Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without hours of good old fashioned telly watching. Settling down on the sofa and putting on a festive film (or 5) is a break from cooking, present prepping, school work, arguing and letting yourself become fully immersed in the Christmas spirit. And while learning might be the last thing on anyone’s mind, you can use this time to keep topping up your knowledge – without even noticing.
That’s right, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of top Christmas films and classics that feed directly into the school curriculum. So when you’re sitting back and letting Christmas entertainment wash over you, try chipping in with these educational gems that will wow everyone with your academic know-how.
1. A Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1992)
Subject: English GCSE
It’s a fun film with a serious message. Well, it’s arguably not that serious, but it’s curriculum-focused! Of all the dramatisations of the Dickens original, this Muppets 1992 version is the truest to the original text. As you watch the muppets breaking into song and the great Michael Kane gives a performance of Shakespearean merit, see if your teen can talk about how the Victorian family is shown in the film. That’s one of the themes in the GCSE course, as well as how Scrooge’s character transformation is expressed, and the idea of redemption more generally. Gonzo’s narration is largely grabbed straight from the novel – ask your teen, how does the language he uses create mood and atmosphere?
2. Home Alone (1990)
Subject: Physics GCSE
Not a Christmas goes by without at least one – or 4 – of the Home Alone films gracing our screens. How could Macaulay Culkins’ parents leave him behind that many times?! That’s a question for another day. If you’ve seen any of the franchise, you’ll remember that our child protagonist Kevin is a master of boobie traps for escaping from baddies. And it turns out, a master of GCSE Physics.
Picture the scene in the first film when the law-defying Harry and Marv try to catch him. When they slip over a selection of toy cars that have craftily been left at the bottom of the stairs, this is very funny and it’s also an example of Newton’s 2nd Law. Here, there’s a relationship between the force applied to a body, it’s mass, and the speed it accelerates at when the force is applied. Harry and Marv step on the cars, which applies a large force compared to the mass of the car, so the cars accelerate away at high speed leaving them to crash down on their bums.
3. Elf (2003)
Subject: Physics A Level
If Will Ferrell playing a 6’3” elf isn’t enough to make you want to watch (again), your teen can refresh their A Level Physics at the same time. When Buddy and Michael get in a snowball fight with the school bullies in Central Park, Buddy teaches us all about the conservation of energy. When he makes his final shot towards the bully who’s getting away, he applies Newton’s Second law, but this time it’s applied to two dimensions. Buddy travels in one direction but throws the snowball in a perpendicular direction. This means he has to account for the fact that when he releases the snowball, it will continue to move in his original direction of travel and aim to the left of the bully, which works out very well when it hits the bully and he falls over. From an adult perspective, a 40-year-old man taking out a group of middle school children with a snowball attack is probably a bit off, but let’s not ruin a festive classic!
4. The Holiday (2006)
Subject: GCSE and A Level Music composition
We’ll find a way to make this classic holiday rom-com educational, if it’s the last thing we do. And actually, there’s a great example of the process of music composition. When Miles (played by Jack Black) and Iris (played by Kate Winslet) are in the video store, Jack acts out a bit where he explains how movie scores create character. “Two notes – and you have a villain!” he says when he holds up the Jaws DVD. If your teen is working on any of their own compositions for their Music coursework, this scene, and the later scene where Miles writes a soundtrack for Arthur brilliantly express how to use life and people as inspiration for melodies.
5. Happy Feet (2011)
Subject: GCSE Geography
Without wanting to put a dampener on Christmas, the story of Happy Feet illustrates the impact of climate change on the earth and its animal species. In this scene where ice comes crashing down (bringing a crane with it), it’s an example of one impact of global warming. The ice in our North and South Poles is melting because of the Greenhouse Effect caused by global warming. This happens when more greenhouses gases like carbon dioxide, methane and flourocarbons are released into the earth’s atmosphere. These come from cars, power stations, homes and factories. The immediate threat to the penguins’ habitat is just one example of the impact of global warming.
6. The Polar Express (2005)
Subject: GCSE Physics
This Christmassy animation comes from a time when human animation was getting more realistic – and also not! Tom Hanks is the voice of the Conductor conductor who leads Hero Boy and Hero Girl (yes, those are their names) to the North Pole. As they’re choo choo-ing to the north, their mode of travel speeds us through one of the best examples of energy transfer in Physics. A steam train uses heat to convert chemical energy to kinetic energy, which activates the engine and then the wheels of the train so it moves forward. It uses the force created by the steam pressure to move a piston back and forth inside a cylinder. This pushing force is transformed, by a connecting rod and flywheel, into rotational force for work.
7. You’ve Got Mail (1999)
Subject: A Level Economics
What better way to understand the foundations of business than through a love story involving Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Using an early form of online dating, the two fall in love anonymously online, while in the professional world they’re arch enemies with competing businesses in New York. We have Kathleen, a small independent book shop owner, whose business is immediately threatened by business mogul Joe’s chain store setting up shop around the corner. This tale of small vs large businesses reflects the key concepts in the A Level module “How Small Firms Compete”. As a small business owner, Kathleen can offer unique selling points that big businesses can’t, such as unique relationships with her customers and a specialised and handpicked range of products. A chain bookshop is a threat to a small business like hers because they’re able to offer a wider range of products. They can also sell with smaller profit margins, because their scale means they can still make a big profit even when the books are cheaper. Of course, in 2020, both small bookstores and large ones are screwed because of Amazon. One key question the film asks which is missed out in A Level Economics is, of course, which is more important: business or love?
8. Frozen (2013)
Subject: GCSE Chemistry
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen or heard of this Disney franchise which has taken the world by (snow) storm in the past few years. In the world of Frozen, everything snow melts to water, which freezes to ice, which melts back to water again. In other words, the events are determined by the three chemical states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. The magically gifted Elsa uses these states of matter to her advantage as she creates ice sculptures from thin air, fights fires with miniature snow storms and freezes the world around her wherever she goes. Ice is an example of a solid, which has a fixed shape and can’t flow because the particles don’t move around. When the air temperature causes ice to melt and become water, it becomes a liquid, which flows and can take the shape of its container – it can do this because its particles move around each other. Fog and steam are examples of a gas, which also flows because the particles can move quickly in all directions. You shouldn’t take every aspect of the film as examples of science though. For example, as far as we’re aware, love hasn’t actually been proven to melt ice (this is an example of a metaphor, which is a device in GCSE English Language!).
9. Paddington 2 (2017)
Subject: A Level Psychology
This instant classic is a heart-warmer and a tearjerker for all ages. Based on the children’s stories from the 1970s, we see the adorable and morally upright Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) get caught up in trouble with the law, much to the dismay of his loving human family and neighbours. A core theme of the story is how he influences other people to become kinder, happier and more hopeful, wherever he goes. This is an example of the theme covered in the A Level Psychology module on Social Influence. The frightening prisoner/head chef Knuckles McGinty is an example of an Authoritarian Personality, and the other prisoners’ initial fear of and obedience to him shows us conformity to social roles. Paddington’s non-conformist approach (aka a minority influence), and the deliciousness of his marmalade recipe, are situational variables which cause a social change in the prison and beyond. And as well as topping up your Psychology knowledge, you also get to witness Hugh Grant sneaking around dressed as a nun.
10. Big (1988)
Subject: GCSE Music
One of the most imitated scenes in film history, the moment where Josh (Tom Hanks) and the store owner Mr MacMillan bond in an impromptu duet on the giant keyboard is a beautiful example of several musical concepts. Josh hops on the keyboard to create the melody of the song Heart and Soul (using his legs, which on a piano would be the left hand), while Mr MacMillan (taking the part of the right hand) hops and leaps another melody on the other side to create a counterpoint. When they switch into chopsticks, we see an example of a stepwise progression played an octave apart.
11. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Subject: A Level History
If there comes a moment when you can’t take any more Christmas spirit, this historical thriller set in the midst of the Cold War ought to cool things down for you. Made by Steven Spielberg, it tells the true story of New York lawyer James Donovan who defended Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, leading to a “spy swap” in Berlin where a US pilot was returned home in exchange for the safe delivery of Abel. This narrative shows how the Cold War was fought in the form of diplomacy, news stories and political propaganda, as the US and Russia sought global dominance. The spy swap in Berlin took place where the Soviet territory of East Berlin ended, and West Berlin began, and the high tension of the film reflects the intensity of the conflict and a real fear of nuclear war if operations went wrong. That’ll show your unwanted Christmas spirit the door.
12. Cabaret (1972)
Subject: GCSE History
This musical classic starring an amazing Liza Minelli (who won an Oscar for her performance) is both incredibly entertaining – and it tells the story of Weimar and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. We follow the collapse of the Weimar republic as the Nazis took power, and see the growing fear and authority of Nazi rule in a number of violent scenes. We also understand how many Germans saw Nazism as the route to a bright new future, as is shown in the chillingly hopeful song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, led by a passionate member of the Nazi youth. This was partly due to the economic collapse in Germany in 1929, which followed their defeat in World War I. The unemployment and widespread poverty that we see fuelled a resentment of the Weimar republic and gave Hitler a foundation for his propaganda.
13. Rebecca (2020)
Subject: A Level English
This new Netflix production stars Lily James as our Heroine, and Armie Hammer as the tormented but handsome Maxim de Winter. Based on the novel of the same name, it’s a set text within the module “Love Through the Ages”. When you’re watching, your teen can have a think about the role of the narrator – how do they create Gothic atmosphere with the setting of Mandalay? Is the ending is fair? How does Maxim’s and the heroine’s relationship develop throughout the story? These are all questions which will set them on the right path for understanding the text and writing great essays.
14. The Great Escape (1963)
Subject: A Level History
Even if you haven’t seen this classic, you’ll definitely know the theme tune. Most teens in 2020 have probably never seen it, but it used to be a staple of Christmas Day watching. And in the unlikely event that the teen in your life needs a little more persuasion to watch a 57 year old film, try this: it’s also a great way to support their A Level history studies. The film is based on the true story of the mass escaping of Allied prisoners of war from the Stalag Luft III camp in Lower Silesia. The Nazis took over 170,000 prisoners of war during WW2 – most were taken following defeats in North Africa, France and the Balkans between 1940 and 1942, and they were kept in camps stretching from Poland to Italy. The film shows us some of the harsh realities of life in one of these camps, and the brave efforts of captured prisoners to escape their captors.
15. Love Actually (2003)
Subject: A Level Politics & History
Some get their political education from books, some get it from Richard Curtis films. Here we see a visit to London from the suave US President, who steals a sneaky kiss with Natalie, the staffer who the UK Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is in love with. Fast forward to a moment when the President announces that “the special relationship is still very special”. This is a reference to the “special relationship” between the two countries, a term coined to reflect the supposed important and deep level of allyship between them. Apparently first coined by Winston Churchill in 1946, the term comes from the fact that the two nations were close allies in WW1 and WW2, and following that the Korean War, the Cold War, the Gulf War and the War on Terror.
Curiously, the Love Actually plot reflects many real aspects of the dynamics between the two countries. The President’s seduction of the Prime Minister’s love interest, followed by Grant’s passionate press conference speech where he responds by saying they have “a relationship based on the president taking what he wants and casually taking all the things that really matter to… Britain”, reflects how, in fact, the US is significantly more powerful than the UK, and generally they’re the ones in charge. While the likelihood of a UK Prime Minister making such a speech and openly falling out with the President is extremely low, the power imbalance Curtis shows us here helps us understand UK-US relations over the years.
16. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Subject: GCSE Religious Studies
Here we have a Christmas film that tells us the story of… Easter! One of the key elements of Christianity in GCSE Religious Studies is the story of Jesus’ life, sacrifice and return from the dead i.e. resurrection. Based on the original story by theologian C.S. Lewis, the majestic Lion, Aslan, symbolises Jesus, who sacrifices himself to save the wayward Pevensie brother, Edmund. He gets tempted to the dark side by The White Witch (played by the chilling and glamorous Tilda Swinton), who represents yep, you guessed it, Satan. Following a resurrection and a lot of forgiveness, the redemption of Edmund is a metaphor for the redemption of mankind as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice. We’re not sure which Bible characters exactly Mr and Mrs Beaver are meant to be.
17. Finding Nemo (2003)
Subject: GCSE Geography
This tale of a missing young clownfish whose dad swims around the coast of Australia to find him teaches us about geographical zones. The Great Barrier Reef – Nemo’s home – is an example of a management zone. It’s been a world heritage site since 1981, and the Australian government have a number of restrictions in place to stop it from being damaged. Parts of it aren’t allowed people at all, while other parts are open to tourists and scientists so they can visit. Zoning like this means there are economic and social benefits as well as the environmental benefit of protecting the area.
18. Die Hard (1989)
Subject: A Level Business Studies
The story of a group of terrorists-cum-thieves led by Alan Rickman being picked off one by one by an increasingly bedraggled Bruce Willis doesn’t sound that festive. But hey, it’s set on Christmas Eve! At one point Bruce even shoots a guy, dresses him up as Santa, and writes “Ho Ho Ho” on his top – what could be more festive than that? Plus, their whole plot is a great example of the power of branding. Hear us out. It relies on police and FBI believing they are suave terrorists – rather than the bunch of thieves they secretly are. They walk, talk, and act the 1980s cliché of a terrorist. Their clothes, haircuts, accents, how they talk to the police, and the demands they make. In short, because of how clearly and distinctly they brand themselves, everyone immediately understands who they are and what to expect, and accepts the story they’re selling them without question. If you can package that up and use it in business, you’ve got yourself a brand.
And there you have it! Who knew that Christmas TV could teach us so much.