The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Sunday, 14 December 2014


Still feeling miserable? Then how about this? On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me  . . .

There was this man in Victorian England who was horrible to his clerk. He didn't give a monkey's about his nephew. He cared nothing for the starving children on the streets or the ones forced to endure terrible conditions in the workhouse. Let's face it - he was a mean-spirited, miserly, ruthless, sadistic, miserable old bastard.

But was he worth saving? On the surface, it would appear that Charles Dickens thought so. But Dickens was cleverer than that, he cared for the way society was heading - he wasn't just saving Ebenezer Scrooge, he was also trying to save all the other penny-pinching, miserable wretches that made a living from the suffering of others, and he did it through the publication of a short, easily digestible novella that was first published in December 1843 (and has never been out of print since) called A Christmas Carol.
Numerous actors have played the character of Scrooge on film between 1908 and the present day - among them are: Tom Ricketts, John Carradine, Taylor Holmes, Frederick March, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Sid James, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Marcel Marceau, Michael Hordern, Jack Palance, George C Scott, Bill Murray, Rowan Atkinson, Michael Caine, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, Patrick Stewart, Ross Kemp, Kelsey Grammer, Jim Carrey, and many many more.

There are so many different film versions of Dickens’ perennial classic that it’s hard to choose which one is the best, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a shortlist of five.

First up is the 1938 version directed by Edward Martin and starring Reginald Owen. Coming in at a mere 65 minutes it is by far the shortest of the feature film versions of the tale. This is not a faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol, more of a Hollywood spin on it. Lionel Barrymore (who would memorably play the villainous Mr Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life) was to play Scrooge, but an accident that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life put an end to that and instead the part of Dickens’ miser fell to Reginald Owen, who puts in a sterling performance. Gene Lockhart looks like he ate all the pies - he's a bit too well-fed to convincingly play Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit, and it’s a little stagey, but it still holds its own today. Unfortunately, like almost any other version of A Christmas Carol, it was overshadowed by the 1951 British version starring Alistair Sim in the role that was to define his career.

Scrooge (1951) starring the incomparable Alistair Sim in probably the greatest performance of his career is – like David Lean’s classic interpretations of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – Dickens brought entirely to life. Director Brian Desmond Hurst does not shy away from showing Victorian London as a harsh and unforgiving place. This is no Christmas Card Victoriana and the ghosts aren’t pretty or comic either. It’s the least sentimental of all the early versions of this famous story – even Tiny Tim isn’t a sparkling ball of cuteness you just want to punch in the face. It has a cast of the finest British talent of the time that includes Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, George Cole as the young Scrooge, Patrick Macnee as the young Marley, Hattie Jaques as Mrs Fezziwig and soon-to-be Dixon of Dock Green, Jack Warner as Mr Jorkin. But it’s Alistair Sim who towers over that wealth of talent, delivering a performance of such sublime brilliance that he will be forever remembered as the definitive Scrooge. If you haven't seen this film then watch it today, but be careful - avoid the colorized version at all costs.

Twenty years later Alistair Sim and Michael Hordern would reprise their roles in a 28 minute animated version of A Christmas Carol that was made for British television. It was directed by ace animator Richard Williams, who would in 1983 provide the ground-breaking animated effects for Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

This is by far and away the best animated version of this book, even better than Zemeckis’ 2009 version starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge. The reason for this is that this is no ordinary cartoon – this is Cruickshank’s Victorian lithography alive and kicking. Painstaking, lovingly crafted artwork coupled with dizzying camerawork combine to create an absolute masterpiece. This is more than animation – this is art. Even pared down to a mere 28 minutes, it manages to tell the tale with clarity and a reverence to its source. It's scarier than most versions, especially for small children - the Ghost of Christmas Present is a much darker character and Ignorance and Want are revealed in a much more effective and horrific way than had ever been seen before. This version was so good, in fact, that it won an Oscar for Best Short Film.

In 1988 a very different version of A Christmas Carol was released. Borrowing its title from the 1951 version and adding the letter d it became one of Bill Murray’s most successful films. The critics, of course, hated it. The critic for USA Today obviously thought he was the oracle for all things film and rather condescendingly wrote: "Scrooged is so monumental a mess that even rabid Bill Murray fans - the ones who stand in line to see it despite critics' inevitable bashings - will wonder how it went so wrong." It was brash, it was loud, it was violent and it was sentimental. And it was, despite what he wrote, funny. The big draw to the film was obviously Bill Murray. He’d made his name playing oddball and cynical characters like the socially and intellectually challenged assistant greenskeeper in Caddyshack (1980), the loser who becomes an Army sergeant in Stripes (1981) Dustin Hoffman’s roommate in Tootsie (1982), Dr Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984) and a scene-stealing cameo as Steve Martin’s masochistic dental patient in Little Shop of Horrors (1986). Scrooged would overshadow all of these and would become Murray’s most successful and revered film until his classic performance in Harold Ramis’ brilliantly clever Groundhog Day (1993).

Scrooged was, like Groundhog Day, written with Bill Murray in mind, but let’s not forget the superb supporting cast. John Forsythe, fresh from playing Blake Carrington in the TV series Dynasty is his dead business partner, the gorgeous Karen Allen is his rejected girlfriend, the great Broadway star Carol Kane is the Ghost of Christmas Present, ex New York Doll David Johansen is the Ghost of Christmas Past and the excellent Bobcat Goldthwait in perhaps his funniest ever role is Eliot Loudermilk, the employee sacked on Christmas Eve and hell bent on revenge. There’s also great cameos from the likes of Michael J. Pollard, Robert Miitchum and particularly Lee Majors. All in all it’s a great cast in a great film, but can you imagine it being as good with someone other than Bill Murray in the lead role? I doubt that very much.

In 1992, four years after Scrooged the last truly great adaptation of A Christmas Carol appeared. With a huge cast, but starring only one real person, it was a massive success. I’m talking of course about The Muppet Christmas Carol. Apart from the Alistair Sim version, this puppet driven musical extravaganza is the most faithful to the Dickens novel to date. Michael Caine, the great actor that he is, is fantastic as Scrooge, playing the role straight and treating the Muppets as if they were real. Kermit the Frog is a sympathetic Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy is an aggressively belligerent Mrs Cratchit and Waldorf and Statler are his long dead, heckling business partners Jacob and Robert Marley and Fozzie Bear is perfect as Mr Fozziwig, who runs Fozziwig’s Rubber Chicken Factory. The toe-tapping songs are by Paul Williams. It’s lively, it’s colourful, it’s funny and it’s an absolute bloody marvel because after a while you forget that the Muppets are puppets. 

It's guaranteed to lift the spirits of even the most miserable humbug at Christmas.

 And for those of you who don’t know the story of A Christmas Carol – shame on you!

I know I’ve cheated a bit here and included five films instead of just one and I do apologise for this. Which is the best out of the five, though. Well, obviously it's Alistair Sim's 1951 version, of course. 

Hey, this blog is not called The Opinionated Film Buff for nothing.

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