Christmas TV guide: 20 of the best films to watch

Movie highlights from Paddington 2 and Soul to Dunkirk and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Christmas Eve

Paddington 2
BBC One, 4.15pm
A rare instant classic, this take on Michael Bond's stories could not brim more fully with good nature and bristly cheer. Hugh Grant's villainous Phoenix Buchanan is more charming than most heroes. "Why are you in it so much?" Grant's unappreciative children apparently said to him recently. "I make them like it now. They have to watch it every night and tell me how good I am, otherwise they don't get fed." One of the best sequels.

RTÉ One, 2.15am
Why not? You've seen it 1,000 times, but the most quotable film from Hollywood's golden age still hooks you in from the first busy moment. Could it be an allegory for nations' quandaries in the second World War? Humphrey Bogart is the wavering Americans. Claude Rains is the Vichy French. Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman are the Resistance. Conrad Veidt is the Nazis. It's all there if you look.

Christmas Day

Great Expectations
Virgin Media Two, 11.30am
Prime contender for the greatest Dickens adaptation ever (although this year's brilliant The Personal History of David Copperfield, on Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent online, runs it close), David Lean's delicious 1946 movie brings together a wealth of unbeatable character actors as the key grotesques. Finlay Currie is a towering Magwitch. Freda Jackson is fearsome as Mrs Joe. It is, however, Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham who steals the show. "Break his heart!"

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
RTÉ2, 2.25pm
Many, many old bores will tell you endlessly how they hid from the Child Catcher on their first visit to the cinema. More than half a century later, Robert Helpmann's performance is more unsettling than ever, not least because the implicit threat now feels shockingly explicit: "Children… lollipops!" You just wouldn't get away with that today. Still, never mind the predatory maniac who has just escaped from the isolation wing. Toot sweets! Toot sweets!

Angela's Christmas Wish
RTÉ One, 5.15pm
Brown Bag Films' sequel to the Irish studio's Angela's Christmas tells another story from the childhood of Frank McCourt's mother. Limerick is beautifully rendered. Voice work from Ruth Negga, Caitriona Balfe and Jared Harris is strong. The end is not an enormous surprise, but it would still draw tears from the dear old Treaty Stone. Also available on Netflix, but it deserves its old-school, terrestrial outing on the big day.

A Star Is Born
RTÉ One, 10.20pm
You know how wiseacres are always telling you that remakes are rubbish? Bradley Cooper's 2019 take on A Star Is Born is Hollywood's fourth crack at the story, and it comfortably bears comparison with the Judy Garland and Janet Gaynor versions. (Let's gloss over the Streisand indulgence.) Lady Gaga is now the charismatic neophyte and Cooper is the fading drunk. Worth playing at maximum volume if visiting relatives don't object.

St Stephen’s Day

BBC One, 9.05pm
We still get big Christmas fillum's of the old school on broadcast television. Christopher Nolan's take on the evacuation from Dunkirk employs all his gifts for cacophonous action and temporal realignment to create a complex extravaganza that still allows in plenty of emotion. Kenneth Branagh brandishes binoculars. Tom Hardy flies a spitfire. Barry Keoghan does good knitwear. Ends with Elgar. Obviously! This may well be Nolan's, ahem, Finest Hour.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
RTÉ One, 9.45pm
The first Abba musical was likable in spite of its often chaotic direction and ramshackle plot. Who could have expected that the follow-up would tidy up all those rough edges and deliver a smooth-running exercise that made the best of its performers' limited singing abilities? Kudos to Cher, just three years Meryl Streep's senior, for agreeing to play that actor's mother. (If you haven't yet seen it, ask yourself why nobody says the name of Andy Garcia's character.)

Sunday, December 27th

The Sound of Music
BBC One, 3.45pm
You'll eat your Edelweiss and you'll darn well like it. We pour some scorn on The Sound of Music, but, the highest grossing film of all time for a spell, it remains one of Hollywood's most efficient sob machines. The still-stirring opening helicopter shot helped confirm Julie Andrews's rising stardom. Whatever you may think of the tunes, they have a singalong quality that has never been surpassed. Antifa fun for all the family.

RTÉ2, 11.30pm
Remember 2016, when the Irish film industry was coming down with Oscar nominations? Paddy Breathnach's Viva, shortlisted for best foreign-language movie, was the one that (only just) got away. From a script by the multitalented Mark O'Halloran, the picture tells the story of a gay Cuban man retying knots with his estranged father. It testifies to the increasing fecundity of international productions. Cathal Watters's cinematography is particularly lovely.

Monday, December 28th

Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Channel 4, 4.05pm
"Those aren't pillows!" More of a Thanksgiving film, but, as we don't do that here, it will work as a classic Christmas movie. Steve Martin and John Candy are the mismatched strangers struggling to get home for that celebration in John Hughes's funniest film. It works so smoothly one can even forgive the grossly sentimental denouement.

Tuesday, December 29th

A Streetcar Named Desire
TG4, 10am
"Stella! Stella!" Has there ever been a drama more deliciously off the leash than Tennessee Williams's tale of a deluded, sexually repressed southern belle falling under the ambiguous spell of her animalistic brother-in-law? Everybody is on form in Elia Kazan's translation of the stage hit, but Brando bosses his way to the front of every frame. Nice and sweaty for chilly late December.

Wednesday, December 30th

Live and Let Die
RTÉ2, 6pm
For a good 20 years the James Bond producers kept their films off television. Now you can't move for them at Christmas. Diamonds Are Forever (BBC One, New Year's Day, 4.30pm) is there for those wishing to pay tribute to the late Sean Connery. But this lunatic blaxploitation entry cannot be missed. As noted in a recent documentary, Bond never looked so frightened in the whole sequence as he does merely ordering a drink in Harlem.

Inside Llewyn Davis
TG4, 10.30pm
The Coen brothers conjure up nostalgia for an era that few of their viewers will remember with this comic saga set around the folk clubs of lower Manhattan in the early 1960s. Oscar Isaac plays the awkward musician who goes on an odyssey with a cat named Ulysses (get it?). Watch out for a silhouette of Bob Dylan in the closing frames.

New Year’s Eve

RTÉ2, 9.20pm
The Rocky sequence is unlike any other. It began with a sentimental, but low-key, blue-collar drama. It went properly bombastic with Rocky 4. Decades later, Ryan Coogler toned things down again with this beautifully acted drama focusing on the son of Rocky's old rival. Stallone narrowly missed out on an Oscar for his supporting performance. Michael B Jordan is dynamic in the lead role.


Soul (and Burrow)
Disney+, the Mouse House's streaming service, retains a little of the old-school big-fillum aesthetic by releasing Soul, Pixar's latest animation, for home viewers on Christmas Day. Already highly acclaimed, Pete Docter's film concerns a jazz musician whose soul gets separated from his body. Begin the programme with a new Pixar short called Burrow. "A young rabbit embarks on a journey to dig the burrow of her dreams," the PR bumf announces. Sounds adorable.

The Christmas Chronicles 2
Netflix has made the season its own with a bewildering selection of holiday fare. This surprisingly zippy sequel to the 2018 romp starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn as Mr and Mrs Christmas features an admirably convoluted plot that takes us from Cancún to Boston and onwards to the North Pole. It's undemanding stuff, but it works like a dream.

Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square
Anything involving La Parton is worth crossing the snowy road to check out – even an entertainment as conspicuously cheesy as this. Christmas on the Square would have raised no eyebrows if it popped up on fuzzy "colour television" in 1973. Christine Baranski is perfectly cast as Mr Potter… Erm, sorry. Christine Baranski is perfectly cast as a wealthy landlady returning home to evict her tenants. Who will save the day?

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
As well as its seasonal fare, Netflix is also offering us some of the films it hopes will register with Oscar voters. George C Wolfe's take on August Wilson's play about the mother of the blues stars an irrepressibly awkward Viola Davis in the title role and the late Chadwick Boseman as her volatile trumpeter. It's a compact theatrical piece, but the performers make it sing (both literally and figuratively).

The Prom
The indestructible Ryan Murphy casts Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden in his adaptation of a Broadway musical about a bunch of celebrities who descend on a midwestern prom. Not every critic was comfortable with Corden's performance as a gay character, but the musical – not surprisingly for Murphy – bristles with the class of camp that goes down well at Christmas.