The conversation happens every year, as people start discussing their favourite Christmas films of recent times; when they're quoting lines from Elf at each other, or having the old debate about whether Love Actually is romantic or kind of creepy. I slightly dread the conversation, because it always makes me a bit sad. It normally goes something like this:
"Elf/Love Actually is the best Christmas film. I love Elf/Love Actually."
"Have you seen Millions?"
"Millions. It's a Christmas film. Came out in 2005. It's by Danny Boyle; you know, Danny Boyle. Slumdog Millionaire. Olympic Opening Ceremony. That guy. It's wonderful."
"...I've never even heard of it."
Exactly why Millions hasn't been lovingly adopted into the new Christmas canon is, frankly, a complete bloody mystery. Granted, it might be that at the time – years before the Opening Ceremony elevated the creative team of Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce to national treasure status – "it's a heartwarming family film from the director of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later and the writer of Welcome To Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People" probably wasn't the easiest sell.
Then again, it might be the fact that (for reasons not immediately clear) the film's distributors decided to release this potential Christmas classic in the middle of May. At the same time as Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith. Big round of applause to everybody involved in that decision.
Because Millions really is the perfect Christmas film for modern Britain: rooted in messy, funny real life, not some fakey recreation of American baby-boomers' idealised memories of Christmas in the 1950s. There's no Bing Crosby or postcard-perfect drifts of crunching snow; instead, there's a slightly crap Nativity play and a robbery soundtracked by Muse. And yet, amidst the realism, it manages to be completely, utterly magical.
The film centres on Damian (the astonishing Alex Etel), a seven-year old boy who is warm-hearted to the point of piety, and who obsessively reads up about the lives of the saints in the same way other kids collect football stickers. They're his imaginary friends. "Clare of Assisi, 1194 'til 1253?!" he exclaims as she pops by his hideaway near the railway tracks for a chinwag. Saint Clare lights up a suspiciously long, chubby cigarette, and starts discussing her role as the patron saint of television. Which is when a large bag stuffed with money falls out of the sky right next to Damian.
It's that money, and the dilemma of what to do with it, that drives the film. Damian, aglow with wide-eyed good intentions (and taking a brief chat with Saint Francis of Assisi to heart), decides he wants to give it all to the poor. His older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), more worldly-wise, thinks a better plan would be to buy loads of cool stuff, and use their sudden wealth as a shortcut to popularity in their new school. In a neat twist (and the film's most fantastical element) they only have twelve days left to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds, before Britain joins the Euro and the currency is worthless.
This push-and-pull between Damian's idealism and Anthony's pragmatism – and the practical difficulties two kids have even getting people to accept their cash – is the heart of the film, and it's consistently, gleefully laugh-out-loud funny. Cottrell Boyce's script balances cynicism and sweetness with a series of perfectly-judges scenes, and at the centre of it all are two performances so good that even viewers normally allergic to child actors should change their minds. Etel especially is delightful, completely ingenuous, natural and unforced. (Roger Ebert described him as "like the young Macaulay Culkin, except that he has no idea he is cute".)
But there's also a thread of understated sadness that runs through the film. The family is mourning the death of the boys' mother, and all of them are not quite coping in their own quiet ways. Anthony gets angry; their father (James Nesbitt, as charming as he always is) is just desperately trying to not fuck up; while Damian uncertainly asks the saints he meets if they've run into a Saint Maureen in heaven. "She's new," he explains. It's never manipulative, there's no crude tugging of heartstrings; it's all as bluntly unsentimental and filled with dark humour as life itself, which makes it all the more moving when the emotional payoff comes. (Full disclosure: I might have something in my eye right now.)
Everything about the film is a joy. Boyle's kinetic direction creates some bravura set-pieces, but also knows when to slow down and conjure images of dreamlike absurdity or gentle beauty. Every role is sharply and sympathetically observed, with the supporting cast finding every bit of humour in them (Alun Armstrong's no-nonsense Saint Peter and Pearce Quigley's less-than-comforting community policeman especially). And it's precisely as scary as it needs to be when a bad man shows up wanting his money back.
Above all else, what elevates it is the fact that it manages to reach the conclusion (spoiler alert!) that money sometimes causes more trouble than it's worth, but never descends into obnoxious finger-wagging; this isn't people who don't need to worry about money lecturing people with less money about how money really isn't that important. It's a big-hearted film about how good deeds trump consumerism, while still agreeing that buying stuff is pretty great fun. In other words, it captures the real spirit of Christmas better than almost any other film in the past few decades.
If you've never seen it, hopefully this has convinced you that you urgently need to seek it out. Which, er… might be a problem. Sorry about that. You see as far as I can tell, in the UK, Millions is not currently available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or Blinkbox, you can't buy it on iTunes or Google Play, and at the time of writing Amazon has precisely one copy of the UK DVD in stock. (Confession: I bought the second-last copy.)
If somebody at any of the production companies or distributors behind the film is reading, then consider this a heartfelt plea: bloody sort it out. Because it really deserves better than its current semi-obscurity. It should be a tradition, a shared moment, an argument silencer; a film that family and friends gather round to watch every year and laugh and cry along with as they slowly eat the last remaining cheese. It should be right up there with the other modern classics of Christmas cinema. Most of all, I'll be really fed up if I have to have that same conversation every year for the next decade.
Millions is available digitally for American readers, or British readers who know how to do sneaky internet things. Failing that, in Britain it will be shown on Tuesday December 30 on Sky Movies Christmas, which apparently is a real TV channel that exists. Or you could try to get the DVD. Or something.