If you’ve ever waited for an excuse to stay in your PJs all Christmas, 2020 is your year, my friends. With many countries still locked down throughout December, observing some kind of curfew which means you can eat scotch eggs in a pub but not stay out late, the options for socialising and entertainment really are limited. But, dear reader, don’t be downcast! It might feel like we’re living under the reign of Oliver Cromwell and all fun is banned, but it needn’t be the case.
Because I care about you and your Christmas welfare, I’ve compiled a list for you. A list so wonderful, so brilliant, so magnificent, and so full of festive cheer, you’ll not want to do anything else this Yuletide (Ed. Note: you may also vomit in cheer!). Readers, open thy eyes, thine ears, and thine hearts to a list of the best Christmas made-for-TV movies streaming on Netflix and online. The films so heinous, they didn’t even make it through to theatrical distribution -back when theatrical distribution was still a thing. The films executed with such low production values that they’ll make you wonder if they are actually Art. The films that beg the question: what have I just witnessed?
Hark! The Hallmark angel sings! A Christmas list of wondrous things!
10. Two Turtle Doves (2019)
I’m going to be totally honest and say that I wasn’t really familiar with Hallmark until recently. I think the closest thing we have in the UK is the annual John Lewis Christmas advert. After a bit of digging, I discovered there’s a whole capital-D Discourse around it, about this channel’s distribution, lack of diversity, and even some claiming it’s propaganda and boycotting the channel. Yikes. I’d never thought something so innocuous could be so contentious. I mean, their only real offence is being too formulaic. And who doesn’t love a bit of that? It’s Christmas!
I think I gathered the important information for Two Turtle Doves, my introduction to the genre, early on. Dr. Sharon Harper (Nicky Deloach) is a doctoral student who’s bagged some pretty prestigious funding. She’s all about her research and her career, sacrificing everything for her work. After her grandmother passes away, leaving behind a wishlist, Sharon finds herself in a small town in search of a precious family heirloom. There, she comes across a lonely widower, Sam (Michael Rady), and his daughter (Michaela Russell). Taking pity on the disheartened father, she gets to know this “Extremely Eligible Man.”
I mean, you can see it a mile off. Despite getting some favourable reviews, it’s still clichéd and it’s still cheesy. I don’t know how close this is to other Hallmark faves like A Grandpa for Christmas, but what I do know (and can say with assured confidence) is that this film brings together these two turtle doves to make a little family with a decked-out Christmas…or, um, Pear, tree.
9. Christmas Scavenger Hunt (2019)
Belinda (Kim Shaw) is a successful career gal who is home for the holidays. There, she runs into her ex-boyfriend, Dustin (Kevin McGarry), with whom she had big plans before she went away to college. They’ve not spoken in years, but they’re forced to team up for possibly the highest-stakes event yet in the history of humankind: the town’s festive scavenger hunt.
While initially awkward, they get used to each other over time. Before long, the kids start asking questions about the exact nature of their relationship, sparking long walks and Deep Meaningful Conversations in the woods. It’s pretty much all downhill from there.
I will only ask this once, knowing every question pertaining to this genre is self-reflexive and can easily be answered with ‘it’s a Christmas movie,’ but how are two amazingly gorgeous people single at Christmas? I was, frankly, furious at such a proposition. You might call it cute and fun, but it’s hugely distracting until they finally get together. That being said, there are some absolutely stunning Christmas table decorations from which I may take inspiration.
8. A Shoe Addict’s Christmas (2018)
The line that sold me on A Shoe Addict’s Christmas was delivered at precisely 2 minutes and 44 seconds. An overworked but doting department store manager, Alex (Kristian Bruun), looks with mock disdain at his lovely HR manager, Noelle (Candace Cameron Burr). He says to her with utter sincerity: “Everyone should have someone in their life who looks at them the way you look at footwear.”
Hold up. Let’s just unpack that for a second. Footwear? Why would you lead with that? Why is Noelle’s defining characteristic a shoe addict? What value could that possibly give the plot and her as a person? Why does she have a festive footwear fetish? Why, when there is so much mileage for a normal rom-com, did this feature-length film have to take such a weirdly specific route? Why, why, why?!
I know what you’re going to say: it’s appealing to the demographic, Sian. And sure, maybe the last thing I bought before all the shops closed down here was a pair of shoes – I get it. But as a central driving device in a plot? Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the rest of the story: the fireman who moves into Noelle’s apartment block, their romance, the domineering mother figures that frankly deserve more screen time. After the shoe bit, this bizarre film -which I think tried to emulate Confessions of a Shopaholic- really just left me with more questions than answers.
7. Christmas at Pemberley Manor (2018)
I knew something was fishy about this one even before I sat down to watch it. Ignoring a deep feeling of apprehension, I was curious nonetheless and followed that subconscious, instinctual (therapists might say self-destructive) urge to watch it anyway. Can you guess what happened? Allow me to enlighten you.
Jessica Lowndes plays Elizabeth Bennett (yes, that is her name), a New York-based events planner. Over Christmas, she’s assigned to a small-town project at the country estate of Pemberley Manor (ringing any bells yet?) owned by billionaire William Darcy (now that’s a massive clue!). In case you had not guessed, this entire film is a blatant and shameless ripoff of Pride and Prejudice, and not entirely dissimilar in the details as Christmas at Dollywood – more on that below. But for all its cheese, it’s actually ok. The music is sweet, the characters are fun, and though it scores nil points for independent creative thought, it’s so chock full of baubles and fairy lights that you won’t know where to look.
6. The Princess Switch (2018)
I should specify that this list isn’t exclusive to Hallmark: though they’re really something, I won’t discriminate: Netflix, Prime, all are welcome. While The Princess Switch isn’t technically a Hallmark movie, I feel that Netflix’s Christmas offerings of late have been of such high calibre that they must sit alongside some of the greats. So it is with The Princess Switch, a film about festive hijinks and a royal switcheroo.
To explain it would be to spoil it, but rest assured that Vanessa Hudgens (forever known as Gabriela Montez of High School Musical) is a talented baker who aspires to something greater in life. When she takes a trip to Belgravia for a high-profile baking competition, she’s unexpectedly switched with a rival and all her relationships suddenly get a lot more complicated. Not to be confused with an equally brilliant Hudgens festive offering, The Knight Before Christmas, The Princess Switch features the wonderful actress in dual roles and for that reason, it’s everything you want it to be and more.
5. The Princess Switch: Switched Again (2020)
What’s better than two Vanessa Hudgens(es)? Three Vanessa Hudgens(es). That’s right, the Princess (in our hearts, Queen) returns in all her glory because we clearly just couldn’t get enough of her the first time around. I felt that the sequel to The Princess Switch gives off a kind of Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea vibe, by which I mean it undoes all of the hard work of the first film in order to make life complicated for a protagonist who’d just about got it together by the end of the original. That’s not to say it’s no good: it was wonderfully entertaining, with lovable characters and a lot of heart.
All that aside, it’s got a complicated cameo which might just give you pause. If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to Netflix’s Christmas TV offerings over the last few years, you’ll start to see a theme emerging. There is a growing, defined Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe (NCCU, if you will) with well-known characters from the Christmas Prince trilogy. Some viewers have taken it on themselves to tackle the entire Christmas Prince(ss) genre, but rest assured that The Princess Switch: Switched Again throws a spanner in the works and makes us all think about the depth, the range, nay the significance, of this crossover.
4. Christmas at Dollywood (2019)
I don’t know what it was about 2019, but for some reason, it had distributors just churning out quality content. Ladies and gentlemen: a Christmas film with Dolly Parton. Could it be more perfect? Let’s just take a moment to appreciate this absolute legend and her stellar performance. Not to mention: the superstar vaccine donor and literal saviour of us all has a theme park named after her. Shia LaBeouf puts it well in Honey Boy: “Dolly Parton. That’s a woman with her shit together. She has a theme park named after her. Did you know that? Do you have a theme park named after you?” No, we do not.
The plot of Christmas at Dollywood is pretty darn similar to Christmas at Pemberley: Rachel (Danica McKellar), a New York event planner, travels home to Tennessee over the holidays. While working at Dollywood (a.k.a the dream job), she finds herself working on the 30th anniversary night with the park’s Director of Operations, Luke (Niall Matter).
It might not be the sexiest job title in the world, and the film might be predictable, but trust me: what this film lacks in taste and class it more than compensates for with Dolly. I mean, the puns are literally endless. She’s already beat me to it with Holly Dolly Christmas. But there’s so much potential here! Tis the season to be Dolly. Dolly the Snowman. Deck the halls with boughs of Dolly?! I can go on.
3. Unlikely Angel (1996)
Going slightly off-piste from our Hallmark and Netflix selections, we enter the realm of the 80s, the 90s, big perms, and Dolly Parton. You only have to look at our reviews for Wild Rose or Bluebird: The Movie to see that I’m a sucker for country music. When it comes to Dolly and her singing, however, I’m enchanted. Imagine my delight, then, at discovering another film in which Dolly not only plays a gorgeous and talented performer but one who serenades a little family in need of a bit of love at Christmas.
In this Tennessee take on It’s a Wonderful Life, she plays a self-absorbed country singer, Ruby, who is killed in a tragic accident and must earn her wings before ascending to heaven. To do this, she returns to earth and becomes a nanny for a family in need of a bit of TLC. The supporting cast does their bit and for the most part, it follows a pretty average story, except of course that the writers really ham up the fact that these children’s mother has just died. We see it in photos. We hear it in dialogue. We even have songs about it. We hear it, like, a million times.
But for all that, Ruby learns to think beyond herself and to sing some sweet, sweet tunes for her adoring fans. Part Mary Poppins, part Some Like It Hot, it takes all the best parts of Dolly’s persona and weaves them into a heartwarming tale.
2. A Smoky Mountain Christmas (1986)
One more Dolly film: and in my opinion, the finest. Directed by Henry Winkler, Smoky Mountain Christmas stars Dolly Parton as Lorna, a talented but frustrated Hollywood artist striving for creative control. She has a sweet, simple vision for her music, while a suspicious producer with a bad British accent (David Ackroyd) tries to rush an album through the production process before his visa expires.
In a moment of desperation, she calls an old friend and arranges to stay in her rural smoky mountain cabin for a bit of a getaway. An innocuous holiday soon turns into something better when she stumbles on a group of frankly adorable orphans and takes care of them (Please, my heart). There’s also some spooky business when she realises that the place is inhabited by witches!
If Unlikely Angel was Dolly’s Mary Poppins, then Smoky Mountain Christmas is her Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan, and Red Riding Hood all rolled into one. It’s the most wholesome, gorgeous thing and it’s all topped off with a gentle giant of a woodsman (a wonderful Lee Majors), a comic fumbling paparazzo, a sassy lawyer, and utterly enchanting kids. It’s a shame Dolly never had kids because she’s an absolute angel with them. Not to mention that the musical interludes are magical. I was a complete blubbering mess by the end. Do yourself a favour and pump some of that Dolly goodness into your veins by watching the full version on Youtube.
1. A Christmas Prince (2017)
Naturally, a classic. The place where, for many of us, it all began. The one my friends and I return to every year and probably the reason we’ve remained friends for this long. The one that is always awful, but is so endearingly awful that you can’t help but return to it. Reporter, Amber (Rose McIver), goes undercover to get the inside scoop on a wayward Prince (Ben Lamb) before finding herself swept up in life as a tutor for his ailing sister. There’s also a strange, largely inexplicable scene with a cabin in the woods and some top secret info, and a cast of supporting characters so iconic I’d pay to watch their own spinoff series.
The first time I watched this, my so-called friends made some frankly outlandish generalisations about the careers of writers and their propensity for trouble. But the similarities really start and end there, for while real-life writers sit watching hours of TV and eating mince pies, Amber has already flown to Aldovia, met her undercover prince in a series of unexpected, charming, and shocking twists, and eventually becomes a princess. Good on ya, girl. That’s some A+ Christmas viewing.