Bill Nighy and models attend the premiere of Love Actually at the Odeon, Leicester Square
Photo: Rune Hellestad-Corbis via Getty Images

Was 2006 the Year of the Last Good Christmas Film?

We asked experts why holiday movies are so crappy these days.

The festive season has landed. Time to sacrifice your liver to the winter gods, and deck your tables with the bodies of slain beasts. But never fear, in this time of darkness and drunkenness you can soothe your wrinkled, pickled brain in the traditional way – by whacking on Home Alone or Die Hard, Love Actually or Elf. Go on, retreat to the past and relive those golden days of yore. Let Bruce Willis be your guide back into a distant time, before the ever-worsening Netflix Christmas category even existed. Because let's face it, festive films from the last decade just don't hit the same, do they? 


Seriously, we find ourselves in bleak times. Streaming platforms are throwing money at Vanessa Hudgens for the most pitiful festive film offerings the season has ever seen. What happened to the glory age of sentimental, if slightly problematic, rom-coms featuring sexy turtlenecks? Where are all the family favourites, and where’s Jack Black when you need him? Scroll through the TV schedules and you’re unlikely to see anything made after 2006. Which is probably good in the grand scheme of things, because switch to Netflix and all you’ll get is movies that look like they were written and directed by AI. It’s enough to get the most Scrooge-like among us hand embroidering caps emblazoned with “Make Christmas Films Great Again”.

Maybe you’re one of the two people on earth who think The Princess Switch deserved to become a trilogy. But I’m afraid stats don’t lie. When tech retailer RGB Direct analysed nearly eleven million UK search results to find the most popular Christmas movies, Home Alone came out on top. Noughties bangers Elf, Love Actually, and The Holiday followed, with Die Hard edging into fifth place ahead of Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life. Indeed, out of the top 13 films, the most recent is 2011’s Arthur Christmas. Consult the Radio Times poll of the UK’s favourite Christmas films of all time, and the picture is much the same. 


Clearly, a drop-off has occurred. But when exactly did this happen? And why? Dr. Tom Christie has been writing about the history of Christmas cinema for over ten years, so I lobbed these questions at him, like a volley of snowballs. “It depends on when you were born as regards which era provides the most nostalgia,” he says, “but certainly in critical terms there are generally considered to be two golden ages of Christmas films in the 20th century.”

The first of these occurred between the mid 40s and late 50s, when the genre’s conventions were established. “Another ran from the mid 80s and late 90s, where Christmas films were really cemented as big box-office draws,” Christie adds.

Most polls of festive favourites include a selection from both periods. “It's interesting that the second golden age coincides with the arrival of home entertainment systems,” he says. “By the time we reach the turn of the century and the ubiquity of the DVD, the popularity of the genre just explodes.”

This boom led to a number of subgenres popping up, including a notable trend for dark comedy Christmas films, but the essential spirit of both golden ages was the same. “For a Christmas film to become a classic, it has to strike a very careful balance between emotional power and treacly sentimentality,” says Christie. “Even the most cynical movies eventually end up reaffirming these classic themes in the end”. He points to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and The Nightmare Before Christmas: “They've become classics due to the way that they gently subvert expectations before reinforcing recognisable themes of friendship, commonality and selflessness.” 


So are today’s films so crappy because they’re not getting this careful balance right? “I worry that a lot of Christmas films in the past ten to 15 years have essentially just been going through the motions,” Christie says. “Of course, every now and again you stumble across a diamond in the rough like The Christmas Chronicles on Netflix that provides a healthy reminder that decent festive cinema can still be made. But the Christmas film as a real cinematic tent-pole event has been conspicuous by its absence for some time now.” 

Tom Hemingway, a teaching fellow in film and television studies at the University of Warwick, points the blame at the film industry. “Over the past ten to 15 years, studios have been focused on producing big-budget projects, based on existing IP [intellectual property],” he says. “Even films which are released around Christmas as a seasonal option for families, such as this year’s Wonka, are based on material familiar to the consumer.”

This is a high-risk, but high-reward strategy – hundreds of millions of dollars are spent producing and marketing a movie in the hope studios will see a strong return on investment. “Up until fairly recently, this has paid off consistently,” Hemingway says, “hence the lack of Christmas films, which are typically mid-budget projects.”


These projects, which would’ve been seen in cinemas in the last two “golden ages”, are now made for streaming companies and released on the platform, often with little fanfare, Hemingway says. This has changed the whole movie landscape drastically, and affected the kind of films that get “buzz”, and cultural staying power.

“Figures like Nancy Meyers, director of The Holiday, have either shifted to television or are directing movies for television,” Hemingway adds, noting that Meyers hasn’t had a film released theatrically in eight years.

Christmas films might not have hit in the same way since Elf, but Dr. James Russell, head of Leicester Media School at De Montfort University, tells VICE  that the Christmas period has remained vitally important for films. “The biggest movies get released at Christmas,” he says. “For the last few years, Star Wars; last year, Avatar; before that, the Lord of the Rings movies. The ritual of moviegoing at Christmas is entrenched, and big family movies are the key big ticket items at Christmas. What’s interesting is that they are very rarely Christmas-themed.”

He doesn’t see this as a sign that audiences are growing weary or cynical about the season in general, though. “If anything, Christmas is a bigger deal culturally now than it was in, say, the 80s,” Russell says. On streamers, the poor quality of new Christmas movies may actually be a help not a hindrance, because they’re often explicitly marketed as “guilty pleasures”. They’re not sold as “good films”; they’re sold as gaudy trash. “There’s Genie on Sky, Candy Cane Lane on Amazon,” Russell muses. “I think the truth is that those movies probably wouldn’t make that much money if released at cinemas, but they’re financially viable for the streaming platforms.”


This seasonal money worry isn’t actually new, though. “Christmas cinema has always made studio accountants slightly nervous, given they’re only popular for a brief period of the year,” Christie notes. “Studio execs were so unconvinced that a Christmas-themed film could succeed commercially that the original 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street was released in the summer, with a publicity campaign that scrupulously avoided mentioning its yuletide setting and themes.” In the end, it proved so popular it was still showing in cinemas by December that same year.

Perhaps this kind of industry-bucking phenomenon can happen again, even in the streaming era. As Russell puts it, “the genres that Hollywood has relied on for the last decade – superhero movies, science fiction, CGI animated movies – are performing more poorly than ever before, so perhaps a reset is possible.”

“I am tickled to learn that Jingle All the Way and Elf are now considered classics,” says Peter Kramer, senior lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia. “When I saw those movies upon their original release, that was not the first thought that came to my mind.” And even if the quality of Christmas films seems to have dipped, he points out that the quantity of shows no sign of slowing. “The Christmas movie is alive and kicking,” Kramer says. “And if Jingle All the Way can now be regarded as a classic, then I have no doubt that some of the hundreds of new films being shown this Christmas season will eventually turn out to be classics as well.” This certainly seems to be true of Christmas songs – Mariah and Wham may still reign supreme, but Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande are steadily working their way into most popular territory.

In the meantime, we can all continue to feed the nostalgic feedback loop. “Many of the people writing, or in my case contributing to, articles like this are of an age where holiday classics like Home Alone, Elf, and even Die Hard are enjoyed precisely because of the memories they conjure of Christmases past,” Hemingway says. I have to say I agree. All this talk of “the golden age of 80s and 90s Christmas classics” smacks of more millennial nostalgia. Maybe we’re all just chasing the high of a Christmas holiday trip to Blockbuster. 

Here’s to hoping a Christmas film renaissance is coming. But if it’s not, at least we’ll be able to whack on Lindsay Lohan’s Falling for Christmas in ten years time, and reminisce about how much, um, better everything was in the roaring 2020s.