Four films to watch as we prepare our hearts for Christmas

Written by Adam Kline

Last year in Advent, our Behind the Screens column explored the themes of Nativity in unexpected places. From thrillers to horror and even French cuisine, we reflected on the burden of divine expectation through four untraditional films (you can read the first of those four articles here).

For Advent 2023, here are four Christmas-related films that follow the themes of the Advent candles—hope, peace, joy, and love. You can also join Steve Norton and me on Sunday nights at 7:00 p.m. Eastern for a virtual meetup as we discuss one film each week through the lens of Scripture.

To join in, please join our Facebook Group (we are live Nov. 26, Dec. 3, Dec. 10, Dec. 17), or you can watch the recordings on YouTube afterward.

Advent Week One—Hope: Tokyo Godfathers

Scripture reading: Isaiah 40:5

We begin with Tokyo Godfathers (2004), a sublime anime film from Japan. The film follows three homeless protagonists: Gin, Hana, and Miyuki. They form a found family, a bond formed out of desperation and common disposition.

One evening, after attending a Christmas service and soup kitchen, they find an abandoned infant. The baby offers hope and purpose to this found family, and with a few clues surrounding the child, the trio set out on an urban odyssey to find the child’s biological family.

Their adventure is funny and whimsical, but also violent and honest about the suffering endured on the fringes of society, making the film not suitable for children. There are obvious parallels to the Nativity, from the social outcast shepherds to the wisemen-foreigners seeking the promise of a child. But the greatest gift of Tokyo Godfathers is the power and potential of a child who can unite characters from all walks of life. Whether criminals or authority figures, dwellers of street tents or skyscrapers, those fleeing broken homes or in search of a new one, the hope offered in this story is that of a child who can bring reconciliation to one and all.

Advent Week Two—Peace: Joyeux Noel

Scripture reading: Micah 5:5

Next is the Oscar-nominated film, Joyeux Noel (2005). This international feature tells the true story of German, French, and Scottish/British forces during World War I calling a ceasefire and laying down their arms on Christmas Eve 1914.

What began as a simple rendition of Silent Night in the trenches not 500 metres from perceived enemies, hesitantly became a 24-hour miracle of merriment, solidarity, and peace on earth. At the initiation of a Scottish priest and a German singer, it was through the songs of Nativity that sinful perceptions were broken and enemies became friends, even joining together in worship.

The film’s account of this historic event is deeply moving, and a stirring reminder that, sometimes, even peace requires an act of disobedience. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review: “Joyeux Noel has its share of bloodshed … but the movie is about a respite from carnage, and it lacks the brutal details of [other famous war films] … Its sentimentality is muted by the thought that this moment of peace actually did take place, among men who were punished for it, and who mostly died soon enough afterward.”

During Advent, a film like Joyeux Noel can serve as a reminder and reflection of God’s own surrender and incarnation, as he gave up his authority for the sake of saving a violent and warring world.

Advent Week Three—Joy: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Scripture reading: Luke 1:44

I’ve made it a tradition in recent years to read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every Advent. It might be my favourite work of literature, and The Muppet Christmas Carol is a clever and creative, fourth-wall breaking, musical adaptation. It’s a film the whole family can enjoy, and yet, the film’s maturity and poignancy are surprising.

Not unlike Mary’s Magnificat, the scenes and sequences that break out into song offer a greater depth of emotion and invite the viewer in as a participant, not just of the prose, but of the promise found in the story. In addition to this, Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is award-worthy. His level of commitment and sincerity (while being surrounded by Muppets) only increases the joy in this Christmas classic.

Advent Week Four—Love: The Family Stone

Scripture reading: Luke 2:19

We conclude with a comfort movie, The Family Stone (2005). Since its original release, The Family Stone has garnered Christmas cult status. The film shows five adult children returning to their parent’s home for the holidays with kids, spouses, and new partners in tow.

With spats between siblings, subtle looks, and passive-aggressive acts—every scene feels like a real family captured on film. There are, of course, a handful of exaggerated sequences and a bit of slapstick, but all of it adds levity to the awkwardly honest moments. Mistakes are made and emotions fly high at times. But amid the anger, anxiety, and heartbreak, unconditional love has the last word. 

Adam Kline is an intercultural engagement team lead and storyteller living in Belleville, Ont. Read more columns from “Behind the screens.”