One Christmas film to rule them all: which of our two magical movies will reign supreme? Illustration by Miles Donovan

THE DEBATE CLUB • December 2020

The battle of the Christmas movies

Everyone has a favourite festive flick but, here at The Club, we want a winner. That’s why we’ve turned to BBC1 film critic Ali Plumb and Empire magazine writer Helen O’Hara to fight for their favourite. So which of our cinephiles wins your vote?

Home Alone (1990)

Says who: Ali Plumb, BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s film critic
My opinion is not for changing: Home Alone is the best Christmas movie of all time. Sure, It’s a Wonderful Life is a tear-jerker, The Holiday has that cottage everyone fancies almost as much as Jude Law, while Elf brings the silly, but Home Alone ticks a box that the others don’t. What’s that, you ask? That it’s got everything.

Let’s start with the cast, shall we? In just one film you’ve got Macaulay Culkin at his cutest and most cunning, Joe Pesci delivering his very best non-gangster performance (no joke) and Daniel Stern shoving his head in a cat flap before being shot in the face with an airgun – “Hello!” indeed.

This is on top of an underappreciated turn from John Candy as everyone’s favourite polka musician Gus, as well as Schitt’s Creek’s very own Moira Rose, the legendary Catherine O’Hara, as Kevin’s forgetful but loving mum.

What astonishes me every time is Home Alone’s big beating heart. It’s secretly a weepie – don’t deny it

Of course, what you remember best is the comedy, the slapstick, the Looney Tunes insanity of ‘Him off Goodfellas’ grabbing a hot doorknob and/or slipping down an iced-up stairway, and there’s no doubt that’s a key reason to love the film. But what astonishes me every time is Home Alone’s big beating heart. It’s secretly a weepie – don’t deny it.

Remember Old Man Marley, the seemingly spooky neighbour? Remember the church scene? Remember that it’s Old Man Marley himself that saves the day, donking Harry and Marv with his shovel? I could well up just thinking about it.

inset-home alone

Then there’s the music, which is so utterly excellent it’s almost laughable. John Williams hits the nail right on the head with the haunting Somewhere in My Memory, not forgetting Christmas classics like O Holy Night and Carol of the Bells. You can thank director Christopher Columbus’s friendship with Steven Spielberg for the last-minute Williams introduction, by the way – and yes, that means Williams blasted out the Home Alone score in mere weeks. Truly mind-boggling. 

I mustn’t forget the film-within-a-film, Angels with Filthy Souls (the black-and-white picture young Kevin uses to con his foes), and Kevin’s ingenious front-room silhouettes, among many other amazing moments of beyond-his-years cunning. But for me, it’s ultimately all down to this: everyone loves this film. Young, old, whoever you are, it’s got the lot, tarantulas on the face and all.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Says who: Helen O’HaraEmpire magazine film journalist 

The spirit of Christmas encompasses many family traditions, but few cultures anywhere in the world consider dropping a hot iron on someone’s head an essential component. Home Alone doesn’t scream joy and goodwill towards men. So, thank goodness, then, for my favourite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life – the story of a man contemplating suicide when facing the ruination of his life’s work. That might sound deeply depressing, but it really isn’t. And this year, in particular, it offers a perfect Christmas message.

Our hero is James Stewart’s George Bailey, a man who has sacrificed his dreams, one by one, to help his family, his friends and his small town of Bedford Falls. When everything comes crashing down around him and he contemplates ending it all, an angel visits him to remind him just how much difference a single person can make by showing him the nightmare world that he has helped to avert with each small act of kindness he dished out.

Capra’s film earns its ending because it never pulls its punches along the way

It’s one of those films whose reputation sometimes works against it. So many people (like me) rave about Frank Capra’s 1946 classic that potential viewers might expect something that’s stuffy and self-important. If you have only seen clips of the final scenes, you might expect it to be schmaltzy and unbearably old-fashioned, to boot. But Capra’s film earns its ending because it never pulls its punches along the way: George experiences a genuinely dark night of the soul before his new beginning.

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Ultimately it reminds us, as it reminded the weary post-World War II audiences for whom it was made, that there are more important things in life than wealth, status and flash luxuries. And, after months of staying at home to protect our fellow humans, it’s good to reflect that it was not all in vain, that we have helped one another by giving up a few longed-for treats. George’s happy ending assures us that we will come out the other side of hard times together, and stronger for it. That might have seemed a little cutesy and unreal in 2019 but, after the trials and tribulations of 2020, it could hardly be timelier. Exactly the sort of Christmas spirit we need.

This article has been tagged Opinion, Culture