished films of Christmases past than watch these recent shockers.
But rather than succumbing to the renewed hype and watching Love Actually yet again – you’ve probably seen it many times already – or go down the predictable route of rewatching the same handful of other festive staples like It’s A Wonderful Life or The Snowman – why not try something different this year?
Stars of the Bishop’s wife Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
If you like It’s A Wonderful Life – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – you’ll love this as it features such similar terrain: it also involves an angel coming down to earth at Christmas time to sort out some troubled soul’s problems.
Rather than the former’s shambolic Clarence, the celestial visitor here, Dudley, is played by the rather more suave and charming Cary Grant.
He makes a seasonal visitation to the bishop of the title, David Niven, who is anxious over fundraising for a cathedral.
Just as James Stewart struggles to believe Clarence, here Niven is equally sceptical that Grant’s Dudley really is an angel – but to the bishop’s annoyance his wife, played by Loretta Young, is rather more taken with the new arrival.
The film’s charm lies in the fizzing interplay between this trio, and the story resolves itself on Christmas Eve.
To strengthen the comparison with the Stewart classic, The Bishop’s Wife has an actor in common: Bobby Anderson, who played the young George Bailey, also rocks up.
And instead of Love Actually why not try this neglected festive rom-com from around the same time.
Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack star in a will-they-won’t-they love story that begins with Christmas shopping in Bloomingdales and features copious amounts of other festive New York imagery like ice skating in Central Park.
The premise revolves around whether the couple are destined to be together or not – I’ll let you guess the answer.
Serendipity may not have the vast cast of its contemporary Love Actually but it’s less uneven and doesn’t have any sinister stalker issues either.
Both leads sparkle, it looks great and is predictable in a cosy and charming rather than plodding way. All in all, it’s an easy swap to make and won’t disappoint.
White Christmas (1954)
You know the song – you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear it repeatedly in the days ahead – but have you ever seen the film it comes from?
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are a pair of Second World War GIs who form a double act and are later introduced to singing sisters played by Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney – George Clooney’s aunt.
Various shenanigans and much singing later they wind up in a gloriously snowy Vermont hotel where love prevails and the title song is sung.
It may lack complexity but the lavish sets and stylings in gorgeous Technicolor as well as the soundtrack make it a true delight.
Klaus was made for Netflix in 2019
Why always turn to The Snowman – lovely though it is – especially if you have yet to see this animated alternative from three years ago?
Made for Netflix as one of the productions that signalled the company’s intent to produce award-winning content – it did indeed pick up the Bafta for best animated film and only missed out on the Oscar to Toy Story 4.
It’s what they call in superhero films an “origin story” – only this time the superhero is Santa, and it reveals how he came to deliver presents to children all over the world each December. Set in a small town in the snowy north of Norway in the 19th century it’s gorgeous to look at and beautifully told.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
A late-career gem from master director Ingmar Bergman, it’s something of an epic with a running time a shade over three hours, but it repays an attentive watch.
It opens with a nativity play and Christmas party in a small town in Sweden in 1907 but that’s about as much fun as it gets: the two siblings, whose names are in the title, see their lives degenerate swiftly after a death in the family.
With powerful scenes involving ghosts and child cruelty, it evokes Dickens. Brilliantly shot and acted, it regularly features in best films ever lists.
Beautiful Girls (1996)
A pianist whose musical career and love life are both failing leaves New York to spend Christmas in the blue-collar small town in Massachusetts where he grew up, only to find that many of his old friends are also wondering about their lives and futures, as adulthood isn’t going according to plan for any of them either.
There’s lots of snow and festive trimmings but the whole is imbued with this sense of disillusionment and questioning.
There’s a terrific cast including Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Uma Thurman, Annabeth Gish – and a young Natalie Portman.
Like Love Actually’s storyline between Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln, the warmth in scenes between Hutton and Portman, then just 13, have been questioned by some in recent years.
But it remains one of the more thoughtful films around Christmas.
Judy Garland and Tom Drake star in Meet Me In St. Louis
Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Like White Christmas, this is another Technicolor-era gem that’s a feast for the eyes.
Although not purely a Christmas movie – it’s a year in the life of a family, divided by season – the bit that is Christmassy is so Christmassy it more than compensates: when Judy Garland sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
It’s magical – even if she was battling anxiety and drug addiction at the time.
The rest of the soundtrack is fabulous too. Director Vincente Minnelli wasn’t put off by his star’s issues – he married her the next year and they had daughter, Liza. Predictably, they divorced in 1951, but this enchanting film endures.
Bad Santa (2003)
Came out the same winter as Love Actually and was always overshadowed by it – taking barely a quarter of its festive rival’s £200million-plus at the box office. But it’s remained a sleeper hit with its darker take on the theme of redemption at Christmas.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as the titular festive wrong’un: a drug and booze-addled sex addict thief, who uses the cover of his job in a department store grotto to commit heinous crimes.
But, as is the way with things at Christmas, events have a way of making him reconsider his misdeeds. A US paper branded the film “the evil twin of Miracle On 34th Street” – as good a way to describe it as you could find.
Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale (2008)
Catherine Deneuve leads an ensemble cast for this wonderful comedy drama based around a dysfunctional middle-class French family coming together for the festive season.
There are all manner of messes going on – marital infidelity, drunkenness, drugs, squabbles, anxiety, depression – and that’s even before you discover that one of them is about to die.
Not Christmassy in the Love Actually sense but it’s an alternative: funny and charming with lots of distinct characters and frenetic goings-on against a visually gorgeous backdrop of the Parisian Noel.
The Holly and The Ivy (1952)
Like The Bishop’s Wife, this centres on the family of a man of the cloth at Christmas time – but instead of grand New York this takes us to a tiny parish in rural Norfolk.
Ralph Richardson is the ageing priest, looked after by his long-suffering daughter (Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter fame).
As in that classic, her character is no stranger to doing her duty, putting others first, in silence.
The arrival of the family – featuring a young Denholm Elliott – is the signal for a dramatic clash of values and the revelation of long-buried secrets.
But all is resolved as Christmas Day approaches – without the intervention of an angel, just some thoroughly British decency.